Greater Greater Washington

Make North Capitol Street a true gateway

North Capitol Street, framed by the Capitol dome and used by hundreds of commuters and visitors, stands as an oft-overlooked example of a highway mentality misapplied to an urban setting. To rectify this longstanding gash in the city's fabric, DDOT should look into reshaping of the less appealing highway-like portions of North Capitol Street around Rhode Island and New York Avenues.


In Boston: once an elevated freeway, now a beloved city park. Photo by the author.

North Capitol Street was originally a wide urban boulevard that hosted a streetcar line (predecessor to today's Metrobus route 80). Truxton Circle, which sat at the intersection of North Capitol and Florida Avenue until 1947, provided a focal point and pedestrian refuge that enhanced the corridor's visual appeal.

However, planners in the 1950s were more concerned with getting automobile commuters from the north into and out of downtown quickly than with aesthetics or neighborhood cohesiveness. They sped through traffic by building underpasses beneath Rhode Island and New York Avenues and replacing Truxton Circle with a signalized intersection.

Things could have been worse. Much of the neighborhood could have been bulldozed to make way for a proposed expressway. But these underpasses have remained eyesores that detract from a community whose century-old turreted rowhouses otherwise maintain considerable curb appeal.


Looking north from D Street. Photo by Chris Petrilli on Flickr.
The District government has already undertaken some studies towards enhancing North Capitol. Improvements for the segment north of Michigan Avenue around the Old Soldiers' Home have been proposed, but the segment from Michigan Avenue south to M Street remains largely unexamined.

Well-designed enhancements to North Capitol would enhance the community, improve safety by increasing pedestrian activity and putting "eyes on the street," and would serve as an amenity to attract business investment in a corridor the city has targeted for commercial revival. It would also serve as a nice complement to the current plans for the McMillan site development, which would make the view of the Capitol from the site a focal point.

DDOT should begin by studying the cost, feasibility and impacts of decking over the dug-in portion of North Capitol between Rhode Island Avenue and T Street and creating an attractive public squarereplacing a noisy eyesore with a neighborhood amenity. Should a full decking over prove prohibitively expensive, other more affordable aesthetic enhancements, such as covering the fences with native flowering vines, ought to be considered.


The planned park covering Dallas's Woodall Rodgers Freeway. Photo from the Dallas Observer blog.
Converting highway corridors into public parks is becoming a trend amongst American cities. Boston exemplifies how greatly a city can be enhanced when an ugly highway corridor is put underground and converted into a well-designed park. Dallas also seeks to convert its Woodall Rodgers Freeway into greenspace.

Improvements to the North Capitol Street and New York Avenue intersection should also seek to address traffic bottlenecks. The ramp from southbound North Capitol onto New York Avenue, which is now used by two high-ridership Metrobus routes and several delivery trucks, is a notorious one. A redesign of this intersection that improves traffic flow, while also leaving space for a greenery or a public monument or fountain would greatly benefit this developing part of the city.

Instead of a noisy, unattractive mini-freeway that benefits those driving through Bloomingdale/Eckington/Truxton Circle/NoMa at the expense of those who live along it, future residents and business owners and patrons could benefit from visual enhancements that complement the surrounding Victorian architecture and the view of the Capitol, while still allowing traffic to flow smoothly. Turning this part of the North Capitol Street corridor into a desirable destination would generate benefits that could exceed the significant costs of remaking parts of the infrastructure.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC neighborhood of Bloomingdale. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College, he is a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable transportation, and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGW are his own. 

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It's time to recognize that the signalization of Truxton Circle was a mistake and replace the circle. Of course, getting rid of the parking lots south of Massachusetts Avenue and doing something useful with all the empty space at M Street would also be nice. With NPR moving into the renovated Smithsonian warehouse south of Pierce Street and eventual redevelopment of Sursum Corda, this area has a lot of potential.

by Stanton Park on Dec 1, 2010 4:29 pm • linkreport

N.B. If you want something to get built, do not under any circumstances compare it to the Big Dig (no matter how beneficial that project might have been to Boston)

by andrew on Dec 1, 2010 4:31 pm • linkreport

I would really love to see the underpasses filled in and the road brought back to ground level.

