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Build a circle at North Capitol and Irving

DC and federal officials and a team of consultants have created three options for redesigning the cloverleaf interchange at the intersection of North Capitol and Irving Streets. Dubbed the "Memorial in the Park," "Center of Centers," and "Four Corners," each continues the grade separation of east-west and north-south traffic while also trying to create a more hospitable area for people.

North Capitol Cloverleaf overlaid onto Dupont Circle for scale comparison.

The interchange is DC's only traditional freeway cloverleaf interchange, occupying about 19 acres in what is becoming a more urban, more walkable part of the city. The adjacent Armed Forces Retirement Home plans to develop its southeastern corner, adjacent to the cloverleaf, into mixed-use buildings to fund its ongoing operations. Catholic University is growing, and the nearby McMillan Sand Filtration site will become a new neighborhood of its own as well.

The interchange is part of a short freeway piece of North Capitol between more urban segments to the north and south. It encourages high-speed traffic and discourages pedestrians and bicyclists. It generates a large "dead zone" in the surrounding bus network. And it creates inaccessible empty space instead of more valuable parkland that people can actually use.

The study team developed three alternatives. One would reroute the roads to the southeast, creating a park space for a large memorial and giving the roads a "parkway" design. The park would be 7.5 acres, about the same size as Capitol Hill's Lincoln Park. It's also the most expensive of the four, likely costing $40-45 million.

The second option would build a circle with 2.6 acres of green space in the center, a little more than Dupont Circle's 2.3. Like Dupont, one roadway (Irving) would pass underneath, while the other (North Capitol) would use the circle along with turning movements. This would probably cost $37-41 million.

The third would divide the green space into four corner parks, with the larger two about the same size as the Navy Memorial at one acre. A ring road would let vehicles transfer between the two roads. This option is the cheapest, at an estimated $28-31 million. It'd also be possible to also leave out the ring of buildings, creating more empty space instead of stores and residences.

Left to right, top to bottom: The current North Capitol interchange; the "parkway/memorial" option; the "circle" option; the "four corners" option.

According to the study team, replacing the interchange with a simple at-grade intersection would require each roadway to have ten lanes, and even then cars would take longer to move through the intersection, not to mention the very long pedestrian crossing times.

DC should choose the circle design. It builds on the existing L'Enfant public space vocabulary of Washington. The well-designed circles mix public parks and vehicular movements in a generally pleasing balance. However, the circle actually be circular. An oval shape might help the cars move through the area a bit more quickly, but at the cost of some parkland. Also, encouraging cars to slow down through the area would improve this public space. A circle works fine for DC's existing circles, and would preserve the continuity across the city.

I'm also curious if the study team evaluated having both roadways pass underneath the circle, meeting at a traffic light underground while turning cars still use the circle. I've always wondered if that would improve Dupont Circle. It would slow traffic passing through somewhat, but since cars wouldn't have to wait for left turning movements, would delay drivers far less than a regular at-grade intersection.

The "memorial" design looks too much like the Kennedy Center's "ramp spaghetti" and other contemporaneous designs that aren't really pedestrian-friendly. That design creates a park that would serve the AFRH development well, but cuts the park off from the other sides. One day, the VA Medical Center or the houses to the southeast could become more walkable in design, and the interchange should not hinder that possibility. Likewise, residents of the future McMillan site development should be able to walk to this plaza without passing over and under ramps clearly designed for vehicles above all.

The "four corners" is okay, but the park is either too small or too large. If built, the ring of buildings cuts off the parks from the roadway, decreasing "eyes on the street" and making the park into more of a courtyard for the buildings. Without the buildings, it's just a larger version of the circle with an uncrossable road cutting it in two. There are no crosswalks on North Capitol in the middle, meaning people will have to walk all the way to one end to cross, or dash dangerously across midblock.

The study also briefly considers Irving and North Capitol outside the cloverleaf. It recommends redesigning North Capitol into a greenway with a median and hiker-biker sidepath north of the cloverleaf, and into an urban boulevard with wide sidewalks and off-peak parking south of the cloverleaf. Other recommendations include reducing travel lanes on Irving to add a bicycle lane, and removing the "slip lanes" to make the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Irving Street a more pedestrian-friendly, 90-degree standard intersection. To help drivers, it recommends widening Michigan Avenue slightly at 1st Street, NW to lengthen the turn lanes and add protected left turn phases to the traffic lights.

