A Road’s Future Could Reconnect Capitol Hill to its Sleeping Riverfront Jewel

Whether the former Southeast Freeway in Capitol Hill retains its status as a freeway or evolves into an urban boulevard is not just a matter of semantics: it’s the difference between an established neighborhood and a new neighborhood being isolated from or connected to one another. 

When the Southeast Freeway closed as part of the 11th Street Bridge project, community groups saw the closure as an opportunity to reconnect the neighborhood wedged between the freeway and Pennsylvania Avenue to the Anacostia Riverfront--and the new real estate development planned for that area.

Despite an ongoing community effort involving both the Office of Planning and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), DDOT is now planning to reopen the freeway on what the agency says is a temporary basis to allow through traffic to flow from Barney Circle to 11th Street SE.

Residents and developers invested in the area are worried that temporary will become permanent and the District will miss a chance to undo the damage of a highway-obsessed era in the city’s history.

It starts with a boulevard

DDOT closed the Southeast Freeway between Barney Circle and 11th Street, SE in 2013 to serve as a construction staging area for the 11th Street Bridge project. 

DDOT solicited community input on future configurations for the former freeway in early 2013 and proposed a no-build option and five alternative build-options in November of last year. The goal would be to convert the former freeway into a boulevard to handle through traffic from 17th Street and the Sousa Bridge through Barney Circle along the Southeast Boulevard to the Southeast/Southwest Freeway connection at 11th Street SE.

But the community took issue with many of the preconceptions behind the designs--namely that a freeway was necessary at all and that the proposals continued the road’s position as a barrier between the neighborhood and the nearby Anacostia River. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 6B) voted unanimously to write a letter in opposition to DDOT’s concepts.  

Through the intervention of Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, DDOT paused its process to allow the Office of Planning (OP) to develop the Barney Circle-Southeast Boulevard Project Planning Study.

“The neighborhood should define the boulevard, not the boulevard define the neighborhood” says ANC Commissioner Kirsten Oldenburg.

The OP study offers new options for connecting the neighborhood to M Street, SE and the Anacostia waterfront. The boulevard will still handle through traffic, but it could also be accompanied by bike and pedestrian trails, significant landscaping or even linear parks separating L Street SE from the roadway and CSX railroad tracks. Several options propose adding new residential development in the area as well. 

The way Oldenburg sees it, adding more residential would really just be “putting back” residential that was demolished to make way for the freeway when it was first built.

Pedestrian connections to M Street as well as new residential could go a long way to connect the area north of the boulevard to the area south of the boulevard--roughly bounded by 11th, M and Water Streets SE--where another transformational development is in the works. There Cohen Siegel Investors propose a mixed-use project of high-rise residential at 1333 M St. SE with significant landscape architecture along Water Street to connect their new development to the Anacostia River. 

Tammy Shoham, vice president of economic development and research for the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID), says the BID wants a boulevard to provide critical east-west connectivity to future residents and businesses; they also want to make sure the boulevard is not a barrier to M Street and the riverfront. 

Oldenburg notes that adding residential in the new boulevard design would likely benefit the M Street project, a sentiment developer Eric Siegel of Cohen Siegel Investors shares. Siegel says the best choice is one that maximizes density with the remaining land after accounting for the space needed for a boulevard. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done on that freeway there to create an urban boulevard and the only way they’re going to pay for it is if they generate some real estate property,” says Siegel.

The BID agrees, questioning the logic of adding new parks in the remaining area, especially since the Anacostia River waterfront is just three blocks away.

“If you want to invest funds in a park, invest in the riverfront where the city has already expressed its commitment to building a world class, interconnected system of open parks and open spaces and trails,” says Shoham, referring to the goals of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.

Oldenburg for her part says she understands Siegel and the BID’s perspectives. While she has her own personal reservations about moving forward with a concept that is exclusively park land--rather than one that mixes green space and real estate development-- Oldenburg says she is waiting to see what happens in the next step as OP fleshes out the three remaining concepts. 

