Three-Star Certified Pilot Project

Location: Washington, D.C.
Project Size: 3 acres
Project Type: Open space - Park
Site Context: Urban
Former Land Use: Brownfield
Terrestrial Biome: Temperate Broadleaf & Mixed Forests
Budget: $20,000,000
photo by: OLIN / Karl Blumenthal

Project Overview

One of the first parks built as part of the District of Columbia's Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, Canal Park is a model of sustainability, attaining both SITES and LEED Gold certifications, and establishing itself as a social gathering place and an economic trigger. Located on 3 acres of what was recently relegated as a parking lot for district school buses, this three-block long park is sited along the historic former Washington Canal system. Inspired by the site’s waterfront heritage, OLIN’s design evokes the history of the space with a linear rain garden and three pavilions reminiscent of floating barges that were once common in the canal. Through a close collaboration with OLIN, STUDIOS Architecture designed a 9,000-square foot pavilion to host a café and dining area, as well as utilities that support the park and ice rink. Approximately 150-200 square feet each, a second pavilion serves as a stage in the middle of the park, while a third offers storage for park amenities. Custom David Hess sculptures are located on each of the city blocks.

Regional Context

Canal Park, the project site, is comprised of three city blocks in Washington, DC. The site was most recently an asphalt parking lot with a few street trees located on the northern most block. As shown in the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) soil survey for the area, the underlying soil on site is entirely composed of Urban Land. This is a designation given to sites where there are no in-situ natural soils, only urban fill.

In addition, results of a previous investigation in 2004 by Environmental Consultants and Contractors, Inc. (ECC) and a 2007 geotechnical investigation by The Soil Consultants, Inc. indicate that soil within areas of the Washington Canal Park property have been impacted by petroleum, semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), metals, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Groundwater has been slightly impacted by methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). These results are further documented in the Phase II Environmental Site Assessment Addendum dated June 10, 2010.

Historical use of the site includes the location of a branch of the Washington Canal that emptied into the Eastern Branch of the Anacostia River just south of the Navy Yard.

SITES Features + Practices

The public-private partnership that was established in order to design, fund, and develop the project allowed for neighborhood-scale impact, environmentally, economically, and socially.

Collaboration with the Washington DC Department of the Environment (DDOE) led to progressive water management policy and advances in water quality legislation. DDOE considers Canal Park a "demonstration project." The general schematic, the environmental assessment, and the maintenance covenant will be used as models for future projects with similar green infrastructure goals.

Canal Park’s focal point, the linear rain garden, functions as an integrated stormwater system that is estimated to save the District of Columbia 1.5 million gallons of potable water per year. With the rain garden, LID tree pits, and approximately 80,000 gallons of underground water storage capacity, almost all of the stormwater runoff generated by the park will be captured, treated, and reused to satisfy up to 95% of the park’s water needs for fountains, irrigation, toilet flushing, and the ice rink.

The park also implements a neighborhood-scale rainwater capture, treatment, and reuse system that extends sustainability beyond the site's boundaries. Canal Park’s rainwater collection infrastructure extends into adjacent properties to capture, treat, and recycle roof and site runoff from neighboring buildings. The Canal Park Development Association (a public/private partnership) will charge a fee to neighboring landowners for the use of this rainwater management service. This will contribute to the long-term economic sustainability of Canal Park and, at the same time, the availability of this infrastructural amenity will encourage urban infill development in the surrounding ex-industrial parcels.

The DDOE sees the potential impact of this Shared BMP strategy as a move toward “stormwater parks” that allow for neighborhood-scale stormwater management (similar to the scale that one would expect to find in suburbs) rather than the less efficient citywide or individual parcel stormwater management models currently in use. In addition to these neighborhood-scale benefits, the use of “Shared BMPs” will actually allow for a decrease in the size of the rainwater storage cisterns required to meet the needs of Canal Park (irrigation, fountains, and toilet-flushing).

Underneath the site’s ice rink, 28 geothermal wells provide a highly efficient energy supply for utilities in the park, pavilions, and ice rink. This is forecasted to reduce Canal Park’s overall energy use by 37 percent.

Native and adapted planting was used in the rain garden and throughout the site, and other sustainable design elements in Canal Park include dark-sky lighting elements, high albedo paving, and site elements that encourage sustainable practices, such as electric car charging stations, bicycle racks, and recycling bins.

Washington Canal Park is comprised of three city blocks with two public roadways running between blocks. The design team made every effort to incorporate these through streets into the overall park design in order to minimize vehicular disruption to visitor experience and to ensure pedestrian safety while accommodating urban traffic. The team worked with the D.C. Department of Transportation to transform these two public roadways, as well as the streets that encircle the park.

