Image of the Anacostia River by ThienVinh Nguyen

How will a new bridge project impact the Anacostia River?

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published June 19, 2019 On Greater Greater Washington as part of the Urbanist Journalism Fellowship.

Many Ward 5 and 7 residents and other people who bike are excited about a planned pedestrian and cyclist bridge spanning the Anacostia River. It would give them the opportunity to walk or pedal from one side of the river to the other via an idyllic protected trail between the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, with its lotuses and water lilies, and the National Arboretum, with its trees large and bonsai. However, some people are worried the Arboretum-Kenilworth Park bridge will dangerously obstruct river flow and visibility for boaters.

Residents east of the Anacostia have persistently raised concerns about transportation inequity, including the lack of connection to the rest of the city and dearth of bike lanes and safe pedestrian crossings. Justin Lini, a current board member of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and former Parkside ANC Commissioner, supports the project and says the Arboretum River Trail has increased traffic to Kenilworth Park. “Building a bridge might increase it even more, since there aren’t any other ways for folks to get to northern Ward 7 by bike except Benning Road,” Lini says.

National Park Service (NPS) spokesperson Jonathan Shafer said over email that the agency “supports the overall vision and goals” of the Arboretum Bridge and Anacostia Trail Project, which “will serve as an example of how the National Park Service can provide high quality, inspirational, natural and cultural spaces close to home, as well as a wide range of recreational and educational opportunities for urban communities.”

In May, planning and community officials involved in the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative presented a “30% design concept” of the project to answer questions and solicit feedback at two public meetings in Wards 5 and 7. More meetings are planned for the 60% design concept and 90% design concept before construction commences on the bridge in 2021. The goal is to complete it by 2022. You can comment on the project until June 20.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), as part of its work with the Capital Trails Coalition, supports the project from an accessibility and equity standpoint. “The Coalition acknowledges that there have been biases in urban planning and that historic inequities in planning processes have resulted in some communities having less, and lower quality, infrastructure for biking and walking,” says Katie Harris, WABA Trails Coalition Manager.

Other vocal supporters include Ward 7 residents advocating for better access for people biking and walking across the Anacostia River and on I-295. Currently, the only crossing is a narrow sidewalk on the car-heavy Benning Road, which isn’t safe for bicyclists. “I’m used to the [Benning Road] crossing, but it’s not great. It’s a very uneven sidewalk,” says Jennifer Stoloff, a sociologist who lives in the H Street corridor. “I was at the Arboretum a few weeks ago and really regretted that there was no good connection to the Anacostia River Trail.”

Opposition to the bridge’s location and design

Local boaters and rowers—who include environmental activists involved in Anacostia River restoration efforts—argue that the proposed bridge presents safety issues for people engaged in water-based activities, and presents ecological issues for the river itself. In a boat interview, rowing coaches Cindy Cole, the founder of the Washington Rowing School, and Marian Dombroski, the current chair of the Anacostia Watershed Community Advisory Committee (AWCAC), both expressed their concerns about the bridge’s design and location.

The current design shows the central bridge pole (aka “pile”) anchored in the middle of the river in an area with elevated concentrations of sediment. This part of the Anacostia River is quite sandy and shallow, particularly during low tide. This issue is compounded by seawalls, which prevent flooding but prevent sediment from being able to flow and spread outwards into the banks.

Cole is worried that the new bridge will slow the river’s flow and create a trailing sandbar in an already shallow area. Both Cole and Dombroski want this 1.5-mile clear stretch of the river, with naturalistic open views, to remain unobstructed by development, bridges, and roads.

Cole, who founded the rowing school in 2006 and has been a coach on the river for longer than she can remember, argues, “This bridge will damage the rowing activity. It will endanger the boats and endanger the rowers. To what benefit? It’s a short-cut for people in the ball fields to get to the Arboretum.”

According to Cole, the central bridge piling can make it difficult for boaters to maneuver and avoid hitting one another, the bottom of the river, or the bridge itself. She’s worried it would impede visibility and pose a dangerous obstacle for those boating or rowing before dawn or after dusk.

Cole and Dombroski both contend that a better place to build the bridge is near Benning Road, and they want a boathouse built in that area near Kingman Island.

But advocates for the bridge argue that this would not make Kenilworth Park and the Arboretum any more accessible to Ward 5 and 7 residents. Since there are already DDOT plans to improve the Benning Road connection as part of the DC Streetcar extension, this plan wouldn’t provide any new public infrastructure gains.

Dombroski adds, “Any project that is considered down here, the first priority is the river. We need to look at every opportunity on the land to help restore the river. The next are the water-based activities that depend on the river. We only have two. Then, it’s land-based activities. We can build parks and bike trails, but we can’t build rivers.”

Cole and Dombroski also point out that the Arboretum is only open from 8 am to 5 pm, and those limited opening hours would limit the bridge’s utility. Supporters want the bridge and Arboretum side to be to be open beyond these working hours, but believe they can work with the existing ones or advocate for increased access later on.

According to a representative at the Maryland Department of Parks and Recreation, the Bladensburg Waterfront Park offers pontoon boat tours to 6,500-7,000 visitors per year. This figure does not include boat tours offered by the Anacostia Watershed Society, rowing clubs, or boat rentals. It’s difficult to compare these numbers to those who visit the Arboretum and Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.

“Not everyone has the ability to experience the river by boat,” says Harris, the Trails Coalition Manager of WABA, who herself is a rower and even led her college rowing team to a national championship in 2012. “But we can all walk, roll, take a wheelchair, or push a stroller. For our river to be accessible, it has to be accessible to everyone, and that is why building this bridge is so important.”

A clear-span bridge: A potential compromise?

One compromise circulated by people sympathetic to residents, pedestrians, bicyclists, and boaters alike is a “clear span” bridge, which goes straight across and requires no piling in the river. Alas, Kyle Ohlson, the project manager with DDOT, says this plan isn’t feasible because Kenilworth Park is a former landfill, and a clear span bridge would require more digging that could unearth those toxins—not to mention it would be more costly. Ohlson says DDOT will stay in touch with boaters about the exact placement of the center piling.

DC recently released its Watershed Implementation Plans (WIP), which seek to reduce pollutants and toxic sediments. But it’s currently unclear how the plans would affect river flow and sediment concentrations, as well as developments like those cropping up in and around Kenilworth Park.

“[While] the pollutants in the Kenilworth landfill are different from the pollutants that the WIP is looking to decrease [,] there are other planning processes and remediation processes in place at DOEE that look at addressing contamination at the Kenilworth landfill,” Cecile Green, a Public Affairs Specialist with the Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) said via email.

As a resident of Deanwood in Ward 7, a social and environmental geographer by training, and a bicycling and boating enthusiast, I ask myself why communities east of the Anacostia can’t have it all—or at least as much as those west of the river. Why are conversations about amenities and transportation equity focused on compromise and trade-offs, rather than a comprehensive and systematic plan to ensure that all community needs are met?

Why not address the pollutants and sediment concentrations in the Anacostia River caused by industrial and urban run-off? Why not address the fact that the DC landfill was put in an area that was and continues to be largely African-American? Why not build a boat house in Ward 7 that serves nearby schools and rowing clubs?

Tensions around the Arboretum-Kenilworth Park Bridge reveal the historical and contemporary realities of how communities east of the Anacostia continue to be limited and denied the full breadth of services afforded to other communities, both on land and in the water.

 

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