Prominent design firm hired for C&O Canal upgrades

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

The next phase of a project to revitalize the C&O Canal National Historical Park in Georgetown has reached a key milestone with the selection of a nationally known design firm.

Georgetown Heritage officials announced Thursday that James Corner Field Operations will work to develop new ideas along the first mile of the canal.

Construction is underway on $6.5 million of repairs at the currently drained Locks 3 and 4 between 30th and Thomas Jefferson streets NW, with work expected to wrap up by summer 2018. In the meantime, the Georgetown Business Improvement District’s heritage offshoot is moving forward on plans to establish more vibrant surroundings at the park, coinciding with its ongoing plan to restore the historic canal boat, which shuttered in 2012.

Georgetown Heritage — in collaboration with the National Park Service, the D.C. Office of Planning and other staffers at the business group — narrowed 13 design contenders to five finalists at the end of last year, according to executive director Alison Greenberg.

Though numerous applicants had strong presentations, Greenberg told The Current, Corner’s firm won out because of demonstrated experience engaging with the community on unique projects like the High Line in New York, the Presidio in San Francisco and the Navy Pier in Chicago. “It was a really hard decision to make,” Greenberg said.

When asked in an interview Monday why he’s interested in the canal project, Corner quickly replied, “Why wouldn’t you be interested?” He thinks his task is to “reveal and amplify” the site’s existing charms.

“It’s a site that’s already got a lot going for it, and design has to be very intelligent and smart in terms of how it leverages the specialness and the unique peculiarities of the canal itself,” Corner said.

The canal’s stone walls and attractive adjacent buildings appealed to Corner, as did what he calls the “episodic quality” of walking along the canal, with different views and feelings every few feet. “That sequence of experiences is something that is enriching and pleasurable,” he said.
James Corner’s selection is the beginning of an iterative 18-month process that will start with a public meeting on March 29, Greenberg said.

Planners hope to solicit community feedback on major concepts, as well as details like the number and height of water fountains and the possibilities for enhancing accessibility. By next summer, around the time the locks will reopen, the community will be able to review a “30 percent schematic” for the park, Greenberg said.

Greenberg hopes Georgetown Heritage’s work will restore some vitality and diversity to an area she remembers fondly from her childhood. She used to accompany her Georgetown lawyer dad to work, walking the canal path and riding “The Georgetown” boat frequently.

“That inspired me very much and is what drew me to this job,” she said. “That, of course, no longer exists.”

Lisa Palmer of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) told The Current she heard intriguing ideas for the site at a recent meeting with the business group. She said plans might include an outdoor theater, flower markets and a service group that would allow people who live and work nearby to care for the canal. Another idea is developing formal play spaces for children, which Palmer believes are much needed in the neighborhood right now.

Palmer said that of all the issues she’ll be covering as a newly elected commissioner, prospects for the C&O Canal excite her most.

“I just think it’s a unique space that hasn’t been tended to in an optimal way thus far, and there’s a real opportunity for community engagement to come up with something that’s going to be beautiful,” she said.

The area has fallen on disrepair in the last decade, to the dismay of some nearby residents like Pamla Moore of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, who said she would relish the opportunity to return to the tranquil experiences by the canal that she recalls.

“Certainly when it was up and doing better, there were things going on that brought you there, just like the waterfront park does now,” Moore said. “It just makes it a very nice place to live.”

Corner hopes his team can maintain the community’s goodwill for the site while transforming it into something new.

“We’re super excited and honored,” Corner said. “And we feel a great sense of responsibility to make sure that we deliver something that is both respectful and innovative at the same time.”

Residents can meet the project design team at the public meeting at 6 p.m. March 29 at the offices of Foley & Lardner in Suite 500 at Washington Harbour, 3000 K St. NW.