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Bridging D.C.‘s Starkest Divide

Can a park over the Anacostia River spur a revolution in urban development?

Story by Amanda Kolson Hurley

Photography by Jati Lindsay

Published on Nov 21, 2016

On the evening of Sept. 17, people in running shoes swarmed over Washington, D.C.’s Yards Park. Contestants in a relay race, they chatted with team members wearing matching T-shirts, some emblazoned with the logos of Fortune 500 companies, and sipped beer under orange tents. The runners had just finished a Ragnar Relay — a 200-mile endurance test popular with the kind of highly educated strivers who have poured into D.C. since the early 2000s. The finish-line party matched the yuppie vibe of the redeveloped Navy Yard neighborhood around it, known for its restaurant scene and pricey apartments.

Farther down the Anacostia Riverwalk, as the runners thinned out, another crowd gathered. Families bent over long tables as a violinist played. They glued tissue-paper shapes and photos of figures from black history into colorful strips to make decorated lanterns. Volunteers handed out LED candles. When a local charter school marching band struck up and started to walk east, everyone followed, swinging their lanterns in the dusk. Their destination was Anacostia, a neighborhood just a mile away, but far removed from the urban playground that is Navy Yard.

The gulf between these two parts of the District, separated only by the Anacostia River, has become emblematic of the extremes of poverty and wealth in a polarized city. On the west side, in Navy Yard and nearby Capitol Hill, the median household income (as of 2014) was $91,000; on the east side, in Anacostia and Congress Heights, it was $32,000. Manifesting a pattern seen in cities around the country, the poorer neighborhoods east of the Anacostia are 94 percent black, while their wealthier counterparts to the west are whiter.

That is partly a result of the many thousands of young, white professionals who have flocked to D.C. over the past decade — but not hopped the river, so far. As entrepreneurs and investors scramble to cater to these new residents, Navy Yard and other hip neighborhoods like Petworth and Shaw get bars serving cider flights and restaurants lauded by Bon Appetit.

It’s a different story in Wards 7 and 8 across the river. Anacostia has only a few sit-down restaurants. It doesn’t even have a full-service grocery store.

The organizer-in-chief of the Lantern Walk, Scott Kratz, has an idea to close the gap between the city’s haves and have-nots. Dressed in a crisp button-down shirt and jeans that September evening, Kratz was no master of ceremonies. He walked behind the marching band and listened to the African drummers perform with the rest of the crowd, the only clue to his role a steady stream of people who approached him, pumped his hand and stopped to talk.

Kratz is promoting an audacious plan to join the neighborhoods on either side of the river — and not just figuratively speaking. He hopes to build an attraction-packed park high above the Anacostia itself, spanning the water on concrete piers left over from a highway bridge that’s now gone. The elevated park will be the size of three football fields, placed end to end, and will cost $45 million or more to build. Kratz hopes construction will kick off in mid-2018, and the bridge could open as soon as late 2019.

Back in 2014, Kratz announced a design competition, and a jury chose the celebrated Dutch architecture firm OMA, along with the landscape architects OLIN, to envision the park. Architectural renderings of their concept — a bridge in the shape of a flattened X with various activity zones, like an amphitheater and a cafe, on each of the X’s arms — caught fire on the internet and appeared in countless magazines and newspapers.

A rendering of the winning proposal, by OLA and Olin Studio (Credit: OMA/Olin)

One reason the design went viral is the inspiring idea behind it: to forge a link between divided areas, a link that will be an amenity for the people who live there as well as a destination for visitors from farther afield. The thinking is that the wealth concentrated in the west will start to flow east, while the people who live in the east will gain better access to the lion’s share of jobs and education opportunities to the west.

“Equity and inclusiveness: I don’t think it’s too strong to say this is one of the critical issues of our time,” Kratz says. “Development for development’s sake, just putting shovels in the ground, that’s not good enough. How does that money, the time and the resources go back to support the local community?”

But a funny thing happened on the way to making the 11th Street Bridge Park, as it’s called, a reality. Developers and middle-class homebuyers have “discovered” east of the River, especially the small-town charms of the historic Anacostia neighborhood. In D.C., gentrification had already rolled north to Petworth, northeast to Trinidad, and southwest to Navy Yard and beyond. Eventually, it was going to turn southeast and jump the river. It did, and home prices in Anacostia shot up by 27 percent in 2015.

The challenge facing Kratz has always been big, but it keeps growing extra heads. First, he wanted to build a bridge that was a park, a major attraction that was also a major piece of infrastructure. (“When we started this, I thought transforming an old freeway into a park over the Anacostia River was an ambitious enough idea,” he jokes.) Soon after, he determined to use the park to expand opportunities to residents of D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8. Now he wants to do both of these things while preventing the displacement of current residents and other unwanted side effects of gentrification.

