Last November, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented ambitious designs for the 1-mile segment of the 182-mile-long C&O Canal that passes through Georgetown. The goal then seemed to be to throw a bunch of bold ideas out there to see what sticks. Six months later, at a public comment meeting in Georgetown sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) and Georgetown Heritage, a non-profit group financing the planning and design process, Field Operations offered a pared-back plan more respectful of historic preservation concerns. Sarah Astheimer, ASLA, a principal at Field Operations, said the latest design concepts are “smarter, more incisive, and more responsive to the site.”
NPS said they can either take no action other than immediate repairs or maintenance to this highly-popular national park, or they can design and build the “alternative design” approach, which for the purposes of public evaluation is separated into two options.
NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations clearly listened to community concerns that the original proposals would be too radical a shift in the laid-back feel of the canal. Responding to over 350 comments from the public, power point slides in the presentation now highlighted the “historic significance” and “informal charm” of the linear park beloved to many D.C. residents and tourists.
An important discussion in this review focused on whether to expand the width of the narrow towpaths that limit access along parts of the canal. But instead of long, cantilevering pathways that were offered last November, Field Operations now proposes widening the paths slightly and only at key “pinch points,” a more strategic solution. Astheimer imagined new linear platforms as contemporary equivalents of the wooden decks that once lined the canal.
At mile-marker zero, the beginning of the 182-mile-long trail, Field Operations proposes intelligent fixes to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and make the marker more of a destination. One option includes fun “habitable nets,” where people can lounge over the water, a feature now seen in other urban waterfront parks.
The proposal for the area they call Rock Creek Confluence, where the canal meets the creek, is also sensible, opening up views to the creek and the sequence of locks through a viewing platform set in pollinator-friendly meadows. A new pedestrian bridge will make both sides of the canal more accessible.
The Mule Yard design options feature more trees and expanded visitor infrastructure. Heading west towards Wisconsin Avenue, a busy corridor lined with coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, they propose a few alternatives to improve accessibility. Where the canal flows under Wisconsin Avenue, there are a few configurations with stairs and an elevator; and on the south side of the canal, a new boardwalk.
Further west down the canal, at Potomac Street, one of the central commercial hubs of Georgetown, where crowds come hear a jazz trio at Dean & Deluca on the weekends, an overlook has been transformed either into a “sky deck” or terraced seating. The designers propose opening up views across the canal here by clearing old trees along the south side of the canal. Elevators and Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA)-accessible ramps would make the canal, which can only be reached via steep stairs, far easier to traverse. These proposals would likely dramatically increase activity here and help bring more people down to the canal and perhaps the Georgetown Waterfront Park a few blocks to the south.
Lastly, the aqueduct and stone yard segments, the points in the plan furthest out from downtown Georgetown, are proposed as new destinations. The Stone Yard area could be left alone, but Field Operations proposes adding a platform or outdoor seating nooks there.
At the old aqueduct, which is now an interesting, graffiti-covered ruin, Corner’s team proposes heavily redeveloping the space — either as zig-zagging overlook platform or as a structure covered in a trestle, with a kiosk. This is the remaining ambitious piece perhaps most reminiscent of the High Line in New York City, which Corner’s firm also designed.
Astheimer seemed to understand what many community members conveyed in the first public review: that the C&O Canal is a “respite in a time when we are all overstimulated.” The new design concepts largely help preserve that vision while improving access and safety. Perhaps the community will find the final designs can be even more surgical, so as to further limit impacts on this historical landscape.
Coming next this spring: NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations will finalize the plan, and then present design concepts before the Old Georgetown Board and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in the coming year.