Fixing the traffic problems on North Capitol will be hard no matter what you do since there is a lack of north-southbound streets that go north of Michigan Ave.

The only choices you have are North Capitol & Georgia or a combination of Brentwood Pkwy, Bladensburg RD, South Dakota Ave, Montana Ave, the numbered streets and Rhode Island Ave.

Unless they build a streetcar/lightrail from North Capitol & New Hampshire to Union Station.

Does anyone know what was the original design of North Capitol from the Capitol to Eastern Ave was ?

by kk on Dec 1, 2010 4:37 pm • linkreport

@kk: You also have 16th Street, possibly the most-used commuter corridor before North Cap going North-South from MD this side of Rock Creek.

@Malcolm: I agree with andrew for a certain extent--the Big Dig definitely won't be a politically palatable comparison for a number of years, even if it is apt in some circumstances. It's not a good comparison here, but would be a good comparison for the SE-SW freeway. Continuing to play devil's advocate, the park which was built on the I-93 deck in Boston has been the subject of some criticism as of late because it isn't particularly well-designed, and isn't activated well. Most of the day, it is completely empty.

by Eric on Dec 1, 2010 4:43 pm • linkreport

Mr Keaton: I second what Andrew said. The big dig cost something like $15 billion, and I am guessing that what you are proposing will not be nearly so expensive.

by goldfish on Dec 1, 2010 4:43 pm • linkreport

You'd have to tear down the projects first. Little hoodrat kids spit on me on my motorcycle from above.

by Redline SOS on Dec 1, 2010 4:53 pm • linkreport

Here's a link that the article should have included:

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2009/01/i-395-extension.html

The depressed segemnts of NCS should definitely be covered, rather then filled in. No one suggests filling in the DuPont Circle underpasses, so this idea of filling in the roadways seems to be something okay in some peoples minds, for less affluential areas.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 1, 2010 5:02 pm • linkreport

@ Eric

I'm talking about on the eastern side of DC (North Capitol and east of it).

The only reason I included Georgia Ave was because it is the next likely choice for going to go north toward NE Washington or due north of North Capitol.

by kk on Dec 1, 2010 5:03 pm • linkreport

While I think North Capital (NC) is in need of a rethought, I think you have to determine the traffic's source. Almost all of the suburban traffic comes appears to come from New Hampshire AVE when it crosses NC.

The most effective way to reduce traffic on the southern parts of NC is to create an alternative transportation option, light rail, maybe a metro rail extension of the Yellow line. Without that, you are just diverting more car and truck traffic to neighborhood streets or other large streets like Rhode Island.

by Randall M. on Dec 1, 2010 5:14 pm • linkreport

@Stanton a feasibility study was done on restoring TC, but any configuration that would be able to move necessary (not freeway-like) traffic would end up negatively impacting the corridor. Unfortunately, the original circle footprint wasn't big enough.

@kk, what do you mean by original, the L'Enfant plan only had N. Cap out to boundry/florida ave. The houses up to the hospital center date to 1910 like most of the area, and north the old soldiers home predates (1850's) development, so it was a country road that far out.

The area south of Florida through N.Y. Ave. faces a ton of problems from vacant Douglas lots to an over-abundance (12+ and more planned) of social services. There was an effort by the community to get the city to consider a reuse of the schools on P St to attract commercial development. This was ignored and more services awarded instead.

Removing the underpass at NY Ave would be a start, however I'd be interested to see the traffic impact. As growth pushes outward, neighborhood streets are already getting overflow from N. Cap. Maybe the 11th st bridge/ramps will remove some 50/NY Ave to VA thru traffic and allow surfacing of N. Cap.t

by TCres on Dec 1, 2010 5:15 pm • linkreport

@ TCres

I was mainly thinking of how was the whole street around 1900 and the 30's

What 12+ social services are you talking about; I dont have a clue what that is.

