DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park Planning Fully Engaged Affected Communities

Scott Kratz

New York Citys own highly successful reuse project, the High Line, has inspired a network of similarly-goaled, urban infrastructure projects, amongst them is the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington D.C. Here, VX News interviews Scott Kratz, Senior Vice President of Building Bridges Across the River and 11th Street Bridge Park Director, on the decade-long project as it is about to break ground early next year. Kratz talks of the importance of fully engaging with affected communities early and often to create community-centered civic spaces. Kratz also opines on civic lessons learned & applicable to repurposing and extending the life of other federal infrastructure investments, e.g., the Los Angeles River Revitalization project.

VX News: Scott, it's wonderful to reconnect– and to afford you an opportunity to update readers on the 11th Street Bridge Park mission, community engagement ambitions, and progress

Scott Kratz: Its great to connect again-- particularly as a former Angeleno. Here in Washington D.C., we have a river with not one but two freeways that have long divided the nation's capital. These bridges have divided the two communities that line its banks by race, income, health, and even life expectancy. Now, we have this unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as these old freeway bridges built in the 1960s are coming down. Instead of getting rid of all the old infrastructure, we want to repurpose it to extend the life of that initial federal investment. The 11th Street Bridge Park is then a new physical and metaphorical bridge connecting these two long-divided communities.

Having professionally worked in the past for both LAs Autry Museum of the West and DCs National Housing Museum, what attracted you more than a decade ago to the 11th Street Bridge Park?

I think it was two things. One, this is my neighborhood. I live about four blocks away from where this bridge is in Capitol Hill where I've lived with my wife for 16 or 17 years. However, I think the more significant answer to that question is that I can't think of too many other projects here in Washington D.C. that, in a single intervention, can support the community's physical, cultural, economic, and environmental health. A community leader said to me the other day, if you look back in Washington, D.C. over the last 30 years, the two most important civic infrastructure projects are the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Bridge Park. What this can mean for the city and as the nation's capital, is an opportunity to be a larger model for driving community-centered civic spaces. 

Update readers on status of the 11th Street Bridge Park.

I've been involved in this for the last 10 or 12 years, depending on when you start measuring. I did not think this was going to be a 10 or 12 year project but that time has allowed us to develop these deep relationships within the community and make investments not only in the park but adjacent communities. I think what's become a significant part of the DNA of the Bridge Park is the deep investment in the adjacent communities and neighborhood residents, to ensure that local residents can really stay, thrive in place, and benefit from this project. 

Two questions that we internally spend a lot of time talking about are, who is this project for, and who's going to benefit? The Bridge Parks equitable development plan considers housing, workforce development, preserving small businesses, and arts and culture strategies. These considerations are an answer to community investment while allowing long-term residents to stay and thrive in place.

The old & new 11th Street Bridge spans long disconnected DC communities. Elaborate on Anacostias history and your efforts to fully engage community in re-imagining a new Bridge. 

The history of Anacostia is a rich one. Thousands of years ago, it was inhabited by the Nacotchtank as a thriving neighborhood of trade then later became a mainly Irish neighborhood primarily for those who worked at the Navy Yard, the then largest employer in the District and oldest Navy base to this day. They worked on the armaments and battleships- you know, all kinds of things still in existence. There's a rich African-American history of Barry Farm, one of the first sorts of housing established for emancipated African Americans post-Civil War. The sale of those lots by the Freedmans Bank helped fund the establishment of Howard University. Today, its 92% African-American with a generational history of disinvestment and racist planning policies that led to an 81 times difference between the average household wealth of Black families and white families in D.C. So, aside from the physical development of the bridge, weve also considered how to tap into the deep economic investments nearby and make them equitable. 

The Bridge Park has become much more than a bridge reuse project and appropriately so. I see it as an opportunity to break through some of the cynicism of inevitable gentrification and displacement that happens with these larger infrastructure projects. We would strongly argue that by considering these historical elements early in the process, intentionally, and with the community at the center, we can really address some of the long-standing concerns and we're having great success.

How are you assuring the communities & residents affected that they will benefit from a new Bridge Park?

What has been critical is making sure that local residents are not only driving each of the steps along the way but that we're putting decision-making power back into the hands of local residents. To answer your question directly and underscore the importance, there's an enormous trust deficit East of the Anacostia River. I'm not from D.C., although D.C. is now my home. I'm some white guy who's come into this majority African-American neighborhood and people who look like me have historically come into this neighborhood again and again, and for a variety of reasons have not fulfilled their promises. So then I go back to making sure that this is a park that is collectively owned by local residents for their benefit. Again, those two critical questions brought up earlier, who is this project for and who's going to benefit have been really important. 

