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Public Spaces

Streetcar could make "recreation bridge" an active place

Would turning one of the old 11th Street bridges into a recreation destination work wonders for DC residents' health or just create an empty spaces nobody uses? The difference might turn on the streetcar.

Image from the Office of Planning.

The Office of Planning and other DC agencies are pondering ways to reuse one of the two spans of the old 11th Street bridge. A $350 million project to build a new set of bridges between the old is almost complete, and DDOT will then demolish the old bridges. But could these become an iconic public space for DC—DC's "High Line"?

At a community forum last night on this "recreation bridge" concept, planning director Harriet Tregoning listed a number of ideas for ways to reuse the bridge. It could have spaces for arts, including performing arts and sculpture. One community member suggested putting on a light show at a specified time on certain nights or every night.

"Active recreation," like a climbing wall, zip line, and many activities for kids could improve health in a part of the city where many kids are not as healthy as they should be. Autumn Saxton-Ross from the Department of Health said that having spaces for play creates "whole children who develop into whole adults."

The bridge could contain community gardens that grow food, a place for food trucks to hold festivals like Truckeroo, or even trees; an avid community gardener who lives in the area emphasized that last one, as it gets quite hot in the summer and a bridge is exposed to the elements.

Then there is the streetcar. Problems between DDOT and the US Department of Transportation scuttled tracks on the new local bridge now under construction, at least for now, but perhaps that would open up a new opportunity to put the tracks on this "recreation bridge."

Making this bridge succeed might not be easy. A bridge is a very big space; this one is over 1000 feet long. It's in the middle of the river, and connects 2 neighborhoods of only moderate density. Even from them, there's a substantial walk to reach to the bridge itself.

Therefore, any use will have to attract people who are deliberately going to the bridge as a destination, rather than people just wandering by or popping over between work and dinner. It will need to have enough different activities to keep the bridge busy most of the day, every day, lest it turn into a dead space or a haven for crime.

Or maybe there is a way to mix active uses with people who are just passing through? If the streetcar traverses this bridge, and stops a few times along the way, it could make the bridge be more of a continuous connector between Capitol Hill and Anacostia. The bridge could get a cafe or two. It would create "eyes on the street" (or bridge), draw the bridge much closer to surrounding neighborhoods, and bring potential users of the bridge's activities passing right by every day.

The bridge would also get closer to surrounding areas if the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail could remain open more of the time. The Navy Yard now allows people to walk and bike past the base during the day every day, which is more than they initially promised. But can it be open all of the time?

A representative from DMPED was optimistic. He said that the Navy Yard now actually finds it somewhat of a burden to open and close the trail every day, and would like to avoid that responsibility. They've also added more security along that edge of the yard, making them more comfortable just allowing public access along that side. He gave no firm details, but it sounds like residents can hope for a 24-hour trail in the future.

As for the bridge, DDOT already gave out a contract to demolish the 2 old bridges. Tregoning said that while DC could try to renegotiate and keep the existing bridge structure, it's in very bad shape. Instead, they will just keep the piers, since those are very expensive to plant in the river, and remove the entire deck.

Another benefit of removing the deck is that a new one needn't be a simple rectangle. Maybe it will take a different shape. It could be thinner, or wider, or some of each in different places. Maybe it can connect in a few places to the new local road, bike, and pedestrian bridge that's being built right next to it.

OP is hoping to start a national design competition this summer, to find the most creative designs from anyone, anywhere.

The bridge project will probably cost around $25-35 million. That's only a tenth of the cost of the highway bridge project, but it's not pocket change, and DC has many other priorities as well. For this reason, they hope to attract private money, either from local organizations or national foundations. For a project which could become an icon for DC, many may be quite interested.

Getting the streetcar onto the bridge would take some creative thinking, too. The new bridges are using some of the space that's now approach ramps to the old bridge. That means there won't necessarily be a smooth and direct approach to the "recreation bridge" on each side. We'll have to wait for a later design phase to find out if there's even a way to get a streetcar on and off the bridge.

The residents in the room were overall either very eager at least open-minded. Some seemed to primarily come to the meeting to ensure that the vehicular bridge was going to open on time and that nothing was changing with that plan. Others were bursting with ideas.

Right now, this project largely seems to be taking advantage of an opportunity. I can imagine Tregoning sitting in a meeting, hearing a status update about the bridge, and suddenly saying, "Wait a minute! We have this bridge over the Anacostia and we're just going to rip it out? When the District is so concerned with figuratively bridging east and west of the river and there are so many needs especially on the east side?"

So far, all the government proposes to do is essentially preserve a bunch of piers to make it far cheaper to build a recreational bridge. Whether something ever gets built is up to residents, leaders, and designers to figure out a way to make it a great public space worthy of the investment.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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The Stone Arch Bridge is a great example of a successful bridge closed to traffic. It is very popular.

by Slim on Mar 29, 2012 10:45 am • linkreport

Oops, I forgot to say that the Stone Arch Bridge is in Minneapolis. It crosses the Mississippi River.

by Slim on Mar 29, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

Two words:

New York High Line.

