Washington DC

Washington DC
Washington DC is defined geographically by two important rivers, the Potomac and the Anacostia. While the Potomac River is well-known and home to many famous landmarks, the Anacostia River is not, having traditionally served as the ‘working’ waterfront. Washington is a racially and socio-economically segregated city and the Anacostia Waterfront reflected this stark division as one of the poorest census tracts in the United States.

Within DC, the Anacostia shoreline is mainly owned by the federal government. The District of Columbia leases or has jurisdictional control over several federal parcels. In total, over 90% of the river's shoreline is in public ownership. The river had been compromised by erosion and siltation by the time of the Civil War. During the 19th Century, industrial activities at the Navy Yard provided enough jobs to seed the first residential community on the East side of the river, today known as Historic Anacostia. The highway-building era of the 1950s took advantage of reclaimed riverfront lands to construct new regional infrastructure, thereby reducing the need to take private lands in existing neighborhoods. These lands were eventually transferred to the Department of Interior with the designation of park use, but the envisioned park building effort never came to pass due to the density of obtrusive infrastructure.

In the mid-twentieth century, the neighborhoods along the river became one of the primary targets of Washington's urban renewal actions, in which existing residences and businesses were torn down and replaced with housing projects. Many residents were relocated into neighborhoods further east, resulting in a concentration of public housing along the river and a legacy of social disruption.

The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI), was envisioned as an opportunity to create a dynamic live/work/play environment along the Anacostia River, which are home to four wards (5,6,7 and 8) characterized by a concentration of poverty, public housing, deteriorated housing condition, and African American population. This area of the city stands in contrast with the other four wards (the west of the city) where most of the white and educated population live. As such, the AWI is a concrete project as well as a symbol to attempt to bridge this psychological, economic, social, physical and civic divide.

The local political context, largely defined in the 1990s by the takeover of DC finances by the congressionally legislated Control Board, became the backdrop for the 1998 election of Anthony A. Williams as Mayor of the District of Columbia. Building on his personal interest in ecology and rivers and his political commitment to social justice , Williams held that the Anacostia River represented a huge opportunity for social and environmental revitalization that had symbolic significance for an economically and racially segregated City.

Key to Williams’ vision was also that the historical residents would benefit from economic growth. The AWI was scoped and planned to ensure that the social and economic benefits derived from a revitalized waterfront would be shared in an equitable fashion by local neighborhoods and residents.

Williams’ vision placed an emphasis on urban growth to the East, which was based on Washington’s evolving urban morphology. With downtown built out, the city's pattern of growth was moving steadily towards and across the Anacostia River in the East. The team behind the vision understood that the capacity of the capital city to grow was inextricably linked to re-centering its growth in the coming decades around the Anacostia River. The Anacostia's long-neglected parks, natural environment, and urban infrastructure became a top priority for both the local and federal governments responsible for land stewardship in the nation's capital.

In 2000, Mayor Williams successfully forged a partnership between the city government and the federal agencies that owned most of the land along the river. Conceived as the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, the partnership was memorialized in a Memorandum of Understanding ("MOU") that was signed by the Mayor and over a dozen federal agencies in March of 2000. The AWI joined the District of Columbia and federal agencies in a participatory planning process to form a common policy and development vision for the river and its public lands. This process was unprecedented for urban planning in the District of Columbia.

Even prior to the 2000 signing of the MOU, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) Legacy Plan  helped to set the stage for a successful implementation of the AWI.  and the decision of the US Navy to move NAVSEA to the Southeast Washington (Navy Yards) (see below). In 1997, the NCPC published a report “Extending the Legacy: Planning America's Capital for the 21st Century” that set the stage for the AWI. The Legacy Plan departed from previous federal plans that concentrated facilities and investment around the National Mall, instead shifting the perceived center of the city to the Capitol. By channeling new institutions and buildings outward along the ceremonial corridors radiating from the Capitol, the Plan sought to ease congestion in the monumental core, revitalize neighborhoods, expand public transit, eliminate obsolete infrastructure, and reclaim Washington's historic waterfront.

The MOU identified the District of Columbia Office of Planning (OP) as the lead agency in planning AWI, putting the City in a leadership role to coordinate the vision for the river. The MOU also established both a joint steering committee comprised of OP, the National Park Service and the General Services Administration (GSA) to oversee and a mandate to proactively engage the citizens of the District of Columbia in the planning process.

