ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Time, now, for the NPR Cities Project.
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BLOCK: We've been reporting recently about a push around the country for new public spaces. Last week, we heard about the challenges of putting a new park in a densely populated area. Today, we have a story of transformation. Many cities have turned old bridges, and other bits of outmoded infrastructure, into pedestrian spaces. But Washington, D.C., is trying to go a step further. NPR's Franklyn Cater reports on an effort here to turn a retired bridge into a massive park; one that's full of things to do and also, full of symbolism.
FRANKLYN CATER, BYLINE: I'm on the 11th Street Bridge, in the southeastern part of the city. I'm near the base, on the western side; and as you can hear, it's taking interstate traffic and local traffic over the Anacostia River. The city is in the process of a massive bridge replacement.
I'm standing on a clean stretch of gray concrete - a brand-new span carrying those cars. And right next to this one, is the old span.
SCOTT KRATZ: They've removed the entire top deck; they've stripped off all of the concrete.
CATER: They're taking that one apart.
KRATZ: What we're proposing to do is to transform this old freeway into a place of active recreation.
CATER: Scott Kratz is walking me across the new bridge. On this side - the Washington Navy Yard, and the Capitol Hill neighborhood where Kratz lives. On the other - the neighborhood known as Anacostia, and much of southeast D.C.
KRATZ: The idea for the recreation bridge is actually, to completely remove this deck; and then save the existing piers - those piers are those large, concrete columns that exist in the water right now - and build a much thinner structure on top
CATER: Instead of carrying 18-wheelers, that old span would carry pedestrians. It would become public space full of activity over the water - connecting waterfront parks on either side, and connecting a wealthier area with a poorer one.
KRATZ: We're thinking of having 21st century playgrounds. We're thinking about having performance spaces. We're thinking about, how do you activate the Anacostia River, by having steps that go down to a kayak rental or canoe rental area?
CATER: And the ideas keep coming - a skate park, a climbing wall, a farmers market, an orchard of fruit trees and a harvest festival.
This park proposal started in the city's planning office. Scott Kratz is a volunteer, an adviser. His day job is vice president for education, at the National Building Museum. But at every opportunity, he's asking for suggestions for the bridge; holding design workshops with students; going to community meetings and coffees; trying to drum up support, and millions in private money.
KRATZ: I will meet with anybody anywhere, to hear their ideas about the 11th Street Bridge Project.
CATER: The Anacostia is a very urban river. It runs through the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.; through the city, and into the Potomac. It's long been a dividing line in the city - not just physically, but economically and racially. On the eastern side, more poverty and less diversity. It's more than 90 percent black. So a park on this bridge would not just be a marquee attraction in the nation's capital. It could be a huge symbol.
KRATZ: We are heading into historic Anacostia.
CATER: We complete the crossing from west to east, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Good Hope Road.
KRATZ: Unfortunately, like many areas in the urban core, Anacostia has seen empty storefronts.
CATER: Here, we get into the project's core goals and some real complexities: bridging two communities, and spawning new development.
So what are we looking at here?
KRATZ: So we had an artist at the D.C. Office of Planning create some renderings of what this could look like; views of what it would look like from historic Anacostia.
CATER: The windows of one empty storefront are spruced up with a mural, and information about the possible park. And we ask some people what they think of the idea.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I like to play.
CATER: Tamara Wormley and her children seem to like it.
TAMARA WORMLEY: It'd give more kids a chance to get out; something different. They don't have to be vandalizing a lot of things around here to enjoy their - self, per se. My kids, also.
CATER: On the sidewalk in front of the mural, several men are arguing about sports. Ron Beidleman lives nearby, and he's more skeptical of the bridge project.
RON BEIDLEMAN: I'll wait till I see it happen. You know, see how it turn out.
CATER: You like the looks of the pictures here, I guess.
BEIDLEMAN: Yeah, the pictures are fine. Yeah, it beats graffiti. But if it's going to bring up the property value and stuff around here, I got a problem with that - in the sense that you got a lot of people around here, can't afford those $500,000 homes and all of that. You know what I mean? If that's going to force people out of their homes, I don't think it's a good idea.
ORAMENTA NEWSOME: Automatically, people who live within a certain radius of the bridge, when it's redeveloped, there will be an effect on their lives.
CATER: We're on the east waterfront now, with Oramenta Newsome. She works on development and affordable housing as the D.C. director of LISC - Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
NEWSOME: Work on this bridge will definitely increase the value of the adjacent neighborhoods to it. That's a good thing, as long as we provide for balance.
CATER: Oramenta Newsome calls the east side of the river the last frontier. Gentrification is just starting to happen. And Newsome says the city needs the right mindset about how the bridge fits in with other development, to keep a mix of incomes in the neighborhood.
NEWSOME: Making these neighborhoods such that if you are a clerk-typist, you can live here; as well as if you are a lawyer, you can live here.
CATER: So that's one challenge. Then there's the design. What activities should be on this bridge? Newsome says that requires community awareness, too. Climbing walls and skate parks might encourage healthy activity, she says, but some people also want passive recreation.And then there's the money: 25- to $35 million.
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PETER HARNIK: There isn't a park in the history of the world, where the money was sitting, waiting for it, before the idea was fleshed out and created.
CATER: In a waterfront park on the west side of the Anacostia, I'm asking for expertise from Peter Harnik. He's a Capitol Hill resident who happens to head the Center for City Park Excellence. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Harnik works on Capitol Hill, but he lives in Virginia.]
Harnik says the 11th Street Bridge has the potential to be really innovative, and different. And to get it right, community input, design, money - it's all intertwined.
HARNIK: In every case, the idea has to develop a momentum - and an excitement - that generates the money.
CATER: Is there - sort of a trick to that?
HARNIK: Just having a continuing community dialogue is the way to go about doing that.
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CATER: Back up on the 11th Street Bridge, Scott Kratz says the city will use ideas from community meetings, to focus a nationwide design competition. Then they'll take a few designs back to the community, and go from there. As for fundraising...
KRATZ: We're looking at having this really be a partnership with the city of Washington, D.C., but have the bulk of the - both funds and maintenance be from private dollars, whether those be foundations, corporations or individuals.
CATER: Has anybody, at this point, said, sign me up?
KRATZ: I have had very promising conversations with people. We have not received a check yet.
CATER: Kratz is looking for a nonprofit, to take charge of the money. And he has plenty of selling points - a bridge full of activities that could improve public health, connect disparate communities, spark new development.
KRATZ: I can't think of a project in Washington, D.C., that accomplishes so many different goals. And I think funders hear that.
CATER: There are hurdles to this ambitious idea, and they're about as high as the concrete that I'm standing on. But politically, it seems poised to happen. The mayor, the planning office, the neighborhood commissioners - all support it, at least in theory. Scott Kratz is optimistic. He wants to open a park over the Anacostia River, in 2016.
On the 11th Street Bridge in Washington, Franklyn Cater for the NPR Cities Project.