All of the designs show potential locations for stops on a future Irving Street transit line. For now, that could mean a rerouted H bus or a future Circulator, but in the future this corridor should get light rail or a streetcar running from Woodley Park to Brookland. Metro is also considering giving it the "Priority Bus Corridor" treatment like 16th Street or Georgia Avenue; the 80 bus on North Capitol is already on the priority corridor list, though at the very bottom.

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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Having both roads meet underneath a circle would likely require some sort of air transfer and filtration system (not unlike what's found in mountain tunnels), which would then need exhaust ports either on top of the circle or someplace nearby.

If they go with the circle option, they should put North Capital under the circle, not Irving, given the much higher traffic volumes on North Capital. You'll thus have much less traffic on the circle, with fewer potential vehicle-ped conflicts as a result.

by Froggie on May 5, 2009 1:30 pm • linkreport

Is there anything like the four corners approach in this area?

by цarьchitect on May 5, 2009 1:33 pm • linkreport

That is, that already exists, and somebody could go look at.

by цarьchitect on May 5, 2009 1:34 pm • linkreport

"Circle" does seem preferable to me, though I agree with David about moving from an oval to a true circle. The oval intersection at 16th St/Colesville Rd/Eastern Ave on the DC/MD border in Silver Spring is an oval disaster, with southbound drivers on 16th St never treating it as a circle (and so not yielding to traffic already in the circle) and no one ever slowing down.

by Patrick T. Metz on May 5, 2009 1:43 pm • linkreport

None that I'm aware of.

by Froggie on May 5, 2009 1:44 pm • linkreport

I like the circle solution too. Eventhough there is a plan and movement to improve this intersection to make it more like that found in a city rather then an expressway, The idiocy of it is that the clover leaf was JUST completed! How many other bad designs are underway that we "can't" stop that will be completed only to be torn down and rebuit anyway? The ICC is a candidate. What else?

Can we also get some plans to make the Klingle-Porter intersection more ped/bike friendly and less like an expressway design too?

by Bianchi on May 5, 2009 1:47 pm • linkreport

I think that some of the short/medium term improvements in the presentation look like great ideas, especially eliminating the free-flow right turns at Michigan & Irving. That intersection is dangerous! Having a T-intersection would be much safer for peds.

by Pat O on May 5, 2009 1:49 pm • linkreport

i've debated the efficacy of this plan with many people in many fora, so i'm not going to belabor points that i've made before, but here's a summary of my thoughts.

this is a great idea—for some time far down the road.

right now, there are problems elsewhere on north capitol that should be addressed—that would be farther south, on the stretch from massachusetts avenue up to michigan avenue.

the road was widened (with tunnels under streets like new york avenue, rhode island avenue, and t street) and slip lanes were added back in the 50s in order to facilitate the flow of suburban drivers. this greatly diminished the street's ability to serve as a viable commercial district for the neighborhood.

if we're going to pour money into making north capitol better for pedestrians long-term, let's start where there are already people living and there's more short-term potential for such intervention to have an impact. bring north capitol back to the surface at new york avenue and rhode island avenues (get rid of the tunnels) and get rid of the slip lanes, recreating the public "parking" from the l'enfant plan (along with wider sidewalks—there are many stretches of north capitol where the sidewalks are not ADA-compliant due to extremely narrow width).

making north capitol more pedestrian and bike friendly in the stretch between michigan and hawaii avenues is a laudable long-term goal, but it's not the smartest place to direct our limited money and ddot's limited ability to do massive projects on one stretch of asphalt. start further south...

by IMGoph on May 5, 2009 2:00 pm • linkreport

Bianchi: guessing you're referring to the recent reconstruction of that segment of North Capitol, since that cloverleaf has existed for close to 50 years.

by Froggie on May 5, 2009 2:03 pm • linkreport

Froggie, I'm referring to the construction on Irving that was underway for several years and just recently completed, including the addition of the ramps from eastbound Irving onto MI ave. Add the recent construction of N. cap to that. In its present form it was just recently completed. And now there are plans to rebuild it. Plans that will improve it. So why go to all the expense etc to complete what was just completed if the very next year plans are drawn to redesign it? No one thought of redesigning it 5 years ago? It's a stupid waste.

by Bianchi on May 5, 2009 2:14 pm • linkreport

Another thing here is what are the development plans for the Irving/Michigan/North Cap areas? If there aren't going to be any nearby buildings, save for that rather suburban style complex just east of north cap, is it worth the investment and increased congestion/lost mobility to make this a more urban intersection? Yes, it sucks to walk there now, but even if it didn't, who would be walking and to where?

