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.

Friday, March 01, 2024

Revisiting the 11th Street Bridge Park project as an opportunity rather than a folly: a new revitalization agenda for East of the River, DC

The other day, I was interviewed by a graduate student about this project, which aims to create the 11th Street Bridge Park, somewhat modeled after the High Line, and similar projects, connecting both sides of the Anacostia River, to Capitol Hill and Historic Anacostia.

-- "A Look At The Final Designs For DC's 11th Street Bridge Park," 2024

I was involved in the Design Oversight Committee on this project in 2014.  But even before that I went back and forth on it.  

Was it merely DC trying to copy other unusual creative infrastructure endeavors (at the same time there was an attempt to create a similar bridge in London, under then Mayor Boris Johnson, "An absurd vanity project for our age – Boris Johnson’s garden bridge," Guardian).

I'd say yes.  And lots of times when people try to do this, they don't understand why the original project was successful and subsequently they fail.  A good example is Bilbao.

-- "Why can't the "Bilbao Effect" be reproduced? | Bilbao as an example of Transformational Projects Action Planning," 2017

But I have to say that the student "inspired me" to rethink of the bridge park as an opportunity to reshape revitalization planning and practice in Anacostia.  I wrote a bunch of articles at the time about such opportunities.  

-- "DC's 11th Street Bridge Park project," 2022
-- "The Anacostia River and considering the bridges as a unit and as a premier element of public art and civic architecture," 2014
-- "DC has a 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
-- "Saving the South Capitol Bridge as an exclusive pedestrian and and bicycle bridge," 2014
 -- "Wanted: A comprehensive plan for the "Anacostia River East" corridor," 2012

But after the design selection process was over, I was no longer involved 

-- "11th Street Bridge Park finalists," 2014

But DC is so weak when it comes to creative planning that such opportunities--it's been 10 years!--I forgot the opportunity and just became negative, failing to realize that much of my writing is about seizing opportunity and trying to maximize the greatest potential benefit from even half-baked infrastructure initiatives.

Like the point that I make in transit writings, that new infrastructure should be leveraged to drive complementary simultaneous improvements across the transit network, the same goes for the Bridge Park.

-- "Revisiting the Purple Line article series after one year: Part 1 | a couple of baby steps," 2018
-- "Using the Silver Line as the priming event, what would a transit network improvement program look like for NoVA?," 2017

How to seize the opportunity despite the city's planning ineptitude

This mostly focuses on "East of the River" opportunities, with a touch at the end on "West of the River" opportunities centered on the RFK campus

Disconnected and uncongenial location.  For me, the biggest problem with the bridge concept is it isn't centrally and integrated locationally.  

Sure it will cross the river, but it will be far from Capitol Hill, and from Anacostia.  People will have to make a special trip to get there, and it won't be convenient.  No parking.

That's what people don't get about the High Line.  (I need to write out a typology, including other efforts like Promenade Plantee, Bentway, 606 Trail in Chicago, Indianapolis Cultural Trail, etc.)

Plus I'm not sure the design is all that friendly, welcoming, congenial.  Pretty post modern.  Much different from Promenade Plantée, High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Millennium Park, etc.

The High Line is embedded in an already successful neighborhood, and even though it is seemingly disconnected from the urban fabric in reality it abuts it very closely in ways that promote new building construction and business development ("The High Line's transformative real estate boom, mapped" Curbed NY, THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF THE PRESERVATION AND ADAPTIVE REUSE OF RAIL TRACKS, THE HIGH LINE IN NEW YORK CITY: REGIONAL IMPACT ANALYSIS AND PROPERTY VALUE CHANGE ANALYSIS Cornell thesis).

So it's generated billions in new development ("The High Line effect: Placemaking as an economic development engine," Building Design and Construction) in a manner that can't happen with the Bridge Park, which is bracketed by the walled off Washington Navy Yard, excepting the riverfront trail alongside and a freeway bridge.

Freeways generate lots of particulate matter that is unhealthy ("Highway Air Pollution and Your Health: Six Things You Need To Know," American Lung Association) and they are f* noisy ("Residential Exposure to Traffic Noise and Health-Related Quality of Life—A Population-Based Study").  Who wants to hang out by a freeway?

Equitable development plan. A big concern about the park concept is that it will spur displacement and gentrification.  

While I am hugely in favor of inward investment of all types ("Yes, public and nonprofit investments in the city spur further reinvestment and change: is this a bad thing or a complicated thing?," 2019, "Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors," 2011),  this is an issue, except for poor placement of the facility makes living by the bridge not so attractive.

The student asked me about the equitable development plan, which I wasn't involved in developing

It has a bunch of points.  First is workforce development.  I talked about this during the design process, and now that I am on the board of a park, I am proved right.  There just aren't that many jobs.  And my park is 110.5 acres.

The third is preserving housing.  Good goal.  Should have been addressed for decades.  Plus the real problem in Anacostia is a broken micro-economy.  They need a lot more residents (in multiunit buildings) to support revitalization of the local business district.  To its credit the Bridge Park has helped develop a land trust, but I don't see it doing that much ("Scattered site buying of houses in high cost neighborhoods doesn't seem to be a good way to develop scale for a community land trust," 2023).

-- Douglass Community Land Trust

-- "Will ‘all that glitters’ turn L.A.’s last solidly Black city white?," Los Angeles Times
-- "Puerto Rico Town, Other Chicago Cultural Districts Can Get Millions For Preservation Efforts: Organizations from Rogers Park to South Chicago and Humboldt Park now can apply for $3 million in state funds to protect cultural communities," Block Club Chicago

The fourth is using the bridge to leverage arts and culture.  YES!!!!!! A lot more about that below.

