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Its opinion is merely advisory, but the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) had the opportunity last week to mediate a long-simmering controversy in the Foggy Bottom/West End area. After years of wangling over plans for reconstructing the eastern end of the Whitehurst Freeway, the NCPC staff hired a traffic consultant, David W. Schoppert, to draft a compromise between the scheme advanced by the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) and an alternative devised by the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a citizens’ planning group. At its Oct. 7 meeting, however, the commission largely ignored its own staff’s recommendations, approving most of DPW’s plan on a unanimous voice vote.
“NCPC isn’t up to its job anymore. It’s just an expediting body,” reacted George Washington University urban planning professor and Committee of 100 Chairman Dorn McGrath, who made the committee’s presentation.
The city’s proposal is to remove the unused ramps in the area where the Whitehurst, Rock Creek Parkway, and I-66 come together, and simply repave the remaining concrete spaghetti. The Committee of 100 recommends eliminating all the ramps, extending 27th Street north to Pennsylvania Avenue, and replacing the highway interchange with a signaled, at-grade intersection at 27th and K Streets. The result would be less conspicuous, more compact, and more urban in character, removing interstate-style highway ramps (called “unsightly and unnecessary” by Committee of 100 Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Gary Nelson) and freeing up six acres for new parkland.
Schoppert’s compromise included many elements of the Committee of 100 plan, and McGrath testified enthusiastically about its promise. Acting on a motion by D.C. Office of Planning Director Albert Dobbins, however, the commission essentially dismissed the consultant’s work.
McGrath and architect Joseph Passonneau have made a detailed case for the Committee of 100 plan, and have convincingly refuted many of DPW’s arguments against it. Yet local opinion remains split, sometimes heatedly so. The Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) took no position, though it rejected the notion of extending 27th Street. At the Foggy Bottom/West End ANC, pro- DPW and pro-Committee resolutions both failed to win a majority.
What Nelson termed DPW’s “mindless proposal” has its supporters, though. The Foggy Bottom Association voted to endorse it, and the area’s councilmember, Jack Evans, champions it. West End resident (and Evans ally) Barbara Kahlow called the NCPC vote a “big win for the community.”
Proponents of the DPW plan argue that the Committee of 100 option will increase traffic congestion and will cost more. DPW itself estimates the price at more than $20 million, although its critics argue that the department has substantially overestimated the cost difference between its scheme and the alternatives—and note that 85 percent of the money will be paid by the feds anyway.
Though seldom mentioned, the most volatile concern may be one that has nothing directly to do with traffic, aesthetics, or cost: the homeless. As Lucille Duprat and two other residents of a condominium building at 26th and K Streets NW explained in a letter to NCPC, “while we support parkland in principle, such an open space at this loca-
tion is likely to exacerbate the problems we are having with encampments and street people.” In other words, better to have cars and ramps than homeless people and tents.
Boosters of the DPW plan cite the speed with which it could be undertaken, but that doesn’t sway McGrath, who says he’ll take the fight to other venues now that NCPC has “debased its authority.” “It is never too late to improve on mediocrity,” he testified to the commission.
Last Laugh? Councilmember Evans wrote Washington City Paper recently, helpfully pointing out instances in which he actually supports his constituents in battles against Wilkes Artis Hedrick & Lane, the powerful land-use law firm. In the case of 1328 G St. NW, however, he’d already stated his support for a Wilkes Artis gambit before his constituents had spoken.
Last month, Evans introduced a bill to close an alley in the 1300 block of G Street NW, which would facilitate the construction of an office building at 1328 G. The developer is asking for added height on the grounds that 1328 G will be connected to 1300 G. (Under the city Height Act, building height is tied to street width, and 13th is wider than G.) The complication is that 1300 G doesn’t exist, though it presumably will be built someday.
Despite an elaborate presentation by Wilkes Artis attorney Whayne Quin at the downtown ANC’s Oct. 6 meeting—during which Quin hastily hand-sketched a connection between the two proposed buildings on the architectural plans after it was pointed out that no link was depicted—the commissioners didn’t buy the phantom-building argument. “This doesn’t pass the laugh test,” said Commissioner Robert Ebel as the ANC voted unanimously to recommend against the alley closing.
Mark Jenkins & Bill Rice
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.