Washington, D.C., Looks to Bridge Divide with Bridge Park

A proposal to build a park over the Anacostia River would add a new landmark to the nation's capital and maybe help unite a long-divided city.
by | December 22, 2014
The proposed park on the 11th Street Bridge over the Anacostia River, looking West toward Washington Navy Yard. OMA+OLIN

Washington, D.C., wants to build one of the most innovative parks since the High Line, the popular linear park built on abandoned rail tracks in New York City. An idea to build a new bridge over the Anacostia River that would be used solely as a park is garnering rave reviews from city officials and residents alike.

The proposed 11th Street Bridge Project, which would be built using public and private money, would include three waterfalls, gardens, a boat launch, an environmental education center, a café, sculptures and an auditorium -- not to mention tremendous views of the capital city's iconic buildings. If backers can raise the funding, the park would open, at the earliest, in 2018.

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But much of the excitement for the project is not about the specific amenities. Rather, it's about the chance to unite two parts of the city that sometimes seem worlds apart: the prospering area west of the river, where tourists flock to the museums and monuments on the National Mall, and the less known Anacostia neighborhood to the east.

The Anacostia area has largely been left out of the housing and economic boom that has enveloped the rest of Washington, D.C. Predominantly African-American, Anacostia has been home to black leaders from Frederick Douglass to former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who represented the area's Ward 8 on the city council until his death last month.

So building a major attraction that would draw residents from both sides of the river -- and tourists from far beyond the city -- has been part of the bridge park's appeal. "Looking at Ward 8, there are a lot of struggling families in the community. So to be able to bring something so monumental to the neighborhood and to be able to give people [from both neighborhoods] a chance to connect is more important than anything," said Rolanda Wilson, a resident of Ward 8 and a volunteer for the project.

The park would be approximately the size of three football fields laid end to end, and  would be built on top of piers that once carried a freeway bridge over the river. The freeway was torn down and relocated, but officials believe the piers are still in good enough shape to support the park. The winning design, submitted by OMA of the Netherlands and OLIN of Philadelphia, calls for the intersection of two planes that would form an elongated "X" over the river.

The District of Columbia has already committed $14.5 million toward the project, which would cover half of the construction costs. The 11th Street Bridge Project aims to raise a total of $45 million in order to include money for pre-construction planning and an endowment to pay for programming at the park, said Scott Kratz, the project's director.

The project has many similarities with New York City's High Line, which is located on the Lower West Side of Manhattan and built on an abandoned elevated rail bed. The High Line and other parks like it draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Planners of D.C.'s bridge park want the park to be more of a place than a path, though. There would also be a heavier emphasis on providing programming like concerts or classes at the bridge park.

The four goals of the project are to help improve community health, encourage people connect with the Anacostia River itself, join the neighborhoods on the opposite sides of the river and generate new jobs and economic activity. Many of the bridge's features are designed to address several of those goals. A new canoe and kayak launch, for example, would help people exercise while also connecting them to the river. One waterfall would not only attract visitors, but would help improve water quality in the river below.

Wilson, the volunteer, said she was impressed at the array of people who have been involved in the process. Community leaders from across the district, Virginia and Maryland participated, along with the federal and D.C. governments. Often on major projects, Wilson said, architects, urban planners and the government come up with the concept and finalize the details. "A lot of the times, the smaller people get left out of the decision-making," she said. "I think projects work better when everybody has a stake in it and everybody feels that their opinion matters."

One of the tasks organizers are now addressing is how to make sure that speculators and developers don't rush into the neighborhoods near the proposed bridge and displace local residents who helped shape the plans. A task force will start considering options -- which may include government land banks or tax credits -- this winter. "It's important to make sure we're getting [those protections] early, so that the thousands of people who helped shape this project from the beginning can be the ones that benefit from it the most," Kratz said. "That's going to be even more challenging than building the bridge."