Economic multiplier effect: there won't be much. The second element of the plan is promoting business development on the bridge through kiosks and popups, and entrepreneurship development in the adjoining Anacostia commercial district, which by the way has had a Main Street commercial district revitalization program for 20 years.  I laughed.  

Of course, I would recommend a commercial district revitalization framework plan, and all kinds of initiatives.  Even my old plan for Cambridge, Maryland is relevant as it's a river community too.

The reality is that "local parks" as opposed to botanical gardens and arboreta and destination parks like National and State Parks don't have a big economic effect. "Garden tourism" is different.

But here there won't be a charge to enter the park.  

And if there is a lot of kid visitation, well kids don't spend money.  They often bring their own food, etc. (The Economic Impact of Local Parks: An Examination of the Economic Impacts of Operations and Capital Spending on the United States Economy, National Recreation and Parks Association).  Mostly the economic benefit from local parks comes in neighborhood stabilization and property value increases.

There are parks with food service and concessionaires, restaurants, but they aren't huge money makers.  The chain Shake Shack started as a kiosk in Madison Square Park in Manhattan, but it's an outlier ("The Story Behind Shake Shack's Success - Investopedia," Investopedia).

Shake Shack began as a small hot dog stand operating out of Madison Square Park in New York City in 2001 and grew into a gourmet fast-casual restaurant with more than 377 locations both domestically and internationally.
Although maybe Marriott would be willing to license a revival of Hot Shoppes as a retro business venture.

National Park Service visitor economic impact studies. An important distinction they make is between in region and out of region visitation.  (This extends to other public lands.)

Out of region visitors spend on lodging, food, and transportation. But spending by in-region visitors,  spending per party--not per person--is $42 per day.  That's not a lot of money.

The paper "Evaluating the economics of park-tourism from the ground-up: Leakage, multiplier effects, and the enabling environment at South Luangwa National Park, ZambiaEcological Economics, 2021, argues that simple surveys can collect this type of information.  But again, the effect of visitors on parks that are destinations is completely different.

Americans for the Arts economic impact analyses of arts patrons ("Americans for the Arts releases new findings about the arts’ impact on U.S. economyBroadway News)./ 

Nationwide, attendees spent an average of $38.46 at arts and culture organizations; attendees at institutions specifically serving a community of color spent an average of $38.29. This shows that spending by locals is nearly identical across the board.

In short, there will be some spending generated but not all that much. And now that I think about it I don't think we were ever presented with visitor projections.

Leveraging the Bridge Park to create a new revitalization agenda for Anacostia

Once again, the integrated public realm framework (David Barth, AECOM) is relevant to the concept of investing in a network of civic assets.

Mobility improvements

First, address the crappy location: Urban design and transit connections.   One of the elements in the equitable development plan is better connections between the two sides of the river and the physical location of the Bridge Park.  

During the design process we did discuss better transit connections. But I guess they've been too busy over the past 10 years to do anything.

As mentioned the site will be hard to get to.  It's more than a mile from either the Anacostia or Eastern Market transit stations.  

From the Capitol Hill side, the Navy Yard is surrounded by a wall.  And there are lots of interstitial empty spaces.  Same from Anacostia.  

I can't think of a worse walk.  Especially pushing baby carriages, walking with dogs, etc.

In the short term I'd set up a shuttle bus.  

But what I prefer is a heritage streetcar operation between the Anacostia and Eastern Market Metrorail stations, ideally run it, at least on weekends, in association with the National Capital Trolley Museum.  

The Toronto Transit Commission runs vintage streetcars on their waterfront lines in the summer.  That will add to the activation-specialness-fun element of the concept of the Bridge Park.

Make the walking/biking environment on the 11th Street roadway bridge awesome

Another thing would be to change the urban design conditions on the regular bridge, to make it great, to have better crossings at the entrances and exits, etc.  It's grim now.

Andrea Bowers’ text installation instills messages of unity and democracy in the glass walls of the Historic Broadway Station’s entrance pavilion. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times), "For L.A.’s newest underground art experience, head down to the Metro Regional Connector," Los Angeles Times.

Second, transit station improvements.  Unfortunately, the Metrorail station system wasn't designed to provide much in the way of neighborhood place value ("Transit, stations, and placemaking: stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods," 2013).  

Instead it was designed as a kind of structured whole, using the brutalist style ("Is the Washington Metro “Brutalist”?," "Part 2," HuffPost).  

Many of the stations haven't aged well.  The Anacostia station is tired, old and disinvested.  Invest in improvements.

Separately, I've suggested adding a visitor center and other amenities to the Eastern Market station.

Third, Freeway capping and undergrounding.  Similarly, DC 295 and 695 scar the East of the River neighborhoods ("How DC Route 295 isolates neighborhoods in Northeast DC from the rest of the city," Greater Greater Washington).  

Black communities have been separated by the construction of urban freeways for a long time ("America's Highway System Is a Monument to Environmental Racism and a History of Inequity," KQED/PBS).  Underground those roads.  Like the Big Dig in Boston.

And this is being discussed, even if I don't think the city has the planning capacity and verve to pull it off ("DC's Infrastructure Plans Include Moving I-295 Underground, Redesigning North Capitol Street," NBC4, 2022).

