Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Anacostia River

Development


How the Navy, baseball, and government planners made Capitol Riverfront one of DC's hottest neighborhoods

Capitol Riverfront, the area around Nats ballpark, ranks high on any list of Washington's most rapidly transforming neighborhoods. But it took more than baseball to make that transformation happen.


Image from the 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan.

By the last decade of the 20th Century, Washington's Anacostia River waterfront was a crime-plagued and dirty testament to urban neglect. It wasn't a nice place to be.

But beginning in the 1990s, a string of ambitious plans, government projects, and private-sector infusions have turned the neighborhood into a thriving and desirable place to spend time.

Here's the story of how that happened.

Metrorail brings federal workers

When the Metrorail Green Line opened its Navy Yard station in 1991, that opened the door to an infusion of people and money into the neighborhood. That infusion began in earnest in the mid 1990s when two federal groups decided to move thousands of office workers into the area: The Naval Sea Command (NAVSEA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Following post-Cold War military base consolidation, the US Navy opted to move over 5,000 NAVSEA workers from offices in Crystal City to the Navy Yard. Meanwhile, DOT announced it would build a new headquarters four blocks from the Navy Yard complex that would house over 6,000 workers.

Those two massive construction projects, the ensuing permanent influx of employees, and the subsequent ripple effect of service retail and of contractors looking for nearby offices, combined to provide a huge economic stimulus.

The District does its part

Michael Stevens, director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID), points to the 1999 election of Mayor Anthony Williams as the next turning point.

Under Mayor Williams' direction, DC began a concerted effort to re-plan and better manage the Anacostia riverfront. That effort culminated with the 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Initiative master plan, which provided a consensus vision for what the Anacostia shore could become, including its layout of streets, buildings, and public spaces.

Following the District's adoption of the master plan, the riverfront BID started up in 2007. At first the BID simply worked to make riverfront streets cleaner and safer, but as successes mounted their mission evolved to building parks, running public events, and managing economic development.

In 2004 the Montreal Expos moved to DC, becoming the Washington Nationals. City leaders opted to build a permanent stadium along the riverfront, and Nats Park opened in 2008.

The baseball stadium did unquestionably bring new people to the riverfront, and certainly helped spread the center of gravity south from M Street. Together with other parks, such as the 20-mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, the riverfront has become unique among emerging DC neighborhoods with great public recreational spaces being built right alongside housing, retail and offices

Housing pressure mounts

The riverfront's renaissance hasn't been without controversy, particularly where older residential buildings, and the people in them, are concerned.

A $35 million federal grant to redevelop the Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg public housing project surrounding 4th Street SE has been especially challenging.

The 23-acre housing project was built in the 1950s with 707 homes. But with DC's population increasing and demand for housing skyrocketing, 700-some homes on 23 acres just isn't enough, not four blocks from a Metro station.

Although the plan was to replace low-income apartments on a one-for-one basis, residents were displaced during construction. Gentrification was a definite fear.

But with the redevelopment area now approaching its planned 1,700 units, and full replacement of income-restricted homes guaranteed, the upheaval seems to have been worth it. Hundreds of low-income families have new homes, and added 1,000 households are enjoying the revitalized neighborhood.

With offices, entertainment, and parks in place, and an increasing number of residents in the redeveloped Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg project and elsewhere, the riverfront is truly booming.

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Architecture


An NFL stadium in DC could be suitably urban, but it probably wouldn't be

Rumors are swirling once more that the Washington NFL team could be moving from its stadium in Landover, possibly to the District. A new stadium in DC is almost certainly a bad idea, though it's possible—just very unlikely—it could actually have positive effects.


RFK in the 1960s. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

The most logical place for a stadium is the Anacostia riverfront site where there's an existing, unused, aging stadium already: RFK. But RFK occupies a massive amount of waterfront land that could be far better used for new housing, fields for community sports, monuments, or just about anything else.

It's not that a stadium is so noxious. But around it is 80 acres of parking lots. Not only are they almost always empty, they're damaging ecologically, pouring stormwater runoff directly into the river, absorbing heat, and depriving the District of other ways to use valuable land.

Could a stadium exist without such surface parking lots? In theory, sure. Since games are on weeknights and weekends, one could imagine a new district with office buildings, each with underground garages that serve workers by day and football fans during games.

That, however, would interfere with tailgating, a strong fan tradition outside football games. It also would mean yielding some control over the parking arrangements, something owner Dan Snyder is unlikely to do without strong incentives. He makes big bucks on parking charges at FedEx Field (and tried to charge fans for walking to the stadium instead).

The team recently made news by hiring Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a highly-respected architecture firm, to design a potential new stadium. The team didn't announce where, but if that's DC, BIG is capable of creating something much more innovative than the typical bowl-in-sea-of-parking.

Citylab's Kriston Capps says that even if Snyder were willing to go with an urban design that doesn't involve massive surface parking, the NFL would not then let a Super Bowl be played there, and a Super Bowl represents massive revenue.

What else a DC stadium should have

If a stadium were to come to the District, a few other elements should be prerequisites for any deal:

Change the football team's name. It's offensive. This has already been discussed extensively and need not be rehashed here. But the team should change it.

