Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Revisiting stories: DC's waterfront

I have been meaning to write for some time about the new Wharf District on the Southwest Waterfront, and I am still not doing so.  Of course, my focus is more what it doesn't do -- bad execution of mixed pedestrian spaces, failure to improve the connections to the district from the abutting areas, etc. -- although it has some cool features, may help spark water transportation services, and of course most importantly, adds to the city's appeal as a waterfront city and extends the quality of the built environment.

Waterfront revitalization initiatives.  With maritime commerce switching to containers, most in-city port facilities became obsolete and since the 1980s there have been significant revitalization efforts around the globe focused at reproducing these spaces around tourism and other economic development programs.

This is the case despite the reality of the impact of climate change on waterfronts, many cities continue to invest significant resources into the improvement of their waterfronts. 


Noteworthy examples include Chicago ("From Filth to Fun: Big Designs for the Chicago River," CityLab; "Carol Ross Barney is Chicago's New Daniel Burnham," Metropolis Magazine), Oklahoma City ("River Attraction: Oklahoma River is becoming a big draw for Oklahoma City," Daily Oklahoman) -- I mention OKC because it shows high creativity in a place people don't think of as a water-focused city, Boston, both its waterfront ("Can't miss Boston waterfront attractions," Boston Globe) and its Seaport development ("Here's the new vision for Boston's Seaport neighborhood," Boston Business Journal, Spokane's creation of a higher education district on old port facilities ("Campus evolution: WSU kicks Spokane development into high gear," Spokane Spokesman-Review), Newark ("Newark Revival Wears Orange Along the River," New York Times, Los Angeles ("Restorative projects aim to stitch Port of Los Angeles communities back together," Architects Newspaper) and overseas cities like Hamburg's HafenCity development, and the revival of riverfront in Liverpool and the Lake Erie waterfront in Toronto, Paris and the way it has reclaimed roads along the River Seine ("The new Parc Rives de Seine," Paris Tourist Office), etc.

Ironically, Baltimore's Inner Harbor revitalization program sparked the interest of cities around the globe ("Inner Harbor Story," Urban Land Magazine), although I think an important lesson that is frequently missed is that when such a place is touristified with many retail and entertainment assets that aren't particularly rooted in the history and identy of the area, the place needs to be frequently "refreshed" to remain relevant.

-- "On the Revitalized Waterfront: Creative Milieu for Creative Tourism," Sustainability Journal

Photo of the American Constitution docked at The Wharf from The Wharf twitter feed.

DC as a river cruise port. One of the positive elements is that now DC is deemed worthy of visiting by river cruise ships.  A Viking River Cruise ship stopped at the Wharf a couple weeks ago ("The Wharf has opened the door to something D.C. hasn't seen in decades: cruise ships," Washington Business Journal).

DC being worthy of visiting by cruise ships as an element of its waterfront is something I used to write about from time to time 10-12 years ago.

No port authority in DC.  One of the points I made is that DC doesn't have a "port authority" and that other "river communities" promote cruise tourism.  A couple years later I did a commercial district revitalization framework plan for Brunswick, Georgia, which is a visiting stop for river cruising on the Intra-coastal Waterway.

Of course, decades ago steamships used to provide connections between cities on the Chesapeake Bay, Potomac River and the Mid-Atlantic, basically from DC to Norfolk to New York City.

Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.  There was and is the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, which was a major planning initiative under the Williams Administration, but his successor, Mayor Fenty, dissolved the then separate Anacostia Waterfront Corporation and the functions were absorbed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

-- Anacostia Waterfront webpage, DC Department of Transportation

Anacostia River.  Besides the Navy Yard and Wharf developments, and now the development at Buzzards Point where the soccer stadium will soon open, the Federal City Council created the Anacostia River Conservancy, although it has had trouble developing currency.

Various organizations such as the Anacostia Watershed Society, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and the Earth Conservation Corps have focused on improving the water quality of the river.  One of the problems is that much of the Anacostia River's watershed is in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties.

The 11th Street Bridge Park project aims to build a park across the river, on the abutments of the previous bridge.

The Wharf is actually on the Washington Channel of the Potomac, but because it is proximate to the Anacostia River, it brings more attention to the Anacostia River.

Unfortunately, the reconstructed South Capitol Street Bridge will be shorter than the current bridge, meaning that large ships will no longer be able to traverse the river to the Navy Yard.  The river is deep enough for larger ships up to about the 11th Street Bridge.  East of that point the river isn't particularly deep.

Anacostia Watershed Society runs river boat tours out of the Bladensburg Waterfront Park and docks at the Navy Yard.