Social urbanism/equity planning.  My primary focus in revitalization is investing in communities, using all kinds of methods, some outlined in these pieces on St. Louis

-- "St. Louis: what would I recommend for a comprehensive revitalization program? | Part 1: Overview and Theoretical Foundations," 2021
-- "St. Louis: what would I recommend for a comprehensive revitalization program? | Part 2: Implementation Approach and Levers," 2021
-- "Revisiting St. Louis revitalization planning in the face of population shrinkage," 2023


-- "An outline for integrated equity planning: concepts and programs," 2017
-- "Equity planning: an update," 2020
-- "Social urbanism and equity planning as a way to address crime, violence, and persistent poverty: (not in) DC," 2021 
-- "Black community, economic and social capital: the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago/Chicago," 2021
-- "Pontiac Michigan: a lagging African American city in one of the nation's wealthiest counties," 2022

-- "The next Big Dig shouldn't be a dig" (makes the point that we should be investing in infrastructure using a broader social justice lens)
-- "An Architect Builds Toward the Future on Mexico’s Border," New York Times

The basic point is to invest in both people and place.  DC invests, half heartedly in people, not in place.  Social urbanism and equity planning aim to do this with a wide range of civic investments, from better transit and urban design, to new schools, libraries, and parks.  Medellin is one of the best examples world wide.  Such investments led to a 90%+ decrease in murder.

"Anacostia Library by The Freelon Group," Architectural Record.

Crappy leveraging of city-civic assets.  The more I learn about revitalization the more I am focused on concentrating rather than deconcentrating assets and efforts.

The replacement Anacostia Library is in a location that has zero positive spillover benefits.  The building is pretty, but as the Sex Pistols said, "vacant" from the standpoint of connectedness.

Like Tower Hamlets' IdeaStores ("Neighborhood libraries as nodes in a neighborhood and city-wide network of cultural assets," 2019), it should have been placed in the commercial district.

And while not in a commercial location, the Frances Gregory Library on Pennsylvania Avenue SE deeper in the community backs up to a park BUT HAS ZERO connection to that park other than some picture windows.  What a waste of an opportunity (which is repeated by the Woodridge Library in NE next to Langdon Park).

Note other places are bad at it too.  I am still working out an entry to explain this issue in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.  They build great civic assets, but don't leverage them to better create mixed public-private community hubs--centers.

Treat the East of the River parks as a network/create an Anacostia River National Heritage Area?.  I briefly worked on an effort called the Anacostia River Trust.  They had the wrong approach, but understood that the National Park Service controlling most of the land along the Anacostia River is counter productive in terms of serving the local community.

-- "The most wasted space in D.C.," Washington Post, 2016
-- "Defining National Park Service installations in DC as locally or nationally serving," 2019

From the Post op-ed:

Nearly a century old, larger than New York City’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, sitting at the foot of Capitol Hill on a gentle estuary with outstanding natural biodiversity, Anacostia Park ranks among the biggest wasted opportunities in the nation’s capital. This National Park Service property is sadly underinvested, almost entirely unprogrammed, toxic in several places and simply barren in others. Yet its potential to contribute to the District and the nation is stunning. More than 21 million people visit the District each year. Some would seek out a great Anacostia Riverside National Park and bring their disposable income to spend in the eastern part of the District. 

What if the park sponsored daily educational enrichment activities for the young people in nearby neighborhoods? What if a section of the park were similar to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, with programs oriented to more contemporary urban music? What if the park had a permanent interpretive display of Washington's vibrant African American communities of the mid-20th century?

The Park Service is tough.  They don't ever want to give up an inch of land.  But at the same time they have restrictions on what they can do which makes it difficult to do great park activation in the urban context, particularly when you aren't serving national audiences.

But why not use the Bridge Park as a way for the city to do a specialized parks master plan for East of the River.  Somehow get a memorandum of understanding with NPS.

Many of the views from NPS parks are incredible, and parks like Anacostia do serve the community reasonably well, even if somewhat haphazardly (more recreational elements are already run by the city).  Get the parks working together and coordinated.  

Interestingly, yesterday's PBS News Hour featured a brief interview with Akima Price, executive director, of Friends of Anacostia Park.

Imagine coordinating the Bridge Park, Anacostia Park, Poplar Point (transferred from NPS to the city, and abutting the Bridge Park), small community parks ("Five examples of the failure to do parks and public space master planning in DC," 2021), Fort DuPont (where the city hasn't helped much in revitalizing a hockey rink there, "The ice is melting for the skating kids of D.C.," Post), one of the most extensive sets of Civil War fort parks in the city, bike and walking paths, and historic sites.

Maybe the National Park Service Urban Agenda: A call to action initiative (2015) can help facilitate this, but I am not holding my breath.  Another link to the report.

The Urban Agenda centers around three main principles: 

Be Relevant to All Americans: Creating meaningful connections with the American public propels the work of the Urban Agenda. Relevancy is critical Service-wide but especially in urban areas. The Urban Lights publication, Model City vignettes, and Community Liaison Position Description offer tools for increasing NPS relevancy to all Americans. 

Activating One NPS: The NPS consists of 417 diverse park units and 54 programs serving communities across the country. The Urban Agenda calls for the unprecedented alignment of the entire agency by linking the work of national parks and programs to advance conservation, education, recreation, and economic development in urban areas. The Directory of NPS Community Assistance Programs is a resource for identifying programs to advance community needs. 

Nurture a Culture of Collaboration: The successful deployment of these principles requires a culture of collaboration, as the NPS cannot go it alone, especially in urban areas. The Culture of Collaboration Handbook offer several practical tips for bolstering collaborative efforts.

Create a National Heritage Area as a way to break silos. There are two different approaches that could break the logjam, one would be the designation of this area as a National Heritage Area, where NPS helps to coordinate a variety of federal, state, local and private assets in an integrated fashion.  

Many states including Maryland and Pennsylvania also have a local form of this.  

-- Maryland Heritage Areas program

Maryland's Anacostia Trails heritage area is just across the border in Prince George's County.  Better links with ATHA would be a nice complement to this idea. And ATHA does some great programming, signage systems, and visitor services.

