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Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza

Poking through the archives of the Washington Post, Tom at Ghosts of DC found a plan to sink several roads in downtown DC into trenches, build tunnels, and create a large underground parking structure beneath a big plaza where Freedom Plaza now stands.

Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

Tom writes that, "The motivation for this was the push to make Pennsylvania the 'grand axis of the Nation,' removing unnecessary bottlenecks and messy intersections."

From the Post article:

Between 6th and 13th sts., E st. would be simply a "depressed street"—a road sunk beneath ground level and roofed over at intersections, but mostly open to direct sunlight.

At 13th, however, it would become a tunnel, dipping under the proposed National Square and continuing beneath the southern fringe of the White House grounds, emerging at a point just west of 17th st.

Under the plan, E st. would be widened to six moving lanes and two access lanes and would have separate underground levels for traffic, parking and pedestrians. ...

Pennsylvania ave. itself would be kept at its present 8-lane width but would be repaved with a tinted, decorative material, such as hard brick laid over concrete.

Because of the distinctive materials used, one architect commented, "it will not only look different but sound different" to motorists.

This would have turned E Street into something close to a freeway downtown, continuing the existing freeway west of the White House. Downtown would have felt a lot more like another product of that era's transportation mindset, L'Enfant Plaza, with its multiple levels of roadways that go under and over in an effort to speed cars while forgetting about what's best for the pedestrian experience.

A "depressed street" creates a big barrier, psychological as well as physical. Even if people only cross at the corners, a street with stores on each side but a huge trench of traffic in between feels much more like two disconnected places than one with a solid street in between.

Harriet Tregoning has stated a belief that after the Connecticut Avenue underpass near Dupont Circle cut one side of the street off from the other, it hastened the decline of retail along that stretch. Besides, this plan would have demolished most of the buildings along E at the time and made it far wider, curb to curb.

Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

What's now Freedom Plaza (and large Pennsylvania Avenue roadways on each side) would have instead become a square with special pavement to create perhaps a sort of shared space not solely for cars. The picture from the Post doesn't seem to depict any cars nor any people, so it's hard to know how it might have worked.

It perhaps couldn't have been much worse than the complete failure of a plaza we have today; a fountain would have been far more appealing to people than a giant marble dead zone only appealing to the skateboarders Park Police constantly chase off.

Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life.

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 the secret service would have something to say about any tunnel passing anywhere near the White House today. It's also funny that in the midst of modernism's heyday, they used Michelangelo's Campidoglio paving design to cover the space.

"Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life."

The only think that makes European-Styled squares bustle are the people who live near enough to walk there. Fortunatly, we are now getting more residential in downtown, which means that offices are also being dispersed to other metro centers. Not a bad idea for creating a livable and bustling city.

by Thayer-D on Apr 22, 2014 9:39 am • linkreport

A big parking lot for tourists isn't such a bad idea, as long as they would be charged (and willing to pay).

by JR on Apr 22, 2014 9:46 am • linkreport

Freedom Plaza (aka Pulaski Park) is probably one of the best known skateboarding spots in the city and region (and maybe outside of it, I don't know). I wouldn't call that a failure, but rather an unanticipated use, and one that actually does bring life and value to the area—skaters spend money, draw spectators, and help develop a brand for the DC area as it relates to skateboarding. And besides, I don't see anyone spending time at L'Enfant Plaza with or without a skateboard.

by dan reed! on Apr 22, 2014 9:59 am • linkreport

Brasilia was being first constructed right at this time. The plans and images of Oscar Niemeyer's design captured the imagination of urban planners worldwide. This same year saw city planner Edmund Bacon featured on the cover of Time under the banner "Urban Renewal."

by Crickey7 on Apr 22, 2014 10:04 am • linkreport

You'd have plenty of nice views for Pennsylvania Avenue with this because the road in this plan doesn't really connect with anything convenient so people wouldn't really use it.