No public money. Economist after economist has demonstrated that public subsidies for pro sports stadiums rarely come anywhere close to paying off for cities, and least of all for football, where teams play just eight regular home games a year.

No free tickets for public officials. The mayor and DC Councilmembers get free tickets to Nationals games. This is a big perk for top officials, who can enjoy the games and give out tickets to staff, constituents, and donors. It also means that everyone potentially voting on such a deal has a massive conflict of interest—they can spend taxpayer dollars and get a perfectly-legal kickback.

Some argue that a city-controlled box is a valuable tool for wooing economic development to DC. If that's true and not just a rationalization, perhaps there's a way to set up an independent body that gives out tickets only when there's a strong enough case, and sells or lotteries the tickets to residents the rest of the time. But it shouldn't be yet another perk of incumbency.

This probably won't happen

Unfortunately, there's little reason to believe DC would successfully push for such features or that Snyder would accept. There's too much political pressure on officials just to get the team to DC regardless of the cost, and a traditional parking lot-ringed stadium would serve Snyder's interests fine.

The chance of that got a little stronger thanks to a baffling Washington Post editorial that called a stadium at RFK "the logical and obvious move" because of its transportation access and "waterfront vistas that can't be beat." (Never mind that there are trees in the way of waterfront views from RFK; trees on federal parkland have not stopped Snyder before.)The editorial made no mention of the opportunity cost of foregoing ball fields, bucolic parks, and buildings.

If a football stadium won't be urban in nature, there's no reason to have it in DC. The District has scarce land and huge demand for housing and offices. For something that needs 80 acres of almost-always-empty land around it and gets used eight or so times a year, suburban areas are far more sensible.

Landover is a fine place for a stadium. A site in Loudoun County, near a future Silver Line stop, has been widely discussed as a likely contender, especially since Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has been wooing the team, and its practice facilities and headquarters are already in Ashburn.

DC might have once needed the kind of pride and reputation that comes from having a team inside its borders, but now it has plenty of other reasons for pride (and the team will still be called Washington, anyway). A stadium that truly anchors a new neighborhood could be great, though. It's just extremely unlikely. I'd love to be surprised, though.

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Sustainability


Anacostia Park can help weaken climate change's damage

Anacostia Park could better serve the needs of the surrounding community if it were easier to access and there were more to do there. Fixing it up could also help protect generations of District residents from the worst impacts of climate change.


Anacostia Park. Photo by Krista Schlyer.

Real environmental problems are on the horizon

The primary challenge that climate change will put in front of the District in coming decades will be the risk of flooding caused by both tides and storm water. DC will lead the East Coast in tidal floods by 2045, due to rising sea levels, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists released last year.

Large-scale projects such as seawalls are going up to protect DC's critical infrastructure, but smart growth and green infrastructure can often accomplish the same mission at a fraction of the cost.

In an attempt to clean up the Anacostia, DC has invested billions in a new storm water storage and treatment facility to capture overflow from the city's ageing sewage system. This system will be largely effective for everything but the most extreme weather events, but unfortunately, we're headed for more of those: Storms are predicted to increase in severity, if not frequency, because of climate change.

Parks and rain gardens can help with this problem because they absorb a lot of stormwater. More parks would make it less likely that DC's water treatment system gets overloaded.


Photo by Krista Schlyer.

What's more, expanding the stormwater storage and treatment system will likely be cost prohibitive for the foreseeable future. That means protecting existing green space like Anacostia Park, and finding new ways to replace impermeable surfaces with ecologically friendly alternatives like rain gardens can go a very long way in helping DC manage its stormwater.

Parks can help us address those problems

The parks and wetlands that line the Anacostia-- referred to by many as "green infrastructure"-- is the first line of defense against flooding and stormwater pollution. Collectively, these areas will save the city billions of dollars in damage from tidal floods alone by the middle of this century.

"As they wind their way toward the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers define the borders of Washington, D.C. and the many historic landmarks nearby, from Arlington National Cemetery to Old Town Alexandria, Va," reads the UCS survey. "Tides affect these rivers, and tidal flooding can produce effects ranging from patches of standing waters in parks to flooded roadways."

Parks can also provide other environmental lines of defense. For example, they bring down the "urban heat island" effect. Trees and plants in these areas can also act as a sink for carbon and other pollutants. These climatological advantages do not even begin to explore the social benefits to emotional and physical well being that comes from access to green space.


Green space along the Anacostia in DC. Image from the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.

DC is working to prepare for coming risks

Investing in green infrastructure along the Anacostia Waterfront is the first and easiest step in confronting the environmental challenges that are predicted for the next century. Doing so doesn't require vast amounts of time or money or scarce resources in city government, but it does require commitment and creativity to execute effectively.

Hundreds of acres of impermeable parking lots surround RFK stadium, sending thousands of gallons of stormwater into the Anacostia with each rainfall and increasing the potential for flooding. Directing energy and funds towards underutilized, but strategically located areas along the Anacostia could be an ideal place to start.

In October, DC played host to mayors and city sustainability directors from around the world as part of the Our Cities, Our Climate international mayoral exchange, convened by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, Michael Bloomberg.

