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Nonprofit commits $50 million to prevent gentrification east of the Anacostia River

Tre Smith cuts Jaiden Newland’s hair at PJ’s Barbers Stylists and Nails in Anacostia, near the site of the planned 11th Street Bridge Park. (Greg Kahn for The Washington Post)
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The 11th Street Bridge Park, a planned $45 million attraction traversing the Anacostia River, is still years from being built but a nonprofit organization is already making a $50 million commitment to ensure the project does not spur widespread displacement of residents.

Sometimes likened to New York City’s High Line public park, the vision for the 11th Street Bridge Park calls for a public plaza, amphitheater, environmental education center and other amenities to be built along a 1.45-mile stretch of bridge connecting Anacostia to Capitol Hill. Organizers of the project — seeing dramatic increases in housing values east of the river — have released a series of recommendations aimed at making sure poorer residents of the neighborhood aren’t priced out once the park opens in 2018.

[Can D.C. build a $45 million park for Anacostia without pushing people out?]

Now those recommendations have their first major financial backer, the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a nonprofit organization with offices in 31 sites around the country that has been investing in D.C. neighborhoods since 1982. Grants or loans from LISC have supported the Atlas Performing Arts on H Street, the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) and an Anacostia jobs training center featuring Busboys & Poets that is under construction.

Oramenta Newsome, president of the D.C. office, said she was initially skeptical a park could be built atop a series of abandoned piers.

But as the plans evolved, attracting interest from architects and philanthropic foundations, she said she was convinced not only that the bridge would get built but that it would usher dramatic change into poorer neighborhoods east of the river by hastening investments from developers.

Newsome says LISC will provide $50 million in support to groups providing affordable housing, early childhood education, medical care, food support, arts education and other services in the area near the park site to ensure that poorer residents are able to remain in the communities should a wave of development arrive. LISC receives funding from banks, corporations, foundations and government agencies, and plans to seek proposals from community groups interested in receiving grants or loans.

“What we’re trying to do is first of all send a message that it does matter, that we have to be conscious and deliberate to improve our quality of life in these neighborhoods and make sure that people with modest incomes have a fighting chance to stay and remain there and enjoy all the goodies that are on the way like the Walgreen’s that is coming, the Busboys & Poets that is coming,” Newsome said.

[Poorer tenants fear being pushed out by planned Congress Heights complex]

“I just always thought this would be a huge change,” she said of the park. “Not so much for Capitol Hill but for the areas east of the river. And the question for us was are we just going to shut our eyes to this or are we going to at least make a try at it?”

There is no certainty that the park will be built at all; at last count only about one quarter of the $45 million price tag had been committed. But the director of the project, Scott Kratz of Building Bridges Across the River at THEARC, said he has several large grant applications in the works and called LISC’s support a critical investment in the effort to “ensure the thousands of residents who have helped shape this project can continuously benefit from this new civic space.”

Newsome said the $50 million commitment stood no matter when the park opens: “LISC is committed to these neighborhoods and this dollar figure regardless of what happens. This is not us just waking up one morning and saying, ‘Oh, let’s do all this new stuff.’ We’re in the business of improving this quality of life in the neighborhood regardless.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz