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Connecting Barracks Row

Between Capitol Hill's thriving Barracks Row commercial strip along 8th Street north of the Southeast Freeway, the new Riverfront District around the Ballpark, and the Washington Navy Yard, is a largely neglected area around 8th Street SE from I to M Streets. When the Southeast Freeway was built in the 1960s, it cut this area off from the rest of the commercial corridor, but development pressures (at least until the current crisis) from the Riverfront District rekindled interest in the neighborhood.

A team of graduate students from the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation studied this area, which they call Lower Barracks Row, for their final studio project. The team includes frequent GGW commenter Chris Loos and Track Twenty-Nine author Matt Johnson. The team evaluated four scenarios for the area:

  1. Keep all zoning and transportation as is;
  2. Develop the area primarily with larger office buildings, like the Riverfront District, making it an eastern extension of that area ("Riverfront East");
  3. Remove or bury the Southeast Freeway to reconnect Lower Barracks Row with its more successful Upper counterpart, making this district a blend of the two types;
  4. Create a new, primarily residential "urban village" neighborhood with its own identity connected to both Barracks Row and the Riverfront.
You can experience each scenario using the video walkthroughs the team created for each one.

The report recommends the fourth scenario, which would preserve most historic buildings but also add some density to better integrate the taller Riverfront buildings and the lower Capitol Hill neighborhood. A mix of townhouses and apartments would give people diverse housing choices, with neighborhood-serving retail along 8th Street.

Scenario 4 suggests a series of shops underneath the freeway, along one side of 8th street, to join up the retail north of the freeway with the retail south, reducing the freeway's role as a barrier. It would also restore Potomac Avenue to the original L'Enfant configuration to join M Street, instead of the strange curve today that hooks it into 8th. This would recover some space that could become a fairly nice neighborhood park right in the center of the neighborhood and adjacent to the commercial corridor.

Left: Potential shops under the Southeast Freeway along 8th Street, and the streetcar approaching from the south (left). Right: The new park created by reconfiguring Potomac Avenue (diagonal) to intersect M Street (bottom) instead of 8th (top left).

The team also conducted several meetings with the community, to collect ideas and input and then to present their findings. They also built a pretty amazing physical model of the site in addition to the digital model that generated the above drawings and videos. (Can we collect the models made by this and other studio teams, the ones NCPC has of major federal buildings, and others into a master model of DC like the NYC Panorama?

Left: Presenting the study to the community. Right: The physical model of the area and scenarios.

One element that wasn't clear in the report was the reason the authors broke up the many possibilities into these specific scenarios. Scenarios 2 and 4 put a streetcar on 8th, while only scenario 3 removes the freeway. Why not a Riverfront East and no freeway? How about approximately equal parts of residential and office (scenario 3) while keeping the freeway and adding the shops underneath? Some alternatives reconfigure the intersection of Potomac Avenue, M and 8th one way, others a different way. Obviously, the authors had to divide up the universe of possibilities somehow, and some combinations make more sense than others, but some decisions seem to simply bucket things into four options for the sake of having four options.

The team will post their final report here soon. One thing is for sure: after studying the site, listening to community input, building models, and creating an extensive report, this group is ready to go out and do real planning outside the classroom.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I'm sure many advocates for walkable urbanism will chime into this thread stating the highway must be removed or buried. For what burying the freeway would cost I just can't see it as a realistic priority in this city. I can be at peace with the fact the overpass is not going anywhere while still recognizing it's bad urbanism. Sometimes you just got to make chicken salad out of chicken shit.