It was clear that any plan for the AWI would be grounded in a specific project, allowing for planning and implementation to go hand in hand. Growing out of the dialogue fostered between citizens and the federal agencies, OP produced the Waterfront Framework Plan to guide the river's redevelopment. To achieve the goal of a great waterfront along the Anacostia River, the Framework Plan identified five planning themes, which formed the basis for the five chapters of the Plan. Each of these themes responded to citizen concerns or public policy debates focused on the river corridor.

  • Environment: Chart the environmental restoration of the river over 25 years.
  • Transportation: Reconstruct transportation infrastructure to better serve neighborhoods and the region.
  • Public realm: Transform over 1,800 acres of public open space into an interconnected River Parks system.
  • Culture and institutions: Introduce new museums and monuments that emphasize the civic importance of the Anacostia.
  • Economic development: Increase the vitality of waterfront neighborhoods by adding over 20,000 households and up to 40,000 new jobs.

Six Target Area Plans were prepared to chart redevelopment strategies on a neighborhood scale and were applied to the five waterfront planning themes in site-specific contexts. Each Plan was completed with direct involvement of community stakeholders and then brought to the City Council for approval as a supplement to the city's Comprehensive Plan. Each Plan addressed issues specific to its neighborhood that were resolved in the context of river-wide goals outlined in the Framework. Conflicts and trade-offs between river-wide and local goals required mediation. Height and density impacts of proposed high-density development were most pronounced at the Southwest Waterfront, where existing residents were likely to have river views impacted by new buildings. Housing affordability and the management of public housing assets were most pronounced in the Near Southeast, where the planning process included actual public-private development proposals to redevelop the Capper Carrolsburg housing project.

Lands along the river fell under the jurisdiction of multiple federal and local authorities and agencies, not one of which had a clear mandate for revitalizing the waterfront. The Framework Plan proposed a new dedicated municipal entity, the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation (AWC) to coordinate the implementation process, which would ensure that the resources necessary for implementation were wisely and equitably invested. The AWC was locally charted because the District is under the oversight of Congress, making a federally constituted body redundant. A locally chartered body would best be able to take advantage of the city's own powers of creative financing, while remaining semi-autonomous and able to partner with land owning federal agencies and Congress.

The AWI was financed through a number of mechanisms and from a number of sources. Chief among these were Tax Increment Financing (TIF), PILOT bonds, and grants from the federal level.  In all, between 2000 and 2010, USD 1.2 billion in District and Federal investments have been made in the Capitol Riverfront area of the AWI, matched by USD 1.8 billion in private investments (DC Government, 2010). Public funds were utilized to pay for multiple infrastructure needs, fund a significant entertainment attraction, and create affordable housing options.

Federal grants: The Capitol Riverfront area received a USD 35 million HOPE VI grant for the redevelopment of Arthur Capper Carollsburg public housing, an anchor of the site. The redevelopment of the Capper Carrollsburg public housing complex was perhaps the most innovative and highly leveraged housing project to be completed under HUD's HOPE VI program. The Project guaranteed a 1:1 replacement of all public housing and increased land densities to double the amount of housing units by supplementing 700 units of public housing with 400 units of subsidized housing and 400 units of market rate housing. This was one the projects under the initiative that seek to reduce gentrification.

PILOT Bonds: In order to make investment in the Navy Yards area profitable for the private developer, the city used a USD 230 million payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) bond to pay for infrastructure investments (roads, parks, and sewers) for both the Navy Yards and the Department of Transportation headquarters. The need of a considerable public investment in the area to trigger the private investment was justified on the following grounds: (i) The cost of infrastructure (the site was not connected to the public utilities and city street grid, it needed new sewers, streets, public lightning and public parks); (ii) the distance to traditional residential and commercial areas (even though the site is located two metro stops away from the downtown area, the psychological distance from traditional residential and commercial areas is greater than that); (iii) cost of environmental remediation for the land that had been utilized as an industrial site for 200 years (this cost was covered by the federal government which is responsible for cleaning up the land that it has contaminated in the past).

Tax Increment Financing: The Department of Transportation headquarters generated USD 100 million in TIF to help find multiple infrastructure and parks projects alongside the city’s PILOT bonds investment program in the Navy Yards area.

