The Southeast Boulevard: Learning from History

The Southeast Boulevard is intended to replace the now-closed portion of the SE-SW Expressway between 11th Street and Barney Circle. It is an attractive, even imaginative proposal from the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative of the DC Department of Transportation that for now is a concept with few details, no settled design and no construction plans. An initial community meeting was convened by AWI/DDOT on February 21 of this year with AWI/DDOT listing six more meetings during Spring and Summer 2013 and a “Final Decision” at the last meeting. None of these six meetings have been convened, and the DDOT official in charge of the project told me by email that “next public meeting is being planned for some time in the winter.”

The delay, while unsettling, is perhaps a plus, since it should provide AWI/DDOT with an opportunity to learn from the many boulevard conversions that have already been done in many cities, plus others being planned. I was told in the same email that AWI/DDOT was unaware of the completed boulevard conversions, but that they would now look at them. I have provided the links for information as well as contact names. I believe that looking at these conversions will in turn be an important guide for the design of the Southeast Boulevard, when (and if?) it moves forward.

What are some of these completed conversions?

The highway conversions, pointed to by Jeff Speck in his excellent Walkable City and given rich detail by Charles Siegel of The Preservation Institute, include:

  • Harbor Drive in Portland, Oregon
  • Park East Freeway, Milwaukee
  • The Embarcadero and Central Freeway, San Francisco
  • The High Line, in New York City; and while that is a converted rail line, it could still offer useful lessons, especially in landscape design and pedestrian access.
  • The West Side Highway in NYC

Details on these conversions and much more is available the The Preservation Institute website.

Examples of what was accomplished by completed conversions include:

  • Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway conversion led to restoration of a traditional street grid, the creation of three new neighborhoods, and several hundred million dollars invested in re-development in new neighborhoods and adjoining areas.
  • Portland’s Harbor Drive freeway along the Willamette River was replaced by a waterfront park, and the land freed by the teardown now has a micro brewery (among other businesses).
  • The conversion of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco opened the city waterfront, Freeway land was developed or became parkland. And the Embarcadero itself became a boulevard with a wide pedestrian promenade.

These real-life examples show that these conversions are not only practicable but also that the dire impacts invariably predicted by opponents of the conversions proved hollow. For example, after the West Side Highway collapsed in the 1970s, severe gridlock was predicted if it was not rebuilt. Didn’t happen, and now, as Charles Siegel comments, “there is a park, pedestrian promenade, and bicycle path along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s west side - public places that are real amenities for Manhattan on land that used to be blighted by an elevated freeway.”

Issues for the Southeast Boulevard

While, obviously, each of these and other conversions is sui generis, they offer robust examples of what can actually be accomplished. Of course , each realized boulevard conversion has unique features, ones shaped by exigencies, not least community desires and needs. Thus, the SE Boulevard will also be shaped in part by the community but also, realistically, by adjoining features -- the 695 expressway, the CSX tunnel and its looming enlargement, a residential neighborhood immediately adjacent to the north, and the completion of the 11th Street Bridges project. Against those not insignificant considerations, several desiderata and questions apply:

  • Convenient and safe access by pedestrians and bicyclists to the waterfront. Should that Include car access? If so, will parking spaces be provided?
  • Where should access however defined be provided? Fourteenth Street only, or on other cross streets?
  • East-west vehicle traffic. Will local uses between 11th Street and Barney Circle still require access, to and from 695? Should vehicles be restricted to local access only? If so, how is that done, so that commuting drivers don’t flood the side streets? Or, is a better strategy to allow all vehicular traffic, local or commuting, so as to better control it, with lights, speed cameras, etc?
  • Many nearby/adjoining residents want a park in lieu of a boulevard. Is it one or the other or can they co-exist? What is the impact of total elimination of a highway/boulevard? Will more commuting traffic use local streets to get to the East Capitol Street/Pa Ave bridges, seeking to avoid the 11th Street bridges as these, inevitably, build up traffic or as there are serious delays with accidents, etc?
  • If a park, what will be its features? Will there be playgrounds. What are possible designs to maximize safety, especially at night? Will there be a small amphitheater for concerts and the like? Basketball courts? What else?

The proposed Southeast Boulevard will be an important part of maintaining the vigor and imagination that has shaped our wonderful neighborhood. There are many questions to be answered, but the community is fortunate that it can rely on a rich array of completed conversions in to help in its choices.

Norman Metzger is a former Capitol Hill Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner.  Follow Norm on Twitter @CHNorm. Take a look at his photos on Flicker

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