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Green Acre #56: Yards and Yards of Park

Chill out under the waterfall or cool your feet in the Yards Park pool. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

‘FOR THREE YEARS cranes have been at work in Southwest DC erecting the first phase of a waterfront aimed at putting the city’s smallest quadrant on the map for locals and visitors alike,” said Jonathan O’Connell in a recent Washington Post project update. “Beginning this summer, the fruits of that construction—visible to anyone passing through on Interstate 395—will be open for business as new apartment towers, hotels, piers, a 6,000-seat concert venue and some of the city’s priciest new condominiums are set to open as part of the city’s largest new development, dubbed the Wharf.”

There will also be endless waterfront dining options along the mile of shoreline, 500 boat slips and 2,600 parking spaces.

Meanwhile, several years in and just around the bend, is Yards Park which, despite a raft of awards, remains one of Washington’s least-discovered pleasures.

At the west end there’s the baseball stadium, which alternates concertos by the world’s Taylor Swifts and the thwack of Nats games, punctuated by fireworks. To the east is the walled fortress of the Washington Navy Yard, for which the park was named. This bustles industriously on weekdays but is nearly abandoned on weekends.

Bridging the two is the Park. There are marvelously cool gardens and fountains, a futuristic soaring bridge, restaurants

Bring a pillow and a book and snag a shaded  lounge with a water view in Yards Park in Southeast Washington DC. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

and sidewalk cafes, a lawn for sunbathing and a quiet glen with built-in lounges on which to doze or read. There appears to be an unspoken code of silence under the trees. The quiet people are here, doing quiet things like sketching out fantasies involving George Clooney or turning the attic into a master bath, reached by a ladder up the bedroom wall, with a claw-foot tub in the eaves—a thought that floated up to me during one Sunday-morning idyll.

Tables are built in a concrete scallop above the Anacostia River, with a ringside view of the water and of some occasionally fascinating rubbish drifting by. Harris Teeter is handy for gathering a picnic—or you can pick up burgers at Five Guys or something from one of the ritzier joints (bring your own candles and china) such as risotto al pescatore from Osteria Morini. If the last place won’t hand you a carry bag, they do offer delivery via www.trycaviar.com.

An enormous shallow pool for wallowing has concrete pads for I don’t know what, posing like Greek statues maybe. The Kardashians would find a use. There’s a waterfall at one end to jump through (in the tropics that would be the swim-up bar, but you can’t have everything. I suppose).

The pool has no whistle-blowing lifeguards (yet), no admission gates or fees, no eyesore sign of regulations. Just a bunch of contented adults cooling their heels and kids splashing mindlessly about as they do. Probably peeing in there as well, which is why no adult has ever been seen sitting down.

The park is fronted by a segment of the Riverwalk, which is actually 20 miles of walking, biking and running trail on either side the of the Anacostia, a beautiful river that leads into the more famous Potomac, and then turns a bend to meet the more ballyhooed Southwest Wharf.

Behind the park, office buildings and apartments with terraces and rooftop pools are turning parts of the neighborhood into a condo canyon. New townhouses mingle with old on side streets. A few nice hotels have gone up. There’s a fancy gym for the aspirationally svelte and a trapeze school offering curbside entertainment, or classes if you’ve got the guts. Whole Foods will open shortly.

Despite its brand-newness, this area is the oldest in the Federal City (which did not include Georgetown), dating to the 1790s and the construction of the Capitol and the Navy Yard.

The wading-pool design reflects the series of inlets carved like gapped teeth into the river bank, which once led to wharves where marble and sandstone arrived from far-flung places for the building of the Capitol. This was then horse-hauled up 8th Street SE, now known for two of the town’s hottest restaurants, Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple and Pearls, then west on Pennsylvania Avenue to the construction site. Foodstuffs also arrived for the original Eastern Market, which was erected here in 1805. *

The area continued to bustle until after WWII, and then fell into disrepair. Public housing mingled with a handful of derelict row houses. A few corner stores and bars were interspersed with a random assortment of buildings containing mysterious (because who then was interested?) public works.

Then, about 20 years ago, a series of extremely tedious meetings was held that eventually spat out a half-assed Plan to put up a monolithic corridor of office buildings with no space for shops or restaurants. Workers, it was eventually agreed, could take a shuttle bus to Barracks Row for lunch.

That’s enough of that story.

I don’t recall mention of the park or the Riverwalk in the several boring years I spent representing Capitol Hill businesses at interminable meetings, at which the high point was donuts.

Amazingly, a new neighborhood emerged and somehow, someone, got this park done. Now it just needs a few visitors. Or does it? Maybe not. Forget I said anything.

* Eastern Market was rebuilt in 1873 in the adjacent residential neighborhood of Capitol Hill.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie knows a well-planned park when she sees one. To read her earlier Green Acre gardening columns, type Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the page.


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