"As the nation's capital, we will continue to lead the nation in green energy and sustainable practices." Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged, welcoming the attendees. "By taking bold and concrete steps to reduce greenhouse emissions, we will improve the long-term health of our community, while creating good paying jobs that build pathways to the middle class for our residents."

Mayor Bowser rightly credits DC for being one of the most progressive cities in the country when it comes to confronting the myriad challenges posed by a changing climate, but the magnitude of these problems will only continue to grow, along with the cost of inaction.

The District is presented with a unique opportunity to become more resilient by simply protecting existing park and marshland along the Anacostia, while looking for opportunities to expand such infrastructure wherever possible. If Mayor Bowser and the rest of city government champion this policy, it will greatly increase the region's resilience to climate change, whatever the future may hold.

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Public Spaces


Tour the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers with Google Street View

Want to tour the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, but don't own a boat? Google's Street View tool now includes the view from a small boat traveling along the DC shore line.

To take the tour, just click the picture below. You can also go to the area in Google Maps and drag the orange stick figure onto the blue line that appears.


Memorial Bridge from the Captain John Smith Chesapeak National Historic Trail. Phot from Google Street View.

The tour starts north of Kingman Island near Kenilworth Park on the Anacostia River, stretches south and west around Hains Point, then heads north past Chain Bridge.

The project is part of the Conservation Fund's Google Trekker project, which has created virtual tours of beautiful and historic American places.

In this particular instance, the project has documented the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. The first entirely water-based trail in the National Trail System, Captain John Smith followed this route over 400 years ago. In addition to helping found Jamestown, Smith became the first English explorer to map the Chesapeake Bay.

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Sustainability


A more accessible Anacostia Park would mean a healthier community

Anacostia Park is part more than 1,200 acres of parks and wetlands that sit along the Anacostia River. It's not in great shape, but there are people working to turn it around. If they succeed, residents are set to reap the health and social benefits that come with quality parks.


The waterfront trail running through Anacostia Park. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Overshadowed by the Washington Monument on the National Mall, the Anacostia Waterfront, which the National Parks Service and District government manage together, is one of Washington's most undervalued landmarks.

Originally planned nearly 100 years ago, the waterfront was designed under the McMillan Plan to be a grand public park running along the river, featuring promenades, islands, and bathing lagoons.


Image from the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.

Over the ensuing century, however, Anacostia Park was neglected and underused. Despite all that it has to offer, Anacostia Park never achieved the kind of recognition from tourists or regular use from residents that places like Rock Creek and Meridian Hill do.

Part of the problem is that much of the park is bounded is by the Anacostia River on one side and a busy highway on the other, limiting access by public transportation and connection to the rest of the city.

Parks can help address public health issues in Anacostia

Communities east of the Anacostia River are plagued with elevated rates of asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, so much so that there's clearly an expanding the gulf between these underserved areas and the rest of the District. According to the city's most recent assessment, residents of Ward 8 have the highest rates of obesity and are the least likely to exercise of anyone in the city.

The health woes people in Anacostia face persist despite the fact that many people live within a mile of Anacostia Park or Waterfront Trail.


The Anacostia Waterfront trail has an aast and west branch along both sides of the river, and runs for a total of 15 miles.

There's proof that the active lifestyle parks encourage mean lower obesity rates and high blood pressure rates as well as fewer doctor's visits and fewer annual medical costs. Further benefits include lower levels of cholesterol and respiratory diseases, enhanced survival after a heart attack, faster recovery from surgery, fewer medical complaints, and reduced stress.

Recognizing what Anacostia Park can do for residents as well as how much it's been ignored, recent administrations—starting with Anthony Williams, who was in office from 1999 until 2007—have championed the park and waterfront, slowly shifting investment across the river. In the past decade, new playgrounds have gone up, and 15 miles of new trails have formed the nucleus of the Anacostia Waterfront Trail.

Both what's coming to the Waterfront and what's already there make for tremendous opportunity to serve community health needs in Wards 7 and 8.


Anacostia park lacks the public transportation options that other places have. This is the only bikeshare station located along the eastern branch of the Waterfront Trail.

New programing is a great tool for increasing park attendance. Last year, the National Park Service hosted the first annual Anacostia River Festival to promote "the history, ecology, and communities along its riverbanks." The inaugural event was an opportunity for the community and local politicians to come out in support of the Park and another is in the works for this upcoming spring.

Here's how DC can connect Anacostia Park to its community

For progress to continue, interest in Anacostia Park has to go beyond these periodic events and promising proposals. The easiest way to support active use is making sure people know about all that Anacostia Park has to offer.

According to the American Planning Association, for a park to increase physical activity it needs to be accessible, close to where people live, and have good lighting, toilets, and drinking water, and attractive scenery. Today, Anacostia Park has some of these things, but others are sorely lacking.


This is the south-eastern tip of Anacostia Park and Waterfront Trail, seen from across the river at Yards Park.

The first thing that would get more people using Anacostia Park would be creating convenient points of access. Creative infrastructure and programs could be replicated in Anacostia Park based on what other cities have used to successfully boost attendance and forge a connection with the community.

In Chicago, The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance helped community members create a "Quality of Life Plan," identifying top issues facing the community in order to craft policies that the park to meet the most pressing needs. Since 2005, the initiative has facilitated coordination between local employers, provided employment for 84 local youth, and mobilized over 10,000 residents to support a number of projects.

