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Bridging a 138-year-old divide suits L'Enfant's spirit

NCPC will debate whether "closing" portions of three nonexistent "paper streets" along the Anacostia waterfront adequately respects the L'Enfant Plan. The way to best fulfill the spirit of the L'Enfant Plan, however, would be to focus on connecting the Barney Circle neighborhood to the waterfront.

14th and L, SE. Image from Google Street View.

The railroad first separated the two when it was built in 1872, and the freeway created an even bigger barrier in 1974. The Barney Circle Freeway was planned to extend this segment across the river to the Anacostia Freeway, but was canceled in 1996.

The current 11th Street Bridges project aims to provide the all-freeway link from the Anacostia Freeway to the Southeast Freeway. As a result, this segment is no longer needed, and DDOT plans to remove it at the end of the bridge project.

Freeing up a large strip of land provides an opportunity to add some development and also reconnect across the bridge. Today, L Street, SE runs for three blocks, from 13th to 15th Street, with a fence on one side separating it from the freeway below. There's then a much larger drop to the surface CSX tracks; this portion is east of the tunnel. M Street runs adjacent to the tracks to the south.

The area in question. Image from Google Maps. Potomac Avenue Metro is at the top; the Cohen development is at the bottom, just northeast of the large parking lot.

The freeway here is actually four separate roadways, two in each direction. The middle two lead to ramps to the 11th Street Bridges, which are being removed; the outer two connect to the Southeast Freeway. On the eastern end, the ramps connect to Pennsylvania Avenue at Barney Circle and also pass underneath as a roadway that runs along the waterfront to RFK Stadium.

Without the freeway, DDOT could reconstruct this roadway as a new local road between L and M. Let's call it Lamp Street. It no longer needs to cary Pennsylvania Avenue traffic to the freeway, as those cars should take 295 to the 11th Street Bridge. Therefore, it only would carry cars going to and from the stadium and local traffic.

1-2 lanes each way, plus parallel parking, sidewalks, and a two-way cycle track along the railroad side would suffice. With the remaining land, DC could allow some new development fronting onto Lamp Street and onto L. I don't know what neighbors would like to see, but if I lived there, I'd like to see some townhouses facing L, connected in the back to taller buildings along Lamp.

The townhouses could be 2½-3½ stories above ground. The larger portions could be set back enough to keep L feeling low-rise while also providing more opportunities for adding housing and some nice views of the water on the Lamp Street side.

Click on the radio buttons to toggle: Current   Potential

Best of all, bridges could then connect over the railroad tracks. If the existing grade of the freeway (and what will become Lamp Street) is high enough above the tracks to allow the CSX double-height trains to pass completely below, then 13th, 14th, and 15th could continue to new intersections with Lamp (with a downward slope), and pedestrian bridges could then cross the tracks.

If that's not high enough, the grade could be raised to make Lamp the same height as L, or else the extensions of 13th, 14th, and 15th could simply be pedestrian plazas atop the ground floor of the Lamp apartment buildings connecting to bridges over both Lamp and the tracks. That would avoid direct connections from Lamp to the other streets, which some residents might like to avoid drivers using those streets, but would also diminish connectivity.

The next question becomes how the bridges can let pedestrians and cyclists down from the high altitude over the tracks. Extending the bridges down to the waterfront should be part of the Cohen project. Pedestrians and cyclists shouldn't have to travel long distances to the east or west to get down; they should be able to descend directly toward the waterfront.

These could be standalone bridges extending along the streets' right-of-way, and they could also connect directly to parts of the new buildings. Cohen should plan to build these bridges and ensure any overpasses between the buildings aren't in the way. DC could also require CSX to go along with these bridges as one of the conditions of their Virginia Avenue tunnel project.

The bridge at 14th, in particular, would make this new waterfront plaza and the riverfront boathouses easily accessible from the Potomac Avenue Metro. The L'Enfant Plan was about connections: avenues and roadways connected major circles and squares to each other and to the edges of the city. Ensuring an easy connection from the major intersection at Potomac Avenue to the waterfront, and reconnecting the grid across the tracks even for non-vehicular traffic, best fulfills the true spirit of the plan.

Rather than worrying about the width of the right-of-way for paper streets that don't actually go anywhere, NCPC should focus on guaranteeing these connections and upholding the intent of the L'Enfant Plan.

