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Do we need a Southeast Boulevard at all?

A study is underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway between the 11th Street bridges and Barney Circle with a new road. But is a new road even the best use of the space at all?

The freeway segment under construction in 1972. Photo from DDOT.

A 2005 "Middle Anacostia Crossings" study recommended a 4-lane boulevard to replace the freeway segment. That freeway was initially designed as part of a network of inner-city freeways, but DC thankfully stopped those plans before they divided and damaged any more neighborhoods as the freeway did to Southwest and Near Southeast.

Map of the area. Image from DDOT.

Now, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is starting a formal study of this as well as ways to rebuild Barney Circle. Communication about the "Southeast Boulevard" project often presumed that this project would indeed build a 4-lane boulevard.

Early concept sketches showed how some of the land could accommodate tour bus parking, but those sketches all also showed a 4-lane boulevard.

Is that the right way to use the land?

Is a boulevard the answer?

The 11th Street Bridge has added car capacity across the Anacostia and given drivers a direct connection between DC-295 north of the bridges and the Southeast Freeway. Today, the road is closed, so no cars are using it at all.

Think of it this way: What if there were no boulevard here and it were just empty space, perhaps a decommissioned railyard or some abandoned warehouses. Would DC build a road?

Houses adjacent to the construction. Photo from DDOT.

Craig Lenhart and Sanjay Kumar, who are managing the project for DDOT, say that they are indeed willing to study whether there need not be any new road at all, or a narrower one than 4 lanes. Based on feedback from a number of residents on this issue, they say they will study just that.

One of the objectives for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, which includes this project, is to strengthen connections to and across the river. While the 11th Street bridges have provided better connections for car traffic around the neighborhood and across the river, bicycles and pedestrians also need better connections.

Rebuilding Barney Circle will be an opportunity to stengthen and make safer the Anacostia River trails' connections to Capitol Hill, the Sousa Bridge (Pennsylvania Avenue), and subsequently neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. The study will also look at ways to connect the neighborhood to the river with bridges over the CSX tracks, the DDOT representatives say.

What is the best way to use this land?

The land between the southernmost homes on L Street SE and the CSX is zoned for commercial/manufacturing currently, and the District of Columbia owns it. It could also be rezoned if the city determined other worthwhile uses to pursue here.

As one of many possibilities, David created a mockup in 2010 of how the land could house more residents (some with pretty impressive water views):

Click on the radio buttons to toggle: Previous   Potential

Or, DC could build many other things. Playgrounds or sports fields, a mountain bike park, a community theater or an art museum, public buildings, or much more. What do you think DC should do with this land?

Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 
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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Forget the bridge. Build ziplines and they will come. Besides, ziplines are "placeholders" for gondolas.

by monkeyrotica on Feb 28, 2013 10:29 am • linkreport

A few thoughts:

1) Having tour bus parking would give the Potomac Ave Kiss and Ride more of a reason for existence. Think about it. Take bus to DC, drop off and pick up from Potomac Ave Metro, park bus a few blocks away.

2) Isn't there a plan for a streetcar lines that cross either the 11th street or Sousa bridges? If so, this land might be a convenient location to earmark for a future out of the way car barn. No 'historical' problems!

3) I'd love to reconnect the grid as much as we can. Extend L Street and and 12th Street SE to meet, reconnect 12th street SE with the cut off southern portion, etc.

4) For the AAA minded faster traffic people, might be fun to create thru lanes under a reconstructed Barney Circle like Dupont.

5) Seems like good land for a new monument. Plenty of things that don't have a monument in DC, and this area is lacking in monuments, could help revitalize it.

6) Plant Trees, everyone loves trees.

by Jared Christian on Feb 28, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

Build more city.

by BFM on Feb 28, 2013 10:44 am • linkreport

First off. Ziplines. Obviously. Couldn't agree more.

As to the road, I think a road connecting the Navy Yard/M Street area with the new Res 13 is a good idea. As it stands now, you'd have to take 11th ST -> Potomac Ave -> 19th to get to Res 13, which would be a circuitous way to reach virtually adjoining neighborhoods.

