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Bridging The Gap Between Two Neighborhoods

Sep 4, 2012
Originally published on September 6, 2012 7:19 pm

Cities around the nation have tried a variety of approaches to revitalizing their urban cores. Some have turned to repurposing old infrastructure to breathe new life into neighborhoods.

One such effort is under way in the nation's capital, where the redevelopment of a bridge linking a wealthy part of the city with a lower-income one may present an opportunity — if an ambitious park plan can be brought to fruition.

A '21st Century Playground'

The city's 11th Street Bridge, in southeastern Washington, carries interstate and local traffic over the Anacostia River. The Washington Navy Yard and Capitol Hill lie on one side of the bridge, and the neighborhood known as Anacostia, and much of Southeast D.C., lie on the other.

The city is in the midst of a massive bridge replacement, creating a brand new span to handle the daily traffic. The adjacent old span is being dismantled and was slated to be torn down.

But now, there's a fledgling effort to turn the old bridge into a park across the water. Instead of carrying 18-wheelers, the repurposed old span would carry pedestrians.

"What we're proposing to do is to transform this old freeway into a place of active recreation," says Scott Kratz, vice president for education at the National Building Museum and a volunteer adviser for the proposed project.

Kratz envisions the bridge becoming a public space full of activity over the water. It would connect waterfront parks on either side, while also linking a wealthier area of the city with a poorer one.

"We're thinking of having 21st century playgrounds," Kratz says. "We're thinking about having performance spaces. We're thinking about [activating] the Anacostia River by having steps that go down to a kayak rental or canoe rental area."

Kratz has been collecting other ideas from residents, too: a skate park; a climbing wall; a farmers market; an orchard of fruit trees; and a harvest festival.

The park proposal began in the city's planning office. And while Kratz is only a volunteer, he's asking for suggestions for the bridge every chance he gets. He's been holding design workshops with students and going to community meetings and coffees, all with the aim of drumming up support — and millions in private funding.

"I will meet with anybody, anywhere, to hear their ideas about the 11th Street Bridge project," Kratz says.

A Plan To Bridge Two Communities

The Anacostia River, which runs through the Maryland suburbs and Washington, D.C., into the Potomac River, has long been a dividing line in the capital, physically, economically and racially. The neighborhood on the eastern side is more than 90 percent black and is relatively low-income in comparison with the western side.

So a park on this bridge could serve not just as a marquee attraction in the nation's capital but as an important symbol, as well.

Showing off renderings of the proposed project from the D.C. Office of Planning, Kratz gets into the project's core goals and some real complexities: bridging two communities and spawning new development.

In the plans, the windows of one empty storefront are spruced up with a mural — and information about the possible park.

Resident Tamara Wormley and her children seem to like the idea. "It'd give more kids a chance to get out [and do] something different," Wormley says. "They don't have to be vandalizing a lot of things around here."

Ron Beidleman, who lives nearby, is more skeptical of the park project.

"I'll wait till I see it happen. You know, see how it turn out," he says. "The pictures are fine, yeah, it beats graffiti. But if it's gonna bring up the property values around here, I got a problem with that."

A lot of people in the neighborhood can't afford $500,000 homes, Beidleman says. "If that's gonna force people out of their homes, I don't think it's a good idea."

Oramenta Newsome, who works on development and affordable housing issues with the Local Initiatives Support Corp., says the completed bridge and corresponding redevelopment will have an effect on the people who live nearby.

"Work on this bridge will definitely increase the value of the adjacent neighborhoods to it," Newsome says. "That's a good thing, as long as we provide for balance."

Newsome calls the east side of the river the "last frontier." Gentrification is only just starting to happen here. To keep a mix of incomes in the neighborhood, Newsome says, the city needs the right mindset about how the bridge fits with other development plans.

The goal — and the challenge — she says, is to create a neighborhood that both clerk typists and lawyers can afford to live in.

Momentum, Excitement — And Money

Then there's the design. Newsome says finding the right balance of activities on the bridge requires community awareness, too. Climbing walls and skate parks might encourage healthy activity, she says, but some people also want passive recreation.

And then there's the money: $25 to $35 million to realize the redevelopment plan.

