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Public Spaces

Can NoMa turn dank underpasses into lively public spaces?

Can the mostly-empty space beneath the railroad tracks approaching Union Station become active spaces that enhance the NoMa neighborhood? The NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) hopes so. Some other cities have been able to activate underpasses; can these show the way?

An idea for the L Street underpass from the NoMa BID public realm design plan.

The BID launched a design competition to find "an artist, team of artists, designer or architect" to "beautify, enliven and activate" the spaces under the tracks on Florida Avenue and K, L, and M Streets NE with a "sensory experience."

"We want to turn those spaces into places that people want to come visit because they are so attractive and cool," says Robin Eve-Jasper, president of NoMa BID.

Funding comes from the $50 million Mayor Gray recently authorized to help NoMa combat its dearth of parks. The DC Council still must approve the spending, but Eve-Jasper says that she expects this to happen by the end of May. Responses from design teams are due by May 9, with a plan to present proposals to the public in September and select a final design in October.

Underpasses get little activity today

Pedestrians currently use the underpasses as little more than empty zones to cross from one side of the tracks to the other.

M Street is the most active of the four, as it is the main access route to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station and the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) for residents who live on the east side of the tracks. It also contains a Capital Bikeshare station on its northern sidewalk.

Neighborhood residents headed to NoMa's main activity center at the corner of M and First Street NE, where there is a Harris Teeter supermarket, other stores and offices, also use the M Street underpass.

M Street NE underpass looking west.

Cars dominate the Florida Ave and K Street underpasses, which dedicate six and four lanes to car traffic, respectively. Both streets have narrow sidewalks and see significantly less pedestrian traffic than M Street.

Florida Avenue underpass looking east.

K Street underpass looking west.

The L Street underpass is the least used of the four, according to my observations. It has wide sidewalks and only two lanes for cars—like M Street—but lacks easy access to the Metro or the MBT, and the activity center of its sibling a block north.

L Street underpass looking east. Photo by author.

Other cities have activated underpasses

Highway underpasses have become public space in a number of other cities. Many include basketball courts, bike trails, skate parks and play areas for children.

Underpass Park in Toronto, located under the western end of the Eastern Avenue overpass near the Don River, is a widely-cited example. A recent Architectural Record report found the park's basketball courts and skate park popular among area residents, but the children's area was less so.

The article also noted that an art installation called Mirage, which includes reflective panels that add light to the underpass, does provide some illumination but adds that more mirrors would have brightened the space.

Underpass Park, Toronto. Photo by Rick Harris on Flickr.

Other examples include Burnside Skatepark in Portland, Oregon and I-5 Colonnade Mountain Bike Park in Seattle, both of which are under overpasses.

The underpasses in NoMa lack the height and depth of many of these spaces. This makes it difficult to fit amenities like basketball courts or skate parks, though a linear children's play area could fit on either L or M Streets.

Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood may offer some of the closest examples to the spaces in NoMa. A number of underpasses under a Metra rail line through the neighborhood sport murals by local artists and some even have corner shops built into their corners.

Underpass mural in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Photo by Marc Monaghan on Flickr.

Asked what NoMa BID envisions for the four spaces, Eve-Jasper says that she is leaving that up to the architects and designers to decide. What do you think would work best in the underpasses?

Edward Russell is an air transport reporter by day with a passion for all things transportation. He is a resident of Eckington and tweets frequently about planes, trains and bikes. 


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This is happening in Brooklyn as well.

by TransitSnob on Apr 22, 2014 10:49 am • linkreport

What about international examples? I'm thinking of something akin to the Camden Locks in London. There are a lot of stores there that were built in to rail viaducts and is pretty neat.

