The Anacostia River Corridor: DC’s Central Park?

Jazz in the Yards Park.


Summertime in the city always makes people seek cool refuge at bodies of water or in the mountains of our region – we annually migrate to the beach, lakes, rivers and mountains for relief from the heat and humidity of the city. Decades ago, Rock Creek Park and the hills of Mount Pleasant often served as the summertime heat relief for DC’s residents if they could not make it to the beaches – it was several degrees cooler in the wooded hills of Northwest DC.


Today, many of us who work or live along the Anacostia River believe this river corridor is becoming the new summertime recreational destination within our city. It certainly has the fundamentals to serve that purpose of an in-town alternative and respite from the heat and humidity of DC – miles of waterfront and access to the river, new parks and green spaces, docks and marinas, a 20-mile riverwalk trail system, and hundreds of acres of wetlands and woodlands that naturally cool our city and neighborhoods. When you attend Friday night concerts in Yards Park, you get the sense that the Anacostia River can be a very special in-town amenity.


Mayor Williams and Director of Planning Andy Altman set this vision in motion with the development of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI) Framework Plan that was adopted as public policy by the DC Council in 2003. That AWI Framework Plan envisioned a clean river that is swimmable and fishable; a parks and riverwalk trail system that provided access to the river; public docks and marinas for water taxis, ferries, canoes, kayaks, and power boats; and access to great park spaces such as the National Arboretum, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and Kingman Island. While the vision of a clean Anacostia River is still years from being achieved, it is underway through a number of projects and regional partnerships. And many of the AWI Plan’s projects have been implemented and we are starting to rediscover the benefits of access to the river, and to new parks and open space along the Anacostia.


Can the Anacostia River corridor become a great waterfront destination for our city and region? Can it offer the variety of recreational and in-town open space amenities that a Central Park has done for New York City? I believe it can as it has enormous possibility through thousands of acres of land, forests, and wetlands that front on the river and comprise some of its islands. When you look at the National Park Service holdings on the south side of the river, as well as the Federal land holdings in the RFK Stadium complex and parking lots, you begin to realize that the footprint of the river corridor and the various public lands is enormous. When taken as a whole and not just a series of parks and improvements it becomes a true destination corridor for recreation and riverfront enjoyment.


I am reminded of a saying put forth regarding the six million acres of the Adirondack Park system – that the Adirondacks are the “lungs” of New York. I believe that the Anacostia River corridor and adjacent public lands can be the “lungs” of Washington, DC, but also a recreational amenity that can serve this city for generations to come. Let’s examine some of the possibilities and real projects.


Kingman Island – this large island just east of RFK sits in the Anacostia River and has been envisioned as a nature preserve and environmental educational center to be operated by Living Classrooms. Imagine the ability to hike, bike, canoe or kayak to a state of the art educational building and nature center on the island that is also a model of green/sustainable design. It will allow children and adults the opportunity to interact with the river and learn of its importance in a larger watershed that connects to the Chesapeake Bay.


RFK Stadium and Parking Lots – While the future of the stadium complex is unknown, it is easy to imagine a majority of the surrounding parking lots being developed as low-impact athletic fields to serve the growing population of children and young adults in our city who play soccer, softball, football and other sports.


Poplar Point – this neighborhood directly across from the Capitol Riverfront has been planned to include a 70+-acre park and wetlands preserve, as well as commercial development and a marina with docks. The balance of nature and water access with a well planned neighborhood development illustrates the appeal of waterfront living and sustainable, mixed use communities.


The National Arboretum – the 370+ acre National Arboretum can be reached by canoe, kayak and pontoon boat from the Anacostia River and is one of the great pastoral open spaces, garden collections and forests in our city. From the Capitol Columns overlook, to the varied gardens and collections of Bonsai and Penching trees, the Arboretum is as varied as it is large and it offers excellent hilltop views of the U.S. Capitol complex and the Anacostia River. The adjacent Langston golf course adds to the pastoral feel of this section of our city and the recreational opportunities of the Anacostia watershed.

The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is the only national park devoted to cultivated water-loving plants. This unique habitat, featuring exotic water lilies and lotus, is an oasis for nature lovers, a haven for walkers, hikers, photographers and birdwatchers and a living laboratory for students of all ages.

Hill East– Proposed as a mixed-use, transit oriented new community on the Hill, the Hill East project is currently on hold but the master plan did designate park space and access to the Anacostia River, as well as a new bridge across the river for Massachusetts Avenue.


Anacostia Riverwalk Trail – this 20 mile long trail system along both banks of the Anacostia River has been more than 50% completed and more segments are scheduled to open soon. The hike/bike trail will ultimately connect the Tidal Basin to the Bladensburg County Park, and users will have the opportunity to cross various bridges to make their experience as long or as short as they want.


Yards Park – this 5.5 acre park has been open since September 2010 and has become a regional waterfront destination. It allows public access to a section of the Anacostia Riverfront where the public had not been permitted since the 1890s. Considered the “front porch” of our neighborhood, Yards Park offers great views of the river, water features and a wading pool, the River Street Gardens, the Great Lawn, a wonderful boardwalk, and the River Terrace Steps and an overlook plaza for picnicking.


The Anacostia Boathouse – this boathouse located just north of the Sousa Bridge is the headquarters for high school and college crews that practice rowing on the river. Almost every day one can witness some of the crews on the river as they practice for their next race.


The Wharf – this project in the SW Waterfront will result in a transformation of the current waterfront with three new piers, a new public wharf along the Washington Channel, approximately 5 million square feet of new development including residential, hotel, office, and retail/restaurant uses, and a new park near the Titanic Memorial. While Kingman Island is a pastoral riverfront escape, the Wharf is an urban edge with a mix of uses along the channel. The three new piers will invite users out into the channel to experience the water and a variety of activities.


All of these projects illustrate the scope and vision of the AWI Framework Plan, and how important this river corridor can be to our city. Many of these projects are very significant in their own right – taken together they are a string of destinations that invite you to experience the Anacostia as a recreational, educational and waterfront asset. Many organizations, government agencies and nonprofits are all collaborating to clean up the Anacostia and its watershed, and progress is being made each year. I want to thank all these groups for their commitment to and perseverance in this mission.


Central Park is an icon of New York and a great benefit to the citizens of that city; it is the breathing space that they need, but also the great green space in which to attend concerts, picnic, run, roller blade, bike, walk, play sports, and visit cultural attractions in one of the great urban parks in the US. The Anacostia River corridor, wetlands and park spaces have the opportunity to be just as significant to our city – and to create recreational, economic, tourism, water quality, and healthy community benefits for us all in the process. 


The Anacostia River corridor is in the beginning stages of becoming a significant linear green space and river corridor to our city that allows us to breathe, to engage the water, to enjoy recreational and educational activities, to exercise, and just to be outdoors and escape the heat and humidity. It is a grand vision of which we are starting to see the initial achievements. There is much more to come, and the clean-up of the river will take another 15-20 years. But it will be worth the wait as a healthy river and wetlands environs makes for healthy communities. And to paraphrase Daniel Burnham, the architect of Union Station – “Make no little plans for they have no power to inspire our imagination.”



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