"There isn't a park in the history of the world where the money was sitting there waiting before the idea was fleshed out and created," says Peter Harnik, who works on Capitol Hill, where he runs the national Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land.

Harnik says the 11th Street Bridge has the potential to be really innovative and different. And to get it right, community input, design and money are all intertwined.

"In every case, the idea has to develop a momentum and an excitement that generates the money," Harnik says. "Just having a continuing community dialogue is the way to go about doing that."

Back up on the 11th Street Bridge, Kratz says the city will use ideas from community meetings to create a nationwide design competition. Planners will take a few designs back to the community and go from there.

And as for fundraising?

"We're looking at having this really be a partnership with the city of Washington, D.C., but have the bulk of both funds and maintenance be from private dollars," says Kratz, "whether those be foundations, corporations or individuals."

Kratz says he has yet to receive a check for the project, but that he's "had very promising conversations with people." He's looking for a nonprofit organization to take charge of the money, and he has plenty of selling points: a bridge full of activities that could improve public health. Connecting disparate communities. Sparking new development.

"I can't think of a project in Washington, D.C., that accomplishes so many different goals," Kratz says. "And I think funders hear that."

There are hurdles to this ambitious idea, but politically, it seems poised to happen. The D.C. mayor, the city's planning office and the neighborhood commissioners all support it — at least in theory.

All of which leaves Kratz optimistic. He wants to open a park over the Anacostia River in 2016.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Time, now, for the NPR Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS CITY NOISES)

BLOCK: We've been reporting recently about a push around the country for new public spaces. Last week, we heard about the challenges of putting a new park in a densely populated area. Today, we have a story of transformation. Many cities have turned old bridges, and other bits of outmoded infrastructure, into pedestrian spaces. But Washington, D.C., is trying to go a step further. NPR's Franklyn Cater reports on an effort here to turn a retired bridge into a massive park; one that's full of things to do and also, full of symbolism.

FRANKLYN CATER, BYLINE: I'm on the 11th Street Bridge, in the southeastern part of the city. I'm near the base, on the western side; and as you can hear, it's taking interstate traffic and local traffic over the Anacostia River. The city is in the process of a massive bridge replacement.

I'm standing on a clean stretch of gray concrete - a brand-new span carrying those cars. And right next to this one, is the old span.

SCOTT KRATZ: They've removed the entire top deck; they've stripped off all of the concrete.

CATER: They're taking that one apart.

KRATZ: What we're proposing to do is to transform this old freeway into a place of active recreation.

CATER: Scott Kratz is walking me across the new bridge. On this side - the Washington Navy Yard, and the Capitol Hill neighborhood where Kratz lives. On the other - the neighborhood known as Anacostia, and much of southeast D.C.

KRATZ: The idea for the recreation bridge is actually, to completely remove this deck; and then save the existing piers - those piers are those large, concrete columns that exist in the water right now - and build a much thinner structure on top

CATER: Instead of carrying 18-wheelers, that old span would carry pedestrians. It would become public space full of activity over the water - connecting waterfront parks on either side, and connecting a wealthier area with a poorer one.

KRATZ: We're thinking of having 21st century playgrounds. We're thinking about having performance spaces. We're thinking about, how do you activate the Anacostia River, by having steps that go down to a kayak rental or canoe rental area?

CATER: And the ideas keep coming - a skate park, a climbing wall, a farmers market, an orchard of fruit trees and a harvest festival.

This park proposal started in the city's planning office. Scott Kratz is a volunteer, an adviser. His day job is vice president for education, at the National Building Museum. But at every opportunity, he's asking for suggestions for the bridge; holding design workshops with students; going to community meetings and coffees; trying to drum up support, and millions in private money.

KRATZ: I will meet with anybody anywhere, to hear their ideas about the 11th Street Bridge Project.

CATER: The Anacostia is a very urban river. It runs through the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.; through the city, and into the Potomac. It's long been a dividing line in the city - not just physically, but economically and racially. On the eastern side, more poverty and less diversity. It's more than 90 percent black. So a park on this bridge would not just be a marquee attraction in the nation's capital. It could be a huge symbol.

KRATZ: We are heading into historic Anacostia.

CATER: We complete the crossing from west to east, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Good Hope Road.