I think when these big infrastructure projects happen, the community gets involved when they finally see the fancy drawings and bright shiny pictures, but by that time, often, the projects are already 95% developed, right? We took a very different path. We took several steps back and asked ourselves if this was even something that the community wanted before engaging with engineers or architects. I spent two years solely talking to local residents, building those relationships, and repairing some of that broken trust. Trust is about shared experiences over time and fulfilling your promises. The fact that we've been listening and acting upon these intentional relationships has been critical and finally, weve made sure that all programming elements of this park are coming from local residents. The community selected the design team and participated in an eight-month international design competition that I didn’t even vote in… it was the community that voted and selected our design team. Through these participatory structures, weve tried to reinstate power back into the community and I think that's a way to demonstrate true ownership over these kinds of projects.

Speak to your role and also that of Building Bridges Across the River in advancing and managing the build-out of the 11th Street Bridge Park across the Anacostia River. And who are the private / public stakeholders who are funding & ultimately accountable for this new bridge park? 

I work for a larger nonprofit that's been active in the community for about 17 to 18 years. Our founders initially meant building bridges across the river, metaphorically, but now we're literally building a bridge across the river. The project itself is a larger public-private partnership. 

From the beginning, weve partnered with the city, the District of Columbia. We're working with the Districts Department of Transportation (DDOT) which owns the bridge as an asset, and they will continue to own it. After it opens for public use, we'll run it as we've been driving all of the community engagement. Were also bringing half of the philanthropic dollars to the table so looking at this as a 92 million dollar infrastructure project, half of that has come from the city and the other half from our efforts in raising through individuals, foundations, and corporations. If we all do our jobs the way they're supposed to, it's a way to leverage our individual assets for a much larger impact on the community. Ive made sure through deep investments in the community and having boots on the ground that the outcome of this project will reflect the needs and preferences of the local residents. 

Returning to Community engagement… how has the non profit Building Bridges Across the River facilitated trusting partnership between residents and layers of government agencies?

I think this is where the value of governments partnering with another nonprofit that already has that trust is really critical. We're in this really weird place right now where our civic discourse is fraying. You know, we've all been to these public meetings where the poor city employee has to strap on their armor before they get on the Zoom call, just to get beaten up. I was on a call the other day with a friend of mine who worked for the city and was treated really poorly. Somehow it seems okay right now to say things that would have been unacceptable five or six years ago. From recent experiences and negative civic discourse, city officials sometimes come in and if they dont get beaten up, take that as a success. Instead of true, sustained community engagement, it seems like avoiding negative feedback is the goal. 

What the nonprofit can do is small but impactful things like removing barriers to true public participation. We can provide food at public meetings because we know that people are really busy and they have kids to feed. We can make sure that we're meeting in the community and we're not asking people to travel out of their way to a government building. Here's a radical idea-- I would never ask a consultant to come down to work from New York to D.C. for free, but that's what we ask of the community all the time – to give their time for free. We're now paying stipends for community-based sustained engagement. We need to value their time so we can pay them for it. That would be very difficult to do as a city. 

Finally, what a nonprofit can bring to the table is stability. City officials change I'm now on my third Mayor, there's been four Commandants from Navy Yard next door, and I'm on my second City Council member. There's this sort of staying power for nonprofits that are embedded and really anchored in the community. That gives us some sort of longevity and can be a trust expediter in certain relationships.

At a recent Bloomberg City Lab forum you addressed the challenges of finding the right community people to engage and partner with for projects that take many years to complete. Share your response?

This sort of goes back to the previous question. Not just invalidating anybody's civic engagement, but sometimes there are the same people who show up at all the community meetings and speak the loudest, yet they're not necessarily representative of the public at large. We need to see who's in the room but most importantly, who's not in the room. Then how do we devise strategies to make sure that we're engaging with those residents who arent showing up? 

I'll give you a great example; teenagers are often not involved in civic processes for a variety of reasons, but before we even started our design competition, I spent two weeks leading a hands on workshops with local teens. We paid the teens to help design the bridge and I called a lot of favors to bring in a planner, landscape architect, and engineer to come in and talk to these young men and women. They designed these beautiful five-foot-long foam core models on what the bridge should be and look like. I still have the models on my office table and it inspires me everyday. We took these teens’ designs and launched an international design competition for contractors, saying these models should be a starting point-- this is who you're designing the park for. Thats just one of the many reasons the community selected the design team, OLIN. They offered a brilliant design but started their larger public presentation with these young men and women's models in a truly authentic way. We need to be thinking about not just existing engagement but about those who arent engaged, asking how we could make that extra effort to bring everybody around the table.

