The National Park Service has released a draft “Management Plan/Environmental Assessment” for the 1200-acre national park that stretches along both sides of the Anacostia River. This is a very significant step forward in the effort to improve the programs and facilities in Anacostia Park. NPS is seeking public comment on the draft plan by March 18, after which it will issue a final plan intended to steer park improvements for the next fifteen or twenty years.

Some background

The history of Anacostia Park goes back at least 116 years to the 1901 Senate Park (McMillan) Commission’s proposal for an “Anacostia Water Park” north of Massachusetts Avenue. Most of today’s parkland was created in the early 1900s by the US Army Corps of Engineers filling in tidal wetlands, marshes and mudflats with mud dredged from the Anacostia River. By law, the new land up to the former high-water line was the property of the United States. The park was defined and named by a 1918 Congressional act, and passed into the hands of the National Park Service in a 1933 government reorganization. NPS does not administer it as a separate unit, but rather as a part of a much larger unit known as National Capital Parks-East.

Anacostia Park plays a central role in the geography, social history, and future of the District of Columbia. The Anacostia River has divided the District into separate and unequal parts since the time of President Washington. Urban riverfront property is intrinsically valuable in many ways, and Anacostia Park incorporates more than nine linear miles of public riverfront. If the appropriate planning and investment takes place, Anacostia Park could help reunite the neighborhoods and people of the District across a major historical dividing line.

Anacostia Park constitutes much of the Anacostia River public waterfront, but not all of it. Two areas of the historic Anacostia Park have passed out of the National Park Service’s hands, and thus are not affected by the draft plan: “Boathouse Row” on the west side of the Anacostia, and Kingman and Heritage Islands in the middle. Both are now permanently under the District’s jurisdiction (although there are statutory restrictions on what can be done on Kingman and Heritage Islands.) The RFK Memorial Stadium Armory area is under the jurisdiction of EventsDC until 2038, also with statutory restrictions. The draft plan considers this to be a “Special Use Zone.” Two additional large parcels, Kenilworth North and Poplar Point, are directed by federal law to transfer to the District whenever certain conditions are met, including, in the case of Poplar Point, the Secretary of Interior’s approval of a land use plan. The draft management plan discusses these two parcels, but, given the pending transfers, its effect is unclear.

What is the draft plan?

The Management Plan section of the NPS’ draft document is a zoning plan. It directs what will or will not be permitted in each park location; it does not discuss what specific additional facilities or amenities will be funded and built, or what kinds of programs will be implemented. The plan is based on six conceptual “management zones” interspersed across the parkland: The Natural Resource Recreation Zone; the Organized Sport and Recreation Zone; the Community Activities and Special Events Zone; the Golf Course Zone; the Special Use Zone; and the Park Administration and Operations Zone.

As required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the draft plan proposes three alternatives and a no-action alternative. Alternative 3 is chosen as the “preferred” option. Overall, Alternative 2 has relatively more land area devoted to the “Organized Sport and Recreation” and the “Community Activities and Special Events” zones, and Alternative 4 has relatively more area devoted to the “Natural Resource Recreation” zone.

There are three ways to think about the draft zoning plan. First, the very fact that the draft plan is out and available for comment heralds a new era in the life of Anacostia Park. Second, the details of the draft plan can be viewed from the optic of any given site in the park. Third, the detailed draft plan can be viewed through the wide-angle lens of what is best for the waterfront as a whole.

One of the principal characteristics of Anacostia Park is its proximity to residential neighborhoods, both on the west side of the Anacostia River in the RFK area and on the east side north of Benning Road. Private homes are across the street from the park in many locations. A particular landowner or neighborhood next to the park should be interested in what the park plan proposes a specific area. For example, if I lived in the Parkside neighborhood, I would be very interested in the future of the “Kenilworth South” section, which adjacent. Kenilworth South is reserved in the preferred alternative as a “National Resource Recreation” zone. That may or may not fit what I’d like my next-door section of park to be.

