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Posts about Barney Circle


A traffic engineer and a planner both study a closed freeway segment. Their conclusions are wildly different.

Let's say you have a closed piece of freeway along your waterfront. What should you do with it? Ask many traditional traffic engineers, and they'll likely answer with some variant of "build a lot of car lanes, maybe with some path for walkers and cyclists if there's room." Ask an urban planner, meanwhile, and the answer could be a more nuanced mix of buildings, parks, roads, or other pieces of a city.

Just look at what traffic engineers versus planners came up with for the piece of DC's Southeast Freeway between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle:

Four-lane road with parking and overpasses. Image from DDOT.

Concept extending DC's street grid into the freeway. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Advocates of "urbanism" or "livable streets" or "smart growth" often deride the "traffic engineer mindset." This is the attitude of some (but not all) engineers who primarily build and maintain roads. These folks tend to hold an ingrained assumption that more roadway lanes are basically the answer to any mobility problem.

Meanwhile, graduates of most planning schools today will bring a wide variety of tools to the table. They'll often look not just at how to move vehicles or even people, but whether more motion is really the best way to use some land. If people are encountering more traffic to get to jobs, one solution is to build a big transportation facility, but another approach is to create more opportunities for the people to live near the jobs, or to put the jobs near the people.

For one of the starkest illustrations of this "lane engineer" versus planner mindset dichotomy, look at the Southeast Boulevard studies in DC. There used to be a freeway running along the edge of eastern Capitol Hill to Barney Circle. Long ago, plans called for it to connect to a new bridge over the Anacostia—the Barney Circle Freeway, and part of an "inner loop" of freeways around downtown. That would have been a very damaging plan for both DC's environment and its congestion.

DDOT's study thinks very narrowly

In 2005, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) came up with a somewhat better scheme, to essentially widen the 11th Street Bridge by building a new parallel local bridge and convert the freeway segment from a four-lane freeway to a four-lane urban boulevard.

DDOT then conducted a 2014 study of options to replace the freeway segment. The study devised xis options, but all of them basically looked like near-freeways. While pedestrians and cyclists could cross to access the waterfront, and cars could turn on and off to nearby streets in some options, all of the options turned a huge expanse of pavement and empty grass into other huge expanses of pavement and empty grass, sometimes also with tour bus parking.

DDOT's options still primarily focused around moving cars fast, and would all have created big empty spaces that would not create any actual sense of place and would be, at best, unpleasant to cross on foot.

Map of Concept 2. Images from DDOT.

Concept 2.

Concept 4A.

Planners think more creatively

Residents, led by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven, were not happy with the narrowness of DDOT's analysis. Instead, at Councilmember Tommy Wells' urging, the Office of Planning stepped in to do a more open-minded study of how to use the space.

OP's options still look at four-lane boulevards and even four-lane parkways, but with much more appealing designs like a big park next to and partly on top of the road:

Concept C2. Images from the DC Office of Planning.

Or just extend the street grid right through the site with new townhouses like the old ones:

Concept A2.

Or a new avenue fronted by larger buildings:

Concept A1.

Or a hybrid:

Concept B1.

Why 4 lanes?

But even OP's study assumed that there need to be 4 lanes of traffic, as that's what DDOT insists on. OP's presentation points out that 4 lanes of traffic can be a part of residential boulevards, like New Hampshire Avenue in Petworth or East Capitol Street near Lincoln Park. However, these roads still feel much wider than others. Drivers tend to move faster here, often too fast to safely mix with other neighborhood users. New Hampshire Avenue north of Dupont, in contrast, is just one lane each way.

So why do there need to be 4 lanes of traffic? DC just effectively widened the 11th Street Bridge, adding car capacity there. Can't there be a reduction on an adjacent street? More than that, there haven't been any lanes for years now. It seems that a traffic pattern with zero lanes works fine.

If there's new development, it would need a road and some lanes to get to it, but to say we need 4 because we already had 4 is circular reasoning without logic, unless you assume that more lanes are always better, and any lane once built must always remain to eternity. That's the ingrained belief of many traditional traffic engineers, and it's the answer I got from Ravindra Ganvir, DDOT's deputy chief engineer, when I asked in February of 2013:

The constrained long range plan (CLRP) traffic model is assigning traffic volumes that would exceed the capacity of a two-lane facility and is showing Southeast Boulevard as a four-lane arterial facility.
Traffic models "show" traffic on a link that varies depending on what kind of link you have built, so to say that the model shows a four-lane boulevard worth of traffic when you have a freeway or boulevard in the plan is again circular. Or, as one contributor wryly paraphrased, "We are building a big road because we need a big road because there was a big road there before."

