Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN.

March 7, 2019; Next City

Could examining a place’s historical context contribute to more equitable development? That’s the belief of the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) and researchers from the Urban Institute. In a newly released report, researchers Mary Bogle, Somala Diby, and Mychal Cohen examine the equitable development plan (EDP) for the 11th Street Bridge Park project, an elevated park intended to connect disparate neighborhoods across the Anacostia River in Washington, DC.

Slated for completion in 2023, the project is led by BBAR with the goal of ensuring the park serves as “a driver of inclusive development.” To accomplish this, the organization developed an EDP to guarantee that the development project provides opportunities for all residents.

The organization’s four-pronged strategy, which focuses on affordable housing, workforce development, small business, and arts and culture, is informed by the community’s history. The new park will be constructed in Wards 7 and 8, areas of the city with the greatest poverty rates, unemployment rates, and rent burden. To provide context for the reasoning behind the EDP, the researchers introduce the report with a seven-page account of municipal and federal practices that contributed to these outcomes. Like many cities, residents in the area experienced the impact of systemic racism through urban renewal, white flight and disinvestment. Rightfully so, residents fear the upcoming threat of gentrification that often accompanies multimillion-dollar development projects such as the 11th Street Bridge Park project.

“It’s difficult to talk about achieving equity in the present day without taking a nod to the way that structural racism has manifested,” says Diby, a member of the evaluation team. To account for this history, the organization has been intentional in its strategy to be inclusive. For example, the Bridge Park team hired Vaughn Perry as its equitable development manager. Perry has been a resident and homeowner in Ward 8 for 16 years and comes with a background in environmental justice. Additionally, the organization is selective in the stakeholders it seeks to partner with, only partnering with developers, community organizations, and businesses committed to equitable development. So far, their work has paid off with 70 low- and moderate-income residents purchasing homes, 31 Bridge Park–sponsored construction trainees from Wards 6, 7, and 8 securing full-time jobs, and 104 small businesses based in Wards 7 and 8 receiving $525,000 in loans.

By 2025, DC’s population is expected to see a 17.1 percent increase. As people look for more affordable housing options, population increases are expected for Ward 7 and 8. In fact, it is predicted that these two wards will experience the most growth at 35 percent. As part of its strategy to keep long-time residents in the neighborhood, the group established the Douglass Community Land Trust. Other cities with hot housing markets, such as New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, have formed similar trusts to mitigate displacement. The details vary, but typically private nonprofit corporations purchase land for residential or commercial development that aims to benefit the community. The group is still scouting property but intends to acquire 1,000 units of rental and homeowner housing.

Fear of displacement voiced by residents has also led to modifications of the plan to include a focus on arts and culture. Residents are acutely aware that new development will inevitably change the composition of the neighborhood and remain committed to maintaining its culture. Bridge Park leaders have fully embraced this by hosting a market for artists based in Wards 7 and 8 and sponsoring festivals such as the Black Love Experience.

According to researchers, Bridge Park has found success in its ability to align strategies with other stakeholders and a commitment to resident input. Additionally, the group’s multi-sector approach to address issues that may accelerate displacement for local residents has led to diverse funding. For instance, the group has secured funding from the JPMorgan Chase PRO Neighborhood initiative, ArtPlace America, the Educational Foundation of America, and the Citi Foundation Community Progress Makers Fund.

The researchers offer several recommendations for cities planning to implement equitable development plans.

  • Develop realistic plans. Bridge Park staff and other stakeholders were intentional about development goals and strategies that could be executed within their realm of influence and with the resources available.
  • Develop a network of partners. Understanding the need for a multi-sector coalition to create equitable development, Bridge Park leaders looked for complementary partners such as resident groups, lenders, nonprofits, and economic development agencies that could lend their expertise to strategy execution and expand their impact.
  • Set performance-level targets. To hold itself and community partners accountable, Bridge Park set performance-level targets that defined the number and type of outcomes partners expected to accomplish as part of the EDP. Setting targets also helped foster a sense of transparency, allowing stakeholders to course correct when needed.
  • Hold partners accountable for achieving equity. This recommendation ties back to the previous one in that performance-level targets should explicitly state how many and the type of people (home-owners, renters, returning citizens, etc.) that will be assisted through equitable development. Those set goals must be shared and owned across the network to ensure fairness to marginalized groups.
  • Make a long-term commitment. Recognizing that equitable development takes time, Bridge Park leaders expect implementation to take 20–30 years and have framed its strategies to account for this.
  • Empower residents. Through its Community Leadership and Empowerment Workshop (CLEW), the organization has been able to build resident leadership around equitable development. With systemic racism often serving as a demotivating force within communities, equipping residents with the skills to advocate for their communities has proven effective. Participants in the CLEW pilot plan have been elected to city positions while other residents have secured grants to host political organizing classes with city officials.

Despite its success, the Bridge Park coalition is pragmatic in how much can be achieved through its EDP. As Bogle, Diby, and Cohen caution:

More affordable housing, small businesses, jobs, and cultural experiences may be preserved or created without there ever being enough of these things to prevent displacement of many current residents, much less to substantially mitigate the widespread effects of systemic racism on black and low-income residents living in places like DC’s Ward 8.

—Chelsea Dennis