Done right, a road can tie together those areas. I'm NOT advocating a four lane highway-in-all-but-name, like we have with the current Maine Ave in SW. But a street with wide sidewalks that follows the river and the existing bike path would increase connectivity.

by Tim Krepp on Feb 28, 2013 10:45 am • linkreport

Keep in mind that the land to the south of the boulevard & train tracks is not slated to remain undeveloped. Maritime Plaza could still build three additional buildings, and there's also a developer with plans to build a 700,000-sq-ft mixed-use project at "1330 M." All of that development would then only have two-lane M Street as its in-and-out access. And those houses wouldn't still have "pretty impressive water views."

by JD on Feb 28, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

@Jared, and others.

Tour bus parking doesn't need to be near the metro. In fact, that's a waste of prime space. Tour groups won't, and really can't, take the metro, nor would Potomac Ave be a particularly useful one to drop them off at.

If that model worked, we might as well drop them off at New Carrolton or something, not come all the way in to Potomac Ave.

by Tim Krepp on Feb 28, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

Problem is at grade the train tracks that parallels the route. These must stay that way due to the low bridge over the Anacostia. Not sure what to do about it; there were proposals to bury this line for multiple billions of $, which were set aside. The train tunnel next to Virginia Ave is about to be rebuilt as a part of this.

Where is D. Willinger... ?

by goldfish on Feb 28, 2013 10:51 am • linkreport

Skate park. Concrete already in place -- just build ramps.

by Greenbelt on Feb 28, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

Definitely think at minimum, they need to connect 13th, 14th, and 15th because that may improve the chances that the Anacostia waterfront plan will have that much more success. Better connections to the DC yacht club and the Anacostia Riverwalk trail, etc.

by ET on Feb 28, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

Last spring, I was in a studio at school that looked at the development potential of removing or capping parts of the Southeast/Southwest Freeway. I did the urban design plan, and in the area you're talking about, we extended the existing street grid to the river and got a pretty substantial amount of housing and a lovely waterfront park to boot.

My beef with Southeast Boulevard is that they didn't really consider how the street would fit into a larger scheme for that area. It could be the spine of a new waterfront neighborhood, but instead it'll just be a street as divorced from its context as the freeway is.

by dan reed! on Feb 28, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

I see two criteria for making this boulevard worthwhile:

1. It is named District of Columbia Ave SE
2. It has a small enough footprint to allow for additional development in the former freeway right of way.

by jonglix on Feb 28, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

@dan reed: what did you do with the train tracks?

by goldfish on Feb 28, 2013 11:18 am • linkreport

You don't need to do anything with the train tracks. Extend the street grid south, do so at the current grade of L St SE and you will have plenty of vertical clearance over the train tracks. How you handle the edge condition over that deck might be a challenge, but it's nothing that can't be solved. And it's not like that edge would be any more of a barrier than what exists now...

by Alex B. on Feb 28, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

@Alex B: How you handle the edge condition over that deck might be a challenge...

That is what I am asking.

by goldfish on Feb 28, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

That is what I am asking.

Ok, here's how I would do it. Extend 13th and 14th across the tracks. Integrate a raised 14th into a raised M St SE, and handle the grade change as a part of the devleopment sites to the south of M st SE:

M St likely would not continue further east, but traffic along M could turn and go up 14th. VA Ave would continue through to Water st, and water street would continue along the river. 15th Street would be continued onto the deck where the freeway used to be, but would not connect to Water st.

The railroad tracks remain where they are.

You would add points of access to the water at 13th and 14th, and add new development sites over the ex-freeway between 12-13, 13-14, 14-15, and 15-Barney Circle.

by Alex B. on Feb 28, 2013 11:52 am • linkreport

A map would be helpful.

by Rich on Feb 28, 2013 12:00 pm • linkreport

Alex B: Yes I had seen those plans before, although I am not sure that they will be implemented. JD may want to comment on that.