I know Quebec City somehow managed to do a Cirque du Soleil show underneath a highway overpass (that was much taller).

by drumz on Apr 22, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

In Prague, I saw a McDonald's built into an underpass. It made the space a lot less off-putting.

by Cindy at enclos*ure on Apr 22, 2014 10:52 am • linkreport

I think one of the underpasses under the SE-SW freeway between Navy Yard and Cap Hill has a skateboard park.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 22, 2014 11:02 am • linkreport

And the use of the space under the Wilson Bridge approach at Jones Point Park in Alexandria is quite something, but thats a MUCH bigger space in all dimensions.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 22, 2014 11:03 am • linkreport

We're assuming that the walls benefit the viaduct are solid. If not, space for stores or other uses may also be worthwhile.

by Randall M. on Apr 22, 2014 11:14 am • linkreport

12th street SW, under 395 also has a artwork, and poor excuses for sidewalks.

by Randall M. on Apr 22, 2014 11:16 am • linkreport

Ideally--in a money-is-no-object, structure-is-flexible sort of way--you wouldn't treat it different than any other part of the street, right? Large sidewalks, add retail into the sides of overpass. Just make it a part of a living street that just happens to be covered.

by DM on Apr 22, 2014 11:22 am • linkreport

L St has access to the Met Branch Trail too, via wooden steps. My understanding is that these are temporary and will eventually be replaced with a ramp of some sort.

by John on Apr 22, 2014 11:24 am • linkreport

I like the 'breezeway' concept, but wonder about noise and pollution issues from what is overhead and nearby. The link ( and photo of the I-5 park with its mountain bike amenities is pretty interesting, though the height needed won't work here.

by JDC on Apr 22, 2014 11:28 am • linkreport

Though cost might be an issue, commercial would be be pretty interesting. It would need to be well lit during the day and night to keep people coming back.

by cmc on Apr 22, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

I don't think it needs to be that fancy. Better lighting and a coat of paint would go a long way. But honestly the main problem is the homeless population that sleeps there and short of forced relocation which I am absolutely against, I'm not sure how to solve that in the short term.

by BTA on Apr 22, 2014 11:48 am • linkreport

Seems to me there is an underpass in downtown Philadelphia, near Reading Terminal Market, that has some sort of light-based artwork. I haven't been to that part of downtown Philly in at least five years, though, so I'm a bit foggy on the details.

Some artists are doing wonderful things with LED lights these days. I would love to see a public art installation involving LEDs and mirrors in one of these underpasses.

by Greenbelt Gal on Apr 22, 2014 12:04 pm • linkreport

Activating blighted public spaces in cities is a net win for everyone. We'd love to work with the NoMa BID to project a SmartWalk TransitScreen to lighten up the area. Given the dim lighting, it actually makes a lot more sense there than many other sunny spots around the city.

by Ryan on Apr 22, 2014 12:15 pm • linkreport

Baltimore has a farmer's market that is incredibly successful. its underneath the I-83 JFX Highway. Im surprised this wasn't referenced in the article.

by Jose on Apr 22, 2014 12:48 pm • linkreport

Check it out:

by Jose on Apr 22, 2014 12:49 pm • linkreport

I took some pics from Jones Point Park - underneath the Virginia approach of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that carries I-495/95 over the Potomac - in Alexandria today.

Looking west:
Looking northeast:
Looking south:

It's not the best parallel to NoMa, as it is a very large space, but it is a good repurposing of an underpass as public green space.

by Edward Russell on Apr 22, 2014 1:11 pm • linkreport

well, I think the headline is misleading. I don't think that the underpasses can be made into lively "places" but there is plenty of opportunity to improve their place quality and visual appearance. They are sidewalks + traffic lanes and relatively narrow.

by Richard Layman on Apr 22, 2014 4:53 pm • linkreport

Montreal has shopping malls underground in the subway, where people can enjoy them without going into the cold.

by asffa on Apr 23, 2014 11:19 pm • linkreport

The M Street underpass is usually dripping. Is it by design as necessary drainage for the trackbed or would they plug it?

by Turnip on Apr 24, 2014 5:01 am • linkreport

Let's bring those expectations back down to Earth. These places are sidewalks with a leaky railroad bridge over them. You can put some art installations, better lighting, clean up the pigeon poop and remove the homeless that live there...but they're still going to be cold concrete and iron caves that never get any direct sunlight. Also, all these underpasses are directly next to construction sites for the next several years. That's not going to make people want to use them either.

I'm not saying these places can't be improved, but be realistic.

by Michael on Apr 26, 2014 5:24 pm • linkreport

The underpasses in Noma are too narrow for any of the options suggested in the article, however they can be improved by fixing the leaking from the roof, adding better lighting and some murals or street art. For the M street underpass It'll be nice to have some sculpture or mural related to the Beatles now that the Washington Coliseum will no longer be there.

by Oscar on Apr 28, 2014 12:13 pm • linkreport

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