In New York, a collaboration between the Prospect Park Alliance, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment (BASE) High School resulted in a curriculum based on the physical and educational resources of the Botanic Garden. Such a partnership could be replicated between the National Arboretum, Park Service, and City if the interest and collective will are demonstrated.

Fortunately, creating new ways to access the park and things to do once people are there does not require large sums of money because Anacostia Park doesn't need to be built or set aside. What it does demand, however, is public and private support as well as a willingness to incorporate the communities these changes are meant to benefit into the planning process.

To foster dialogue between the community and other stakeholders, The Anacostia Waterfront Trust has recently partnered with 13 other organizations to form the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative.

While still taking shape, the APCC is designed to engage with nearby residents in order to promote active use and develop long term plans. Efforts like these can help ensure that the many projects and initiatives intended to help residents of the Anacostia Waterfront actually serve their purpose.

Other parks are blossoming nearby

Work is ongoing to create an additional 13 miles of trails connecting the park to other sites along the Waterfront, including the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Yards Park, and the National Arboretum.

Another example of a Waterfront project that can do a lot for its community is the 11th Street Bridge Park. The project will include an education center, outdoor performance spaces, and urban agriculture, and when it's finished, it will be a link Wards 6, 7, and 8.


Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park design team.

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Public Spaces


The feds own RFK. Here's what they plan to do with it.

There's been a lot of talk lately about what to do with RFK Stadium and the land around it. One detail that's largely been left out of the conversation: the federal government owns the entire 190-acre site, and it has already developed and adopted an ambitious plan to fill the site with mixed-use development, recreation, and culture.


This parking lot should be active recreation, according to its owner. Photo by the author.

Some have made the occasional calls for sports facilities, like a football stadium or an Olympic arena. RFK's 10,000 parking spaces are also frequently brought up as the solution to any land-use challenge the area faces, particularly new housing.

But since the land underneath RFK is part of the National Park Service's Anacostia Park, the site is owned by the federal government and the National Capital Planning Commission will ultimately decide what to do with it.

NCPC is a federal agency which "preserves and enhances the... federal assets of the National Capital Region to support the needs of the federal government," and it's the federal agency that "coordinates the planning efforts of federal agencies that construct and renovate facilities within the National Capital Region," an authority granted to it under the National Capital Planning Act.

So what does NCPC envision for this "dramatic gateway to the city," half the size of the National Mall? In December 2006, the agency published an "RFK Stadium Site Redevelopment Study" [PDF] that envisions "a lively destination for residents and visitors," with "new cultural and commemorative uses to attract visitors" plus "residential and neighborhood commercial development in this area of the city that is ripe for revitalization," and a chance to "address the recreational needs of local residents."

NCPC RFK vision
Image from NCPC.

Here are the particulars of the plan:

  • Active recreation on 80 acres along the waterfront, replacing the existing parking lots. Not only would new parkland provide considerable space for a city that, while long on total park space, is often short on space for sports. The new parkland would also provide almost enough space to double DPR's existing inventory of 47 playing fields. Returning the site to green space, with a generous natural buffer and trail along the river's edge, would improve water quality in the Anacostia River and reduce the impact of future floods.

    Note that the parking lots are almost entirely below 10 feet above sea level, and thus within the Anacostia River floodplain. They cannot be developed without first raising them out of the floodplain, either by building heavy-duty seawalls or by trucking in lots of dirt.

  • Memorials or museums, on two sites totaling 45 acres: a 30-acre parcel encompassing the existing stadium, and a 15-acre parcel across from the DC Armory. The 30-acre site might be an outdoor memorial on a site slightly larger than the Gateway Arch site in St. Louis, or could house a cultural complex larger than the National Gallery of Art's entire campus.

    The 15-acre site could house a museum, performance house, aquarium, or civic building of 300,000 to 800,000 square feet—about the size of the National Museum of the American Indian on the smaller end, or the National Museum of American History on the larger end. Unusually for a site in DC's neighborhoods, a large and wide building (perfect for a museum) wouldn't look out of place on this site, since it faces the Armory and Eastern High School.

  • 20 acres for mixed-use development, roughly between the Armory and the existing stadium, between 21st and 22nd St. NE, and Independence Ave. SE and C St. NE. The site can accommodate 1.2 million to 2 million square feet of development, in buildings ranging from mid-rises (70 to 90 feet tall) at the center of the site down to low-rises (40 to 60 feet tall) at the edges. The buildings would be no higher than the existing Armory, whose existing ceiling is 88 feet tall.

    The scale of development NCPC identified would be somewhat smaller than what's been built so far at CityCenterDC, or two or three times as large as the Monroe Street Market development at the Brookland Metro. If it were predominantly residential, it would accommodate up to 2,000 housing units at a mix of sizes, plus neighborhood-serving retail and office. The heights that NCPC identified wouldn't be high-rises, but rather relatively more affordable mid-rises.

NCPC identified these three uses for the site as far back as its 1997 "Extending the Legacy" plan for the region, released the same year that FedEx Field opened. That plan "envisioned the site with a major memorial surrounded by new housing and commercial development."