The broader perspective is for the park in its totality: how the mix of zones helps to achieve a given set of objectives for the park as a whole. The National Park Service’s own objectives, grounded in the 1924 law “providing for a comprehensive development of the park and playground system of the National Capital” and other legislative and policy guidance, are:

“a signature urban park that can 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” and

“…also to actively manage the park to improve and protect the quality and resiliency of the Anacostia Park ecosystem.”

The NPS has determined that “Alternative 3” is the best mix to achieve its stated objectives. Other interested parties may disagree about the mix, however, or have different objectives altogether.

The details

Key to understanding what can happen in each zone is the fine print. Here are directly-quoted excerpts from the three most relevant management zones:

Natural Resource Recreation Zone

Turtle in the Anacostia River watershed.
Turtle in the Anacostia River watershed.

The focus of the natural resource recreation zone is to preserve and protect the natural landscape of forests and wetlands in the park; recreation activities that connect visitors to the natural setting will be encouraged where compatible.

The desired condition of this zone would be the natural landscape of forests and wetlands occurring along the river’s edge, in the floodplain, and in adjacent low-lying areas. This would include the majority of the restored wetlands, stream corridors and forest management areas to be protected, preserved, and enhanced. This zone would also include lightly managed undeveloped natural areas of woodlands, wetlands and managed meadow, as well as open fields and some areas of lawn and shade trees.

Ecosystem rehabilitation would be pursued in this zone. Some ecosystem rehabilitation actions, such as the creation of larger wetlands, could require removal or changes to historic resources, particularly the Anacostia River seawall.

This zone would offer visitors a natural setting; universally accessible trails and boardwalks would be provided. Interpretation and wayfinding signage would provide educational opportunities and orientation. Visitors would connect with and appreciate the natural sights, sounds, and setting. Opportunities for walking, relaxing, and small social gatherings in a natural setting would be available, as well as nature study, education and interpretation, and exploration of natural habitats. River and marsh exploration by non-motorized watercraft would be available. This zone would provide orientation, would be moderately self-directed, and would involve infrequent to moderately frequent visitor-to-visitor and visitor-to-staff contacts.

Visitors would connect with and appreciate the sights, sounds, and natural setting through boating, biking, skating, walking, picnicking, fishing, nature study, exploration, and contemplation.

Appropriate types of facilities within this zone include primarily unpaved trails (with limited use of paved trails); boardwalks and pedestrian bridges; limited roadways and parking; limited picnic and play facilities; educational, interpretative, and wayfinding signs; comfort stations; and water access facilities such as piers, docks, floating boat tie-ups, ramps, and non-motorized boat launches. Appropriate commercial services may include convenience concessions, shuttle services, and facilities that support guided services such as bicycle and boat tours.

Organized Sport and Recreation Zone

Rowers on the Anacostia River.
Rowers on the Anacostia River.

This zone would provide multi-purpose sports fields and facilities for competitive league play for a variety of field sports. When utilized for competitive league play or special events, fields and facilities would support recreational and educational opportunities traditionally found within neighborhood and regional parks. This zone would also provide space for a variety of cultural and educational opportunities through multi-purpose fields and facilities focusing on programming of special events that celebrate national and local heritage.

In this zone, multi-purpose sports fields and their environs including mowed turf areas, managed plantings, buildings, parking, access roads, and interstitial natural areas would be maintained and operated. Natural and water resources and ecological processes would be protected, using best management practices to accommodate concentrated visitor use.

Primary visitor experiences would be opportunities to participate in and spectate at formal sporting events and informal field sports such as soccer, softball, football, lacrosse, rugby, and ultimate Frisbee. Informal recreational use such as walking, jogging, exercising, and play activities would be provided adjacent to the formal fields. This zone would provide basic amenities to support multi-purpose sports fields and special events including restrooms, parking, and picnic areas. This zone would also offer opportunities for large-scale special events.

Appropriate facilities would include mown turf multi-purpose sports fields supporting football, soccer, rugby and other field sports and special events; parking and access roads; and bicycle and pedestrian trails. Appropriate commercial services may include special-event convenience concessions limited to concession food trucks, shuttle services, facilities that support guided services such as bicycle and boat tours, and temporary facilities to support special events. Outdoor lighting would be limited to those fields adjacent to other recreational and education facilities and should provide adequate illumination for visibility along paved through-paths while minimizing light pollution and light trespass. All outdoor lighting would be dark sky compliant.

