Metamorphosis of a D.C. park

March 2012 » Features » PROJECT CASE STUDY
Mini-park provides a model for multi-purpose open spaces in urban environments.
Oliver Boehm, RLA, LEED-AP

French Park, located at the intersection of French Street and 10th Street NW in Washington, D.C., was built with typical 1970s design principles – a recessed central plaza with a concrete ziggurat and massive minimalist concrete walls. Unfortunately for the park, the surrounding neighborhood deteriorated and the park became an unsafe public space. A chain link fence was erected to prevent criminal activities – further worsening the situation. Thanks to the community and the District Department of Parks and Recreation's hard work, French Park is now a far cry from its original Brutalist design and neighborhood eyesore.

In the redesigned French Park, diverse plantings attract butterflies and provide seasonal interest. Porous pavers allow stormwater to infiltrate into an underground reservoir that slowly releases the water into the drainage system.

 

Project
French Park, Washington, D.C.

Civil engineer

Volkert Inc.

Project focus

Transform a small, deteriorated park into a valuable neighborhood asset incorporating green infrastructure.

The site is located within the Greater U Street Historic District surrounded by a revitalized neighborhood that has been actively involved in the design of the new park. The mini-park (less than 5,000 square feet) is a model for multi-purpose open spaces in urban environments. It provides valuable passive recreational needs for the surrounding community, wildlife habitat for migratory butterflies, and green infrastructure for stormwater management all within a very small footprint of a very densely populated environment.

The new park design features details that blend with the historic character of the neighborhood. An ornamental fence with features typical of nearby residential ironwork surrounds the park, while new brickwork hiding parts of the old concrete structures complements the building materials of the historic row houses. Tables, chairs, and benches provide gathering spaces for visitors, while seat walls and planter walls provide seating and informal play areas for children.

French Park originally was built with typical 1970s design principles – a recessed central plaza with a concrete ziggurat and massive minimalist concrete walls. A chain link fence was erected to prevent criminal activities.
A step on the brick wall resolved problems encountered during construction and also helped reduce the scale of the existing wall and blend the new fence into the park.

The transformation also includes planting areas designed as a monarch butterfly waystation for the annual migration from North America to Mexico. Visitors can enjoy the attractive vegetation these planting beds have to offer – some of which are in raised beds for wheelchair comfort. One of the biggest challenges for any public space is maintenance. So to prevent the park from turning into an eyesore once more, the District Department of Parks and Recreation worked with the local community to form a citizen group able to provide the proper maintenance and surveillance for French Park.

To finalize this holistic design effort, Volkert and the District Department of Parks and Recreation worked together to create a park with green infrastructure that holds stormwater onsite and releases it slowly into D.C.'s combined sewer system. As with most old urban areas in the United States, Washington, D.C., has an aging infrastructure that combines stormwater and sanitary sewage in the same conveyance system. During large rainstorms, the combined sewer system is inundated and excess flows of stormwater and sanitary sewage are released untreated to the Anacostia River. Today's responsible planning and design practices emphasize the need to capture stormwater onsite as much as possible. French Park's porous pavers allow stormwater to infiltrate into an underground reservoir that slowly releases the water into the drainage system.

Volkert provided professional services from the preliminary phase through construction administration. One of the biggest challenges was continuous oversight of construction activities to ensure proper installation of critical infrastructure improvements and architectural design elements. Delays during construction posed a serious threat to the successful completion of the project. Volkert supported the District Department of Parks and Recreation throughout the construction period, often providing professional services that were not part of the original scope of work such as renewing building permits, assisting the general contractor on coordination with subcontractors, and providing necessary revisions to the design due to complications encountered during construction activities.

For example, at the early stages of the project the contractor proceeded to install part of the brickwork on the existing concrete wall incorrectly. Volkert's civil engineers and landscape architects quickly provided a solution that would not deviate from the original design intent. The adjustments had to be subtle to not alarm the community about changes to the design and also to prevent an adversarial relationship between the client and the contractor at the beginning of the project. The result was a continuous brick step that reduced the scale of the wall, blending the large seat wall better with the rest of the park.

The new version of French Park is a valuable open space that people in this densely populated section of the District can enjoy. The park immensely improves the quality of life for the local community, and will be part of the overall solution for cleaning up the Anacostia River as green infrastructure is further integrated into multi-purpose projects in Washington, D.C.

Oliver Boehm, RLA, LEED-AP, manager of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at Volkert Inc., a multi-disciplinary, full-service engineering and environmental firm located in Alexandria, Va., was the landscape architecture manager for the French Park project. He has more than 15 years of landscape architecture experience including the application of sustainable, low-impact development, and context-sensitive methods. He can be contacted at oliver.boehm@volkert.com.


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