The park from Q St. near the Metro entrance. Photo by the author.

The small triangle park across Q Street from the Dupont Circle Metro north entrance will soon get a long-needed renovation, but will also get a fence that will make it harder to use the park, walk along Connecticut Avenue, or wait for the bus.

In 2007, a Planned Unit Development was approved for 1000 Connecticut Avenue. PUDs must provide community benefits in exchange for the zoning relief they get, and in this case, gave funds to the Dupont Circle Citizens’ Association (DCCA), which transferred them to Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets (HDCMS) to pay for the park renovation.

NPS moved very slowly during the intervening years to prepare for the renovation, and told neighborhood leaders that they wouldn’t consider any changes that didn’t conform to the original landscape plan, devised in 1929.

On Friday, HDCMS announced that the project is finally about to start this fall. To the surprise of many, the announcement also revealed plans to add a 30-inch iron fence. The fence will stop people from walking directly between the park and the Metro station, or from standing off the sidewalk to wait for the 42 bus:

The purpose of the project is to repair and replace existing features in kind, and to install a new fence on the south side of the park, in order to enhance both aesthetics and visitor use. HDCMS and its contractors have coordinated with NPS staff regarding preservation of the character-defining features of the park and consistency with its 1929 landscape plan. ...

The project includes: repairs to damaged flagstone, curbs, and concrete flat work; replacement of existing, tulip-style trash receptacles with Victor Stanley models; turf restoration of the compacted soil areas; restoration of the existing benches; replacement of a cherry tree and installation of a Chinese fringe tree; and a new wrought iron fence to remedy the existing social paths (compacted soil areas) caused by pedestrian traffic to and from the Dupont Metro Station. [emphasis added]

The new fence will provide protection for restored plantings and rehabilitated turf in the park. The NPS is considering two standard fence styles in use in US reservations. The work is expected to take place during 2011/2012. Please see http://parkplanning.nps.gov/DupontTrianglePark for more information about this proposal.

In short, people are crossing from the park to the Metro station, because they want to sit on the benches before or after using the Metro. But instead of creating a pathway to the Metro, NPS’s response is to fence it off and block people.

One of 3 alternatives for the park. All include a fence along 3 sides (to the left of the seating area). The other two slightly round off one or both corners. Image from NPS.

Why must NPS slavishly follow a 1929 landscape plan, specifically? What’s so special about 1929?

Rob Halligan, former president of the Dupont Circle Citizens’ Association, wrote:

When we came to the Park Service with the money to renovate the park, we weren’t too happy to hear that they were inflexible on any modification or improvement that didn’t adhere to that 1929 plan. We did point out that the present use and environment (Metro station, the grand houses are around it are now businesses, cars everywhere rather than mostly horses), but they wouldn’t take that into account when trying to add or change any element.

In 1929, there was no vehicular underpass or subterranean streetcar station, both of which were built in 1948-1950. There was no Metro station, and nothing generating over 23,000 trips to and from the southeast corner of 20th and Q every day.

Parks change. The Wikipedia article and its cited sources say Dupont Circle wasn’t even a traffic circle until 1871. The park got a statue in 1884, which was then replaced by a fountain in 1921. It had playground sandboxes for a while in the 1930s, right after the Park Service took it over; at the time, at least, they apparently didn’t feel that all parks need to stay exactly as they were in the 1920s.

Is the “right” Dupont Circle one with a statue? Or a fountain? Or sandboxes?

Someone created a plan for this park in 1929. It’s a fine layout, though not especially remarkable. Now, the neighborhood has changed, and specifically having one path to 20th Street and one to Connecticut Avenue but none to Q might not be most appropriate. 

If the Metro station had existed in 1929, the landscape designer may well have put in paths there as well. The grass is worn away between the benches and Q Street, proving people want to cross there.

This fence won’t “enhance visitor use.” And saying the fence will “remedy the existing social paths” is quite the Orwellian doublespeak; the right remedy for social paths is to design a good path, not to block it off.