Ok that's four words, but never doubt the draw of a repurposed bridge.

by Jack Love on Mar 29, 2012 10:48 am • linkreport

The NYC High Line has three critical things going for it that a bridge over a river doesn't have: 1) It is surrounded by a dense, active urban area 2) it has many places to get on/off 3) It has little competition from nearby open areas.

Meanwhile, at Stone Arch Bridge, although 2800 feet long ( it has no pretense (or expense) of being a park. It is purely a way to get across the river.

You might think of the DC bridge as the best of both. I think David Alpert is right in worrying that it is the worst of both: Too isolated to be a park, too wide to be a bike path.

by Kevin C on Mar 29, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

This is not as simple as one might think. The design of the new bridge includes on and off ramps for the new spans in the area where the existing spans touch down, so keeping the existing downriver span would probably require a redesign of some of the planned ramps. The new downriver span will connect 11th Street and MLK, while the old span no longer will, so putting the streetcar on the old span would require further redesign. And finally, the new downriver span includes a 16-foot wide walkway on the downriver side that is supposed to provide an attractive way to walk or bike between Capital Hill and Anacostia, and leaving the existing span would block views from this walkway.For more information on the design, check out some of the PDFs posted at

by Christine on Mar 29, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

1. This is never going to happen. This thing is slated to be demo'd this summer and DMPED can wish all they like but no one has run this by the contractor yet. Changing the scope to leave the piers intact will actually cost more, not less than removing it all because they would have to take expensive precautions not to damage them as they remove the deck.
2. Bad location, no connectivity to anything that would allow it to be used as a park, which this town isn't exactly lacking in as it is.
3. That approximately 30 million will turn into 40-50 million and even IF they rushed around and changed the contractors scope to leave the piers, this thing would die the death of a million cuts.
4. Just in the event you missed number 1, this is never going to happen. When the Mayor is suffering for a vocal barrage from his base for cutting HHS funds by ~10 million and underfunding (as they see it) the school budget this year by a couple percent, there is no way he is going to even try to find the 50 million plus to build this.

by bridge on Mar 29, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport

Kevin: judging from your comments about the Stone Arch Bridge, I gather you have never been there. Especially with regards to your claim that it has "no opretense or expense of being a park". That said, you are correct in your High Line points.

by Froggie on Mar 29, 2012 12:07 pm • linkreport

I tend to agree with Bridge's comments. I think the only way to save this bridge is to allow a private entity to spend the likely $50M needed to create it and let them do mostly whatever they want on it. It just doesn't seem like the best use of parks & rec money for the city to do it and also seems like putting all your parks & rec eggs in one basket.

Maybe Snyder will pay for it and put the Redskins practice facility there. Or, allow some developer to make it into a light industrial area.

That said, I don't know if the economics add up. Let's say the bridge is 1000 x 200 feet (200,000 square feet). If it costs $50M to develop, that's $250 per square foot which sounds expensive for what you're getting.

by Falls Church on Mar 29, 2012 1:57 pm • linkreport

There are literally dozens of other things in this area that I'd rather see than this bridge.

Extend Mass Ave. Put a bike/ped path along the CSX rail bridge. Build the streetcar on the local span of the new 11th St Bridge. Any of these things would cost less, and would bring significantly more benefits to the community.

It doesn't even connect "2 neighborhoods of moderate density," like the author suggests. The closest two residential structures on either side of the river are still over 0.8 miles apart from each other. And that's the absolute best case scenario.

The proponents of this idea are massively overstating the number of people who live (or who even can live -- the area has limited development potential for a myriad of reasons) at either end of the bridge.

by andrew on Mar 29, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

"Build the streetcar on the local span of the new 11th St Bridge."

in its own ROW, or shared?

"The new downriver span will connect 11th Street and MLK, while the old span no longer will, so putting the streetcar on the old span would require further redesign."

sure, at what cost (for the construction, not just the redesign

even if its costlier to do the street car on the old span, than on the new span - IF its not that much more, IF it gets a transit only ROW, and IF it adds recreational space as well, it might be worth it.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 29, 2012 2:25 pm • linkreport

Kevin C - I'd add a fourth reason to your list. The High Line has a huge amount of private backing/funding which would be difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The High Line is not a "low-maintenance" park - there is a lot going on and many employees. Without the money to maintain the art/fixtures and pay the employees, the High Line would be much, much less than it is.

With the density of the surrounding area, I'm sure there is great benefit in NY but how many municipalities can afford a park with as much O&M (Operations and Maintenance) as the High Line has?

by HighLiner on Mar 29, 2012 3:26 pm • linkreport

No one ever seems to consider the use of the river in all this. A bridge/park there could easily be used for the parents who come out to crew regattas on the Anacostia.

