October 27, 2023 - From the October, 2023 issue

11th Street Bridge Parks' Scott Kratz on Community Engagement with Public Projects

As the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill looks to revitalize infrastructure in the United States, a number of infrastructure reuse projects are being reimagined , aimed at avoiding the wasteful practice of demolition and instead reusing retired structures by breathing new life into them. One of these projects, within the network of the highly successful High Line project in New York, is the 11th Street Bridge Park in DC. Scott Kratz, Director of Building Bridges Across the River, spoke about the project on a panel during Bloomberg’s CityLab conference. In his comments, excerpted here, Kratz addresses the importance of community and local engagement when it comes to altering the built environment, as well as the overall mission of Washington DC's bridge reuse project.

Scott Kratz

“Instead of getting rid of all the old infrastructure, we, working with the city--looking at how do we extend the life of that initial infrastructure and transform it, no longer into a freeway, but a community driven civic space?” - Scott Kratz

Nicole Flatow: Good morning. Here in Washington, we are blessed with a lot of beautiful urban parks and green spaces. We're also plagued by some of the same problems that places around the country are facing now. They've become places that risk gentrifying a neighborhood, there's not enough of it for the places that need it and they don't always serve the right people for the right purposes. Scott, you've been working for years now on the 11th Street Bridge, a pretty closely watched project here in Washington that many people are already viewing as kind of the antidote to some of the problems that came with Highline, of bringing change to the neighborhood. Could you start by just giving us a high-level overview of the project?

Scott Kratz: Sure, good morning, everybody. The 11th Street Bridge Park is a collaboration between the city, the District of Columbia and the nonprofit that I work for, appropriately enough, named Building Bridges Across the River. For those who might not be from DC, just a little geographic context; We have two rivers here in DC, the Potomac, that everybody knows, but then we also have the Anacostia River, and the Anacostia River has been a dividing line for generations in this city. It's divided residents on either side of the river, by race, by income, and even health outcomes. And, here in the nation's capital, we've actually done one thing worse where we've put not only a natural divide, but also a physical divide. We put in, not one, but two freeways on either side of the river, further dividing both sides of the river. 

The 11th Street Bridge Park attempts to address this by reimaging this once in a lifetime opportunity-  when these old freeway bridges that were built in the 1960s came to the end of their lifespan and needed to be replaced. Instead of getting rid of all the old infrastructure, we, working with the city--looking at how do we extend the life of that initial infrastructure and transform it, no longer into a freeway, but a community driven civic space? I think the important emphasis there is that phrase “community driven.” This project has been informed by over 1000 meetings with a community and even well before beginning the project, even before engaging an engineer or an architect, we spent over two years just talking to local residents about, should we do this? In essence, sort of asking for permission. That's really critical because in the communities that we're working with, there is a large and justifiable trust deficit. So, making sure that we're, at every step on this project, being driven by local residents has been really essential.

Nicole Flatow: Trust is something that Secretary Buttigieg just talked about this morning, as well. I think that's been one of the biggest challenges. Can you talk about what have been some of the most important steps in terms of getting buy in from the community?

Scott Kratz: I think starting these projects begins with the bright, shiny pictures. It was really critical that, for us, we took several steps back and went out and just tested the waters and said, what do you think? Might that be a good idea? And we spent over two years talking to faith leaders, small businesses, civic associations, just asking if there was a real energy behind this and only then did we say, all right. 

Once we saw what should be in the park, there was some enthusiasm for this project,  So we solicited ideas, ideas like an Environmental Education Center, performance space was the number one idea that the community requested for programming on the park, urban agriculture for a community that has one grocery store serving 75,000 residents, a huge food justice issue. We baked all of those ideas into an international design competition. Sometimes in design competitions, …, the designers have no connection to the client or, more or less, the community and that didn't make any sense. So, we actually convened a group of about three dozen stakeholders who participated as part of the design competition. They met with each of our four final design teams, and at the end of this eight month process, it was the community, this group of stakeholders, that actually selected the designs for the park. 