I'd favor one of the options that improves the streetscape around the highway and adds a lot of mixed use density on lower 8th Street. I also think you need an anchor on lower 8th Street to pull people down from upper 8th. What could that be? Harris Teeter is already going into the Yards off M Street so I don't know that another grocer will want this spot although that would be great. Maybe a movie theater? Other anchor ideas? Should be an anchor that generates foot traffic all day - not just in the evening...

by FourthandEye on Dec 23, 2008 8:50 pm • linkreport

Simply eliminating the SE Freeway is a non-starter IMO. But what's the feasibility of burying it? From what I've observed of the topography, it seems that doing so appears possible at least from 9th St SW over to the 11th St bridge (albeit quite expensive as 4th&I pointed out).

by Froggie on Dec 24, 2008 7:30 am • linkreport

How cool that they got so many people to show up at community meetings. But is this a real potential project in the next 20 years- or just a fun school activity?

by Tom A. on Dec 24, 2008 10:30 am • linkreport

This project was for the most part an urban design visioning exercise. What could be done to mitigate the dividing effect of the freeway? What would the neighborhood look like if the freeway were removed altogether? What would the neighborhood likely look like after buildout if no specific plan is followed? These are questions we sought to answer by crafting 4 seperate scenarios, each following a different design philosophy.

The 'Baseline' Scenario was business as usual, to buildout.

The 'Riverfront East' scenario cues from the Ballpark area to the west, focusing on highrise office and condominiums.

The 'Urban Village' scenario took cues from Upper Barracks row, with lots of human scale retail and residential development.

The 'Gateway' scenario was a mix of highrise and lowrise development, in an attempt to create a smooth transition between the Ballpark district and Upper Barracks Row.

Additionally, we had several ideas for the neighborhood that we tried to incorporate into the most appropriate scenario: Shops under the freeway (Urban Village), removing the freeway entirely and replacing it with a reconstructed Virginia Ave (Gateway), placemaking signage on the underpass for Barracks Row and the Navy Yard (Riverfront East).

In many cases, these ideas could have been incorporated into the other scenarios while still keeping within the vision of each one. However, we felt that it would be useful to keep the scenarios as different as possible from one another to show the community the wide variety of futures possible. As we suggested at the end of the meeting, the community might want to pick their favorite elements from each scenario in creating their ultimate vision for Lower Barracks Row.

To answer Tom's question, its now up to the Barracks Row community and the DC Office of Planning to pick up where we've left off and create an official plan for the area. Hopefully we've generated plenty of ideas and given them a starting point.

by Chris Loos on Dec 24, 2008 12:01 pm • linkreport

RE: Burying the Freeway,_Massachusetts)

by Jane Jacobs on Dec 24, 2008 12:40 pm • linkreport

Was linking to the Big Dig wiki supposed to be a pro argument?

>> The Big Dig has been the most expensive highway project in the U.S. Although the project was estimated at $2.8 billion in 1985 (in 1982 dollars, US$6.0 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2006), over $14.6 billion ($8.08 billion in 1982 dollars) had been spent in federal and state tax dollars as of 2006.

That money is far far better spent on a separated blue line.

by FourthandEye on Dec 24, 2008 1:19 pm • linkreport

Did not some say that about urban railroad subways about a century ago?

To bury it makes sense; so would keeping some space to allow this, which was violated in 1999 with that row of 28 townhoues at the Eakin Youngentoub "Capital Square" project.

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 24, 2008 4:42 pm • linkreport

4th&I: you also have to put it in perspective. Boston's Big Dig is a project that included about 5 miles of new highway, a new tunnel under their Inner Harbor, a new bridge (the Zakin Bridge), and three major interchanges.

By comparison, the idea of burying the SW/SE freeway only involves about 1.5 miles of highway and 1 major interchange. Even if you include NCPC's proposal for building a new tunnel under the Washington Channel to replace the I-395 bridge at the marina, you're talking a total of 2 miles, 1 tunnel, and 2 major interchanges. And without the soil stabilization problems that the Big Dig project had.

Such a project could be done in the $4-6 billion range. Take off a billion if you omit the tunnel under the channel.

by Froggie on Dec 25, 2008 1:10 pm • linkreport

@Froggie - That would be reckless spending right now. I read this blog everyday (even xmass apparently) and I believe in the walkable community principles. The SW/SE freeway is bad urbanism. But it's a functioning freeway. To spend 5-8 billion (your #s are lowballs) to bury a functioning freeway simply because property values and walkability next to the freeway aren't maximized isn't enough.