I'm thinking of strictly North Capitol not side streets.

by kk on Dec 1, 2010 5:21 pm • linkreport

@kk when the circle was removed, it appears that N.Cap went from 4 lanes to 6 lanes that it is today.

The services are mostly clustered on the unit blocks of P,O, Hanover, and NY Ave, close enough to impact development. However on N. Cap, SOME owns at least 4 properties and there's a clinic. Most of the services are transitional housing/shelters, with a large soup kitchen and some drug treatment thrown in for good measure. The area is affectionately known as DC's homeless triangle.

Trust me, the map gives a pretty depressing view of the area.

by TCres on Dec 1, 2010 5:38 pm • linkreport

DCDOT did a study cir 2005 that included a North Capitol Street Tunnel connecting the existing trenched segments IIRC.

Yet the study does not appear on their site anymore- all of the urls I find don't work (which is inexcusable).

Does anyone have a source for that study?

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 1, 2010 5:57 pm • linkreport

@TCREs - Thanks for the information about Truxton circle, but I wonder what they mean by "able to move necessary traffic?" If they mean not affecting the travel time between New Hampshire Ave and New York Ave, then putting the circle back may be a good thing. If it means a perpetual traffic jam between Massachusetts Avenue and Michigan Avenue, that may be a problem. One of the problems with traffic studies is that they typically use "standards" that are designed to move large volumes of traffic at high speeds, without regard to its appropriateness.

Do you know if Dupont Circle moves the necessary traffic? I wopuld guess the intersection at North Capitol and Irving is probably considered "adequate" while I would guess Dupont Circle is not. If the goal is to spur revival the area, should we be using Dupont or NCap/Irving as the model? Dupont is a thriving neighborhood that provides tax dollars to the city. NCap/Irving is a grassy void that drains money from the city only to speed suburban residents through.

by Stanton Park on Dec 1, 2010 6:05 pm • linkreport

Bossi-

Thanks- that link works but its not the same study- but rather for an area of NCS to the north at Irving Street.

I am trying to navigate the DC site but it appears they decided to 'fix' what did not need 'fixing' as I have yet to find a simple logic tree of studies.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 1, 2010 6:12 pm • linkreport

@Stanton Park I believe it was more the latter with a traffic jam not only on N. Cap, but more importantly, increased delays on Florida, although after the Dave Thomas Circle fiasco, nobody may notice.

by TCres on Dec 1, 2010 6:15 pm • linkreport

>>Do you know if Dupont Circle moves the necessary traffic? I would guess the intersection at North Capitol and Irving is probably considered "adequate" while I would guess Dupont Circle is not. If the goal is to spur revival the area, should we be using Dupont or NCap/Irving as the model?

I'm not really arguing against a restoration of Truxton Circle. But many circles in the city lack the vibrancy of Dupont circle. The circle at Dupont is closer to being the exception that the rule. Dupont many more advantages, locational and otherwise, than Truxton will ever have. My qualm is not with the idea of a Truxton circle just the notion that such a circle has a legitimate chance to stack up to Dupont (as if it were that easy).

by Paul on Dec 1, 2010 6:17 pm • linkreport

I found this, but no mention of a Truxton Circle area study, even though I remeber seeing one there about 3 years ago.

http://app.ddot.dc.gov/information/studies/index.shtm

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 1, 2010 6:20 pm • linkreport

@ Stanton Park - While I think the idea of a traffic circle is appealing, I'm not it solve the problem, the entire street lacks an identity.

North of Mass, North Capitol is bound by nondescript buildings, dilapidated low-income housing, the oddly placed DC Housing Authority, etc. I guess my question is and I think the article is asking, what should this area (south of Florida) look like? Should it be middle class homes, high rise condos or and extension of the commercial blocks to the south.

Either way, I think to make it more accessible, rethinking the public transportation options is important.

by Randall M. on Dec 1, 2010 6:54 pm • linkreport

I think they must also do the various underground roadways that are obvioulsy needed to allow this area to be redeveloped as a neighborhood rather then an above ground pseudo freeway.

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/search/label/I-395%20extension

My superior I-395 tunnel alternative would be compatible with continious North Capitol Street Tunnel.