The center (light) freeway area can be removed and 9th reconnected. Image from Google Maps.
Whether DC goes with this plan or some other arrangement for the current Southeast Freeway segment east of the 11th Street Bridges, it would help to make a decision soon. The most recent designs for the 11th Street Bridges include a ramp from the current northernmost freeway road up to 8th Street.

If Lamp (or whatever it's ultimately called) ends up using the south side of the freeway right-of-way, DDOT should make sure Skanska lines up the new ramp with the final road.

Instead of directly flowing into the freeway on the western end, DDOT could reconnect 9th Street between I and Virginia Avenue, where current ramps lead to the defunct freeway. The reclaimed land on each side, between the 11th Street Bridge ramps, could provide space for the Marine Barracks expansion instead of taking the nearby community garden.

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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loving the current-potential toggle. break it out more often!

by john c on May 5, 2010 10:10 am • linkreport

Excellent concept, David. These added connections would both make the riverfront/Maritime Plaza site more attractive and would be a tremendous asset to the neighborhoods to the north.

by Alex B. on May 5, 2010 10:12 am • linkreport

What is it with (some) Washingtonians that they worry about city designs that are 140 years old? Come on folks, times have changed! Do you think this is ever an argument in cities with some real history and design issues like Rome, Athens, or Nara?

In the 60s the Romans even built a highway over Ceasar's Forum Romanum (sorry, can't find an online picture, I do have one in a tourist guide). While they later tore down the thing because they realized that might have been a bit of a mistake, I am pretty sure even in that debate nobody mentioned Caesar's plans. It was a simple debate of transportation easy vs tourism lires.

by Jasper on May 5, 2010 10:22 am • linkreport

I like the theory.

But, if I'm reading it correctly, the argument is that a developer should pay for the building bridges and infrastructure for a development (Lamp Street) that may not ever exist and that isn't related to that developer's project?

And the replacing of that roadway is a good idea since it's a literally dead road. But where's the money going to come from for all that?

by Fritz on May 5, 2010 11:09 am • linkreport

Whoa hang on a minute...the section of highway between 8th st and Penn Ave/RFK may be a "dead" road but taking it out completely would cause daily traffic jams on the access routes to the SE/SW freeway. The road doesn't have to be so big, but it still needs to exist. In fact, one of the main reasons I live in the Barney Circle area now is easy access to I-395 and my job out in Springfield. Everyone in the neighborhood takes the "secret" shortcut through the RFK access road onto the circle and Kentucky/Potomac Aves. I realize this is a self-centered argument, but adding 20 minutes to my commute each day (6 1/2 hours a month!) would really suck...

by c on May 5, 2010 11:18 am • linkreport

@Jasper, The L'Enfant Plan and the McMillian Commission Plan are relevent because they are like a constitution. They don't tell you how each and every particular detail should be, but they set up the frame-work for what the whole should be (aesthetically and functionally) and keep us focused toward that 'vision of the whole' as we move forward. The analogy with the constitution is that the US has a democracy that's been functioning fine under a well written constitution for over 225 years ... the longest running stable government to date to function under a single constitution ... While Italy has had what 50 governments since the end of the Second World War .... and how many constitutions? A well written plan that grasps the whole but allows for the flexibility of unforeseen future demands works best both from a city planning perspective and ... how a country runs itself.

by Lance on May 5, 2010 11:23 am • linkreport

* single WRITTEN and FORMAL constitution ... vs. something like what the Brits have which is unwritten and can (and does) change, though the stability there is drawn from 'precedent' and their monarchy ...

by Lance on May 5, 2010 11:25 am • linkreport

Excellent plan, David. Perhaps the sale of the land for dead freeway could finance the infrastructure improvements. A direct connection to the Potomac Avenue metro would vastly improve the value of the land just south of the tracks, so it may be reasonable to expect development there to share some of the financial burden.

Also, what should be done about the wide highway tunnels under Barney Circle? They risk becoming the next Dupont Down Under.

Also, you may notice that the Water Street right-of-way is aligned perfectly with Barney Circle. It may make sense to connect them again eventually.

Finally, you can find a 1940s aerial photo of the area if you use the time-line feature in Google Earth. It's a bit fuzzy, though.

by Eric F. on May 5, 2010 11:29 am • linkreport

@Eric F.

