Resurgence of the Anacostia River
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Washington, DC is a waterfront city. At the confluence of two tidal rivers, the Potomac and Anacostia, the District of Columbia enjoys 47 miles of shoreline. With DC now fully embracing its revived identity as a waterfront city, this progress report celebrates the resurgence of the Anacostia River—the heart of the District’s reorientation to its waterfront.
The Anacostia River and its waterfront neighborhoods stand today in stark contrast to the challenges of 2003, underscoring a depth of commitment, stewardship, and investment.
Fifteen years ago, the river had been compromised by pollution from untreated sewage overflows, trash, sedimentation, untreated stormwater, fertilizers, and more. The Anacostia’s banks had been artificially walled, preventing the growth of natural ecosystems that help keep rivers healthy and foster wildlife. While the river boasted miles of National Park Service parkland, it also contained a range of industrial uses like scrap yards, stone crushing facilities, utilities, and military installations. The shoreline was hard to reach or completely inaccessible from nearby communities. Most District residents did not approach the river, which had become a near-synonym for abandonment and urban decay. If the environmental restoration of the river seemed a pipe dream, the possibility of luring residential development to its banks seemed equally hard to imagine. Meanwhile, a complex ownership structure exists where the river itself (both water and river bed) and the land along it are split between several federal and local agencies and private property owners. The river and its watershed are further shared with Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland. Despite these hurdles, sustained leadership, significant public, non-profit, and private investment, and community advocacy have enabled the Anacostia River to flourish.
Once a forgotten and polluted dividing line, the District’s eight-mile stretch of the Anacostia River and Washington Channel is now unlocking social, environmental, and economic benefits.
This area weaves through Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8, and stretches from the Tidal Basin to the District’s northeast border with Maryland. The Anacostia waterfront has become more widely recognized and experienced with its new destinations, homes, job centers, environmental regeneration, and enhanced public access that have restored residents’ connections to the water.
In 2003, the Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan set a visionary and ambitious agenda for the revitalization of the Anacostia waterfront as a world-class destination and the center of 21st century Washington, DC.
On March 22, 2000, 19 federal and District agencies committed themselves to the unprecedented effort of restoring the Anacostia River, its waterfronts, and adjoining communities and parks through the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI). Led by then Mayor Anthony Williams, the AWI vision for the Anacostia included an ambitious set of goals (outlined on page 9). The DC Office of Planning, in collaboration with the AWI agencies and civic stakeholders, created the Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan (AWI Plan) to implement the AWI vision and provide a roadmap for waterfront revitalization. The AWI Plan focused on 900 acres of land along the eight-mile long Anacostia waterfront and Washington Channel, 90 percent of which were publicly owned at the time. The AWI study area focused strongly on large public sites that could be leveraged for redevelopment. The AWI Plan envisioned the “transformation of upwards of 2,000 acres of a long-neglected and abused river corridor into a model of 21st century urban life–socially heterogeneous, culturally diverse, and environmentally and economically sustainable across future generations.”
The AWI Plan set in motion a transformation that includes new mixed-income neighborhoods, environmental restoration, transportation infrastructure, enhanced public access, new connected parks, and cultural destinations.
The revitalization of the Anacostia waterfront is a shared success story of visionary planning, strategic public and private investment, and community partnership that has fueled one of the most exciting urban waterfront transformations in the United States. In 2018, at the 15-year anniversary of the AWI Plan, the turnaround of the Anacostia waterfront is a national model for urban rivers in terms of environmental restoration, public access, economic development, and inclusive growth.
Most importantly, waterfront revitalization is about growing an inclusive city and delivering shared economic and social prosperity.
As the AWI Plan envisioned, “the river will no longer be a widening social and economic boundary separating ‘east of the river’ from west”, but rather “…it will be a source of economic opportunity generating resources to spur revitalization and narrow the gap between wealth and poverty in neighborhoods along its shores.” Inclusive prosperity is about expanding access to opportunity and providing pathways to the middle class for District residents through the sustained growth of jobs, affordable housing, and tax revenue. New jobs, retail options, transportation improvements, and parks along the Anacostia River all seek to serve longstanding and new residents in waterfront communities as well as the city and region. While the Anacostia River’s renaissance has realized notable strides on inclusion, there is a need to ensure the next generation of waterfront projects purposely address equity.