Transforming a deteriorating public bridge into a “Bridge Park” surely raised challenging equity and gentrification issues; what economic strategies have you employed in response?

Yeah, it's become a really critical part of the DNA of this project. We know that while these kinds of civic infrastructure can be an amazing benefit for the city and region, there could also be unintended consequences, right? To that point, similarly transformed infrastructure into park projects around the country have increased property values anywhere from 20 to 40%, or even over 100%. What we found is that you can't wait until the park opens because then the market is going to move so much faster than we could possibly respond to it. These factors need to be considered early and intentionally with the community at the center to implement economic strategies to address the greater forces of systemic racism that have been baked into our city like others. 

For instance in D.C. there is an 81 times difference between the average household wealth of black families to white families so we spent a year working with the city and fellow nonprofits already active in this work. It was important to not reinvent the wheel as we came up with strategies well in advance of the Parks opening around affordable housing, workforce training, and the preservation and support of Black entrepreneurs and nearby small businesses. Some examples of our equitable development plan include 130 East of the River residents and renters have now become homeowners who've gone through our homebuyers club, and now we're covering closing costs or providing down payment assistance. We've seen 150 East of the River residents be employed by workforce development programming and related construction jobs. When we start putting shovels in the ground early next year and the general contractor comes to me and says, Well Scott, I can't find any east of the river residents to hire,” we can say Here's a list of 150 people that are trained and ready to go.” Sometimes we talk about workforce training as the groundbreaking is about to happen, but it needs to happen much earlier-- we recently graduated our 31st construction training group and we haven't even broken ground. We've also just wrapped up a new program providing technical assistance and cash grants to Black-owned businesses and residents East of the River.

If we're getting a million visitors a year to the park, which is what we anticipate, how do we make sure that businesses that have been there can really leverage that new visitation? We have to ensure that their own internal infrastructure is in place to really leverage that for their benefit and to build multi-generational wealth opportunities. Today, we've invested a little more than $86 million in our equitable development plan. That's more than the construction costs of the park, all of which has been evaluated by a senior team from the Urban Institute telling us what we are getting right and wrong to provide a real-time feedback loop. 

This equitable development plan has become a signature for breaking through that historical cynicism on development in historically neglected areas forcing inevitable displacement. 

Elaborate Scott, on how your experienced leadership of Building Bridges Across the River’ is informing like projects along the 51 mile Los Angeles River.  

The work along the LA River is just so exciting. For a little context, I lived in Atwater for many years and used to walk my dog along the river, every day. I love the LA River and there's something about rivers that's connected my career placements. The potential of using this 51-mile infrastructure to connect otherwise disconnected communities from Long Beach all the way up to the Valley is super thrilling. 

With that said, this is going to be billions of dollars for economic development that's coming in with much of this investment in neighborhoods that have been significantly and historically disinvested. So thinking about the Bridge Parks equitable development plan, it can be a real template for how to do this work. We've been working with Taylor Yard, a 100-acre park, just north of Chinatown and in the Elysian Valley, on how to ensure that long-term residents will benefit from this investment. Theyre already feeling some of the housing pressures in nearby neighborhoods and a group called La ROHSAH, the LA Regional Open Space and Affordable Housing entity, is engaging with the community to develop their own equitable development plan and strategies based on the D.C. model. LA isnt too dissimilar to D.C. and has been through significant displacement and gentrification challenges. While the strategies are going to look different, the process of engaging the community and creating these sorts of strategies early on before you actually start to begin construction is the part thats replicable. Its really exciting to see several communities up and down the river getting involved and can't wait for them to start implementing their own strategies because this learning happens back and forth. They can use our strategies for equitable development but well definitely see some of their cool ideas and want to replicate them in D.C.

Before closing I hope you will join us in May 2024 at the 17th annual VerdeXchange conference and share your expertise on a VX- LA River Project panel. 

Any excuse that I have to return to my adopted home of Los Angeles and reconnect with you and Brenda… Well, I'll end with a simple three letter word. Yes.

“I think what's become a significant part of the DNA of the Bridge Park is the deep investment in the adjacent communities and neighborhood residents, to ensure that local residents can really stay, thrive in place, and benefit from this project.” - Scott Kratz