There's room for all three uses

Precedent also exists for the happy coexistence of all three uses in urban national parks. For instance, when the The Presidio in San Francisco was added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, its five million square feet of buildings (including residences, offices, and educational uses) were retained by a new trust that supports park restoration and programs.

Some citizens are calling for DC to fulfill at least part of NCPC's plan by converting the northeast parking lots into a youth sports park and green space. That can happen without changing the terms of the National Park Service lease, as can future active or passive parkland on the southeast lots.

Any changes to the central part of the site, around the Armory and on the existing stadium footprint, would require negotiations between DC and the federal government. If that happens, DC should respect the federal government's wish to build a new neighborhood, and space for year-round recreation and reflection.

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Sustainability


Making the Anacostia a place to have fun goes hand in hand with cleaning it up

More and more people are learning how much fun there is to be had on the Anacostia River. That could mean a cleaner future for the local waterway.


A view of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens from the water. Photo by the author.

On any given weekend, paddlers and rowers are speckled along the water—all in brightly colored watercraft looking like a pack of Skittles that was spilled. The recreationalists are typically spotted around the Georgetown waterfront on the Potomac River. Many are seeking an escape from the city or trying their balancing skills as they attempt yoga on a stand-up paddle board.

However, the Potomac isn't the only river people turn to; the Anacostia is making a comeback.

In the summer of 2013, Ballpark Boathouse opened by Yards Park, the first kayak rental business along the Anacostia River in the District. The Boathouse offers both kayaks and canoes to the adventure seekers.

A little further upriver, the Anacostia Community Boathouse has been around for over two decades. This member-driven facility offers numerous community activities, from learning to paddle a kayak or row a Dragon boat to competitive regattas.

There's lots to see when you paddle up the Anacostia

What's an outdoor recreationalist to do once they find themselves floating on top of the Anacostia River? There are few interesting sites to see via watercraft.

Tucked on the eastern shore of the Anacostia River and on the border between DC and Maryland, sits a 700-acre National Park called the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. A maze of coves and inlets steers you through a rich landscape of cattails, water lilies, and other aquatic flora. Calm waters of these wetlands let you linger.

And although the carefully planned and maintained paths around the ponds by foot are exciting, especially when the lotus are in bloom, exploring the Gardens by kayak or canoe is a whole other world.


A blue heron stalks its next meal in the Aquatic Gardens. Photo by the author.

Downstream from the Aquatic Gardens, and a little closer if you are paddling from downtown, is a small dock for landing at the National Arboretum. Here, you can pull your watercraft ashore and explore the 446 acres or just take a break.

Landmarks, like the old columns from the Capitol building that stand erect resembling relics from an ancient civilization, are one of many things to see. Plus the extensive tree canopy keeps the temperatures cooler.

For those who don't have the stamina or the time to venture far upriver, Kingman Island is a nice reprieve that is inhabited with herons and turtles. Or just trolling around Yards Park will provide some interesting sites like the decommissioned Navy ship USS Barry, which will be dismantled and removed by next summer.

A waterfront renaissance is stirring up attention

Revitalization along DC's shoreline is gaining speed. The Georgetown Waterfront Park final phase was completed in 2010, providing a welcome outdoor space along the Potomac. Now a national park, the waterfront serves as a starting point for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal—a 184-mile landmark that follows the river and serves as a popular biking, running, and hiking destination.

Also, just a few weeks ago the Southwest Waterfront redevelopment project hit a milestone by completing the digging phase. The developers, PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette, have begun building what will be a 25-acre wharf and 3.5-acre waterfront park, when complete.

Development along the Anacostia River is also picking up. The Navy Yard neighborhood has been growing swiftly, with the now completed Yards Park an attractive place to sit on a chaise lounge and stare at the river or wade in the waterfall.

However, there are still areas along the Anacostia waterfront that are overlooked, like RFK stadium and parking lot, or the slow development of the Hill East District Waterfront.


Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

All of this redevelopment along the rivers draws attention to them-and hopefully, their rehabilitation. But redevelopment needs to be done with a focus on equity, sustainability, and reducing environmental impact.

Creating a healthy river for people to enjoy is not easy

District residents realizing how much more they could get out of their shoreline means more opportunities for communities to connect with waterways and take pride in wanting to clean them up.

Trash, a visible pollutant, is still prevalent along the Anacostia. There are local and federal efforts underway to start removing it, like the EPA using the Clean Water Act to establish a total maximum amount of trash that can enter the waterway. To keep trash under the limit, the EPA estimates that 1.2 million pounds of trash needs to be removed annually from the watershed.

In 2009, the 5-cent bag fee was implemented. Since then, the revenue has been spent on tools to clean up the Anacostia such as education, grants to communities to install rain gardens or impermeable surfaces, and trash traps installed in key locations along the Anacostia watershed.

But trash is still quite visible along the river. And whether it's trash or invisible pollutants, the District's rivers still have a ways to go until they are swimmable.

Investments along the waterfront, especially in parks and other multifunctional spaces, bring people to the river's banks. Increasingly, recreationalists are venturing onto the water. And more recreation along the river is a sign that we are on a trajectory to restoring them to a more healthy state.

