Following in the footsteps of New York's High Line and Atlanta's Belt Line projects, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit is looking to enter the nation's capital into the ranks of urban cities that are transforming existing transportation infrastructure into public green spaces. With D.C.'s 11th Street Bridge Park project, they're looking for design project teams to help them do it.

This week, the D.C.-based nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River at THEARC (Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus) and the District's Office of Planning launched a national design competition to convert an existing freeway bridge spanning the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C. into an elevated park that unites the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and Anacostia. The project aims to re-engage District residents with the riverfront, offer new civic space that fosters play and health, and provide environmental education. The 11th Street Bridge Park is estimated to cost $25 million to complete, with the earliest projected opening date in 2017 or 2018. The park's backers also anticipate raising a $10 million endowment to support park programming, operations, and maintenance. To date, $550,000 of a $1 million pre-capital campaign goal has been raised.

The existing 11th Street Bridge is being replaced as part of a $390 million District Department of Transportation project that is constructing three new bridges to better address traffic flow and waterfront access. It is scheduled for completion in mid-2015. The 11th Street Bridge Park program proposes reusing the existing downstream bridge piers as pillars for a deck that would support a community park—plus an environmental education center, performing arts venues, public art, urban agriculture, playgrounds, a café, and launches for kayaks and canoes.

The competition to design the project will take place in three stages. In the first stage, which is now open, architects and landscape architects can register as lead designers by submitting a portfolio of their qualifications. Submissions are due April 22. From this pool, a jury will choose four finalists to proceed at the end of May. In stage two, the lead designers will assemble their teams—which must include a structural engineer and a lighting designer—and submit portfolios of qualifications for all team members. For stage three, each design team will receive a $25,000 stipend to complete and submit design concepts for a 1,000-foot-long park up to 120 feet wide—roughly the size of three football fields. 

Final design teams will also participate in "meet the community" type events in D.C., not unlike the process for picking a team to renovate the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The final concepts will be posted online for public comment and will be part of a public exhibition at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum in late September and early October. The final design selection will be announced on Oct. 15.

Entrants, take note: Competition organizers aren't just looking for a flashy tourist draw. Final submissions will be judged based on how they support community connections, health, and sustainability. When it comes to the last attribute, adaptive reuse of the existing infrastructure is hardly the only sustainable element of the proposed park—economic vitality and social equity are two of the guiding principles as well.

When completed, the bridge should provide common ground for two noticeably different neighborhoods: Capitol Hill, where the average family income is just above $145,000, and Anacostia, where the average family income is just above $50,000. Recognizing that communities east of the Anacostia River have the District's highest obesity rates and lower access to fresh fruits and vegetables, the design brief requires all submissions to provide an abundance of year-round active spaces as well as agriculture opportunities such as edible landscapes—elements that were also requested during 200 public meetings that have been held with local residents, business owners, and community leaders. Plans should also include revenue-drivers such as a restaurant or event-rental space to expand on the current economic revival taking place along D.C.'s Southwest waterfront.

The competition brief also states that "to care about the river, people need to experience it"—and so the park's backers are seeking teams that will remove existing barriers to the river. The park's environmental center should include an indoor/outdoor classroom where students can learn about watersheds, ecology, and the importance of clean water, according to the design brief.

"It's been key that every single program idea that is in the brief is community driven," says Scott Kratz, director of the 11th Street Bridge Park. "Key community engagement in the design competition is absolutely critical, too." In this regard, while the competition jury will make the final decision on the winner, a design review committee comprising local leaders in the arts, environment, design, and health communities, will weigh in throughout the nine-month process.

The competition jury includes Howard Frumkin, dean and professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health; Toni Griffin, professor of architecture and founding director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York; Carol Mayer-Reed, partner-in-charge of landscape architecture and urban design at Mayer/Reed; Michaele Pride, AIA, professor of architecture at the University of New Mexico; and Harry Robinson III, FAIA, professor of urban design and dean emeritus at Howard University's school of architecture and design. Patricia Zingsheim, associate director for the revitalization and design division at the D.C. Office of Planning, will serve as an alternate juror.

Photos and videos courtesy the 11th Street Bridge Park.