December 8, 2021 - From the December, 2021 issue

Building A Transformational Physical & Metaphorical Bridge: Scott Kratz on DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park Project

Scott Kratz, Senior Vice President of Building Bridges Across the River, is leading the multi-jurisdictional effort to transform an aged-out freeway bridge into a seven-acre civic space crossing the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. With a mission to metaphorically and physically reconnect DC communities long divided by the now-abandoned infrastructure, Kratz details how the project has progressed since selecting designer and landscape architects OLIN + OMA following a nationwide design competition in Spring 2014 . Kratz walks readers through the project’s intensive community engagement and comments on the role for community-based organizations in boosting equity and local capacity for federal infrastructure investment


Scott Kratz

“What we've tried to do is early, intentionally, and with the community at the center of the process is to ensure the tens of thousands of residents who shaped this project from the beginning can be the ones that benefit from it.”

When TPR last spoke to you in 2014, you were in the midst of a nationwide design competition to select an architect for the 11th Street Bridge Project. Fill our readers in on how that project evolved from 2014 to its approval by the National Capital Planning Commission in April 2020 to now.

We have been busy over the last few years. For our design competition, we had 81 of some of the most talented landscape architects and architects in the world apply. The important thing about the design competition, which has become a real key narrative for this project, is how do we put decision making power back into the hands of local residents and the community? So, we had a group of local stakeholders that we call our Design Oversight Committee actually participate as part of the design competition. They met early on before a single design team saw the competition and made some significant changes to our competition brief. They met with our four final design teams to improve their designs and their entries. At the end of an eight month process, they used the same criteria as our jury to select the design team and they were unanimous for the really inspirational design by architects OMA and landscape architects OLIN.

In our interview in 2014, you said, “the Anacostia River has been a dividing line for many generations and we can create both a physical and metaphorical bridge to connect the two sides of the community that rarely venture to each other's banks.” Against that yardstick, how have you done?

 I would argue that, even more in 2021, we need places that can bring people together that otherwise would not cross paths. While the park isn't built yet, we've done a number of large scale programs to test and pilot for what the park will provide the general public 365 days of the year. For the last eight years, we've been running our largest program, the Anacostia River Festival. This is a big event that we produce with the National Park Service and the National Cherry Blossom Festival that brings 10,000 to 12,000 people down to the banks of the river. It's an opportunity for both sides of the river to get together and spend time with each other. When we really get it right, even dance together. It's a pronoun break down. Instead of a you and me, it's an us.

Give readers a sense of what’s now been designed.

The programming that the community requested early on in the project through over 1,000 meetings with key stakeholders remains the same. That's been our North star from the beginning. That includes an Environmental Education Center that will inspire the next generation of river stewards and teach about the river’s flora, fauna, rich history, resurgence, and resiliency. It includes a 250-seat performance space on the banks of the river.

We have an intergenerational play space because a key goal for the project is to improve the public health of local residents. Communities along the Anacostia River have some of the most challenging health statistics in the city. We know that having a safe place to play or active recreation can be a significant intervention to that.

We've just finished designs, for another requested programming space: urban agriculture. This addresses the food justice issue because the communities east of the river have one grocery store serving 75,000 residents. It's a huge health and racial justice issue. Having urban agriculture that can be a backdrop for a farmer's market, gardening workshops, and our community supported agriculture pick up will be tremendous.

Another programming area was having access to the river from the east to kayak and canoe launches. There's a great quote by Jacques Cousteau who said, “people protect what we love”, but to love a place you need to get right to it and remove all of those barriers that we've created through infrastructure like elevated highways on both sides of the river.

The community also asked for public art that tells the rich history of the region. The east of the river has an amazing and rich cultural heritage. Frederick Douglass used to walk across this bridge every single day on his way to work. We are just about to launch the second phase of art commissions for the park because we want to make sure that art isn't just plopped on the park, but it's deeply integrated into the design. We are commissioning a total of five major pieces of art throughout the park.

Finally, we're going through all of the design to transform an old freeway into a park over a navigable river in the nation's capital next to the very secure U.S. Defense Department. There's a lot of agencies involved. We've finished our NEPA documentation per the federal guidelines. Through the National Park Service, all of our environmental assessment is done. We've submitted all of our permits for U.S. Coast Guard, Army Corps, District Department of Energy and Environment, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission. Most importantly, we recognize that all of these agencies need to be our partners. We engaged them from the beginning and they're just as excited as we are to realize this community-driven space.

You just described navigating a labyrinth of regulatory oversight. Elaborate on how you navigated this 11th Street Bridge Park infrastructure project through the aforementioned government and stakeholder review processes?

We're part of a larger group called the High Line Network. It's about 40 transformed-infrastructure park projects around the United States. We're actually tracking 170 of these types of projects across North America that are in some stage of development. All with their own intricacies and complexities. What's really important is that we should not be all making the same mistakes across the country at the same time, but rather learn from each other.

Early on in the project, I wrote down a list of the key federal and local stakeholders we needed to be involved. Nobody wants to be the last person to hear about a big project like this. You need to bring them in from the beginning. What was key was doing our due diligence and finding out what was important to our partners and then where were their alignments. I remember when we first met with the National Park Service that owns a piece of property where the Bridge Park comes in east of the river. I was using their language about where it connects and they said, “Hey, that's how we talk about community engagement… that's how we talk about environmental resiliency”. I knew because I had read their document and knew where it fit. Because of that, they’ve become huge champions.

The U.S. Navy Yard is the oldest operating Navy base in the country. Before my very first meeting with the commandant, I read about the amazing history that's there. The Navy Commandant thought this was a chance to tell the history of the Navy Yard. So, we're baking that into the design itself. This isn't Scott’s bridge or just the Navy's bridge or just the National Park Service’s bridge. This is the community’s bridge. There's been collective ownership because of that deep community engagement we've had.