ANC 6B Chair Brian Flahaven says all of the concepts achieved through community discussion with OP are “vast improvements” over DDOT’s initial proposals--what Flahaven describes as “essentially replacing a freeway with a freeway.”

The ANC along with OP and DDOT recently narrowed to three their preferred concepts for how to program the SE boulevard area: two include a mixture of green space and development and one that is dedicated to a central park of entirely green space.

Creating a new waterfront neighborhood

Cohen Siegel Investors has three acres of land between the proposed boulevard and the Anacostia River. Save for a pair of office buildings at Maritime Plaza, the historic boathouses along the river and construction equipment staging areas, the land is largely undeveloped.

"Right now, it’s really wasted land,” says Shoham. She compares this area--the easternmost part of the BID’s territory--to what the award-winning Yards Park was 10 years ago.

“It could be completely transformed,” she believes.

That’s the plan if you ask Siegel. The developers filed their planned unit development paperwork in August and will appear before the Zoning Commission in December for a phased proposal to eventually bring as many as 673 residential units and more than 10,000 square feet of retail to M Street. Their Zoning application operates under the assumption that the boulevard and its connections do not exist, though they would be factored into future phases of the large project should the concepts become a reality.

“We are creating a neighborhood,” says Siegel.

Their designs connect their new high-rise buildings to the waterfront, proposing a plaza with a grand staircase that draws people down to the river. Siegel says his company is talking with the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association and the government groups working on the Anacostia River Trail to make sure the project creates a community gathering place at the water.

“Right now it’s a sleeping jewel” he says about the riverfront and the surrounding area. “It’s just a question of getting people down there and quite frankly making people understand that something is there that’s worth seeing.”

Can we get there from here?

The transformation that is possible is just that--a possibility and one with potential pitfalls. 

One of the biggest potential obstacles is that DDOT is planning to repave the old freeway and reopen it for commuters, but only temporarily according to the agency. Flahaven has been leading the community effort to oppose DDOT’s temporary reopening for a variety of reasons.

“From my perspective it’s a total waste of money” says Flahaven. 

DDOT has said it secured $6 million from the funds set aside for the 11th Street Bridge project to repave the freeway and have it reopened by year’s end. Flahaven would rather see the District pause its efforts and deal with traffic concerns for a bit longer. 

“We’re not taking away the connection forever. There will be a connection when we bring it back, but it needs to be a more neighborhood friendly connection” says Flahaven.

The nearby community is also fretting that a reopened freeway will take away DDOT’s incentive to complete the boulevard project and to secure the funding necessary to make it a reality. 

Another hitch to the realization of the boulevard connecting the existing northern neighborhood with the waterfront and new neighborhood proposed to the south is the District’s right of way (ROW) agreement with the federal government for the southeast freeway. Federal limitations restrict the use of the ROW to transportation purposes and possibly “ancillary recreational/open space uses,” according to Dan Emerine, a transportation planner at OP working on the Barney Circle-Southeast Boulevard Project Planning Study.

“Any use of the ROW for residential or commercial purposes would require DDOT to engage in a land disposition process, and reimburse the federal government for the value of any portion of the ROW that was disposed of. DDOT recently went through a similar exercise with the air rights over a portion of I-395 for the Capitol Crossing project downtown,” explains Emerine. 

Siegel says the District should lay out the boulevard to match whatever concept is ultimately selected and plat out the areas where future development could happen pending a land disposition agreement with FHWA. 

“Anything that we do that’s not a road is going to mean we have to engage other partners,” says Oldenburg. But that does not mean the road portion of the boulevard cannot be constructed and quickly, she adds.

Neighbors, developers, and business and community organizations all see significant potential and possibility in the area, but it will take time and may require a change of heart from DDOT.

Shaun Courtney is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of  District Source, a D.C. real estate and neighborhood news blog, co-founded and supported by Lindsay Reishman Real Estate. Shaun has been a local reporter in D.C. since 2009 and has called the city home since 2002. She currently lives in Kingman Park. Read more from District Source at: http://districtsource.com/