The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Anacostia


Zoning: The hidden trillion dollar tax

Zoning in cities like DC is starting to get expensive. Maybe trillions of dollars too expensive.

Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh find that if we lowered restrictions that keep people from building new housing in just three cities (New York, San Jose, and San Francisco) to the level of the median American city, US GDP would have been 9.7% higher in 2009about $1.4 trillion, or $6,300 for every American worker.

The intuition is straightforward. These cities' strict zoning rules limit their housing supplies. That sends rents soaring and prevents people from moving in. But because these cities are hubs of finance, healthcare, and technology, they are unusually productive places to work and do business. When people have to live elsewhere, they miss out on all this.

As a result, displaced workers, who can't move to New York or San Jose, are less productive and therefore earn lower wages. The country misses out on their untapped potential--fewer discoveries are happening, fewer breakthroughs are being made--and we're all poorer as a result.

Just changing zoning practices in those three cities would lead to some massive shifts, according to the authors. One-third of workers would change cities (although they wouldn't necessarily move to those three metros). Even under a less drastic scenario, in which 20% of US workers were able to move, GDP would be 6.5% higher. Fewer people would live in places like Detroit, Phoenix, or Atlanta, but those who remained would earn higher wages. And, of course, the likely reduction in sprawl would help address local air pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

Zoning rules have clear benefits, but it's a question of balance

Zoning and land-use regulations have benefits. Some ensure basic health and welfare; they keep toxic dumps away from your child's school, for example (though this works better if you're well-off). Others aspects of zoning provide more marginal benefits, and to say these laws safeguard your health would be a stretch, like rules that keep duplexes and other multi-family housing out of your neighborhood.

Large swaths of Wards 2, 3, 4 and 5 have these types of rules: they're zoned "R-1-A" or "R-1-B," which only permit suburban-style detached homes. As the "general provisions" section of the zoning regulations say, "The R-1 District is designed to protect quiet residential areas now developed with one-family detached dwellings."

This, of course, is not an accident: DC's zoning map also shows who has power in the city, and who does not. Parts of Georgetown, for example, have a unique zoning designation called "R-20"; it's basically R-1, but with stricter controls to "protect [Georgetown's] historic character… limit permitted ground coverage of new and expanded buildings… and retain the quiet residential character of these areas and control compatible nonresidential uses."

Meanwhile, equally-historic Barry Farm is zoned RA-1, which allows apartment buildings, like many other parts of Ward 8. And, of course, Barry Farm abuts a "light industry" zone, sits beside a partly abandoned mental hospital, and was carved in two by the Suitland Parkway. While Washington's elite can use zoning with extra care to keep Georgetown the way it is, the same system of rules hasn't exactly led to the same outcomes for Barry Farm.

Barry Farm. Image from Google Maps.

What to do?

Washington is better than San Jose, where the majority of neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes, but our own suburban-style rules still have room for improvement.

This could be Atlanta, but it's actually Ward 4.

Addressing this problem doesn't necessarily require us to put skyscrapers in Bethesda or Friendship Heights, turn the Palisades into Tysons Corner, or Manhattanize Takoma. More human-scale, multi-family housing in these places, currently dominated by single-family detached homes, could be a massive boon to the middle class and poor.

If half of such houses in Chevy Chase rented out their garages, or became duplexes, I'd estimate that could mean 25% more families living near world-class transit, fantastic parks, good jobs, and good people.

As Mark Gimein wrote recently on the New Yorker Currency blog:

The cost of living in New York, San Francisco, and Washington is not just a local problem but a national one. That these cities have grown into centers of opportunity largely for those who already have it is not good for the cities, which need strivers to flourish. It would be a shame if the cities that so resiliently survived the anxieties of the atomic age were quietly suffocated by their own success.

If you're curious for more on Moretti and Hsieh's work, see this short description of their paper and this PBS interview with Moretti. For an in-depth discussion of zoning's effect on the economy (with less math), see this speech by Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.


