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Traffic is poisoning Ivy City

Tucked away in the not-so-scenic brownfields of the New York Avenue industrial corridor, buried between Gallaudet University and Mount Olivet Cemetery, is an isolated enclave of houses known as Ivy City. Theoretically, it is not a bad location: about a mile from New York Avenue Metro station and its actively redeveloping neighborhood, and walking distance to the scenic National Arboretum. But thanks to its isolation from other neighborhoods and years of neglect, it is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the District.

Photo by inked78 on Flickr.

DC Mud reports on a bit of elbow grease the DC government is devoting to this community. Four nonprofit developers will redevelop 37 vacant properties in Ivy City. DC aims to increase home ownership in an area where only 12% of residents own their houses despite the incredible affordability of the neighborhood.

It's easy to miss Ivy City while driving down New York Avenue. There are only four turns from NY Ave into Ivy City, and industrial superblocks front the avenue along the entire stretch. This is a very unfortunate use of street frontage on a boulevard that has a vista to the White House, especially since it hides the neighborhood.

Perhaps these industrial buildings are here because the neighborhood is so close to the railroad tracks on the north side of NY Ave, but nearby Brookland is a thriving residential community hugging the Metropolitan Branch railroad. And then there is Woodridge, just up the tracks from Ivy City. Unlike Brookland, there isn't even a Metro Station there. And yet it is still a pleasant residential area, not an industrial wasteland like NY Ave in Ivy City.

Ivy City is not on the wrong side of the tracks, it's on the wrong side of bad urbanism. Dumping traffic from Maryland freeways onto New York Avenue at Fort Lincoln is poisoning the neighborhood with blight. The John Hanson Highway (US-50/I-595) becomes NY Ave once it crosses into the District, turning 65 mph freeway traffic into neighborhood traffic. This continues all the way down to the entrance to I-395 near 3rd Street NW.

Today, New York Avenue is the only logical way for a car or truck to get from US-50 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the 395 tunnel, and on to Arlington. The street grid connecting to NY Ave was undermined to make it more freeway-like. NY Ave's six lanes completely cut through the "circle" at Montana Avenue. Instead of an intersection at Mount Olivet Road, there is a freeway-like interchange. At the light at Florida Avenue, a faux "exit" prevents southeast-bound Florida Avenue traffic from turning left onto NY Av. Much of the original grid became super blocks along the corridor. Taking away these intersections made the route more freeway-like and less like a city street. And this makes the area less safe.

Of course there's nothing but moribund industrial development. Who would want to live on a shortcut between two interstates?

The key, then, is to take the freeway feel out of New York Avenue. Take out a lane in each direction (or make them bus lanes), add a tree lined median and street parking, signalize more intersections, reconnect the street grid, and perhaps lower the speed limit. Then NY Ave is more of a city street.

Then we have to do something about the two interstate highways that feed New York Avenune. The way I see it, there are two largely unpopular options here: connect them with a new freeway or get rid of the two freeway stubs (the I-395 tunnel and New York Avenue Freeway).

The first option would be a freeway that connects the 395 tunnel to the freeway segment east of Bladensburg Road. To avoid razing huge chunks of the existing structures along that route, this would mean either an aerial structure over the train tracks or a tunnel. The original freeway master plan for the District included such a freeway, known as the New York Avenue Industrial Freeway. This would create a much more logical freeway system in the District, and we could toll the new route (though I doubt the revenue would make a dent in the construction costs). On the other hand, this freeway would cost a lot to build, induce new traffic, and abandon smart growth practices.

The second option would mean shutting down the 395 tunnel, forcing all the traffic onto the Southeast Freeway, and closing the New York Avenue freeway segment, pushing traffic onto DC 295 (the Anacostia Freeway). We would then need exit ramps from DC 295 to the 11th Street Bridge, to maintain a connection to 395, as DC plans to do with its 11th Street Bridges project. This would be a much cheaper option without the induced demand, but many commuters would create an uproar over any freeway removals, and residents of Capitol Hill are fighting the new, larger bridge that will carry more traffic.

Meanwhile, DC is stuck in a middle ground with two unappealing commuter options, a freeway route without some ramps and a boulevard that can't decide if it's a city street or a freeway. And little Ivy City stagnates as a residential island off NY Av, crime ridden and blighted. Hopefully the refurbished residential properties will help, but I am afraid this neighborhood will languish until bold action is taken to improve New York Avenue.