K and L Streets: The two streets that bisect the park, K and L Streets, were designed as “table-top streets,” meaning that the street surface ramps up to meet the grade of the adjacent sidewalks, creating a flush transition between street and sidewalk. The paving units used throughout the park continue across the street surface, creating an uninterrupted surface treatment for the full length of the park. Pedestrians and vehicles safely coexist in this street/sidewalk condition where material change and level change, in addition to traffic signs, indicate to drivers to reduce speed and to yield to pedestrians. In addition, K and L streets were narrowed from approximately 33 feet wide to approximately 22 feet wide, across the width of the park. This narrowing indicates to drivers that they are entering the park, slowing traffic.

M Street, I Street and 2nd Place: The streets adjacent to the park were narrowed through the use of curb bump-outs at intersections. These bump-outs narrow traffic lanes, slowing vehicles, and reducing pedestrian crossing distances at intersections. ADA compliant pedestrian ramps were added at all intersections.


Limited space, high sustainability goals, and heavy programming needs made an integrative design process invaluable. Extensive collaboration between the client, regulatory agencies, designers, and engineers early in the planning and design phases of the project, allowed the team to define ambitious but feasible goals, and to ultimately achieve those goals. For example, early collaboration allowed for an extremely progressive and effective stormwater management system and the use of geothermal wells as an energy source. In addition, close collaboration throughout design and construction between OLIN and STUDIOS Architecture led to a seamless relationship between buildings and landscape.

During project design, the Canal Park Development Association (CPDA) and the Canal Park design team also partnered with the DDOE to assess the benefits and risks of specific innovative rainwater management and reuse strategies that were not covered by prior city regulations. Some of these strategies informed DDOE’s proposed citywide stormwater management regulations, which were under review at the time. One such innovation was the recycling of rainwater from a highly contaminated site for use in high exposure areas (in which visitors will be in direct contact with recycled water).

  • The Canal Park design team proposed reuse of recycled rainwater in interactive fountains and spray irrigation (high human exposure).
  • No precedent existed in DC with such a challenging combination of high contamination and high risk end-use. Existing regulations did not contain end-use quality standards.
  • DDOE worked with the Canal Park design team to establish standards based on the risk assessment performed by Canal Park project consultants. DDOE acceptance of the rainwater recycling system was based on an extensive risk assessment performed by project consultants Environmental Consultants and Contractors, Inc. (outlining existing and potential contamination levels, risk-based treatment levels and BMP design recommendations,) as well as specifications provided by the purification system manufacturer, Ames, and system design documentation by NITSCH Engineers, VIKA Capitol, Loring Engineers, and OLIN.
  • The Canal Park design and permitting process led to the incorporation of an appendix entitled "Tiered Risk Assessment Management" (TRAM) in the proposed DDOE Stormwater Management Guidebook. This appendix (Appendix N) sets forth a process to evaluate risk to human health based on collection area and end-use / possible exposure. TRAM drew directly from the work of the WCP project team.

DDOE considers Canal Park a "demonstration project." The general schematic, the environmental assessment, and the maintenance covenant will be used as models for future projects with similar green infrastructure goals.

Maintenance + Stewardship

The Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID) and its “Clean Team” are responsible for maintaining Canal Park in accordance with the above-mentioned maintenance plan. Revenues generated by the BID, by the on-site restaurant tenant, and by the rental of skates at the park's winter ice skating rink are appropriated to account for the site's maintenance and programming needs. As of 2010, the Capitol Riverfront BID area (including Canal Park) also falls under a new municipal recycling program, “Public Space Recycling,” administered by the District’s Department of Public Works (DPW).

An extensive maintenance plan was produced for the client by ETM Associates in coordination with OLIN. In development prior to the project's inclusion in the SITES pilot project program, the maintenance plan protects the long-term operational requirements of the park as identified by the client, by the design team, and ultimately by SITES.

Performance monitoring (Credit 9.1) at Canal Park has attracted the interest of several local community, design education, business, and development representatives. Stakeholders in the development of the surrounding neighborhood have sought to learn from the post-occupancy evaluation's findings regarding user demographics and levels of satisfaction with the park's design, programs, cleanliness, and safety. The DC office of Planning and Parks and Recreation departments in adjacent counties have already benchmarked the ongoing study as they develop their own metrics for social performance. Educators from top universities in the District have used Canal Park's performance monitoring methodology as a case study in post-occupancy evaluation at the site level, while the Landscape Architecture Foundation--headquartered in Washington--is investigating opportunities to further develop their own case study methodology around this example.

OLIN, in cooperation with the Canal Park Development Association (now Canal Park Inc.), is currently conducting a post-occupancy evaluation, the results of which will be published by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), via the Landscape Performance Series and the Case Study Investigation (CSI) program.