Community Activities and Special Events Zone

Charles Patrick fishing on the Anacostia River. Patrick doesn't eat the fish he catches here. He fishes just for the enjoyment of the river.
Charles Patrick fishing on the Anacostia River. Patrick doesn't eat the fish he catches here. He fishes just for the enjoyment of the river.

This zone would provide visitors with opportunities to participate in recreational and educational activities traditionally found in neighborhood and regional parks, as well as multi-purpose sports fields and facilities that support play for a variety of sports. It would provide opportunities to learn about the park’s cultural and natural resources through a variety of educational and interpretive experiences including special events that celebrate national and local heritage. This zone would also offer opportunities to enhance the prominence of the park as a gateway to the Anacostia River and the monumental core of the nation’s capital.

In this zone, interpretive and educational facilities, informal recreation fields and multi-purpose sports fields with associated access and support facilities, river access and associated support facilities, managed meadows or woodlands, developed landscapes, natural and water resources, and ecological processes would be protected, using best management practices to accommodate areas of concentrated visitor use.

Desired visitor experiences in this zone would be opportunities focused on education, informal sports recreation, and organized sports play. These opportunities would include neighborhood recreation, passive recreation, casual as well as concentrated visitor use, and small social gatherings. Opportunities for heritage and environmental education and interpretation would be offered.

In this zone, visitors would receive orientation as well as have opportunities for self-direction; they would experience moderate to frequent visitor-to-visitor and visitor-to-staff contacts, and although time commitment would vary, it would typically be 30 minutes to several hours. This zone would offer opportunities for special events and capacity for organized athletic events.

Desired visitor activities within this zone would include organized and informal field sports (e.g., soccer, softball, football, lacrosse, rugby, ultimate Frisbee, and track events) in-line skating, exercising, sitting, playing, walking, biking, picnicking, playing tennis, playing basketball, playing baseball, gardening, accessing the water, and fishing. Cultural events, public assemblies and social gatherings, heritage and nature education, and interpretation and art appreciation would be included within this zone. Organized cultural and educational special events such as concerts and festivals would be permitted in this zone.

Appropriate facilities include playgrounds; tennis courts; basketball courts; handball courts; picnic tables and associated facilities; shade structures; paved and unpaved walking and bicycling trails; pedestrian and bicycle bridges; in-line skating facilities; community gardens; multi- purpose turf fields and courts suitable for a variety of organized sports; track and field facilities; plazas; amphitheaters; formal gardens; public art and interpretive facilities; and pool facilities.

Recreational and educational buildings, concession-operated commercial buildings, supporting access roads and parking, and comfort stations would also be included in this zone. This zone would include flexible waterfront space for public gathering places, festivals, and concession-operated commercial activities.

Appropriate commercial services may include convenience and food service concessions as; shuttle services; facilities that support guided services such as bicycle and boat tours; and temporary facilities to support special events. Any potential permanent concession structures must enhance the park setting. Additional facilities could include marinas, piers, docks, tie-ups, ramps, and boating and water access-related facilities. Outdoor lighting would provide adequate illumination for visibility while minimizing light pollution and light trespass. All outdoor lighting would be dark sky compliant.

Moving forward

If you have gotten this far, you are thinking seriously about the future of Anacostia Park. Study the draft plan and make your thoughts known to the National Park Service before March 18. The draft plan and a response form is reachable through this webpage.

Whatever your views on the draft Management Plan/Environmental Assessment are, urge the National Park Service to issue a final plan quickly. The zoning plan is important, but in the end only a framework for future enhancements, including ecological restoration, capital investments, and additional programming. Anacostia Park is an essential part of the District’s heritage, and even a bigger part of its future. From this day forward, we all need to roll up our sleeves and work together to transform the park and the entire corridor into an outstanding, second-century Anacostia Park in the heart of the Nation’s Capital.