Social science proves that people want to be near water. That means that being situated along a river should be a plus for a city. But in the shadow of the nation’s Capitol dome, the Anacostia riverfront was, for years, more of an eyesore than an asset.
The river was so polluted people couldn’t swim or wade in it, or eat the fish they might catch in it. But government officials are determined to change that. A massive, $2.7 billion D.C. Water project is underway to clean up the waterway, with the goal of removing 98 percent of waste by the year 2023. That includes four tunnels that are being dug out to store storm runoff during heavy downpours. Instead of flowing right into the river system, the stored water will be cleaned before it is reused.
As the health of the river improves, so does the vitality of neighborhoods alongside it. Consider the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood of D.C. For decades, the area was zoned for light industrial use. Today, however, it’s being transformed. Car repair shops are giving way to charter schools, oil storage is being replaced by craft breweries, and parks are replacing parking lots.
One catalyst is the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID), which is working to turn the Anacostia into an asset. A BID is a special tax district set up to encourage development.
The reinvention of the neighborhood began more than a decade ago, when Nationals Park became the home base of Washington’s baseball team. It took some time for the neighborhood to take off, because the 2008 market crash stalled development everywhere. Still, Nats Park “mapped our area, introducing the six million people in the greater D.C. area to the Anacostia River,” said Michael Stevens, President of the Capitol Riverfront BID, who led the tour of the area during CRE.Converge 2018. The team brought more than two million people per year to the area.
Some visitors liked what they saw so much that they decided to live in the neighborhood. That’s forcing developers to be flexible. At least five parcels that were originally zoned for office space have been switched to residential. Instead of going to work along the waterfront, thousands of people are making it their home.
The D.C. government is helping by also being flexible. One developer working in the area called it “one of the most user-friendly cities in the country.” He said officials are willing to listen and find areas to compromise to help encourage development. For example, some residential buildings have less parking than would normally be required.
The Capitol Riverfront team also focuses on providing ample green space. It has constructed parks throughout the neighborhood and a riverwalk along the water. Attractions include splash pads for children and an ice rink for winter skating.
The riverfront has benefited from its location, and the same thing could happen just across the river, Stevens said. That’s where D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8 are located. Before Anacostia’s revitalization, the two Wards were cut off from the rest of the city. Now, they may be able to join the area’s resurgence, especially if Amazon decides to locate its HQ2 in the neighborhood.
That said, transportation remains a concern. The neighborhood is served by Metro’s Green line, but needs at least one more entrance to the system, Stevens said. He wants dedicated bus lanes on some streets as well. He said he worries that if the transportation network doesn’t expand, the riverfront may begin to lose residents.
For now, though, the Anacostia is growing cleaner and greener, and the neighborhoods alongside are thriving.
Rich Tucker is Director of Public Policy Communications at NAIOP, where he develops and executes communication strategies to raise the visibility of NAIOP’s advocacy work on behalf of the industry