For years I've argued that DC should manage itself as a heritage area with or without designation.  Baltimore started as a state heritage area and is now nationally designated.

-- "Management of HIstoric Centres"

Work with all the parks along the River, inclulding the USDA National Arboretum and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. The parks in Prince George's County too like Greenbelt including the Anacostia Riverfront Park in Bladensburg.  In short, don't limit the concept of an Anacostia River National Heritage Area to DC.  Include Maryland

National recreation area concept/the Anacostia River.  Another could be the creation of a "national recreation area" which again, coordinates park resources across multiple agencies and organizations.  

NRAs are oriented to the water, and the Anacostia Watershed Society has produced a water-oriented park map and history, using the NPS unigrid brochure graphic design format although it's not an official NPS publication.  

-- "Engaging citizens in DC's rivers and waterfronts as a way to drive improvements in water quality," 2019

But the heritage area makes more sense ("A Park for Everyone: The National Park Service in Urban America A Park for Everyone: The National Park Service in Urban America," Natural Resources Journal, Winter 2016).  Organizing around the water is too limited given the myriad issues.

That being said, a swimmable Anacostia River is on the horizon, there are marinas on the river, and I have a great concept for how the RFK Campus can leverage its waterside location (technically a west of the river location).

Related to either the NRA or an NHA/state heritage area would be the creation of a River Towns/Trail Towns economic development initiative along the River, leveraging the opportunities presented by tourism.

The way that Pennsylvania does this along the Great Allegheny Passage trail is a model. Which does include sites in Maryland and West Virginia.

-- Trail Towns program, Progress Fund

Bring the Garden Bridge/the public garden into the community.  The big thing is to leverage the Bridge Park as a way to reshape the community around "letting the gardens" in, sustainability and beauty.  

As opposed to it being a separate structure apart from the community.

In short, "make the Bridge Park" a shaping force within the neighborhood and as an augur of revitalization rather than the other way around.

The basic idea is investment in public spaces, comparable to a parks conservancy, using the Garden Festival approach.

The Garden Tourism efforts in Buffalo, New York are a great example on building this in terms of programming.  

-- GardenWalk Buffalo

An even better example is the now sadly defunct "Dig the City Garden Festival" that used to be held for a week in the summer in Manchester, UK ("Dig the city? Then you’ll LOVE these ultra urban garden ideas for Manchester," Manchester Evening News).

It presented events in the city center, as well as throughout the city, where "gardening takes over the city"  in incredibly creative ways.

The Bridge Park concept of specialty gardening can infuse the Anacostia commercial and residential district the same way Dig the City did, especially in terms of creativity.

Outdoor patio at the New Oberfalz craft brewery. The Downtown has a mix of specialty stores like a guitar shop and restaurants." How to Save Downtown," in Crain's Chicago Business about the revitalization of Griffith, Indiana 

Use the idea to drive beautification and plant-related creative efforts across the community.  

-- "European Garden Festivals as a model urban planning initiative for Detroit and other US cities," 2014
-- "DC has a big "Garden Festival" opportunity in the Anacostia River," 2014

One example of the garden escaping the Bridge Park is a kind of sculptural work Diana Balmori did in Bilbao many years ago ("The Garden That Climbs The Stairs").

Ideas abound. Ephemeral sculpture public art projects, the kinds of landscape initiatives in Montreal, the creative public space approaches of Claude Cormier.  

Basically updating the City Beautiful approach for the 21st Century.

Model Eleanor Davies wears a dress made from flowers by florist Lisa Dickinson of Venus to launch Dig The City Garden Festival, Manchester, UK

Bus shelters and bus stops and other types of street furniture can be green.

Leverage the public garden element for cultural tourism.  From the standpoint of great places/cities don't just take, they give, the Bridge Park should join the American Public Gardens Association and try to bring area gardens into a garden tourism consortium.  In short, extract the economic value that is possible.

There are a bunch of public gardens in the area--Hillwood, Dunbarton, Tudor, Brookside (Montgomery County), University of Maryland, US Botanic Garden (federal), National Arboretum (USDA) that are members.  Kenilworth Gardens (NPS) is not. 

Plus historic sites, like Cedar Hill, the last home of Frederick Douglass.

At the macro scale, gardens can have big economic impact, even if they don't generate a lot of micro economic activity for local businesses.  From "Lawmakers’ Longwood Gardens hearing: Public gardens create jobs, help economyDaily Local News:

“What a great opportunity to lift up the important role of nature, plants, and the great outdoors,” Roy said. “The 37 Philadelphia-area member gardens that make up America’s Garden Capital generate substantial benefits for the region with more than 1,500 jobs, support to local businesses, increasing nearby property values, and a collective economic impact of about $256 million per year. During this pandemic, with the heightened stress and anxiety, the respite provided by simple things like a walk in these gardens have proved to be more important than ever. Let’s not forget the important role these spaces play in our lives when we reach the other side of this.”

The award-winning orchid curtain in the Exhibition Hall at Longwood Gardens' 2015 Orchid Extravaganza. Photo: CAROL DeGUISEPPI

According to the study, The Economic Impact of Greater Philadelphia Gardens (Ecoconsult Solutions, 2017), about 30% of visitors to gardens in Greater Philadelphia are out of towners, spending about $145 per day, while the rest are in-region, spending about $36 per day.

Admission to Longwood Gardens--incredibly beautiful--is $25.  Many of the gardens identified here are free to enter.  

But there is still a way to capture some spending from some consumer segments.  However, it will have to be cultivated, it won't be trickle down.  

