Row Your Boats
Anacostia Boathouse in Washington, D.C.
By Jessica Royer Ocken
The Anacostia River is not even nine miles long (originating in Maryland and flowing through Washington, D.C., to empty into the Potomac), but it's a prime location for water recreation—particularly rowing, kayaking and paddling. At the center of all this activity is the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association (ACBA), which includes 10 member organizations: five scholastic (four high schools and a university) and five community nonprofits, according to ACBA Vice President and Capital Rowing Club member Jennifer Ney.
Although these organizations partner with one another for assorted activities throughout the year, their main unifying link is the boathouse facility they share, which keeps their various vessels and equipment safe and secure. This partnership has prospered for some 20 years, but they did face a bit of a challenge back in 2010.
The ACBA leases their space from the city of Washington, D.C., and at that time they were housed in two buildings nestled beneath the two spans of the 11th Street Bridge. Although the buildings weren't large enough to provide indoor storage for all 160 boats—which range in size from 6 feet to 60 feet long—"we could tuck the boats under the bridge abutments," Ney said. "They were covered even if they were outdoors."
However, in addition to providing shelter for the boats, the 11th Street bridges were the major thoroughfares across the river and slated for replacement. The ACBA had known about the impending bridge projects for years, Ney explained, and at first it seemed they'd just need to move temporarily. But as the projects gained momentum and the bridges' design evolved, it suddenly became clear the ACBA's buildings would need to be demolished and a permanent relocation would be required. What's more, to avoid delaying the costly bridge projects, the ACBA needed to move, well, now.
Because the space is leased from the city, "we had to work with several government agencies, the city council and the mayor," Ney recalled. But the city had committed to making sure the ACBA's operations continued, and they agreed to help them move. It took a while for all parties to wrap their heads around the need for demolition, and then it took more time to agree on a new site. There were limited options available, each with its own challenges, not to mention the desire to avoid a disruption in programming.
Enter Jeffrey Peterson. Based in Cambridge, Mass., Peterson is not only an architect specializing in boathouse projects (including those on the Princeton and Tufts campuses), he's a former rower himself. "It can be complicated to store boats, and he was integral in figuring out how to set this up," Ney said.
Because of time and, let's face it, budget constraints, Peterson suggested ClearSpan structures, a type of structural-steel frame and polyethylene fabric buildings, which were custom manufactured to fit the waterfront site.
The buildings went up quickly because they require minimal foundations and no expensive concrete footings, and the ACBA now has indoor storage for all 160 of their member groups' boats. The structures' lofty ceilings allowed space for racks that stack the boats seven high. Ney describes this as a "massive improvement" in terms of security for the equipment, but also in terms of their community. "Everyone's space is equal and standardized in the new space," she explained. "There's no preferential treatment, which has really strengthened the view [of the groups] as equal stakeholders."
Each of the member organizations now also has their own lockable "cage" storage area in the second building, which includes meeting and training space, as well as trailers equipped with bathrooms and showering/changing spaces—another major upgrade, Ney explained. "This was the best solution for all of us, and we had no disruption to our activities at all," she said. "Amazing!"
The ACBA didn't leave their previous space until the new one was ready, and their move was only about a mile down the road. "We had some great champions with the city," she said.
They're now into their third season in the new facility (the move occurred in May 2010), and everyone remains pleased. There's been virtually no maintenance other than tightening rivets occasionally or hosing down the fabric if it gets dirty. The tents haven't been tested by a D.C. snow yet, Ney reported, but she expects that with their steep pitch, the drifts will just roll right off.
Although the structures are technically temporary, the ACBA would like to incorporate at least the larger storage structure into any future building plans on the site. (They'll start discussing plans for permanency with Washington, D.C., once they're 10 years into their 20-year lease.) UV rays may weaken the fabric after several years, but it can be replaced, and "construction costs for something comparable would be high for a nonprofit," she said. Plus, they truly have no complaints about the ClearSpan structures' performance, so instead of contemplating how to rebuild, they're dreaming of further upgrades. They'd like to replace the smaller tent with a clubhouse building, complete with restroom and locker room facilities, which would make the ACBA's base an even better home for all its members.