Infrasctructure and development need to move together. All that investment and still no development of the filtration site due to nimbyism or whatever would be a waste when other, much more populated places ache for improvement.

by NAB on May 5, 2009 2:17 pm • linkreport

I agree with IMGoph. It would be great to do both, start with the area where people already live. IMGoph, how long have these plans been discussed? The ramps from/to N. Cap/Irving were just completed last year.

by Bianchi on May 5, 2009 2:29 pm • linkreport

Bianchi: There seems to be a long lag between planning and implementation. The ICC was on official plans for decades, and the fact that it was already on the plans made it easier to build. Opponents of density in Wheaton frequently cite the 20-year-old plan as a reason not to do anything different.

DDOT's decision to close their EA on Minnesota Avenue was significant partly because now that's not on the plan. Likewise, here it's important to just get the right thing on the plan so that we're designing buildings around the right ultimate road configuration, and one day, maybe many years from now, when they're ready to redo the roads, they won't do it the wrong way because some old plan says so.

by David Alpert on May 5, 2009 2:33 pm • linkreport

I don't know which alternative, if any, I am for, but I do know I don't like the analysis is David's initial post.

Don't turn urban planning discussions into geometry book exercises, and don't ignore what's there in deciding what you want to see there.

1. What problem are you trying to solve? If the problem isn't worth fixing, leave the status quo alone (or better, use a fraction of the money to improve the status quot, rather than a ton of money to demolish and start over.

2. This intersection is dominated by Children's Hospital and the Washington Hospital Center, no? That's what springs to MY mind when I think of N. Cap and Irving. NW quadrant is WHC, that's not going anywhere. SW quadrant all the way down to Michigan Ave. is Children's Hospital. Any changes should start by recognizing the special importance of transportation as it relates to these critical medical institutions that all DC residents depend on at some point in their lives. NE quadrant is a giant open field and forest between N. Cap and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Catholic U. doesn't start until you are PAST the Shrine, right? I'd like to know what the Archbishop plans for that forest and field; it ain't necessarily what the President of Catholic U. wants, and I'm not sure who's got the final say. In other words, there are people and institutions already here, why run roughshod over them just to change for the sake of change?

3. I agree with IMGoph that if there's money to be spent on maximizing the value of N. Cap for residents of DC, I want to see that money spent considerably south of here.

4. Finally, once you've idenitified a.) the problem you want to solve; and b.) the current best uses to be preserved; and c.) whether this is a priority project or something to be back-burnered for more worthy projects, ONLY THEN are you ready to start looking at alternatives and seeing which best meets the goals of a.) and b.) and c.).

I do agree that the cloverleaf makes me think twice every time I use it (even the half-cloverleaf at Military and Beach Drive/Ross Drive can throw me for a loop), and probably isn't the best solution inside city limits, but before prancing down one road or another, how about a more pragmatic analysis of need, current use and priorities?

by Trulee Pist on May 5, 2009 2:37 pm • linkreport

I love traffic cirlces and roundabouts. They solve pretty much every congestion problems, because traffic never stops moving.

I hate Dupont Circle however. That is no traffic circle, nor a roundabout. Dupont Circle is traffic hell. An unnavigable jungle of poorly indicated side-roads and a random jungle of traffic lights.

So, if they go for a decent traffic circle, count me in. If they intend to make another Dupont Circle, count me out.

by Jasper on May 5, 2009 3:42 pm • linkreport

Trulee, considering these plans are already in the process of being made, it is important that we get them done right.

I agree with David's view about the circle being the best option.

by Cavan on May 5, 2009 3:46 pm • linkreport

Jasper, somewhat unironically, DuPont being bad for cars helps contribute to it being great for pedestrians. Cars are always stopping at all the traffic lights. There is a median in the roadbed for pedestrians to take safe haven.

by Cavan on May 5, 2009 3:56 pm • linkreport

I'd like to keep it like it is for at least two more years because I like to zoom through that section (Irving to N. Capitol) in my car. I also like the quick access to the hospital, so I fear density and development would eliminate that stretch, as one of DC's famous wormholes.

