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Public Spaces

Put a lid on Connecticut Avenue

Between Dupont Circle and Q Street, a segment of the Connecticut Avenue underpass is exposed to the sky, needlessly monopolizing space from the block's active street scene. DC should cover that section to reclaim the space for human use.

Photo by dbking.

In 1950, with great fanfare, the District opened the vehicular underpass, allowing Connecticut Avenue to dive under Dupont Circle.

In March 2007, DDOT finished refurbishing the automobile underpass, but the city missed an excellent opportunity to restore the gashed avenue above.

M.V. Jantzen proposed a median park directly above the underpass. This could provide a larger space for the weekend farmers' market, art sales, and other events that the stodgy National Park Service may not permit in the circle itself.

On the other hand, the rest of the time, this park could suffer from desolation due to its separation from the active sidewalks. It's difficult to draw people to sit in what is essentially a grassy street median.

Another solution would be to place the street over the underpass and double the widths of the sidewalks.

Left: Median park option. Right: Center roadway with wider sidewalks.

Connecticut Avenue, for that one block, would become much like P Street or Nineteenth Street (on the north side) as they approach the circle. Each provides a travel lane and a parking lane in each direction— far different from the cramped and highway-like atmosphere on Connecticut Avenue.

The businesses along the block would benefit from sidewalks that will double in width as well as from easier access from the roadway, parking spaces and pedestrians on the opposite side of the avenue. The increased sidewalk space would relieve the pedestrian congestion on the sidewalks, particularly on the east side, and provide space for outdoor seating and for stores' promotional placards. Pairs of facing street benches perpendicular to the avenue could provide more seating for shop patrons and passersby.

This would be more expensive to build than the median park, as it would need to be strong enough to carry traffic, but it enhances existing, heavily-used sidewalk spaces.

Plans are already in motion to build over I-395 and the National Capital Planning Commission dreams of covering the E Street Expressway in Foggy Bottom east of the Kennedy Center. Compared to those proposals, this one is simpler, cheaper and would benefit more residents.

Cross-posted at Left for LeDroit.

Update, February 9th: We've removed the photographs from M.V. Jantzen utilizing Julian Hunt's image and the intro image from the Washingtoniana collection via Paul Williams' book. Eric has created another variant of his own image to illustrate the median park option.

Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 


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This is a really good idea. It could completely change the character of that block. Let's do it.

by Steve O on Feb 1, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

was it designed that way originally so it wouldn't require electric lights in the tunnel? I really like the idea of reclaiming the street space, but can we light the tunnel with solar/wind powered lights then? The article below describes small wind turbines that could power lights in the tunnel..and houses all over Greater DC!

by Bianchi on Feb 1, 2010 12:18 pm • linkreport

Off-topic, but is anyone else having trouble with the images on GGW?

by Froggie on Feb 1, 2010 12:37 pm • linkreport

Disregard...didn't see David's note on the issue.

by Froggie on Feb 1, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

I know this sounds really crazy, especially since people usually hate profits (the people not making them from what I can tell), but why not go one further and just build another block of tallish-thinnish buildings over this? New real estate on Dupont Circle would be worth a fortune. I'm not against more parks or anything, but you're talking about building a park across the street from a park (and there's another small piece of park in the triangle created by this space just to the north as seen on the road rendering). The sidewalks are also rather wide already. If the area is really the four 12 foot lanes I believe it is, you get a building 40 feet wide (need some more sidewalk) and easily 100-200 feet long while keeping the 2 one way lanes with parking. That would rather additively liven up the block.

by Matt on Feb 1, 2010 12:39 pm • linkreport

Excellent idea. When Project for Public Spaces came in and proposed the median park a, I was surprised that they wanted to create an isolated grass strip. I suspect it would be hard, or at least expensive, to accommodate trees in the decking, and theyÂ’d never get the beautiful canopy they have at the circle.

This idea makes a lot more sense. I like, especially because the wider sidewalks could be used for outdoor seating for the restaurants along either side. The only suggestion I would make is to take out the parking and make it a better hub for buses, since many of the Western DC buses stop here.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 1, 2010 12:40 pm • linkreport

Better than solar/wind power is to use natural light as is done now, but do it through the use of small skylights. Built into the park or even the sidwalk could be a few sun catchment devices that then channel light into the tunnel just like sun tunnels in a house. Cheaper and simpler. Of course you'd still need streetlights for times when the sun isn't shining.