When I proposed the creation of a "Capitol Hill Destination Development Management and Marketing Plan/District" in association with Eastern Market ("Eastern Market DC's 150th anniversary last weekend | And my unrealized master plan for the market") the idea was to have a day's worth of places people could visit via tour bus.  

This concept can be extended to the very least to the Bridge Park, Kenilworth Gardens, other parks in Anacostia, the National Arboretum, the US Botanic Garden, Congressional Cemetery, Eastern Market, even over a couple days.  To generate some garden tourism/cultural tourism activity.

Economic development in the commercial district.  Obviously the hundreds of thousands of words I've written on commercial district revitalization are relevant here.  Promoting POC businessh development, creative business structures that reduce the demand for capital, investment, etc., is necessary.

New types of business organization are required to seed retail in emerging commercial districts.  In addition to supporting businesses willing to operate in such places, to widen the array of what's available, and in addition to the types of regional and national chain retailers focused on serving this demographic, to create more opportunities for the development of locally owned and operated businesses, it's necessary to foster different kinds of business organization--business co-operatives, market incubators, and social entrepreneurship retail ventures by nonprofit organizations, in addition to pre-existing businesses.

Examples from elsewhere include farmers markets and public markets more generally, the Mercado in Portland, Oregon and the Thai Town Marketplace in Los Angeles, the various food incubators that have popped up in DC, the 4th Street Marketplace in Santa Ana, the Housing Works store and care in NYC, among others,

Some businesses have opened, but a big issue is that they need more residents capable of spending money.

-- "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 1 | The first six," 2020
-- "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 2 |  A neighborhood identity and marketing toolkit (kit of parts)," 2020
--  "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 3 | The overarching approach, destination development/branding and identity, layering and daypart planning," 2020
-- "Basic planning building blocks for "community" revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 4 | Place evaluation tools," 2020

-- "Ground up commercial revitalization and the Skyland Town Center project," 2016

Reunion Square will will include the city's new Department of Health headquarters, a 120-room hotel, a 132-unit affordable senior building, another 481 residential units, a new home for the Anacostia Playhouse, and 140,000 square feet of retail.  Note that 140,000 sf. of retail space is insane.

Office development/limited multiplier effect.  The Post reports, "DC Health moves to Anacostia with high hopes for community impact," about a new revitalization effort by the city, bringing the Department of Health and its 600 employees to Anacostia.  From the article:

Administration officials see the influx of workers as an economic boost and part of a broader effort to scale up critical health infrastructure in a place where life expectancy and health outcomes lag behind neighborhoods to the west. While the department doesn’t provide direct medical services on-site, DC Health does focus on making federal dollars work for city residents, funding nonprofits and community groups working with people who need public health resources.

... The city is paying about $1 million per month to lease space in the 250,000 square feet building owned by Four Points, LLC, according to the Department of General Services. The city will continue to pay $1.46 million per month at North Capitol Street, which will be renovated to make space for other D.C. government offices, DGS said. 

The parts of the building open to the public are on the ground floor where Vital Records and Licensing office staff will help with birth and death certificates and licenses for health professionals including nurses, pharmacists and dentists, and barber and beauty shops, although most of those tasks can be completed online. 

Note these are two very different issues, health outcomes and revitalization.  And as far as health outcomes go, I outlined a brilliant approach (see below) that the city ignored.

I've written about relocation of DC government agencies over the years as a misguided economic development strategy ("The Reeves Center Myth Revisited," 2011, "Office Buildings Won't Save Anacostia," 2005).  It's not that the idea is bad per se, just from a numbers standpoint it doesn't have much effect, and comes at the expense of transit efficiency.  Especially in secondary and tertiary business districts.

First, office workers don't support much retail.  The old rule of thumb was1.5 sf. per person on convenience goods (think CVS) and 3.5 sf. per person on quick service food (sandwich shops, etc.).  So 600 workers = 3,000 sf., of retail support which is a couple storefronts.  

Second, work from home further minimizes the impact  Third, so does e-commerce.  It's hard now to seed retail around office development because of this.  

Fourth, while I haven't seen studies on DC government workers per se, a definitive study on federal workers in the L'Enfant Plaza area found about 65% of workers brought their lunch--which is why the food options there are so paltry.

In short, not a solution.

WRT the larger number of total retail space in the Reunion Square project, again old, not taking into effect e commerce effects--so many companies now are shutting stores, is that the average resident supports 7.5 sf. of retail.  You need at least 20,000 residents with decent incomes to support that amount of retail.  Still, Reunion Square looks like an important addition to the community and its rebuilding efforts.

Leimert Park, Los Angeles as a model of a POC centric commercial district.  Many years ago Leimert Park in Los Angeles was featured in the Washington Post as a black-business district ("Los Angeles's Black Pride: Taking In the Retro Vibe of Leimert Park," places, 2006).  

I visited it back then and wasn't impressed.  But that can be the model.  Especially with amped up investment.  The issue back then was disinvestment, not the concept.

-- "How a gentrifying Leimert Park is ending up in Black hands," Los Angeles Times
-- "Purchasing power: Leimert Park merchants come together to buy their building," Los Angeles Standard
-- "Leimert Park Art Village: The Struggle with a Sense of Place," PBS SoCal

Since 2007 when I saw it, there has been a lot of new investment in the district, not just adding rail transit service, but in revitalizing what had been an old theater into a multifaceted cultural center.

In Anacostia, there is a remnant theater on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard there.  

Make an arts center to complement the other arts assets the community, like the Anacostia Playhouse.  

The Vision Theater in Leimert Park Village will be a cultural anchor and will bring new customer segments to the commercial district throughout the day and into the evening,  Photo from Horizon and Skyline blog.  