OLIN researchers are using the following methods to monitor Washington Canal Park's performance:

  • Direct observation, using field staff and aerial timelapse photography, focuses on the outwardly observable elements of use: circulation patterns, types of use, and social interactions. Aerial timelapse photography captures pedestrian movement, seating, and so forth; the research team extracts basic movement, seating, standing counts, spatial distributions, lengths of activities, and other information from this footage. Behavior in parts of the park obscured to aerial view by vegetation or other obstructions are simultaneously observed and documented by field researchers on the ground.
  • Questionnaire surveys are used to assess perceptions and preferences among park users. The survey format also allows the research team to pair use data with demographic information. Because Washington Canal Park is a new landscape and no user data currently exists, surveys rely on both a site intercept method and an online questionnaire advertized on handout cards and on the official website of Washington Canal Park. Surveys gather basic use and demographic information as well as test hypotheses developed by the observation and interview research.
  • Key informant interviews with the park management, maintenance staff, and local vendors add the insight of professionals who observe and work in the park daily. Additionally, formal interviews of the OLIN designers responsible for Washington Canal Park’s site design explored intentions and expectations of park use. Because the relevant SITES credits often ask the research team to compare intent and performance, these interviews will provided a crucial baseline for use data.
  • Environmental testing, specifically testing of onsite light and sound levels, is conducted to determine the site’s conductivity to both social interaction and mental restoration. Testing is conducted regularly at planned locations throughout the park to specifically determine the site design’s success at creating areas of shade and noise reduction. In accordance with SITES Credit 6.7 (Provide views of vegetation and quiet outdoor spaces for mental restoration) guidelines, sound level testing was performed to ASTM E1014–08 (Standard Guide for Measurement of Outdoor A-Weighted Sound Levels) standards.

Site Challenges

Most recent use of the site includes parking for school buses and other vehicles. These uses are consistent with the contaminants found on-site, which qualify the site as a brownfield. The park is heavily programmed, based on neighborhood need and stakeholder interests, while space is limited by the surrounding urban density.

Project Goals + Successes

Canal Park is one of the first parks built as part of the District's Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, whose stated goal is to create "a clean river environment, new parks and other recreational facilities, more job-creating commercial centers, revitalized residential neighborhoods and multi-modal transportation options ... (and to) reconnect communities on both sides to the river and to each other."

The intention behind Canal Park was to use public open space and green infrastructure as an economic driver, and was envisioned as a catalyst for the revitalization of the Near Southeast neighborhood. As one of the Initiative's first parks, the project will be a model for future growth in the rapidly developing neighborhood. Canal Park will provide a green pedestrian link between Capitol Hill and the Anacostia River, and it is a centerpiece for about 10,000 office workers and about 2,000 new mixed market-rate and affordable housing units, which replaced 700 public housing units from across the District (part of the Arthur Capper-Carrollsburg revitalization). Prior to park construction, the neighborhood had few amenities.

Additionally, the park was named one of the "Best Real Estate Deals of 2012" by Washington Business Journal. According to the WBJ article, published April 26, 2013: "The construction of Canal Park featured the reclamation and rehabilitation of a brownfield into a high point of the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, just as the overhaul of 200 Eye (an adjacent LEED certified renovation) returned a deteriorating hulk of a building to sustainable, productive use. The two together are key to the community’s revitalization." -Michael Neibauer, Washington Business Journal

Canal Park is a key component of a neighborhood revitalization effort that has already seen great gains. According to surveys administered by the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, the percentage of residents that view the neighborhood as "clean and safe" has gone from 30%, six years ago, to 90% today. Collaboration with the DDOE led to progressive water management policy and advances in water quality legislation.

Lessons Learned

The complexity of the project, the size of the project design team, and the length of the project timeline, as well as design team and client staffing changes, made record-keeping, communication, and documentation paramount.

Project Team

Landscape Architect:

STUDIOS Architecture, dcpc

Vika Capitol, Inc. (Civil)
Nitsch Engineering (Stormwater – design phase only)
Joseph R. Loring & Associates (MEP)
Stantec/Bonestroo (Fountain and Ice Rink)
Richter & Associates (Dry Utilities)
SK&A Structural Engineers (Structural)
Soil Consultants (Geotechnical)

David Hess (Artist/Sculptor)
Lynch & Associates (Irrigation)
The Design Theorem (Signage)
Atelier Ten (Lighting Design)
Atelier Ten (Sustainability)
Davis Langdon/AECOMM (Cost Estimating)
ETM Associates, Inc. (Public Space Management)
Jeff Wilson (Specifications Writing)
Shen Milson & Wilke (Audio/Visual)
General Contractor: James G. Davis Construction Corp.

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