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Honor Frederick Douglass and DC with a worthy new bridge design

The Federick Douglass Bridge, which carries South Capitol Street over the Anacostia, will soon be rebuilt. It's on one of DC's main axes from the Capitol and honors a singular champion of the rights of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, or sex. But the result, so far, is an anticlimactic highway bridge that hunkers down instead of soaring.

The most recent design for the bridge. All images from DDOT.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is in charge of replacing the 64-year-old rusting, pothole-filled bridge. DDOT's "preferred" design, produced in 2011, is the "arched bascule" (a seesaw-like drawbridge).

Originally, the new bridge was supposed to look like this:

Original "arched bascule" design.

It's not bad, but is basically a draftsman's modernized copy of the architecturally distinguished, neoclassical Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River that is a symbolic affirmation of a reunited North and South.

Doesn't Douglass deserve to be honored with an original design, one that's a visual metaphor for Douglass' very modern vision of human rights and its central place in the national narrative? (The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery recognized Douglass as one of its 100 paragons of "American Cool" in an exhibition open now until Sept. 7.)

The bridge design got worse on December 31, 2012, when Mayor Gray unveiled a design that eliminated the drawbridge feature to cut the $660 million in costs by $160 million. The change removed most of the graceful—albeit not soaring—curve of the arches. The result was the design at the top of this post.

What happened? I put the question to Sanjay Kumar, Anacostia Waterfront Initiative program manager for DDOT, in March 2013. Kumar's answer:

One of biggest concerns with the new bridge is the poor soil conditions that exist in the project area. These poor foundation conditions make construction of a deep arch structure such as the Memorial Bridge highly expensive due to the significant weight of such a structure.
When DDOT sought approval of the design by the US Commission of Fine Arts last September, members disparaged it, saying it was "little advanced from the nearby uninspired highway bridges built in the last six decades, including the existing Frederick Douglass Bridge and the recently completed 11th Street bridge." The CFA deferred action and called on DDOT to produce an "inspired" and "bolder" look.

"This is something we can work toward," then-DDOT Chief Engineer Ronaldo Nicholson was quoted saying in the Washington Business Journal. The agency formed several design teams to come up with an answer to CFA's criticisms. But it also has to watch the ever-rising overall budget for the bridge. Deeper arches, as Kumar said, would be "highly expensive."

It looks like a Hobson's choice, but actually there's a way for the District to produce an inspired and bolder look, and within budget. DDOT doesn't have to go back to the drawing board. All it has to do is go into its filing cabinets and take out this "stayed-cable design." The cables soar soar high beyond their anchors—a perfectly fitting metaphor for Douglass.

Cable-stayed design.

DDOT determined, in its environmental analysis, that the cable-stayed design is in the same price range as the arched bascule design. So cost is not an issue. DDOT officials said they chose the arched bascule because it fit in with other bridges crossing the Anacostia and Potomac. But when it turned out that the proposed arch would require a more expensive foundation, they made the arches shallower instead of changing course entirely.

Why don't the DDOT designers take the short drive from their M Street SE offices across the old Douglass Bridge to Historic Anacostia, park their cars near the intersection of Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road SE, and do a little walking. They can go down one block to W Street and then proceed three blocks east and climb the steps to No. 1411 W Street. That will take them to Cedar Hill, where Douglass spent the last 17 years of his life. It's the highest point in Historic Anacostia.

From it, they would see across the Anacostia River exactly what Douglass saw before he set out on his own walks: the US Capitol and the Washington Monument. Maybe they'd also see a bridge across the Anacostia that makes a web of steel a visual expression of triumph over struggle.

Then all the designers have to do is go back to their offices, get the stayed-cable design out of their file cabinets, and show it to a public that is waiting to be inspired.

Tom Grubisich is a former Washington Post reporter who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, home to the famed stayed-cable Ravenel Bridge


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Is the drawbridge functionality no longer necessary? How much of the Anacostia to the northeast is navigable by larger boats?

by Ken on Jun 18, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

Tom: FYI, it's cable-stayed, not "stayed-cable".

