Sunday was a perfect day to enjoy Franklin Square Park, a gem of a rectangle smack dab in the middle of the nation capital's downtown.
Mallard ducks were paddling through the pool in the park's center and getting a sprinkle under the fountain. Tourists aboard Segway scooters cruised through, quickly. Folks -- mostly homeless -- were snoozing on the grass and the plentiful benches. Church groups had set up tables to feed the hungry.
A young woman biking through was hoping to find a comforting scene. "Hey, pretty lady," a young guy said, "C'mon over." She kept pedaling.
At the moment, Franklin Square provides a respite for office workers during the day. They can grab a sandwich at one of the many restaurants on K Street or along 14th Street and munch away on a park bench. They can stroll across to 13th Street or down to I Street. In the evening and on weekends, the park is essentially an outdoor homeless shelter.
Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and the godfather of D.C.'s "living downtown" has worked in an office near the park for 35 years.
"For the first ten years, Franklin Square was a haven for prostitutes," Lynch says. "Since then, it's been a de facto haven for the homeless."
But Franklin Square is about to change. Thirty-five years ago, I Street below the square was lined with strip clubs, which gave way to office buildings and restaurants; now, new residents are moving into apartments and condos further downtown and along Massachusetts Avenue. They are having families, they want to picnic in the park, they want playground equipment for their kids.
"We now have families, retirees, all sorts of folks downtown," says Councilmember Tommy Wells. "All would benefit from a great park."
Which makes Franklin Square a test case for the evolving downtown: How do we create a signature space for families, tourists, office workers and homeless folks who need a safe patch of green space?
Wells, who chairs the council committee on parks and recreation, toured downtown parks six months ago with National Park Service officials, since the feds own and control most of the green space. He was accompanied by locals who want playgrounds. The group stopped by smaller, pocket parks and then Franklin Square.
"Too bad we can't do something with this park," Wells said.
The park officials said they would be open to seeing it redeveloped, and one confirmed that sentiment to me. But the obstacles are substantial -- including transferring some control from the feds to D.C., pushing through a bureaucratic maze and paying for any improvements.
Wells is trying to convince his council colleagues to devote $300,000 to investigate and propose a revamped Franklin Square. He envisions a space like New York's Bryant Park, which hosts exhibitions, concerts, markets, tai chi.
Lynch says locals need to set up a Friends of Franklin Square and push for change. In the meantime, Wells says: "I'm just pushing forward."
All good, but I wonder if the homeless folks will get pushed out in the process.
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at email@example.com.