For that matter, NPS isn’t even pushing for the same plan as in 1929. That plan had a fountain and shrubs, said resident Ingrid Suisman, who has been pushing for the renovation for six years. But NPS refused to allow those elements, saying they are too hard to maintain. The need to follow 1929 plans apparently doesn’t extend to removing elements, only changing them… and adding fences.

Worn areas show “desire lines” for crossing from the Metro to the park and the bus stop. Photo by the author.

The grass is also badly worn away along the southeast corner. ANC Commissioner Mike Silverstein said that a lot of people stand there to wait for the 42 bus, which stops along the side of the park. The sidewalk here is extremely narrow, made worse by large light poles and trash cans that take up some of the space.

With a new fence along the curb, everyone waiting for the bus will have to stand in the narrow sidewalk or in the street, and anyone trying to walk along Connecticut will have to as well. Silverstein fears the fence will now force people to walk or wait for the bus in the street, which could be very dangerous.

Connecticut Avenue was once narrower, with wider sidewalks; it was widened in the 1920s, around the time of this landscape plan.

The sidewalk is too narrow for 2 pedestrians to walk side by side even when nobody is waiting for the bus. Photo by the author.

When DC renovated the triangle parks at S and T Streets, they changed their use and layout. They fenced off most of the S Street park for a dog park. Before, there was a pathway cutting off the corner from S to New Hampshire Avenue; that got moved closer to the corner, and benches moved.

Meanwhile, on the adjacent triangle at T Street, there was a very old tree which arborists determined needed protection to survive. A small area for people to congregate was built, while the rest was closed off for the tree.

Some space gained more protection for plants, while other space became more designed for people and animals. The triangles remained parks, but different parks that serve the needs and desires of the neighborhood today. The same can happen with the Q Street triangle without violating the L’Enfant Plan (which didn’t even specify whether these triangles, circles and squares would be grassy, paved, or just dirt).

This park could be designed to better serve the needs of people today without reducing the amount of plantings. The paths to the center seating area could traverse the triangle north-south instead of the current east-west. Or, maybe the seating area should move closer to Connecticut Avenue to double as a bus waiting area at the busiest times.

It’s probably too late for any real changes, and some could cost more money than is available. This project is already happening several years later than neighborhood leaders had hoped. Silverstein said, “The money has been sitting for a couple of years while NPS has been deliberating and processing. Letting the money and the project languish while we process it to death is something else that should be avoided.”

Unfortunately, NPS wasn’t using that long period of time to get public comment on plans or anything like that. Wiliams wrote in his email, “Work is expected to begin shortly after the [30-day public] comment period closes September 12th!” In other words, they clearly see this comment period as a formality, as all the design work has already been completed and it’s just a last step before actually putting shovels in the ground.

Sadly, without the ability to make more substantial changes, just renovating the park as is will surely lead to grass again being trampled. But that’s still better than fencing it off and creating an impassable barrier at exactly a spot where thousands travel every day.

Suisman feels a fence is better than none, and the park can serve more as an oasis with the fence. But today, the park is being well used by people waiting to meet others by the Metro, or waiting for buses. It contributes positively to the area as it is. We shouldn’t take away that value and transform the park into a mostly empty zone, which won’t be any quieter but will be less utilized, just because a 1929 designer chose that role when the neighborhood looked very different.

It’s not 1929 anymore (though looking at the economy, sometimes you wonder). DC can have great parks that fit the L’Enfant Plan without having to freeze them permanently exactly like they were in 1929. Unfortunately, the Park Service continues to look backward instead of forward, and interpret its mission as one of preventing any change rather than finding ways to maximize green space and recreation in the current day.

HDCMS executive director Paul Williams declined to comment for this article, and NPS spokesperson Bill Line has not yet replied to emails.

ANC Commissioner Mike Feldstein plans to organize a community meeting to discuss the park. Meanwhile, you can submit comments to NPS using this online form. Ask them to delete the fence and to allow new paths at the places residents want and need to walk.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.