This is a great idea though. I see the median as an awesome dog park (fenced in of course).

by David C on Feb 1, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

I've been meaning to make this exact proposal at BeyondDC for some time, but haven't gotten around to it. Great idea.

by BeyondDC on Feb 1, 2010 12:42 pm • linkreport

I really like either idea. Any change of stimulus funding?!

by Adam L on Feb 1, 2010 12:42 pm • linkreport

My initial thought would be that it should be easier to get a small park/plaza/open space there than it would be to get a new street, just due to the structural requirements to hold up cars, trucks, and buses.

by Alex B. on Feb 1, 2010 12:47 pm • linkreport

Love all the ideas.

A third option might be to increase the sidewalks and run a tree lined median down the middle. Being above the spring points of the two tunnel arches, you could probably get enough structure to support nice canopy trees down the middle.

Of the two above I'd vote for the bigger sidewalks because (to pick up on what Matt said) there's already a beautiful public space adjacent to this. Any serious student of urban design knows that disapating the enclosure of many a public spaces can sap it of energy and vitality. That's why 10 pocket parks will never match the quality of one really good (sized) public space.

I especially love the general concensus one finds on this blog on the really big moves. To me that means things are changing for the better, or greater.

by Thayer-D on Feb 1, 2010 12:54 pm • linkreport

Thayer, I doubt they'd use arches in this proposal. Why do you think they would?

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 1, 2010 1:09 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure it would matter what they use. My point remains the same though. There would probably be an intermediate support at the mid point much like exists below the circle itself. I suppose arches came to mind because of the metro and the tunnel on Rock Creek Park near the zoo entrance.
If you prefer, it could be like the New York subway, either way though it would be nice to get a planting strip which would require a lot of dirt.

by Thayer-D on Feb 1, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport

I like Matt's idea the most. Since the city owns the new land it would create, by leasing it to buildings, the project would likely more than pay for itself. A string of 2 or 3 story restaurants, bookshops, boutiques and galleries would fit nicely and would still leave room for widening the sidewalks.

by Teo on Feb 1, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport

The problem with putting buildings on that site is all the extra infrastructure that would be required. I assume that the tunnel has to have a minimum amount of overhead clearance (12 feet?) and all the electrical wiring, plumbing, sewer, etc. that would normally go into a foundation would be a real pain to put in overhead.

by Adam L on Feb 1, 2010 1:34 pm • linkreport

The avenue is a part of the L'Enfant Plan and placing a building in the median would obstruct one of the primary vistas radiating from the White House.

by Eric F. on Feb 1, 2010 1:35 pm • linkreport

A building that could work there and that DC doesn't have enough of would be a long narrow market. Like baltimore has so many of

by John on Feb 1, 2010 1:43 pm • linkreport

Or how about a hybrid grassy area with hardscape plaza? The grassy area could be set up for Bocce or the like. The hardscape could have an outdoor restaurant on it (a city-awarded concession) with a small gazebo-like building just large enough for a kitchen and restrooms.

These types of plazas with outdoor restaurants exist all over Europe.

by Joey on Feb 1, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport

@Adam, The clearance would have to be the same as when it goes under Q Street and under the Circle itself. Not sure if that leaves enough room for plumbing, but the fountain in the Circle seems to work fine, so who knows?

@Eric, You make a good point. Not only that but it would damage the symmetry around the circle since it would effectively split Connecticut Avenue into 2 one-way roads. On the other hand, when Connecticut reaches Florida Avenue two blocks north, it turns, thereby ending the vista anyway.

Based on the points Eric and Adam make, perhaps a 3 story building would be too much.However, a series of low-lying "huts" like those near the entrance to the Verizon Center and the movie theater might work better and give people a reason to be there.

Schenely Plaza, in Pittsburgh, PA comes to mind ( It used to be a parking lot but is now a park with free WiFi, a performance area, a carousel, and a few of these huts selling various food and drinks. Obviously the space over Connecticut is smaller, but it might still work?

by Teo on Feb 1, 2010 1:54 pm • linkreport

I prefer the reclaimed street with widened sidewalks to the grassy median. I think the former would really help liven the street...restaurants can add outdoor seating, there would be more room to walk, etc. Right now, the sidewalks are tight.

Also, not sure I like the idea of building over the road. Could create very narrow streets on either side of the building.

by Nick on Feb 1, 2010 1:56 pm • linkreport

Does anyone prefer the grassy median to a reclaimed streetway? I doubt it. The advantage of the median is that it's cheaper/more realistic, but I haven't heard anyone say it makes for a better streetscape.

by David C on Feb 1, 2010 2:15 pm • linkreport

This is an excellent idea that ought to also be applied to the uncovered underways along North Capitol Street at Rhode Island and New York Avenues.

