It’s the Year of the Anacostia

When Was the Last Time a Panel Discussion Felt More like a Celebration?

In December of 2017, SmithGroup hosted a Metropolis Magazine Think Tank panel discussion on Waterfront Development and Urban Resilience. Moderated by Susan Szenasy, Director of Design Innovation at Metropolis Magazine, the discussion centered around ongoing efforts to revitalize the Anacostia River in Washington DC, and the impact on urban resilience as the Anacostia transforms into a world-class river and waterfront. The pride expressed by my fellow panelists about their role in that transformation turned the event into a celebration of many of the milestones that have led to this year—the Year of the Anacostia.

Anacostia River Washington DC SmithGroup


There is indeed much to celebrate along Washington DC’s 47 miles of waterfront in 2018. As Anacostia Waterfront Trust Project Director Erin Garnaas-Holmes said, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Anacostia Park, the land along the Anacostia River which was preserved as a park through an act of Congress on August 21, 1918. As the brainchild of DC’s visionary former mayor Anthony Williams, the Trust’s mission is “to help to create a vibrant and inclusive public waterfront and adjacent communities, on a healthy Anacostia River, for all citizens to enjoy”.

To that end, an inclusive planning process is essential to the creation of resilient communities and the integration of equity. “…it’s about building resilient networks of people and engaging important stakeholders in the networks that are causing change to happen. So what we do a lot is engage with local neighborhood groups, community leaders, and make sure that people who care or will be impacted by future planning efforts are engaged in that process,” says Erin.

Erin is in the process of engaging community members in a variety of initiatives championed by the Trust including marking the Year of the Anacostia. He is also working closely with the DC Department of Energy and Environment and the National Park Service in an advisory capacity on the Anacostia River Sediment Project, which is the process that will determine how best to clean up the legacy contamination at the bottom of the Anacostia River. To help ensure equity in the process, Erin and his team are helping bring together residents and stakeholders from Wards 7 and 8 to have a say in decision-making making about the river cleanup and its impacts.

A Clean River

2018 is also significant for the Anacostia River in other ways. Currently, during major rain events, the combined sewer system sends untreated sewage together with rainwater overflowing into the District’s streams and rivers including the Anacostia River. On March 23, 2018, the first phase of DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project, the Anacostia River Tunnel, will become operational. As a result of this project, sewage and rainwater will instead be diverted into a new 157-million-gallon tunnel system where it will be stored and conveyed to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. This tunnel will reduce the combined sewer overflows into the Anacostia by 98%. Together with the Anacostia River Sediment Project, the District’s goal of a “fishable and swimmable” Anacostia River is considerably closer. A clean river is also a more resilient river. Its impact on surrounding land in a storm surge event is greatly reduced if river water flowing onto surrounding land is not carrying pollution and debris.

The Anacostia River Tunnel and the Clean Rivers Project are among the many ways that DC Water is thinking innovatively about how to approach projects. Think Tank panelist Maureen Holman, DC Water’s Sustainability Chief, spoke about the importance of getting all parties involved in the planning and design process much earlier than conventional, “Even if you don’t think that there might be a nexus there, or some area of overlap, you’d be surprised. And the more that we know, and the earlier that we are involved in projects, the better able we are to support.”

Another DC Water innovation is embodied in the design of its new headquarters building currently under construction on the Anacostia River. SmithGroup’s architects and engineers designed the building to span and encapsulate an existing pump station, leveraging land already owned by DC Water. Among its many sustainable design elements, the building’s heating and cooling comes from an innovative wastewater heat recovery system that taps into the existing pump station. “This is the first such system in an office building in the United States,” explains SmithGroup Design Director Sven Shockey, “The building also has an intensive green roof, LID plantings, and utilizes a 30,000-gallon cistern to collect rainwater for irrigation and 100% of the toilet flushing in the building.”

Anacostia River Washington DC SmithGroup

Job Creation

DC Water is also innovating and building resilience in the community through its participation in the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program—a citywide commitment to making sure over 50% of green infrastructure jobs go to DC residents. Another program is DC Water’s Water Works program which Maureen described as, “…an investment to recruit and to bring in more DC residents into all of our jobs.” DC Water also encourages small business participation in the procurement process.