Wiki also has a cool aerial photo from 1960, before the SE/SW freeway:

You can see that the whole Maritime Plaza area used to be a huge set of oil tanks.

by Alex B. on May 5, 2010 11:34 am • linkreport

In fact, this resurrected Water Street could be the new connection from Barney Circle to M Street SE and I-295. Instead of being a highway, it would be an avenue, which may be more appropriate for a city.

by Eric F. on May 5, 2010 11:35 am • linkreport

Great find, Alex B.

Also notice the park bounded by 11th, 9th, and L Streets SE. This now suffers two overpasses over it, but it would be nice if we could restore more of it to its original use as a park. This would be possible with the elimination of the Barney Circle connector freeway.

by Eric F. on May 5, 2010 11:38 am • linkreport

@ Lance

Since when are we or any modern country a democracy? I thought that idea died out along the time tribal lands or the East Roman Empire died out.

I think you mean republic.

by kk on May 5, 2010 11:39 am • linkreport

The challenge with connecting Water street to Barney Circle is the railroad tracks. Those aren't going anywhere in the near future, and there are some serious changes in grade between Water and M SE and the Circle. Given the relatively small land area that any grade change has available, designing such a connection well would be crucial.

Now, maintaining the connections for pedestrians is easier, since you can put in stairs and ramps, but connecting for cars would be more challenging.

by Alex B. on May 5, 2010 11:39 am • linkreport

If anything is done to the freeway what should be done is a L street boulevard replacing it.

The freeway is the only quick way west due to the dead end streets, and streets that just run into other streets with no way across 11th street.

If they want to replace the freeway with a fully functional grid fine go ahead but if someone wants to replace it just for the sake of getting rid of it with no new grid or street replacing it hell no.

Is it possible to raise the land to the level of L street or get rid of the giant drop ?

by kk on May 5, 2010 11:46 am • linkreport


Raising the land (or sloping it) to get L Street connected to the open space to the South isn't the big issue - the big issue would be getting over the railroad tracks.

by Alex B. on May 5, 2010 11:54 am • linkreport

And ... That is what is wrong with even thinking of introducing a wired system for streetcars ... It violates a fundamental principle of both the L'Enfant and the McMillan plans ... that of an 'open' city with monumental views representing the openness of our democracy and the monumental symbols of our democracy which are meant to be the focal points across and down the great streets of this capital.

It's easy enough to say 'but H Street NE doesn't have anything monumental about it today' ... however this negates the fact that what we are working towards is bringing that openess and monumentality that is part of 'the plan' to all parts of the city. No part should be left behind in the ideals of the city planning which Washington as the capital is so fortunate to have underlying its very establishment.

Something as seamingly 'little' and 'innocuous' as a string of wires and the poles and pantographs that connect the whole may not seem important in an area that has already suffered the ravages of neglect, but they are a clear step backwards. And they are a clear violation of fundamental aspects of our guiding plans. They are also a 'giving up' of the possibility that even these areas can and should be respected and benefit from the same planning which many other parts of the city have already benefitted from. It is like saying 'Louisianna we'll exempt you from the rules of the US constitution because you've got more immediate problems to deal with' ... or ditto Arizona 'you're exempt too from the constitution 'cause your illegal immigration problems are of a more immediate concern'.

When you have a plan ... be it a political constitution or a city's plan, you stick to it ... the benefit of doing so may not be politically expeditious, but it is longterm.

by Lance on May 5, 2010 11:58 am • linkreport

A deck ought to be built over that segment of the SE Freeway and the parallel CSX RR, with a street grid atop.

by Douglas Willinger on May 5, 2010 12:26 pm • linkreport


Decking over the freeway and the railroad tracks still leaves you with a large difference in grade between the deck (even with the current grade of L St SE) and the much lower grade of M St SE (which is more or less even with the CSX tracks).

The challenge would be in designing that transition and maintaining those connections.

by Alex B. on May 5, 2010 1:22 pm • linkreport

Within the past 10 years there was an Anacostia Waterfront Initiative related document that had cross sections of that freeway segment covered- though with the existing freeway space labeled something like 'development' rather than underground highway.

From those cross sections, the concept looks quite workable, IIRC.