They have NO excuse in not considering this superior option.

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2007/11/i-395-extension-superior-option.html

Their favored option of closing I-395 disregards the reality that I-395 serves as access to northern DC that would be ill served by diverting to the new 11th Street Bridges.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 1, 2010 7:04 pm • linkreport

I would really love to see the underpasses filled in and the road brought back to ground level.

this is my initial thought. too much of what we do seems aimed at mitigating the ill effects of highways in our cities -- i'd rather we talk about how to decrease/prevent these ill effects in the first place rather than covering them over -- literally and figuratively.

so how do you do that? well, there are a bunch of ways -- filling in those holes/cuts seems like it might be a good start. someone up above mentioned 'alternative transportation', but only mentioned motorized transport -- what's wrong with bikes?

if you look at a bike map of the area, you'll see almost no bike infrastructure (look for green lines) -- this has to change. we have to allow people to bike in this area -- if that can be accomplished by decking over a block or two, fine, have at it, but if not, then we need to find another way.

i'm sure a grassy/park-type area there would be great, but the anti-human landscape created in the immediate vicinity of the highway known as North Capitol Street NE should not be tolerated. we're talking about decorating the iron median fences with flowers instead of tearing them down, and allowing people to actually cross the street.

the deep below-grade cuts that produce the highway effect and speeding traffic need to go away -- it's probably why Dupont ends up being so dangerous -- because it's a highway one second, and then a second later you're on top of bikers and pedestrians when you're driving 55+ mph -- these are malignant road designs that have to be fixed, not 'covered over'.

and i'd add a general critique of this post -- one that i make of many of the posts here at GGW -- bikes are not being given their proper due. there is talk of 1950s-era road design and car mentality, and then the obligatory remarks about how we need to make things safer/better for pedestrians ("increasing pedestrian activity"), but no such mention for bikers.

i get that this post is mainly about floating the idea for decking over part of North Capitol, but that doesn't mean we have to disregard bikers. if we can mention pedestrians as being important for 'eyes on the street' (and other reasons), then bikers deserve the same, or at least similar, consideration/credit (flash: biker and driver save pedestrian!).

bikes won't fix all of the problems DC has, but they will help address/prevent/reduce/mitigate most of the most serious problems/risks DC has, and provide untold benefits to individuals and the society at large -- i'd like GGW bloggers to give bikes the attention they deserve. yes, they're still only 'X' percent of how people get around, and that's exactly the point - we need more and better bike infrastructure.

and, we're not going to get to 10,000 bike-share bikes if we don't start making some of these major corridors bikable.

as a simple example -- if the stretch of road being considered for 'decking over' is a 'noisy eyesore', wouldn't it make sense to replace some of that automobile traffic with bicycle traffic, which is relatively quiet/silent? and at the same time, you'd reduce the speed of auto traffic, which would also decrease the noise significantly. if the corridor is being considered for commercial revitalization, that will mean we want to be able to accommodate sidewalk eateries, and we know that noise makes food taste like crap, so we can either spend a gazillion dollars to deck over a small area where a major symptom, noise, is occurring, or we can address the root cause of that symptom, many and fast-moving cars. we have to give people another way to get around.

it reminds me of yesterday's article about Copenhagen's planned 'bicycle highways' -- one quote mentioned "car-addicted suburbanites". really? are they really car-addicted, or do they just have no other realistic way to get around other than by car?

by Peter Smith on Dec 1, 2010 7:14 pm • linkreport

I walk North Capitol from Florida to S street daily and it's easy to forget the great view of the capital. There is actually very nice housing stock along North Capitol between Florida & North Capitol. The issue is w/ the widdening of the road there is about 4 feet between the front of the homes & the street.

Hopefully with the development around the New York Ave metro, the work being done by the Rhode Island Metro and of course the constant gentrification from the west we could finally do something with this strip. Hopefully that fire house will because the long promised restaurant.

