After Wednesday’s announcement that the 11th Street Bridge Park project has been awarded to the design team of OMA and Olin, developers of the urban park gave new details about what the winning architects and landscape designers have in mind. It is easy to see why OMA and Olin impressed the jury and rose above the other three finalists selected earlier this year from more than 80 entrants in a national design competition.
In a presentation Thursday morning, representatives of the architectural giant OMA — based in Rotterdam, Netherlands — and Olin — which helped re-create New York’s successful Bryant Park and has been selected to reconfigure the grounds of the Washington Monument — began with their idea for the bridge’s basic structural form and worked out from there. They envision the park, which will be built on the now empty piers of the old 11th Street Bridge, as a giant, flattened “X,” rising gently from both sides of the Anacostia River, with an open plaza at the intersection. This form allows the park not only to connect to the landscape of Capitol Hill and Anacostia, but creates two gently sloping arms that rise high enough to provide views to the Capitol and into the neighborhoods which the park is meant to connect.
It also creates shaded space under the extended arms, enclosed areas that will house a cafe and environmental education center and canted planes that can be used, among other things, for an amphitheater. None of the other three entrants offered a design quite so simple in its basic form, yet full of such possibilities for articulating that form into smaller zones. There was much to like in the other proposals, especially the lean, cool lines and linear fluidity of a submission by Howeler + Yoon Architecture, but the jury was unanimous in its selection of OMA.
The simplicity of this relatively small OMA project may share some DNA with the larger OMA firm, also known as the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which works around the world and is particularly known for its bold, bristling, gigantism, especially in iconic works such as the CCTV tower in Beijing, and the surprisingly agreeable mechanical contraption of its central library in Seattle. Even in this morning’s presentation, several slides showed the quick migration of the flattened-X form into branding concepts for the project: In winter, it may afford space for hockey, and one slide showed a T-shirt emblazoned with crossed hockey sticks overlaid on the X. Another tag line may already be in the works: “X marks the spot.” OMA’s founder and guiding force, Rem Koolhaas, has articulated an ambitious goal for major metropolitan architectural projects. At their best, and by sheer force of size and iconic presence, his works are meant to reconfigure the spaces around them.
On a much smaller scale, the flattened-X form is already being set to work to gather an audience for the 11th Street Bridge well beyond the two neighborhoods where the bridge will intersect with the larger city. And gathering a larger audience will be key to seeing this project through to completion. The city has already put forward enough money for the project to be taken seriously by outside funders, including $2 million in the current fiscal year, and $6.5 million a year in 2016 and 2017. The current estimate is that the whole project will cost $40 million, with an opening date of 2018 at the soonest. That leaves a substantial amount of money to be secured from private sources.
Scott Kratz, director of the bridge project, is realistic but optimistic about raising the funds. At the news conference, he deftly dealt with at least one skeptical audience member, who asked whether the project would lead to increased taxes, increased traffic and further gentrification. Kratz said that the funding already secured from the city came from savings on another bridge construction project and would not result in higher taxes and that there would be intensive study of traffic and environmental issues. As for gentrification, he doesn’t like the word, preferring the term “displacement,” which encompasses deep changes to the population, culture and economics of a neighborhood. But it is a vital question, and dealing with it should be built into the larger bridge project at every step.
If finished in anything like the form shown this morning, the bridge park will raise property values and the desirability of neighborhoods on both sides of the river. But it could also become a pilot project in creative thinking about how to mitigate the downside of that boon, the displacement of longtime residents and existing businesses as taxes and rents go up, and developers swoop in to make everything clean, polished and generic. Kratz said the key thing is to address the problem now, before any kind of speculation begins, and while property values are still low enough that the city and the neighborhoods have options. Those may include having the city invest in cheaper properties, hold on to them, and then drive a hard bargain when it comes to affordable housing ratios; using historic tax credits to enable residents to maintain and stay in their properties; creating some kind of “artistic overlay” that would steer development toward cultural uses and encourage diverse populations to remain in the area; and create hiring guidelines that would benefit local and city workers.
The success of those ideas will make a big difference for how the bridge is perceived once it is up and running. There’s little doubt, given the current design team and project leadership, that the park can succeed as an urban amenity. But will that amenity be a beachhead for development on the Anacostia side that looks just like the old development near the Navy Yard, in Southwest and other newly gentrified neighborhoods? Or will the city, which has already helped this project get off the ground, look forward more aggressively and more presciently, and start laying the groundwork for urban improvement that doesn’t lead inexorably to urban displacement?