Anacostia Riverwalk Trail Connects Nature to Urban Landscape
Most visitors to Washington, D.C. wouldn't know about an incredible project that connects many bike and walking trails throughout the District to nearby Maryland and Virginia. Part of a larger 30-year series of projects known as the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail is a project with many stories to tell.
The Anacostia River flows from Prince George's County in Maryland into Washington, D.C., where it joins with the Washington Channel to empty into the Potomac River at Buzzard Point. Approximately 8.7 miles long, the name Anacostia comes from the area's early history as Nacotchtank, a settlement of the Anacostan Native American tribe on the banks of the river.
Heavy pollution as well as weak investment and development along the Anacostia's banks led to what many reference as "D.C.'s forgotten river." In recent years, public-private partnerships have made efforts to reduce the river's pollution levels to help protect the ecologically valuable Anacostia watershed.
As a key to the revitalization of this important waterway, the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI) is a joint program of several local, state, federal and non-governmental organizations. Denver- based CH2M's, Transportation and Business Group is under contract to the Washington D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) for management of the overall program. Now in year five of a contract that began in 2011, Program Manager Tom Ryburn said, "This is part of a larger initiative that includes projects such as the Washington Nationals Baseball stadium and the adjacent Yards Park development. Our specific area of focus is the transportation projects that support the initiative."
The AWI began with planning in 2004 as part of the larger overall trail system in the greater Washington D.C. area. According to Ryburn, the 28-mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail (ART) is the last link in the AWI project, as the National Park Service (NPS) completed a major portion of the Trail in Anacostia Park up to the north end and the State of Maryland completed the section from Bladensburg to the District border.
Funding for the ART came from the Federal Highway Administration through a Transportation Improvement Generates Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. According to Ryburn, in 2011, Baltimore-based RK&K had just started the design and "we managed that for DDOT. CH2M wrote the grant on behalf of both owners and submitted our first application for a TIGER grant. There were thousands of applications, but ours didn't get it the first time around," he commented. When they applied again in 2012, the project was selected for the TIGER grant. In 2013, D.C. based Milani Construction was brought on as general contractor and Baltimore's RK&K continued on as engineer of record for design, with Jacobs Engineering providing ongoing construction management services.
DDOT Deputy Director Greer Gillis has been a part of the project since its beginnings, as a coordinating partner in the early 2000s. "Our goal was to help a poor environmental situation, knowing that a transformation of the infrastructure would be the key to economic development in the entire area. The project's scope and overall concept has remained intact since 2004, with minor design updates implemented as a result of partner changes, neighborhood requests and other necessary adaptations," Gillis said. Besides the DDOT and NPS, other participating agencies include Washington District Office of Energy and the Environment for permitting, the Federal Highway Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland National Capitol Parks and Planning Agency, Prince Georges County Maryland and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which is the coordinating planning arm for D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
"We recognized the importance of this project early on and dedicated an entire team devoted to its success," noted Gillis. DDOT Deputy Chief Engineer Ravindra Ganvir oversees about 10 engineers and technicians for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative and DDOT Project Manager and Supervisory Engineer EJ Simie is project manager of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, with three engineers reporting to him. The entire team includes a group of consultants working in design, construction management and doing the construction itself. DDOT staff also work closely with CH2M's Ryburn.
According to Simie, "These walkable areas not only connect with both banks of the river but also the adjacent neighborhoods." Ganvir said when the project started in the planning stages, it was initially given up on. "But now as the main connector to over 100 miles of regional trails in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, we are happy to see the completion of the ART as the missing link from Maryland," he added.
Future plans include connecting the trail with the National Arboretum across the Anacostia River. "Planning is ongoing and we hope to begin design this year," says Ryburn. The proposed name for this section is The Arboretum Trail and Bridge.
Project Parts, Pieces and Priorities
There are a number of interesting technical aspects to this complicated project. One important to note is the use of fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP). This material helped create two lightweight bridges that are more durable and require less maintenance than traditional concrete. These 1,200- foot-long bridges cross the CSX rail line, and are built up on pile shafts or piers to permit better, safer access to the area. "We were able to overcome barriers and connect neighborhoods in the area that otherwise would have been very difficult to access," comments Simie.
Another technical marvel is the precast concrete boardwalk that follows right along the river and permits passage under the very busy Route 50 Highway and the Amtrak line running from Baltimore to Washington.
"The area near Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is the final section in the project," Ryburn notes. The trail goes through the Gardens, an NPS property, and through a new neighborhood in D.C. This part of the project required collaboration with the property owners and with the D.C. Department of Environment, which focuses on protection of area wetlands.
