Dear Ms. Mendelson-Ielmini:
In its meeting of 18 July, the Commission of Fine Arts was pleased to hear an information presentation on a plan to rehabilitate the initial mile of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park, a National Historic Landmark, from its easternmost point at the Potomac River to the Aqueduct Bridge abutment, located within the Old Georgetown historic district. The Commission expressed general support for the plan, submitted by the National Park Service in cooperation with Georgetown Heritage and the Georgetown Business Improvement District, to renovate this segment of the park for improving public use of this highly significant cultural landscape.
Expressing strong support for the intent to improve programming, interpretation, access, and safety within the canal park, the Commission members emphasized that stewardship of the canal as a historic resource is critical; it should be protected as a physical record of the city’s history. They recalled the positive experience of more intensive programming of the park in the 1970s and 1980s, and they expressed enthusiasm for the plan’s goals to restore both the physical elements of the park and its use as a public venue. During the public meeting, the Commission members heard the testimony of individuals and representatives of local organizations, given both in favor of preserving the canal and of adapting it for enhanced public use. They suggested that these apparently opposing interests may actually be convergent, and they discouraged perpetuating a false dichotomy between design and historic preservation principles; instead, these should be used together constructively to guide the rehabilitation of the historic park with contemporary goals—including public accessibility, resilience, and the fostering of interdependent ecological systems. They suggested that a structured conversation among stakeholder groups could yield clearer priorities and goals, creating a shared vision that would inform the creative process for the project design.
For the development of the plan, the Commission members recommended further documentation and study of the site’s capacity to accommodate change without compromising its historic character; this study would inform the appropriate scale of proposed interventions in order to find a balance between the repair of historic fabric and the insertion of new elements, and they suggested considering the conceptual approach of “curated decay” of the park’s former industrial elements to guide the design. They noted that the unity of the park depends on the perceptible, linear character of the canal, its setting, and the movement of people along it; they cautioned against a sameness in the design of new elements such as platforms, bridges, walkways, and plazas—emphasizing that the canal park is characteristically punctuated by a wide variety of incidental spaces, objects, and conditions. They commented on the park’s value as a place of respite between the existing busy commercial corridors of K and M Streets, and they encouraged retaining this welcome contrast. They also suggested the consideration of alternatives at the east end of the park that do more to protect the ecological habitats at the confluences of the canal, Rock Creek, and the Potomac River.
The Commission looks forward to review of the canal park plan as it is developed at the concept level, which will include review by the Old Georgetown Board. The Board’s report on its previous review is enclosed for your reference. As always, the staff is available to assist you.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Lisa Mendelson-Ielmini, Acting Regional Director
National Park Service, National Capital Region
1100 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington, DC 20242
cc: Aaron Kelley, James Corner Field Operations
Maggie Downing, Georgetown Heritage
Joe Sternlieb, Georgetown Business Improvement District
Encl.: Report of the Old Georgetown Board, 11 July 2019
CFA 18/JUL/19-2 (no OG number)
National Park Service
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, Mile 1
REPORT: The National Park Service (NPS), in cooperation with the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID), Georgetown Heritage, and the District Office of Planning (DCOP) has drafted a plan for improvements to the one-mile stretch of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park that is located between mile marker 0 and the Alexandria Aqueduct, the entirety of which is located within the Old Georgetown Historic District. The plan focuses on rehabilitation of the canal, accessibility improvements to the towpath, and interventions to the associated public spaces for educational programming and recreation. The applicant is currently conducting an Environmental Assessment (EA) as part of NEPA requirements and the associated Section 106 review. CFA staff participated in the associated public meetings and provided informal feedback to NPS. On July 3, 2019, NPS gave an information presentation to the Old Georgetown Board (OGB), whose comments are summarized as follows:
- The title of the presentation as simply a “plan” is ambiguous; recommend clarifying if the plan is a master plan, concept plan, framework plan, or other type of plan.
- The identification of key sites or nodes along this uniquely urban segment of the canal is a useful approach that focuses intervention and investment in public space. Generally, the plan provides a helpful framework for the OGB to evaluate other projects that abut the canal.
- The first goal of the plan should be stewardship and restoration of the historic canal park; the applicant should consider a third, preservation-focused option with a level of intervention that is between the no-action alternative and the proposed build alternative. The proposed build alternative may be too commercial and artificial in character, with an undesirable sameness of the interventions throughout.
- The applicant should be wary of eroding the urban edge of the canal excessively, especially through the proposed demolition and cuts into the walls and the creation of pavilions that could remove the character-defining feature of narrowness and compression along this particular segment of canal. Historically, this mile of the canal was lined with numerous mills and industrial buildings, a condition still evident today by the urban edge. The physical elements that recall this industrial experience should not be compromised through excessive interventions.
- Recommend against widening the historic mule towpath with a cantilevered overhang or new support wall projecting into the canal; recommend a more holistic study of the accessibility to the canal, much of which would remain inaccessible because of steep changes in grade and paving materials, even if the towpath were widened. Question the installation of multiple elevators, which provide access to limited areas of the park and create issues of cost and maintenance.