Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Scott Kratz had a successful career in museum education until he stumbled upon a new calling: building an ambitious, elevated park over the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.
More than sewers, subways, and the other conduits of the modern city, bridges tend to nurture creator myths. No crossing is complete without a self-destructive genius, power-hungry planner, or mad colonel at its helm.
Scott Kratz, director of the 11th Street Bridge Park, a planned green crossing in southeast Washington, D.C., emphatically does not fit the mold. His single-minded pursuit during more than 400 meetings? Trying to hear what everyone else had to say.
"He's showed enormous patience in building a coalition for this project while being receptive to input from a wide range of folks," says Skip McMahon, a co-founder of THEARC, an Anacostia nonprofit overseeing the 11th Street Bridge project. "I think that was pretty unusual to see."
The task at hand is more complex, though. In one sense, a bridge is simply a way to get from here to there. But the 11th Street Bridge Park will be a destination in itself—and, more than that, it will connect two adjacent neighborhoods as different as any in an American city.
The final design, unveiled late Wednesday, is a collaboration between the Dutch architecture firm OMA and the landscape architects at Philadelphia-based OLIN. The span will rise in the form of an X, with the upper arms giving a vertical dimension to the central stretch of the bridge.
"I can't think of another project here in D.C., in the nation's capital, a single intervention in the urban form that has the potential to impact health, the economy, the environment" like this one, Kratz told me. "The goal that connects with people viscerally is that it can be a physical and metaphorical bridge."
Kratz wasn't always in the bridge business. For nearly a decade, he worked as a vice president of education at the capital's National Building Museum. One day in 2011, over breakfast, he asked then-District Planning Director Harriet Tregoning what he thought was an innocent question about the $390 million construction project underway a few blocks from his home, a new bridge over the Anacostia.
Tregoning told him she had an idea to transform the old bridge into a park. Was he interested?
"It was early in the morning and I said, 'Sure,'" Kratz remembers, "having no idea that I'd be leaving my job two and a half years later to build a bridge."
The symbolic distance is considerably greater than the 700-odd feet that separate Anacostia from the Washington Navy Yard. The District's Ward 6, on the north side, is peppered with Federal-era row houses and home to some of the nation's most powerful politicians. Ward 8, on the south side of the river, has high poverty and unemployment. The first has no racial majority; the second is 94 percent African American.
And yet, Kratz says, both communities essentially agreed on what they wanted from the new space: performance venues, access to the water, and urban agriculture, for example. "It was almost magical that in these meetings, whether in the middle of very expensive Capitol Hill row homes, or with the Historic Anacostia Block Association, or Fairmont Civic Association, or public housing resident associations, we kept hearing the same concepts again and again."
The bridge park is one of a wave of new urban projects where government functions as a catalyst for citizen initiative. "There are many people out there eager to have a creative impact on the city they live in and they love," says Tregoning, now the director of the Office of Economic Resilience at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "That's an impulse that cities are going to take advantage of more and more."
In that sense and others, the project has often been compared to New York's High Line, the hugely popular Manhattan park built on a defunct, elevated freight rail line. Like the High Line, the 11th Street Bridge Park will need to raise private funds to match its $14.5 million commitment from the District government. That is the park's last, and perhaps largest, river to cross.
But Kratz is determined that the project not emulate the High Line's other legacy, that of a "Trojan Horse" for the real estate industry. After organizing an unusually inclusive design competition, with a diverse jury and a large oversight committee representing all kinds of stakeholders, Kratz is now working to assemble a task force of experts to assess the potential for displacement around the project, and to share potential strategies of mitigation with the community.
"We're not seeing speculation yet, and I think we have six months to a year before that begins," Kratz says. "When that speculation begins, solutions become much more expensive."