The Anacostia waterfront has emerged as a cultural center complementing the Mall with cultural venues, sports arenas, and museums that are enlivening its shores with millions of annual visitors and reinforcing our city’s unique cultural heritage.
There are also new developments and neighborhoods that serve as destinations in themselves, such as The Wharf, that are changing the image of DC and its relationship with the water through unique public spaces and programming. From Nationals Park and Audi Field to new museums, music venues, future monuments, and the planned 11th Street Bridge Park, the Anacostia waterfront is adding to the cultural energy and dynamism of the District.
The natural experiences and recreation along the Anacostia River are a fundamental ingredient for the continued livability of a growing city.
A great deal of the shoreline remains parkland in District or federal ownership, including the federally-owned 1,200+ acres of Anacostia Park which celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 2018. The District has created a system of interconnected and continuous waterfront parks that establish widespread access to the river for recreation, from signature locations like Yards Park to improved facilities like Kenilworth Recreation Center, all joined by the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The Anacostia waterfront is a place where DC plays and rejuvenates; a place for everyone from local families to tourists; a place to discover nature in the city; and a place to find respite in recreation and river views. The District’s population has grown by over 125,000 residents since the 2003 AWI Plan and continues to grow by about 800 residents each month, and the Anacostia waterfront and its robust park system will help to balance growth and serve all District residents.
Investments in transportation infrastructure have helped deliver a connected waterfront, ensuring that the Anacostia River no longer divides our neighborhoods.
State-of-the-art multimodal projects are enhancing mobility and public access to and along the waterfront like the planned Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, almost 20 miles of the Anacostia Riverwalk trail, new options like bikeshare, the DC Circulator bus, and streetcar, and improved roadway circulation that takes regional traffic off neighborhood streets. Restoration of streets and rebuilding the historic L’Enfant grid have helped to connect neighborhoods. This waterfront transportation network, which includes new water taxi service, is also essential for connecting District residents to jobs, schools, parks, and entertainment destinations.
By improving the Anacostia River’s water quality, the District has sought to achieve environmental healing and justice and promote water-dependent activities.
Through a mix of legislative measures, restoration and remediation projects, and large-scale infrastructure like DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project, the District has experienced a radical environmental turnaround that is helping to make all other investments a success. A clean river is a necessary foundation for all water-related experiences and essential to the wellbeing of nearby residents and the health of wildlife habitat. The Anacostia River is well on its way to being swimmable and fishable by 2032 as envisioned in the AWI Plan. The next wave of environmental progress is about making the river and its waterfront communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change, including potential flooding, sea level rise, and more frequent and intense precipitation.
The Anacostia waterfront has grown and prospered as a collection of both new and well-established neighborhoods, planned as a key location to accommodate the city’s population growth around transit and waterfront amenities.
The rise in waterfront development is the result of planning policy that has guided public investment and private development along the Anacostia River, especially on underutilized public land, large sites, and formerly industrial properties, capitalizing on the transit capacity along Metro’s Green, Blue, and Orange lines. The AWI Plan set a vision for accommodating growth along the waterfront in vibrant, sustainable neighborhoods that were to be connected to each other, other District neighborhoods, and the region. The Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital: District Elements enshrined this vision through policies identifying the neighborhoods dotting the Anacostia waterfront as new or revitalized neighborhoods, including the Southwest Waterfront, Buzzard Point, Navy Yard, Hill East, and Poplar Point. This planned growth was aimed at bringing amenities and enhanced access to existing neighborhoods such as Historic Anacostia, Kenilworth, and Capitol Hill. Leveraging public properties at the Southwest Waterfront (The Wharf) and Navy Yard (Capitol Riverfront) has already catalyzed the creation of new residences, cultural destinations, recreational amenities, job centers, and restored access along the waterfront. The Navy Yard has emerged as the fastest-growing neighborhood in the city with an expected 13,000 residents by 2020.
A revitalized waterfront has always been about shared stewardship, and the constituencies are strong and growing.
While the leadership of former Mayor Anthony Williams, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and other champions elevated the Anacostia River as a priority, a growing number of nonprofit organizations, community groups, and foundations have emerged in recent years with a focus on the Anacostia River’s environment and the community development of adjacent neighborhoods. Many of the District’s waterfront successes and progressive legislation are direct results of the hard work of so many dedicated community advocates and stewards of the river. This growing constituency will help to sustain community-based conservancy efforts into the future.
Resurgence of the Anacostia Waterfront