The C&O Canal National Historic Park is at a crossroads — it can either be subtly restored, enlivened by the local ecology, and made more accessible, or dramatically re-imagined and redesigned. Earlier this month, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented preliminary conceptual designs to revitalize the canal — offering a spectrum of alternatives, ranging from the understated to the bold.
At the public review session in Georgetown, Alison Greenberg, head of the non-profit Georgetown Heritage, and a partner of the National Park Service in the revitalization efforts, said: “the goal is celebrate and respect the park’s historic character and sense of place” while also making the one-mile stretch of the 182-mile park that runs through Georgetown “sustainable, maintainable, ecologically-sensitive, safe, and accessible.”
Asking the community and visitors what they love about the place, James Corner, ASLA, discovered they most appreciate the “rocky aqueduct, the views of the river, the shade trees, the ability to stroll and have a quick escape to nature, the water, and the serenity.” He described the canal as a “corridor of melancholic charm where you can immerse yourself in pleasure.”
Still, he thinks the canal is also “sadly derelict, feels abandoned, and is unsafe” in places, which is debatable. “There’s no seating, lighting, and the narrow paths create safety issues.” Furthermore, there is a lack of access.
The dilemma for Corner is “how to maintain the heritage — the authenticity — while also promoting new social uses.”
There are concerns, though, that Corners’ proposals are perhaps over-designed for such a historic site. Darwina Neal, FASLA, former past president of ASLA, told us: “Rather than responding to the concern that ‘first and foremost, we have to respect the history that’s here’ — as stated by Kevin Brandt, the National Park Service’s superintendent of the C&O Canal — it seems like the designers are trying to turn this into an on-grade ‘High Line.’ As a landscape architect for the National Capital region of NPS, I worked on many projects along the canal from 1964 until I retired in 2009, and it is possible to improve the safety, accessibility, and functionality of this section of the canal without adversely impacting its historic integrity, as many of these proposals would, if implemented.”
Corner walked the 100-plus members of the community who attended the public review meeting through key aspects of his firm’s concepts.
He reiterated that his firm’s ideas are “not fixed or final; we want to use these to evaluate how people feel, and then shape the design.”
Towpath: Now a narrow gravel path with some opportunistic plants, the towpath could be kept the same width as it is now (7 feet) but paved over to improve safety; expanded to 11 feet, through the use of a cantilever, in order to provide space for seating; or widened out to 14 feet, which would also offer opportunities for more plants along the edge, but shrink the profile of the canal itself, also at great cost. A few members of the community noted that limiting the width of the towpath would help keep the space from becoming over-crowded — and help prevent the canal from turning into “Georgetown’s High Line.”
Mile Marker Zero: Many people who live in D.C. haven’t even been to this spot, the start of the 182-mile-long canal. Here, Field Operations offered options that will improve access for both pedestrians and bicyclists, with option B offering the easiest connections with existing networks.
Rock Creek Landscape: According to Field Operations, “This is the missing link between the C&O canal that we know in Georgetown and that area around Mile Marker 0. The challenge here is connecting the towpath with the plethora of bridges and overpasses created by the Whitehurst Freeway. We imagine a boardwalk under K street, and along a carefully-restored creek landscape; an immersive walk through nature and a critical connection for D.C.” The boardwalk path through the forest in Alternative B is far more intrusive into the Rock Creek landscape.
Rock Creek Confluence: Here, Corner presented some of the most transformational proposals. Where the canal turns the corner and heads west, Field Operations wants to introduce paths and bridges to improve connectivity and extend the canal’s towpath and also clean up what is an overgrown, neglected area and turn it into an picnic spot or amphitheater. “We can restore the visual corridor to all the locks.”
Locks: When one of the canal locks is finally restored later this year, at a cost of $6.5 million, there will be a canal boat pulled by mules. One of the main tourist draws for the canal, the mule yard, which is found between 29th and Thomas Jefferson Streets, is also the location of the current NPS office. Field Operations offered different options for the NPS office, boat ticket area and launch, and mule staging area.
The Walls: These proposals could really change the feel of the space and have major implications for preservation: Where the canal meets Wisconsin Avenue, Corner proposed cutting into the stone wall to create “more generous access” — a considerable length of stairs and terraces — while also offering wheelchair access with a new elevator. Along Potomac Street, he wants to unify the spaces on either side of the canal — Fish Market Square and Market House Plaza. One option brings in a High Line-like step seating. These options really open up the canal to downtown Georgetown; it will be the decision of the community, historic and design review boards, and NPS if that degree of access is what’s needed.
The Grove: The most straight-forward and constrained of Corner’s proposals. Field Operations simply proposes planting some more trees and stabilizing the path.
The Bend: A stretch between Potomac Street and 34th Street, could be a space for “verdant, garden-like setting with shade” and High Line-like chaise lounges. Field Operations also wants to redevelop the 34th street bridge to make it more accessible. This proposal would dramatically change the vibe of this now-rustic stretch.
The Aqueduct: Another set of bold proposals for a strange space now covered in graffiti, but with its own charm. Corner wants to rehabilitate the structure and create a series of “stepped terraces” to an overlook, potentially framing the views within a trestle. Also in this section of the landscape, Field Operations proposed creating better pedestrian and bicycle connections to the Capital Crescent trail and towpath.
The preliminary concepts are worth examining more closely. The National Park Service requests public comments before January 5, 2018. If you are a resident of D.C. and have been there dozens of times, or just a one-time visitor, make your voice heard — help shape the future of this unique place.