Ken: functionally, a drawbridge is no longer needed. The only reason why a drawspan might be necessary would be if the Navy wanted to float the Barry out of the Navy Yard, or float another ship in.

by Froggie on Jun 18, 2014 12:23 pm • linkreport

I have an unreasoning hatred for cable-stayed bridges. I like bridges that look substantial. But that's just me.

by TimK65 on Jun 18, 2014 12:24 pm • linkreport

@Ken, The drawbridge is there to allow for ships to dock at the Navy Yard. I don't know if there are plans to remove/move the USS Barry display ship, or to bring in a second museum ship. That would be the only need for a deeper channel/draw bridge. The 11th street bridge does not have a draw, so tall ships are limited upstream of there.

by Mike on Jun 18, 2014 12:26 pm • linkreport

If they are going to block tall-masted ships from now on, I guess the bridge might as well look like a sailboat.

by JimT on Jun 18, 2014 12:29 pm • linkreport

It does seem a shame to have a navy yard that can't be reached by ships anymore, but the existing drawspan opens only once every few years so it's hard to justify the cost. How often does the Wilson Bridge open these days?

by jimble on Jun 18, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

I like the original design. What is the issue with the soil? Lack of bedrock?

by BTA on Jun 18, 2014 12:33 pm • linkreport

The rhetorical tag in this point -- that somehow bridge design should be determined by the name of the bridge -- is stupid.

by charlie on Jun 18, 2014 12:35 pm • linkreport

The cable-stayed design is a far cry from the bland highway overpass bridge that got approved. It'd be a shame to spend all that money on another ugly bridge to join the long list of ugly DC bridges: Roosevelt, Long, 14th St, 11th St, etc

by Brett on Jun 18, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

Why is this other uninspired design any better than the other? Seriously. You want inspired, do something... inspired!

I'm not sure what, not being personally inspired, but I can imagine some potential options. Perhaps affordable housing - on the bridge. Or a public marina reserved for residents of Anacostia. Or a school on/under the bridge. A civic center that can serve as a walkable polling place for the local communities. A metro station/bus terminal.

Something inspired by his hair, even.

Let's not attempt to sell a standard bridge design as metaphor.

by BenK on Jun 18, 2014 12:44 pm • linkreport

No, but seriously, how much money - and weight - would be cut if the Navy gave up the ghost on navigability?

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 18, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

DDOT determined, in its environmental analysis, that the cable-stayed design is in the same price range as the arched bascule design. So cost is not an issue. DDOT officials said they chose the arched bascule because it fit in with other bridges crossing the Anacostia and Potomac.

In other words, DDOT is following the time-honored tradition of ensuring that anything built in DC will look exactly like what already exists.

Same old tired story.

by August4 on Jun 18, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

I also appreciate this article, but you can't just go pull a design out of a drawer. A drawing is not a design, it's a design idea. The design DDOT has much more technical detail worked into it.

I'd prefer if they abandoned the current design, but it's not so simple as the last few paragraphs suggest. They would have to restart the design process.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 18, 2014 1:25 pm • linkreport

Even more disappointing is the fact that there is already a spectacular bridge honoring Mr. Douglass in Rochester, NY -

by Matthew Denker on Jun 18, 2014 1:46 pm • linkreport

I commute by bicycle across the Douglass bridge almost every weekday. A new bridge is sorely needed, since the ped/bike path is too narrow and the concrete is crumbling away.

As a fan of big engineering and public works projects, I would like to see a "fancy" bridge, but I will happily settle for one that is merely functional and safe.

by The Truth™ on Jun 18, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

Neli, I believe the Navy is giving up the ghost on the drawbridge, but they reserve the right - in case of war - to blow up the new bridge if needed. So, there's that risk. I can't recall how much cost or weight the drawbridge adds, but it is substantial.

I agree that somehow saying that bridge A is unfitting for Douglass, but bridge C is, is something of a stretch. If bridge C is prettier than A, than I guess that's a point worth considering. Is it?