Also see "Leimert Theater: Envisioning a Neighborhood Landmark," KCET.  

Leimert Park is decently organized, and successfully campaigned for a more directly accessible transit station as part of a new line being developed to serve their area.  Also see "Leimert Park plays to its own beat," USC, and "Leimert Park: where does it go from here?," KCET--the latter article discusses how since the approval of the transit station, an unknown buyer has purchased many properties in the district.

Key to the revitalization program has been the retention of existing businesses and the incorporation of new arts and culture anchors (Leimert Park's World Stage hopes to keep the music playing" and "Play festival heralds impending revival of L.A.'s Vision Theatre," Los Angeles Times) into the mix, along with park refurbishments, streetscape improvements, and other public space improvements.

Berczy Square, Toronto, 

Focusing on Anacostia as a cultural center and arts as production.  Develop programs focusing not just on presentation or consumption of the arts, but arts production too.  

Indianapolis created a system of arts districts in the late 1990s.  Later so did the State of Indiana ("About Indiana Culture Districts"). And Maryland has arts districts, albeit more focused on some tax advantages for arts as production (""Arts district planning" in Arlington County | Many communities don't know the difference between arts as production and arts as consumption," 2021).

Austin, Texas has the 6 Square District, marketed as Austin's Black Cultural District.

Characteristics of cultural quarters
(from Montgomery [2003], "Cultural Quarters as Mechanisms for Urban Regeneration. Part 1: Conceptualising Cultural Quarters," Planning, Practice & Research, 18:4)
slightly revised and reordered

  1. Cultural venues at a variety of scales, including small and medium. 
  2. Availability of workspaces for artists and low-cost cultural producers.
  3. Small-firm economic development in the cultural sectors.
  4. Managed workspaces for office and studio users.
  5. Location of arts development agencies and companies.
  6. Arts and media training and education.
  7. Art in the environment.
  8. Community arts development initiatives.
  9. Stable arts funding.
  10. Identity, image development, branding and marketing support.
  11. Complementary day-time uses. 
  12. Complementary evening uses.
A few years later, I learned about the Arabianranta arts district in Helsinki, which also has more of a business tinge, arts as production focused, anchored by an arts and designed focused college and businesses which located there, attracted by proximity to the college (""Developing creative quarters in cities: policy lessons from 'Art and design city' Arabianranta, Helsinki," Urban Research and Practice, 6:2 [2013]).

Anyway, most US "arts districts" efforts aren't so nuanced that they understand the difference between arts as production and arts as consumption.  

I argue that cultural infrastructure is comprised of at least five elements: 

  • Artists 
  • Place 
  • Space and facilities 
  • Cultural organizations and support networks 
  • Cultural-creative businesses; 
and we should differentiate between hard (buildings/the physical), squishy (organizations) and soft (people) infrastructure. These five elements—artists, place, space, organizations, and businesses—are the components of cultural clusters or cultural quarters.

-- "Reprinting with a slight update, "Arts, culture districts and revitalization" from 2009," 2019 
-- "Cultural Quarters as Mechanisms for Urban Regeneration. Part 1: Conceptualising Cultural Quarters,," John Montgomery, Planning Practice and Research, 2003
-- "Cultural Infrastructure: an Integral Component of Canadian Communities," Creative City Network, Canada
-- "Social infrastructure in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami," 2021

There is an article about a 1970s POC arts initiative in DC ("A new look at the New Thing, a critical part of D.C.’s Black arts scene," Post).  Those junks of groups need to seed the East of the River.

There was the Harlem Community Arts Center during the Depression, and other institutions that grew out of it that are models on how to develop such critical arts infrastructure.

There are initiatives for teens in Roxbury, Boston and Atlanta ("Museum of Design Atlanta Announces FREE Membership Program for Kids: equity and access in museum and cultural planning").  A theater could show August Wilson plays.  

A super duper maker space.  Provide the infrastructure so people can do.  Etc.

Why isn't there a POC focused "neighborhood design center" East of the River?  ("Meet the Black design collective reimagining how cities get built," Fast Company).  

Or years ago, I suggested Morgan State should have relocated its architecture school to the Station North Arts district in Baltimore.  

-- "Morgan State University should move their architecture and planning school to Downtown/Station North Arts District," 2014

Howard could do something similar.  Other architecture schools and urban design centers do have urban locations separate from the main campus.

When it was in the commercial district.  "D.C.’s Least-Visited Smithsonian, The Anacostia Community Museum, Is Preparing For Gentrification" WAMU/NPR, 2017. (They're still waiting.)

A big miss for me is the Anacostia Community Museum.  It's small.  They have decent exhibits, and it grew out of the 1960s "ecological museum" movement where big institutions, in this case the Smithsonian, developed more community focused museums.  

But it's no longer on MLK Blvd. but in an invisible piss poor location in the neighborhood.  Bring it back into the commercial district.

Food too as an element of arts and culture ("8 Black-owned spots that define the Crenshaw corridor," "A Black-owned coffee shop renaissance is brewing in L.A. 25 cafes with all the vibes," "Customers wait hours for tacos from this Leimert Park window. They’re worth its," Los Angeles Times).  Crenshaw-Leimert Park as another example of how to expand the definition of an arts district,

“We have a high concentration of Black residents and businesses right along the boulevard,” says Jason Foster, president and chief operating officer of Destination Crenshaw. “We have cultural references from music to movies, and people who are actually driving the culture, like Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay, who got their grounding right here on Crenshaw.” 

