“The Anacostia River has divided Washington, D.C. for generations,” said Scott Kratz, vice president of Building Bridges Across the River, in a public update of the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. over Zoom. When the 11th street bridge built in the 1960s reached the end of its lifespan a decade ago, then Mayor Vince Gray and others saw an opportunity to “save part of the bridge, its precious pilings,” to create a new bridge park that would bring both sides of Washington, D.C. together. Spanning three football fields, the new bridge park designed by OLIN, a Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, and OMA, a Netherlands-based architecture firm, will achieve a range of “health, environment, social, and economic goals,” Kratz argued. The hope is the project will become “an anchor for more inclusive development” in D.C. and help communities on both sides of the Anacostia “re-engage with the river and reconnect with each other.”
The journey to create a new bridge park began in 2011. Building Bridges Across the River spent two years listening to the diverse and historically marginalized communities along the river during over 200 meetings. The team heard demand for a new environmental educational center, a kayak and canoe launch, urban agriculture, public art, a performance space, a 21st century playground, and restaurant — all of which have made it into the final design.
A global design competition was then announced, attracting 81 firms from around the world. Some three dozen local stakeholders met with finalist teams over an eight-month-long competition. After extensive community review, the OMA+OLIN team won the project with their innovative X-design for a new bridge park.
James Guinther, vice president with Baltimore-based engineering firm Whitman Requardt & Associates (WRA), said designs will be finalized by early 2022 and construction on the bridge park will run through 2025. The design and engineering process has been complex given the new 1,000-foot-long park will be larger and heavier than the vehicular bridge it replaces. The park will be heavier because of the addition of soils for the new trees, so new pilings will be set in the river to support the additional weight and ensure resilience to flooding.
According to Jason Long, a partner at OMA, the trails leading to the bridge park from either Capitol Hill and the Navy Yard on the west side and Anacostia from the east side will be fully accessible and no more than a 20 minute walk on either side from the Metro. As the design was further fleshed out, OMA+OLIN decided to move a proposed open-air amphitheater off the bridge park and instead set it on the Anacostia side landing. Curving paths and ramps around the amphitheater will take visitors up into the park. Amazingly, no slope in the landings or the park is more than a 5 percent grade.
The refined design also more closely fuses the adjacent local traffic bridge immediately to the north, creating multiple connection points between that bridge, which is accessible to vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians, and the new bridge park. A 16-foot-wide two-way bike and pedestrian path will be established to enable even better access to the bridge park as well. From there, visitors can gain entry to new picnic gardens and a hammock grove on the upper levels.
The design of the bridge park has been modified in other ways. The width of the bridge park has been reduced by 15 feet overall, and now the ends have different widths, creating a more dynamic trapezoidal shape. At the Capitol Hill and Navy Yard side on the west, entry to the park will be a mere 30 feet wide, while at Anacostia, on the east side, the landing is now 127 feet wide. This also puts into form the equity goals of the project — there is a clear focus on ensuring easy access by Anacostia residents and providing greater benefits to those long-underserved communities.
Either ends of the upper levels of the X-shaped park will offer lookouts to both Capitol Hill and Anacostia communities. In between the great lawns on these upper levels is a central plaza where the upper levels join the lower levels.
Back on the ground, the Anacostia landing of the park will include a new environmental educational center, a new home for the Anacostia Watershed Society; a kayak and canoe launch; and the amphitheater. An outdoor classroom and playground will be found near the educational center, while a new community restaurant with affordable options, and a large porch for markets and other events will be further up the slope from the east side. At the western entry point, OMA+OLIN will plant rain gardens that lead to the hammock grove.
Hallie Boyce, FASLA, a partner with OLIN, explained that her firm and OMA have been working closely on all aspects of the project. “OLIN and OMA are very much an integrated team, and we have studied the entire bridge park together both over structure and on terra firma. There has been much overlap and collaboration between us towards a holistic design.”
While OMA has focused more on the architectural design of the new environmental center, restaurant and porch space, and central plaza, OLIN has been focused more on the amphitheater, lawns, play areas, and hammock grove. OLIN seeks to ensure a “richly layered landscape” with abundant color and vibrancy in all seasons, Boyce explained. On both the bridge park and landings, “there will be a lot of fall color and ample shade during the summer.” All of the new tree and plant life will also be supported by “advanced stormwater systems,” including bioretention basins and cisterns, which will capture stormwater for reuse in irrigation.
Returning to the landscape design of the new amphitheater space on the east side, Boyce said that the space will be a “large woodland meadow with wetlands at its edges.” Native and adapted species will be planted to achieve biodiversity goals established with the Anacostia Watershed Society. There will also be urban agriculture plots for use by the community.
To highlight the role mussels play in filtering and cleaning the water, OLIN+OMA designed a charming “Mussel Power” playground that features these bivales with custom shell-shaped play elements that kids can hide in and run through. “The play area dovetails with the environmental education program,” Boyce said.
All the planning and design work on the bridge park is the result of a broader equitable development plan for the communities surrounding park, particularly in Ward 8 on the east side of the river. Given the rampant gentrification and displacement that has occurred in D.C. over the past two decades, there was real concern among nearby communities that a new bridge park would only accelerate these trends. 11th Street Bridge Park has rightfully been recognized as a model of inclusive and responsible development, setting the bar high for other cities seeking to make major public space investments in underserved communities.
Vaughn Perry, director of equity for Building Bridges Across the River, said the priority is to ensure that long-term residents of Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8 can “thrive in place” — and the bridge park must serve that goal. He noted there is a significant gap in wealth among the communities on the east and west sides of the Anacostia River, with home values on the east side an estimated $450,000 less. Growing and protecting community wealth in Ward 8 is therefore a key focus of his organization and takes the form of programs that encourage home ownership, provide job training, and build cultural equity.
Over the past decade, as part of the equitable development plan, the organization has founded a community land trust that is meant to “ensure permanent affordability for residents” and now includes 220 non-profit-owned units. The group has organized tenant’s rights workshops and home buyers’ clubs, helping nearly another 100 residents purchase homes. On the job training front, the organization has held 20 training sessions for construction jobs on the bridge park and placed 81 people in positions. “These folks are gainfully employed right now,” Perry said. In terms of enhancing local arts and culture, Building Bridges has organized the Anacostia River Festival, which brings 8,000-10,000 people each year and include training programs to build empowerment. Total community investments to date have been around $77 million, which is almost the cost of the bridge park itself.