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Formal geometry forces awkward South Capitol design

Commenters had almost universally negative reactions to DDOT's South Capitol Street project, which would build a new Frederick Douglass Bridge with a circle and "racetrack" on each end. The project team responded to some questions I sent along. While they have understandable reasons for choosing what they have, it doesn't persuade me this is a good idea worthy of the high price tag.

Images from DDOT on YouTube.

The "racetrack" and circle do not come from a traffic engineer's desire to speed up traffic, DDOT spokesman John Lisle noted. To the contrary, they make it more difficult to move all of the cars through the area. That's why the circles have to be so wide.

Instead, the designs come from studies 10 years ago that predated the current EIS. The Purpose and Need for the EIS, which defines the objectives of the project and guides the designers as they consider tradeoffs, says:

The Gateway Study (DDOT 2003) proposed that South Capitol Street become a gracious urban boulevard consistent with the past goals defined in the L'Enfant and Macmillan Commission plans, which would accommodate bicycles, pedestrians, and transit vehicles, as well as automobiles and commerce.
Project officials disputed my contention that the 5-year-old EIS is out of date with DC's needs. They said that, in fact, the EIS was only finally approved in March 2011, and the team has been continuing to refine the design. So criticizing the EIS as 5 years old was the wrong way to make the point; in fact, this design is arising from a 10-year-old set of decisions that put formal design at the top of the priority list.

A number of DC boulevards end in circles. Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues pass through circles as they leave the District, for instance. Creating some circles on South Capitol is indeed a more L'Enfant-esque design.

However, Westmoreland Circle and Chevy Chase Circle aren't as wide as these will be, and they don't really create usable neighborhood public spaces. Nobody uses the interiors, and they're in much more suburban neighborhoods than this. Circles like Dupont and Logan, which serve more as public space, are far smaller.

The "racetrack" looks like an ugly compromise between a motivation to create a Washingtonian boulevard look and the practical needs to move a lot of cars. L'Enfant designed circles in an era with far less traffic. This project is merging the geometric form of L'Enfant's circles with the traffic demands of today and ending up with a "camel is a horse designed by a committee" design, with some of the worst of both elements.

We end up with places that don't move cars particularly well, and a place that's not especially pleasant to walk or bike around. It would make a great spot for some memorials, though. As the terminus of a L'Enfant street, the National Capital Planning Commission is going to want to site some commemorative works there.

Maybe a really great memorial design could successfully create some kind of public space. Perhaps this is the perfect spot for the Eisenhower Memorial and its large metal tapestries. Here, you'll need to block out the surroundings, and for a President with road-building as one of his most notable achievements, being in what feels like a sort of highway median could be perfect.

Eisenhower Memorial design. Image from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.

These places won't feel pleasant on foot or by bike

The same applies to the I-295 interchange. The draft EIS called for a diamond, which is a far more walkable design. According to the project team,

Traffic analysis of the diamond interchange indicated queuing of traffic on the ramp from SB I-295 to SB Suitland Parkway may back up onto the mainline of I-295, creating a safety concerns. The Final EIS preferred alternative resolved this concern by addition of a loop ramp for this movement.
In addition, the original diamond had all 4 ramps meeting Suitland Parkway at nearly right-angle intersections. The new interchange has several "slip ramps" and angles more of the ramps to facilitate driving at higher speeds between Suitland and 295. That might be sensible for the traffic here, but won't make for any kind of place that feels safe to walk through.

Top: Image from the 2008 EIS. Bottom: Image from the new video.

The project team also emphasized that they're not forgetting pedestrians and bicycles:

As preliminary design has progressed, we are also making sure that there are continuous connections for bicycle and pedestrian travel. The new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge will have shared use paths on both sides of the bridge that connect to bicycle and pedestrian facilities on either side of the Anacostia. We have also extended the joint use path on the east side of Suitland Parkway from Pomeroy Road SE to Firth Sterling Ave SE.
That's great, but it reminds me a little bit of the people who are so excited about how "diverging diamond" interchanges are safe for pedestrians, or how many Montgomery County upcounty mega-road projects include sidepaths and the DOT calls them "multimodal." It's nice to design your large-scale transportation infrastructure element to have a bike and pedestrian path, but any very large, open space with lots of 5-lane one-way segments and high-speed slip lanes is going to feel oppressive to people outside cars.