Dave Murphy is a Geographic Analyst for the Department of Defense and a US Army veteran. He is also a part time bouncer. He was born in Foggy Bottom and is a lifelong resident of the DC area. He currently resides in the Eckington neighborhood of Northeast. 


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Excellent post. You did a very good job of pointing out the connections between our built environment and the shape of our communities.

by Cavan on Dec 17, 2008 11:34 am • linkreport

Unfortunately, Ivy City is doomed for the forseeable future. Development plans along the NY Ave corridor (including the ambitious Abdo Arbor Place megadevelopment) have stalled. And I don't think you could boulevard-ize NY Ave. It's just too vital of a commuter road into and out of the city.

by SG on Dec 17, 2008 11:39 am • linkreport

I know that everyone means well, but gosh, I get really really nervous when people with "Smart Growth" priorities who are really really excited about google and transportation start casting about at poor neighborhoods. I do hope some non-Northwest people chime in. I'm not sure any of us appreciates both the great and not so great aspects of living in Ivy City.

by Jazzy on Dec 17, 2008 1:37 pm • linkreport

It wouldn't be the ideal Blvd, but you could do a lot better than what we have with NY Ave. It's pathetic IMO. Build some service roads and put some better landscaping and get some street-front development along the service roads or get rid of 395 up to NY Ave. It's not particularly easy, either choice, but they have to be done. A thriving NY Ave. would be a big help to DC especially as the first thing a lot of people see coming into the city.

by Vik on Dec 17, 2008 1:40 pm • linkreport

back when Tangerlini headed ddot I went to a presentation he hosted on the future of transportation in DC. He showed slides of NY Ave before it was "improved" to make it more like a freeway-it was a beautiful blvd lined with mature trees and, if i remember correctly, a center isle that also had mature trees growing in it. In the picture there was a canopy of tree cover like a tunnel. It was heartbreaking to see what was lost. Any beautification of NY Ave will benefit IVY City, just like beautification on any main street in DC benefits nearby neighborhoods.

by Bianchi on Dec 17, 2008 2:09 pm • linkreport

"Industrial wasteland"? Or irreplaceable resource?

Brownfields development isn't necessarily a good thing. If it brings a loss of industrial space, that means less economic diversity, and fewer employment opportunities for people without college degrees. It might be that the best strategy for Ivy City is to bolster the industrial activity there.

Have a look at the District of Columbia Industrial Land Use Study. The report observes that industrial activities are necessary "provide higher quality jobs, with better wages and career paths, to workers without an advanced education," but warns that industrially-zoned land in DC is in short supply and under constant threat from office and residential development. Once given over to other uses, industrial land is effectively gone forever. The report founds that overall, there is no shortage of businesses that need well situated, adequately laid-out industrial buildings. That includes parts of Ivy City. The development pressure comes about because tenants can't pay rents as high as, say, law firms or the lawyers who work for them.

by David Ramos on Dec 17, 2008 2:27 pm • linkreport

" This would be a much cheaper option without the induced demand, "

If it were simply roads that induced traffic and not development then why are not the rural freeways clogged?

Making NY Avenue itself less like a freeway means a parallel freeway, much of which could be a box tunnel cut into the hill alongside the railroad and beneath the parking lots alongside NY Avenue.

The connection to I-395 should be the less invasive, superior geometry alignment shown here but illegally ignored (unconsidered) by official 'planning'

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 17, 2008 3:48 pm • linkreport

@ Jazzy: I can assure I am a "non-Northwest person", I live and pay taxes in Prince Georges County. Apart from my overseas military deployments, I am a life long resident of the DC area. I drive through Ivy City every time I visit my friends in the Trinidad neighborhood. Considering the incredibly low home ownership in Ivy City, I think it is imperative that people from outside take a vested interest in the future welfare of the neighborhood. Additionally, the entire region has a vested interest in improving one of the main streets leading to the White House. I certainly hope you take a civic responsibility for more than the confines of your own neighborhood.

by Dave Murphy on Dec 17, 2008 9:43 pm • linkreport

@Dave Ramos

The district isn't an island, the fact that there is little industrial activity in DC doesn't mean that industrial jobs are unavailable, they're just slightly farther away. Given that the district can tax its citizens' incomes even if they work outside DC but can't tax commuters that do work in DC it makes sense to maximize DC's residential capacity.