The DC Streetcar starts service on Saturday. It took a wild ride to get here.

When DC's H Street and Benning Road streetcar opens on February 27, it'll run on rails that were first installed almost seven years earlier. We've been talking about this project since 2008, with hundreds of posts. The following is a little walk down memory lane to look at everything that's happened.

Photo by mariordo59 on Flickr.

Forty years after streetcars vanish, efforts begin to bring them back

Streetcars used to ply DC's streets until 1962. In 1956, following a strike, Congress forced the streetcar's operator to shut down all streetcars and replace them with buses.

But decades later, the Metro was under construction and rail transit was coming back. Metro wouldn't serve all parts of the city, however. A 1997 long-range transportation plan from the Barry administration called for new streetcar lines, including on H Street and Benning Road.

In the early 2000s, the DC government was trying to find a way to get a streetcar system started cheaply. An unused CSX track that runs through Anacostia seemed like a great spot. DC jumped on a Portland streetcar contract in 2004 to purchase three Czech-made cars. But DC couldn't get the rights to use the line, and the cars sat in the Czech Republic, unused.

2008: Anacostia? H Street? Both?

A political fight also was brewing in the DC Council about where to start the streetcar project. A line from Anacostia Metro to Bolling Air Force Base wouldn't have served many people. DDOT agreed to plan a route through Historic Anacostia as well, but many residents were not enthusiastic. Meanwhile, H Street businesses, residents, and Councilmember Tommy Wells were eager for the line on H Street.

DC had recently finished designing several corridors around the city in a program called "Great Streets." H Street and Benning Road, NE was one. Since a streetcar line was in the city's plans, to avoid having to reconstruct the street a second time, the decision was made to install tracks during the project.

Photo by Ralph.

2009: DDOT gets serious about a streetcar, but questions remain

The streetscape program yielded visible progress, but many details of the streetcar itself were not yet worked out. Besides sticking rails in the ground, what exactly was DC going to build? Where would the streetcar turn around? Where would maintenance happen? And what would power the cars?

Gabe Klein, then head of DDOT, decided to make the project a much higher priority, and in late 2009, the administration followed through with a bold vision to build eight lines in all wards of DC. He also moved the three streetcars across the ocean from the Czech Republic.

Phase 1   Phase 2   Phase 3   View larger version (PDF)

At the time, officials estimated the whole system could be built in 7-10 years for a cost of $1.5 billion. Mostly, they planned to put them in mixed traffic rather than dedicated lanes, except for a few segments on Rhode Island Avenue, M Street SE, and K Street NW.

There were already some signs that DDOT wasn't thinking everything through. WMATA sent a letter worrying that the platforms, high enough to roll right onto a streetcar, would be too high to board the X2 buses, which run along the same street. Would they conflict?

Unless you've got power

One of the big questions was how cars would get power. A law prohibited overhead wires in the L'Enfant city, including H Street NE. Some groups were gearing up to oppose the streetcar not based on its function, but based on the aesthetics of having any wires above the street.

Bombardier Primove. Image from Bombardier.

While insisting that modern wires look much less intrusive than many of the old-fashioned ones in some cities, DDOT promised to look into wireless technology, especially hybrid approaches that could use some off-wire segments along curves (which require more wires) and across important view corridors.

Groups like the Committee of 100 were pushing for a fully wireless approach, but experts said that was not feasible without major extra cost and maintenance headaches, at least not today.

2010: The Great Overhead Wire Battle

To get people excited about the project, in May 2010 DDOT brought the streetcar down to the parking lot that's now CityCenterDC. People could touch the vehicle and climb on board. They could also see two other DDOT vehicles: a newer Circulator bus and a bicycle for the soon-to-be-launched Capital Bikeshare.

Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Opposition from the Committee of 100 and other groups continued. It focused on two streams: first, opposition to overhead wires; and second, an argument that there needed to be more planning before moving ahead. In retrospect, they were absolutely right on the second point, but the first one overshadowed it and unfortunately made the more prescient warnings less credible.