To accomplish this, Kratz and his collaborators are developing a new protocol for urban development, one that anticipates change in order to spread its benefits to all, and tests itself against hard metrics. If it succeeds, it will be a model for how to build a trophy urban design project while fulfilling a vision of social responsibility. The potential is “revolutionary” and “enormous,” Kratz says. But in a city like D.C., which is experiencing whiplash from changes so fast moving and profound, will it work?

The 11th Street Bridge Park “is the one project that’s going to ring the dinner bell for the last frontier of gentrification,” says Kymone Freeman, a D.C. activist and artist who co-owns a community radio station in Anacostia. “Anacostia has the potential of becoming Georgetown really easily” — for good or ill.

“What gets measured gets done”

Kratz’s base of operations is THEARC (Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus), a sprawling arts and rec center crossed with a health clinic, a Boys and Girls Club, a youth shelter, a girls’ school, and other service centers. Built and operated by a consortium of local nonprofits, THEARC sits on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast Washington, in a neighborhood of garden apartments and vinyl-sided townhouses just shy of the Maryland line. The Bridge Park team — officially a unit of the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River at THEARC — works in a small suite of rooms above a theater, accessed via the dressing room. It feels improvisational, befitting a project that grew out of a conversation between friends, and has outstripped anyone’s expectations.

Back in 2011, the now oft-told story goes, Harriet Tregoning, then D.C.’s planning director, got to thinking about the piers left standing in the Anacostia following the dismantling of the old highway bridge, replaced by a new one just to the east. What if these piers could be repurposed somehow?

She talked to Kratz, then the vice president for education at the National Building Museum in downtown Washington, and they hatched the idea of a linear park like the High Line in New York. He agreed to find out if the idea had legs, and sat through a marathon of meetings — about 200 — with community groups on either side of the river. The response was positive, so Kratz kept meeting, planning and pushing. In 2014, he quit his job at the museum to advocate for the park full-time, as an employee of Building Bridges.

“Development for development’s sake, just putting shovels in the ground, that’s not good enough. How does that money, the time and the resources go back to support the local community?”

The first sign the project was more than a utopian dream was a commitment in 2014 by the city, under then-Mayor Vincent Gray, to fund a substantial part of the cost. Large donations followed, and Kratz has now raised $15.5 million (including $11.45 million from the District), with another major gift pending, he says.

Since the beginning, the project has stressed collaborating with local residents. For example, the design competition back in 2014 departed from the usual practice of an ivory-tower jury picking a winner in isolation. Instead, Kratz formed an “oversight committee” of local civic-minded types — everyone from the head of a soup kitchen to environmental activists to the director of the Washington Ballet. This group edited the design brief before it went out, met with the finalist designers and advised the jury.

Other Bridge Park efforts show the same degree of conscientiousness. Take the Lantern Walk. With a craft activity and musical performances, it held obvious appeal as a family-friendly event. But the rationale for organizing it was rooted in a piece of Washington history that Kratz and his partners learned: In the late 19th century, African-Americans who worked in Washington would cross the river after dark and build their own houses near Anacostia by candlelight. On the walk, a local pastor gave a prayer to honor these forerunners.

However, it’s the project’s Equitable Development Plan, finalized last winter, that really sets it apart. (The plan was funded by the JPB Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and LISC DC.) Shortly after announcing the winning design for the park in 2014, Kratz convened a task force to discuss equitable development in the areas around the bridge. This task force had a core of nine people, plus special groups of 15 to 20 people each that focused on three areas: housing, workforce development and small business enterprises. What emerged from their discussions was a set of strategies under each of these three rubrics — and crucially, a timeline, coordinated with the expected timeline for rollout of the plan.

The strategies are chronologically staggered: For example, efforts to preserve and increase affordable housing in the area have already begun, whereas nurturing small businesses (like food kiosks) to operate on the bridge will happen later, closer to the park’s completion.

Peter Tatian, a fellow at the Urban Institute, a D.C. think tank, was on the core task force. Tatian proposed that the Bridge Park campaign be assessed as it went through each phase of the project, submitting to a series of check-ins that would let staff and collaborators know whether they were meeting their own targets. Another researcher at the Urban Institute with no prior connection to the park, Mary Bogle, was recruited to set metrics, evaluate progress and chronicle the whole thing.