Correction: A previous version of this post named Ballpark Boathouse as the first kayak rental business along the Anacostia River. Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Maryland has actually been renting boats for longer, so we updated the post to clarify that the nod to Ballpark Boathouse is specific to the District.

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Public Spaces


Can a park bridging the Anacostia bring investment without displacing residents?

If the plan to build a park over the old 11th Street Bridge comes to fruition, there's no question it will change Anacostia. For now, the people behind the park are working hard to ensure that the people who are there now will be able to stick around to enjoy it.


A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park from the Navy Yard. Image from OMA+OLIN.

The 11th Street Bridge park is a proposal to build a spectacular public space on remaining parts of a disused bridge over the Anacostia River. Having just selected a design this spring, its director Scott Kratz and his team are developing the design, raising money, and running engineering tests. Despite reports that they don't have money, the project is going according to plan.

While waiting to begin construction, Kratz and his team have started to address a big worry many have voiced about the project: the risk that it will spur gentrification east of the Anacostia River, specifically in the HIstoric Anacostia neighborhood.


Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

This Saturday, a group of real estate experts, planners, and community leaders will present a preliminary plan meant to ensure that the Bridge Park benefits all residents, not just those who can afford to buy in a hot market. Called the Equitable Development Task Force, the group will hold meetings on each side of the river. At both meetings, they'll present a plan and then look to the experience of residents to refine their objectives and methods.

I spoke with Scott Kratz, the 11th Street Bridge Park's director last week. He said that technical problems like designing and building the park seem simple compared to the challenge of making sure it adds social landscape without displacement and disaffection.

Could the park be a bridge to gentrification?

Back when the idea of reusing an old highway bridge as a park was just talk, over on the west side of Manhattan, real estate prices were doubling and tripling around the High Line, a park built on an abandoned railway viaduct. In just a few years, the Meatpacking District went from slaughterhouses and sex work to a high end retail district with equally high-end apartment buildings.

Many writers have compared the Bridge Park to the High Line, and while there are some key differences, they share a cultural cachet: they're both infrastructure-reuse projects by fashionable design firms in distinctive locations with attractive, historic neighborhoods nearby.

Capitol Hill and Historic Anacostia already have many qualities that make a neighborhood desirable. With a signature project, the market could heat up. Kratz laments that already, two years too early, real estate listings for locations miles away are hyping the unbuilt park as an amenity.

With wealthier residents often come resources, government attention, and more retail. At the same time, the consequences of displacement are serious.

Residences east of the River are overwhelmingly rental, so they can turn over faster, without wealth accruing for renting residents the way it does with homeowners. Unemployment is high. A disproportionate number of residents suffer from diseases associated with poverty, sedentary lifestyles, and stress. Their lives will not get easier if they have to move farther from the city's core, where both mobility and access to social networks is harder.

The problem, with most incidences of gentrification, Kratz says, is that markets are way faster than governments or non-profits. Attempts to freeze rents or rush in new construction always happens too late. Social organizations are left trying to fix problems that are arising faster than they can hope to address them.


The winning design proposal.

Or is it a bridge to opportunity?

Unlike a lot of projects, the Bridge Park is well-positioned to be proactive about confronting these problems and ensuring that the project benefits as many people as possible. Officials know more or less when the project will come online, 2017 or 2018, and they know exactly what area it will affect.

Originally, Bridge Park staff focused exclusively on keeping the existing housing affordable. But after meeting with residents from east of the Anacostia River, they realized that that was too narrow a focus.

Now, they've widened the goals to doing a small part in helping nearby communties grow wealthier and more socially connected. The staff want to use the 11th Street Bridge Park to catalyze the amount of affordable housing in the area, increase employment, and promote locally own businesses that keep wealth in the community.

These are huge goals, especially for an organization that exists mostly just to build a park. To meet them, the Bridge Park team is considering possibilities on two levels: measures it can actually take, and ways it can influence things through publicity and connections.

To take action, the Bridge Park needs help from the community

Kratz realizes that neither he nor the Equitable Development Task Force can figure out how to solve a problem like displacement. So, first the Bridge Park team reached out to organizations who have been grappling with these issues in nearby communities organizations for years. Then, they looked at similar projects outside the region, to see if there were any specific lessons for signature parks in mixed-income areas.

The Task Force won't release the full panel until tomorrows's meeting, but Kratz provided some example approaches. Conceptually, they realized they could work at two scales: what the Bridge Park can directly control and what it can only the influence through its publicity and connections.

Kratz concedes the Bridge Park can't control all that much when it comes to affordable housing, But he also says the hope is that his team can unite area political leadership, which could then shape development through community land trusts that assemble equity for below-market housing, renovation assistance to homeowners, and political pressure for public investment.

One example of this kind development the task force will highlight is the extensive affordable housing program spurred by the Atlanta BeltLine.

Kratz says the Bridge Park can work directly on workforce development. The park is effectively a giant green roof that can serve as a training ground for employment in sustainable infrastructure. Related interventions might be the wellness and urban agriculture goals of the park, which could reduce job-impeding health problems.

Finally, the task force has suggestions for fostering local businesses. One is to model the Bridge Park's cafe after Union Market, a space that serves as an incubator for restaurants. The Bridge Park's visibility could launch a small business to commercial self-sustainance without the large capital investments required to start a restaurant.