The open space in the media works fine especially when much of the vehicular traffic has its covered underway (tunnel), and would make a good place for street performers.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Feb 1, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport

How about a median with parking against the median, widen the sidewalks and have a drop-off-only lane on that side

by ah on Feb 1, 2010 2:38 pm • linkreport

Parked cars act as a buffer between pedestrians and the moving traffic. Parking in the center of the street would eliminate that buffer making the sidewalk edge a little less pleasant to walk along.

by Eric F. on Feb 1, 2010 2:42 pm • linkreport

I'd also vote for a market house or temporary structures, like kiosks for coffee, tacos, etc. there used to be a coffee kiosk where the round bench is next to the Metro entrance and the bank building. that was a nice feature. I dont know why the got rid of it. A market house a set of kiosks might make it possible to pay for the cost of decking the trench, though I imagine it's expensive.

by ccort on Feb 1, 2010 3:20 pm • linkreport

I'm for the streetscape. Just an empty plot of grass wouldn't add anything to the area, whereas the streetscape would allow for better traffic flow as well as larger sidewalks. Dupont Circle is essential in making sure traffic flows smoothly with all the intersecting roads and closing off one of the arteries would make traffic worse.

by Cassidy on Feb 1, 2010 3:50 pm • linkreport

I created the image of the park over the underpass, but I actually prefer Eric's idea to move the road to the center and widen the sidewalks; that space is much more likely to be used. And thanks to Julian Hunt who took the original photo.

Buildings in the center probably wouldn't be feasible; I'd rather try to add density by building over the parking lot behind the PNC bank, and over the Q St Metro station.

by M.V. Jantzen on Feb 1, 2010 4:25 pm • linkreport

Lots of good ideas. But I think the first hurdle we'd face is wresting control of this space from the feds. I don't think we own it. I say that because when Connecticut Avenue got redone a decade (or so) ago, the tunnel didn't get redone. (It got redone several or more years later). And I remember asking those in the know back then why the tunnel portion of Connecticut Avenue didn't get re-done concurrently ... And I was told that was because ownership of the tunnel is federal.

by Lance on Feb 1, 2010 5:14 pm • linkreport

Great ideas. Wider side walks along that part of Connecticut would be nice- there is s lot of foot traffic in that area.

What about a community garden?

by akg on Feb 1, 2010 8:42 pm • linkreport

A hearty second to Douglas Willinger! I live in Bloomingdale very close to North Capitol St. Covering those underpasses with green space would really enhance both the neighborhood and the approach to the Capitol.

by Malcolm K. on Feb 1, 2010 9:40 pm • linkreport

When they were doing work on the tunnel, I thought the same thing--that they should just cover up this section and put in a little plaza with benches to hang out or maybe relocate the farmer's market to.

But this idea of widening the sidewalks may be even better, if it allows for the food establishments on either side to set up a lot more sidewalk seating. Imagine if that stretch of Connecticut was lined with cafe-style seating, public benches for people to sit on, and even food kiosks or food truck stalls. So many ideas...

by Angelo on Feb 1, 2010 10:27 pm • linkreport

-and the good thing is that there are already businesses there that could make use of the expanded space: Kramerbooks, Marvelous Market, Starbucks, BGR, SweetGreen... The funny thing is as famous as Dupont is for being a pedestrian area, it really doesn't have good streetscapes. P St sucks, Conn Ave sucks, and 17th St is a mess. Imagine having Bethesda Row in Dupont :)

On a related note, since folks mentioned the possibility of having small buildings to house small businesses, I think a better option is to build on the footprints of the old trolley station entrances, like

by M.V. Jantzen on Feb 1, 2010 10:34 pm • linkreport

How about building a plaza where the Dupont farmer's market could be setup? It would have a great effect on the streetscape in that part of the neighborhood.

by John on Feb 1, 2010 11:49 pm • linkreport

Or we could have it all. Widen the sidewalks on each side by 10 feet (that's a lot!) and there is still room for a nice 25 foot median with shade trees and grass and benches and a path right down the middle from Q st. to the Dupont circle crosswalk - our own mini-Ramblas or Unter den Linden.

by egk on Feb 2, 2010 12:39 am • linkreport

You make the point that pedestrian traffic wouldn't have easy access to the park. I beg to differ. This area is often frequented with traffic as people cross to and from the metro. I think it's an amazing idea.

by Rosscott on Feb 2, 2010 1:20 am • linkreport

I've been swayed by the farmers market idea. A nice glass and steel market building, kind of an updated old school market of the type Florence has, just smaller. This would solve the utilities, weight, etc. issues building over a road way. Also, there would be no back of the building which the site couldn't afford. You would be closing off DuPont cirlce a bit more, which might be nice for a sence of enclosure. Part of it should towards the circle should be left open as a forecourt. And the perimeter could be set up as outward oriented booths to serve night foods, to keep it lively. And deffinatley a paper stand, although with tweeting etc. maybe that's already outdated. I realize all this is mute because of the view requirements, but it's fun to stip ball.