DC has a small tax base. Boston had Mass to help pay for their big dig and I'm not convinced that what transit money we do get from the Feds is best allocated to burying this freeway. Atleast not right now. The city has so many assets and neighborhoods that are so far from reaching their potential. Let's focus the efforts on those areas and increasing core Metro capacity.

Let the Capitol Riverfront run it's course. It has enough assets to succeed. Put an anchor like a grocery, movie theatre or maybe lure REI to locate a superstore on lower 8th Street. The area will do just fine.

Twenty years from now when developable land is more scarce and the freeway is beginning to approach it's life expectancy then maybe you can find developers desperate enough to help pay to bury it to build over it. In the meantime the budget to improve the streetscape around lower 8th should be measured in the tens of millions not several billion.

by FourthandEye on Dec 25, 2008 4:24 pm • linkreport

Not doing it is a reckless disregard for the Nation's Capital and a total intelligentsia give away to forgetting the larger picture of the terrible wastes of $$ on the Pentagon-Pentagram, domestic surveillance of dissidents and the atrocity of cigarette protection (the drug war). What they squander on the criminal racketeering against marijuana for instance would build much of a high speed rail network, for instance. Yet medievalism is allowed to distract from the fact that the US spends relatively too little on transportation infrastructure in general.

The few billion to properly bury the SW-SE Freeway (with the western segments as wisely proposed by NCPC) is but a drop in the bucket in what the Feds outlay annually on these other things.

What is reckless are proposals to extend the mistake of the Capital Square project by building right up against the freeway at the grassy knoll area with new demolition specials.

Hopefully it would not be simply buried but with a capacity increase to the Center Leg, saving much time for many people.

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 25, 2008 4:33 pm • linkreport

OK Doug, if Eleanor Holmes Norton can get full federal funding to bury the highway by standing in front of congress and calling the Pentagon the Pentagram (as well as your other talking points) then I'll concede we can moved forward with our big dig. I'm not holding my breath though...

by FourthandEye on Dec 25, 2008 7:38 pm • linkreport

Absolutely, as it is a national (interstate) highway, and given the Pentagon/Pentagram priorities on infrastructure.

Alas I have to altogether agree with you on that last point, given the low state of affairs of planning and the politics ...

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 25, 2008 8:08 pm • linkreport

If it wasn't clear, I was lampooning your justification.

by FourthandEye on Dec 25, 2008 8:59 pm • linkreport

Because you can't refute it.

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 25, 2008 9:15 pm • linkreport

Maybe some Wall St. types can sell some alphabet soup of freeway derivatives to foreign suckers to finance the burying, and then when the whole scheme comes crashing down, the Feds can pick up the cost by spending even more billions that they don't have.

by Gordon Gecko on Dec 26, 2008 3:14 pm • linkreport

The Feds have it, they just would rather spend it upon boondoggles as domestic surveillance and criminal mercantilism for cigarettes worldwide.

I do like your Wall Street funding idea, which I proposed for reviving the unjustly canceled Westway project here:

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 26, 2008 4:13 pm • linkreport

Froggie & Douglas - you have to make decisions based on opportunity cost on all levels, regardless of how much merit there is in cherry picking parts of our government. We can agree that transit funding should be greater to accommodate more projects, but is burying 1.5 miles of elevated freeway really that high up on the to-do list? Even if one stipulates that Automotive Business As Usual is going to continue for the next few decades, there are a dozen similar-priced projects and numerous smaller ones that can be undertaken to improve the streetscape & the city with manifestly more bang-for-buck.

$5 billion is a *LOT* of money, and if you want to be realistic you can't use the fact that our federal budgetary policy (an agglomeration of dozens of different political stances/promises/concerns on opposing sides) is insanely out of control to justify something like this. You have to compare it to what it could buy us, not just to where the money is currently being wasted.