What lessons would you share about the role for community-based organizations and public-private partnerships to ensure “equity” in project infrastructure funded with federal dollars?

What the federal government does really well is fund these types of infrastructure projects. They can fund the bricks and mortar. I think where there are real challenges is building the civic infrastructure. That's the real special role in a public-private partnership: that boots on the ground. Nonprofits and NGOs already have deep relationships because they built trust in communities that have a long and justifiable trust deficit. Having this partnership where you can engage nonprofits, faith communities, and civic associations via a convener for the general public can avoid some of the big challenges that we've had in the past.

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Now, that might mean that things take a little bit longer, but the way I look at it is it’s pay now or pay later. Are you going to make the investment to make sure that we avoid the mistakes of the past where we blew through communities of color that we're still living with?

The new Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill has a pilot program called Connecting Communities that explicitly looks at undoing the damage on the of past projects like the freeways in Syracuse that devalued land and ripped through the African American communities. Certainly in Los Angeles, the 10 freeway was the most expeditious way to go from point A to point B, but it really destroyed rich African American neighborhoods and created a concrete dividing line. By engaging with nonprofits and folks that are already active in the community, we can have a brighter tomorrow. 

Address the value and prospects of investing public funds in underutilized, abandoned and dividing historic structures. What lessons have you've learned?

Transforming this old infrastructure into places that no longer divide has a tremendous amount of promise. One, it can correct past mistakes. Two, it continues to value the original federal investment in the first place. In our case with the 11th Street Bridge Park, we're saving the old piers and pilings, which saves tens of millions of dollars and probably shaved a year or two off environmental reporting and the NEPA documentation because we don't have to put as many piers and pilings.

Particularly in communities that have been park-starved, we know what green spaces do. All of the research shows that green spaces improve quality of life, capture stormwater, builds deeper connection between neighbors, reduces physical maladies, and extends our lifespan. So, why wouldn't we increase the lifespan of that initial investment that was made by the federal government for another 50 to 75 years?

LA County earlier this year released its LA River Master Plan—an aspiring vision for creating 51 miles of the connected multi-benefit public open space. What might Los Angeles learn from your efforts over these last 7 years in Washington?

There's such great promise in having this green spine that can connect otherwise disconnected communities across the Southland. These parks create a tremendous amount of value. Often, these green spaces and parks’ value is extricated from the community instead of invested back in the community. What we've tried to do is early, intentionally, and with the community at the center of the process is to ensure the tens of thousands of residents who shaped this project from the beginning can be the ones that benefit from it.

So how do you do that? From the beginning, we went back to the community. After our design competition in 2014, after we announced OMA+OLIN as the selected team, we spent a year working with local stakeholders to create housing, workforce development, preservation of black owned businesses, and cultural equity strategies with the larger desire to make sure that residents don’t just stay in place, but they thrive in place. This work manifested in our equitable development plan, a multi-sector approach to investing in the surrounding neighborhoods.

We've stood up the Douglass Community Land Trust that now has over 250 units of permanently affordable housing owned by the community. For the last six years, we have run a Ward 8 homebuyers club for a community that has an 81 times difference between the average household wealth of white families and black families. Much of that is driven by the lack of opportunity for wealth generation due to redlining and racist housing policies. The Home Buyers Club has now seen 97 Ward 8 renters become homeowners and next year we’re starting a pilot program to cover closing costs.

We just graduated our 19th construction training program. If we're spending $75 to $80 million to build this park, we want to make sure as much of the dollars go back into the local community. To do that, we need to make sure that local residents have the skill sets and capacity to apply for and succeed at these jobs. We're going to go out to bid for a general contractor next year. If we select a GC and the GC can't find any east of the river residents to hire, we can provide a list of 150 residents that we've already trained and are in construction jobs.

We have been spending a lot of time over the last couple years of the east of the river on the commercial corridors of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope: the largest collection of black-owned businesses left in the city. We've been working with small businesses to build new online revenue streams, search engine optimization, and skills as more people are looking to support black businesses. We're about to launch a new program next year to connect east of the river businesses with a consulting firm to provide free pro bono retainer support as well as cash for facade improvements and back of house needs. To date, we’ve secured over $76 million in our equitable development strategies – nearly the same cost of building the actual bridge.  

I would say the what's needed in Los Angeles might be different strategies, but the process of creating a community-driven equitable development plan can be the same. Start with the community and identify your geographic scope around the river. Understand what one can influence, target those, and build some early wins in the project because these communities have often been planned to death. Make sure that you're building trust within the community and demonstrating results. With that work early and intentionally with the community at your side, you can be a transformational force up and down the LA river through these communities.

Lastly, and more personally, what about this park/bridge project most inspired you?

This project has become so much more than a park, right? It's become a community activator. It's become this larger national template for how to invest in underinvested neighborhoods without displacing the same residents we're trying to serve.  At its core, I can't think of too many other projects in the nation's capital that, in a single intervention, can bring people together that otherwise wouldn't normally connect. One that can improve public health, reengage residents with the Anacostia River, make them more resilient and environmentally friendly, and serve as an anchor for an equitable, inclusive future of Washington D.C. Those are the four table legs that have kept this project up from the beginning.

Last month, we re-kicked off walking tours for the community. It was a beautiful October night walking down to the river, and there were about a dozen Anacostia residents. They were so excited because they've been ones driving the programming. They're the ones who selected the design team. They created our equitable development plan. I've made a solemn promise to those residents to deliver it right. Me and my team made some great progress and we're going to get there in a few short years. With the community behind us, there's nothing that's going to stop us.

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