North Capitol: Competing visions for handling traffic
reported that developers have been chosen for Northwest One, which will replace the Sursum Corda and Temple Court projects near New York Avenue and North Capitol with mixed-use redevelopment that has the potential to become a walkable neighborhood. But it also reveals some very different views on how to handle traffic around New York Avenue and I-395.
The master plan from 2005 has a lot to recommend it. In addition to building mixed-income townhouses on the side streets and larger apartment buildings with retail facing the larger thoroughfare of K Street, it will reconnect many of the smaller streets like L Street. Right now, that area is a hodgepodge of dead-ends and superblocks; the more connected the street grid the more walkable a neighborhood.
But I noticed one very bad idea briefly mentioned on page 24 of the plan, the section on traffic. The neighborhood is very close to the intersection where the I-395 freeway comes out of the tunnel under the Capitol and dead-ends at New York Avenue. This is one of the last pieces to be built of the original DC interstate plan. The Northwest One master plan (from 2005, remember) says, "There is significant congestion along New York Avenue between the I-395 tunnel and North Capitol Street... This study recommends... the extension of the I-395 tunnel from its current terminus to Florida Avenue."
DC planners may have good ideas on smart growth, but at least in 2005 they still were stuck in the past on traffic. Adding more traffic lanes does not reduce congestion; at most it pushes it elsewhere. Extending the tunnel might allow New York Avenue to become a pedestrian-friendly road, but will also make I-395 even more appealing for drivers, increasing traffic volume there. If there are bottlenecks in the tunnel, more drivers may divert to the same city streets the plan aims to protect. And what about New York Avenue east of Florida Avenue? Enabling more traffic will make that area even more difficult to turn into walkable urban neighborhoods one day.
Continuing to surprise me, however, is the federal government: the National Capital Planning Commission conducted a charrette with Federal agencies and six consultants, which resulted in a report recommending the opposite of DC Planning's tunnel extension. Noting that many drivers use New York Avenue and 395 to cut through the District between Maryland and Virginia instead of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the Beltway, the report advocates designing New York Avenue to serve DC residents instead of suburbanites. It recommends planners "encourage more smart, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development" and "create a corridor with a better balance of transportation modes (e.g. transit, walking, bicycling)."
For the New York/Florida Avenue intersection, the group suggests policies to "discourage drive-through, auto-oriented uses at the intersection" and "employ traffic-calming measures to slow traffic to a level compatible with the urban neighborhood." Most remarkably, the report recomments DC evaluate congestion pricing in the area, and even cutting I-395 back to end at Massachusetts Avenue (a road which leads to DC neighborhoods on both ends, rather than connecting directly to a Maryland freeway).
This is remarkably progressive thinking from a federal board. This is a major intersection that carries large amounts of traffic, but is also ugly and overly designed for cars. Most Departments of Transportation would only be able to think about increasing its traffic capacity, but NCPC is instead recommending restoring the area to a vibrant urban fabric. And it can be done while still enabling people to drive in and out of the city, just as people successfully do along the avenues to the north, which work relatively well as neighborhood main streets and commuter boulevards at the same time.
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