For further out, sure, fill it in and develop it. The circle looks pretty good. I'll just hope for a helicopter if I'm hurt that badly.

by Ward 1 Guy on May 5, 2009 4:22 pm • linkreport

Yes, but good for pedestrians or not, DuPont is so awful for cars that it often pushes me onto residential streets nearby just to avoid having to go through it. Which, I presume, you would agree is suboptimal.

by Nate on May 5, 2009 4:24 pm • linkreport

mildy suboptimal. But better to have slow traffic dispersed throughout the grid than have a traffic sewer turn a park into a no-man's land.

by Cavan on May 5, 2009 4:31 pm • linkreport

"traffic sewer". Nice one.

by Bianchi on May 5, 2009 4:42 pm • linkreport

Dupont is fine if you're trying to get to the center, not always great if you're trying to cross it, and surprizingly irritating if you're trying to go around the circumference. The two signals at each intersection with a street are confusing and frustrating when you follow the law and wait on the tiny pedestrian islands.

What's worse is that the problem could be solved if they made the yellow arrow mean "yield to pedestrians" on streets other than Mass Ave.

by цarьchitect on May 5, 2009 5:58 pm • linkreport

Bianchi, Douglas Willinger also uses that phrase pretty often. I disagree with him almost all the time, but he does have a gift for diction.

by цarьchitect on May 5, 2009 6:00 pm • linkreport

All other issues aside, I think that it is a huge symbolic gesture to remove this, the sole cloverleaf in the District of Columbia. It says a message and sets an example for the rest of the country where center cities are marred by freeway interchanges. Removing it is in my opinion very important for this reason.

I like the idea of North Capital Street being the road that meets the circle. This would certainly discourage people treating North Capitol like a freeway, and perhaps get a few people to follow the 30 mph speed limit.

by Dave Murphy on May 5, 2009 6:04 pm • linkreport

Good point about making a point. I had totally forgotten that the speed limit there was 30. The couple times I drove that way (rare for me since I usually walk to the Red Line) I drove 40 or 50 since it was so wide and curvy and isolated.

The circle would also create a canvas for a mixed-use street grid neighborhood to be served by light rail at some indeterminate future.

by Cavan on May 5, 2009 8:45 pm • linkreport

Cavan, here's my rule on that: Nothing is final until the steamshovels start up.

Again, I don't know if I am for it, against it, or indifferent. I just object to a tendency of people to start scrippling circles and squares all over the map without giving a damn about how people are already using the space: What problem are you trying to solve, and What people and institutions are already there making the best use of the space, and What kind of priority should we give to this proposal over all the other needs of the city?

by Trulee Pist on May 5, 2009 10:18 pm • linkreport

Dave: if slowing North Capitol traffic is your primary intended goal, then yes that would work (having Irving under the circle and N. Capitol at-grade). However, because of the large disparity in traffic volumes between North Capitol (about 32K) and Irving (about 18K), you won't have the air quality and pedestrian/bike safety benefits that you'd get with putting North Capitol under the circle.

by Froggie on May 6, 2009 7:21 am • linkreport

I would refer anyone interested in the most advanced design, that best interfaces pedestrians with the infrastructure of traffic engineering, to research the work of the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman. Recent articles in the Wilson Quarterly and Wired Magazine

has introduced his work to an American audience.

His concepts of shared space, and techniques of minimal signage, clear design and a respect for an individuals situational awareness suggest a sophisticated approach to such contested design problems.

Julian Hunt, AIA

by Julian Hunt on May 6, 2009 9:33 am • linkreport

"(get rid of the tunnels) "

No, rather make them into tunnels. Like the depressed segment of CT Ave just north of DuPont Circle, the depressed segments of North Capitol Street around Rhode Island Avenue should be covered.

by Douglas Willinger on May 6, 2009 12:38 pm • linkreport

I see what you mean about the "circle" design being more in tune with the L'enfant-style circles like Dupont and Scott. Given the opportunity to create a great continuous park in the center of the interchange, however, makes the "parkway" design a much better option.