However, the only really "messy" intersection along this stretch today is when Penn/Constitution briefly run concurrently for a bit. And that's not that bad in terms of other weird intersections in DC.

by drumz on Apr 22, 2014 10:04 am • linkreport

An E st tunnel would be a big help.

I'd agree that depressed streets are not the best solution, but decking them over could work brilliantly.

And you can changes uses. I'm not sure if Plaza Mayor, or Place Concorde are vibrant execution grounds. I'd agree that when you see skateboarders you see urban failure.

by charlie on Apr 22, 2014 10:08 am • linkreport

Another key piece of context here is that Pennsylvania ave was considered to be in bad shape in 1964. You may be glad they didn't implement this, but they did implement the vast razing of buildings and replacement with monumental buildings that are not mixed use and that don't offer any services to the public, especially on the side near to the Capitol building, that has helped make that area so dead.

by JR on Apr 22, 2014 10:11 am • linkreport

David's critical tone is interesting, considering that contemporaries thought the plan would help the city's urban life. Here's a quote from the article cited at ghosts: "The proposal would make the automobile the servant rather than the tyrant of urban life. It returns the city to the people--people on the foot." They hoped the square would be surrounded by a new National Theater and shopping and cafes.

by JR on Apr 22, 2014 10:19 am • linkreport

This is the 1964 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan. It represents an interesting moment in time in many ways. As Thayer notes, it is a modernist plan but it recognized the value of traditional urban forms like the grand plaza (it was called National Square and its main virtue may have been that it was bigger than Red Square in Moscow.) The plan is actually quite complex, although wrongheaded in many ways. It did not favor the automobile, and it recognized that Pennsylvania Avenue should be connected to the neighborhood to the north. However, it looked to achieve these goals by separating vehicles and pedestrians rather than create better traditional streets. The plan also called for pedestrian-only "streets" in the air that continued the F Street grade to the second level of buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. Shopping malls were just beginning to be built and the idea was that the pedestrian precinct multi-level format was the wave of the future.

The 1964 Plan was created by urbanists who had just not quite gotten the nuances of grittier urbanism that we appreciate today, but give them credit for trying to find ways to respect the classic planning of the District while desperately looking for ways to stem what was then a rapidly declining downtown. (and the drawings are beautiful, check them out.)

by Ron Eichner on Apr 22, 2014 10:21 am • linkreport

This design was prominently featured in an April 1967 National Geographic story, "New Grandeur for Flowering Washington," that is in retrospect breathtakingly cringe-inducing: Superblocks for Pennsylvania Avenue! Urban renewal across SW! A remarkable lack of black people in photos!

The Ponte Vecchio-esque bridge they wanted to build across the Washington Channel would have been neat, however.

Free-registration-required link:

by Rob Pegoraro on Apr 22, 2014 10:28 am • linkreport

Given what E street in front of the White House has become, a tunnel would now be an attractive alternative. The WH could have its security while traffic wouldn't be such a mess getting around the White House, making a more pleasant situation for pedestrians and cyclists in the area.

by ah on Apr 22, 2014 10:28 am • linkreport

If Freedom Plaza had been built according to Robert Venturi's original design, which included large models of the Capitol and White House and other sculptural elements, it would have been a striking space. Still dead, maybe, but much more interesting than what we have now.

by jimble on Apr 22, 2014 11:00 am • linkreport

Freedom Plaza isn't all bad. As a protest stage or venue for races, it's not too bad. What really needs it happen is more programming, wider sidewalks, a little more grass. I would be a good location for movies, farmers markets, and other events. NPS just has to open it up for programming.

by Randall M. on Apr 22, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

Aside from needing people living around it, the reason so many European squares are successful (from what I can tell) is that they tend to host a market on a few days a week. That gives people a reason to be there. I just can't imagine the city shutting off part of the street for farmers to drive in twice a week and hold a market. Commuters would be up in arms.

