NPS’ Ownership of the Georgetown Waterfront Called into Question


As reported over the weekend by Aaron Wiener of the Citypaper, Paul Simkin, the owner of Jack’s Bathouse, is asserting the the National Park Service no longer owns the Georgetown waterfront.

Simkin’s assertion is based upon a reading of the original council resolution regarding the transfer of the land from the city to NPS in 1985. The resolution provides that the transfer will revert to the city if there are any amendments to the deed. There have been two amendments, in 2000 and 2005.

GM’s worst grade in law school was in property law, so he has zero idea how strong a case Simkin has. His initial thought is that it’s not terribly strong since the reversion language is in a council resolution and not the deed of transfer itself. But that’s a C+ property law student talking.

But setting aside the legal issue, what would be the ramifications if Simkin is right? Pretty big. As Jack Evans pointed out in the City Paper article, it would mean the city has to pay to maintain the park, something it’s in a much better position to do that now than in 1985 (let alone 1995).

The park would immediately become a crown jewel in the city’s park portfolio. And while GM has some concerns about the city’s ability to maintain it, he would be very interested to see what the city could do with the park. That’s because the park currently strains under NPS’ orthodoxy regarding “passive enjoyment” of the park. Under this philosophy, no organized events or activities can take place in the park.

For an illustration of what that means, remember that before the city relinquished control of the park, it ran a popular ice rink there in the winter. As soon as NPS took over, the rink was permanently mothballed.

There is a lot of responsibility that goes with running this beautiful park, and the city would have to be careful how it would manage it (the wonderful Friends of Georgetown Waterfront Park would still play a key role in protecting the park). But such fun events like a summer movie fest could take place much more easily if the city owned the land.

And, of course, this would give Simkin a huge upper hand in keeping control of Jack’s, seeing as he has strong local support. This would also have the potential to jump start the long delayed plans for two to three new boathouses clustered around the Key Bridge. Without NPS’ never ending processes, the city could move fast to get those projects moving.

Of course, all of that is getting a little ahead of ourselves. The legal question comes first. But there’s a more than negligible chance that NPS may ultimately rue the day it tried to kick out Jack’s.



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8 responses to “NPS’ Ownership of the Georgetown Waterfront Called into Question

  1. adam

    I don’t know why Jack’s wouldn’t have the inside line on winning the contract. Have you read it? It’s basically Jack’s current business plan.

  2. Topher

    Simkin doesn’t have an inside line because Steve LeBel, the guy who makes the decisions for DC’s NPS parks contracts, basically wants GSI to run them all. This is despite the fact that GSI is a crappy vendor suited more to keeping tourists fed with steamed hot dogs.

    Just read Lydia DePillis’ great article on the crappiness that is GSI:

    I would bet anyone a dozen Georgetown-cupcakes-that-I-waited-in-line-for-in-the-middle-of-August that the acceptance letter to GSI to run Jack’s is already in draft form.

  3. Walter

    Simkin’s attorney seems to be relying on language in a city council resolution that was never incorporated into the conveyance of title.

    And thus he is grasping at straws, –particularly given the millions that were spent in creating the Waterfront Park. (I believe the District — in the pre-home-rule era) gained title to this land using Federal monies to acquire it for the never-built Three Sisters expressway. And its possible that, if Federal monies were used to acquire the land, there were also Federal restrictions on the District using the acquired land for anything but a highway.)

    Putting the two amendments issue aside, the attorney also makes no claim that the title itself includes provisions making the Federal government responsible for maintaining the wharves, docks, and bulkheads, etc. Instead, the attorney asserts this responsibility is set out in the council resolution. Again, if its not specified in the title conveyance, its just more feeble grasping at straws.
    As an aside, for years, the National Park Service has tried to get the District to accept title for much of the NPS’ parkland in the city, a lot of the pocket parks, but some big park areas too. The District has declined, not wanting to assume the maintenance and policing costs. And I think that most neighbors prefer having NPS retain ownership, rather than the District becoming responsible for maintaining the parks.

  4. adam

    OK, I would love to see any evidence to back up the wild conspiracy theories that NPS is already drafting the contract with GSI. The contracts and the RFQ seem pretty transparent, and Jack’s seems like a perfect candidate. You have presented no facts or evidence that suggest otherwise.

    Moreover, I read the article and that suggests that the NPS is strongly in favor of broader competition. I don’t know what led to the 25-year, omnibus contract w/ GSI, but that’s recently recently expired. More competition That sounds great to me, and they seem to have an open process.

    Finally, the article points out that GSI runs Fletcher’s Boathouse, which I didn’t know. Everyone seems to like the way Fletcher’s is run; they offer a wider variety of services than Jack’s, but they charge 30% less for rentals. It’s hard to see how an open and fair competition between Jack’s, GSI, and anyone else who is interested would necessarily lead to a worse deal for users and taxpayers than the current no-bid 1986-era arrangement.

  5. Andy2

    Jack’s has a wonderful dock that they allow you to grill on for free and they are very generous with the hourly rentals. Moreover – they are a local business. Fix the lease and bring it to a more market rate but let them stay and continue to offer the wonderful service they do.

  6. DC owns the land where Jack’s is located. Administrative jurisdiction was transferred by DC to the NPS subject to a reversionary right in the event a certain deed over the Georgetown waterfront is amended. That deed was amended. Thus, DC has the right to cancel’s NPS administrative jurisdiction over Jack’s. Jack’s Canoes and Kayaks LLC, the successor tenant under the lease with the District (a lease transferred by the District to the National Park Foundation), also cannot and will not vacate the land leased from DC absent a settlement or a court order (there are no “self-help” evictions in DC). Given the thin ice on which NPS is standing, NPS has no chance of being able to replace the current operator and owner of Jack’s Boathouse regardless of how badly it wants to install a new concessionaire operator–and may even succeed in losing control of the entire Georgetown waterfront. Moreover, anyone that responds to the NPS’ RFQ in order to aid the NPS in ruining the current owner of Jack’s is risking a significant lawsuit for intentional interference with business relations.

  7. Walter

    From DC zoning maps, Jack’s is wholly within Reservation 404, which is land under the jurisdiction of the United States. Reservation 404 encompasses land associated with the Chesapeake & Ohio NHP. (Reservation 404 also applies to land near the West Heating Plant, which is reason for becoming a tad familiar with Reservation 404.) Jurisdiction over and exchange [between the Federal;government and another party] of Reservation lands is established by Federal statute, not by resolutions of the city council.

    In the zoning maps, the DC government owns square 1179, lot 805, which is Jack’s, and which is within Reservation 404. However the DC-owned lot line falls short of the river bank and the water, so, in effect, other than traversing a narrow sliver of land, lot 806 (240 sq ft) owned by Jack’s, there is no access to the Potomac river from lot 805 other than by crossing over Reservation 404 land owned by the United States. .

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