By Brianne Dornbush, Executive Director of District Bridges

Much ink has been spilled on how best to move DC forward coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the Mayor’s “Comeback Plan” aimed at driving economic development to multiple rounds of Bridge Fund grants from her administration to the federal government’s infusion of dollars through the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s been no shortage of energy going into ensuring our city is thriving economically in 2023 and beyond. 

We’ve had the opportunity to work together with local partners on an effort at the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza that represents a microcosm of the perfect storm threatening economic prosperity in DC and the country more broadly: a reduction in social services and outreach stemming from expiring public health emergencies while many residents are still suffering from mental health and substance use disorder issues.  Last month, we gathered community stakeholders to share District Bridges’ findings from the community ecosystem development pilot program – “A Civic Plaza for All” – with a rallying call for our private sector partners – the developers, property, and business owners with a vested interest in seeing this neighborhood and others thrive – to join us in this work. 

The Civic Plaza was once a thriving community-gathering space, but it lacked both a long-term management plan and an entity charged with implementing such a plan for the public space, relying instead on a variety of stakeholders that “own” a piece of the plaza. Over the years, there have been multiple efforts made to address these challenges but the lack of holistic operations and maintenance plan combined with the impacts of the pandemic and the contraction of social services and outreach meant the condition of the Civic Plaza continued to deteriorate. 

By the middle of the pandemic, it was clear to everyone something had to be done about the state of the Civic Plaza. But if it was going to be successful it would have to be a multi-sector effort. In partnership with Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, we launched a monthly plaza maintenance working group. District Bridges was able to rally local businesses, property owners, and nonprofit partners, while Councilmember Nadeau rallied the necessary government agencies who all had areas of responsibility for the plaza. 

In the spring of 2021, with funding from the National Association of Transportation Officials (NACTO) “The Civic Plaza for All” pilot was launched. The goal of the pilot was to develop a dynamic, multi-sector approach to address the challenges residents frequenting the plaza were experiencing. Our focus was on developing interventions that support holistic community development, break down silos along city agencies and service organizations, and leverage assets already present within our community to address systemic challenges our neighborhoods face. 

Since the effort began, we’ve had some great policy wins – Councilmember Nadeau spearheaded legislation on the DC Council in 2022 and 2023 to establish the community navigation program and in FY24 the program will expand beyond Columbia Heights. Additionally, the District government in the coming year will be building a sobering center at the old fire station on Park Road. This location will enable individuals experiencing substance use disorder to access detox treatment just steps from the Civic Plaza. This is a critical part of the long-term strategy in the plaza and more broadly in Ward 1. 

To date, we’ve captured case notes on over 180 vulnerable residents who frequent the plaza. Our community navigators have provided over 1,300 hours of direct support to these residents. We’ve engaged over 50 partners in developing partnerships and collaborative interventions to create a better functioning continuum of care for vulnerable residents. On a weekly basis, our team is providing support to individuals needing to obtain identification documents, accessing detox and in-patient residential rehab programs, and obtaining direct referrals for legal assistance just to name a few. Over 190 Columbia Heights residents have supported our efforts through over 125 free and accessible community events hosted during this pilot. 

But in order to further move the needle on this critical community ecosystem development work at the Civic Plaza and scale this successful model to other neighborhoods in DC and beyond, we need our private sector stakeholders – property owners, businesses, and developers reaping the benefits of this still thriving community – to step up to the plate before it’s too late. 

All of our efforts to help manage the Civic Plaza – physical maintenance and enhancements, activation of public space, connective social services, and business engagement and support – improve the quality of life for residents and visitors, as well as the performance of investments for businesses and property owners. By using established networks and building new partnerships we mapped the ecosystem of the Civic Plaza to gain an in-depth understanding of the root causes of the issues, all of which have a direct impact on ensuring the area remains a corridor conducive to keeping buildings leased up and foot traffic bustling. 

“We need our private sector stakeholders – property owners, businesses, and developers reaping the benefits of this still thriving community – to step up to the plate before it’s too late.”

Brianne Dornbush

We’ve learned a lot along the way. There needs to be more collaboration and connection between service providers and there’s a lot of education to do with the broader community about better understanding the mental health and substance use disorder challenges of our most vulnerable residents. But a critical need is more financial support for this laborious work to continue forging the type of one-on-one relationships rooted in compassion and understanding this approach demands, and our private sector partners are currently missing from the table. 

We’ve seen this type of public-private collaboration in other parts of the city. Developer WC Smith stepped up to help create and grow Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC), providing essential opportunities and resources to the underserved Ward 8 community. In response to rising crime in the area, the property owners and retailers along Half Street SE near Nationals Stadium came together to pool resources to utilize MPD’s Reimbursable Deployed Officers (RDO) to increase police presence. Amazon’s Housing Equity Fund supported Jubilee Housing’s efforts to create more affordable housing in Adam’s Morgan and rescue a senior living facility in Friendship Heights

As we head into the next phase of this work, expanding the number and reach of community navigators throughout Ward 1 to serve Columbia Heights, Lower Georgia Avenue, U Street, and Mount Pleasant, we invite our developer and property management stakeholders to join us. Sponsor our next event in Civic Plaza, get in touch and ask us how you can help support our efforts to make this community more resilient for everyone, including your bottom line. We’ve got a seat at our table open for you.