Asking community members to weigh in on an equitable development plan, as Bridge Park has, is not that unusual, Bogle notes. But for the people responsible to be graded on how effective they are? “I think it’s very uncommon,” she says. “That’s why we were interested in the project. We thought the fact they’re doing this process, and they want to submit it to this rigor, takes them ahead of a lot of other folks. [It’s] the level of seriousness they have.”

Bridge Park shares the ambitions of another, albeit much bigger, urban development project: the Atlanta BeltLine, which is repurposing a 22-mile railroad loop into a necklace of trails, parks and, eventually, streetcar lines around that city. Knowing that each completed section would spur development and possibly gentrification, those overseeing the BeltLine’s implementation set a goal of creating 5,600 units of affordable housing along its path. Ryan Gravel is the urban planner who first laid out the idea for the park system. He says he has researched development projects with social equity goals around the country, and the 11th Street Bridge Park is a national leader, “really embracing it and sort of foregrounding it as part of the vision.”

In her initial report on Bridge Park, released this past summer, Bogle points out that although broad and intensive community engagement is laudable, it doesn’t necessarily produce results. Take the Unified New Orleans Plan developed after Hurricane Katrina. It was widely praised for its inclusivity at the time but is now considered a failure. “The multiplicity of voices meant that there was no cohesive, overarching vision and no one with ultimate responsibility for results,” Bogle writes in the report. “As such, other business interests dominated recovery in New Orleans, increasing economic disparity and leaving many parts of the city behind.”

Kratz and his Bridge Park colleagues do not want to go down that path, and Bogle believes the new, monitored approach is promising. “It’s sort of a platitude, but what gets measured gets done,” she says. “In the case of [the New Orleans] plan, there wasn’t a follow-up process to measure it. So that is different about Bridge Park.” Next year, she’ll be working with Bridge Park staff on a quality improvement process, and by 2018, she expects to have enough data to begin to study impacts.

Meanwhile, Kratz will keep building partnerships with civic associations, churches, schools, arts groups and everyone else on his radar. He buzzes with enthusiasm for the initiatives currently taking up his time. Partnering with a local nonprofit, City First Homes, on establishing a community land trust that will attempt to create permanently affordable housing. Supporting a Ward 8 Homebuyers Club (with another local nonprofit, MANNA). Holding tenants’ rights workshops (with Housing Counseling Services). Planting urban farms east of the river. Next up is workforce development. Kratz estimates that he spends 50 percent of his time not on building the park, but rolling out the Equitable Development Plan. Next month a full-time equitable development manager will join their team.

“Energetic” and “engaging” are words you hear a lot in reference to 46-year-old Kratz, a native of California. His friendly, guy-next-door manner belies how hard he works, attending community events a few nights a week as well as directing his small staff, fundraising and generally being on call for partners and community members.

“He is literally listening to people and then going back and coming up with something [to address their concerns],” says Tina Fletcher, a representative on one of Anacostia’s advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs), the hyperlocal bodies unique to D.C. government. “‘You’re concerned about contractors from Ward 8 not getting business? Here’s what I can do.’ And it’s in real time.”

Who will really benefit?

Anacostia grew out of Uniontown, a suburb established in the 1850s, which had restrictive covenants barring people of African and Irish descent. Undeterred, Frederick Douglass bought a house called Cedar Hill just over the Uniontown line and lived there until his death in 1895. (The house, with prime views of the Capitol and downtown Washington, is now a National Park Service site.) Uniontown was home to whites who worked at the Navy Yard across the river, while freed slaves settled nearby in Barry Farm. During the 1950s and 1960s, white flight to the postwar suburbs changed the demographics of the area, and it became predominantly African-American. Marion Barry, Washington’s “mayor for life” until his death in 2014, lived at different stages of his life in Anacostia and in nearby Hillcrest.

Today, the rowhouses in Anacostia’s historic district often sell for $400,000 or less. This has not gone unnoticed in a city where a similar 19th-century house can easily set you back $1 million. As the neighborhood around the Navy Yard has exploded with new development, proximity to it has become desirable, even if it means crossing the river on what is now a spartan sidewalk unshielded from lanes of traffic.

“Do not miss out on this … house in a booming location,” reads a real estate ad for a rowhouse for sale on U Street Southeast. “Walk to Anacostia Metro and across 11th St. Bridge to D.C. Navy Yard.” Another boasts: “Capitol Hill Style Living for Half the Price. 4 Blocks from 295 and the 11th St. Bridge.” If and when the Bridge Park gets built, the perceived distance to the Navy Yard will shrink, and the park itself will only enhance the desirability of an Anacostia address.

