The Anacostia Waterfront Trust and Its Water, Land and Community Mission

More than a century ago, the Anacostia River and waterfront was envisioned as a bucolic civic space. Instead, it became Washington, D.C.’s badly polluted and forgotten river, carving a social and economic divide between the District’s east and west neighborhoods.

The vision of a healthy and thriving Anacostia River corridor moves closer to reality with the Anacostia Waterfront Trust. Begun as a Federal City Council (FC2) Initiative, the Trust has been created to restore the Anacostia, improve the 1,200 acres of adjacent public parklands and strengthen neighborhoods along and near the river.

“Cleaning up the Anacostia River is complex,” says Anthony Williams, FC2 CEO and Executive Director.” The Federal City Council has found tremendous success, historically and productively, with large infrastructure projects that bring different public-private partnerships together—Union Station, the Verizon Center, the Metro—and the same applies to the Anacostia River. As the river recovers, we can continue with economic development in a way that is inclusive, the kind of economy that’s working for everyone.”

The work of wrangling the seemingly disparate goals of the federal, state and local agencies with jurisdiction over the river is complicated, yet the Trust’s mission—revitalizing land, water and community—allows its leadership to take the long view. From this vantage point, the restoration of the Anacostia River and parklands represents one of the largest opportunities in the District today for creating economic growth.

But the river’s promise wasn’t always visible. Public pressure drew attention to the contaminated river in the mid-1990s, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demanded plans to control sewage overflows and stormwater runoff. In 1998, then-mayor Williams made restoring the Anacostia River and its contiguous public land a top District government priority.

“We know very well what the challenges are. A lot of the Trust’s role is to identify or create the solutions, and then encourage the region’s private sector to make sure those actions are taken,” says Doug Siglin, Executive Director of the Anacostia River Initiative and the Trust’s first Executive Director.

An initial grant from the Summit Fund of Washington provided the seed money to establish the Trust. Roger Sant, co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of The AES Corporation and Chairman of The Summit Foundation and the Summit Fund of Washington, was inspired by the remarkable success of New York City’s Central Park Conservancy.

“At this point, the EPA is on board. The broad plan is in force. The combined sewer overflow work is being done, which is a huge, huge investment to make,” says Sant, who serves as co-director of the Trust board with Williams. “There is a considerable momentum. I think the Trust is in the best position to continue to build community support.”

The regulations established by the EPA’s 1972 Clean Water Act greatly mitigated industrial pollution. Yet three critical problems endure: sewage overflows, legacy toxins and stormwater.

Solutions to the first two are underway. The Anacostia River Tunnels project is scheduled for completion by 2022 and remediation of the legacy toxins continues, albeit slowly. What remains is the seemingly intractable problem of stormwater runoff from farms, streets and alleys, a toxic brew of oil, soot and food waste.

Making mitigation more thorny is the river’s multi-jurisdictional nature: Five-sixths of the Anacostia watershed is in Maryland. To achieve its mission, the Trust works closely with the leaders of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the state of Maryland to accelerate the pace of the current water cleanup plans, and it maintains its partnership with the District and the federal government to substantially improve the public parklands.

“We have chosen to define ‘waterfront’ in our name quite broadly. When we talk about our mission for the Trust, we talk about the ‘water mission’, helping to advance the cleanup of the Anacostia River, and the ‘land mission’, helping to create a world-class public riverside park,” says Siglin. “But there’s also the ‘community mission’, helping to ensure that families living near the river and park can stay there and have real opportunities to become more successful.”

City leaders such as Arrington Dixon, a member of the National Capital Planning Commission and Chairman of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, welcome the Trust’s ambitious vision.

“The river has served as a divide but it needs to be a magnet,” says Dixon, President of ADA Inc. “People will find ways to traverse it if it draws them, whether it’s a bridge or a boat. We need to have a destination magnet.”

While primarily seeking financial support through donations and grants, the Trust is also pursuing new sources of revenue. Building upon the District’s innovative Stormwater Retention Credit Trading program, the Trust’s leadership has developed RainPay Initiative. This self-sustaining business unit will serve as a broker to use credits to positively impact the river’s water quality.

The hope is that the Trust will serve as a catalyst for significant investment by foundations, FC2 members, corporations and others to revitalize the river and enhance its parklands, particularly on the east side, where a refurbished waterfront could bring jobs, development and recreational opportunities.

“Some people could argue that restoring the river and creating parkland is a luxury and the funds should go into economic development east of the river. I think that’s a false choice, It’s not either/or,” says Sam Stokes, President of the MARPAT Foundation and one of the Trust’s earliest funders with its priority gift. “Restoration of the river will cause economic development. If the river is restored it will become a unifying factor rather than a divide.”

1 Always intended to be time-limited, the Summit Fund of Washington closed its doors on March 31, 2015