Intent on reducing displacement, Destination Crenshaw aims to transform Black L.A.’s main thoroughfare with community investment, green spaces and public art commissioned from more than 100 Black artists. The years-long project is expected to be unveiled later this year, and Foster’s hope is for Crenshaw to live in public consciousness as “a Black place,” similar to Harlem’s 125th Street, which has been a center for Black arts and culture since the early 20th century.

But don’t disregard the storefronts that aren’t as flashy. There’s plenty to discover along Crenshaw Boulevard, from murals honoring neighborhood rap icon Nipsey Hussle to the Taste of Soul festival that draws more than 350,000 attendees for a one-day celebration of Black food and culture. This guide serves as a primer for getting to know the Black-owned businesses in this district, including a long-standing barbecue joint, a community-minded cannabis club and much more.

Create a higher education hub.  This idea is focused on creating an education hub focused on underserved communities with a lower level of higher educational attainment, making over public libraries into broader community educational anchors through expansion into larger facilities with spaces for colleges to offer classes, delivery of workforce education, etc.

In part, this is modeled on the Idea Store concept from Tower Hamlets borough, London.

There, public libraries have been combined with workforce education delivery, and relocated to highly visible and architecturally startling buildings in popular commercial districts ("Idea Stores Ten Years On: The next generation," Designing Libraries, “When is the Library not a library? When it is the Idea Store,” 2004, Guardian).

Other examples are where multiple colleges offer programs from the same location.  Models include how the University System of Maryland supports the "Universities at Shady Grove" initiative where 80 academic degree programs are offered by nine different Maryland state universities in a location in Montgomery County--the state's wealthiest county--which has no four year colleges based there ("Nine universities on one small campus? It’s real. It’s here. And it could be higher ed’s future," Washington Post).

And how the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State University, and the University of Colorado Denver share a campus ("Chancellor Michelle Marks leads CU Denver to 'equity-serving' future," Denver Business Journal).  

Or how Indiana and Purdue Universities have a joint campus in Indianapolis.  

And I wouldn't limit access to public universities.  Any university wanting to participate should be welcome to do so.

The idea was to do this from the standpoint of equity planning and revitalizing communities, as a way to expand access to educational opportunities as an element of social urbanism and creating stronger networks of social infrastructure and civic assets.

Medical education campus at St. Elizabeths  I suggested this as part of a series on an innovative strategy for public health and wellness programming East of the River as part of building a replacement hospital for the United Medical Center.

Obviously it was too ambitious for DC, and maybe the biotechnology business development element is a stretch.  But the medical and allied health professional elements are still relevant.  Start with moving certain elements of UDC like the nursing program and add programs over time.  So many schools are creating new medical schools.

-- "Ordinary versus Extraordinary Planning around the rebuilding of the United Medical Center in Southeast Washington DC | Part One: Rearticulating the system of health and wellness care East of the River," 2018
-- "Part Two: Creating a graduate health and biotechnology research initiative on the St. Elizabeths campus," 2018
-- "Part three: the potential for donations around an expanded program," 2018

A medical high school.  Separately, Bloomberg Philanthropies is supporting the creation of health-curriculum oriented high schools in association with hospital systems.  One is in association with Northwell Health in New York City ("Northwell, NYC Public Schools announce Northwell School of Health Sciences: New York City joins Bloomberg Philanthropies first-of-its-kind initiative that connects students to job opportunities with family-sustaining wages in 10 communities across the U.S.").  That would be a good addition to this concept, as a way to stoke school improvement and workforce development.

The RFK campus touches the Anacostia River and is nominally under control by DC Government, not the federal government.

"West of the River" opportunities centered on the RFK campus

The blog entry "Wanted: A comprehensive plan for the "Anacostia River East" corridor" (2012), focuses on the Anacostia River as a corridor, and discusses the RFK campus and the old PEPCO power station on Benning Road as major redevelopment opportunities.  

As discussed, most of the land along the Anacostia River is controlled by federal agencies, and so it's difficult to harvest revitalization opportunities.  

DC has invested in a trail system along the River, which is great, and connects to the trail system in Prince George's County.  The Bladensburg Waterfront Park, and separately Anacostia Watershed Society offer boat tours of the River.  But the National Arboretum, run by USDA, doesn't connect too much to the NPS facilities.

The RFK campus.  I forgot how in 2003 I argued that H Street Main Street should have a housing development strategy and that the RFK campus (and Hechinger Mall) should be the primary focus.  

Because you need more residents to support a viable shopping district.

The parking lots are a tremendous opportunity for redevelopment ("What Should We Do With the RFK Site? It Matters More Than You Think It's one of our few remaining opportunities for smart redevelopment. Let's not mess it up.," Washingtonian Magazine).

But this was hung up by the lease with the federal government, which limits the site to "recreational use" and desire in some quarters to bring the NFL football team back to the site--the team played there until the late 1990s.

It turns out that after decades of inaction, Congress is on the verge of extending the site lease ("House passes RFK stadium site bill, boosting dreams of wooing Commanders back to DC," Roll Call).  From the article:

The bill would allow the city to transform the roughly 174-acre campus — which currently consists mostly of parking lots, sports fields and the decaying stadium — from “acres of asphalt” into a vibrant commercial and community space, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who championed the proposal. 

“Absent congressional action, this land in our nation’s capital will remain unused, with ongoing maintenance costs and environmental liability remaining the full responsibility of the National Park Service — an ongoing burden for the American taxpayer,” Kentucky Republican Rep. James Comer, the bill’s lead sponsor, said from the House floor Wednesday. “This economic development will help revitalize the RFK stadium campus, creating new jobs and tax revenue for district residents.” 

