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D.C.’s first elevated park will link neighborhoods divided by river

A $90 million project would add educational and recreational space atop piers and pilings from the old 11th Street Bridge

Scott Kratz, left, vice president of Building Bridges Across the River, leads residents on a tour of the planned park along the Anacostia River in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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When the 11th Street bridges were being reconstructed, Harriet Tregoning, the District’s then-director of planning, sought to save the piers and pilings of one of the old bridges. It reduced demolition costs and left open the possibility of one day repurposing the infrastructure.

More than a decade later, her vision is coming together as D.C. wraps up a $90 million plan to mount a new deck over those pilings and piers, where the city plans to build gardens, public art space and a platform for community events with views of the Anacostia River. It would be the first elevated park in the nation’s capital, owned by the District and managed by Ward 8-based nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River.

The design for the 11th Street Bridge Park is nearly complete, a milestone for an atypical transportation project that will link the District’s poorest ward to one of its wealthiest, and one that city leaders and supporters say would spur economic growth east of the river. While discussions are underway in several cities to link communities separated by highways, the D.C. project is unusual in that it aims to connect neighborhoods above a natural river.

“I couldn’t be happier that it’s going to be realized,” said Tregoning, a D.C. resident who has followed the progress in the past decade. But the credit isn’t hers, she said. “Lots of people have ideas. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is getting something as wonderful and complicated and difficult as this to happen.”

Early in the process, Tregoning asked Scott Kratz, who was working as a museum educator at the time, to help explore the possibilities of reusing the old bridge piers. The city had considered adding a new trail or streetcar route atop the piers. Those concepts faded quickly, but Kratz said the community became more enthusiastic about a park to create a communal space between the Navy Yard and Anacostia neighborhoods.

“These communities are separated by 900 feet of water. They have been divided for generations,” Kratz said. The park, he said, could bring residents on both sides together while serving as “an anchor for economic and environmental justice.”

Kratz volunteered to run community meetings about park planning until he joined Building Bridges in 2014, leading the effort through an organization with Southeast D.C. roots. The park, however, turned out to be only a piece of the project.

In 10 years, Building Bridges has raised $122 million from corporations, foundations, private donors and federal grants. The District is putting $45 million toward the park construction using general funds. Building Bridges is paying the other half and is about $9 million away from its fundraising goal, Kratz said.

Most of the money that Building Bridges raised, $85.4 million, has gone to support residents east of the river as part of an anti-displacement program. An economic analysis showed the project’s potential to create jobs and jump-start development, but also warned of likely increases to property values and risks of displacing residents.

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“We’ve seen these kind of parks around the country can generate a tremendous amount of value, and oftentimes that value is extricated from the community,” Kratz said. “The last thing we’d want to do is that the same residents who helped shape this park for the last 10 years are unintentionally displaced. We saw this real unique opportunity to get ahead of that.”

Several programs are in place to assist the community, said Vaughn Perry, the nonprofit’s director of equity. He said more than 150 residents have secured jobs through a construction training program, and some of the graduates are expected to help build the park. Down-payment assistance has gone to more than 100 Ward 8 renters to help them become homeowners. Black-owned businesses have received technical support, low-cost loans and grants.

“It has been really important for us to make sure that local residents are part of the process at the park,” Perry recently told residents touring the banks of the Anacostia.

Other cities that are planning similar parks are looking at the D.C. project as a model, said Kratz, who has advised officials in Los Angeles, Dallas and Buffalo on anti-displacement strategies.

The new park, to be built adjacent to the westernmost of the three 11th Street bridges, was inspired by projects such as New York’s High Line, an elevated railway line remade as a garden promenade. The D.C. project will be an X-shaped ribbon of green above the Anacostia, featuring an open plaza, amphitheater, play areas for children and a solar-powered environmental education center staffed by the Anacostia Watershed Society.

With most of the construction funding secured, the District Department of Transportation is planning to put the project out to bid this fall, meaning construction could begin next year with an opening in 2025. The project is expected to receive final clearance this fall from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, which have review oversight.

Project officials say they are also creating artwork on both sides of the bridge to reduce the impact of highways that have separated the communities. In addition to the local traffic on the 11th Street Bridge, two Southeast Freeway spans cut through the area.

The District replaced the two 11th Street bridges with three spans to ease traffic flow across the river, adding ramps and interchanges with the Anacostia Freeway. The project was designed to create a separate crossing for local traffic, carrying drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, to connect to neighborhoods on both sides of the river while providing a better link for highway commuters.

When the park opens, residents could gather at a cafe, children could learn about the river at the environmental education center and visitors could launch kayaks and canoes into the river. A 250-person outdoor amphitheater would host local performers, while the park would house the work of artists near a grove where visitors could enjoy views of the city and the river. It also will include a sculpture of the Anacostia River’s native plants.

Ahmad Woodard, 24, an artist who grew up in Anacostia and still lives in the area, helped to curate art that will go into the park. He said local artists will have a platform to perform and display their work while the amphitheater will host performances and festivals that would put Anacostia on the map for people in the region who have never visited.

“I see a lot of people connecting through this bridge in a great way,” Woodard said.

Tregoning said she hopes the result will be what was envisioned a decade ago: “a space where people who wouldn’t otherwise be in the same place would be able to mingle and do things together.”