I do not recall if it also covered the RR, though I feel that it should.

by Douglas Willinger on May 5, 2010 1:27 pm • linkreport

I wonder if building a bridge for 13th street that went diagonal to the southwest and connected to that roundabout on M would make it easier to cover the double-decker height requirements and still connect the streets. It makes sense to connect it at the roundabout anyway, even if it pushes the road a little to the west.

by Dave Murphy on May 5, 2010 1:51 pm • linkreport


The anti-wires rules were put in place to curtail the massive web of telegraph lines and this newfangled thing called electricity that sprung up, with different voltages that each needed separate lines as there were no standards in place. See this etching of NYC in 1890:

What is being proposed is one measly line per track. It isn't even remotely in the same ballpark to what DC and NYC had to tackle back in the day.

by NikolasM on May 5, 2010 3:50 pm • linkreport


I wasn't referring to the wires act that is a separate and far less important bearing on the wires situation than the L'Enfant and McMillan Commission plans. Those are the 'constitutions' of our 'planning' for DC and they both contain fundamental principles in them that forbid the placing of wires (or anything else) that will obstruct the views and 'openness' of the city. I.e., the Height Act and the Wires Act may be manifestations of these fundamental principles guiding Washington's planning, but they are minor in the grand scheme of things. It's like we might have a law in the US that forbids a national identity card, but that is minor compared to the principles behind it which might include a number of things such as 'innocent before proven guilty' which would be set out in the Constitution. Long story short is that even if the wires act could be repealed, that wouldn't negate the illegality of stringing wires in a manner that enclosed the openness of the District's streets ... and THAT would be a federal interersts issue ... in the same sense that the colors to be used on the bike path on Penn. Avenue were a federal interests issue.

by Lance on May 5, 2010 5:36 pm • linkreport

@ Lance: I usually do not react to you because I tend to disagree with you on more points than there are words in a comment. However, since I posted this question elsewhere, I'll repeat it here, and would like to get a straight answer from you:

Would you propose tearing down the Treasury building? After all, it blocks of the most important symbolic view of the city: that from the Capitol to the White House (and back).

by Jasper on May 5, 2010 9:32 pm • linkreport

Good riddance to that section of freeway. It always seemed a little superfluous to me. It would be great if they could take measures to minimize the division that the train tracks cause (partially trench them or whatever). Put it in the plan for CSX to do, why not?

by Amber on May 5, 2010 9:51 pm • linkreport

@Jasper, And you don't think "Treasury" of all buildings, is perhaps the best 'link' for the two? Would you prefer the mint be there?

Actually, in all seriousness, the Treasury building probably shouldn't be there. But it is. And that is ... and it would be difficult to tear down now. And that is the problem, once it is erected, it becomes nearly impossible to take down. I chatted with someone 'in the know' today who said that DDOT had already decided that this current line they are building would be the only one with wires. That they knew it made no sense to build in the rest of the city with wires. That's comforting. But not fair. Not fair for the people along that area that will be saddled with this obsolete system forever. Once a mistake gets built, it becomes nearly impossible to undo.

by Lance on May 5, 2010 10:52 pm • linkreport

@ Lance: Just go check out the south-east wall of the Jefferson Monument. It says it all.

by Jasper on May 6, 2010 10:20 am • linkreport

Barney Circle: I never understood why they named an intersection after that annoying purple dinosaur. :-)

by Mike on May 6, 2010 1:18 pm • linkreport

Why not create a avenue where the freeway is and bring it all the way to Benning RD; have it follow the current route then extend it through DC General, RFK parkinglot to Benning Road around where the Trains cross it at ?

It would be great to have a main road that goes between Benning Road & Penn Ave, it would also help if they ever decided to really build something, could build a streetcar route or buses.

by kk on May 6, 2010 6:16 pm • linkreport

I'm confused. There is already a plan to boulevardize the stub of the SW/SE Freeway from the 11th Street Bridge connector to Barney Circle. This is different from the more grandiose -- and far less likely -- concept of boulevardizing the whole SW/SE freeway.

In the late 90s, DC scrapped a proposed new highway through Barney Circle to cross the Anacostia upstream of Pennsylvania Ave. bridge. This later led to the 11th Street option for connecting the freeways -- now under construction. When the freeways become linked there, the stub mentioned in this post will become unnecessary for commuting and it can be returned to surface streets for neighborhood use.

While the 11th Street project is on the front-burner, the boulevardization is still on the planning books. Apparently it was discussed in the EIS on the 11th Street Bridges. See for a reference.

by John Mitchell on May 7, 2010 1:40 pm • linkreport

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