The bill, which would transfer control of the stadium campus from the Department of the Interior to D.C. at no cost for 99 years, could give the District a competitive edge over its neighbors in Maryland and Virginia in a bidding war for the Commanders. It comes in the wake of a recently announced deal that could move the Wizards and Capitals from downtown D.C. to Virginia, increasing pressure on local leaders to bring the NFL team back to the city.

A few years ago Events DC did a plan for the campus, and hidden within it was the suggestion that the Wizards and Capitals arena could relocate there ("From gray to green: Sports fields to kick off transformation of RFK Stadium area," WTOP radio).

Just before the proposal to move these teams to Alexandria, I suggested that an alternative would be to relocate them to the RFK campus.

Fans line up outside the arena before the opening night game between the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins at Capital One Arena on October 12, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) 

From a transit perspective it wouldn't be ideal.  But even I have to acknowledge the importance of the teams to city branding and identity ("More sports: sports-anchored entertainment districts and LA Live," 2018).  

It took me many years to accept the positive impact of the now named Capital One Arena on the success of Downtown Washington. While I still believe that I am right that the area would have revitalized eventually (and actually there are problems with the development decades years later, because of problems with the urban design) there is no question that it: 

(1) accelerated improvements much more quickly than had the development process been more organic and slow 

 (2) draws and re-introduces suburban residents of the metropolitan area to the city, and contributes more positively to the image of DC within the metropolitan landscape for commerce and residential choice.

We can think of redevelopment of the RFK campus as a "west of the river" side revitalization effort to complement the "east of the river" strategy outlined above.

-- "Capital One Arena, Wizards and Capitals may move to Alexandria | Why not the RFK campus?"

The problem again, is the desire to bring the NFL football team back to the city and the site.  The Mayor and others want it bad ("Excitement, Contention Surround D.C.’s RFK Stadium Proposal; Residents Voice Concerns Over Noise Pollution, Traffic," Washington Informer).   From the Post, "Does D.C. want a Commanders homecoming?":

Now that legislative progress is well underway, and prospects of Senate passage seem bright (so long as the measure continues to include no federal funds to upgrade and maintain the land), it’s time for the District to turn full attention to the pesky details of how to use the defunct RFK campus — based solely on what’s in the city’s best economic interests. 

Bowser’s concerns are quite clear. She wants to bring back the Landover, Md.-based Washington Commanders football team to the home that it abandoned — while named the Washington Unmentionables — nearly 30 years ago.

Bowser, in a statement, hailed House passage of the bill as “a significant step forward in our efforts to unlock the full potential of the RFK Campus — for our residents and visitors, the community, and DC’s Comeback.” But she clearly sees the legislation as a means to erect a new NFL stadium. There certainly are plenty of D.C-based Commanders fans who want the team back in town. Whether they speak for the city as a whole is another question. Fans have every right to pay the team’s owners for a product they value. But all taxpayers would shoulder bills for hundreds of millions for the infrastructure and land redevelopment needed for a new stadium. 

... There’s no getting around it. The question must be joined: Is siting a football stadium at the RFK complex the most economically and socially beneficial use of the land? 

On behalf of District taxpayers, city leaders need to sort this out among themselves before entertaining serious discussions of the matter with the Commanders. “Don’t promise what you can’t deliver” is a piece of advice that often gets tossed around when it comes to negotiations. Nostalgia has its place. But so, too, mixed-use development with both upscale and affordable housing, thriving retail, jobs and parks — a livable community on Anacostia’s shores. 

The reality is that football stadiums in particular is don't generate much activity--maybe 25 events per year, when an arena with multiple teams, concerts and other events, generates 100s of days of activity.  Prince George's County would make zero off the Washington Commanders without an admissions tax on tickets.  And the area around the stadium is grim.

Putting the arena there--which might be possible because of lack of consensus in Virginia to provide major subsidies ("Top Virginia Senate Democrats deal setback to legislation to relocate Washington Capitals, Wizards," AP)--isn't ideal as it doesn't have the premier transit connections of the Downtown location.  But you can add intra-campus streetcar service, underground the Orange Line, add another transit station on the edge of the campus, build housing and other stuff.

But if the site is dedicated to a football stadium, mostly it will be a wasted opportunity. And that's evident from current stadiums across the country.  Mostly their urban design conditions suck, they are surrounded by parking lots, and there is minimal positive spillover development.

Recreation opportunities from the River.  The Events DC plan focused on recreation, given the terms of the lease at the time.

Somewhere I have a memo outlining how the RFK side of the river can be used to allow people "to touch" the river with all kinds of year round activities including a beach, winter sauna, etc., to leverage the concept of the river as a recreational asset and something fun and active.

In the summer, Paris organizes lots of activities along the River Seine (Paris Plages) including dropping sand to form a kind of urban beach.

Other development opportunities.  As mentioned the PEPCO site, which is 19 acres ("Pepco sells former Benning Road power plant to logistics giant," Washington Business Journal, Powering Progress on Benning Road, ULI study).  Currently much of the rest of the site, 77 acres, is still used for utility purposes.

Hechinger Mall.  Bladensburg Road.  The possibility of a Metrorail extension of H Street NE from Union Station, streetcar extension, revitalization of the Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road corridors.  Adding a Metrorail station to serve the north side of the RFK campus.


At 11:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Request for a special tour guide for the USDA National Arboretum.

At 7:23 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The Promenade Plantée: Politics, Planning, and Urban Design in Postindustrial Paris

Journal of Planning Education and Research, 2013

The Bentway, Toronto’s public space project under an expressway

What is the 606 park? | Chicago Architecture Center

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

D.C.’s Kingman Island, once a ‘pile of dredge waste,’ is reborn

At 11:40 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

In Washington Highlands, an ‘authentic’ neighborhood looks forward


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