We know how to build spaces that feel comfortable outside a metal box: a grid of streets with buildings containing ground-floor detailing. In fairness, the collection of ramps on the east side of the river is not really pleasant for anyone today, and if the bridge has to move anyway, they'll have to put in some new design on the Poplar Point end, but this is feels like more of an improvement from the aerial view than on the ground.

There are circles circles or half-circles on both ends of the (Lincoln) Arlington Memorial Bridge as well, and those are terrible places for anyone not driving. The Park Service feels it can't really do what it would take to make those circles walkable and bikeable, such as adding traffic signals for people to cross, because of the high priority to accommodate heavy traffic.

Also, WashCycle notes that the bike path connections to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail are pretty circuitous. Some designs from the last decade would have connected the bridge to the trail more directly.

Ultimately, this project is the end of a 10-year chain of choices. Each one had some pros and cons, and at each step officials may have been trying to best balance competing needs, but the end result is not pretty. The alternative of kicking the can down the road a while, fix up the bridge, and see how traffic patterns change with the 11th Street bridge seems more appealing.

If it's possible to reduce vehicle capacity as a counterweight to the 11th Street bridge, maybe a variant of this design could work with thinner roads along the circles, not such a huge racetrack, and a real diamond at 295. If not, we're all probably better off taking a fresh look at what to do in this area to keep moving cars but create spaces that feel more like parts of neighborhoods.

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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As for the north landing, I think a direct connection between South Capitol Street with a standard intersection at Potomac Avenue would be fine. I know disconnecting the grid is generally not a good thing, but R Street east of Half St, NW could perhaps not intersect with South Capitol, instead serving as a public access point to a river walk type trail or just a 'cul-de-sac in the city'. A sidewalk could still connect the R St sidewalk to the South Capitol sidewalk. I can't see that much need for a connection at R Street and South Capitol when Potomac Avenue is a half block away.

by Transport. on Jan 4, 2013 2:11 pm • linkreport

David Alpert, I admire your idea of putting the Eisenhower memorial there. Alas.

by Miriam on Jan 4, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

I think there is also a problem on the south side of the bridge with the attempt to keep so many roads connected. For that amount of porousness you need a lot of ramps and other things like the circle. Is this a case where disconnecting some of the streets would be better for place-making/pedestrian bike connections if cars have to make an extra turn or two to get on the bridge approach.

by drumz on Jan 4, 2013 2:47 pm • linkreport

The "racetrack" design looks AMAZING! Can we get it banked at 30 degrees like the Daytona Speedway? In addition, how about we build an American Arc De Triomphe in the middle as a monument to automotive imperialism in the District.

by Ryan on Jan 4, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

I think by "(Lincoln) Memorial Bridge" you mean Arlington Memorial Bridge? In any case, the circle around the Lincoln Memorial no longer functions as a traffic circle, since the eastern half has been closed to cars.

by Michael on Jan 4, 2013 3:03 pm • linkreport

The bottom line is that the city is searching for a way to allow the near freeway that is the Suitland Parkway EotR merge into a neighborhood grid WotR. I feel like there should be a big sign put up for inbound Maryland traffic EotR that says:

You're entering a city. This isn't a speedway. If that's what you're looking for, we have some wonderful roads for you in rural Kansas.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jan 4, 2013 3:06 pm • linkreport

Frankly, I think the "racetrack" design is a great start. Sure, maybe a lane of traffic could be removed to make it slightly smaller, but the current design is not so off the mark. I think if the center were properly landscaped with trees, benches, and maybe a fountain, it would make for a great public space for an increasingly residential area. Nothing said additional crosswalks (and stoplights) leading to the center couldn't be added.

