11th Street Bridge Project Update

Our River

Bringing Us Together: 11th Street Bridge Park

It all started with a simple question in the DC Department of Planning. Harriet Tregoning, then the director, wondered what could be done with the piers remaining in the Anacostia River after the reconstruction of the 11th Street Bridge. Couldn’t something innovative be built to take advantage of them sitting downstream of the new local bridge that had just opened south of the freeway ramps? A first thought was to build narrow overlooks out from the local bridge wherever there was a pier in the middle of the river. That was done and you can use them today. But why stop there? Why not a broad, park-like space along the whole length from shore to shore, a distance of more than three football fields?

Believe it or not, that is what is happening. Plans are underway to extend the local bridge up to 180 feet downstream over those old piers and put in playgrounds for all ages and abilities, along with outdoor performance spaces, an environmental education center focusing on the river, public art and cafes, urban agriculture and gardens, and boat launches on the river below. These were just some of the ideas emerging from hundreds of public meetings about the project. Who knows what more will emerge as the project advances?

The 11th Street Bridge Park is a project of Building Bridges Across the River, part of THEARC, which stands for Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus, a large community facility on Mississippi Avenue SE in Ward 8. The focus is programs to support the arts and other activities to enrich lives in DC’s poorest ward, but also to build connections with other neighborhoods along the river. The city is a big supporter of these efforts and sees the 11th Street Bridge Park as a highly visible and attractive way to bring together communities on both sides of the river. Director of the Project is Scott Kratz, a young educator who until he took this job 18 months ago was vice president for education at the National Building Museum, and who lives near Barracks Row. In Kratz’s view, “for every right project there is a right time,” and that time is now with plans for the recovery of the river and the emergence of the old Anacostia commercial area as a center of theater and the arts.

Kratz sees the effort as right on schedule. After a period of listening at community meetings, followed by planning and selection of a winning design for Bridge Park last fall, he envisions two years of pre-construction activity to deal with rights-of-way, permits, environmental reviews, and other such things. This will lead into a two-year construction schedule with an opening in 2019. By then the Long-Term Control Program to nearly eliminate sewage overloads to the river should be in place, and efforts to remove the toxic sediments will be underway.

The project is designed to fulfill four distinct purposes. First is to encourage healthy communities by providing opportunities for exercise and recreation. Ward 8, for example, currently has the highest rate of obesity in the city. Second is to engage the public with the river as a place to go that deserves support for all the benefits it can provide. Third is to connect DC communities on both sides of the river, especially Capitol Hill and historic Anacostia, which have common histories and could have common futures as each develops. And fourth is to provide economic opportunities through jobs and businesses.

Making all this happen as a result of a bridge project might seem a bit intimidating, but as a result of the public meetings Kratz and other leaders such as Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen conceived the Equitable Development Task Force, whose job is to assure that with the bridge come opportunities for those who live nearby, with the specific goal of keeping them from being priced out as the amenities bring increases in the demand and cost of housing and business sites. Some see that as already happening in historic Anacostia, and more and more apartment buildings and condos are being proposed on the Capitol Hill side. The most serious threats are east of the river, where many more units are rentals.

To deal with these forces the Equitable Development Task Force is working in three areas. First is to continue to protect and to add to affordable housing through a variety of existing and emerging city programs that can help with housing costs and take over vacant or abandoned properties that can be converted to such housing. Second is to develop training and job opportunities as part of project construction in order to employ people from the immediate area. Third is to encourage small business enterprise, both as part of the project and in nearby areas that will benefit from more activity in the communities. The plan for these actions will be released on Nov. 5.

The winning design for the bridge encourages entrepreneurship by including a number of businesses providing food, entertainment, boating, and other services on the bridge and the approaches on each side. The seven-month-long design competition last year involved hundreds of proposals and five detailed designs, leading to the unanimous selection of the firm of OMA-OLIN. It is a dramatic structure with ramps and planes that crisscross to emphasize the crossing and the unifying themes. As OMA designer Jason Long stated, “It holds its own against very monumental elements within DC – but at the same time it is very approachable.”

The budget is about $45 million, and the District Council has declared that the DC budget should cover no more than half. So far over $10 million has been raised, much of it from the city, which is appropriate at this planning stage, according to Kratz. This funding is sufficient for the next 18 months until construction starts. Meanwhile a major effort is beginning to seek funds for the rest with corporation, foundation, and individual support. A recent grant from Artplace America, for example, provides $250,000 for workshops, performances, and other community-based activities in local schools to prepare them for the opportunities the bridge project will bring, as well as funding for the selected architects to work with the community to fine tune the design. The grant was one of 38 awarded nationwide from nearly 1,300 applications.

But what will the 11th Street Bridge Park do for you and me? It will be a destination with activities and spaces to relax, have a snack, hear a lecture, catch a live performance, or simply linger and watch the sun set over the river. It will also be a place to meet not just your neighbors, but people from the other side of the river whom you normally don’t get a chance to talk to. And it will be an entertaining and visually stunning way to get to the other side where things are happening that may be new to you.

But don’t wait until 2019! Take a walk across the 11th Street local bridge now. Enjoy the views from the wide sidewalk and bike trail. Walk out to the end of one of the overlooks already in place to watch the rowers below and the birds above. If you are coming from east of the river, continue to the River Trail past the Navy Yard and Yards Park. If you are coming from Capitol Hill, check out the emerging art and theater scene along and right off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

And dream about the future with a completed Bridge Park. Many have likened it to Manhattan’s HighLine, a park built atop an abandoned elevated freight railroad on the Lower West Side. When they say, “This will be DC’s HighLine,” I turn to Kratz and say, “By the time you are done, in New York City they’ll be calling the HighLine ‘Manhattan’s 11th Street Bridge Park!’”

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