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New Bridges Could Help Bring D.C.'s Development Wave Across The Anacostia River

The fastest-developing neighborhood in D.C. will soon be connected to one of its historically most underserved with a striking new bridge that is expected to help spur new growth in D.C.'s lower-income communities east of the Anacostia River.

The new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, stretching across the Anacostia River on South Capitol Street.

The new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge is set to open ahead of schedule the week of Sept. 6, the District Department of Transportation said last week. It will replace a dilapidated, 1950s-era bridge on South Capitol Street with a new crossing that will create an easier connection for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians between the Capitol Riverfront and Anacostia neighborhoods. 

The $480M infrastructure project, the largest public investment in the District's history, will have six travel lanes, one more than the old bridge, plus a multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists and green areas on each side. DDOT's executive director has said he sees the bridge as a way to better connect the communities on either side of the river, and it isn't the only bridge expected to improve that connection in the coming years.

One mile to the east, the 11th Street Bridge Park is expected to deliver in 2024. The project will use the existing pillars from the former 11th Street Bridge, which was replaced with a new vehicular crossing in 2012, to create a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists lined with public spaces. 

The 11th Street Bridge Park, D.C.'s first elevated park, has been compared to the popular High Line project in New York City. Designed by architects OMA and OLIN, the park is envisioned as a destination with space for markets, festivals and performances. 

Neighborhood leaders and developers said these bridges will help the areas on either side of the river feel more connected, leading the Ward 8 communities to benefit from the economic growth that has occurred in other parts of the city. 

"When you bring the two sides of the river closer together with these bridges, the opportunities have to flow across," Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corp. Executive Director Monica Ray told Bisnow

The immediate benefits of the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge could include a boost in foot traffic in Anacostia, with people traversing the bridge, exploring the neighborhood and supporting its businesses. 

"You’ll be able to exit that bridge to go to some of the wonderful iconic locations east of the river that people know about, but because of that bridge maybe it will bring more attention to accessing those," Anacostia Business Improvement District Executive Director Kristina Noell said. "That's a big deal for our small businesses."

Over the long term, the bridges could help the communities in Ward 8 experience more of the development and economic growth that their neighbors across the river have benefited from. 

The area on the west side of the river, including The Wharf, Capitol Riverfront and Buzzard Point, added 20M SF of new development between 2011 and 2020 with another 4.6M SF under construction as of December, according to the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership's latest development report. The area on the east side of the river, including the Anacostia and Congress Heights neighborhoods, added 2.8M SF of development over the past decade, and it had 500K SF under construction as of December. 

Beyond more development moving forward, the long-term impacts could also include more grocery stores and restaurants opening in areas long considered food deserts and more employers creating jobs in Ward 8. Neighborhood leaders are also focused on making sure the coming surge of investment doesn't displace the area's existing businesses and residents. 

"It’s a double-edged sword," Noell said. "Because we want to make sure we find a good balance with our community and addressing their fear in not having to leave, we want to make sure they’re able to be there and the amenities that are needed and necessary are there, too." 

WC Smith CEO Chris Smith, whose multifamily development firm is headquartered and has several projects in Capitol Riverfront and Ward 8, serves as board chairman of Building Bridges Across the River, a nonprofit that is helping raise money for the 11th Street Bridge Park project. He said these types of infrastructure projects are key for drawing private sector investments into historically underserved communities. 

"As a developer, you want to go into an area where you see the city is supporting it, and part of that equation is what is the city investing in the infrastructure, the roads, the sidewalks, and in this case, bridges," Smith said. 

Smith said the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge is an important symbol from the city to show its investment in Ward 8, especially compared to the aging state of the 1950s-era bridge. 

"It just reeked of the message that 'You don’t matter, that we’re not investing in you,'" he said of the old bridge. "Now, it says the complete opposite. It’s a very welcoming bridge. It’s not just your standard bridge. It’s very attractive, and that costs extra dollars and people recognize that. So I think it does a lot for bridging east and west."

One developer leaning into the buzz around the new bridges is Redbrick LMD. The developer earlier this month filed plans for the first phase of its 3M SF development on Anacostia's Poplar Point, and it rebranded the project from Columbian Quarter to Bridge District. 

A rendering showing Redbrick's Bridge District project in the foreground, with the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge connecting it to the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood.

Redbrick LMD principal and Head of Development Britt Snider said the rebranding speaks to the importance of both bridges in connecting the project to the amenities in Capitol Riverfront and beyond. 

"Once we saw the bridge coming out of the water, it really helped shape our vision for what we wanted this mixed-use development to be," Snider said. "The more we thought about it with our location right between the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge and what will be the 11th Street Bridge Park, we felt this was an appropriate change for us, because these two things will become very important connectors to the rest of the city."