May is the time the DC Council finishes its budget, and many chairs have unveiled a final budget late the night before the deadline for a final vote. At 2 am on May 26, 2010, then-Chairman Vincent Gray, and also a candidate for mayor, cut the streetcar funding in his final budget. We and others sounded the alarm, and residents flooded Gray's office with calls asking to restore the funding. By that afternoon, he had worked out a deal with councilmembers to do just that.

Gray always maintained that his move to cut streetcar funds wasn't an attempt to kill the project outright, but stemmed from a belief that it needed more planning first. At a later campaign town hall, he said, "I support streetcars; let me make that clear. ... We have a commitment" to build out a 37-mile system.

Photo by Dan Malouff.

Soon after the budget fight, the council took a step to amend the overhead wire ban to allow wires on H Street (and elsewhere once the council approves a citywide streetcar plan and DDOT studies off-wire options). All councilmembers except Phil Mendelson cosponsored the bill.

As Ken Archer explained to the council, beautiful historic cities like Prague have trams using wires and still maintain their historic charm.

A streetcar wire in Prague. Photo by Isaac Wedlin on Flickr.

The National Capital Planning Commission wasn't so excited about wires. Its chair, Preston Bryant, threatened to ask the federal government to reject grants to DC if the District continued with its efforts, and then followed through on his threat. DC officials called that "bureaucratic blackmail."

The Federal Transit Administration indeed rejected DC's grant application, though sources said NCPC wasn't the reason as the winners had been selected well before Bryant's letter.

Planning and promises

In October 2010, DDOT released a more detailed streetcar plan that said:

  • Service on the H Street/Benning Road line and in Anacostia (to start with, south of the Anacostia Metro) would start in March 2012
  • A train would come every 10 minutes on H Street and every 15 in Anacostia
  • Rides would cost $1
  • There would be a proof-of-payment system instead of paying on board
  • DDOT would buy three more streetcars in addition to the three it already had
In December, Gray, by that time mayor-elect, continued his support for the program in a budget proposal. His transition report, however, sharply criticized DDOT for mismanagement in a number of areas. His first official budget allocated $99 million to streetcars.

Studies continued about how to route the streetcar through Historic Anacostia, but growing numbers of residents raised opposition to the project entirely.

Tracks under construction in Anacostia. Photo by John Fuller.

2011-2012: Setbacks

In April 2011, the completion date for the H Street/Benning Road line slipped to "late 2012." It wasn't the last delay.

The streetcar plan had long called for tracks on the local span of the new 11th Street bridge, then under construction, to get the streetcar over the Anacostia River. But in October 2011, the Federal Transit Administration blocked DDOT from installing tracks on the bridge. According to DDOT sources, the move was fine with the Federal Highway Administration, but FTA suddenly stepped in.

11th Street Bridge construction. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

If it seems ironic that the federal government's transit agency would be the one pushing against transit, it's not a new refrain. Then-FTA administrator (now head of Seattle's transit agency) Peter Rogoff argued FTA had little leeway, but many other transportation professionals privately argued they could have allowed it.

Another, even bigger hurdle popped up. Since the 2010 plans, DDOT had expected to put the Union Station stop and a maintenance yard under the "Hopscotch Bridge" which carries H Street over the railroad tracks. One property owner didn't want to go along, but DDOT officials kept predicting they could work out all necessary approvals.

Schematic of the maintenance yard (left), 1st Street NE (center), the Union Station stop, and tracks toward H Street (right). Image from DDOT. Click to enlarge.

That didn't happen. Instead, Amtrak rejected the concept because it wanted to use the space for other purposes. (The next year, it released a master plan for Union Station that used that passageway as a concourse.)

