Bridge Park Environmental Education Center. Photo: Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR)

The plan to build a multi-purpose park over the Anacostia River on the concrete pilings of the old 11 Street Bridge continues to make progress.  The project is an innovative partnership of the Ward 8-based non-profit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) and the DC Department of Transportation. BBAR has led the stakeholder engagement and, in addition to number of innovative programs in neighborhoods on both sides of the river, it has established the 11th Street Bridge Park project under director Scott Kratz, to oversee design and construction of the new bridge. BBAR called a public meeting last month to provide an update on progress.

The $74 million budget for the Bridge Park is split evenly between BBAR and DDOT, and the BBAR portion includes many generous corporate donations, including a recent $5 million donation from Exelon. Much of the design and many of the activities planned for the Bridge Park were shaped by residents and businesses in communities on both sides of the river.  They were organized around four BBAR goals:  to reconnect the communities to each other; to improve public health through recreation and other activity; to get citizens to the river; and to work toward inclusive economic gains for all.

The Bridge Park will contribute to all these goals with its areas and activities. There will be an Environmental Education Center run by the Anacostia Watershed Society, with kayaks and canoes for both teaching youth and renting out to all comers. There will be urban agriculture sites with demonstration gardens.  There will also be a range of art and entertainment spaces, playgrounds, an outdoor amphitheater, an area with hammocks and a restaurant.  Something for everyone!

All of this has resulted from extensive engagement by BBAR of neighborhoods on both sides of the river in a number of initiatives to ensure that the residents that helped shape the park can benefit from it.   They are “bridges among the communities” in their own right.  These include a workforce development effort with the goal to supply a minimum of 50% of the labor for the Bridge Park construction and operation from local residents.  There is a program of mini-loans to small business to prepare for the increase in economic activity.  The Douglas Community Land Trust is engaged in innovative programs to reduce taxes on lower-income homeowners by placing their land in a non-profit trust that will pay no taxes on the likely increasing land values.  The Trust plans to have 750 units of housing participating in the next ten years.  The Bridge Park team is also working on tenants’ rights workshops, homeowner down-payment assistance and a homebuyers’ club which already has 72 new homeowners – all part of a multi-strategy equitable-development plan. 

Bridge Park Overview. Photo: Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR)

Other BBAR projects include a training program for construction workers that has already graduated 119; sessions on cultural equity and leadership empowerment; community gardens in the form of seven “urban farms” on both sides of the River (including a mid-October “Taste of the Harvest Dinner”); and support for children’s savings accounts with a five to one match up to $1800 each.

All this activity is preparing our neighborhoods for a future that will focus on a river where the fish are returning and it will be safe to swim by 2025. Those goals are in line with the schedule to complete the bridge.  The remainder of this year will be devoted to finishing the scoping out of design and programming issues  — for example the Environmental Education Center was recently moved from the middle to the east side of the River to assure access to docking space. Fire safety changes and foundation improvement are other recent actions. Preliminary engineering is underway and will extend until May of 2020.  Final design is now scheduled for mid-2020, with construction 2021-2023.

According to Kratz, “One of the most important remaining efforts is to assure that we are doing all we can to assure the Park is deeply connected to the communities it serves on both sides of the river – are there visual or mental barriers to remove?”  For example, for Capitol Hill residents how do you “bridge” the long walk from under the freeway down 11th Street past the Navy Yard?  Part of the answer is to add attractions.  For example, there is a proposed Adoption Center for pets and associated veterinarian training school to be located in a building at 11th and M Streets SE. More important, the Navy has agreed to let BBAR use its walls and other streetscapes to place artworks visible to walkers.

A different set of “approach problems” is encountered in Anacostia, where pedestrian and bicycle access is affected by the traffic and lights at Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road.  DDOT is undertaking a traffic study to develop changes that will make access to the Bridge safer for adults and especially children. This may also involve lighting and artwork such as that already in place under the freeway.

What is important is that it seems that there is a great team at work. The people in charge are well aware what it takes to remove all the barriers – physical, psychological and economic – so that all our communities around both sides of the river can come together and enjoy the fruits of so many people’s efforts to make the Anacostia River a safe, clean, fun attraction for all. Keep your eye out for opportunities to participate!

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River.  He is on the Board of the Friends of the National Arboretum,  a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.