D.C. communities split by the Anacostia could become closer in plan for first elevated park


HANDOUT IMAGE: Rendering of a proposed aerial park over the Anacostia River, using the old MLK bridge as a base. The bridge was replaced by the 11th St bridge. Ward 6 is the west side of the river near the Navy Yard and Yards Park. (Courtesy of DC Office of Planning)
December 26, 2013

When the city built the new 11th Street Bridge across the Anacostia River, it left three concrete piers standing beside the stretch of road that now carries local traffic between the Navy Yard and historic Anacostia.

Two were turned into lookout points for bicyclists or pedestrians who want to pause for a moment over the water, accessible from the bridge via narrow gray walkways.

Now, Scott Kratz has other plans for the towering concrete columns. He wants to turn all three into the foundations of the city’s first elevated park. Kratz believes that the repurposed bit of leftover infrastructure could become an icon, a destination in its own right — like New York’s High Line — should his vision be realized.

Kratz has a long way to go: He has to raise about $35 million for the construction and maintenance of a city park. His timeline has already been pushed back a couple of times, so the opening date would now be 2017 or 2018.

In the meantime, the project is creating a lot of excited talk about the District’s public spaces as well as some tension as two communities divided by a river seek to create a shared space between them.

Kratz’s day job is vice president of education at the National Building Museum. He first became interested in the old 11th Street Bridge piers two years ago after asking Harriet Tregoning, the city’s planning director, what was going on with the construction of the new bridge. She suggested that he might want to look into converting the old one into a park.

Since then, Kratz has spent his weekends and vacation time gathering ideas from community groups, attending more than 160 meetings in all, and now he envisions a park that includes a performance space, a canoe and kayak launch, and even an orchard.

Starting in January, he will become the project’s first full-time staffer, working for the nonprofit group Building Bridges Across the River at THEARC (Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus), thanks to a capital campaign that raised $538,000. The money will also go toward a national design competition set for March.

Sometimes called the city’s “forgotten river,” the Anacostia waterway is known as a divider: separating Capitol Hill (median income, $101,748) from historic Anacostia (median household income, $36,063).

When the city asked teenagers, most from wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia, to dream up a design for the bridge park in the summer of 2012, most were too scared to even approach its banks. It was dirty, they said. Highways, railroads and industry have separated both sides of the river from the water itself, further cementing it as a symbol of divide in the city.

When Kratz took the job, he believed that a successful park could accomplish more toward ending that divide than any single project could. He thought it could improve public health, provide an iconic destination for the broader city and encourage the next generation of environmental stewards.

Kratz wants to get input from the roughly 76,000 residents who live within two miles of the proposed site.

On a recent Saturday, Kratz spent the morning in the basement of a Baptist church in Anacostia and the afternoon in a stark, white meeting room of a D.C. government building near the Navy Yard to invite public comment on the project.

At the morning meeting, Bishop Charles Matthew Hudson welcomed about 50 people, seated in vinyl chairs around large, circular tables covered in white linen.

It was a mixed group. There were some locals, mostly older. There were some planning professors and students from colleges around the area, and there were a few young activist types from both sides of the river. “We’re only going to get this done if we keep coming together,” Hudson told them.

Each table had about 10 people, including a discussion facilitator. A large sheet of paper in the center listed the possible functions of the park: an environmental education center, a performance space, a kayak and canoe launch, a restaurant, a playground, public art and some sort of urban agriculture.

At one table of eight, only two women were from Ward 8. They were joined by a doctor, a professor and a Cleveland Park resident — all from the other side of the river.

When it was time for discussion, the table’s facilitator turned directly toward the two older women from Ward 8 to ask them what they would like to see in the park.

They both liked the idea of a playground. “That’s so needed in Anacostia,” said one.

Over the years of meetings, Kratz said he’s found that people want more or less the same things: entertainment, lunch options, and a place to play and learn. Most also end up debating how a trendy park can alter the area’s economic outlook.

The answer is never clear.

New York’s High Line, built on a length of railroad track in Chelsea, brought an estimated $2 billion in investment to the surrounding area.

That’s why Kratz wants to make sure that the final product reflects the community so both sides feel welcome.

But sometimes meetings aren’t enough.

“Really, on this side of the river,” D.C. native Arnehl Lyon said at the church meeting, “there should’ve been more black people.” She was disappointed. She had spent hours passing out more than 200 fliers advertising the meeting. “It’s always the same ones” who show up, she said — herself included. As a member of Ward 8’s committee for seniors, she’s very involved in the community.

Kratz knows it will take more than one meeting. Too often, particularly east of the river, he said, promises are made but little materializes.

“There is a trust deficit,” Kratz said. “I think the way to bridge that is show up at these meetings even when you’re not on the agenda.”

At the afternoon meeting across the river, about 50 people talked more about public art projects and technology and less about education centers. One group decided that a restaurant was a bad idea, saying it could be cost-prohibitive and seen as exclusive.

Instead, the afternoon group suggested solar-powered charging stations and scannable QR codes along the bridge that could tell the history of the communities on both sides of the river. And maybe a graffiti wall so teenagers finally have a place to go in the city. Everyone agreed that they want the park to be an icon of the city, as recognizable as the U.S. Capitol.

At the end of both meetings, the performance space won the most votes with 39, followed by some sort of public art with 35 votes. An education center and playground also proved popular. Kratz will use the ideas to create the parameters of the national design competition. The top three contenders’ plans will then be exhibited, giving community members another chance to review plans for the park before a decision is made in the fall.

Until then, the project has millions to raise and two communities to unite.

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