Should the Comprehensive Plan have a Rivers and Waterfronts Element?  I never got around to submitting amendments to this round of the Comp Plan, but one of the items I had intended submitting was the creation of a Rivers and Waterfronts Element. 

Although you can argue that the various plans for the Anacostia River and the Washington Channel (where The Wharf district is) do a goodly amount of that.  The model would have been the Urban River Visions plans created in the early part of the last decade in Massachusetts.

That being said, there are plenty of gaps in the planning:

-- "Wanted: A comprehensive plan for the "Anacostia River East" corridor," 2012
-- "DC has big "Garden Festival" opportunity in the Anacostia River," 2014
-- "A world class water/environmental education center at Poplar Point as another opportunity for Anacostia River programming (+ move the Anacostia Community Museum next door)," 2014
-- "The Anacostia River and considering the bridges as a unit and as a premier element of public art and civic architecture," 2014
-- "Saving the South Capitol Bridge as an exclusive pedestrian and and bicycle bridge," 2014

It should include "canals," specifically the C&O Canal in Georgetown, for which there is a separate improvement initiative.

-- Georgetown Canal Plans, Georgetown Heritage

One of the big problems of DC's waterfront is that much of it is controlled by the National Park Service. 

You'd think having much of the waterfront be park is a good thing.  I suppose it is. 

But at the same time, NPS can never be expected to run DC waterfront parks in a nuanced manner, balancing park aspects with access and commerce, say like riverfront planning and development organizations do in other communities, or how the City of Chicago manages and operates spaces along the Chicago River.  Federal rules mostly preclude creativity.

I'd argue that at least with the parks along the Anacostia River, that they should be ceded to DC, because there is really no "national interest" justifying NPS control of the parks, other than that they are remnants of the city being controlled by the federal government.

RFK campus replanning: how about a beach park?  I wrote a memo for the ARC, suggesting that a "beach park" could be developed as part of the replanning initiative there, as it is one of the few places along the river that DC instrumentalities control, as a model of how to be way more accessible and engaging.  Surprisingly, the RFK campus plan doesn't acknowledge the opportunity of its waterfront very much.  Probably this is because much of it is wetlands and therefore undevelopable.  But a section of the riverfront isn't wetlands and it's an area of the river that is safer, less rough.

Baltimore Waterfront Partnership as a management model.  Perhaps more than a port authority like Boston's MassPort, which also runs airports and other infrastructure ("Book review: Massport at 60," Commonwealth Magazine), I think a better model for managing the city's rivers and waterfronts would be the creation of a kind of business improvement district, like Baltimore's Waterfront Partnership, but with resident membership aspects comparable to the Anacostia Watershed Society.

The organization in Baltimore is both an advocacy group for the Inner Harbor and a business improvement district.  Similarly, a BID has been created for the Greenway in Boston, which is more of a park space, than a commercial district ("Greenway business improvement district bid approved by City Council," NorthEnd Waterfront).

-- "Podcast: What Baltimore's waterfront could look like in five years," Baltimore Business Journal
-- "Podcast: Will the Inner Harbor be swimmable by 2020," Baltimore Business Journal
-- "Waterfront Partnership expands services to Fells Point," Baltimore Business Journal

Heritage Parks and Areas.  I suppose another model for managing the assets along the river would be a heritage park or area.  The state heritage area, Thames River Heritage Park in Connecticut provides connections across the river, including a seasonal water taxi service, and links between state and federal and commercial assets.

The National Park Service has "heritage areas," including an earlier example along the Mississippi River in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the
Mississippi National River and Recreation Areabut I don't think it's fully relevant to DC, as the problem isn't that there are parks on the rivers, and yes a problem exists in terms of coordination of different entities, but more importantly the problem is that these parks are controlled by the federal government and managed under extremely cumbersome rules that make it difficult to activate them in ways that are in concert with current best practices in patron engagement.

-- Best Management Practices Used at Urban Parks in National and International Locations, NPS
-- "Park Friends Network Celebrates Best Practices at Annual Conference," Fairmount Parks Conservancy
-- "The Modern Urban Park: Access and
," Roberts, Nina S. & Rao, T. (2014). Unpublished manuscript. San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA

The Trust for Public Land and the American Planning Association also have urban parks programs.

Anacostia Boat Tour as a blog reader event?

The Anacostia Riverkeeper group has offered to take a group out on the river for a boat tour and I was thinking it could be organized as a reader event.  There would be room for 15-20 people.

Comments appreciated.

(If anyone gets this far, reading the post.)

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At 8:29 PM, Blogger wlErik said...

Sounds like a good idea to me.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ah, but would you go?

At 6:14 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

story on plans for the Mississippi River waterfront in Minneapolis.

The Chicago River redevelopment was a winner in the 2017 round for the Rudy Bruner Award.


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