Is Your Waterfront a Back Door or Front Door?

Image I DC Rivers Google Maps
America’s riverfronts have long been landscapes of industry and technology. They have also been historically misused and mistreated. Speaking at the National Building Museum’s lecture, D.C. Builds: Along the Waterfonts, panel member Harriet Tregoning, Director, Washington, D.C. Office of Planning said, “we are at a unique moment in time, we are turning to our rivers now and embracing them.” Along with Tregoning, members of the panel included Alex Nyhan, VP of Development, Forest City; Howard Ways, AICP, Executive Director, Prince Georges County Redevelopment Authority; Joe Sternlieb, CEO, Georgetown Business Improvement District; Nathan M. Macek, Member of City of Alexandria Planning; and Uwe Brandes, Senior VP, Urban Land Institute (ULI), who acted as moderator. While the forum focused on D.C.’s rivers, the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, the ideas discussed have broader application for any city that has a river running through it. An important point was raised by Macek, who asked the question, “is the waterfront a back door or a front door?”

Municipalities have traditionally lined their waterfronts with factories, industry, and in the case of a portion of D.C.’s Potomac river, a lot for garbage trucks and towed vehicles — clearly all back doors. Sternlieb asked the audience how many people remember having their cars towed to the Georgetown Port City waterfront lot? Quite a number of people, it turns out, as people raised their hands, laughing. But this isn’t what the majority of people want on their water fronts, as the desire for direct and walkable access to the waterfront grows. In fact, as Brandes mentioned, just 10 years ago, there wasn’t any rowing along the Anacostia, where as now “there’s a vibrant community.” So what does it take to make these changes?

A challenge with D.C.’s waterfronts is dealing with different governmental agencies who are hesitant to make changes without first having a study. For instance, Sternlieb told the story of how the National Park Service was initially lobbied for recreational non-motorized boating activities along the river in 1984. Overwhelmingly, people supported the initiative. In 1989, they conducted another study, the result of which was that even more people support the idea. And on this cycle went, every few years, until their most recent non-motorized boating study in 2013 that found there is “enormous demand” for recreation of this type, yet they still haven’t “built a single structure to do it.” In fact, said Sternlieb, the demand is so high there’s not enough land to accommodate it all.

Nyhan, who worked with 34 different public and private sectors to bring D.C.’s popular park, The Yards, designed by M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, to life, stressed the need to see the planning vision through on projects of this nature, saying, “you have to keep on persevering through thick and thin,” while keeping an eye on social equity and the importance that art and culture can have on a redevelopment. The Yards Park is a great example of a front door.

But dealing with a city’s waterways isn’t all recreational fun. As Ways said, while Prince Georges County has a “strong and rich history of connecting” to the riverfront, it has also had to deal with the “dual-edged sword” of the river, and that means flooding.

Rising sea levels and the effects of climate change were addressed by the panel. Tregoning stressed the importance of making sure there is enough height to accommodate sea level rise, but said that the city needs to be prepared for things to be “episodically wetter” and in some places, “permanently wetter.” After all, D.C. was historically a swamp and “in many ways it ways it wants to be a swamp again,” joking that she “personally thinks that the monuments would be beautiful by gondola.”

But the issue of flooding and sea levels rising is a real and serious one. To deal with this, the level of The Yards was raised to get it out of the flood plain, as well as integrating rain gardens to mitigate excessive storm water. Prince Georges County has been raising their levees since 2007 and has instituted the “Rain Tax,” as constituents are calling it, something Ways says forces people to think about the impact that acres of impervious surfaces on their property have on storm water.


Image 2 The Yards caroljoynt

The overall consensus of the panel: rivers are not only important arteries for commerce, they are places for recreation and are an indicator of a community’s health.  It’s important that cities and communities that border rivers “redefine their edges,” as Brandes said, and seize the opportunity to make these changes. They should be front doors, not just back doors.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, ASLA 2013 summer intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)

Image credits: (1) Washington, D.C. Google Maps, (2) The Yards Park / Doing the District, (3) The Yard Park Boardwalk / JD Land, (4) The Yards Park / Carol Joynt