Re the tracks, as a matter of public policy spending tax dollars, I am doubtful about making the viability of what is put in place of the existing highway depend on uncertain development plans.

by goldfish on Feb 28, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

Seems like a nice idea with some definite potential. Probably still won't be an ideal pedestrian environment if you have to cross a boulevard and (go over?) the railroad. Also having lived very close to railroad tracks I wonder how appealing that is going to be when CSX trains go by at night. I suppose some good sound proofing would go a long way. Plus it does seem like the lost capacity is kind of redundant anyway with the 11st bridge right there. Thanks for the interesting write up!

by Alan B. on Feb 28, 2013 12:45 pm • linkreport

With the roadway closed, we now have a real-time experiment underway of the impact of its closing on traffic pattern. Why not use that experiment and the date on current traffic patters to explore the feasibility, as suggested, of converting the roadway into parkland? Presumably, whatever the concerns about traffic impact should be mitigated once the 11th Street Bridges is done.

by Norman Metzger on Feb 28, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport

Isn't the ability to handle double decker cars the main driver for the CSX project? Can the new clearance heights be accomodated with raising the cross street level access? CSX is digging out the tunnel to create more clearance, but the trains run above ground east of 11st or 12th st(?)

by anon_1 on Feb 28, 2013 1:35 pm • linkreport

Isn't the ability to handle double decker cars the main driver for the CSX project?

That's part of it, but the tunnel also needs to be physically replaced, as well as double-tracked.

Can the new clearance heights be accomodated with raising the cross street level access?

Sure it can. There's no reason it can't.

CSX is digging out the tunnel to create more clearance, but the trains run above ground east of 11st or 12th st(?)

Yes, but the trains don't really change grade. 11th St, L St, and all of those streets north of the tracks are already tall enough to clear the tracks.

by Alex B. on Feb 28, 2013 1:40 pm • linkreport

Couldn't the train tracks be relocated a couple hundred feet to the north, where the westbound freeway lanes currently run, and then just deck over that? It could rejoin the existing alignment after passing under Barney Circle. That would help solve the edge problem, and I imagine it would allow the three or four north-south streets to slope naturally down to M Street. Is this being studied?

by Dave Murphy on Feb 28, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

Well, the freeway has been closed for over a week now and the world has not ended. So clearly, this freeway was superfluous, or at least it is now that the new 11th Street Bridge connections are open. If anything, my world has gotten a lot better -- far fewer scofflaw suburbanites careening through my neighborhood at unsafe speeds on 17th Street, 19th Street and Potomac Avenue. (And littering. Why do the suburbanites who cut through Hill East love to litter so much. I swear I would love to follow some of them home and dump some garbage in their cul-de-sac!)

Anyway, no need for a high-speed, four-lane boulevard that appears better suited to exurban Virginia than to the boundary of a large historic neighborhood. Restore the grid as best as the railroad tracks allow with a normal two-lane street and bike path along the edge between 11th Street and Barney Circle. Make Barney Circle a real circle with room for a monument. (The Committee of 100 and other devotees of L'Enfant should love this plan -- his map shows the grid continuing to the river, with Kentucky Avenue ending in a what appears to be a lovely plaza in front of the river.)

Interesting note: in that photo from 1972, the railroad along that corridor was still electrified. The wires are pretty clearly visible in the photo. So, while Europe and Japan have been electrifying and modernizing their rail networks in the decades since, we were going in the opposite direction...Anecdotal, perhaps, but it speaks volumes.

by rg on Feb 28, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

@Dave - I had the same thought about the train tracks. I don't know what would be best - a park, more housing, mixed development - but creating a relatively cheap cut-and-cover tunnel (that in reality would just be a cover and adding fill around and above) could really improve the area. It might be against the railroad's wishes to move north as it would change the curve and possibly slow train speed. But I do think a train tunnel should be considered while the option is still relatively cheap and simple.

by Steve K on Feb 28, 2013 4:03 pm • linkreport


I live at 14th and Penn and have noticed a significant increase in traffic now that the freeway has closed. I assume this is due to commuters who used to take the circle to get on to 695/395 now staying on Penn. Hoping with time that they start using the 11th street bridge.