And what's w/ that empty lot by Big Ben liquores. They tored down the townhouses for apartment/condos and now it just sits there.

by JohnDC on Dec 1, 2010 7:20 pm • linkreport

Re: Peter Smith's post

Up until this summer I haven't ridden a bike in almost 4 years. I then joined the capital bikeshare program. It cuts my normal 25 minute metro commute to 15 and is completely free ( minus the yearly $50 cost ). Also for Bloomingdale / Eckington residents it can be hard to catch a cab but I can now bike to dupont in 12 minutes.

That said the station outside big bear fills up and empties out quickly so it's not always possible to grab a bike but people should give biking (their own or bikeshare) a try and hopefully our neighborhood will become more bike friendly.

by JohnDC on Dec 1, 2010 7:32 pm • linkreport

I wouldn't call the Boston greenway "a beloved city park"

Yes, 99.9% of people will agree that it's better than the highway, and it makes downtown so much more liveable, BUT the actual park itself still needs work.

by JJJJJ on Dec 1, 2010 7:45 pm • linkreport

@ Douglas A. Willinger

And how much current properties would have to be bulldozed.

From just thinking about it wouldn't you have to stabilize Bible Way church, the senior apartment building next to it, Yale lofts, Carmel Plaza, and Dunbar to build a tunnel unless it is perhaps 200-400 feet deep. Dunbar has around 4 or 5 floors underground.

Then filling in North Capitol and then letting it settle.

by kk on Dec 1, 2010 8:25 pm • linkreport

correction

And how many of the current properties would have to be bulldozed.

by kk on Dec 1, 2010 8:29 pm • linkreport

Is north capitol one of the proposed streetcar routes?

by grumpy on Dec 1, 2010 10:45 pm • linkreport

@kk

I have an Esso highway map of DC from 1952. According to it, North Capitol ended at Michigan Avenue. North of there was all the Soldiers Home. North Capitol picked up again by Rock Creek Cemetery, and continued as it still does past New Hampshire before becoming Blair Road.

by Steve on Dec 1, 2010 11:13 pm • linkreport

KK-

Roughly 33 properties within the triangle between 1st Street NW and New Jersey Avenue, transitioning to a two level configuration beneath the intersection of that avenue and N Street, and then beneath the recreation field of Dunbar (the building itsef appears consciously designed to accomodate this tunnel route), continuing beneath O Street, preserving the buildings along the south side with the option of expanding to the north, either shoring up or replacing the buildings along the northside of this one block.

Bibleway Church is not in the way and would have a modern foundation not requiring shoring up. However its Golden Rule apartment house was stupidly placed in the path of the northbound tunnel ramps and would be demolished.

Yes the Yale complex is in the path of the 1970s plan, thus I would run that connection beneath New York Avenue itself.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 2, 2010 1:20 am • linkreport

Every couple of weeks I see comments to the effect of "when they rebuild Sursum Corda" or "when whatever replaces Sursum Corda is built."

Is there any actual plan to replace Sursum Corda or is this just chatter?

by Devoe on Dec 2, 2010 10:10 am • linkreport

I know that I haven't been through this area in a few years. But to my knowledge, it's been at least 5-7 years since Sursum Corda has been "sold" or the land proposed for "re-development". You mean to tell me that it hasn't done so already? What's the hold-up? Since most of Lower to Mid NW or the Downtown area has been pretty much exhausted in redevelpoment or revitalization?

by Charmaine on Dec 2, 2010 12:08 pm • linkreport

the lots around sursum corda are being redeveloped. Sursum corada itself is a shadow of the problem it used to be. it's quite cleaned up.

first streets ne and nw are seeing a lot of growth and change lately, but nothing has changed on north capitol.

if jamal ever gets moving on any plans for his parking lot at north capitol and new york avenue, then the whole dynamic of that are will flip, but i'd give that 10 years.

by west on Dec 2, 2010 5:52 pm • linkreport

Correction: the park built where Boston's aerial highway once was is far from "beloved." Indeed, many use it as a perfect example of terrible urban planning.