DDOT needs to re-examine its reflexive assumption that 4 lanes is the only possibility. Regardless, this area now stands a good chance of becoming an excellent urban place now that people who think about spaces broadly and creatively got involved.


Do we need a Southeast Boulevard at all?

A study is underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway between the 11th Street bridges and Barney Circle with a new road. But is a new road even the best use of the space at all?

The freeway segment under construction in 1972. Photo from DDOT.

A 2005 "Middle Anacostia Crossings" study recommended a 4-lane boulevard to replace the freeway segment. That freeway was initially designed as part of a network of inner-city freeways, but DC thankfully stopped those plans before they divided and damaged any more neighborhoods as the freeway did to Southwest and Near Southeast.

Map of the area. Image from DDOT.

Now, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is starting a formal study of this as well as ways to rebuild Barney Circle. Communication about the "Southeast Boulevard" project often presumed that this project would indeed build a 4-lane boulevard.

Early concept sketches showed how some of the land could accommodate tour bus parking, but those sketches all also showed a 4-lane boulevard.

Is that the right way to use the land?

Is a boulevard the answer?

The 11th Street Bridge has added car capacity across the Anacostia and given drivers a direct connection between DC-295 north of the bridges and the Southeast Freeway. Today, the road is closed, so no cars are using it at all.

Think of it this way: What if there were no boulevard here and it were just empty space, perhaps a decommissioned railyard or some abandoned warehouses. Would DC build a road?

Houses adjacent to the construction. Photo from DDOT.

Craig Lenhart and Sanjay Kumar, who are managing the project for DDOT, say that they are indeed willing to study whether there need not be any new road at all, or a narrower one than 4 lanes. Based on feedback from a number of residents on this issue, they say they will study just that.

One of the objectives for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, which includes this project, is to strengthen connections to and across the river. While the 11th Street bridges have provided better connections for car traffic around the neighborhood and across the river, bicycles and pedestrians also need better connections.

Rebuilding Barney Circle will be an opportunity to stengthen and make safer the Anacostia River trails' connections to Capitol Hill, the Sousa Bridge (Pennsylvania Avenue), and subsequently neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. The study will also look at ways to connect the neighborhood to the river with bridges over the CSX tracks, the DDOT representatives say.

What is the best way to use this land?

The land between the southernmost homes on L Street SE and the CSX is zoned for commercial/manufacturing currently, and the District of Columbia owns it. It could also be rezoned if the city determined other worthwhile uses to pursue here.

As one of many possibilities, David created a mockup in 2010 of how the land could house more residents (some with pretty impressive water views):

Click on the radio buttons to toggle: Previous   Potential

Or, DC could build many other things. Playgrounds or sports fields, a mountain bike park, a community theater or an art museum, public buildings, or much more. What do you think DC should do with this land?


DDOT could put tour bus parking on Southeast Freeway

DC is having trouble finding a place for tour buses to park, but DDOT might have an answer: part of the Southeast Freeway east of the 11th Street Bridge, near 14th and L Streets, SE.

Photo by afagen on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has started a study to replace that last segment of the Southeast Freeway, which connects the 11th Street Bridge to Barney Circle, and redesign the circle itself.

The roadway was originally part of a larger project to build a new bridge over the Anacostia from Barney Circle to DC-295. It was canceled in 1996. Instead, as part of the 11th Street Bridge project, DC built new ramps between the bridge and the freeway east of the Anacostia River.

What should DDOT do with the extra land? At last Thursday evening's meeting at Payne Elementary School, DDOT showed one potential use of land on diagrams at the break-out tables: a new tour bus parking facility.

Bus depot options. Click for PDF. Images from DDOT.

I was only able to get photos of two of the bus options. In the third one, the bus depot would be at grade, and the Southeast Boulevard would be placed in a tunnel beneath it. We've asked DDOT for the PDF files of all three proposals. Update: DDOT has sent along all 3 PDFs.

This was only the scoping meeting to start an environmental analysis, so these are just concept ideas, which the consultants will develop into formal alternatives as the study proceeds.

DC has had ongoing struggles with warehousing tour buses while they're waiting for groups to explore the sights downtown. Many tour buses once parked in the parking garage behind Union Station, but got kicked out to make room for intercity buses.

DC proposed using the Crummell School in Ivy City, but advocates have sued the city over that plan, arguing that it violates promises to create a community facility there and concentrating more polluting uses in a neighborhood already suffering from poor public health.