Generally though, I agree with your comments about the SE boulevard. The focus should be on restoring the grid and improving amenities to fully leverage the neighborhood's proximity to transportation, the waterfront, and the Capitol.

by Nicoli on Feb 28, 2013 4:09 pm • linkreport

I live around there and I'm torn between the idea of a two lane street to better connect to the Cap Riverfront or park space for some much needed green space. However, no way to a 4 lane boulevard. That would be terrible.

by I. Rex on Feb 28, 2013 4:17 pm • linkreport

"Interesting note: in that photo from 1972, the railroad along that corridor was still electrified. The wires are pretty clearly visible in the photo. So, while Europe and Japan have been electrifying and modernizing their rail networks in the decades since, we were going in the opposite direction...Anecdotal, perhaps, but it speaks volumes."

Electrification has little or nothing to do with modernizing railroads. The only thing is speaks volumes about is increasing efficiency in freight rail in the US after the 1970s. Dropping the wire on that segment was a huge costs savings (in terms of equipment that would have otherwise been captive on a single division) and completely eliminated two days worth of dwell time for freight trains moving through DC. Also, reasonably sure doublestacks can't run under wire for clearance reasons.

by Another Nick on Feb 28, 2013 6:53 pm • linkreport

Maybe doublestacks couldn't have run under that old Pennsy wire, but they can and do run under wire all the time.

Electrification has everything to do with modernizing passenger railroads. The benefits it offers (efficiency, speed, acceleration, easy use of multiple unit trains) all make the capital investment worthwhile.

by Alex B. on Feb 28, 2013 9:22 pm • linkreport

@Alex B -- Exactly. There is no question US freight railroads have become much more efficient in the past 40 years. The turnaround from the brink of bankruptcy is an incredible story and is great for our country. But that segment of railroad track to me is emblematic of how we do infrastructure in this country: half-assed and on the cheap. In Europe, they would have long since built a bypass for all but local freight trains and dedicated that segment of track to regional passenger/commuter rail, which would have remained electrified.

by rg on Mar 1, 2013 9:58 am • linkreport

Rich: I've added a map.

by David Alpert on Mar 1, 2013 10:33 am • linkreport

Like many other GGW articles, this one is quaint at best. I live in Fairlawn, which for those of you who have never actually been east of the river (except IN A CAR to hop on 295 north), sits near the se edge of the Sousa Bridge. Many of my neighbors are already frustrated that we cannot access the now closed entry to the SW/SE freeway from the bridge in order to get across town easily but to suggest that there should not be a road at all to connect highway and bridge demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how people and commerce flows in the city and worse, a disinterest toward any kind of planning equity.

by Emm on Mar 1, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport


At the SE end of the Sousa bridge there is also a big interchange with 295 that will take you to the new, upgraded 11th street bridge which goes straight to the SE/SW freeway. Traffic patterns change sometimes and sometimes people need to learn new routes. I don't see how in this case the new alternative is much worse.

by MLD on Mar 1, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

Emm: Hi there. I'm sorry you feel that this article actively sought to seek negative equity for the people of Fairlawn and other neighborhoods east of the Anacostia.

I'm one of the authors, and while it's fair to say that Fairlawn probably isn't as well-known regionally as Capitol Hill, your semi-assertion that those who wrote the article are unfamiliar with your neighborhood, or have never been east of the river except in a car to head northbound towards Baltimore is false. I personally am quite familiar with your neighborhood, and have traveled there via bus, car, and bicycle.

When the 11th Street bridge project is complete, you and other motorists who live in Fairlawn will be able to continue to access the highways and byways west of the river just as easily (or not easily, depending on your point-of-view) as you can now.

Let's say you're coming from the heart of the neighborhood, near 18th, R, and Minnesota. If you want to drive get on the SE/SW freeway, you have two choices. You can drive north on Minnesota, turn onto Pennsylvania, get on 295 towards Virginia, and take the ramp onto the 11th Street bridge across the Anacostia onto the SE/SW freeway.

Or, you could head south on Minnesota, turn onto Good Hope, take that to MLK and turn right, go over the new local bridge over the river, and (when construction is complete) continue north on 11th Street until you hit the new ramp that gives you access to the SE/SW freeway between L and K Streets SE.

If either of those choices are still a problem for driving, could you share what would be easier?

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Mar 1, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

What JD said is my impression - that there are plans for redevelopment right ON the river, and that the blvd would provide access to that. As well as an additional east - west route.