by Thayer-D on Feb 2, 2010 9:07 am • linkreport

Fabulous idea. It would greatly increase the open space in the neighborhood. Speaking of farmers' markets, it makes me think of the Bastille Market on boulevard Richard Lenoir in Paris.

by MicheleM on Feb 2, 2010 9:25 am • linkreport

We got the 17th St. streetscape planning going before the P St. streetscpape was finished. It's time to start planning a Conn Ave streetscape. We should re-examine the density restrictions as well.

by Rob Halligan on Feb 2, 2010 9:48 am • linkreport

This 17th St resident says, "Hear, hear!" Great idea.

by Brad on Feb 2, 2010 2:40 pm • linkreport

+1 for wide sidewalks and moving the roadway to the center with no median. Super-wide sidewalks will open up many possibilities for the streetscape, like sidewalk cafes and vendors.

by Ward 1 Guy on Feb 3, 2010 10:05 am • linkreport

Best to design it as an expansion of Dupont Circle with the Farmer's Market occupying the site under a permanent structure as they do in European cities. The Mercat Santa Caterina in Barcelona is a great example:

Note: That photo of the existing conditions is mine without attribution.

by Julian Hunt on Feb 3, 2010 12:24 pm • linkreport

I think the sidewalks make more sense. The grassy median space would be slighly redundant given that its right next to the circle, just as that awkward triange north of Q is. Buildings would make sense, but it seems like it would be much more demanding enginnering since the tunnel would have to support their full weight, no?

by AB on Feb 3, 2010 2:59 pm • linkreport

Don't be misled by an amateur rendering. That's exactly the danger of prematurely floating a good idea without the proper expertise to express the intent. It should not be grass but the permanent installation of a market. That unfortunate rendering should not have been posted and in fact used my photograph without permission.

by Julian Hunt on Feb 3, 2010 5:15 pm • linkreport

Thanks for using a photograph from my book Dupont Circle for illustration purposes. Note, however, that you credited the original source, and not my book. Images from the DCPL may be subject to copyright, which is your own responsibility to research, and in this case, the image is copyright Arcadia Publishing and myself. In addition, you need a pay a fee to DCPL to use this image for your own purposes. This seems to be the danger of blogger's just borrowing what they can find on the internet without proper legal authority.

by Paul Williams on Feb 3, 2010 8:18 pm • linkreport

Man, the images in this post are ticking all sorts of people off...

by Teo on Feb 3, 2010 9:05 pm • linkreport

Let no good deed of civic improvement go unpunished.

by Evan on Feb 3, 2010 9:18 pm • linkreport

Is it a bad sign that a publisher can't use apostrophes correctly?

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 3, 2010 10:03 pm • linkreport

Paul, I'm not sure whether the post's author actually grabbed the photo from your book or directly from the DCPL library's archives, but it's likely a fair use, anyway, under copyright law.

It's an iconic, unreproducible photograph of an historical event, used as a small thumbnail image with a link to the source (your book), on a non-commercial web site with no advertising, and for an arguably scholarship-related purpose.

Frankly, it screams fair use.

I'm kind of surprised you'd bark here. If anything, I was inclined to locate and purchase that book after browsing through a few pages on Google Books. You should be happy about the free advertising.

by Joey on Feb 3, 2010 10:22 pm • linkreport

So many good ideas. Anyone from the area's ANC on this thread? Anyway we could vote or take a poll on the different options?

@Paul: Joey is right. I've seen the book in stores. Looks interesting; it's always been on my list to pick up. I'm much less inclined to buy it now.

This seems to be the danger of a knee jerk reaction without considering fair use.

by will on Feb 4, 2010 6:10 am • linkreport

M.V. Jantzen beat me to it but why is there a surface parking lot behind the PNC Bank, right next to the north entrance of the Dupont metro? This is one of the most walkable, transit-accessible location in the DC region and there is a decent size surface parking lot right there. The land has to be extraordinarily valuable. I don't know the engineering difficulties of building an underground parking structure there since it is above a metro station but the profit a developer would make from the new housing at this location should easily pay for this.

by Ben on Feb 5, 2010 9:37 am • linkreport

A friend tells me: "there was a proposal by Riggs Bank about 20 years ago to develop the site of their Dupont Circle branch into high rise commercial, office, and maybe residential. That proposal included the space above the current building and the existing parking lot on 20th Street behind the bank building complex. I know it was generally opposed by the community."

by M.V. Jantzen on Feb 11, 2010 11:02 pm • linkreport

I am still trying to find that DC study regarding Truxton Circle that had a tunnel option connecting and covering the 2 existing depressed segments of North Capitol Street.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 3, 2010 11:24 pm • linkreport

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