April 18, 2017

D.C. has an ambitious plan to transform a bridge into a vibrant public space

The 11th Street Bridge Park does more than connect disparate neighborhoods; the community-led process hopes to spur inclusive development

Illustrations of the 11th Street Bridge Park are courtesy of the architectural firms OMA and OLIN, whose design was selected in a competition to design the space over the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.

Washington D.C.’s Wards 6 and 8 are right next to each other, but the two could not be more different. The former is home to the U.S. Congress and the Washington Navy Yard; the latter, just across the Anacostia River, is an economically-depressed food desert, with child poverty rates hovering around 50 percent.

A new park, projected to open in late 2019, aims to serve as a bridge between the two communities—literally. Over the past few years, the 11th Street Bridge Park, a project of the local nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River, has pursued an ambitious agenda: transforming a decommissioned bridge over the Anacostia River into a park. The $45 million project, roughly three football fields long, will feature educational spaces, art installations, green and recreation spaces, and a cafe.

Community space will feature artwork honoring local heroes.

But beyond the challenges of simply constructing the park, the nonprofit must also carefully balance the needs of the two communities it brings together.

It’s easy to draw parallels between the 11th Street Bridge Park and New York City’s High Line, a public park built on a repurposed elevated railway. Both repurpose existing architecture in the name of public space. But while the High Line has become one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions, its impact on the surrounding neighborhood is controversial: housing prices in buildings around the park have skyrocketed, and the park is predominantly used by tourists, not locals.

The shadow of the High Line looms over the 11th Street Bridge Park. Scott Kratz, the 11th Street Bridge Park Director, has gone to great lengths to ensure that this project does not befall the same fate. Beyond the obvious benefits of a new park, Kratz has pushed for secondary initiatives that ensure that the park serves Ward 8.

There will be plenty of space for recreation along the river, including a boat launch.

“We’ve had well over a thousand meetings with the community,” says Kratz. “Even before we began engaging a single architect or a single landscape architect we went to the community and asked: ‘Should we do this?’”

Kratz held up the Equitable Development Plan—written over the course of a nearly year-long process led by community members—as an example of how to make local stakeholders integral parts of change in the community. The Plan lays out actionable strategies to mitigate negative change that the new park might invite. For example, the Plan led to the creation of a home buyers club and community land trust in response to research that showed property prices increasing from 5 to 40 percent in the vicinity of similar developments.

Other pillars of the plan focus on employing Ward 8 residents in the construction of the park, and integrating local businesses into the network of vendors operating on park after it opens. “We’ve been spending the last year and a half implementing those plans,” Kratz said.

A substantial amount of fundraising has gone into putting those words into action. The 11th Street Bridge Park has already raised $1.5 million towards implementation of the Equitable Development Plan, and last year, LISC DC, a local community development organization, committed $50 million towards investment in the community in a 1-mile area around the new park.

“Think about that! That’s $50 million,” says Kratz. “That’s more than the bricks and mortar, the cost to build this park.”

Ultimately, Kratz believes that to enter into and work with a community, you need to develop a sense of trust: “Building trust takes time. Building trust is about shared experiences over time. And it’s only by showing up again and again and again … that you can start bringing people together.”

Kratz was in D.C. on March 30 to join the district’s Mike Curtin, CEO of DC Central Kitchen, and Andy Shallal, Founder and CEO of Busboys and Poets, for a discussion on building community at the local level. This was part of The Renewal Summit, an event presented by The Atlantic and underwritten by Allstate. (The Renewal Project is brought to you by Allstate.) Featured speakers also included federal lawmakers, business leaders, and nonprofit leaders. This conversation was moderated by The Atlantic’s Gillian White. Watch a video of that conversation above.

Editor’s note: this post has been updated to reflect the latest timeline for the opening of the 11th Street Bridge Park. It is now scheduled to open in late 2019.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.
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