So, I think much of what we were trying to do, and this has been a common theme throughout the 12 years that we've been leading the project, is how do we put decision making power back in the hands of local residents? How do we give true agency? As an example, I didn't get to vote when we selected the design team. The community did. But we're confident that the answers are already in the community. We just need to be listening very intentionally, very thoughtfully.

Nicole Flatow: Just to probe that slightly more, how did you find the right people? There's this increasingly common understanding of the community meeting as the place where people with a lot of time on their hands, sometimes older white folks, will go regularly to meetings, but not necessarily the people that you're trying to reach. How did you overcome that?

Scott Kratz: I think number one is you can't rush that process. Time is really critical. Before we engage in any big public meetings, it was really critical that we went to talk to some leaders in the community; and by leaders, I mean, formal leaders, like city council members, the ANC commissioners, but also the informal, the residents, too. No leader in a community wants to be the last person to hear about a significant investment like this. In each of those meetings, it would end with, who else should I be speaking to? That led to these 200 meetings. 

We also need to be inventive and inclusive. We spent two weeks working with local youth, local teams, whose goal was to design the park. I called on a lot of favors and brought in a lot of engineers and architects and planners to work with these young men and women. At the end of two weeks, they had this amazing design for the park and, keep in mind, this is before we even did the design competition. So, when we held the design competition, we kept pushing this amazing vision from the future users of the park, from these young men and women. One of the many reasons why we chose the design team of OMA and Olin – the design that we're gonna be breaking ground on next year, very exciting – was because they started their larger, final presentation with the designs by these young men and women, because those are the future users of the park and they should be the ones to engage in the design of these kinds of civic spaces.

Nicole Flatow: You invested a lot of resources into this park/civic space. Talk a little bit more about what that looks like. And also, if I were to look at a map of the bridge, what's the community footprint around the bridge? …

Scott Kratz: We're focusing on a 10 minute walkshed, which is roughly about a mile around the park on either side. We did this for one very important reason; when we're out talking to the community about what kind of programming should be on the park, we heard all these great ideas that we built into the design competition, but we also heard a much deeper need. We are in need of jobs, of affordable housing, of the preservation of black owned businesses. It would have been easy at that point to say, well, okay, that's great, but we're building a park. But, it was really critical that we opened the aperture and said, this is not only an opportunity to transform an old piece of aged out infrastructure into a park, but also to think about these kinds of projects in a very different way. 

So, we spent a year right after we announced in 2015 the design team winner, working with the city, working with local nonprofits, working with local community members and stakeholders to take a look at that one mile walk around the park and think, how do we ensure that the tens of thousands of residents who helped shape this park from the beginning would be the ones that benefit from it? 

In other words, how do we get ahead of issues with gentrification? We spent a year coming up with strategies in housing workforce, small business, arts and culture strategies, focused in that one mile walkshed. And I won't go through all 34 strategies, but just to mention a couple: We've now seen 130 east of the river residents, renters, become homeowners who have gone through our Ward 8 Homebuyers Club. We've stood up the Douglass Community Land Trust, it's now its own separate 501(c)(3) that has over 250 units and permanently affordable housing owned by the community. And we just graduated our 31st construction training program. 

If we're spending all this money to build the park, we want to make sure as much of those dollars go into local residents as possible. But to do that, we need to make sure local residents have the skill set and capacity to apply for and succeed at these jobs. So, we now have 150 east-of-the-river residents who are trained and employed in construction jobs. Next spring, when we break ground, if the general contractor comes to us and says, “I can't find any local residents,” we can say, “Here's a list of 150 people that are already employed in construction trades. Try again a little harder.” Finally, to date we've invested over $86 million in these equitable development strategies which exceed the actual bricks and mortar of building the park. By the time the park opens in 2026, we'll have been investing in these strategies for a decade. It's that sort of level of intentional thinking about this work really early and putting the community at the center that's been key to that success.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.