Job creation is another one of the many community resilience elements that are part of the new Wharf mixed-use development on DC’s waterfront. Developer PN Hoffman created 690 construction jobs and 195 apprenticeships setting aside thirty percent of those jobs for residents from Wards 7 and 8. PN Hoffman’s vision for the Wharf embodies many elements of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative. As Think Tank panelist Shawn Seaman, Executive Vice President of PN Hoffman, described, “The Anacostia’s really the thing that can bind the city back together. It’s been a divide for a while, and trying to get jobs and job creation to cross the river, and use the river as a way to meld the different parts of the city has been important. And that’s one of the mandates of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.”

Anacostia River Washington DC SmithGroup


A Sustainable and Resilient Waterfront

The Wharf development also promotes sustainability and resilience through the use of green roofs, solar energy generation, cogeneration, an innovative cistern system, permeable pavement, vegetative bioretention for stormwater runoff management, 300 new trees, preservation of mature oaks, and 340 square feet of floating wetlands. “The entire Wharf development is designed to achieve LEED® NC Gold certification as are the Canopy by Hilton and Hyatt House hotels,” explains Principal-in-Charge John Crump of the two SmithGroup-designed buildings. It is also a dense and walkable mixed-use community with wonderful public spaces including parks and piers, as well as easy access to public transportation. A rebuilt seawall along a waterfront promenade that anticipates future sea level rise is yet another design element that promotes resilience for this new neighborhood.

As DC’s new Chief Resilience Officer, panelist Kevin Bush is thinking a lot about how to boost DC’s resilience and enable it to bounce back from potential shocks and stresses, both natural and man-made. DC is part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities network and receives technical and financial support toward the development and implementation of resilience strategies. Kevin says that cities must be viewed as systems, “…transportation systems, energy systems, water systems, human systems, economic systems. And they all come together. And the weak points in that system weaken our ability to adapt and thrive in the face of change.”

DC’s resilience strategies pay particular attention to enhancing equity by meeting the needs of vulnerable populations. As Kevin notes, “… our ability to weather those big shocks that we might be able to reasonably foresee is entirely dependent on how well we deal with the everyday chronic stressors that our city might face.” Among those chronic stressors is the population growth in the city and the focus on development along the city’s waterfronts. Kevin is eager to take this on, “…the conversation that I’m really excited to have, and I know has been had in many places, is how do you reconcile those two things? How do you plan for population growth in a way that makes DC a model for adaptive waterfront development?”

Community and Culture

As the Associate Director for Neighborhood Planning, and the DC Office of Planning’s point person on the Anacostia River, panelist Tracy Gabriel has much insight into successful ways to engage constituencies in that conversation. She described strategies that she and her colleagues have used in addition to innovative, engaging public meetings and online platforms for input and idea generation. Strategies include direct outreach to communities by meeting them where they are, such as focus groups and office hours in neighborhood settings, pop-up stations for information sharing and feedback. Others include creative ideas such as community discussions around public art, guided walks, and photography contests that use placemaking as an opportunity to engage residents and stakeholders. Tracy describes effective engagement as an evolution, “…everybody wants to learn from the other practices that other folks are doing, so the greater extent to which we can share in that dialogue, I think we all benefit.”

As that dialogue relates to waterfront development and urban resilience along the Anacostia, Tracy ties the future of the place to the appreciation of its authentic past. “We’re really thinking about how we make sure that we can both grow and keep that authenticity and that history and culture…finding ways that the two can coexist, growth and a nod to the authentic identity and the historic nature, whether that’s through architecture or in celebrating the cultural memory of place.”

Much to Celebrate

DC’s cultural memory is tied to its double-nature as both a Federal City and simultaneously the hometown of over 700,000 residents. Many national celebrations and events take place in the Federal City, but this year this hometown has something exceptional to celebrate during the Year of the Anacostia—significant steps toward the revitalization of DC’s waterfront that have come through the tireless efforts of many people and their innovative ideas, strategies, initiatives, and projects.