New concept designs released for C&O Canal’s Georgetown overhaul

The proposals aim to make the C&O Canal towpath more appealing for recreational and educational purposes. (rendering courtesy of Georgetown Heritage)

Ideas for a planned overhaul of Georgetown’s mile-long section of the C&O Canal include a wider, more accessible towpath as well as outdoor seating, additional educational materials and greater connectivity to nearby attractions, according to new concept designs released Nov. 2.

Georgetown Heritage — a nonprofit created to promote and share the history of D.C.’s oldest neighborhood, with revitalizing the C&O Canal as its top priority — is leading the renovation of the historic public space, which has suffered years of neglect and deterioration. It’s working with the National Park Service, the Georgetown Business Improvement District and the D.C. Office of Planning.

“We want people to just enjoy it, and marvel in the beauty — both natural and industrial — of the canal,” Alison Greenberg, executive director of Georgetown Heritage, told The Current. “We want people to be able to recreate on the canal, to run on the canal, to paddle in the canal.”

Plans are in the works to spruce up Georgetown’s section of the C&O Canal. (Brian Kapur/The Current/May 2017)

Plans developed by architect James Corner — who helped design New York City’s popular High Line — target the canal’s safety as well as its appearance. In particular, proposed updates include widening and regrading the narrow, uneven towpath; building a new visitor center; installing outdoor tables and chairs; planting trees and shrubs; constructing a boardwalk along Rock Creek under K Street NW and a bridge across the creek to Foggy Bottom; and filling the currently drained canal with water. This month’s design concepts reflect multiple design options for various locations, each with subtly different possibilities at different sites along the canal.

The project also aims to shed light on the canal’s rich history with educational materials, Greenberg said. While Georgetown’s black history isn’t widely discussed, the neighborhood was once majority African-American, and the canal was mostly built on the backs of slaves, freed people and immigrants new to the U.S. in the early to mid-1800s.

Designers imagine additional recreation space along the canal. (rendering courtesy of Georgetown Heritage)

“People will come down and connect with the canal’s extraordinary history — the history of civil rights in the area, when Georgetown had a strong African-American population,” Greenberg said.

A canal boat, intended to replicate the original design, is also in its planning stages. When finished, five staff members will work on the boat, offer rides and educate park visitors. The structure will hold about 70 children or 40 to 50 adults. The canal boat is slated to begin running in mid-2019.

Because the canal is owned by the National Park Service, the project must adhere to criteria set out in the National Environmental Policy Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. To maximize efficiency, the design and approval processes are happening concurrently, Greenberg said.

Greenberg said she is now seeking project funds from local, federal and private entities. The D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development pledged to give $3 million to the project, Greenberg said. The cost of the project is yet to be determined.

The first mile of the C&O Canal runs through Georgetown. (rendering courtesy of Georgetown Heritage)

Residents offered mixed reactions to concept designs at Thursday’s presentation — many delighted at the prospect of a renovated park, while others were concerned the new canal would attract excessive crowds, in part due to Corner’s success with New York’s High Line.

But Corner assured attendees that the Georgetown project is entirely different. “Nature has taken a foothold here,” Corner told residents, adding that the proposals are intended to honor the canal’s heritage while promoting some recreational use.

The next public meeting to discuss revised concept plans is scheduled for March; comments can be submitted at through Dec. 11. The project’s design phase is expected to wrap up in June.

Groundbreaking and opening dates for the canal project are yet to be determined.

Current staff contributed to this report.