Councilmembers Vincent Orange and Jack Evans proposed legislation to move those buses to a vacant lot near Buzzard Point. A bus depot on the old Southeast Freeway land could be the executive branch's solution to the same problem.

The bus parking discussion was only part of last Thursday's meeting. We'll have more about the boulevard itself and the need for comprehensive planning for this area later this week.


Is a Barney Circle historic district a good idea?

The proposed Barney Circle historic district has stirred up a number of negative responses. Is it really a bad idea?

Porch (in Col. Hts.) Photo by thegolzer on Flickr.

Earlier, Lynda wrote about how many residents of Barney Circle feel they haven't been adequately part of the discussion around the historic district, and that many leading the push actually live in the adjacent Capitol Hill area. DCmud scoffed at the requirements to get permits for alterations. And Matt Yglesias pointed out that we ought to be maximizing housing opportunities around Metro stations instead of creating rules to limit homeowner's ability to expand their houses.

All are common objections to historic designation. Still, historic districts have enriched designated neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Anacostia, and more. DC would benefit from more historic protection for its many undesignated row house neighborhoods. However, historic preservation should also be more disciplined about which elements it protects and which it does not. There are elements of the staff report on the Barney Circle district that are troubling in how they bleed over the fuzzy line between preservation and zoning.

First, there's little to fear in the permitting rules. Yes, historic designation requires homeowners to get approval for fences, windows, and other elements. Generally, that ensures a high standard of quality for historic districts. Outside historic districts, cheap construction often degrades the appearance of a neighborhood. Blocks of classic row houses become diminished when some houses are replaced or reclad with vinyl siding or junky fences.

The rules tend to simultaneously increase the costs of homeownership while also increasing property values. Generally, that's good for homeowners, though sometimes a schism evolves between wealthier residents, who want to maximize property values and the appearance of the neighborhood, and poorer residents, who don't want to see property values and costs increase as it can raise tax bills and make it hard for other people in that income bracket to afford to move in.

Matt Yglesias raises a bigger issue with historic preservation. Is it preservation to restrict the amount of building in an area? Can, or should, neighborhoods be "historically" low density?

Most of the time, preservation is concerned with not demolishing historic buildings and ensuring good quality of materials in alterations. But it's entirely possible to uphold those principles while still allowing infill development, rear additions not visible from the street, or added height with setback and with high quality workmanship. In the Dupont Circle neighborhood, where I participate in the local preservation group, the Dupont Circle Conservancy, we're usually quite tolerant of rear alley additions, for example.

However, preservation sometimes goes farther. In many recent buildings around 14th and U, for example, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) required lowering building heights to be more "compatible" with the neighborhood. Former HPRB Chair Tersh Boasberg specifically said that he got involved in preservation because he didn't want to see taller buildings at the Cleveland Park Metro. It wasn't that he wanted to maintain the architectural style of the neighborhood or maintain the aesthetic of the Park and Shop strip mall; he specifically didn't want taller buildings.

The HPO staff report on Barney Circle gives into this impulse in several cases. It talks about architectural features, like the front porches on the "daylighter" houses and front yard space that creates a sense of community. But it also makes repeated reference to the lack of development as a characteristic. It calles Barney Circle a "a neighborhood of modest rowhouses" with an "unusual urban calm" and a "semi-suburban open quality."

In particular, the staff report talks about how the "daylighter" houses didn't include the rear ells common to other rowhouses, bringing in more light but also reducing the overall size of the buildings. When a historic district is designated, preservation staff create guidelines to influence decisions about future preservation questions. Would this emphasis on the "semi-suburban" quality of the neighborhood and the rear light mean that HPO would oppose even rear additions not visible from streets, or any intensification of buildings?

Many preservationists would fervently hope so. The problem is that this view of preservation's role puts it at odds with the city's long-term growth needs, the imperative for more and affordable housing, and the value of maximizing housing choices near transit. There's also value in letting homeowners grow with their houses, adding space for a second child's bedroom instead of having to move out of what are often fairly small row houses by today's standards.

Preservationists often talk about how preservation is not about zoning, but in truth there is a large gray area between the two. The more preservation pushes into this area, the more it risks losing support from those of us who also support urbanism and a growing city. With an approach more akin to the Dupont Conservancy's recent positoins, it's possible to have both in at least some measure, balancing the value of some open space and high architectural standards with a modest opportunity for growth as well.

As for Lynda's procedural issues, I don't know the details firsthand. I assume it's correct that many people feel left out, and the level of outreach probably wasn't sufficient. Therefore it's appropriate for HPRB to ensure there's a full and inclusive public process. However, once that's done, they should move on to a decision. No matter how good the process, some people will come out of the woodwork at the last minute and complain that this is the first they're hearing. All anyone can do is conduct a reasonable process, then move forward.

