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Anacostia River 'bridge park' aims to bring people back to river

Anacostia River 'bridge park' aims to bring people back to river

Cover image: An artist's rendering shows the paddle craft launching area planned for the Anacostia River "bridge park" in the District of Columbia, scheduled to break ground in 2023. (Building Bridges Across the River)

In Washington, DC, the Anacostia River has long been a de facto border, splitting communities along economic and racial divides. But an ambitious new park project breaking ground later this year aims to overcome those boundaries by building a bridge that’s both physical and metaphorical.

In the process, the 11th Street Bridge Park intends to reimagine the river crosses as a focal point for recreation — just as water quality improvements are beginning to bear fruit.

“For the last hundred years, we’ve really turned our backs to the river. We’ve done a pretty good job of building as many barriers as we can between humans and water,” said Scott Kratz, director of the park project and senior vice president of the nonprofit behind it, Building Bridges Across the River. 

“We’ve told people for decades, ‘Don’t go down to the river,’ and they listened,” he said. “[But] the river is ready for a comeback.”

The $92 million project, scheduled for completion by late 2025 or early 2026, will be the first elevated park in the nation’s capital. Stretching the length of about three football fields across the Anacostia River, the “bridge park” will connect the city’s Navy Yard with the Anacostia neighborhood in Southeast DC.

On the southeast side of the river, the park will connect to the U.S. National Park Service’s Anacostia Park, which already offers bicycle and walking paths. Here, the bridge park will add a 250-seat amphitheater, an environmental education center run by the Anacostia Watershed Society and plots for urban agriculture. A dock for kayak and canoe launches will stretch into the river near the existing walkways.

Viewed from the downstream side, the bridge will strike an X-shape across the river, with wide walkways that rise from each side to crisscross at the center. The Navy Yard side will add green space to a heavily developed landscape. Elevated “river gardens” will grow along the path.

Rendering of Anacostia River "bridge park" walkways

This illustration shows how the 11th Street Bridge Park in the District of Columbia will integrate river access with the nearby Anacostia Park, a national park. (Building Bridges Across the River)

Plaza areas with views of the river, a café and community room will occupy the center of the bridge. The Anacostia end will feature an 11,000-square-foot play space called “mussel beach.” Large concrete climbers there will be shaped like mussel shells and driftwood.

“The entire park will be a place of environmental education,” Kratz said.

About half of the funding for the park came from the city. The nonprofit has raised the rest, with about $10 million to go to reach the $92 million needed to complete construction, Kratz said. That’s in addition to $86 million the nonprofit has already invested in the local community to help ensure it thrives alongside the future park.

How it started

The project was conceived more than a decade ago, when plans were finalized to add a new double bridge parallel to the 11th Street span. The new bridge connects the Anacostia Freeway (295) with the Southeast Freeway (now Interstate 695), while the old bridge continues to carry traffic between Anacostia and 11th Street. The old bridge will continue to carry local traffic, and its extra-wide piers, which extend from the downstream side, will accommodate the new bridge park.

Inspiration for the idea came from the 2009 opening of the first section of New York City's High Line, a nearly 1.5-mile-long park built on a former elevated railway line. Harriet Tregoning, then a DC city planner, wondered if the 11th Street Bridge's extended concrete piers could be used as the base for the park.

She asked Kratz, then a vice president for education at the National Building Museum, to lead the project, initially as a volunteer. But he soon realized two things: Guiding this project would be a full-time job, and it desperately needed to be led by people from the community it aimed to serve.

Scott Kratz, Building Bridges Across the River

Scott Kratz, senior vice president of the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River, hopes the Anacostia River “bridge park” in the District of Columbia will draw people back to the river and help unite communities.

Within a few years of the High Line’s opening in New York, it became apparent that the elevated park would be “a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrifications in the city’s history,” as one writer put it in a New York Times op-ed. Before the project, the Chelsea area near the city’s industrial areas was predominantly inhabited by low-income residents and residents of color. A 2020 study found that homes closest to the High Line increased in value by more than 35% after the project was installed (and some increased by 100% as luxury condos flocked to the area).

That study and others call the phenomenon of property values rising in the wake of new space and parklike amenities “eco-gentrification.” As often as not, housing prices rise dramatically in and around “improved” neighborhoods, and the original residents can no longer afford to live there.

