The 11th Street Bridge project in Washington, D.C. (ODM/Jason Long)

This interview was conducted in November 2021 as part of a series designed to celebrate park visionaries and share inspiring and practical insights into their perspectives, challenges, and advice. Follow the series to learn from developers, planners, and other leaders implementing their creative visions for parks worldwide.

Scott Kratz is the senior vice president of Building Bridges Across the River (Building Bridges) and director of the 11th Street Bridge Project, Building Bridge’s largest project to date. Building Bridges and the Washington, D.C., city government are transforming an old freeway bridge into a park above the Anacostia River. The base of one of the bridges will become a one-of-a-kind civic space supporting active recreation, environmental education, and the arts.

Scott Kratz is the senior vice president of Building Bridges Across the River.

Kratz has worked on this project for 10 years, crafting innovative strategies to ensure that new development benefits longtime residents. He has been instrumental in developing policies and programs that harness the momentum created by a once-in-a-generation park investment to benefit community members. Construction is expected to begin early 2023.

You have been working on the 11th Street Bridge Project for 10 years. How did you get started on this journey? 

About ten years ago, I was the vice president for education at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. I brought in Jan Gehl, a Danish architect focused on developing equitable, healthy, and  sustainable cities to speak at the museum, and we were scheduled to have breakfast with Harriet Tregoning, then the D.C. Director of Planning.

Jan was running late and while we were waiting I asked Harriet what was going on with the 11th Street bridge rebuilding project, which was four blocks away from where I live.  Harriet shared an idea for a park project using the now abandoned span of the bridge.  She said most of her staff thought the idea was far-fetched, but she asked me to help with the project.

It was 7 a.m. and I was not properly caffeinated, and I thought, “How hard can this be?” That started my journey of the past 10 years.

Your drive and tenacity have been an extraordinary force for this project, and I’d like to learn more about what motivates this commitment. Why do you see parks—and the role they play in communities—as important? 

Parks contain a variety of elements—green spaces, trees, open spaces, and places for active and passive recreation. They provide safe places to play and congregate not only for physical health but also for mental health.

During the pandemic, this has become extremely important. Many people feel isolated. Parks are civic spaces that bring together people who wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths. Since we are so divided as a country in terms of race, political views, income, and other factors, we are in desperate need of these places to tap elbows with people who would not otherwise be in our orbit.

Tell us about a park that is very meaningful to you. 

Obviously, there are great spaces that shaped the history of parks, including Griffith Park in LA, Central Park in New York, and Olmstead parks throughout the U.S. A less well-known park that has been extremely important to me is Anacostia Park.

The park is connected to the Anacostia River Trail, a continuous 20-mile trail on both sides of the Anacostia River. Over the last decade, I have witnessed the evolution of this park and learned about a rich history of events that happened there. The community has a deep connection to the park and many people have grown up in it.

The park hosts a roller-skating rink in the park, the only one in the National Park System. In the late 60’s, the community asked for the roller rink as an amenity. You can still skate there. Skate rental is free, and soul and funk music can be heard.

(OLM/Jason Long)

Historically, there were big Go-Go concerts at the rink. Go-Go is a music form that originated in D.C.’s Black community. Recently there was an event cosponsored by Building Bridges and the Go-Go Museum called Skate and Crank. The event brought some of the old skate crews back to celebrate their legacy, and people were doing pirouettes and flips; this event attracted over three thousand people. This was followed by a series of Go-Go concerts that continued to bring the community together.

The fundraising goal for the project is $139 million; $123.6 million has been raised to date. Over $75 million has been directly invested into the surrounding community and the rest of the funds will be used to build the bridge. How have you ensured that these substantial investments benefit the surrounding community and have equitable outcomes? 

We have continually integrated issues of racial equity and social justice in our planning work. In Washington, D.C., the Anacostia River is a dividing line for life expectancy, housing prices, and income. One side of the bridge is 50 percent white, and the other is 92 percent Black. People rarely interact with those who live on the other side of the river. A key goal of the 11th Street Bridge Park Project has been to help physically and metaphorically bridge the racial and economic divide.

Historically, amenities were built for the white community and while promises were made for projects on the Black side, nothing got built. The community was used to being disappointed when no amenities were built for them. So we made it clear from the start of the project that it was imperative that the community needed to be valued and heard and ideas not be imposed on the community.

In church basements a decade ago when the project started, the team was laser focused on putting decision making power back into the hands of local residents who drove all of the park’s programming and even selected the design team as part of an 8-month design competition. This was a chance not only to think about the physical design of the park through community engagement but to look at the overall needs of the residents.

Parks create a large amount of value but often very little of that value accrues to the community. Without thoughtful deliberation and intentionality, the park could become a vehicle for displacement as market values in the area around the park eventually rise. So we have focused on strategies to lift the community up and ensure the thousands of residents who shaped the park can be the ones that benefit from it. Working collaboratively with stakeholders, we spent 12 months creating an equitable development plan that including housing, workforce, small business preservation and cultural equity strategies.

These have included:

  • Standing up the Douglass Community Land Trust. The Trust now has over 250 units of permanently affordable housing. Over a two-to-three-year span, members of the board, two-thirds of whom are Ward 8 residents, were trained in Board management and function. We helped raise millions of dollars for property acquisition. Now it is a separate 501C3 organization primarily run by Ward 8 residents.
  • Creating a Ward 8 Homebuyers Club. Over 100 Ward 8 renters have become homebuyers through the program capturing generational wealth.
  • Developing a closing cost assistance program that will be implemented in 2022 to help Ward 8 residents buy homes by covering closing costs, which are often a barrier for first time home buyers.
  • Completing our 20th construction trades program session, with over 150 Ward 8 participants so far. The General Contractor for the Bridge Park will be provided a list of trained workers.
  • Developing a strategy to protect and enhance the largest concentration of Black-owned businesses in the city, including the creation of online revenue streams and pro bono consulting expertise. A collaboration with another nonprofit, the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (Wacif), provided additional technical assistance and loans to these businesses.

Realizing that the community east of the river would be severely impacted by the pandemicthey are critical workers who keep the city running—we partnered with three other nonprofits (Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, and Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative), to create the largest privately funded unconditional cash transfer program in the United States. To date we have distributed over $3.5 million to 588 Ward 8 families, with donations drawn from corporations, individuals, and foundations. The $5,500 each family received could be used for groceries, bills, or whatever other needs they had. We trust our residents to make their own decisions.

It may not be clear what an unconditional cash transfer program has to do with building a park. It demonstrates the importance and value of these families, to ensure residents can stay and thrive in place. This program has been evaluated since it began by the Urban Institute, which is using it to develop a new framework for cash transfers that is being shared with other organizations around the country. A final evaluation report will be published in mid-February.

What should ULI members remember when imagining park projects?

First and foremost, think about who the parks are for and find ways to optimize their positive benefit. Remember that the park edge is not where the park’s impact ends. If a park works for a tourist from Peoria and not local residents, or if the project unintentionally displaces residents, the project is not a success. Investment in the community around the park is key to creating a park that works for all.

If done well, the community engagement process will take time and effort.  However, in the long run the collective ownership of the residents will serve the project well and mitigate the probability of legal action, protests, and environmental challenges. In the case of the 11th Street Bridge Park, benefits will go well beyond traditional park purposes to improve public health disparities, reengage the community with the river, and serve as an anchor for inclusive economic opportunity. At its core, this project is about realizing a bold vision to create community, opportunity and unity for all.