The 11th Street Bridge Park design submitted by OLIN and OMA. OLIN and OMA

The 11th Street Bridge Park proposal aims to truly connect parts of the city divided by more than just a river.

Make no mistake: Any of the finalists in the competition to design D.C.'s 11th Street Bridge Park is a winner. This is the savviest proposal for adapting outmoded infrastructure since the High Line. The four teams that made the grade as finalists to design the thing met the challenge.

The people behind it, namely organizer Scott Kratz, also checked off all the right boxes. In preparing for this stage of the competition, the 11th Street Bridge Park organization has hosted hundreds of meetings (more than 300, Kratz says) with the communities on both sides of the Anacostia River, assembled a first-rate design jury, and earned the support of the National Park Service, the Washington Navy Yard, the D.C. City Council, and others in D.C.'s vast panoply of stakeholders.

Designs submitted by the four finalist teams—Balmori Associates with Cooper, Robertson & Partners; OLIN and OMA; Stoss Landscape Urbanism with Höweler + Yoon Architecture; and Wallace Roberts & Todd with NEXT Architects and Magnusson Klemencic Associates—all hit the right notes. With entries from both established and emerging landscape and architecture firms, this competition is bound to produce a template for soaring contemporary architecture in the nation's capital—something the city lacks.

As significant as the entries are, design was never going to make or break the 11th Street Bridge Park. The park promises to unite neighborhoods divided as much by a socioeconomic partition as by a river, and to engage both neighborhoods with the river itself. But to build a successful High Line on the Anacostia, the city will need to invest in connecting people with the bridge. Plans to do exactly that are already in place—though the enthusiasm for carrying them through may be waning in the D.C. Council.

Last weekend, I biked with Kratz down to the riverfront to see the site where—if all goes well—the 11th Street Bridge Park will be erected in 2017 or 2018. He explained how former D.C. Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning pitched him on the concept of an elevated park when work was underway to remove and replace the old 11th Street Bridge. (Kratz was an executive at the National Building Museum at the time.)

When I asked him what the city could do to make this project happen, his answer surprised me: Build out the city's streetcar lines.

(DDOT)

"I don’t think I’d use the word 'integral,' but a future streetcar line would certainly help stitch the future 11th Street Bridge Park into the adjacent neighborhoods and larger region," Kratz says. "The line that is planned to cross along the 11th Street local bridge runs adjacent to three Metro stops—the Anacostia Metro station, Navy Yard Metro station, and Southwest Waterfront Metro station."

While D.C. is now issuing parking tickets along the inaugural line of the D.C. Streetcar system (which is north of the river, in Washington's Northeast quadrant), the actual streetcar line itself has not yet opened to passengers. And the Council has signaled that it doesn't plan to support the system with the enthusiasm (or funds) that D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray envisioned.

For good reason: The inaugural streetcar line, which Vox's Matthew Yglesias calls "the worst transit project in America," is nobody's idea of good transit infrastructure—except developers, maybe. Few streetcar projects do meet the standards of good transit. There's a little reason to hope for more from the Anacostia Streetcar line, though: While it suffers from some of the same problems as the H Street NE-Benning Road line (it will share traffic lanes with cars and buses, for example), the complete Anacostia-M Street SW line would bridge two quadrants and pass three Metro stations.

The city might find that the 11th Street Bridge Park and the Anacostia Streetcar line can save one another. Building a streetcar to spur development is a bad rationale for transit, but it's a great reason to invest in heady architecture. And while building a destination park doesn't make sense if people can't get to it, building this destination park may boost the justification for building the streetcar line that will help people make it a destination.

Kratz is already thinking this far ahead. He says that he will work with the District Department of Transportation to plan a spot linking the pedestrian and bike path on the 11th Street local bridge with the 11th Street Bridge Park (which is going to need a better name, by the way). A mid-bridge stop, plus linkages to the riverfront on both sides of the Anacostia, would help to ferry people from Capitol Hill and Anacostia and elsewhere to the park—connections that will be necessary to make it a High Line-minded destination.  

At the same time, a strong park design might help DDOT in its efforts to muster up the money to build the Anacostia line. For the third time, the agency has applied for a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation—a bid that The Washington Post reports would cover about a third of the costs for the line. (Incidentally, a grant that size would cover more than half the $35 million projected costs for the bridge park's design, construction, and endowment.) Maybe the City Council could be convinced of the merits of the Southeast-to-Southwest Streetcar line once D.C. decides on a final design for the edgiest architecture project in the city's history.

Many of the finalist designs boast features that have nothing to do with infrastructure. Balmori and Cooper Robertson describe their design signature as a "series of graceful arches that take their strides with a side-to-side swagger." The climbing nets and trampoline park of the scheme designed by Next and WRT would make the bridge park the most whimsical place in all of D.C. (barring the hipster-hippie neighborhood of Bloomingdale, perhaps). The design from Stross and Höweler + Yoon would extend seamlessly the nature of the waterfront parks over the bridge itself. And the OLIN and OMA design would give D.C. waterfalls.

But the best reason to build the 11th Street Bridge Park is the same for building any bridge: It will connect two places divided by a river. That river happens to be the site of some stark breaks in the fabric of the city, economic and transit-wise. Remarkably, design may be the best tool for repairing those divides.

 

Balmori Associates with Cooper, Robertson & Partners

Read the team's design statement.

(Balmori Associates with Cooper, Robertson & Partners)
(Balmori Associates with Cooper, Robertson & Partners)
(Balmori Associates with Cooper, Robertson & Partners)

 

Stoss Landscape Urbanism with Höweler + Yoon Architecture

Read the team's design statement.

(Stoss Landscape Urbanism with Höweler + Yoon Architecture)
(Stoss Landscape Urbanism with Höweler + Yoon Architecture)
(Stoss Landscape Urbanism with Höweler + Yoon Architecture)

OLIN and OMA

Read the team's design statement.

(OLIN and OMA)
(OLIN and OMA)

Wallace Roberts & Todd with NEXT Architects and Magnusson Klemencic Associates

Read the team's design statement.

(Wallace Roberts & Todd with NEXT Architects and Magnusson Klemencic Associates)
(Wallace Roberts & Todd with NEXT Architects and Magnusson Klemencic Associates)
(Wallace Roberts & Todd with NEXT Architects and Magnusson Klemencic Associates)

 

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