As part of the Southwest Waterfront revitalization, The District contributed USD 198 million in TIF to offset infrastructure costs and catalyze the USD 1.3 billion project. The planning effort for this areas was successful and crystalized in an agreement between the developer and the long-term residents of the Southwest Waterfront by the long term tenants received affordable units in the future development.

Other municipal financing: In 2004, the District approved USD 611 million to construct a LEED-certified Ballpark to be able to bring the Nationals to the City. Besides the District’s investment, the principal owners spent tens of millions of dollars in additional upgrades to the 41,000-seat ballpark.  Washington DC agreed to fully fund a stadium as part of the deal that brought the former Montreal Expos to Washington. The city council capped "hard expenditures" for the ballpark (including construction and land acquisition costs) at USD 611 million. The city owns the ballpark, and it is operated by the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission. The ballpark has been paid for by the sale of USD 535 million in municipal bonds, which will be repaid by stadium-generated revenues and by a tax on businesses within the city. No money was taken from the city's general fund to pay for the stadium. Certain upgrades at the park that would break the cost cap are being paid for by the team's owners.

The implementation of such an ambitious plan as the AWI was possible through smaller projects that were part of the overall framework and that contributed to the vision.

Capitol Riverfront

The Capitol Riverfront (which includes the Near Southwest and South Capitol Street Corridor) is the first neighborhood within the AWI where significant results can be observed. Developing the Capitol Riverfront became a reality in 1995 when the U.S. Navy decided to move NAVSEA Command (the purchasing unit of the United States Navy) to the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, which in turn moved 10,000 employees to the area and created demand for three new private office buildings on M Street. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) also chose to locate its headquarters in the area.

The 2000 Southeast Federal Center Public Private Redevelopment Act (SEFC) allowed General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency in charge of administering federal land, to enter into various types of agreements with private entities and to sell or exchange properties in the Southeast Federal Center Area that includes the Navy Yard and Capitol Riverfront. These powers facilitated the revitalization of Capitol Riverfront through the creation of Yards Park and real estate developments that surround it through a partnership with the private developer, Forrest City.

The revitalization of Capitol Riverfront features several individual initiatives and developments.  The Yards, which is located by the Navy Yard, is a waterfront development created as the centerpiece development along the coastline of Capitol Riverfront. The Project re-opened public streets to access the waterfront, and constructed a 5.5-acre park. The construction of the Yards by Forrest City includes the adaptive reuse of historical buildings and the construction of new multi-use buildings. The Yards project is worth about  USD1.5 billion. The city gave a subsidy of USD 42 million to ensure that the site was redeveloped as a mixed-use project. 

The construction of the Nationals Ballpark is perhaps the defining element of the revitalization of the Capitol Riverfront in particular and the Anacostia Waterfront as a whole. The construction of the ballpark generated resistance from some in the City Council who opposed public financing for a sports facility. However, the Mayor’s vision that the stadium would not only be a tool of economic development but also one for building a city-wide community ultimately prevailed. The ballpark was also a catalytic investment that helped the AWI become a reality. The brings two million people south of the highway per year, and exposes them to a heretofore unknown part of the City.

A Business Improvement District was also created for the Capitol Riverfront to make the area clean, safe, friendly and vibrant through: Cleaning and maintenance; safety and hospitality; marketing, branding and special events; economic development; coordination and advocacy for public improvements; and community building.

Southwest Waterfront

The Southwest Waterfront is the portion of the waterfront between 6th and 10th Streets SW. The redevelopment for this target area includes redevelopment efforts for Waterfront Station, Arena Stage, the new Mandarin Hotel and Buzzard Point and 10th Street SW. These additional efforts contribute significantly to the quality of this unique stretch of waterfront near the National Mall.

In 2009, the Land Disposition Agreement was executed by the District and its master development partner.

Some of the key projects in the area include:

  • The Waterfront Station : For 50 years, Southwest Washington was divided in half by a mall and an office complex that withered with age. The new pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use project at the Metro's door, Waterfront Station, is the first of three legs of a USD 800 million redevelopment of 1.2 million square feet for offices, the same amount of residential space and at least 110,000 square feet devoted to shops and restaurants.
  • Mandarin Hotel:  Built in 2003, the Mandarin Hotel is the District’s newest 5-star hotel. The hotel received $40 million in public tax increment financing.
  • Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater:  Arena Stage is the second largest performing arts complex in Washington. The renovation strived to preserve significant elements of the original center’s character through the preservation of the Fichancher Stage and the Kreeger Theater.
  • Buzzard Point:  Buzzard Point is currently home to a power plant, U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, automobile impound lots and low-density housing. In 2009, a planning assistance team from the American Planning Association reviewed the site’s potential and provided recommendations for building a new mixed-use and high-density neighborhood that contains parks and waterfront cafés on the river.