by Josh Collins on Jan 4, 2013 3:23 pm • linkreport

@Ryan, while we're at it, why not put a Wendy's in the middle?

by William on Jan 4, 2013 3:33 pm • linkreport

I like how they colored the middle of the racetrack green like a park with crosswalks connecting it to the street "grid". As if people would actually want to have a picnic or read a book there?

a gracious urban boulevard consistent with the past goals defined in the L'Enfant and Macmillan [sic] Commission plans, which would accommodate bicycles, pedestrians, and transit vehicles, as well as automobiles and commerce..

That's funny seeing as both the McMillan and L'Enfant plans predate automobiles. This makes the racetrack concept all the more dubious.

by Scoot on Jan 4, 2013 3:48 pm • linkreport

I am intrigued in the sense that it starts a conversation. I don't think this is being presented as a final plan. It also comes across a bit stark since it is a road plan presented by a DOT. They're not parks planners or landscape designers, so a lot of detail is left out. I don't see this node becoming a pedestrian paradise, but I'm optimistic it can be enhanced a great deal. I look forward to seeing how it develops.

by spookiness on Jan 4, 2013 4:17 pm • linkreport

spookiness: It's being presented as a pretty much final plan. The small-scale details aren't worked out, like how the bridge will look and maybe what will go in the middle, but DDOT is doing land acquisition now and this is the engineering for where the road lanes will go.

by David Alpert on Jan 4, 2013 4:20 pm • linkreport

I don't know that the center of the racetrack will get any use unless the racetrack itself is sunk below grade and decked over. Which might not actually be a bad idea, although while I'm at it I might as well wish for a pony.

by cminus on Jan 4, 2013 4:31 pm • linkreport

could the center of the race track be used, to, I don't know, store tour buses?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 4, 2013 4:50 pm • linkreport

What's wrong with the current alignment? Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see a single benefit to anyone in doing this. Even MD commuters. Right now they go straight from the bridge to South Capitol. Now they go around a slight bend to get to the same spot.

I'm not being rhetorical, I really can't fathom what the hell is the point to doing anything in the first place.

by TM on Jan 4, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

Yep, the traffic oval is basically useless except in a "monumental space" way. I have to guess 80% of the traffic is on South Cap and doesn't want to go anywhere else. The traffic circle on the other side is slightly more useful but only slightly.

by MLD on Jan 4, 2013 5:02 pm • linkreport


What exactly are you proposing? A different circleesque design? Adding some cross-walks-traffic lights? Or just having another standard traffic light intersection so a few more buildings can be crammed in? The oval is not my favorite design, but its a resonable compromise given the previous idea of a linear greenway abeit stumped by that stadium, and far better than the alternative that you appear to support yet fail to come out and say it.

You are throwing out the baby with the bath-water.

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Jan 4, 2013 5:12 pm • linkreport

Why is this better than just having a design similar to the way South Capitol street is set up currently (just a street)? And why is a "south mall" greenway better? We have tons of open unprogrammed space in this city already.

by MLD on Jan 4, 2013 5:29 pm • linkreport

I don't know if it's the formalism that hurts the most - it's seems to be autocentrism that is making a camel out of this. But whatever - maybe DDOT should buy the land for use in an indefinite future.

This reminds me of the Leningrad Siege Monument in St. Petersburg, which is not such a great space. It sits at the far, far end of a major avenue in an oval traffic island. You have to reach the monument by pedestrian underpass, which makes sense given the high traffic and frequent crowds of schoolchildren. The memorial itself is sunken so the traffic isn't so loud, but the plazas around it are barren. I don't think we'd want this there.

But this is besides the point; there are monument typologies that could end the avenue without occupying the center of the circle. Gates are one. A marker that's further south than the bridge is another. I feel like there's not much thought being put into the form. It's not even a camel, it's a miniature pony.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 4, 2013 6:51 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure what formalism means but I completely agree that it's both inefficient with traffic and feels uncomfortable and out of scale. That's why seeing a build-out of this design would be useful in evaluating the design's merit. Maybe GGW should do a small sketch competition to illustrate possibilities?

