The $21 million upgrade includes a new fountain and seating areas, but D.C. officials say overnight camping by unhoused people will not be allowed.
In an image more than a decade in the making, D.C. and federal officials on Friday cut the ribbon on the newly renovated Franklin Park, hailing the $21 million upgrade as a boon to one of the largest expanses of green space in downtown D.C.
The renovations to the 189-year-old park — which was last fixed up in 1935 — include a new central fountain, winding paths, a children's play area, new tree cover and seating areas, improved stormwater managed, and a soon-to-be-completed pavilion that will eventually host a cafe.
While D.C. paid for the project, merely getting to the point that renovations could happen took years of work. Because Franklin Park is federal property, Congress had to approve a bill allowing the city to enter into agreements with the National Park Service to upgrade and manage federal parks throughout D.C., an effort that was led by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and hailed by city leaders on Friday.
"Urban parks are special and they need a lot of attention... and the District wants that job," said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who also predicted the new space would become a destination — "a place for residents and visitors to enjoy and for workers to retreat to." Echoing that sentiment, Norton called the new Franklin Park "an oasis."
Bowser and Norton have worked in recent years to turn over control of a number of sites in D.C. from federal to local agencies, including the RFK stadium campus and the city's three golf courses.
Still, some activists and advocates expressed concern since the renovations began last year that Franklin Park would be no longer be a destination for people experiencing homelessness. In the past, unhoused individuals would sleep in the park, and homeless groups would offer meals and other services there. New signs prominently posted around the park warn that camping will not be allowed.
"I don't like it," said Olivia Chase, who lives in Mt. Vernon Square and came to the ribbon-cutting. "Some of it is personal, because I am a recovering alcoholic. I just know that but by the grace of God I could have to pitch a tent somewhere. Or my grandson. I just don't believe in pouring water on drowning people."
Neil Albert, president of the Downtown D.C. BID, which will manage the park, stressed that his group would continue working to connect individuals experiencing homelessness to services. He added that a day-services center exists nearby, and that the BID's trained staff always strived to help people get shelter.
Jeff Reinbold, the superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks, said NPS would defer to the BID in handling unhoused people, but said that the U.S. Park Police could arrest and remove anyone trying to camp in the park. "We do have the legal ability to do that, but it is not our desire," he said.
For her part, Bowser said enforcing a no-camping rule would ensure both that the park would remain open and usable by all and that unhoused people get access to shelter and services. (The city has launched a related pilot program to close three encampments by offering housing to residents.)
"Camping is not permitted in the District of Columbia. Anybody who is going to suggest that dealing with encampments and homelessness is a simple solution is unfamiliar with human behavior and the very intense needs of the individuals who choose to live in the street," Bowser said Friday. "We provide shelter for people who are homeless. We are going to work with every one of our services to make sure people avail themselves of those services. ... We have a duty to ensure that all of the parks can be used by all of the people."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.