Doug Siglin

Since our earliest days, the Anacostia Waterfront Trust has defined our area of interest as the “Anacostia Corridor” in Washington, DC. In our thinking, the Anacostia Corridor includes the river itself from the Maryland border to the Potomac, the 1200 to 1300 acres of public lands along it, and the neighborhoods within a moderate distance from the river and parks.

We believe that the three elements are linked, and have sought useful things to do to advance all three realms. Cleaning up the Anacostia and improving and activating the public lands running through the heart of DC will have a positive effect on all of the District, and even the region, but will have particular impact on the neighborhoods nearby.

Today I’m focused on those communities, particularly the ones near the river and park on the east side of the river.

The north-south string of neighborhoods just east of the Anacostia is bookended by Kenilworth Courts public housing complex on the north and Barry Farm on the south. Because of when and how they were developed, the neighborhoods in between are mainly made up of modest, aging, single-family homes, duplexes, and small apartment buildings. They include Kenilworth, Eastland Gardens, Deanwood, Parkside, River Terrace, Benning, Greenway, Twining, Fairlawn, and parts of Historic Anacostia and Hillsdale.

Each of these neighborhoods is unique, but they have one thing in common: they are on the front line as the wave of development and change begins to cross the Anacostia. The three Metro stops in the corridor make them all the more accessible and attractive.

Residents’ reaction to the rapidly advancing wave of change is varied and often mixed. But based on evidence from other parts of the city, many residents fear that they will to be forced to leave the area when property values and taxes and rents go up.

A couple of years ago, a wise friend of mine who was raised east of the Anacostia and is now with a national planning/architect firm told me “if we were intentional and moved quickly, we could create a different model for development in the old neighborhoods just east of the Anacostia, avoiding the worst parts of what has happened elsewhere in the city.”

This idea is simply essential. It is both possible and important to manage the change already jumping the Anacostia in a way that will address residents’ fears and blunt the sharp edge of displacement. But if we wait very long, it will be too late.

Housing preservation and affordability are a very big part of the equation, but the challenge of planning for equitable, thriving neighborhoods east of the Anacostia is much bigger than just affordable housing. It is critical to set up a process for residents in the front line neighborhoods, working alongside experts in housing, policy, planning and other fields, to define what they want their communities to be. 

The 11th Street Bridge Park, a project of the Ward 8 nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River, has gotten well-deserved attention for its “equitable development” work in the proposed bridge’s east of the river impact area, a roughly mile-wide circle extending from the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road. It has done great work in engaging residents, and its Home Buyers Club and Community Land Trust models are creative and useful tools to fight displacement. But these innovations are focused on a relatively small area, and aren’t the same thing as a fully planned approach up and down the river corridor.

Two Swedish authors, Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster, have recently produced a book called The Public Wealth of Cities. In it, they argue that an essential factor in the success of cities is how much real value they derive from their public assets. Public asset thinking has to be a big part of an Anacostia corridor planning process: how can the District derive maximum value from the assets it owns (and that the federal government owns) in the corridor to help fund pubic improvements that need to be made? A defining characteristic of the neighborhoods near the river and park is that they are near the river and park; we need to imagine and implement ways for those valuable assets to be optimized to provide both intangible and tangible benefits for the community.

There is already a great foundation in communities east of the river for such a planning project. The Trust has been involved over the last couple of years in an extraordinary coalition of groups called the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative. The Collaborative has brought together 19 nonprofits concerned about the Anacostia River, Anacostia Park and nearby communities, many of which are based in the neighborhoods on the east side of the river.  More groups are lined up to join.  It has credibility, it has experts, and—most importantly—it has deep reach into the affected neighborhoods.

Lots of people and institutions are focused on what can be done to improve the quality of life for DC residents living east of the Anacostia River. But one of the most important steps would be to bring residents and experts together in a process to figure out how to bring more income and amenities, while allowing people who want to stay to do so.