Aside from skateboarders (which I like, why the hate charlie?) at Freedom Plaza, on Sundays in the summer I think they still have open-air tango.

by RDHD on Apr 22, 2014 11:23 am • linkreport

Some sort of E Street reconnection would be very helpful.

by NikolasM on Apr 22, 2014 11:44 am • linkreport

I don't like the barren design of Freedom Plaza, but skateboarding there is a scourge. The skatevandals have done hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe more) in damage to the granite and marble -- chips, gouges, rough edges. They make passive enjoyment of the place very difficult and the sharp clack, clack "report" of the skate hitting the edge of a hard surface ricochets around the plaza and into surrounding buildings. I've seen skatevandals collide with pedestrians, who usually come off second best. Fortunately the Navy Memorial has better security so it has largely escaped the fate of Freedom Plaza but Indiana Plaza also has been damaged.

by Jasper2 on Apr 22, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

The April 1967 issue of the National Geographic ("New Grandeur for Flowering Washington") shows the proposal for the buried streets, as well as proposed new buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, and extending north to about F Street, and some pictures of National Plaza as it was originally proposed. I'll see if I can scan the latter map and those pictures and post them here.

by Frank IBC on Apr 22, 2014 12:38 pm • linkreport

Oops, I see that Rob Pegoraro anticipated my comment, and graciously provided a link to the article. Thanks, Rob.

by Frank IBC on Apr 22, 2014 12:42 pm • linkreport

RE: National Geographic article

Check out the proposal for a bridge connecting East Potomac Park and the Waterfront!

Also there is a great map of proposed MetroRail and Highways downtown.

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 12:47 pm • linkreport

That 'ponte vecchio' between Waterfront and East Potomac Park would be wonderful, and make EPP much more accessible.

by dcseain on Apr 22, 2014 4:10 pm • linkreport

What Ron said.

With this addendum: skateboarders are not failure. Skateboarders understand space like nobody else.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 22, 2014 4:22 pm • linkreport

While burying roads isnt inherently bad and probably beneficial in the case of highways, there are issues with having high speed corridors in the city, if, people end up driving too fast even on the surface because the system is designed to accomodate faster speeds or if it creates barriers like sunken highways do (I'm thinking Philly/676 here but there are other examples).

by BTA on Apr 22, 2014 4:31 pm • linkreport

I think huge open spaces ( exceeding 5 acres or so) in cities are also over rated and can even become dead areas short of a major attraction like the national mall or just extreme density like Central Park.

by BTA on Apr 22, 2014 4:33 pm • linkreport

I don't know whether you'd call skateboarders "failure" but I would it "vandalism" -- wanton destruction of civic space that is posted against skateboarding, to the tune of hundred of thousands of dollars in demage. Can't we find these juvenile delinquents some place to skate, like in an industrial dump next to the Blue Plains plant?

I do think, 40 years on, that it is time to rethink and renovate Freedom Plaza, perhaps with more elements of Venturi's original design and as a more inviting public space.

by Alf on Apr 22, 2014 9:04 pm • linkreport

Such hate for skaters :(
SSTC cost 120 million - 90 million over budget - and that number keeps climbing and nobody talks of sending those responsible to harsh penalties.

by asffa on Apr 23, 2014 2:26 am • linkreport

Skates damage Freedom plaza.

Automobiles damage roads, but since automobiles are usually the best use for a paved road, the damage they inflict is tolerated and partly funded by driving. Though there are exceptions, such as Pennsulvania Avenue two blocks west of Freedom Plaza.

One wonders whether the best and highest use of Freedom Plaza might actually be skating, and if a redesign to minimize damage, a permit fee, posted hours, and equipment standards might make more sense. If skaters were organized something like that might have happenned by now.

by Jim Titus on Apr 23, 2014 7:38 am • linkreport

I wonder why folks were in such a hurry to get to to 6th and E. Arlington folks shopping at the old Hecht's?

by Frank IBC on Apr 23, 2014 11:47 am • linkreport

Yes, I confess to disliking skatevandals. I saw the US Park Police cuffing one about two weeks ago,. Certainly put a spring in my step!

by Alf on Apr 23, 2014 2:58 pm • linkreport

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