If DC is to create something similar, significantly more thought must go into actually programming the space and making sure that it is interesting and exciting in order to draw users.

by Anthony on Dec 3, 2010 12:51 am • linkreport

"Correction: the park built where Boston's aerial highway once was is far from "beloved." Indeed, many use it as a perfect example of terrible urban planning."

Please elaborate.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 3, 2010 1:01 am • linkreport

kk said..I would really love to see the underpasses filled in and the road brought back to ground level.

Re: In reality that will not happen since there is a very limited amount of high speed roads between the MD/DC and Downtown DC.

by tim on Dec 3, 2010 2:22 am • linkreport

Clearly the author has no actual knowledge of the above ground section of N Cap over the T St underpass. Otherwise it would be made clear that the N Cap/Rhode Island Ave intersection is a very pleasant one with two major churches and lovely rowhouses. It is not difficult to walk or bike, safety has tremendously improved in the last few years, and it does have a nice neighborhood feel.

How raising N Cap here could help make the intersection nicer in any way shape or form is completely lost to me. There is no zoning or undeveloped land for retail so no need for passerby. I know this because I live 1 block from this underpass.

I see enough Maryland commuters already, why on earth would we want to bring more of them to ground level?

by eli on Dec 3, 2010 1:39 pm • linkreport

@eli: Actually, I live near North Capitol and Florida and have been around the North Capitol/Rhode Island intersection on foot many times. I do NOT favor filling in the underpass and raising North Capitol to meet Rhode Island at grade. What I DO favor is decking over the underpass between Rhode Island and T and making it into a small park or public square that would enhance the architectural beauty of the surrounding neighborhood.

The intersection isn't too bad right now, but it could be a lot better.

by Malcolm K on Dec 3, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport

Greater Greater Washington has featured an article about a proposal to deck over Connecticut Avenue just north of DuPont Circle, where IIRC I proposed such for the depressed segemnts of North Capitol Street.

GGW needs to do an article about that.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 3, 2010 10:37 pm • linkreport

Here's that GGW piece about covering CT Ave:

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=4764

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 3, 2010 10:42 pm • linkreport

I am still unable to locate that DC study cir 2005 about a Truxton Circle tunnel.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 3, 2010 11:25 pm • linkreport

i meant to add this earlier, but one of the reasons my first thoughts were to 'fill the ditches' was because biking up hills can be difficult (especially with kids/cargo), but there are probably ways to achieve a bike-friendly North Capitol Street without filling in the ditches.

one option, of course, is just to ban all motorized transport on that street. done and done. :)

but there are other options - like creating a cycletrack for most of the street, then, where the grade separation occurs at the point the access roads bear off to the right, allow the bikes to either stay in the cycletrack and go straight, and down and back up again on the other side of the cross street, or bikes can stay to the right and remain at grade on the access road (say, if you're on a cargo bike, etc.). This effectively becomes a 'bicycle highway' (or possibly even a bit better, with a bit of 'freeway' thrown in), if a less-than-ideal one.

the biggest obstacle to us achieving this is bicycle advocates -- if we're not convinced that we deserve direct, safe, convenient, and comfortable access to all parts of town on the most major/direct roads/streets/highways/arterials/corridors, then we simply won't get that access. so, here's to hoping we can convince each other than that making North Capitol (and all major corridors into/through DC) walk- and bike-friendly is desirable, required, and inevitable.

p.s. the petition is nearing 1,000 signatures and letters of support. and that huge, gushing Washington Post story about biking in DC -- interesting timing, eh? :)

by Peter Smith on Dec 4, 2010 4:53 am • linkreport

It is obvious by all the comments that not one of you has lived in DC and the North Capitol St area long enough to know that the underpass under R.I. Ave was built amidst much adoo around 1969 or first 1970s. Before then, it was a lovely two-lane roadway with the street car tracks in the middle, St Martin's Church and nice row houses framing it. So, nothing you come up with is new. It was already fine, and they messed it up trying to make it easier flow for Md commuters.

by almost old-timer on Apr 9, 2011 10:18 pm • linkreport

"So, nothing you come up with is new."

White is black and black is white.

by Douglas Willinger on Apr 11, 2011 8:37 pm • linkreport

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