It's interesting that you compare the proposed park's size to Lincoln Park. Lincoln is extremely popular in my opinion because it's a great hybrid between the European-style parks in older sections of DC (like Stanton Park a few blocks from Lincoln) and more modern parks that encourage activity. On any given weekend, Lincoln park is bustling with adults, kids and dogs, while Stanton park is virtually empty. People value outdoor recreation more than they used to, and these older parks with hedge rows and statues in the center are more ornamental--not really an asset to a young neighborhood.

DC should keep all the accessible, enjoyable parkland they can get in a changing area like Bloomingdale. There are plenty of postage stamp parks in the city, but even a game of pickup soccer requires a trip to the Mall, or Virginia.

I'm surprised that you would criticize Brookland residents who want to keep their grassy vacant lot beside the Metro in the name of "open space," but advocate creating the same kind of open space in this project.

by Chris B on May 6, 2009 5:51 pm • linkreport

I wholeheartedly agree with IMGoph, there should be serious discussion about creating a proper circle between Irving and Union Station. An appealing option is a circle at North Cap and Florida (roughly equidistant between the two locations). However, this would necessitate a massive redevelopment of the area... at the corner is a gas station that is probably not going anywhere and the circle might become an expensive hang-out for the local street dwellers (this intersection is already unsafe after dark).

A circle at North Cap and New York is more feasible but would likely be even less safe due to the massive public housing unit across the street. (As a matter of precaution, I no longer walk on the south bound side due to a number of very uncomfortable encounters).

While the block that straddles North Cap and the Red Line is undergoing a massive multi-million dollar development project that will undoubtedly yield very positive returns to the community, commercial services will (presumably) be limited to the tenets.

Although aesthetic and community-based improvements are apparent to the Bloomingfield neighborhood, it lacks any immediate potential for commercial growth. At present, the only viable ventures are the half-dozen liquor stores and Chinese take-out joints.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to luring commercial development is the fact that North Cap is effectively a two lane highway.

by Randolph on May 7, 2009 1:13 am • linkreport

randolph: for the record, i didn't say anything about building a circle between irving and union station. i am opposed to a circle at new york and north capitol.

i would like to see truxton circle brought back just north of florida avenue. i was also advocating for the return of simple surface intersections where rhode island avenue and new york avenue cross north capitol street.

also, do you mean bloomingdale? there is no neighborhood in DC called bloomingfield.

by IMGoph on May 7, 2009 9:38 am • linkreport

"A circle at North Cap and New York"

would require demolishing a bit of the 1960s development to NY Ave's south, and of the vanguard of historic DC residential neighborhood to the north (which would have also been done on a longer length with the 1970s design I-95/I-395 extension), an action I oppose.

by Douglas Willinger on May 7, 2009 10:28 am • linkreport

Great Blog; great piece on planning at NoCap and Irving.

Such proposals don't just happen - EEK (Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut and Kuhn) DC office, deserve the credit for these choices.

by Ralph Bennett on May 7, 2009 12:24 pm • linkreport

Great Blog; great piece on planning at NoCap and Irving.

Such proposals don't just happen - EEK (Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut and Kuhn) DC office, deserve the credit for these choices.

by Ralph Bennett on May 7, 2009 12:25 pm • linkreport

Well, Truxton is between Irving and Union Station on North Cap but, in the words of Carly Simon, this song ain't about you.

I think we can all agree that an impediment for commercial development on North Cap is the swift traffic flow that is partially brought about by the tunnels. Perhaps the most viable immediate fix to this would be the installation of a circle. For folks like me that cycle and walk the North Cap route to Union Station, the road is unsafe - even for drivers... I've seen dozens of serious accidents at the intersections of North Cap. It's pretty revealing that the city (thankfully) hired traffic directors to protect those crossing the side walks.

Has the city commissioned a study on redeveloping Truxton Circle?

by Randolph on May 7, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

IIRC there was a recent North Capitol Street study with a restored Truxton Circle with an option for a tunnel beneath, though I don't recall seeing anything about the portals.

by Douglas Willinger on May 8, 2009 2:21 pm • linkreport

The north cap. freeway runs from mich. ave to fort drive and is 1.1 miles long.

by no freeways guy on Oct 11, 2009 7:53 pm • linkreport

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