KRATZ: Unfortunately, like many areas in the urban core, Anacostia has seen empty storefronts.

CATER: Here, we get into the project's core goals and some real complexities: bridging two communities, and spawning new development.

So what are we looking at here?

KRATZ: So we had an artist at the D.C. Office of Planning create some renderings of what this could look like; views of what it would look like from historic Anacostia.

CATER: The windows of one empty storefront are spruced up with a mural, and information about the possible park. And we ask some people what they think of the idea.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I like to play.

(LAUGHTER)

CATER: Tamara Wormley and her children seem to like it.

TAMARA WORMLEY: It'd give more kids a chance to get out; something different. They don't have to be vandalizing a lot of things around here to enjoy their - self, per se. My kids, also.

CATER: On the sidewalk in front of the mural, several men are arguing about sports. Ron Beidleman lives nearby, and he's more skeptical of the bridge project.

RON BEIDLEMAN: I'll wait till I see it happen. You know, see how it turn out.

CATER: You like the looks of the pictures here, I guess.

BEIDLEMAN: Yeah, the pictures are fine. Yeah, it beats graffiti. But if it's going to bring up the property value and stuff around here, I got a problem with that - in the sense that you got a lot of people around here, can't afford those $500,000 homes and all of that. You know what I mean? If that's going to force people out of their homes, I don't think it's a good idea.

ORAMENTA NEWSOME: Automatically, people who live within a certain radius of the bridge, when it's redeveloped, there will be an effect on their lives.

CATER: We're on the east waterfront now, with Oramenta Newsome. She works on development and affordable housing as the D.C. director of LISC - Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

NEWSOME: Work on this bridge will definitely increase the value of the adjacent neighborhoods to it. That's a good thing, as long as we provide for balance.

CATER: Oramenta Newsome calls the east side of the river the last frontier. Gentrification is just starting to happen. And Newsome says the city needs the right mindset about how the bridge fits in with other development, to keep a mix of incomes in the neighborhood.

NEWSOME: Making these neighborhoods such that if you are a clerk-typist, you can live here; as well as if you are a lawyer, you can live here.

CATER: So that's one challenge. Then there's the design. What activities should be on this bridge? Newsome says that requires community awareness, too. Climbing walls and skate parks might encourage healthy activity, she says, but some people also want passive recreation.And then there's the money: 25- to $35 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

PETER HARNIK: There isn't a park in the history of the world, where the money was sitting, waiting for it, before the idea was fleshed out and created.

CATER: In a waterfront park on the west side of the Anacostia, I'm asking for expertise from Peter Harnik. He's a Capitol Hill resident who happens to head the Center for City Park Excellence. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Harnik works on Capitol Hill, but he lives in Virginia.]

Harnik says the 11th Street Bridge has the potential to be really innovative, and different. And to get it right, community input, design, money - it's all intertwined.

HARNIK: In every case, the idea has to develop a momentum - and an excitement - that generates the money.

CATER: Is there - sort of a trick to that?

HARNIK: Just having a continuing community dialogue is the way to go about doing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

CATER: Back up on the 11th Street Bridge, Scott Kratz says the city will use ideas from community meetings, to focus a nationwide design competition. Then they'll take a few designs back to the community, and go from there. As for fundraising...

KRATZ: We're looking at having this really be a partnership with the city of Washington, D.C., but have the bulk of the - both funds and maintenance be from private dollars, whether those be foundations, corporations or individuals.

CATER: Has anybody, at this point, said, sign me up?

KRATZ: I have had very promising conversations with people. We have not received a check yet.

CATER: Kratz is looking for a nonprofit, to take charge of the money. And he has plenty of selling points - a bridge full of activities that could improve public health, connect disparate communities, spark new development.

KRATZ: I can't think of a project in Washington, D.C., that accomplishes so many different goals. And I think funders hear that.

CATER: There are hurdles to this ambitious idea, and they're about as high as the concrete that I'm standing on. But politically, it seems poised to happen. The mayor, the planning office, the neighborhood commissioners - all support it, at least in theory. Scott Kratz is optimistic. He wants to open a park over the Anacostia River, in 2016.

On the 11th Street Bridge in Washington, Franklyn Cater for the NPR Cities Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.