Kratz notes that these ideas are only small parts of a solution. But, he emphasized that the Bridge Park's ambitions were most likely to succeed when they built on the work community groups were already doing on both sides of the Anacostia.

To be sure, the Bridge Park staff have met with existing organizations and asked how the project can fit into their existing strategies. The staff has also attended community meetings to hear residents' concerns and needs and to learn about how residents live and what they value. The Equitable Development Task Force used this first round of feedback to write this round of ideas and they're now looking for a second round of feedback.

Real estate advisors, landscape architects, and ordinary citizens have their own kind of expertise. Understanding the extent of each and building on it, I think, can be the beginning of a successful, community-led growth into a bigger, broader community. If it works, it can be an example to follow when other signature public projects risk large-scale disruption.

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Development


When dreaming of Olympics or anything else, beware of "planning down"

A team of architects and business leaders met in secret for many months to devise a big proposal for the Olympics in DC. Some parts of it have merit (and some don't), and ideas should always be welcome. But some things about the way they talk about the need to "transform" DC feel wrong.


Hand drawing city photo from Shutterstock.

It's terrific that some wealthy business leaders want to help the District. A generation ago, people in the suburbs were turning their backs on DC. Even now, as Jonathan O'Connell notes in his article on the Olympic bid, too often DC, Maryland, and Virginia compete to out-subsidize large businesses just so they'll move a few miles across a border.

The Olympic bid group didn't have that attitude. Russ Ramsey, who led the effort, lives in Great Falls, Virginia, but he wanted the Olympics to revive the area around the Anacostia River. The Anacostia can certainly benefit from having more friends, and areas around it more investment.

However, there's something a little disquieting about a group of business leaders and architects formulating this plan in secret, drawing pictures of stadiums on all manner of public land and arguing it would have lasting benefits for the city without really speaking to the public about what they'd like to be left with after an Olympics.

Let's call this "planning down"

There was a lot of discussion recently about "punching down" as a concept in comedy (see: criticisms of Trevor Noah, or criticisms by Garry Trudeau). Basically, it's when comedians make fun of groups of people who are less powerful in society than themselves. This secret planning feels like something similar; let's call it, "planning down."

"Planning down" would be what happens when one group of people decide they know what's best for another area whose populace is less powerful. Many residents felt this way when they heard about the machinations for the Olympics. Those of us who did should hold on to the feeling, as residents in poorer neighborhoods feel the same far more often.

John Muller, for example, has often written about communities in Historic Anacostia, Barry Farm, and elsewhere where residents feel government officials come in for "public meetings" seemingly already having decided what they want. (The same thing often happens in more politically powerful neighborhoods, but residents have more success forcing their views into the debate.)

We need to have discussions about the futures of such communities that truly engage residents in thinking about what they want for their communities. (Some government agencies have indeed done this.) There are certainly constraints—there are specific economic criteria a neighborhood needs to support a grocery store, for instance. But I think people can understand these constraints and work with them if given the chance.

The planning profession, in fact, enshrined principles around public participation in its ethical codes after the era of urban renewal which demolished many working-class neighborhoods to build "towers in the park," like in DC's Southwest Waterfront and parts of many other US cities. (You're more likely to encounter dismissive non-listening from certain transportation engineers.)

However, public engagement isn't the same as "letting the neighborhood decide." Sometimes, deferring to neighbors means letting a more-powerful group use zoning, preservation, or other tools to exclude others. For a non-Washington example, look at Toronto's "density creep" controversy, where a group of people in million-dollar homes worried about new half-million-dollar homes hurting their property values. You could say those doing the excluding are "zoning down"; it's not planning down to criticize the practice.

Some decision-makers fear taking any action unless every community stakeholder is in agreement. That's not the way to avoid planning down. It's possible to involve people in a conversation, then move ahead with some decision recognizing that no choice, whether to act or not act, will be universally popular. The key is to listen first (and hopefully make the right choice).


Superhero businessman photo from Shutterstock.

DC doesn't need to be "saved"

O'Connell concludes his article on the Olympic bid by asking, "The question is, who will be the private-sector leader for the future of Washington?" It would be most welcome to have private-sector individuals wanting to do more for DC, or the region, or their specific communities. We just need them to lead more from behind, facilitating conversations rather than deciding unilaterally what the future should be.

Many of us in the Greater Greater Washington community are somewhat more privileged than many DC residents as well. We should keep these same lessons in mind just as much when we talk about neighborhoods east of the Anacostia or elsewhere, especially if we don't know many people in those areas.

We can't just say we know what's right for other, less privileged areas; we need to understand the circumstances and hopes of the people who live there. We can't do that entirely on a blog that's easiest to read if you work in an office with a computer, either.

We can all do more to strengthen the public dialogue around planning, to encourage planning up instead of planning down. And we should. Greater Greater Washington is going to be working on building these bridges and elevating voices from diverse communities much more in the future. Stay tuned.

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Sustainability


To stop sewage from overflowing into the Anacostia, Nannie is digging in

She is smooth, round, and has teeth so hard they can chew through rock. She hangs out down by the river, waiting for when she gets the thumbs up signal. Her name is Nannie. Standing 26 feet tall, she's a tunnel-boring machine that is waiting to drill a tunnel from RFK stadium, along and under the Anacostia River, where she will meet up with another part of the tunnel currently under construction.