by Steve on Dec 17, 2008 11:48 pm • linkreport

@ Douglas:

I have sat in some serious traffic on rural freeways. CAR ORIENTED development induces traffic demand, yes, but development at RFK sitting atop two lines of Metro would create more transit oriented development. My goal would be to reduce automobile traffic demand. I'm not opposed to a NY Av Tunnel, I only believe it is prohibitively expensive and I'd rather see mass transit systems come first... similar to my thoughts on the ICC.

by Dave Murphy on Dec 18, 2008 3:05 am • linkreport

Dave, I don't disagree that tunnels are prohibitively expensive, but the same goes for transit tunnels as well, hence why Metro's Rosslyn tunnel will continue to be a perpetual mess. I can only imagine how bad it'd be if it were the ONLY Metro tunnel across the Potomac (as was planned in 1967).

As for the subject, I'll put it this way: if the city wants to close the 395 tunnel at NY Ave, we need the 11th St Bridge project completed (I mentioned this in an earlier thread). If the city wants to take a traffic lane from NY Ave and "boulevard" it (which I think is possible), it will also need to widen Kenilworth between 50 and the 11th St bridge, unless it wants to have a perpetual traffic mess (even moreso than today) along New York Ave. All of this is doable and as others noted would be cheaper than a tunneled "New York Industrial Freeway".

by Froggie on Dec 18, 2008 6:24 am • linkreport

I'm leaning towards Dave Ramos recommendation to keep Ivy City as industrial. Atleast for now, it could be revisited in a couple of decades.

I'm for all your overarching goals David like walkable communities and maximizing the resident tax base. But we've not even remotely scratched the surface of the residential potential of so many neighborhoods. I don't agree that we have to tap every keg all at once.

by FourthandEye on Dec 18, 2008 8:33 am • linkreport

The 395 tunnel serves no purpose. It never connected anything with anything; nimbys killed any Northeast connector. Traffic should be diverted to the SE Freeway ONLY if that can be connected to northbound 295. Having all that traffic dead-end at the Sousa Brige makes no sense.

What will be the impact on non-car traffic? Since there's no rail depots, DC is totally dependent on trucks and tractor trailers to deliver goods. No problem when you're in a stripmall in the middle of nowhere, but navigating an 18 wheeler through miles of residential stop-and-go traffic adds time and pollution. As dependent as the suburbs are on cars, cities are even more dependent on trucks.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 18, 2008 9:07 am • linkreport

Tell that to the many people that use it!

Get the freeway traffic off NY Ave and onto a parallel tunnel as recommended here:

The B&O highway should continue via the Order of the Eastern Star-PEPCO alignment, but I would also do the Silver Spring portion perhaps a s double decked tunnel, fitted to spare all of the houses along Takoma Avenue, and with the heavvy rail in a new drilled tunnel to past 16th Street.

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 18, 2008 9:16 am • linkreport

monkeyrotica makes a very good point about trucks and the city, which I think dovetails quite nicely with 4th&I's comment. You don't want the whole city to be residential, not just because of the one-sided tax base, but because you'd then have nothing but trucks-in-residential-areas trying to service the few commercial establishments within the city.

One idea for the NY Ave corridor would be some sort of intermodel shipping/warehouse/transfer facility, where the big rigs could come in, transfer their goods to smaller trucks, and the smaller trucks could then make the deliveries around the city. This would at least cut down or channelize where the big rigs travel within the city. Not sure about the logistical feasibility of such an facility, though.

by Froggie on Dec 18, 2008 9:17 am • linkreport

When I suggested that DC should aim to maximize the residential capacity of the district, I didn't say (or didn't mean to say) that I object to mixed residential-commercial uses. Obviously district residents would still want to be able to walk to convenient shopping, restaurants, etc. I was suggesting that given the amount of land in DC that's already given over to DC's major industry (we all know what that is) there's little point trying to make room for widget factories when there's cheaper land in Maryland to build them.

As a necessary adjunct to increasing DC's population, I'd build the new heavy rail alignments that WMATA recently suggested and the full light rail network proposed by DDOT. That done, there would be more room for delivery trucks on district streets (plus, make auto parking expensive).

by Steve on Dec 18, 2008 10:55 am • linkreport

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