Council of the District of Columbia Roundtable on  “DMPED Strategy for Economic Development along the Anacostia River”

Mr. Chairman and Councilmembers, my name is Doug Siglin. I am Executive Director of the Anacostia Waterfront Trust, a new nonprofit corporation formed recently by the Federal City Council under the leadership of former DC Mayor Anthony Williams. Mayor Williams and long-time philanthropist Roger Sant are the Trust’s board chair and vice chair, and we are filling out the board now. We applaud your initiative in calling this public roundtable on the Anacostia waterfront.

Since 1954, the Federal City Council has been working to improve the quality of life for District residents. The Council’s direct involvement in the Anacostia waterfront goes back at least to 1988. In the past two years, we have renewed our active interest in the more than 15 miles of Anacostia waterfront within the borders of DC. I have brought with me today a copy of our latest magazine, called Catalyst, where the cover story is about revitalizing the Anacostia. As you can see, we offered a very positive, aspirational framing of the Anacostia on the cover: “A River Unites Us.”

In 2015, however, another framing may still be closer to the truth. The Anacostia and the more than 1200 acres of public lands around it continue to divide our city both physically and psychologically. This has been largely true since 1791 when President Washington asked Congress to include a large area east of the Anacostia within the District’s borders, but then oversaw the planning of public buildings only on the west side. The decades-long difficulties in crossing the river caused the two sides to develop very differently. A number of demographic, social, and policy factors brought us to where we are today, with continuing deep divisions between the two sides of the river.

Sixteen years ago, Mayor Williams and planning director Andy Altman kicked off a notable four year exercise in planning an Anacostia waterfront that would be a productive asset and unite the two separate but unequal halves of our city. The team that they assembled to create this plan included the Government of the District of Columbia and 19 other agencies or independent authorities, 14 of which were federal. The public-private Anacostia Waterfront Corporation was created in 2004 to oversee the plan’s implementation.

There are many positive things that have been done consistent with the 2003 Framework Plan since the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation was abolished less than three years after its creation. I’m told that riverfront planners still use it as a point of reference. Yet there are also very many things that were envisioned in that creative plan that have been lost, neglected, or allowed to languish.

It seems to me that the most important thing that has been lost is Framework Plan’s unifying vision of the river, the public parklands, and the nearby communities, from the Maryland border to the confluence with the Potomac, as an ecosystem. I don’t use the word in the strict biological sense—although that is surely true—but in the sense of a deeply interconnected place.

I would respectfully submit that the right question for the Council and the Mayor’s Administration to be asking, repeatedly, should be something like “How can we best achieve not only economic development in the Anacostia corridor, but a full range of our strategic objectives?” DMPED’s economic development strategy—our topic today—is certainly an essential element. But we have several other important strategic objectives as well that beg for consideration.

For example, promoting social equity and cohesion is clearly a critical strategic objective for the District. So is addressing climate resilience and restoring our natural systems. So is facilitating active recreation and better health among our residents. And cleaning up carcinogens in and around the river so that we can gain full use of it. And providing quality science education to all our students. And celebrating the history and culture of the peoples who have woven the fabric of our city.

I would further suggest that the best way to achieve all of these objectives is to plan the Anacostia Corridor comprehensively. Let me give just one example. DOEE has for many years run an environmental education center for DC children in Anacostia Park. At the same time, there is significant Administration interest in moving forward with a state of the art education center on Kingman Island, which was designed in 2005 but never built. And with Council support, the 11th Street Bridge Park project is planning another environmental education center. Most people would agree that we do not need three such centers within a few thousand yards of one another. Similarly, there are serious issues with placement of recreational fields, with concessions, and with dozens of other elements of an eventual great waterfront that demand a comprehensive approach.

As we consider these multiple strategic objectives, it is good to recall that DC only controls a relatively small part of the waterfront. A look in at history tells why. Contractors for the US Army Corps of Engineers literally created much of DC’s Anacostia waterfront from 1892 to 1942 by dredging the river and building up its tidal wetlands and mudflats. This new land was claimed by the federal government, and designated “Anacostia Park” by a 1918 federal law. The exact language is this: “The entire area reclaimed and to be reclaimed from the mouth of the river to the District line…be declared a part of the park system of the District of Columbia and designated Anacostia Park.” The area was managed by the Corps of Engineers until it passed into the control of the National Park Service in 1933 as part of an Executive Order reorganizing several federal agencies.

