ULI Washington recently released a Technical Assistance Panel Report analyzing challenges and opportunities for improving Chinatown Park, a small and underutilized National Park Service (NPS) park within the Chinatown area of downtown Washington. Chinatown Park is located in the northeast corner of Chinatown, at the intersection of Fifth and Sixth Streets and Massachusetts Avenue, within the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID).
The Park is similar to many National Park Service properties within the District of Columbia in its simplicity, with a large lawn panel as the main element, as well as street trees lining the perimeter. Because it is in Chinatown, the Park is of special interest to the DC Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs (MOAPIA), whose mission is to improve the quality of life for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) residing in the District of Columbia.
MOAPIA, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, sought a TAP that would make recommendations regarding revitalization of the Park, including strategies, policies, partnerships, design, cultural features, management, and the potential impacts of revitalization.
Despite the fact that it is the only existing public open space in Chinatown, Chinatown Park has been a passive public park, and it is currently poorly maintained and under-used by local residents and downtown office workers. The Park marks an important gateway to Chinatown from Massachusetts Avenue and from points north in the city, which makes it an essential location to preserve and enhance, and it deserves much attention.
ULI Technical Assistance Panels, or TAPs, provide expert, multidisciplinary advice to public agencies facing complex land use and real estate issues in the Metropolitan Washington Region. Over the course of two days, a team of eight ULI members endeavored to understand the challenges and opportunities for improving the Park and its immediate periphery, and then developed recommendations regarding implementation, programming, and design actions that the City and other entities could undertake as next steps for improving the Park.
Panelists analyzed the context of the study area, physical attributes of the Park, and the relationship between the Park and the surrounding land uses. The objective of this TAP was to develop recommendations prior to the development of a new master plan for the Park. The Panel recognized that the adjacent Milian Park should also be incorporated into the recommendations and planning process.
To successfully bring about positive change in the Park, the Panel first developed a vision for the Park as a key gateway into Chinatown that should be redesigned to incorporate Chinese themes and elements, and upgraded, including the central lawn and the edges. The Panel also envisioned the Park serving as a window into the broader Asian and Pacific Islander culture, including a narrative that celebrates, promotes, and facilitates understanding of the AAPI culture.
To realize this vision, the Panel recommended that the MOAPIA first reach out to a variety of key partners—both within and outside of the DC government—and seek to establish a collaboration strategy with these entities. With stronger relationships and better communication with these organizations—including NPS, the downtown BID, the Mount Vernon Community Improvement District (CID), the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, other DC agencies, surrounding property owners, and others—MOAPIA will be able to better align their collective interests and bring their collective resources to bear on the shared goal of creating a better park.
Secondly, the Panel recommended that MOAPIA seek to form a Friends of Chinatown and Milian Parks organization that is solely dedicated to the successful design, programming, and operation of the parks. Potential Friends of Chinatown and Milian Parks could include government agencies, the surrounding BID and CID, businesses and property owners, non-profit organizations, citizen groups, nearby museums, local universities, and various others.
The Panel also recommended that MOAPIA and the new Friends organization place a renewed effort on fostering activity in the parks. Programming of events and activities is essential for improving the perception of both the Chinatown and Milian Parks. Especially for Chinatown Park, a key programming goal should be to use the Park to strengthen the AAPI community at large and to preserve and celebrate AAPI cultural identity via the long-term success of the Park. Programming should begin with outreach to the AAPI community.
More and better programming can improve the profile and identity of both parks within both the AAPI community and the surrounding neighborhood community. The Panel recommended that event programming should include larger events that could take place within the I Street right-of-way; I Street could be temporarily closed for such events, in coordination with the District Department of Transportation.
From a design perspective, the Panel recommended that the redesign of Chinatown Park should recognize that the edges of the Park are important portals and frames for pedestrians and autos passing the park, and should be designed with this in mind. In fact, the edges of the Park are areas of special opportunity, as they are within the street right-of-way and not strictly within the NPS park space itself.
Three key recommendations from the Panel as it relates to the edges of Chinatown Park itself include 1) the creation of a woonerf—a street for both pedestrians and vehicles—on I Street, allowing the street to be used for events on special occasions; 2) the creation of a game table row along Sixth Street, which would help to activate the Park throughout the day and week; and 3) upgrades to landscaping to improve continuity along Massachusetts Avenue and to create a visual buffer between this busy street and the lawn.
Other design recommendations included design improvements to the central lawn, including the addition of a feature element or sculpture, and the creation of an AAPI interpretive space on the eastern portion of the Park, featuring AAPI educational and cultural elements.
The ULI Panel emphasized that with a renewed effort from MOAPIA, a collaborative effort with other partner organizations, the creation of a Friends of Chinatown and Milian Parks organization, new design and physical improvements, and a more active programming effort, the Chinatown and Milian Parks could be transformed into real places and become important assets for the neighborhood and the AAPI community, creating value for the surrounding community and enhancing the public realm of the city.
The TAP was chaired by Robert S. Goodill, Principal at Torti Gallas + Partners, where he directs the Region and Town Planning Segment. Members of the Panel included Suzie Battista, Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization; Tatiana S. Bendeck, Beyer Blinder Belle; Bill Bonstra, Bonstra | Haresign ARCHITECTS; Michael Durso, WGL/Washington Gas; Connie Fan, LSG Landscape Architecture Inc.; Mark Herbkersman, Massa Multimedia Architecture; Rob Mandle, Crystal City Business Improvement District; and Dean Schwanke, Schwanke Consulting and Communications.
A final version of the report may be found here.