By early 2012, there had been procurement problems that meant DC would almost surely not have the 3 extra streetcars promised, meaning not enough to run at 10-minute headways. In mid-2012, Councilmember Marion Barry tried to block another contract for the H Street line.

Mayor Gray's commitment didn't wane, however; he budgeted $237 million over six years to construct multiple streetcar lines.

Spingarn High School in 2009. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Spinning wheels on Spingarn

DDOT had been planning a maintenance facility on the Spingarn High School campus, but that had been a longer-term piece of the puzzle; with the area under the bridge unavailable, this was now blocking further progress.

Nearby residents also asked to designate Spingarn as a historic landmark, forcing any plans to go through far more extensive historic review. Then-DDOT Director Terry Bellamy said this would delay the project further; by now, it was delayed to late 2013 at the earliest.

It also had become clear to many by this time that DDOT's claims were not credible. DDOT had proposed the underpass maintenance yard idea without having buy-in and then couldn't get it. It had planned tracks on the 11th Street Bridge and didn't get those. Now, it hadn't started working on Spingarn nearly far enough ahead of time, and like too many other streetcar pieces, plans for the maintenance facility weren't publicly available at first (and when they were turned out to be meh until later getting better).

One February 2013 design for the Spingarn maintenance facility.

2013: Will it open?

Studies also continued for planning how to extend the line east from Oklahoma Avenue over the Anacostia River and west to Georgetown.

Testing on H Street hadn't even begun, but DDOT officials said that could happen in late 2013. They also started talking about a 22-mile "priority system" of three lines: east-west from Georgetown to Benning Road, from Anacostia to Buzzard Point, and from Buzzard Point to Takoma.

The 22-mile "priority system."

Even though it looked iffy, Mayor Gray kept promising streetcars would run in 2013. He also increased the budget to $400 million to pay for the line to go all the way to Georgetown, build the Anacostia line, and study the other lines in the 22-mile system.

One issue that had been brewing: How to make the area safe for people on bikes. Bicycle wheels can get stuck in streetcar tracks, and for a brief time incorrectly-installed grates even increased the danger. "Bike sneaks" and other design strategies can help cyclists stay safe.

Toronto. Photo by Eric Parker on Flickr.

The most important thing was to give cyclists another way to travel east-west, which DDOT did by designing and building bike lanes so people could ride two ways on G and I streets, parallel to H.

By October, DC officials admitted the streetcar wouldn't run in 2013. Testing would start in December 2013. This was far from the only broken promise by DDOT under Bellamy's leadership, which developed a reputation for being unable to deliver on its commitments.

Streetcar wires started appearing in November and the first vehicle arrived in December.

Photo by DC Streetcar on Flickr.

2014: The public-private partnership that wasn't

The Gray Administration also devised a strategy to significantly speed up construction: Find a contractor who could design, build, operate, and maintain (DBOM) the streetcar. They hoped an organization with more expertise could get things done without all the delays that had come thus far.

Gray proposed a major, ongoing revenue source to fund the succession of lines, by allocating a quarter of new tax revenue that comes in above the base estimate for Fiscal Year 2015. That would have given the program an estimated $800 million over five years.

A team started working on studies for the line on or near Georgia Avenue, and we pushed for dedicated lanes for this line. DDOT had already agreed to build dedicated lanes on K Street.

K Street section through downtown from October 2013. Image from DDOT.

Challengers to Mayor Gray criticized his administration's progress and the repeated delays.

On April Fool's Day 2014, DC had its primary, and Gray lost his bid for renomination. His budget plan also went down the next month, as Chairman Phil Mendelson, again near the deadline (but not in the middle of the night), took much of the money away for tax cuts. He did, however, leave $400 million over five years, which the Gray administration said wasn't even enough to pay for the segment west to Georgetown.

Mendelson disputed that allegation, and battling budget analysts left many confused about what, exactly, was still being funded. But the bigger problem was that DDOT had lost much of its credibility on the streetcar program from all of these delays, broken promises, and cover-ups over setbacks. Residents who had excitedly defended the program in 2010 were not ready to stick up for it in 2014.

