‘Paradigm,’ ‘Signature Urban Park,’ and ‘Anacostia’ in the Same Breath? Are We Ready for This?

Our River: The Anacostia

Gopaul Noojibail on the River. Photo: Tyrone Eaton, Anacostia Watershed Society

If you had to name the “landlord” for the Anacostia River and the lands along and even under it, it would be the National Park Service (NPS). Here in the District, with a few exceptions like the Navy Yard and the adjacent Yards Park, the Park Service is responsible for the management of the riverfront. And we should consider ourselves lucky that nearly all that land is preserved forever as parkland open to the public.

While the Park Service built its reputation with places such as the Grand Canyon and various national seashores, more and more of its work is focused on urban areas – Independence Hall, the Great Falls of the Passaic in industrial Paterson, and our own National Mall. Plus thousands of homes and workplaces of famous people. And Our River, at least to the Maryland line, where the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission (MNPPC) takes over.

This shift to an urban focus is reflected in recent changes to the management structure of the Park Service. A year ago, Gopaul Noojibail was named the new superintendent of National Capital Parks-East, a vast area that ranges from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to sites along the lower Potomac, and includes the Anacostia parklands. He joined five other superintendents in the region covering the National Mall and memorial parks, the White House, Rock Creek Park and northwest, the C&O Canal, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

More recently Noojibail’s region was divided into three parts with two other superintendents north and south reporting to him, thereby allowing him to focus on the Anacostia and the city neighborhoods adjacent. All this is good news for us, because he has a desire to make things happen in and along the river. “We need to establish a vision and create an action plan to advance all our efforts around the river – a road map for NPS and its partners,” he says. “We can’t do everything, but we can go further faster if we agree to advance the right things at the right time.”

Noojibail grew up in urban Chicago, the son of an immigrant from southern India, where his family has a farm up against the forests in a very remote region, and where he developed a personal connection to preserving natural areas. He feels like he has land management in his blood. His previous Park Service assignments include the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, and the National Mall and Memorial Parks in DC.

The Park Service is preparing to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 2016. There will be much talk of the mission and relevancy of the agency in coming years. Noojibail sees it as an opportunity to present the Anacostia River restoration as a paradigm for Park Service activities in urban areas, overcoming historic neglect and building pride, economic success, natural resource protection, education, physical exercise, and a stewardship ethic into a comprehensive sense of what urban parks can do for the quality of life. And there is already a lot to build on along the Anacostia and in the historic parks and houses of our neighborhoods.

Noojibail realizes that the Park Service cannot do it alone and has a great many partners to work with. There are citizen-based groups like the Anacostia Watershed Society, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and Groundwork Anacostia River DC, as well as smaller groups in neighborhoods and along tributaries. There are city agencies like the Department of Transportation, which is building the trails, and the Department of Energy and Environment, which is cleaning up the toxics. There is the MNPPC upstream in Maryland. There are key federal agencies like the Navy, the EPA, and the National Arboretum (part of the Agriculture Department). There are special sites and projects like the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens (part of NPS) and the 11th Street Bridge Project (part of THE-ARC). And there are numerous groups in place that try to coordinate all that is going on, such as the multilevel Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership and the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia.

It can be downright bewildering.

But there are certain things that are clearly in the Park Service’s realm and others where it has a major role to play. Noojibail believes that completion of the trail system next year with the closing of the three mile gap from Benning Road to the Bladensburg Marina will fundamentally change the access and use of the parklands on the east side of the River. The same is true of the 11th Street Bridge Project following along a couple years later. And he has completed the planning and compliance aspects for the proposed 400-foot hiking and bicycling bridge from the trail and the Aquatic Gardens to the arboretum, a $25 million partnership undertaking that will soon enter the design, funding, and building stages. It will connect through the arboretum with a new trail coming out New York Avenue from Union Station.

Engaging youth will be another part of the urban strategy, once again building on many programs that are operating on and along the river. Rowing the water trails, recreation opportunities on the land, youth gardens, and job-training programs should all be part of the mix that Noojibail sees – and he is open to more ideas from the public. As more progress is made on water quality, new options related to a fishable and swimmable river open up – the goal for that is 2024 in the eyes of the Anacostia Watershed Society, which may seem distant but is only as far ahead of us as 2008 is behind us.

The cleanup of the toxics in the river will also be on the Park Service agenda, since it owns now or owned in the past a number of contaminated sites. In fact, Noojibail says he has more Superfund sites under his jurisdiction than any other superintendent in the Park Service. These include the Kenilworth Park playing fields, which were once a DC dump, the Washington Gas site near the 11th Street Bridge, and Poplar Point. In addition the bed of the tidal river is officially Park Service property and is filled with contaminated sediments that will have to be capped or preferably removed, something for which funds will need to be found.

But the opportunities for the river are better than they have ever been, with new players and new connections coming with the new trials and bridges and boathouses. Add to these the array of NPS neighborhood parks and historic sites like the Frederick Douglass House, and there seems to be a basis for the “common vision” Noojibail is seeking – mapping out the assets and working with others in ways the Park Service has not done before. He sees the Anacostia as a potential “signature urban park,” showing the way for the Park Service to deal with these kinds of areas as it starts its next century.

Can we achieve this together? For Noojibail “the Park Service is in the perpetuity business, but we need to work with others to develop entrepreneurial attitudes; we cannot be the agency of ‘no’; we must be the agency of ‘let’s talk.’” He’s finding there are a lotta folks to talk to about Our River.

By the way, who would have thought 10 years ago that the Anacostia would be touted as a “signature urban park” by the National Park Service? Congratulate yourselves, readers, but keep at it!

National Park Service Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail. Photo: National Park Service

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, DC vice-chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River, and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.

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