Park Service’s New D.C. Boss Aims to Make Urban Parks Work

Aaron Wiener

The most important decision Muriel Bowser will make this winter, and possibly in her tenure as mayor, is whom to appoint to senior administration roles. As I wrote earlier today, she's largely filled out the top spots for economic development, housing, homelessness, and education. But the District being the District, there's another set of appointments that determines the city's future: those made by the federal government.
 
The National Park Service controls 6,832 acres of land in D.C., including spaces like Dupont Circle and Franklin Square, that we might not exactly think of as national parks. The federal agency has often been criticized locally for its rigid rules and resistance to change that have at times impeded the city's ability to install things like cafes and restrooms and Capital Bikeshare stations and Circulator routes.
 
Now the Park Service's National Capital Region has a new boss—even if he's not quite new to the District. Bob Vogel, who since 2011 has served as superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, was named the new National Capital Region director last month. In this role, the Missouri native will oversee 14 superintendents managing more than 700 parks and 70,000 acres in the D.C. area, stretching as far as parts of West Virginia. According to the Park Service, more than 46 million people visit the region's national parks each year; in 2013, visitors spent $852 million and supported more than 11,000 jobs.
 
I caught up with Vogel over the holidays and asked him about his ambitions for running national parks in a city where people are more likely to view them as "the square I walk across to get to work" or "the spot where I eat lunch on a warm day." Here, in this lightly edited interview, is what he had to say:
 
What have been your signature accomplishments in your three-and-a-half years as National Mall superintendent?
 
I think we’ve accomplished a number of things. We’ve done some obvious things like repairing the Washington Monument and getting it reopened. We opened the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and got that operational. We just opened up the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. We’ve done a lot of physical work, including the rebuilding of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and work on the DC War Memorial. And we’ve had some big events. We had an inauguration. And I think one of the great highlights of my career so far is the planning and implementation of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August.
 
And we’ve tried to improve our community engagement. We are hoping to have the Circulator on the National Mall this spring, and that’s something I’m really proud of. And we have the Capital Bikeshare on the Mall.
 
Before coming to D.C., you worked as deputy superintendent of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. How do D.C.'s national parks compare?
 
There’s some similarities, but of course there are obvious differences. There are still infrastructure needs, there’s still a need for visitor safety and protection of resources. But of course it’s very different to be in an urban environment. But some of the needs, to work and partner with the local community, I think those are the commonalities.
 
I have really enjoyed being in an urban environment. Of course I will always love our big western parks. But I believe our urban areas are the future of the National Park Service. When we were created as an agency, about 50 percent of our population was in urban areas. Now it’s around 80 percent. So as we move toward our second century, we’re looking at, how relevant are we? We still want people to take these great vacations out west, but we want people to take it to where they live, too.
 
Do the Park Service's blanket regulations make it hard to manage and improve urban parks, like dilapidated Franklin Square?
 
I think at times there are some challenges. I can't deny that. But I do think as the agency looks at this new urban agenda, we’ve really been looking at our management policies, and I think a lot of them really do work for different types of parks. We’ve always had a diversity of parks. I think at times — not trying to be unkind to any of my predecessors — but I think at times it’s been easier to say no to things than to say, "How can we make it work?" We do work in a bureaucracy, but my personal goal is to make government work. And I think if we work hard enough and talk about what we have in common, we can do some really exciting things.
 
[Franklin Square] was this incredibly vibrant area in the 1930s, and it’s really gotten into a state of disrepair. And a lot of us are interested in it. The Park Service has put in some money and the D.C. government has put in some money and the Downtown [Business Improvement District] has put in some money. We have to look at new models. The director has told me, if things don't work, we need to look at our policies.
 
There’s plenty of examples in the past when we’ve said, "No, you can’t do things." And at times you can’t. But I think the basic mission of the Park Service applies, whether it’s D.C. or Yellowstone. Obviously we don’t apply wilderness policy on the National Mall or in Anacostia Park, and we don’t apply a lot of laws and regulations that are not relevant to us.
 
Is it realistic to imagine things like a privately-operated cafe, public restrooms, playgrounds, and performance space in Franklin Square in the near future?
 
I think they’re totally realistic. In fact, at the moment we have an environmental assessment out for public review, and it lists all of those as desired end products. And I think they can happen. The biggest challenge is in coming up with money for the infrastructure. We’re working on a new model with the District of Columbia, and I don’t want to get too in the weeds because our attorneys are working on it.
 
People say to me, "Well why don’t we just give the land to D.C.?" That’d be a sad statement about the Park Service, if the only way we can make it happen is to give it to someone else.
 
Pershing Park is languishing. The initiative to overhaul Franklin Park resulted from its deterioration. Why are these parks struggling? Is it bad management? Inflexible rules? A lack of funding?
 
I think it’s really, unfortunately, a decline in our financial ability to take care of some of these properties. As we continue to work on seeking more federal funds to do that, we also need to work on getting more partnerships involved. That’s really where things happen, when we get citizens to say, "These parks are mine" — which they are.
 
On Pershing Park, we have some new legislation that just passed that talks about creating a new World War I memorial there. We have a private group working to find money and develop a plan to revitalize the park. That’s kind of the model that works.