How would a cable-stay bridge impact helicopter traffic in the area? There are three helipads in the area after all.

by David C on Jun 18, 2014 1:53 pm • linkreport

If the Navy wants navigability, they can pay for a drawbridge.

by alurin on Jun 18, 2014 2:05 pm • linkreport

I kind of assume that in case of war the US military would have the right to blow up any bridge they choose to. Though I can't imagine many circumstances where moving ships into or out of the Anacostia would be of greater strategic importance than a route for trucks into the national capital.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 18, 2014 2:05 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised that the Navy's willing to let the Ex-Barry be trapped in the Anacostia. Museum ships need to be drydocked every few decades. Steel hulls corrode, and maintenance requires access to both sides of the plating. In Philadelphia, USS Olympia is in danger of sinking because of deferred repairs, and the group that maintains USS Texas went to enormous expense to drag the ship out of a muddy berth and down the ship channel for drydocking.

by David R. on Jun 18, 2014 2:17 pm • linkreport

'If the Navy wants navigability, they can pay for a drawbridge.'

Ah, but as the river is a navigable waterway the Federal government has the final say on what is built across it. :)

by Randy on Jun 18, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

If the point of prior posters is that the bridge design must somehow befit its namesake, shouldn't the worst, most dysfunctional and obsolete bridge over the Anacostia be named for ex-Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry?

by Randy on Jun 18, 2014 2:21 pm • linkreport

A faux brick facade for the archways would be a cheap trick to enhance the appearance.

I too would be hard pressed to imagine a scenario where the Navy would decide blowing up the bridge would be a smart strategic move. Besides, there is already a hidden fleet of submarines surrounding the docks at the Navy Yard, and they don't need no stinking draw bridges. ;-)

As for maintaining the museum ship, it IS (okay was) a Navy Yard, after all. :) I don't have an answer for that, but I guess we are getting a de facto answer, if the Navy allows the new low bridge be built.

by The Truth™ on Jun 18, 2014 2:36 pm • linkreport

The Barry might be easier to move seeing as it doesn't need to move under it's own power (i.e. the bridge/mast/antenna/not sure the right term for a destroyer could be removed).

by John on Jun 18, 2014 2:43 pm • linkreport

Weigh it down with containers of depleted uranium, so it can slip under the new bridge.

Let the air out of the tires...

by The Truth™ on Jun 18, 2014 2:50 pm • linkreport

@jimble, actually the WW bridge just opened up yesterday to let a vessel though. It was the 18th opening this year, although six of those occurrences were for routine maintenance.

Last year it opened 41 times. My understanding is the majority of those openings were for routine maintenance rather than river traffic.

by dcmike on Jun 18, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

Out of respect to the Height Act and the ensuing boring uniformity of District office buildings, isn't it an unwritten rule that all bridges entering the District must also be as squat, boring, and uniform as possible.

by Administrator on Jun 18, 2014 3:21 pm • linkreport

DC architecture is a living symbol of the freedom to be boring.

by m2fc on Jun 18, 2014 3:43 pm • linkreport



by August4 on Jun 18, 2014 3:51 pm • linkreport

Why not tunnel then?

by Obvious Answer on Jun 18, 2014 3:53 pm • linkreport

The comment about blowing up the bridge was just a joke. Perhaps I've seen the Guns of Navarone too many times.

But it turns out I was wrong about the Navy agreeing to allowing a drawspan-free bridge. As of Jan 2013, DC was in negotiations with the Navy and Coast Guard over this. But I thought I'd read this winter in WBJ that they had agreed. If I did, it has been wiped out by the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. I apologized if I confused anyone.