Bridge Park isn’t the only big change headed for Anacostia, and in fact, it’s far from the biggest. The southwest edge of the neighborhood is being transformed: The huge St. Elizabeths Hospital site is being redeveloped into a campus for the U.S. Department for Homeland Security, as well as new housing, offices, stores and a practice facility for the Wizards and Mystics basketball teams. (A new U.S. Coast Guard headquarters already opened in 2013.) Meanwhile, developers are drawing up plans for large apartment buildings along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in downtown Anacostia.

In October, local businessman Andy Shallal broke ground on a new branch of his popular bistro-slash-bookstore, Busboys and Poets, on the same MLK strip. This in particular has sparked concerns about gentrification, since Busboys is known for leaving upscale development in its wake whenever it enters a neighborhood. On a local radio show over the summer, Schyla Pondexter-Moore, a community organizer, objected to Shallal, Kratz and other “outside developers” coming in, and said there should be new rules for community-controlled development in Ward 8.

“When a Busboys pops up, then you see high-rises pop up, then you see condos pop up, then you see black folks disappear,” she said. (Shallal, for his part, countered that when he was running for mayor in 2014, the most common question he got was, “When are you bringing a Busboys and Poets here to Ward 8?”).

Kratz is white and lives a few blocks away from the 11th Street Bridge on the west side of the river, and the park — with its waterfall and cafe and rain garden — is a natural target for people organizing against rising rents and displacement. Kratz and his project have certainly raised some hackles, but not as many as you might expect.

“Scott, he is trying,” says Fletcher, the ANC commissioner. She has not become involved in Bridge Park activities — the better to remain a neutral go-between for her community, she says — but is impressed by Kratz’s dedication. “He is here and available.”

Kymone Freeman is collaborating with Scott Kratz on the project. 

Freeman, who describes gentrification as “cultural genocide” (“Write that down”), is collaborating with Kratz, who “has fully acknowledged the negative effects that can be a part of the [park’s] implementation,” according to Freeman. He supports the project, although some activists he knows don’t. Like Pondexter-Moore, Freeman believes there should be special measures that apply to development east of the River. (He suggests a property tax freeze and a special area median income index for east of the River, ideas that are not in the Bridge Park’s Equitable Development Plan currently, although Kratz says he would be “interested in exploring” them.)

Norman Nixon, a minister at Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia, worked with Kratz to start a community garden next to the church. Nixon observes that a lot of residents who aren’t involved in civic groups might not know about Bridge Park yet, or at least not much. The key to buy-in, he believes, will be if “some of the people in the community can get the training to hold some of the jobs that’ll be available. I think, from a community trust standpoint, that would allow people to have some faith that this project will be beneficial.”

Kratz recently got buy-in of an extraordinary magnitude. In April, the D.C. office of LISC (the Local Initiatives Support Corporation), the community development clearinghouse, pledged to invest $50 million to promote equity and improve the quality of life in areas close to the park. Kratz still shakes his head in amazement at the size of the pledge. “The fact that we’re investing more dollars in the local community than we are in the bricks and mortar to build this … ,” he trails off. “Five-zero. Wow.” None of that money will go to the Bridge Park itself.

LISC started working with Bridge Park back in 2013 and helped draft the Equitable Development Plan. Oramenta Newsome, vice president of LISC DC, says the motivation behind the commitment — which LISC is calling the Elevating Equity Initiative — was “to acknowledge that large-scale development of this nature is a factor in the increasing cost of living in neighborhoods.”

“If we are not deliberate,” she explains, “if we don’t make specific commitments to help and provide goodies and opportunities and benefits to lower-income people in these neighborhoods, the market will simply do what the market does,” and punish the less advantaged.

LISC has already funneled a total of $5 million to, respectively, a nonprofit helping tenants purchase their 18-unit apartment building on Good Hope Road in Anacostia; another nonprofit that repairs deteriorating homes owned by locals who are elderly or disabled; and the Washington School for Girls, which offers tuition-free education to disadvantaged girls in grades 3 through 8. Newsome says the $50 million figure is not a cap — if more work is left to be done, LISC will gladly consider providing more funding.

Bogle, of the Urban Institute, calls the LISC commitment a “process result” for Bridge Park. While not an outcome of the park per se, it proves that Kratz’s M.O. inspires confidence among local decision makers. Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and a task force member, echoes this. “The fact that it is a prominent organization saying it wants to invest a substantial amount of its capital in this effort hopefully will be a sign, whether to the D.C. government or others, that this is a worthwhile thing to do.”

Runners approach the 11th Street Bridge.