Nannie sits ready and waiting near the parking lot of RFK Stadium, next to the Anacostia River. Image from the author.

Nannie's 96 cerulean blue grinding teeth glisten in the sun. Resting only feet away is a 109-foot deep shaft, where she will begin her descent into the underworld to dig through the compacted layers of clay and sediment material.

Named after Nannie Helen Burroughs, a prominent early 20th century African-American educator and civil rights activist in DC, Nannie is an essential component of the Clean Rivers Project, a massive engineering endeavor in the District that will fix the city's sewer system's overflow problems.

Nannie's task is to create a new tunnel large enough that the combined sewer system, which makes up a third of the District's sewer, will not overflow during heavy rainfall or snowmelt events.

Currently, heavy rains result in sewage, stormwater, and other runoff flowing into the Anacostia. For example, between October and December of 2014, the Anacostia River experienced multiple overflows at stations along its shore. There were 12 overflows on the south side of the river by Anacostia Park, which is the most of any site. Eight happened directly across, at the Navy Yard.

The Anacostia River is at the backdoor of the Nation's capitol, but is often referred to as "The Forgotten River." Once complete, the Clean Rivers Project will cut sewage and stormwater overflow by 98% in the Anacostia River and provide similar reductions for the Potomac River and Rock Creek, paving the way for a cleaner, healthier ecosystem.

Beyond runoff, the Anacostia is also polluted with chemicals and trash

Stormwater and sewage overflow is just one of many problems the river is experiencing. Years of neglect have led to a river so polluted that it's dangerous to get into the water or eat the fish.

According to a 2012 study commissioned by local, District, and federal groups, approximately 17,000 residents might be eating these fish. Some, like the brown bullhead catfish, have red fleshy tumors on their lips, which is a visible sign something is wrong. But not all of them have visible deformities, and what's going on under the skin can be just as alarming.

The same can be said for the river. After a heavy rain storm the river is visually polluted. Trash floats all along the river and collects along its shores, and the stench of waste is too hard to ignore.

Nannie should help with those problems

The Clean Rivers Project will reduce overflows, which will also help with part of the trash problem. But the river will still be polluted by heavy metals in sediment, upstream sources of pollution, and runoff that doesn't get captured by the sewage system.

Jim Foster, the president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, wants to get back to the root cause of all these problems. He argues that more needs to be done if we want to make the river "swimmable and fishable by 2025" - a motto he and others are using as a goal post.

Combined sewer systems are found in many other US cities, including the District. These types of sewers consist of a central pipe that serves as a catchall for storm runoff and household and industrial sewage. During heavy rain events, the untreated sewage runs into local waterways. Combined sewer systems are found in the older parts of the city, flowing from the northern boundary through the heart of the District.

Nannie's tunnel and the Clean Rivers Project are expected to fix this problem by creating a larger sewer drain to capture all of the waste. Nannie will "drive the most important, ground—or better yet - water-breaking improvements to the Anacostia in the last century. And we will do it in the next 10 years," said George Hawkins the chief of DC Water and Sewer Authority at a public event in February.

Here's how Nannie will work

Nannie is a beast, her cutting head spinning one to two rotations per minute. Nate Wageley, an inspector with DC Water, described the process. Nannie "will basically rip the soil into shreds, or cuttings. And if you hit a boulder, there are discs that will cut them up into little fragments."

The excavated material is then softened with a foam, producing a taffy-like substance that gets transported on railway carts out of the tunnel and offsite. Nannie will travel at approximately 500 feet a week, eventually excavating a 12,500-foot tunnel. When she gets the green light, the engineers expect her to finish the tunnel in less than a year. Once complete, the foot thick concrete tunnel will have a lifespan of 100 years.

Nannie is expected to begin tunneling this summer and her portion of the Clean Rivers Project will be completed by 2018. The longer-term plan for the District, including projects along the Potomac River and Rock Creek, is currently scheduled for completion in 2025 unless it gets amended to accommodate proposed green infrastructure.

Community advocates have concerns

Some environmental advocates are concerned that the Anacostia portion of the Clean Rivers Project is solely focused on a hard engineering solution. The tunnel will improve water quality, but it does not include other softer, aboveground, measures, like green infrastructure, which would benefit residents by increasing property values. Foster worries that the communities around the Anacostia River are not seeing similar investments in green infrastructure like those planned for the Potomac River and Rock Creek areas.

In May, DC Water proposed green infrastructure on 498 acres for the Potomac River and Rock Creek neighborhoods under the Clean Rivers Project. But improvements of similar proportion have not been proposed for the communities around the Anacostia River.

"The [engineering] benefits don't accrue to the community. Planting trees and doing rain gardens and landscapes improves the assessed value of a community, it raises the aesthetics and helps improve the infrastructure that people use every day," Foster says. "They get the gold mine, and we get the shaft."

Despite concerns about equity of the project, the District is taking serious steps to clean up its waterways. "Everybody has to do a little bit. Everyone has some skin in the game. In the end of the day, it's not about the river. The river represents what's happening in the community," says Foster.


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