Capitol Riverfront

Connections to a Larger AWI Plan

A Grand Vision: Water Is Magic

Perhaps Loren Eiselysaid it best: “If there is magic on this planet it is contained in water.” Water is magic, and people want to be connected to our riverfronts and have opportunities to engage the Anacostia River as a recreational asset. The 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI) plan envisioned a clean Anacostia River with adjacent healthy communities and connections to a constellation of destinations along the river. I have often commented that this vision, when implemented, can create our version of Central Park on the eastern half of the city. It would be a river corridor of parks, open spaces, and outdoor recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike. It also was envisioned as connecting two sides of a city and bringing economic development to the east side of the District. The AWI plan was adopted as public policy, and while portions have been realized, other elements remain unfulfilled.

Connections to the river are a principal component of the AWI plan and have been made along the almost two-mile shoreline of the Capitol Riverfront. Major reconstruction projects, such as the 11th Street Bridges and the future rebuild of the South Capitol Street Bridge, will enhance auto, pedestrian, and bicycle connectivity. Many components of the 20-mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail system have been built, and the remaining gaps are being planned for construction. The Wharf project on the Southwest Waterfront will provide an urban and very exciting engagement of the Washington Channel, with three new piers giving visitors access to the channel’s waters.

But are we truly connecting the string of destinations along the Anacostia River as was envisioned by the AWI plan? Think of the destination assets that could be connected in a meaningful way:

  • Tidal Basin and Washington Channel
  • Buzzard Point and Anacostia Park
  • Yards Park and Capitol Riverfront
  • Poplar Point
  • Hill East and Congressional Cemetery
  • National Park Service (NPS) lands at RFK Stadium
  • Kingman Island
  • National Arboretum
  • Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

The recent release of proposed concepts for the redevelopment of the RFK site and adjacent NPS lands illustrate great vision for the east side of the Anacostia and those publicly held lands. But the concepts have little reference or proposed connection to the Park Service’s Anacostia Park on the west side of the river. And while the National Arboretum is an approximately 400-acre botanical garden along the Anacostia, there is no direct connection to it from the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens across the river. There is a boat dock on the river for the arboretum, but the public knows little of it as an access point from the Anacostia. A pedestrian and bicycle bridge proposed to connect these two park assets has yet to be built.

Poplar Point has long been envisioned as a new neighborhood, with a 78-acre park and wetlands preserve and approximately 17 million square feet of new commercial, residential, and retail development serving the Anacostia neighborhood. A park and wetlands would provide direct access to the river’s edge and offer new outdoor recreational opportunities, while connecting into the overall trail system. The costs of environmental cleanup of the site, as well as infrastructure enhancement, however, have delayed the project. It is a key piece of the AWI vision to revitalize neighborhoods, create new ones, and provide direct connections to the Anacostia, but it remains unfunded and unfulfilled – a “gap” in our riverfront experience.

Kingman Island is another example of a natural resource with direct river frontage that remains aspirational but with no path forward for the development of an environmental/nature center and docks for canoes and kayaks. Underused as a park facility and a nature preserve, Kingman could be a shining example of nature in the middle of the city.

It seems we have realized only a portion of the potential of the AWI vision that was adopted 13 years ago. Envisioned as a 25-year plan, it lost some of its initial momentum when the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation was dissolved by the Fenty administration. Many residents have asked what has happened to that plan and its implementation.

An Example in the Making

The Capitol Riverfront neighborhood and Yards Park are a good example of what can happen alongside the river when public/private partnerships work in harmony and strategic public investments occur to stimulate private investment. While our neighborhood and its growth are not directly responsible for the cleanup of the river, many environmental-sustainability and low-impact design measures help with the control and natural filtration of storm water run-off.

What our neighborhood does illustrate is the opportunity of connecting people to the Anacostia River through parks, open spaces, marinas, and the riverwalk trail system. Yards Park, Diamond Teague Park & Piers, and the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail system have been instrumental in connecting people to the river. We have seen increased activity on the river’s edge in our neighborhood as a result of the parks, outdoor concerts, boating, and use of the trail system. Forest City is building a marina in front of Yards Park that will increase the number of boat slips on the river. The Ballpark Boathouse at Diamond Teague Park is open for business for kayak rentals that allow for an up-close and personal exploration of the river. Programming at Yards Park has reintroduced the Anacostia River to the public and allowed access to the water’s edge.

Partnerships to Implement

The District’s Department of Transportation, in concert with the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and the District’s Department of Energy and the Environment, still oversees implementation of aspects of the AWI plan such as the riverwalk trail, the 11th Street Bridges project, and construction of the new South Capitol Street Bridge. Many of these projects are complicated undertakings and together will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. There is a need for additional coordination and a driver of new momentum if we are going to achieve all the plan’s goals.

A new player in this equation has emerged as a facilitator and advocate for the Anacostia River corridor and its ultimate success. The Anacostia Waterfront Trust, a project of the Federal City Council and former Mayor Anthony Williams and Doug Siglin, has been established as a nonprofit to help push projects to completion and serve as a voice for the river’s cleanup and full utilization of adjacent public lands. The trust “is dedicated to creating a vibrant and inclusive waterfront on the Anacostia River for all citizens to enjoy.” It focuses on three elements:

  • improving and activating thewaterfront parklands;
  • accelerating the process of making the river clean, healthy, and usable;
  • helping to improve the quality of life of the current residents of adjoining communities, particularly those east of the Anacostia.

Much like the Trust for the National Mall established by Chip Akridge, the Anacostia Waterfront Trust will work with the DC government, National Park Service, and other partners to develop a unified vision and a step-by-step plan. Efforts are underway involving a variety of DC government agencies, tireless nonprofits working on behalf of the river, and other community stakeholders. The trust hopes to add an overall coordinating voice and bring new momentum to the cleanup and revitalization of the Anacostia River.

Much work remains to be done, but a glimpse into the river’s future and its potential can be seen during a Friday night concert at Yards Park, as well as in the adjacent redevelopment efforts, which have created a new, mixed-use neighborhood on the river. That vision will also soon be manifested in the completion of Phase I of The Wharf, an urban engagement of the Washington Channel.

But there still are connectivity issues, from bridges to parks to completion of the riverwalk trail system and the realization of new neighborhoods like Poplar Point. Many public lands along the river corridor remain underused, overlooked, or unconnected to the public. Mayor Williams and the Anacostia Waterfront Trust hope to reinvigorate the AWI-plan efforts and bring new momentum to achieving the vision.

Water is magic, and we as residents of the District deserve a world-class waterfront that connects us to the magic of water and the opportunities of adjacent park lands.

Michael Stevens is a board member of the Anacostia Waterfront Trust and president of the Capitol Riverfront BID.

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