And that east west would be for all modes - I don't know that 4 lanes has to mean a suburban traffic sewer - I would think boulevard as used by DDOT would mean something rather different, including good provision for cyclists and pedestrians.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 1, 2013 1:31 pm • linkreport

MDL: The new interchange is at the 11th St. Bridge, not the Sousa. Will clarify more next, to respond to you and Mr. Hatchard.

by Emm on Mar 1, 2013 2:04 pm • linkreport

Mr. Hatchard: The old on ramp from the Sousa to SW/SE Freeway allowed drivers from my part of the city to access 395 without having to mix with the 295 traffic at all. So I would take a right onto MN Ave., a left onto Penn Ave., go through three lights and then take the bridge over, loop around on a *two lane* access ramp and enter 395.

Now with the access ramp closed I do the same right, left, three lights and then instead of crossing the bridge, I take the *one lane* and very tight on ramp to 295 south (this holds much less traffic than the old access road). There, I have to merge with drivers exiting 295 at Penn Ave. SE, follow 295 south to the new interchange, bend right, then after the curve move over two left lanes (as cars from 295 north are crossing to exit to get to the Navy Yard), and then wind around on the old raised highway to loop around and merge onto 395.

As you know, commuting is often about minutes and this new route has added 10 minutes to my commute. To be honest, the return trip without the off ramp at Penn Ave. SE is not as bad. I am sure Cap Hill residents have also noticed that folks from Hillcrest and Fairlawn are driving to Barrack's Row and Potomac Ave. to enter the highway.

by Emm on Mar 1, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

And a few more things...

MDL: Cities are dynamic and constantly in flux but I think it is important to consider how planning will impact the quality of life for all residents, new and old. I am not a native Washingtonian nor white, but as someone who has lived in DC for 15 years, I want to see all residents benefit and thrive.

Mr. Hatchard: It is unclear what you mean by "negative equity" but as you may know, in the field of transportation and urban planning (the so-called Portland School, by the way, is not considered the most progressive) there is a segment that focuses on planning for justice and equity (not equity as in home equity) so that women, men, old, young, native, newcomers, and those in all classes can reap the benefits of urban life. It can sometimes sound defensive, but it is intended to balance as best as is possible the multiple interests being asserted.

by Emm on Mar 1, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

Sorry... in my previous post, that was supposed to read "nor black"--white chick here.

by Emm on Mar 1, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

I am sure Cap Hill residents have also noticed that folks from Hillcrest and Fairlawn are driving to Barrack's Row and Potomac Ave. to enter the highway.

...and in both directions on 11th St, which now backs up (before it didn't) -- due to the new ramp south of I St.

by goldfish on Mar 1, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

So this added to the commutes of some in a specific way but had a far greater impact by shifting traffic to real highways rather than a weird hybrid that choke a number of other neighborhoods with traffic. Moreover, this creates the opportunity for new communities as well in DC. That seems to also add to the benefits of urban life for a lot of people living or planning to live in DC.

Now is an extra ten minutes you say worth more than those benefits? I'm not so sure. You'd have to have real rock solid arguments beyond a notion of equity and the benefits of urban life that somehow necessitates having the freeway remain as it was.

by drumz on Mar 1, 2013 2:59 pm • linkreport

Emm: You have a point about the interchange with Pennsylvania Avenue and the 295 freeway being sub-optimal. I would love to see a better designed set of ramps there, to eliminate the need for weaving that you are rightly concerned about.

Regarding the "bending right" when leaving 295 to cross the bridge - I'm not sure I see where that's a big deal. Changing lanes happens on any kind of road. It would be great to stay in one lane from home to destination, but hardly anyone anywhere has that option on their commute.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Mar 1, 2013 3:01 pm • linkreport

@Emm: Now with the access ramp closed I do the same right, left, three lights and then instead of crossing the bridge, I take the *one lane* and very tight on ramp to 295 south ...

You have pointed out a design shortcoming -- there should be a direct connection to 395 from MLK Ave.

by goldfish on Mar 1, 2013 5:10 pm • linkreport

i don't believe Emm's assertion that the new traffic pattern adds 10 minutes to her commute.

by Rob Roy on Mar 3, 2013 4:02 pm • linkreport

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