A Gray administration graphic criticizing cuts.

Soon after, it became clear even opening in 2014 was unlikely, though the Gray Administration, as it had in 2013, kept promising service by the end of 2014.

"Simulated service," where the streetcars run as if they're really operating with passengers to ensure they are safe, started in the fall. There was just barely enough time to launch service before New Year's Day if the fire department signed off on the safety plans quickly. It didn't.

"Simulated service" in January 2015. Photo by Dan Malouff.

2015: Reboot

A new administration brought in new leadership. Leif Dormsjo, the new head of DDOT, said he'd stop making promises until they could actually keep them. In fact, Dormsjo said he wasn't totally certain the line would ever open.

He brought in a team of experts from the American Public Transportation Association to evaluate the line. Their report concluded that it could indeed open, and Mayor Bowser promised to finish the line from Georgetown to either Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road Metro.

Oh, remember wires? The ones on H Street weren't destroying the neighborhood, but DDOT did start planning for wireless operation across major intersections with state avenues, the Mall, and so on.

APTA's report identified 33 fixes to make to the streetcar line, and DDOT got going on those. By July, it had finished 12. Dormsjo brought in a team of experts who had actually launched streetcars in other cities to get this project over the finish line.

Workers modify the 19th Street station following the APTA review. Photo by Dan Malouff.

We didn't hear a lot about the streetcar in late 2015, but DDOT was working on fixing remaining problems with the line. Officials were also trying to get the fire department to sign off on safety plans.

2016: It's time

DDOT restarted "simulated service" at the end of 2015 and even announced the streetcar would close during the "Snowzilla" storm, in part to show safety officials how the line would handle a storm like this. The fire department ultimately gave its consent to open the line, and now it's scheduled to open on February 27.

Photo by Fototak on Flickr.

This will be the first time most people will be able to get on a DC Streetcar since May 2010 and the first time they can while the vehicle is in motion. There have been a lot of claims about the streetcar, pro and con, and riding it will finally give people a chance to decide based on real experience.

After that, DC will have to decide what to do about the other proposed lines and studies. DDOT will have to finish studies about extending the H Street/Benning Road line east and west, and decide what to do with the studies in limbo in Anacostia and Georgia Avenue.

One thing is for sure: It'll be great to have this sordid saga of delays and broken promises in the past.


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.


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.


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.


Plans are gelling for a park over the Anacostia. Here are ways to ensure it helps, not displaces, existing residents.

The group behind the plan to build a park on the old 11th Street Bridge is seriously committed to making sure the project is a net gain for the communities around it. It wants to work with both the District government and nonprofits to grow the local workforce, boost small businesses, and increase the area's affordable housing stock.

The 11th Street Bridge Park will concentrate activity on the east side of the Anacostia River. Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

The plan includes 19 concrete recommendations for how to bring economic opportunities to the neighborhoods adjacent to the park without also bringing the negatives that neighborhoods often experience when they get wealthier.

Of course, the 11th Street Bridge Park team, based out of Ward 8's Building Bridges across the River at THEARC, exists mostly to build a park on the foundations of an old highway bridge over the Anacostia River. And it's getting there. The team has raised around 11 of the 45 million dollars required to build and endow the park.

The typical gentrification narrative doesn't work for Anacostia residents

But by its very nature—it would connect Capitol Hill to Historic Anacostia—the coming park will be another chapter in the larger narrative of change in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

The Census tracts the Bridge Park team wants to focus its social efforts on. Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

For years, activists have lamented the District's tendency to place social services and subsidized housing in Historic Anacostia. Residents want to see an the increase in home prices, new restaurants, and a refreshed neighborhood image that investment would foster. They say, it's OK if some of that comes from wealthier residents, moving in, as long as they can be around to enjoy it.