I think Geoffrey Hatchard had it right when he said "the city is searching for a way to allow the near freeway that is the Suitland Parkway EotR merge into a neighborhood grid WotR." And if that's the case, why not push out the inevitable "urbanization" of the roadway over the bridge in to Anacostia? Let the eventual slow down happen closer to 295 as Europe has many examples of. That would enable you to scaledown the "oval" with trees, on street parking, and cross walks like Dupont. Let's use this inherrent "inefficiency" of a circle and extend the pedestrian realm a bit further out. Then we can begin to engage our river front the way a modern ecologically concious city should.

I like the vote of confidence in Gehry's Memorial design for this site, but if we're shooting for something worth looking we'd have to pass on the design, again.

by Thayer-D on Jan 4, 2013 7:44 pm • linkreport

Massachusetts only passes through circles on its Northwestern end; Mass Ave between the Anacostia River and Southern Ave passes through one bastardized circle where it meets Minnesota Ave and none afterwards

by kk on Jan 4, 2013 7:50 pm • linkreport

What good will pedestrian crossings do for this oval if a) there is nothing for pedestrians to walk to in the middle or on the other side and 2) the oval/racetrack is so large so as to encourage higher speeds of autos? Logan/Thomas/DuPont Circles are safe in part 1) b/c there is frequent pedestrian traffic b/c of numerous destinations on all sides of the circle, which results in slowed traffic, and 2) b/c there are multiple feeder streets and traffic lights.

This race track design as relatively few and will need to accommodate commuter/truck/buses instead of inner-city taxis and residential traffic.

It's a recipe for disaster. A carefully designed intersection with well-timed traffic lights and carefully designed traffic lanes( perhaps with shifting lane directions during commute times (like on Rock Creek Parkway and 16th Street) wold be much more appropriate.

Also: given the finite amount of land in the District, it's silly and wasteful to leave so much land open for a racetrack design when the land would go so underused (if there is no monument)

by Adam on Jan 4, 2013 9:14 pm • linkreport

"not such a huge racetrack,"

That's quite some word spin against essentially the size of the parkland within.

I say do a large traffic circle instead, akin to that around the Lincoln memorial. From there, go northwards via the Extending the Legacy plan, at least in segments, starting to the west; and then later with the removal of that white elephant of a stadium.

The traffic oval is a decent basic plan for the constraints placed by the political influence regarding the relevant buildings of the stadium and St Vincent DePaul Roman Catholic Church.

David Alpert's thesis presents the incompleteness of the presentation, e.g. lack of trees, monuments, surrounding buildings, etc. as an argument against the basic design, despite admitting such.

By so confusing such, he risks leading people towards simply keeping this a standard traffic light intersection, abandoning the classical monumentalism of the Extending the Legacy planning.

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Jan 4, 2013 10:29 pm • linkreport

I'm wondering about something to reduce the pedestrian-vehicular conflict of such an oval or circle, namely an underpass.

Study this design- a variant of the official plan with extra median space upon the new South Capitol Street Bridge.

Laterally the space is there for the portals- it could have two lanes in each direction and extend seemlessly with the existing underpass beneath M Street, slightly widened with shoulders and covered.

Getting this 2x2 lanes of through South Capitol Street underground would make this oval or other such circular design far more pedestrian friendly and conducive to such community uses.