"We realize that the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail allows us to provide a great transportation solution for both Washington residents and visitors," noted Gillis. "And from an engineering perspective, we are so happy that this project that was doubted by so many is finally coming to fruition," added Ganvir. "It provides a great outlet for people to exercise and enjoy the outdoors. This trail encompasses quite a number of projects. We've approached it stage by stage and so far, we have completed 18 of the 28 miles."
Gillis mentioned the environmental aspect of the project as critical to its success. "At one point, ospreys nested at the top of one of the construction cranes. That particular crane was being used to build the FRP bridges." "And," noted Simie, "we felt it was vital to maintain the eco-system and chose not to move the crane for three to four months."
Other Important Partners
The marshes along the Anacostia River have a rich and varied natural and cultural history. From the native Anacostan tribes to early American settlers and contemporary African American communities, the area now known as Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens has been home to a variety of people for more than 4,000 years. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is the only national park devoted to cultivated water-loving plants. This unique habitat features exotic water lilies and lotus and is an oasis for nature lovers, walkers, hikers, photographers and birdwatchers. More recently, the Gardens have become a living laboratory for students of all ages.
As part of the Anacostia Parks, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens soon will be connected to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail and is designed to allow visitors to enter through the "back door" of the gardens. According to Tina O'Connell, Director of Friends of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens (KAG), "The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail will be a game changer for the way people experience and connect with the Anacostia River, the adjacent parklands and surrounding communities. ART provides a new doorway to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and other destinations along the East bank of the river that were previously difficult to reach by foot or bike. Hopefully, this is one of the launch points that encourages the vibrant use and creative programming necessary for an iconic urban national park." In the past, to actually bike to the Gardens required a lot of "urban" travel, through busy streets and under major highways. "It has always been much easier for cars to access the Gardens since they can drive on streets and park in a lot," noted O'Connell.
O'Connell's background is perfect for her role with the Friends of KAG. Earlier, she worked with the office of the Natural Estuarine Research Reserve System, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Her background in environmental, land and water management, specializing in protected areas such as national parks and reserves, led her to the KAG position in 2012. "This job is a good fit. Since I live in the D.C. area, I wanted to focus my work in education on a local site and this was a perfect opportunity for me. It still allows me to interface with the NPS but work with on-the-ground programs and the community nearby."
With O'Connell's focus on education, she works closely with representatives of the NPS and the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (part of a $35 million grant for five different neighborhood communities) to provide camps and programs for students and teachers. One such event, NatureFest, is an afternoon program for school-age students. Components of the program include a stewardship program, a unit on ponds and what's in them and a Jeopardy-type game about Facts in the Park.
Akiima Price, Environmental Health and Wellness Manager for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, began her work in neighborhoods with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), focusing on women of color. Her earlier experience includes work with Bette Midler's neighborhood nonprofit, the New York Restoration Project. Price now serves as an independent contractor working between groups to facilitate active learning.
In 2004, Price came to work as a contractor with the AWI. "I had worked with D.C.'s Discovery Children's Museum." Since they (KAG) wanted to serve low income families, Price began working with afterschool programs. While nature interpretation was provided by the NPS, there was no real connection with the community. "The only program they offered was the Junior Rangers, and there were no women working here. I had the social capital at the time to pull it together. This program has allowed the kids to feel this is their place," Price shared.
"My goal was to provide a creative edge to engagement, as nature is an incredible healer. When you are dealing with kids who are faced with hunger and homelessness on a daily basis, explaining what a watershed was - well, these children had no clue," she said.
Price met the founder of the Friends of KAG in December 2014, and learned they were looking at future school and community programs. "I shared that years ago at the Discovery Museum, we offered a program called NatureMania. Since Spring Break 2015 was around the corner, we knew the local kids wouldn't have anything to do." In partnership with Friends of the Park Service and the DC Promise Initiative (specifically the Kenilworth/Parkside neighborhoods), NatureFest was born. Since that time, ongoing programs are offered for children to coincide with school breaks.
"The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail will allow visitors to see the trail's hidden gems, such as the Gardens, along the way," O'Connell shared, "and will visually connect the river, the marsh and the ponds. The importance of the river and the marsh is monumental to the surrounding ecosystem. Visitors will be able to do so many things - kayak, bike, walk, and take a journey through this part of the city as part of a larger adventure. I am very interested to see how the community responds to the project and how they use these new areas. I think we will get a mix of commuters, visitors seeking a destination and those looking to exercise. We're ultimately hoping ART will become a launching point for a major national urban park."
Like most infrastructure and improvement projects, there have been a few minor setbacks, including a delayed schedule due to underground obstructions at a shared path bridge. "We found old tiebacks from earlier shore construction holding a seawall, which set us back a few months since the bridge had to be redesigned," notes AWI Program Manager Ryburn. "From my perspective, the project's success is the result of so many groups supporting it, with a common goal to provide an effective transportation solution. Everything came together for a common cause and we got it done."