Greater Greater Washington

Posts about New York Avenue

Roads


Traffic is poisoning Ivy City

Tucked away in the not-so-scenic brownfields of the New York Avenue industrial corridor, buried between Gallaudet University and Mount Olivet Cemetery, is an isolated enclave of houses known as Ivy City. Theoretically, it is not a bad location: about a mile from New York Avenue Metro station and its actively redeveloping neighborhood, and walking distance to the scenic National Arboretum. But thanks to its isolation from other neighborhoods and years of neglect, it is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the District.


Photo by inked78 on Flickr.

DC Mud reports on a bit of elbow grease the DC government is devoting to this community. Four nonprofit developers will redevelop 37 vacant properties in Ivy City. DC aims to increase home ownership in an area where only 12% of residents own their houses despite the incredible affordability of the neighborhood.

It's easy to miss Ivy City while driving down New York Avenue. There are only four turns from NY Ave into Ivy City, and industrial superblocks front the avenue along the entire stretch. This is a very unfortunate use of street frontage on a boulevard that has a vista to the White House, especially since it hides the neighborhood.

Perhaps these industrial buildings are here because the neighborhood is so close to the railroad tracks on the north side of NY Ave, but nearby Brookland is a thriving residential community hugging the Metropolitan Branch railroad. And then there is Woodridge, just up the tracks from Ivy City. Unlike Brookland, there isn't even a Metro Station there. And yet it is still a pleasant residential area, not an industrial wasteland like NY Ave in Ivy City.

Ivy City is not on the wrong side of the tracks, it's on the wrong side of bad urbanism. Dumping traffic from Maryland freeways onto New York Avenue at Fort Lincoln is poisoning the neighborhood with blight. The John Hanson Highway (US-50/I-595) becomes NY Ave once it crosses into the District, turning 65 mph freeway traffic into neighborhood traffic. This continues all the way down to the entrance to I-395 near 3rd Street NW.

Today, New York Avenue is the only logical way for a car or truck to get from US-50 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the 395 tunnel, and on to Arlington. The street grid connecting to NY Ave was undermined to make it more freeway-like. NY Ave's six lanes completely cut through the "circle" at Montana Avenue. Instead of an intersection at Mount Olivet Road, there is a freeway-like interchange. At the light at Florida Avenue, a faux "exit" prevents southeast-bound Florida Avenue traffic from turning left onto NY Av. Much of the original grid became super blocks along the corridor. Taking away these intersections made the route more freeway-like and less like a city street. And this makes the area less safe.

Of course there's nothing but moribund industrial development. Who would want to live on a shortcut between two interstates?

The key, then, is to take the freeway feel out of New York Avenue. Take out a lane in each direction (or make them bus lanes), add a tree lined median and street parking, signalize more intersections, reconnect the street grid, and perhaps lower the speed limit. Then NY Ave is more of a city street.

Then we have to do something about the two interstate highways that feed New York Avenune. The way I see it, there are two largely unpopular options here: connect them with a new freeway or get rid of the two freeway stubs (the I-395 tunnel and New York Avenue Freeway).

The first option would be a freeway that connects the 395 tunnel to the freeway segment east of Bladensburg Road. To avoid razing huge chunks of the existing structures along that route, this would mean either an aerial structure over the train tracks or a tunnel. The original freeway master plan for the District included such a freeway, known as the New York Avenue Industrial Freeway. This would create a much more logical freeway system in the District, and we could toll the new route (though I doubt the revenue would make a dent in the construction costs). On the other hand, this freeway would cost a lot to build, induce new traffic, and abandon smart growth practices.

The second option would mean shutting down the 395 tunnel, forcing all the traffic onto the Southeast Freeway, and closing the New York Avenue freeway segment, pushing traffic onto DC 295 (the Anacostia Freeway). We would then need exit ramps from DC 295 to the 11th Street Bridge, to maintain a connection to 395, as DC plans to do with its 11th Street Bridges project. This would be a much cheaper option without the induced demand, but many commuters would create an uproar over any freeway removals, and residents of Capitol Hill are fighting the new, larger bridge that will carry more traffic.

Meanwhile, DC is stuck in a middle ground with two unappealing commuter options, a freeway route without some ramps and a boulevard that can't decide if it's a city street or a freeway. And little Ivy City stagnates as a residential island off NY Av, crime ridden and blighted. Hopefully the refurbished residential properties will help, but I am afraid this neighborhood will languish until bold action is taken to improve New York Avenue.

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Roads


Get rid of NY Ave's freeway signs

Cary Silverman makes a good suggestion: replace the large, green freeway-style signs on New York Avenue with ones that better fit an urban environment where cars, buses, bikes, and pedestrians are all using the public space.


Photo by Cary Silverman.
I can't tell you how many residents have struggled with trying to get across 10 lanes of flying traffic from Mount Vernon Square to the new Safeway at 5th and New York Avenue, or the number of accidents at that intersection or the NJ/NY/3rd/4th Street intersection. ...

Get rid of the big green signs. The send the message that drivers are indeed in the freeway. And there appears to be no need for them. There are an abundance of smaller signs already along New York Avenue pointing out where to turn for 395, which way is to downtown, and how to get to 50. Perhaps one sign is needed to inform truck drivers of the height and hazmat restrictions of the 395 tunnel, but six?

And the flashing "STOP PEDS" sign as drivers approach the convention center doesn't quite do it. Of course, removing the signs is not even by far a silver bullet and does not excuse the need to make the street truly more pedestrian friendly and safer for drivers, but it will begin to change the atmosphere.

16th Street, Connecticut Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue, North and South Capitol Streets, Pennsylvania Avenue, and other major boulevards into the city get by fine with regular signs. New York Avenue is US-50, but Georgia Avenue is US-29, and it doesn't have big green signs.

These seem to be a vestige of an era when transportation officials were trying to make New York Avenue as freeway-like as possible, and expected to build a full elevated freeway overhead as they'd done to M K Street in Georgetown and Virginia Avenue in Southeast. That's not going to happen anymore, and our signs should send the right visual cues to clarify New York Avenue's role as a place where pedestrian crossing is welcome and common, as well as a major traffic artery.

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Development


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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