In turn, maybe there could/would be more regattas there if the area were more attractive. Watching the races from the park in Anacostia is awkward in some ways.

There are also dragon races and lots of other water activities that could be encouraged in the area (as they are on the Potomac in Georgetown....

by Hag of Beare on Mar 29, 2012 3:38 pm • linkreport

I agree with AWalkerintheCity that by combining the streetcar with this then you have a stronger economic justification to move the project forward, since the f* up with not being able to put the streetcar on the new 11th Street bridge otherwise seriously compromises the value and utility of streetcar service in Anacostia and links to a broader network.

Then you can get some DOT money for it, it's not strictly a parks project.

But development of this project needs to be tied to a TIF district created to support development at Poplar Point, and should be part of an update to/(re)development of a Comprehensive Plan for what we might call the Anacostia River District.



WRT "the private sector", um, for the "private sector" to do something like this there needs to be positive economic return. It's not that there won't be, but it isn't the same as the High Line because the High Line is located within a dense urban setting and had plenty of properties along it that could be adaptively reused.

(There is a nice graphic on the High Line in the Toronto Globe & Mail right now: .)

Even so, the neighborhood hasn't been supportive on the creation of a special taxing district to support the High Line's maintenance and expansion.


by Richard Layman on Mar 29, 2012 4:21 pm • linkreport

Can you fit a soccer stadium on a new bridge?

The points made above by "bridge" are salient and an important caution. However, the idea is fantastic. I've walked the So. Capitol bridge a few times, from Nats games when I parked at the Anacostia metro. That's a long hike, but it's an even longer hike from the end of the span to civilization (such as it is...kidding.).

Having done that, I can say that the only thing that would make the bridge a destination is 2 or 3 streetcar stops on the span. It's fun to imagine a Ponte Vecchio-like structure with all sorts of activity on it, but the Ponte Vecchio isn't long, it's flat, and the neighborhoods come right up to the bridge.

If you want foot traffic on this reimagined bridge, you have to get people there. The streetcar would be the key. It could be a symbiotic project given the trouble they're having in extending the Anacostia line across the river. Enhanced value for each project and all that. Otherwise, it'll just be a grandiose and insanely expensive bike and rollerblading path.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Mar 29, 2012 6:06 pm • linkreport

On funding it -- I imagine some federal transportation dollars could go into this. A special taxing district? Not sure you'll get the business expansion the city would like to see happen at Poplar Point, if you throw in a heavy tax burden. My guess is the opposite will be needed -- tax incentives to get businesses to locate on the "wrong" side of the Anacostia. The real point is that this would be a way to get the streetcar done. While it may not pay for itself, it will go a long way towards that end, if it helps turn Anacostia into a healthy community contributing to the tax base -- and the recreation bridge would be a big boost to the Navy Yard development, which could use some more help, too.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Mar 29, 2012 6:13 pm • linkreport

@froggie. I haven't been there, but from all I know, MSP's Stone Arch Bridge is hard-topped from guardrail-to-guardrail, and really is a 28 foot wide, pure walk-and bike transportation It may be administered as a park and connect parks on both shores, but the bridge *itself* is not park-like.

Contrast that with the grasslands and greenery, meandering path and many on/offs on the High Line. That's a park.

I'd estimate the recreation bridge is 60 feet wide. It will be hard to fill with people from just the endpoints, and so it could end up being a boulevard though Pyongyang, or Boston City Hall Plaza, and not a comfortable place to be.

by Kevin C on Mar 29, 2012 7:09 pm • linkreport

The existing plan calls for leaving the existing down river piers of the old bridge intact, and to have pedestrian walkways built out over them from the new bridge, so we're already getting ways to enjoy the river, view the boats at the Navy Yard, go fishing (the end piers will be lowered closer to the water surface), etc. That is already in the contract and paid for. Work is due to happen this fall or next spring, but this recreation bridge talk could postpone it until it never happens at all.

by Dale1 on Mar 30, 2012 7:28 am • linkreport

WRT "the private sector", um, for the "private sector" to do something like this there needs to be positive economic return.

If $250 per square foot (my rough estimate of the cost of the project based on the data above) is considered too high a price by the private sector, why isn't it too high a price for the public sector? The only reason for paying above market value for the space is if we think the public sector can develop it into something of significantly greater utility than the private sector. That may potentially be the case, but being the highest bidder on anything based on the belief that you will be able to wring out more synergies than anyone else, comes with a high degree of risk (and a certain amount of hubris).

by Falls Church on Mar 30, 2012 11:24 am • linkreport

bridge, in every thing I've seen about the 11th Street bridge, stretching back several years before work began, the piers have always been left as is. In early designs they were going to build catwalks from the sidewalks out to overlooks at the piers - with Osprey nest platforms on the the end points. Where do you get info that the current contract involves taking the piers down? And why would that be MORE expensive? It seems like at worst it would cost the same.

by David C on Apr 2, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

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