The project's first phase is planned to include 748 units and 47K SF of retail, including spaces designed for restaurants and a grocery store. Snider said it has flexibility to accommodate a small-format grocer or a larger store. He said landing a grocery store to bring new food offerings to Anacostia is a top priority for the development, and he thinks the public investments in the bridges will help attract grocers. 

"Access is one of the top things every retailer is looking for — ease of access in and out of a specific location is extremely important for retailers, and we think we can deliver that with the infrastructure put in there with both bridges," Snider said. "We see that as a huge benefit to retailers, and we’re already hearing quite a bit of excitement."

A rendering of the first phase of Redbrick's Bridge District project.

Noell said she hopes the bridges and the nearby development will help secure much-needed retail amenities for Anacostia, including a grocery store, a hardware store and a laundromat. 

"It's a prime location for visibility on the waterfront, and so the opportunity I think is there to hopefully get a full-service grocery store," Noell said of the Bridge District. "I don't know of a development that doesn't want to get a grocery store or food access east of the river. That is a heavy focus for the area."

Mayor Muriel Bowser has sought to draw more fresh food offerings to the underserved neighborhoods east of the river, and in June she celebrated the groundbreaking of the area's first new grocery store since 2007, a Lidl at WC Smith and Rappaport's Skyland Town Center in Ward 7.

The Bowser administration has also helped Ward 8 developments move forward by anchoring them with District agency offices, a strategy she hopes will drive more private sector investment to the area. 

In July 2020, Bowser announced that D.C.'s Department of Housing and Community Development signed a 55K SF lease to anchor the second phase of Menkiti Group's MLK Gateway development in Anacostia. The first phase of the project, which will house a 20K SF office for technology company Enlightened, broke ground in January 2020. 

Last month, the development team of Four Points, Curtis Investments and Blue Skye Housing broke ground on the next phase of its 1.5M SF Reunion Square project near the Anacostia Metro station. The next phase is set to include a 231K SF office building for D.C.'s Department of Health, a 115-room hotel, a 134-unit senior housing building and 29K SF of retail. 

On the same day as the Reunion Square groundbreaking, a day she dubbed "Ward 8 Day," Bowser celebrated the groundbreaking of a new 118K SF Whitman-Walker Health facility at St. Elizabeths East development in Congress Heights. In March, the Bowser administration announced plans to move the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to a new building on the St. Elizabeths East campus. 

A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park project.

Redbrick has worked to draw federal and local government agencies to Bridge District, and Snider said he thinks it also has the potential to land private sector office tenants.

"Office is a critical component of a strong mixed-use development to have that daytime population," Snider said. "Given our location, we feel that we can actually appeal to larger groups, or groups that are looking for more of a campus."

Smith said that the new bridges will help Ward 8 developments land retail and office tenants because the decision-makers for those companies will see how much easier it is to traverse between the neighborhoods across the river. 

"It adds to connectivity, and it adds to the experience of how you feel when you’re going from one neighborhood to another," Smith said. "All of this work influences that experience. You want the retailer or the office tenant traveling to have that good experience."

WC Smith has multiple projects in its pipeline in Ward 8, and Smith said he thinks the bridges could help it attract financing for its developments.

The developer aims to break ground next year on a 136-unit apartment project at the intersection of Savannah and 23rd streets SE, he said, and it has another 130-unit senior housing project in that area. It also still has two more phases planned at Skyland Town Center that would add another 600 housing units. 

"There is more development coming that will not only drive benefits but is happening because of the [infrastructure] investment we're seeing," Smith said. 

A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park project, shown from the Anacostia side.

While more investment and development can create new food offerings and employment opportunities, it is also creating fears among existing residents that they will no longer be able to afford to live in their neighborhood. Noell and Ray said they have both heard members of their communities express fear that the new bridges could exacerbate gentrification and displacement. 

"What we and the city have to do is make sure that we don't re-create the sins of the past, creating opportunities at expense of communities of color, by making sure that we invest in the people who live in Ward 8 and neighborhoods like Congress Heights and Anacostia, and to make sure there’s ample job opportunities and ample pathways to those employment opportunities," Ray said. 

Groups including Building Bridges Across The River and Douglass Community Land Trust have been leading efforts to proactively address the coming growth by creating homeownership opportunities and affordable housing for existing Ward 8 residents. Noell said residents can also utilize local and federal government assistance programs to help them afford to stay in place.

"There’s a lot of change happening, a lot of development, a lot of things coming down the pike," Noell said. "And it’s really about the D.C. government and other organizations trying to put people in a position to be able to leverage the new things coming through. It’s a matter of educating people on where the programs are and how to use them."

Ray said the economic and racial inequalities that exist in D.C. have been partially a result of unequal investments in infrastructure, and she thinks the District investing in the new arched bridge across the river could help right those wrongs. 

"Historically, infrastructure has not always been friendly to Black communities, they’ve served as these false barriers between the affluent and the not," Ray said. "The construction of the new Frederick Douglass bridge is an opportunity to transformationally change how we’re connected with the rest of the city."