Paris on the Anacostia

OK, DC design fans, when’s the last time you read about anything architecturally significant going on in Anacostia? Most of us who call ourselves DC natives would be hard pressed to mention an instance of even venturing across the Anacostia River, much less seeing what’s on the other side.

That’s because Washington’s poorest ward doesn’t offer much to see—for now. Classical architect Nir Buras and a group of classically minded peers wants to join the conversation about what’s possible along the forgotten stepchild of the Potomac River, which developers and the DC government are already examining.

Buras invited about 30 architects (whom he wouldn’t name) to submit 50- to 100-year plans to overhaul the Anacostia River and the development along its banks. The inspiration? Paris’ Seine.

A comparison of what the river looks like now, and what it could look like someday.

A comparison of what the river looks like now, and what it could look like someday.

The idea, it turns out, isn’t so weird or even new. Sen. James McMillan, in his famous Senate Park Commission report in 1902, first invoked the comparison:

“…The activity of the waterfront would really add to the interest of the parkway, and give it a character to it possessed by no other in this country. In several European river cities, notably Paris, Vienna and Budapest, there are such combinations of a commercial quay with a promenade at a higher level [than the river], and they form in many cases the most popular and delightful resorts of the people, but in no case we believe, are the conditions so favorable as at Washington.”

Here’s Buras’ interpretation of what the Anacostia could look like:


“This is a plan for our lifetime,” says Buras, who’s been thinking about a so-called McMillan II plan for at least eight years since he first convened a group of colleagues at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. The group of ten includes Iris Miller, the director of lanscape studies and the Urban Institute Studio at Catholic University, and Stephanie Bothwell, board president and chair of the Congress for New Urbanism, a national organization dedicated to “promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.”

Buras refers to the current development plans, which call for modern mixed-use structures that include residential, retail, and restaurants, as “short-term, blatantly political or trend-driven.” What he’s calling for, rather than a condo here and a marina there, is a complete overhaul of the entire landscape spanning the Anacostia River—and the river itself—over the next 100 years.

Buras wants to mount architects’ renderings and proposed structures for that scheme in a five-year display that will surround a 3-D version of McMillan II, which is to be cut in stone. Once submissions come in by the end of this month, his goal is to display them near L’Enfant Plaza in May.

Buras likens the plan to the work of surgeons “healing up a wound.” He compares the Anacostia and its surrounds to a “mile-wide gash in the urban fabric, … a no-man’s land of freeways and underused parks, mostly on Federal land. Through it runs a murky river that pedestrians can’t cross: The Anacostia. South of this Styx are DC’s worst urban, social and economic nightmares. Obviously, the city needs a healing act, both literally and figuratively.”

Here’s a more detailed view of this plan:


Buras dreams of transforming the area into a river with embankments and bridges similar to what you see on the Seine. He wants to dismantle sections of routes 295 and 395 along 10 miles of the river, replacing them with riverfront promenades and 200 acres of riverfront parks. “The 295 and 395 freeways literally cut the city in two with a mile-wide swath of no-man’s land. Together, they carry less traffic than the Champs Elysees.” REALLY? I have no way of confirming this statement. What if that’s true?

Politics and planning departments aside, he keeps going with the wish list:

— 17 new bridges (500 feet wide — quays and embankments would come out into the river to make the bridges narrow enough to be pedestrian-friendly). A square would be at each end of each bridge.

— 27 new quay sections, flanked by promenades 50, 100 and 150 feet wide.

— 20 new circles and squares

— “thousands” of new homes and offices, built in a “new generation” of six- to eight-story buildings, developed with a cornice at six stories and a sloped, mansard roof covering the seventh and eighth stories. Yes, this is just like you see in Paris.

Here’s an elevation of what the embankments would look like:


Buras claims that “not one single resident” would be displaced in this process, simply because the area he’s talking about is uninhabited. He also makes clear, however, that “obviously, the specifics must be more thoroughly developed, and Buras acknowledges that this national project will require the cooperation of the municipality, Congress, the executive branch and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

Well, yes.

Plus, the DC government is already in the midst of improving the river area in the form of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative. Buras is not affiliated with the initiative, “yet,” he says. Add to that developments in the works such as Riverfront on the Anacostia and the recently opened Canal Park skating rink near Nationals Park, and whichever scheme carries the day, we can all expect to see a lot more activity on the eastern side of our city over the next several years.


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  1. W.G. Terry says:

    For years I have been collaring anyone who would listen and suggesting that instead of memorialising all our glorious dead by heaping up piles of granite atop precious DC greenspace, perhaps we could honor them by acts of restoration. Specifically, I long wished that we could have shown our gratitude to all our WWII veterans by restoring the Anacostia river instead of that massive greensward-killer at the head of the reflecting pool. Alas, that opportunity has passed, but it is not too late to envigorate ideas such as those above by dedicating them to a person or persons who we wish to honor with something lasting and beautiful while enriching our lives as well.

  2. Where are the wetlands? A river is not just a place for water to flow. This plan is interesting, but ultimately unworkable.


  1. […] on the Anacostia River in D.C.? Paris on the Anacostia Interesting proposal but would the wetlands be allowed to be developed? I'm sure many groups would […]