Historic designation probably makes sense for Barney Circle. The "daylighter" porches, for example, are a detail worth protecting. It would diminish the neighborhood if people started tearing down these row houses and putting in glass boxes or concrete bricks without porches and that don't fit in. However, HPRB should also remove references to the "semi-suburban" character of the neighborhood, or at least clarify that the "distinctive rhythmic quality" shall be preserved, but the comparative emptiness compared to other neighborhoods shall not be beyond the already-restrictive dictates of zoning.

Someone will likely bring up my defense of light and air in the case of the Tabard Inn. What's the difference? Isn't that a lack of development? Am I just arguing against change in my own neighborhood and not in someone else's? The difference is that, as I emphasized in my testimony, the Tabard is a particular treasure. Perhaps it should itself be landmarked, which coveys an added level of historic import to the property. It may make sense to keep certain open spaces in the Barney Circle neighborhood as well.

But there's a key difference between wanting to preserve a few specific open spaces with believing that every single open space and every ray of sunshine is sacrosanct. The former protects what's most valuable while allowing growth. The latter leads to a policy against any change at all. Preservation needn't be so black and white. We can preserve some elements of a neighborhood, particularly those residents find most special, without blocking growth or change entirely.


Some feel left out in Barney Circle historic debate

DC's latest historic preservation debate centers around Barney Circle, the southeast corner of Capitol Hill, where preservationists are advocating for a new historic district.

Barney Circle. Image from Google Maps.

Some residents in the area argue that Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and local ANCs did little to no outreach for public input on the proposed historic district. Due to opposition to the plan and questions from Councilmember Tommy Wells regarding the process, the HPRB postponed a vote at their June 24 meeting.

The proposed Barney Circle Historic District consists of 192 buildings, including 189 contributing structures and three non-contributing structures. The district is bounded by houses fronting on Barney Circle on the south, by those on the north side of Potomac Avenue on the north, by those on the west side of Kentucky Avenue on the west and by the Congressional Cemetery on the east.

Barney Circle consists primarily of front porch rowhouses, also referred to as "daylighter" houses, wide tree lined streets, and two triangular parks. The Historic Preservation Office (HPO) has recommended that HPRBapprove the historic district on the grounds that the concentration of front porch rowhomes are rare within the L'Enfant Plan.

Historic district designation can be restrictive for residents because it can impose harsh regulations regarding exterior alternations, tax liabilities, raising rents, and the displacement of low income residents. There are benefits associated with historic districts as well, including increased property values and the preservation of historic buildings both of which can act as a catalyst for economic growth.

Some residents in the Barney Circle area feel that the historical designation process is biased and is being led primarily by individuals and organizations that don't even live in the affected area, such as the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS). Beth Purcell, president of the CHRS, was one of the original drivers of the Barney Circle Historic District. She lives outside the proposed boundaries. Reuben Hammeed, former vice president of the local neighborhood association, has also pushed for the historic district but no longer lives in the area.

Others say that the ANC originally agreed to be the applicant for the historic district based on information given to them by Hammeed and others, who had only polled a handful of residents on the general idea of a historic district, but did not contact the vast majority of property owners and were not able to show any specific information about what the guidelines would be. The ANC, knowing that only about one-third of homeowners were contacted, decided to go ahead and file the application with the HPRB anyway.

At the June 24th meeting, opposition to the historical designation was labeled as "new young people" who are just being "hysterical" and uneducated about the benefits of living in a historical district. Concerned residents plan to voice their concerns to Mayor Fenty and the DC Council regarding the HPRB handling of the situation.

Conflicts over the definition and preservation of neighborhoods have become a common feature or urban politics, and Barney Circle is certainly not an exception. Neighborhood planning, including whether an area should be an historic district, should be an inclusive process that provides residents full disclosure of the proposed plans as well as a way for residents to speak for themselves. If you don't allow residents of the affected area to be part of the process, then in effect you run the risk of destroying the cultural and social fabric of a community, factors that reflect just as much history as buildings.

Effective historical preservation needs to strike a balance between preservationists, developers, public officials, and residents. What works in one part of the District may not work for another area. The economic and social impacts of historic preservation are too situational, making the need for transparency all that more important.

The situation in Barney Circle calls into question how the process for other historic districts has been approached in DC. Are we in effect creating communities that benefit the privileged and ignore the voices of less privileged residents?


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.

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