Our River: The Anacostia

Update on the Upbeat – The 11th Street Bridge Park

Overview of the 11th Street Bridge Park. Photo: OMA+OLIN Design

By now, nearly everyone has heard of the plan to build a broad pedestrian park and entertainment center on the piers of the old 11th Street bridge that were left after the freeway and local roads were rebuilt in the last few years. The idea is to construct a broad band the length of three football fields across the river, connecting Capitol Hill with historic Anacostia through a series of spaces providing recreation, art, and environmental education.

The project is a public/private partnership directed by the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River at THEARC, a Ward 8 facility that houses 10 nonprofits serving the area. The city has already committed $11.45 million to the project, and over a third of the remaining $45 million cost has been raised.

I sat down recently with project director Scott Kratz, an enthusiastic young man with a lot of experience providing programs for youth, most recently at the National Building Museum. He sees the three years ahead of us as pretty well laid out at this point, with the grand opening of the park scheduled for late 2019. He envisions three different sets of parallel activities as essential to long-term success.

First is the construction of the park. The news here is that the DC Department of Transportation will soon begin pre-construction activities. These consist of such essentials as obtaining permits from agencies with authority over the land and water, acquiring rights of way, continued work with the community and the selected architects to refine the design, and load testing of the existing structures. The dramatic winning design was presented by the OMA+OLIN team in 2014.

This phase is predicted to take about 18 months, with construction to begin in mid-2018 and completion scheduled for late 2019. For the first time we have a calendar to measure the steps to public access and use of the park. Meanwhile the bridge to the south of the freeway ramps and adjacent to the park will continue to be open to traffic and pedestrians, so the progress will be on full view.

Second, the project is taking seriously the need to prevent gentrification and pricing out of long-term residents from the neighborhoods around the new park. In similar projects around the country, new civic spaces have brought needed amenities but also raised property values and taxes to the detriment of renters and others in affordable housing. Add to this the comparative demographics of the neighborhoods on the Hill and Anacostia sides of the river, and the need for careful consideration of potential impacts becomes clear. For example, in the area within a mile of the bridge, the west or Capitol Hill side has a median house value of nearly $650,000, and the east or Anacostia side $255.000. Rental units comprise 51 percent on the west side and 73 percent on the east. Even more striking, unemployment is 6.6 percent and child poverty 20 percent on the west side, and 21 percent and 58 percent on the east. 

These findings led the bridge park team to adopt an innovative equitable development plan to deal with employment, small business, and housing.  Workforce development strategies call for giving priority to residents in Wards 6, 7, and 8 and other hard-to-employ prospects in filling construction jobs. They also set the same priorities for post-construction employment in the park.

Strategies call for a network of small businesses to provide food and other services in the completed park. They try to spread the impact of the new park to encourage small businesses in the historic Anacostia neighborhood, especially with respect to vacant city- and privately owned properties. They support development of a small business incubator in the area. Finally, special efforts are called for to connect the park to existing business corridors on both sides of the river. In Anacostia this is focused on the area along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road; on Capitol Hill the challenge is the walkability of the section from the park along 11th Street by the Navy Yard and under the freeway.

Far-reaching and creative solutions will address housing affordability. Some are as simple as creating a system to collect, organize, and publicize affordable housing opportunities to residents in the bridge’s impact area. Others would facilitate purchase of rental units by current residents, as well as construction of new units of affordable housing in the area. In February the Bridge Park began a homebuyer’s club for those seeking to stay and move from rental units to owned homes. Over the summer, the Bridge Park sponsored weekly tenant-rights workshops for residents in Wards 6 and 8. Consideration is being given to form a community land trust, a nonprofit that would own land and provide ground leases for affordable homes whose occupants would save on the portion of property taxes placed on the land. The ideas go on, and for sure there will be many more to help with the challenge of keeping the places around the Bridge Park from becoming islands for the rich.

The equitable development plan is focused on the economics of what happens in the areas around and near the bridge. But the project sees another challenge that needs to be taken on without delay. That is to get people used to coming to the river and using the facilities and enjoying the nature that is there. So the third area of focus for Kratz and his team is to develop programming to start to attract folks. One interesting project is an art installation being prepared by students on both sides of the river at Eastern and Ballou high schools. It will consist of four large sculptures being readied for unveiling on April 9 at the 2017 Anacostia River Festival. They will be placed along the River Trail and speak to the flora and fauna of the area, the role of Native Americans, the historic Navy Yard, and the legacy of Frederick Douglass, who daily walked the 11th Street Bridge to downtown from his home in Anacostia.

Other art projects are underway to draw people and attention to the history and attractions of the Bridge Park and its surroundings. A new art display area of five-by-five-foot frames lighted by LEDs is being installed where Good Hope Road tunnels under I-295. It is planned to be open next April. The Bridge Park, US Navy Museum, and Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District are collaborating on three large wall photos to be placed on the walls of the Navy Yard along 11th Street under the title “Behind These Walls.” A series of urban farmlets is underway to prepare the demonstration beds for the Bridge Park. There are already four farms with 110 raised beds, with plans to add three or four more in 2017.

Friends, we have a lot to look forward to down by the riverside.

Group at work on one of the urban farms. Photo: 11th Street Bridge Park

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.