Here's an answer to reduced cost, but not weight:

Mayor Gray identified a way to reduce the cost by an estimated $140 million: build a fixed bridge instead of a drawbridge. Because limited federal funding is available for the project, almost all of the $140 million in additional funds required to build a drawbridge would come from District residents. Beyond the cost of construction, the District would save an additional $100,000 per year by not having to operate and maintain a drawbridge.

by David C on Jun 18, 2014 3:57 pm • linkreport

A tunnel is a good idea. I read a study once that showed that the Roosevelt Bridge would have been cheaper as a tunnel (and wouldn't have had to disturb Roosevelt Island in the process.

by David C on Jun 18, 2014 3:59 pm • linkreport

"Perhaps I've seen the Guns of Navarone too many times. "

A Bridge too Far ("why do my officers all want to blow up my bridges?"), and Bridge at Remagen.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 18, 2014 4:02 pm • linkreport

Between the awful race-tracks for the roads on each side, and this squat, dull slug of a bridge design -- I hope the next Mayor and/or next director of DDOT just cans the whole project. Blame it on budget cuts, and start over from scratch. I know the current bridge is too expensive to maintain for much longer, but sheesh.

by Shalom on Jun 18, 2014 4:14 pm • linkreport

The bridge is in bad condition, needs to be replaced; the bridge proposed by DDOT looks very good, it needs some make-up that's all.

by Emmy Smith on Jun 18, 2014 6:03 pm • linkreport

Why does the design need to be original ?

What it needs to be is functional over anything else!

Half of the stuff people talk about on here is form over function with the designs and so fourth the common man (most of the population) does not give a damn about the design over the bridge as long as it does not stick out.

Also is there any reason why they can not build a fixed bridge but that is just higher up from the water ?

by kk on Jun 18, 2014 10:20 pm • linkreport

I certainly want a nicely designed bridge as a part of this project, but that alone isn't the driving factor. I would agree that the current design could be a lot better, but I also want to recognize that design alone is not (and should not) drive the process.

For one, beware the dangers of pursuing a sublime design at the expense of ballooning costs and delays. There's a great synopsis of the fiasco on the East Span of the Bay Bridge in SF:

For two, I would echo Charlie's concerns about the desire to memorialize Douglass driving the design consideration. This is not a memorial, it is a bridge. Unlike a pure memorial (where memorialization is the sole purpose of the project), this bridge must serve several different needs (the purpose of the bridge, cost-effectiveness, etc), and creating an appopriate memorial to someone is way down on that list. I'm all for good design, but let's not forget what the core purpose of the project is.

For three, remember that the most elegant bridges in the world are engineering solutions in response to specific challenges of the site/project. I would think that a cable-stayed bridge would be quite elegant in this location, but I'm not a bridge engineer and I'm not sold that such a bridge type is the most cost-effective way to meet the project's goals.

by Alex B. on Jun 19, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

To All,

Thanks for all your thoughts and recommendations.

First, I want to thank Froggie for correcting my definition of the type of suspension bridge design that I think should be reconsidered in new deliberations at DDOT. It is "cable-stayed."

BenK suggests that the designers do something that would be unique, like adding affordable housing or a school to the bridge itself. That would not only increase costs, but present what I'm sure would be major health and environmental issues from emissions, noise and vibrations. The current bridge carries 77,000 commuters daily.

The Truth, who travels on the bridge by bicycle on most weekdays, says the primary consideration should be functionality. Any design, including cable-stayed, will offer more vehicle lanes -- a total of eight -- and wider and safer bike lanes. Since the new span is replacing the old Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, DDOT has said from the beginning that it is committed to honoring Douglass with an "appropriate" design. Is a "highway bridge" design appropriate? I have argued it isn't.

Alex B says the new structure is not a "memorial," but a bridge. As the official name of the original span says, it's both. Regarding cost, DDOT discovered that its original arched design -- see illustration above -- would be more costly than the original estimate because of the foundation that would be required in the weak soil bed in the Anacostia River. That's why DDOT went with a highway bridge design. So, if DDOT reverts back to a design like the original arched one, that would raise costs, and probably above those for the cable-stayed alternative.

by Tom Grubisich on Jun 19, 2014 5:29 pm • linkreport

This is a good discussion that was absent with the new graceless 11th Street Bridges project.

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Jun 22, 2014 1:16 am • linkreport

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