Last week, DC Metrocentric floated the idea of leaving the old convention center site free from development, turning the area into a park, plaza, or some other sort of space. Matt Yglesias rightfully shot the idea down. The map accompanying his post makes the reasons why abundantly clear:
Substantial, underutilized park spaces flank the site. Mt. Vernon Square and Franklin Square are the two big ones, while the small triangular park on the north side of New York Avenue between 11th and 12th is the remnant of one of the original ‘town squares’ of the L’Enfant plan – the square will be completed, returned to its original form (at least, in terms of building setbacks) with a similar triangle on the southern side of New York Ave between 10th and 11th. To visualize, the asphalt on this particular section is slightly darker than the rest of the parking lot in the above aerial photo.
Common complaints about Franklin Square (and frankly, all of DC’s downtown parks) is that they’re not well programmed for urban space – often overrun with unhoused people, panhandlers, and the like. They feel unsafe.
In short, a lack of open space isn’t the issue – it’s the programming of that space. This isn’t a new complaint, particularly with NPS managed properties. GGW’s post on Tourmobile operations set off a nice discussion in the comments about the trouble NPS has in addressing the very different needs of wild parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, etc.) and urban ones (the Mall, Farragut Square, Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, etc.).
Also, consider the historic urban design implications of parkland in this space. From an urban design perspective, the combination of DC’s dense core, height limit, and uniform building setbacks provide for a great sense of place. The streets of the L’Enfant plan are not just traffic arteries, they are public spaces framed by the development around them. Open space here disrupts the L’Enfant plan now, and it would as parkland, too.
Finally, consider the opportunity cost of not developing this land. Adding the proposed office, residential, and retail at this location will be a tremendous asset to the city. As everyone knows, the current commercial real estate market has seen better days, but the opportunities this site presents are just too good to pass up. The additions to the tax base, the additions of more residents living downtown, the additions of more retail space – as well as the proximity to transit at Gallery Place and Metro Center are all positives for the city.