Media coverage of gentrification often frames it a zero-sum class conflict with strong racial and cultural overtones. Academic coverage tends to see it as an inevitable outcome of real estate developers seeking big profits on cheap investments. But studies of whether these theories actually predict demographic changes show a mixed record.

The Bridge Park's Equitable Development Task Force is recommending a different approach. It has avoided the inflammatory language of gentrification, instead honing in on investments now that can prevent the involuntary displacement of current residents in the future.

Features of the Bridge Park will celebrate the area's legacy. Image from OMA/OLIN.

The bridge park can take an innovative approach to change

Scott Kratz, the Bridge Park team's leader, sees the project as a chance for the District government and grassroots activists to cooperate on efforts to help grow a neighborhood that has suffered badly from disinvestment.

The Bridge Park team plans to implement a few of the task force's ideas itself. For example, they want to incubate small retail businesses on the bridge, and making the routes to the park more walkable, so people venture into Anacostia's retail strip.

And while the Bridge Park can't do all that much by way of building new housing or pushing for a legislative overhaul of the District's hiring laws, it can reach out and focus the attention of institutions that are already working on those issues on this specific moment and time.

Anacostia's 13th and W Street SE. Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Working with the city, Kratz's team wants to establish a community land trust, connect residents to existing public programs, and put local businesses in any buildings built by the District.

Working with seasoned nonprofit organizations, the team wants to push for more housing in the area, both market-rate and affordable, encourage nonprofit developers, and connect teenagers to mentorships.

Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

It's a long list, and some goals are bigger than others. But it shows a vision of constructive approaches to the economic changes that have been happening in DC. It may also be a test case for other economic development projects. If the city is serious about using the Wizards practice facility to improve Congress Heights, maybe it could look to the task force's action plan for ways to go beyond just putting the building in a low-income neighborhood.

You can read the full list here. The task force is accepting comments throughout September. It will present its first round of revisions in October 3rd, and a final, more detailed set of strategies on November 5th.

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.


Coast Guard employees are using the Anacostia Metro station in a weird way

Metro recently released data showing where Metrorail riders go from each station, and as one of our commenters noted, the most-frequented destination for people traveling from Anacostia is... Anacostia. That's because Coast Guard employees and contractors use the Anacostia Metro as a pedestrian tunnel.

Entrance and exit through the same station by volume in October 2014. Image by the author.

As commenter Andy pointed out, when a passenger enters at Anacostia during midday, afternoon peak, and evenings on weekdays, they're most likely to exit from the same station. Not only that, but as the chart above shows, entering and exiting at the same station is more common at Anacostia than at any other station in the system. Why?

At St. Elizabeths, where the Coast Guard's headquarters moved in 2013, the National Capital Planning Commission's parking policy allows one parking space for every four employees. That means the Coast Guard is limited to only 931 parking spaces for its 4000 federal employees and numerous additional contractor employees.

Unlike at NIH, the St. Elizabeths campus is over a mile walk from the closest Metro, there are no nearby parking lots, and street parking is limited.

The A4 bus, which leaves from the Anacostia Metro bus bay, runs directly to the campus. So many people who work at St. Elizabeths park in the 800-space garage at the Anacostia Metro, tap into the system at the garage entrance so they can walk through the station, and tap out at the exit closer to the bus bay. From there, they take the A4 to work.

The walking path from the Metro garage to the bus bay. Image from Google Maps.

It's not hard to understand why commuters might opt to use the Metro station as a pedestrian walkway. While the walk down Howard Road from the parking garage to the bus bay is less than a quarter of a mile, it requires commuters to walk an empty stretch of road, under I-295 and across a highway on and off ramp.

The walking path from the Metro garage to the bus bay. Image from Google Maps.

The accidental pedestrian tunnel won't be around for much longer. In the 2014 Coast Guard Transportation Act, Congress overrode the NCPC. Between now and 2017, the Coast Guard will be required to allocate an additional 1,000 parking spaces at St. Elizabeths.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City