For the Anacostia, a Legacy Of Environmental Proportions

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, June 9, 2007

The D.C. Council voted this week to dissolve the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., but, fortunately, it decided to preserve one important legacy of that short-lived group -- its environmental design and development standards.

The AWC was established just three years ago to oversee the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative Framework Plan. Amid increasing dissatisfaction with the group's progress, the council voted to convey that responsibility to the mayor.

More than a year ago, the AWC's board appointed a committee of volunteers, of which I was one, to research and develop the environmental standards. The standards, which the board adopted just four days before it was dissolved, complement but go well beyond the District's new Green Building Act. Indeed, the committee envisioned standards that not only would be technologically state-of-the-art, but also might serve as a model code for the District, other local jurisdictions and perhaps other metropolitan areas.

The environmental standards committee was charged with setting architectural and site design criteria, plus evaluation tools, that would "minimize or eliminate the harmful ecological effects of existing pollutants and ongoing pollution sources affecting the Anacostia River."

How bad are these "harmful ecological effects"?

Take a walk along the Anacostia's banks, or, even better, tour the river by boat. Segments of the shore are surprisingly beautiful, covered with mature trees and thick vegetation, as they must have appeared two centuries ago. At times, it's easy to forget that you are in the middle of a city.

But then you notice that the river's silt-filled water is opaque. Refuse regularly floats by. Portions of the banks, despite repeated cleanup campaigns, are littered with inorganic and organic trash; metal, plastic and glass containers; rubber tires; and objects that defy identification.

Heavy rain in the river's watershed washes tons of organic particles and chemicals from roofs, roads and parking lots into storm pipes, channels, swales and streams, then into the river.

Thus the environmental standards focus on storm water control, retention and treatment of runoff, site planning, and landscape preservation. Echoing the D.C. legislation, the standards also require green buildings, reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.

There are lots of ways to manage storm water: vegetated swales, bio-retention and filtration areas, permeable paving, dry wells, cisterns, green roofs. Most pollutants that otherwise would be dumped into the river can be removed with proper design, construction and maintenance of infrastructure, buildings and landscape.

The standards include quantitative engineering parameters, defined performance criteria, testing methods and compliance measures. Also specified are fees and allowable financial offsets for projects in which storm water control and treatment are not possible on site.

Although the standards set forth mainly technological strategies, with emphasis on critical environmental objectives such as watershed protection and energy conservation, they also recognize other needs and concerns laid out in the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative. Those include neighborhood enhancement, increased job opportunities, affordable housing and greater public access to the river.

One challenge the committee faced was finding a balance between common, well-proven practices and less proven yet promising engineering innovations. When do we make rules, or do we just set forth goals and guidelines? Are we requiring too much or too little? Will complying with the standards become financially onerous for developers and tenants?

Earlier this year, the committee completed its initial draft; issued it publicly; and then solicited reactions from citizens, developers and environmental groups. In response to comments and critiques, the committee modified the draft.

Before adopting the standards, the AWC took one more step: It retained an independent consultant to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis to verify the financial feasibility of meeting the proposed standards and check their completeness.

The analysis validated most of the committee's recommendations but did prompt a few revisions. Environmental design standards for nonresidential buildings rose, and so did standards that apply to affordable housing. However, requirements for treating overflow storm runoff were relaxed because extra treatment yielded only marginal improvement in runoff water quality at greatly increased expense.

Among the many challenges the mayor now faces will be applying and enforcing these rigorously scrutinized environmental standards. Many people will be looking over his shoulder.

The 22-page list of standards is online at

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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