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Jan 4, 2013 11:45 pm • linkreport

These are not bad designs at all. At least they are not removing precious traffic lanes from places like Chinatown which are being choked in to nearly pedestrian concourses.

by Andrew on Jan 5, 2013 9:45 am • linkreport

The Eisenhower “memorial” is an atrocious design that I hope DDOT cannot take any responsibility for.

by Andrew on Jan 5, 2013 9:48 am • linkreport

I abhor this proposal and have since the moment I first saw it in the Post. It seems as if this plan flies in the face of what the government and development community have been attemping to do around the ballpark for the last decade+.

by Jeff on Jan 5, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

Adding a memorial to the racetrack would be like putting wheels on a camel. Memorials have a purpose, and it should include public use. Putting one in the median of a freeway says we don't care about that use at all.

by Tim Krepp on Jan 5, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport


What freeway? Are they proposing a no traffic light SCS?

On a related note- How do you feel about the Lincoln Memorial, and why short shrift SCS? Its one of the 3 main DC waterfront axis after all- something apparantly unmentionedn in the GGW article.

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Jan 5, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

True, it's technically not a freeway. However it will be an dramatic impediment to casual use. The Lincoln Memorial is no longer a traffic circle, and even if security wasn't a concern, I would strongly oppose it reopening as one. Sure, it would make sense from a purely traffic standpoint, but it would separate the Memorial from people with a river of cars. Lights or no lights.

Which is what would happen with a Memorial in this race track. Memorials aren't static things to be seen as you drive by. Lincoln is fine from the car, but the real power is to get out on foot, ascend the stairs, and bear witness to the communal experience of visiting the Memorial. Can't experience that from the car.

I think South Capitol is and should be a grand entranceway to Washington (yes, yes, I know you're in Washington already before you get on the bridge). I hope the new bridge is architecturally distinctive to highlight that. I wouldn't even mind aesthetically if we had to abide by the Navy height requirement so that you get to see the city below you as you drive in (I wouldn't want to pay $140 mil extra for that feature though).

But South Capitol also has to work as a pedestrian boulevard as well. Wide sidewalks are key. I hope some day it's lined with shops and restaurants, and visitors to the Nation's Capitol see that it's located in a vibrant and bustling city as they drive in, not the current wasteland of parking lots, fast food restaurants, and storage units.

The key architectural feature for me inhibiting South Capitol as a ceremonial gateway today is the SE-SW Freeway blocking your view. For all the quibble of streetcar wires "blocking" the view, here we have a HIGHWAY obscuring L'enfant's sacred scenic vistas.

by Tim Krepp on Jan 5, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

I've written much about the idea of buring the SW-SE Freeway, and the failure to do anything asides from lip service and foolishly located real estate development to lock in the current design.

Also see the relevant lables as SW-SE Freeway.

Wide sidewalks yes. Alas the officials allowed that stadium to overide the planning with option "A" which was only added after the 2002 stadium study which starngely pushed the option that directly conflicted with the past decade of SCS related planning- see Extending the Legacy.

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Jan 5, 2013 2:35 pm • linkreport

This is just confusing. The space would be of little use the way it's designed. If you want to create interesting public space why not put some on the waterfront that is literally adjacent to this site. If you want to make the site walkable/bikeable I would just boulevard the traffic creating a small treelined parkway which would divide South Capital allowing for easier pedestrian crossing. Building a waterfront promenade passing under the bridge and connecting to the end of the Anacostia River Walkway would achieve more given the geometry of the area and would seemingly require a lot less groundwork. I'm all for public spaces, but really this would just end up another unused and probably neglected patch of lawn.

by Alan B. on Jan 7, 2013 8:56 am • linkreport

Trying to make lemonade here. If you planted a grove of trees in the racetrack instead of treating it as a lawn, it could slow down traffic, reduce heat island effect, create wildlife sanctuary etc... Maybe not every space in the city needs to be "public" space (not sarcasm). Perhaps there is an argument for areas that are just green but that people don't or rarely access.

by David C on Jan 7, 2013 10:17 am • linkreport

The 'South Capitol Commons' is shown in NCPC planning to have a southern extension in the space to the south of the oval towards the waterfront, and includes trees:

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Jan 7, 2013 9:50 pm • linkreport

And a close up of the 2001 version of NCPC's unofficially named South Capitol Mall:

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Jan 29, 2013 12:06 am • linkreport

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