DC residents have seen this happen across the city, most recently along its H Street and U Street corridors. And it’s the very thing Kratz wanted to avoid with the 11th Street Bridge Park, which will bring green space, parkland and amenities within walking distance of neighborhoods on both sides of the river.

But the two sides of the river are demographically very different. West of the river, near the Nationals Stadium in Ward 6, the median household income is $129,000 and the population is evenly split between White residents and residents of color. East of the river, in Ward 8, the median household income is $45,000, and 92% of residents are Black.

Brenda Richardson, a community activist who’s lived in Ward 8 for 59 years, was the deputy chief of staff for City Councilmember Marion Barry when the idea for the park was first floated. She said Barry and others were initially skeptical but told Kratz that “if you can convince Ward 8 residents this is something they should do, then [we] will support it.”

Kratz took those marching orders to heart. Over the next ten years, he had more than 1,000 meetings with the people who would be most impacted by the bridge park and that stood to benefit if it could be done well.

Those conversations led to significant investment in the community near the park to prevent gentrification once it opens.

Community meeting for Anacostia "bridge park"

A workforce development team meets to discuss the employment potential of the 11th Street Bridge Park in the District of Columbia. Many meetings took place over the course of ten years with the communities that would be most impacted by the new park.

Since 2015, programs under this umbrella have created a community land trust and acquired, in an area dominated by renters, properties dedicated to affordable housing.

They’ve helped more than 100 Ward 8 residents become homeowners. They’ve funneled investments in workforce development and grants to local, Black-owned businesses and the arts.

Programs have prioritized urban agriculture in an area where about 75,000 residents have access to just one grocery store. And they’ve trained 150 east-of-the-river residents in construction so they can potentially work on the park project.

“So when our builder comes to us and says, ‘We want to hire local and we’re breaking ground in two weeks,’ we can say, ‘Here’s a list,’” Kratz said.

The equitable development plan has invested more than $86 million in the community in advance of construction activity. That wasn’t the original plan, Kratz said, but it’s become an example of how projects like this across the country can improve underserved communities without displacing residents.

“The model he has created is just extraordinary,” Richardson said. “[It] demonstrates that, when you build something of this magnitude, it doesn’t have to sweep across a disfavored community with displacement.”

How it’s going

The Anacostia Watershed Society has a goal for the river to become swimmable and fishable by 2025, which is now less than two years away.

“When I first started this work, that was a guaranteed laugh line,” Kratz said. But water quality testing near the bridge in recent years, he said, has demonstrated that the river was swimmable on about 150 days last year. “No one is laughing now.”

A preview of how the bridge park might be received once it’s built is the Anacostia River Festival, which Building Bridges Across the River has hosted almost every year since 2015 at Anacostia Park. The festival is expected to draw more than 8,000 people on May 20 this year.

Anacostia "bridge park" aerial rendering

The Anacostia River “bridge park,” shown here in an artist's rendering, will be the first elevated park in the nation’s capital, connecting the Navy Yard with the Anacostia neighborhood in Southeast DC. (Building Bridges Across the River)

Dennis Chestnut, a lifelong resident of Ward 7, also east of the Anacostia, ran the nonprofit Groundwork Anacostia River DC for years, and said inviting residents to help plan the festival has laid the groundwork for their participation in the bridge project.

“[In the past], there were things that would come to the community very late in the stages of planning,” Chestnut said. “Folks would have their plans and say, ‘This is what we plan to do.’”

For this year’s festival, portions of one of Anacostia’s main streets will close to accommodate booths of artists and local businesses. A mobile small business kiosk will be among them, as well as several local restaurants offering a “Taste of Ward 8.”

“We want to make sure the park is deeply stitched into the surrounding neighborhoods, and that one of the primary entrance ways to the park is right here in the historic epicenter of Anacostia,” Kratz said.

From there, the park will be one of the latest projects drawing residents back to a river that was for years not considered worth the walk. Developments on the west side of the river in Yards Park and on Southwest Waterfront, along with costly water quality improvement projects, have already brought people closer to the water line. Could this park take it one step further, creating a bridge that brings people together?

“That’s a key goal — how do we bring together people who wouldn’t otherwise connect?” Kratz said. “At a time when we’re such a divided country and city, I think we all need more places where we can connect.”

(1) comment

Jim Cummins

Very nice design and a good mix of green cover. It is good to see the trees on the shore which is currently primarily grass. The Green Bridge over the Anacostia River will hopefully become an icon for DC.

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