Meanwhile, the actual park (remember it?) needs to get built. While the task pales in comparison to uniting a fractured city, it will be far from simple. Early news stories pegged the construction cost at $25 million, but the current estimate is $35 million (plus $10 million for operations and maintenance). A detailed feasibility study will be carried out soon, and that could push the number higher.

Kratz hopes to raise $10 million through New Markets Tax Credits, but even with $15.5 million already secured, that leaves him with a substantial gap. Last year, the city council voted that none of the money it had allocated to the project could be spent until half the anticipated construction cost had been met by private donors, and no public money at all could go toward maintenance or operations. The park isn’t part of the District’s Comprehensive Plan, which was last adopted in 2011, although one of Kratz’s goals is to get it into the plan’s next revision. A planning department staffer sat on the Bridge Park task force, and “the 11th Street Bridge Park team participates as a stakeholder in recent and ongoing OP planning initiatives,” says Edward Giefer, associate director of the Office of Planning.

However, the LISC pledge seems likely to pull in more gifts. Kratz is bullish on naming opportunities for the amphitheater, environmental education center and other elements of the future park.

Money aside, there are physical challenges to making the bridge a seamless connector between two parts of the city. The bridge does not travel straight from downtown Anacostia to the heart of Navy Yard or Capitol Hill. On either side, there are a couple of pedestrian approaches about one-third of a mile long each: 11th Street and the Anacostia Riverwalk on the west, MLK and Good Hope Road on the east. The environment on the east is a mess of roads and ramps, a legacy of the freeway projects that cut Anacostia off from the water back in the 1950s and ’60s.

Kratz is trying to fix up one approach from the east, decorating an underpass with triptychs by a local artist and LED lighting. The other side, up 11th Street to the Hill, “is an even bigger challenge,” he says; Bridge Park has commissioned a series of murals for the long wall that delineates the Washington Navy Yard (which is still a working military installation).

There is one environmental factor working in Kratz’s favor, though. Just before Bridge Park is expected to open, D.C. Water should finish building a tunnel that will capture the sewer overflow that now runs into the Anacostia. The river’s water will become much cleaner almost overnight — a perfect opportunity for Washingtonians to rediscover the Anacostia.

With the massive investment in the community via LISC and Bridge Park’s own robust program of community equity-driven activities, getting the park built seems to have taken a backseat for now. Maybe this means the process that Kratz, Bogle, Newsome and other collaborators devised is working as it’s supposed to: They are getting out ahead of the park’s gentrifying impacts.

But another marquee project from Washington’s recent history comes to mind, the D.C. Streetcar, which finally started running earlier this year after countless delays and amid skepticism as to the public need for it (ridership has been better than expected, however). Some critics argued that the streetcar’s real benefit came before it carried a single passenger, in the development it spurred along the H Street corridor.

That raises the question: Does the 11th Street Bridge Park project even need the park to meet its goal of reducing inequity?

Kratz is adamant that it does. “The bridge is the catalyst for all this work,” he responds when I ask him. “The fact that we’ve leveraged a $25 million investment in the park, which will bring another $50 million — it’s really quite remarkable. We expect that to continue to grow. Without the bridge, without the park, that wouldn’t have happened. Then, keep in mind, after the park opens, there will be all sorts of programming. … I think the Bridge Park can be a force multiplier for all of these efforts moving forward.”

Newsome says it was Kratz’s outsize vision that drew her to the project, once she realized it was feasible in engineering terms. “I don’t know that you often meet people that you get a chance to be a part of their dream,” she says of Kratz. Sometimes, a dream can serve a pragmatic purpose, she argues.

“We have been investing in these neighborhoods since we started in the ‘80s — we could have easily done this without the bridge,” she concedes. “But there is something fantastical about it. In community development, we are often dealing with the negatives of the situation, and we’re trying to make it all better. There is a need to have some magical opportunity. It’s a big motivator.”

The Lantern Walk, with hundreds of points of light floating over the bridge to the strains of “We Shall Overcome,” was certainly not short on magic. Kratz has to keep making it and keep selling it to funders and officials, while taking care that the magic doesn’t get co-opted.

If anyone else has been there, it’s Gravel, in Atlanta. The BeltLine is his baby, but he resigned from its board in October, concerned that the project is not doing enough to advance social equity as it fuels gentrification.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s hard,” Gravel says. “There’s no silver bullet, there’s no single tool. You have to follow through on all of them.”

This article was made possible with the generous support of the Surdna Foundation

Amanda Kolson Hurley is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland. Formerly an editor at Architect and Preservation magazines, she has contributed to a wide range of publications including the Washington Post, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and the Times Literary Supplement.