Congress has leased or transferred parts of Anacostia Park and other federal land to the District over time. But today DC only has direct control over three areas (Boathouse Row, Kingman/Heritage Islands, and “Hill East”, which was one of the original federal reservations.) It has a 20 year lease on another former Anacostia Park area (RFK/Armory), and the possibility of receiving two other areas when certain challenging conditions are finally met (Poplar Point and Kenilworth North.)

Similarly, there is little private-held land. Upstream from the Navy Yard, there are only three private parcels on or near the water—Washington Gas, CohenSiegel, and Pepco. Pepco is the only one on the east side. Apart from three military bases, the National Park Service controls all the rest.

My point is this: the reality of the Anacostia waterfront demands that the District pay very close attention to the federal government’s Anacostia Park. Anacostia Park is significantly larger that New York’s Central Park, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and 13 times the size of the St. Louis Mississippi waterfront park with the iconic Arch. The park is the principal feature of the waterfront, particularly on the east side, and because of decades of relative neglect, it is in many ways still a huge, blank canvas, with potential to do any number of things. But in order to use the entire waterfront for productive purposes, the District MUST partner closely with the National Park Service to develop a common vision and action plan—not one that is then going to go on the shelf with 100 other failed plans, but one that can and will be implemented.

This is not an insignificant challenge. But several recent talks with National Park Service senior management have given us great optimism that such a partnership would be possible if the District chose to pursue it. The Park Service has named Washington as one of its ten national pilot areas to implement its new “Urban Agenda”, and it recognizes that Anacostia Park, in the heart of the Nation’s Capital, at the foot of Capitol Hill, could and probably should be a flagship site. The National Park Service doesn’t exactly have money lying around these days, but it is saying that it wants to make Anacostia Park an exemplary urban waterfront park. We should take them up on it.

We know that parks can achieve a range of strategic purposes, including the ones I mentioned earlier. However, I want to emphasize that, properly developed, parks, and particularly riverfront parks, do play a huge economic role in urban areas like the District. This idea is nothing new; it has been systematically researched since at least 1856. If the Anacostia Park were to become a destination site comparable to our major parks on the west side of the city, it could play a significant role in the progress of the east side. Certainly, the specter of many more people crossing the river to recreate, learn, mingle, and spend money raises concerns about displacement, and we would need to proceed carefully with appropriate policy and program safeguards, but that is all the more reason that we need to develop a comprehensive approach to the area.

Our hope at the Federal City Council and at the Anacostia Waterfront Trust is that we can be a valued catalyst and partner in planning and eventually implementing a great Anacostia waterfront. We are willing to try to raise private funds needed to complement public funds to make it happen. The model of the public-private park partnership is well developed, with more than 40 such park trusts or conservancies operating around the nation, including well-established ones in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere. We don’t frankly know whether there is enough interested private money in this area or in other parts of the nation that may have an interest in substantially improving the Nation’s Capital in this way, but we are willing to try to find out.

Mr. Chairman, it is our hope that the Bowser Administration would commit to working closely with the Anacostia Waterfront Trust, the National Park Service, and other stakeholders and experts to update a truly comprehensive strategy for the Anacostia waterfront area—one that will be completely implemented, this time. It is not for me to determine how best to do that, but it does seem that a senior person with designated responsibility and some budget and staff would be a start, and perhaps some consideration should be given to creating a new Memorandum of Understanding with the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, Events DC, and whatever other entities have jurisdiction over places on or near the waterfront.

In 1901, the Senate Park Commission, under the leadership of the great Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, proposed an “Anacostia Water Park” of “great beauty and value.” More than a century later, such a waterfront park of great beauty and value is still a dream. It was Burnham who later admonished, “make no little plans…aim high in hope and work.” We urge the Council, the Administration, and the National Park Service to do just that along the Anacostia waterfront. We will be there to help.