For comparison, a number of different projects for different pet interests:

A Separate Blue Line

A 100 mile streetcar line

Free off-peak Metro ridership for decades

Having a one-off "No Taxes Of Any Kind Year" in DC

Increasing the size of the Metrobus fleet by a factor of 10

Metro to Baltimore

Three light-rail Purple Lines

10 Whitman-Walker-sized free clinics run for the next 20 years

Homeless shelters built from foreclosed housing around the city which will take most of DC's homeless population off the streets, & out of incredibly expensive hospitals/jails

Doubling the size of the DC Metro Police Department for 10 years

Upgrading MARC/VRE to Metro-quality service, and expanding the networks to buy the heavy freight spurs all over the area, generating infill development in blighted industrial areas all over the area.

Levying up the city to prepare for the next hundred years of global warming

Turning Anacostia River Park into a massive freshwater marsh wildlife preserve 100 times the size of Kenilworth Gardens, resembling the pre-Colombian "DC Marsh". A dam, a marsh-walk, planted gardens, reclamation of golf courses, fields, and parking lots, a fully functional sewage system for the city, and remediation of all the toxins that are sitting at the bottom of that river - clearing up the stink, the health hazard, and the annual red tides that form lower down the Potomac.

Turning every major surface avenue in DC into a grand tree-lined sidewalk-fringed walkable utopia.

Building 50 new 40k-square-feet DC Public Libraries & running them for decades

Any of these is pretty reasonable for this kind of money. It's enough to solve major problems, rather than tackle eyesores that detract from the aesthetic value of one neighborhood.

by Squalish on Dec 27, 2008 11:09 am • linkreport

Squalish, I largely agree with you, but I think it's a mistake to simply dismiss an elevated freeway like this as a mere eyesore and detriment to the aesthetic value of the neighborhood. It is a huge barrier that has prevented much of the positive momentum on the Hill from spreading across the freeway. Unlike in other neighborhoods where one revitalizing area spills over to another, the freeway ensured that the areas to the south both decayed worse than others and has also prevented their subsequent organic revitalization.

by Alex B. on Dec 27, 2008 11:36 am • linkreport

Squalish - thanks for backing me up.

Alex B - historically the area south of the freeway has been depressed and neglected. The freeway was responsible for much of this. But we've finally started to see revitalization in SW and Near Southeast (branded as the Capitol Riverfront). Those two areas now have positive momentum and a $5+ billion dollar freeway burial, which would be a 15-20 year project, is not needed to revitalize the area.

I'm not ruling out it as ever happening. But it's not nearly the priority it would be now to justify the expense. I'd wait until other priority areas are further along their transformations before revisiting this. Focus more effort on the neighborhoods the city has talked the talk on for quite some time now but not yet walked the walk. And the school system for that matter...

by FourthandEye on Dec 27, 2008 12:01 pm • linkreport


I'm aware of the history of the area and that the area has largely been neglected prior to the construction of the freeway. Before that, there were the train tracks.

Again, this is not about revitalization. It is about barriers. I'm also not suggesting that this be a priority, merely that dismissing these concerns as mere aesthetic complaints is short sighted and misses the larger picture.

Also, as important as schools are, it's worthwhile to separate operational concerns from capital ones. I know we're talking about limited pools of money, but capital projects necessarily have long investment timeframes and correspondingly long payback periods. Programmatic concerns are a different issue. I'm not suggesting one is more important than the other in a categorical sense, but it's an important distinction to make.

by Alex B. on Dec 27, 2008 12:40 pm • linkreport

I agree on waiting. But we need to decide what we want now. When the 11th Street Bridges are rebuilt, it will involve some changes to the freeway and it would be best if those changes were made with an eye on what we want to do in the future, so that we don't paint ourselves into a corner.

by David C on Dec 27, 2008 3:25 pm • linkreport

"It is a huge barrier that has prevented much of the positive momentum on the Hill from spreading across the freeway."

I'd argue that the massive public housing projects and out-of-control crime south of the freeway had a lot more to do with the development (or lack thereof) of the area than the freeway did.

by Hillman on Jan 2, 2009 7:35 pm • linkreport

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