Scott Kratz is attempting something very difficult.
He’s walking backwards on a busy Capitol Hill sidewalk, straining to be heard over traffic as he leads a group of eager residents on a walking tour to the future site of the 11th Street Bridge Park in southeast Washington, D.C.
The park, which has been in development since 2011, will one day span the Anacostia River, connecting the well-to-do neighborhoods west of the river and the historically African American neighborhoods to the east.
More difficult than walking backwards, however, is Kratz’s larger goal of ensuring that the creation of this new landmark public space, designed by Philadelphia-based landscape firm OLIN and Dutch architecture firm OMA, does not unleash the waves of gentrification that are already lapping at the Anacostia’s western shore.
“We’re three or four years away from opening, but we’ve already had the park appear in real estate ads without permission,” he told me as we walked back towards Capitol Hill after the tour. “We had to send some gentle cease-and-desists.”
This illustrates both the reality of the gentrification threat posed by the park’s construction and the measures that Kratz, who is director of the project, and his team at the Congress Heights-based non-profit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) are taking to mitigate it.
“First and foremost, this is a park for the local residents,” Kratz said, explaining how that basic principle has caused BBAR to take a much more expansive view of their role in the park’s development. “There’s the site of the park, but we have to be thinking about the larger systems we’re engaging with. What are the policies that can ensure local residents thrive in place?”
This broad approach has led to what he called a “deep and sustained” relationship with the surrounding community.
“Before we engaged a single architect, landscape architect, or engineer, we had over two-hundred meetings with faith leaders, business owners, ANC commissioners, civic associations — with anybody who would have us.”
“And we didn’t just go out and say ‘what color should the chairs be,’” but instead asked more fundamental questions: “Should we do this? Does the community want this?”
This initial round of dialogue helped to bridge what Kratz called a “deep, real, and justified” trust-deficit in nearby communities, especially those east of the river.
That same level of community involvement carried through to the design competition process. Program requirements for the park were decided through a series of charrettes with community members. BBAR then created a community-led design oversight committee that reviewed the final design brief and met with the competing design teams multiple times during the design process to provide feedback and input.
“We didn’t know if it would work,” Kratz told me, “but at the end, each one of the design teams said it was the most valuable part of the process.”
“It was incredibly helpful,” said Hallie Boyce, ASLA, who led the design team for OLIN. “What it allowed us to do was to quickly develop a deeper knowledge of the place, both from a natural systems standpoint but also a cultural-systems standpoint.”
Boyce pointed out some members of the committee have lived in the area for twenty-five or thirty years. “You just can’t beat that kind of knowledge of a place.”
At the end of the competition, the design oversight committee ranked the submissions and made a recommendation to the competition jury. “The jury ultimately could have overruled the community recommendation,” Kratz said, “but as it turned out, both the jury and the design oversight committee were unanimous” in their decision.
“If we’re really about community engagement, then we need to let the community have the decision-making authority,” Kratz said, adding that members of the design oversight committee are now working with OLIN and OMA as they refine their winning concept, providing a real time, community-driven feedback loop. “That level of agency is critical.”
With the design selected and pre-construction underway, the team is now working to ensure the park doesn’t end up displacing the very community that has brought the project this far.
In 2015, BBAR released an Equitable Development Plan which outlined how it would achieve this goal. The plan makes recommendations for addressing workforce development, small businesses, and housing. BBAR will soon be releasing an updated version of the plan that adds strategies for cultural and political equity.
Remarkably, BBAR has so far been able to muster more in financial support for the Equitable Development Plan than it has for the park itself. The park will cost $50-60 million to construct, of which roughly half has been committed to by the city, private donors, and other sources. Meanwhile, philanthropic contributions to the equitable development arm of the project already exceed $50 million.
While the park itself is still a few years off, the impact from the Equitable Development Plan is already being felt. A newly-created Ward 8 Homebuyers Club has so far helped sixty-one Ward 8 residents purchase their own home. For renters, “we have started monthly tenant rights workshops, working in collaboration with Housing Counseling Services.” And the newly-created 11th Street Park Community Land Trust is close to acquiring its first property, a 65-unit apartment complex in Ward 8 that would be managed as affordable housing in perpetuity.
The park is also making its presence felt in other ways. Since 2014, BBAR has organized the annual Anacostia River Festival, which last year brought more than 9,000 residents to the site of the future park.
Then there is the park’s burgeoning urban agriculture program, which boasts seven urban farms providing fresh produce to a variety of businesses, residents, and non-profits in the area. Nearby residents can even sign up for a CSA.
“We’re not waiting until we open. We want to make sure that we’re testing and piloting these programming ideas before we launch.”
The cumulative effect of these efforts is a strong sense of community ownership. He told me a story to illustrate this point.
“We were having a public meeting a year ago, and I was talking about the equitable development plan. Someone raised their hand and said, ‘So, with all the money that’s coming in, you’re starting a community land trust, you’re doing tenants’ rights workshops, you’re doing workforce development training. Do you need to build the bridge?'”
“And it totally floored me! I was a little speechless. Then someone from the community stood up and said: ‘He better build that bridge! We designed that bridge – this is our bridge!'”
According to Kratz, that level of ownership comes from sustained relationships, shared experiences, and leadership of the decision making process.
Boyce echoed that sentiment, saying the community-led design process and the scope of the Equitable Development Plan have built trust in the community, allowing residents to become invested in the long-term success of the project.
“We have multiple champions now. That’s what it’s going to take.”
Construction on the park should begin in 2020, with an opening date in 2022 or 2023. BBAR is already looking ahead to understand how its role will change at that juncture.
BBAR is exploring ways to help demystify the planning process for local residents, so they are empowered to shape those decisions that will in turn shape their neighborhoods.
“Sometimes when we have these larger conversations about displacement and gentrification, there’s a feeling of inevitability. We reject that. The reason we’ve been living in segregated cities is because of a series of intentional decisions. We now need to make a series of intentional decisions to undo that disinvestment.”
“We’re increasingly looking at what is our role to help move the needle on some of those larger policy questions,” he added.
As an example of that expanding scope, BBAR has now begun advising other Washington, D.C. neighborhoods as they create their own equitable development plans. They’ve even met with officials from Los Angeles, Dallas, and St. Louis to discuss how the 11th Street Bridge model can be applied in those cities.
“We had no idea that this could have such an influence across the United States. But we’re the nation’s capital. We often talk about being the template for how we should do things. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes not so much. This is a chance to actually get it right.”
11th Street Bridge Park walking tours continue throughout the summer.