Even though the results of the AWI directly impact the lowest-income communities in the City (Wards 5, 6, 7 and 8), in reality the project was envisioned to improve the city as a whole. When comparing data from 2000 to 2009, all major indicators for the advancement of environmental, economic, and community goals within the Anacostia Waterfront Development Zone are positive. The AWI, when complete, will require an estimated $25 billion in private and public investment, and is projected to yield $1.5 billion in additional tax revenues for the District per year. The following are key positive results of the AWI:

  • Environmental restoration: DC Water has reduced sewer overflow by 36%, and the District has achieved an approximate 50% decrease in the concentrations of the oxides of nitrogen and sulfur.
  • Connect through transportation: DDOT awarded, the USD 300 million 11th Street Bridges project, its largest yet. half of the 20 mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail is complete.
  • Parks: Over USD 100 in public investment has been made in parks.
  • Destinations: Washington Nationals stadium opened in 2008. The Mandarin Hotel, the newest five-star hotel in the District, opened in 2004.
  • Neighborhoods: Total population of AWI increased from 16,675 to 23,280. Annual real property tax revenues increased from USD 35 million in 2005 to USD 109 million in 2009.

Transforming 2,800 acres of neglected waterfront land and restoring one of the nation’s most polluted rivers is complex and a long-term undertaking, as is coordinating among multiple Federal and District agencies to achieve a shared goal. Some of the lessons that emerge from the implementation of the AWI include:

  • Vision is the crucial foundation: The success of AWI can be traced to the boldness of the initial vision of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Complex regeneration projects are rooted in a powerful, well thought out, historically-rooted, contextual, long-term, and inspiring vision for the city and the areas that will be the focus of regeneration.
  • Understanding the basics - market position, land ownership, and existing conditions: It is important to have a clear understanding of the “base position” of the proposed regeneration area in order to assess the scale and scope of the challenge, the barriers that will need to be overcome and the opportunities that can be created.
  • Integrated framework and approach: AWI was conceptualized from the start as a comprehensive and integrated approach to urban revitalization. It recognized the inter-dependencies between the physical, social, economic, cultural and environmental regeneration of the area.
  • Process and engendering “Buy-in”: AWI invested enormous energy and resources into the engagement of the constituencies that were required to support the effort.
  • Creating urgency: It is important to generate an urgency to act and to create momentum, otherwise the project risks being perceived as “yet another plan.”
  • The “time” dimension - managing expectations and phasing: One of the greatest challenges is to manage public expectations that they are going to see change “overnight” and. It is therefore important not to succumb to the pressure of overpromising results that cannot be achieved.
  • Overcoming Intimidating Barriers to Success: At the beginning of AWI many counseled the Mayor not to be so ambitious in his plans. Despite challenges that appear overwhelming and discouraging, one should not be dissuaded from action or pursuing the vision if there is an underlying belief in both the power of the idea and the possibility for change.
  • Identifying anchors and seizing opportunities – planning and doing: As part of the strategy of instilling urgency in the regeneration project from the outset, it is critical to identify anchors and catalytic actions that send a strong message that the project is “for real.” It is important to demonstrate real commitments to the vision as early as possible and to be opportunistic and aggressive in securing commitments to the regeneration project.
  • Leverage: All regeneration projects require the leveraging of public and private resources in the most effective manner.
  • Tenacity and focus: In every speech, in every municipal budget, in every request of the Federal government, Mayor Williams would advocate for investment in AWI. This unrelenting tenacity and focus, not to the exclusion of other priorities, but as a primary emphasis of his vision for the city, sent a powerful message that AWI was not a fleeting interest but a foundation of his agenda for the city.
  • Embedding success: It is important to plan ahead for how best to create an organizational strategy to give the regeneration project the best chance for success in the long term. There is no one answer or way to do this, and this can change over time. AWI tried to embed success through the creation of the Anacostia Waterfront Development Corporation.