Image from the Office of Planning.

Would turning one of the old 11th Street bridges into a recreation destination work wonders for DC residents’ health or just create an empty spaces nobody uses? The difference might turn on the streetcar.

The Office of Planning and other DC agencies are pondering ways to reuse one of the two spans of the old 11th Street bridge. A $350 million project to build a new set of bridges between the old is almost complete, and DDOT will then demolish the old bridges. But could these become an iconic public space for DC — DC’s “High Line”?

At a community forum last night on this “recreation bridge” concept, planning director Harriet Tregoning listed a number of ideas for ways to reuse the bridge. It could have spaces for arts, including performing arts and sculpture. One community member suggested putting on a light show at a specified time on certain nights or every night.

“Active recreation,” like a climbing wall, zip line, and many activities for kids could improve health in a part of the city where many kids are not as healthy as they should be. Autumn Saxton-Ross from the Department of Health said that having spaces for play creates “whole children who develop into whole adults.”

The bridge could contain community gardens that grow food, a place for food trucks to hold festivals like Truckeroo, or even trees; an avid community gardener who lives in the area emphasized that last one, as it gets quite hot in the summer and a bridge is exposed to the elements.

Then there is the streetcar. Problems between DDOT and the US Department of Transportation scuttled tracks on the new local bridge now under construction, at least for now, but perhaps that would open up a new opportunity to put the tracks on this “recreation bridge.”

Making this bridge succeed might not be easy. A bridge is a very big space; this one is over 1000 feet long. It’s in the middle of the river, and connects 2 neighborhoods of only moderate density. Even from them, there’s a substantial walk to reach to the bridge itself.

Therefore, any use will have to attract people who are deliberately going to the bridge as a destination, rather than people just wandering by or popping over between work and dinner. It will need to have enough different activities to keep the bridge busy most of the day, every day, lest it turn into a dead space or a haven for crime.

Or maybe there is a way to mix active uses with people who are just passing through? If the streetcar traverses this bridge, and stops a few times along the way, it could make the bridge be more of a continuous connector between Capitol Hill and Anacostia. The bridge could get a cafe or two. It would create “eyes on the street” (or bridge), draw the bridge much closer to surrounding neighborhoods, and bring potential users of the bridge’s activities passing right by every day.

The bridge would also get closer to surrounding areas if the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail could remain open more of the time. The Navy Yard now allows people to walk and bike past the base during the day every day, which is more than they initially promised. But can it be open all of the time?

A representative from DMPED was optimistic. He said that the Navy Yard now actually finds it somewhat of a burden to open and close the trail every day, and would like to avoid that responsibility. They’ve also added more security along that edge of the yard, making them more comfortable just allowing public access along that side. He gave no firm details, but it sounds like residents can hope for a 24-hour trail in the future.

As for the bridge, DDOT already gave out a contract to demolish the 2 old bridges. Tregoning said that while DC could try to renegotiate and keep the existing bridge structure, it’s in very bad shape. Instead, they will just keep the piers, since those are very expensive to plant in the river, and remove the entire deck.

Another benefit of removing the deck is that a new one needn’t be a simple rectangle. Maybe it will take a different shape. It could be thinner, or wider, or some of each in different places. Maybe it can connect in a few places to the new local road, bike, and pedestrian bridge that’s being built right next to it.

OP is hoping to start a national design competition this summer, to find the most creative designs from anyone, anywhere.

The bridge project will probably cost around $25-35 million. That’s only a tenth of the cost of the highway bridge project, but it’s not pocket change, and DC has many other priorities as well. For this reason, they hope to attract private money, either from local organizations or national foundations. For a project which could become an icon for DC, many may be quite interested.

Getting the streetcar onto the bridge would take some creative thinking, too. The new bridges are using some of the space that’s now approach ramps to the old bridge. That means there won’t necessarily be a smooth and direct approach to the “recreation bridge” on each side. We’ll have to wait for a later design phase to find out if there’s even a way to get a streetcar on and off the bridge.

The residents in the room were overall either very eager at least open-minded. Some seemed to primarily come to the meeting to ensure that the vehicular bridge was going to open on time and that nothing was changing with that plan. Others were bursting with ideas.

Right now, this project largely seems to be taking advantage of an opportunity. I can imagine Tregoning sitting in a meeting, hearing a status update about the bridge, and suddenly saying, “Wait a minute! We have this bridge over the Anacostia and we’re just going to rip it out? When the District is so concerned with figuratively bridging east and west of the river and there are so many needs especially on the east side?”

So far, all the government proposes to do is essentially preserve a bunch of piers to make it far cheaper to build a recreational bridge. Whether something ever gets built is up to residents, leaders, and designers to figure out a way to make it a great public space worthy of the investment.