The 11th Street Bridge Project is Building a Future of Connected Communities
Over the last few months, I’ve written a lot about community-encouraging efforts in Washington, DC. I’ve talked about groups that have come together around a kitchen table, and a karaoke machine. Collectives that have been informed by a common love of art, sound, and whiskey. With each successive article, I have caught myself relying too often on the same predictable terms to describe social bonds. In order to build their communities, people have “found commonalities,” “made connections,” and above all, “bridged gaps” – a phrase that I have used one too many times (as if once wasn’t more than enough).
So after my last article I decided I needed to get creative. Switch it up! Change things around! I didn’t want to constantly use the same descriptions to express how people are networking. It was time to challenge myself a little bit. From that point on, I decided, no more lazy writing. I was self-imposing a ban on the word “bridge.”
And then I got my next assignment. To write a column about a new development on the Anacostia River that is not only an honest-to-god physical bridge, but involves more connection-making, commonality-finding, and yes, more literal and figurative-gap bridging than perhaps anything I have written about before. So much for best-laid plans.
A brainchild of the DC Office of Planning and a few committed individuals from around the city, the tentatively titled 11th Street Bridge Project (also known as “The Deck” and “the Rec Deck” depending on who you talk to) is slated to become the ultimate example of what is possible when communities come together to build something greater than themselves. Working since last April, the Project plans to refurbish a commuter bridge that has outlasted its current usefulness; transforming what is now a conduit for vehicles into an architecturally iconic, multi-purpose public park. Once new bridges are built for driving commuters, the old bridge will be converted; its base saved but its deck-pavement replaced by a thinner, wider, and perhaps multi-level surface that would stretch over the river and connect Wards 6 and 8. The Project wants to take what was once infrastructure meant only for traffic and repurpose it as a public park that would provide neighbors from both sides of the river a neutral space to connect with one another.
But in order to build a new bridge, community connections had to be made. As soon as they were given the green light by the city administrator, the Project turned to government agencies and local non-profits to ensure that those organization’s priorities have not only been included but well represented in the future park’s plan. Together they have come up with a set of agreed-upon guidelines, and have used them to inform the park’s direction. In order to address the city’s high rate of obesity, they have committed to ensuring that the park will provide DC residents with a safe place for recreation, and one that will encourage nutritional eating habits. That it will support environmental education and particularly bolster public engagement with the Anacostia River. That it will physically and metaphorically stitch together communities that have historically been socially, economically, and geographically disparate. And, if all goes according to plan, that the bridge will ultimately encourage economic development on both sides of the river; attracting and funneling visitors to the hiking and biking trails along the bank, to the Yards Park, and to the newly-revitalized Historic Arts District in Anacostia. It will become a literal and figurative bridge to health, and wealth for Washington, DC residents and their neighborhoods.
So what kinds of activities might you see on the bridge that would support those four guidelines? As it turns out, quite a few. The 11th Street Bridge Project team has also turned to the communities it is hoping to serve to see what the public believes should be there, and imaginations have run rampant. In keeping with the idea to provide a safe space for recreation, a children’s 21st century playground, activity areas for teenagers, and a pastoral orchard area for seniors are all under consideration. Vegetable display gardens and a cooking demonstration space to host educational sessions on nutritional eating could be there. There has been talk about boating docks, fishing areas, science education classes, and the use of architectural glass to see the river underneath the bridge as potential ways to encourage public engagement with the Anacostia. Existing bike and walking lanes slated to be built into the new commuter bridge might be connected at various points along their path to allow many points of access to the park. And with a multi-level park design, the potential for a performance space, zip-line, and climbing wall has been discussed. The Project has purposefully approached people of diverse backgrounds, ages, and income for their ideas to ensure that the park serves a wide range of populations, and found that no matter whom they speak to, the response to the project has been positive. Even in it’s planning stage, communities have connected over the bridge, as neighbors on both sides of the river have developed a common interest in promoting the park’s progress.
The community engagement around the project has not stopped with local organizational buy-in and interviews with community members. On Thursday, August 2, the 11th Street Bridge Project will host an informational meeting and community discussion about its development at Dorothy I. Height/Benning Neighborhood Library at 6:30 pm. The meeting is free, open to the public, and will include representatives from the DC Office of Planning, Department of Health, Department of Education and Department of Transportation in the discussion to continue the tradition of broad stakeholder involvement that has marked the project from the beginning. In an effort to get more teens to participate in the future of the park, the Project has also teamed up with the Department of Employment Services and a non-profit called THEARC DC to offer an intensive design course for 30 students in the Summer Youth Employment Program. For the last two weeks, students have paired up with architects, planners, landscape architects and engineers to create concepts and models of what a new bridge could look like, and on Friday, July 27, they will present their ideas in a juried competition at THEARC. Like the informational meeting, the presentation will be open to the public. It just one more point of access for individuals that want to be involved, and another way for people to connect around this project.
Once the brainstorming stage is over, the Project intends to host a nation-wide competition for architecture firms to come up with a final design. They will have to incorporate the guidelines of the Project, and will also be taking the winning entry of the Summer Youth Employment Program’s 3-D model competition into account. Fundraising will begin, and a non-profit will be picked to helm the endeavor, ensuring that development stays on track.
If the 11th Street Bridge Project is ultimately successful, and a park is built over the Anacostia, it would mean incredible things for the city. The park would be a national example for how to re-use existing infrastructure in an imaginative way. It would be a DC icon; something beautiful built for the people living here and reflecting our values and desires. It would bridge the divide between Anacostia and Capitol Hill, and become a gateway to future health, wealth and better living for both communities. It would bring together people of every age and from every walk of life and draw those with different interests to a common space that fits their needs.
Whether or not the park lives up to its potential will remain to be seen. But no matter what the end product, the achievement of the 11th Street Bridge Project is already cemented. The true triumph of the work done thus far is not in whether there is a zip line over the Anacostia but in how DC government, non-profits, and neighborhood residents have cooperated to support the Project as a whole. How oft-divided, disparate elements of Washington, DC have come together to work towards a common goal and in the process created a new foundation of trust between stakeholders. The story of the 11th Street Bridge Project is one of so much hope, and even now it has united DC residents, encouraged them to make connections, and find common ground where had once had been estrangement. It has already invigorated the community to, yes, bridge those gaps, and all before anything has been built over the river.
The public is welcome to attend the final presentation of the Summer Youth Employment Program's 11th Street Recreational Bridge Concept Design Competition will take place Friday, July 27, 3:00 - 4:30 pm, at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus, THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE, Washington, D.C. 20020.
Those interested in learning more about the 11th Street Bridge Project are also welcome to participate in the Public Informational Meeting on Thursday, August 2nd, 6:30 – 8:00 PM at Dorothy I. Height/Benning Neighborhood Library.
For more information on the 11th Street Bridge Project visit: www.planning.dc.gov.
[Updated to reflect the rescheduled date of the public informational meeting].
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