How DC’s Bridge Park and other stakeholders can successfully drive equitable development amid past, present, and future challenges


A runner uses the path in the Anacostia Park in Anacostia on Dec. 5, 2015. Photo by Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The vision for DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park is to connect some of the District’s lowest- and highest-income neighborhoods in a way that benefits everyone. But that’s a tricky value proposition. As developers and urban planners well know, when people of means embrace the neighborhoods they once ignored or avoided, the results can be devastating for those who already live there.  

Bridge Park leaders know that risk, too, which is why a major goal of the project—apart from creating a lively arts-and-culture pedestrian span across the Anacostia River by 2023—is to achieve equitable development results in affordable housing, jobs, small business, and cultural preservation.

As we document in our recently released evaluation report on the first few years of their Equitable Development Plan’s implementation, Bridge Park and its partners are working to achieve this goal, and they appear to be succeeding so far.

Here are some of the quantifiable results collected over the past two years: 

  • 70 homes purchased by low- and moderate-income participants in the Bridge Park–sponsored Ward 8 homebuyers club
  • 31 Bridge Park–sponsored construction trainees from Wards 6, 7, and 8 in full-time jobs
  • 104 small businesses based in Wards 7 and 8 assisted by Bridge Park partner, the DC-based Washington Area Community Investment Fund, through loans and technical assistance

It may be appropriate to praise to Bridge Park leaders for their efforts to date, but it’s far too early to break out the champagne. Past, present, and future challenges must be addressed first.

First, the past. People seeking to equitably develop once-neglected neighborhoods must confront strong historical headwinds. As we discuss here and in an earlier report on the Bridge Park Equitable Development Plan, the circumstances of many of the people who live in DC’s most distressed neighborhoods arise from centuries of systemic oppression and discrimination, including zoning and development decisions that often favor those who are white, wealthy, and powerful. 

Take Southeast DC’s Anacostia neighborhood, which sits at the eastern edge of the Bridge Park footprint, where a 19th century covenant once forbade “negroes, mulattoes, pigs, or soap boiling.” Even the seemingly well-meaning policies of the 20th century—like the construction of public housing—backfired, disproportionately sequestering low-income black residents into neighborhoods that white residents and others of more means turned their backs on for purposes of investment, habitation, or entertainment. 

Now, the present. Numerous structural inequities and stark disparities thwart the prospects of many of today’s Ward 8 residents. The gaps in income, educational attainment, and employment prospects between residents on the Ward 8 and Ward 6 sides of the Bridge Park footprint often manifest as disproportionate rent burden and poor creditworthiness for the residents to the east, rendering the stolen assets of the past even less recoverable in the present.

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And finally, the future. What will happen now that the attention of developers and high-income residents has refocused on Ward 8 as a desirable place to live and play? What should the expectations be for jobs and housing for residents with modest incomes, and how do these expectations account for factors like the disproportionately large population growth (PDF) (relative to the rest of the city) projected for neighborhoods like Anacostia, Congress Heights, and Fairlawn over the next 10 years?  

We should not assume the answers to these questions are primarily in the invisible hands of the free market. The effects of Bridge Park or of any well-meaning entity—be it a city council, a bank, or an agency—should be viewed as pieces of a shared pie and assessed against common targets, such as jobs and housing, that all relevant parties, especially current residents, agree are fair.  

Addressing the sins of the past, making progress in the present, and defining the hopes for the future are responsibilities Bridge Park and their immediate partners can’t and shouldn’t be accountable for on their own. Rather, it’s up to anyone who wants to live, play, lead, or make money in the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River to do their fair share.