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Utility company gives $5 million for D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park

Proposal would transform Anacostia River crossing into open space.

People play flag football at Anacostia Park with the 11th Street Bridge seen in the background. (Greg Kahn/for The Washington Post)
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The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington inched closer to its funding goal Tuesday with the announcement that Exelon, the parent company of electric utilities Pepco and Constellation, has given $5 million to the project.

The new park would tie Ward 8 and Capitol Hill together with an X-shaped ribbon of green above the Anacostia River featuring gardens, an open plaza, an amphitheater, play areas and a solar-powered environmental education center staffed by the Anacostia Watershed Society. The park, often compared to New York City’s popular High Line, is intended to create open space and help reclaim the river while limiting gentrification that could follow.

“The beauty of this bridge is not only will it connect us to Capitol Hill, but … it will heal our communities,” said Brenda Richardson, a resident of Ward 8 and onetime staffer for former mayor Marion Barry. “There’s great trauma on our side of the river, and we are looking for some happiness and some joy.”

James R. Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, said he sees the park as the “Arc de Triomphe” of the long-running effort to save the Anacostia River.

“We’ve told people for so many generations, ‘Don’t go there — that river’s dirty,’” he said. “But today, we’re bringing them back.”

Although there needs to be more progress in cleaning up the river, it is almost safe to swim in, Foster said. A few years from now, it might even support commercial fishing — a change that has been decades in the making as conservationists fought for better controls on sewage treatment and other industrial activities.

Scott Kratz, vice president of the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River, said the project has raised about 80 percent of the $139 million in public and private funds necessary to transform the remains of a defunct bridge into a 1.45-mile urban green and make investments in the neighborhood, such as for affordable housing and job training.

It’s shaped by the spirit of “equitable development,” which strives to share the benefits of urban development in a fairer and more inclusive way, Kratz said. Part of the effort has involved creating pilot programs that incentivize people in the community to save for their children’s college educations by matching contributions 5-to-1 up to $1,800.

“On the surface you might ask, ‘What does a children’s savings account have to do with building a bridge?’ Nothing, and yet everything,” Kratz said, adding that many families east of the river are often underserved or poorly served by financial institutions that often lead them into using payday and car title loans. “Because we need to make sure we’re not only investing in this bricks and mortar, but that we’re investing directly in the community.”

11th Street Bridge Park project draws big-name philanthropists

Kratz, the project’s director, said Exelon’s gift brings the total raised so far to $111.5 million toward the project’s goal. The District, through its Department of Transportation, has contributed more than $38 million, Kratz said. The design — headed by OMA + Olin — is underway, and planners have begun the permitting process, Kratz said. The target date for its opening is 2023.