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A “scar.” A “blight on the urban landscape.” A project that “tore the Capitol Hill neighborhood from its moorings.” City and development officials had all sorts of descriptions this morning for the I-395 tunnel that ripped through downtown D.C. in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But they all could agree on one descriptor: not much longer for this world.
City leaders and developers gathered this morning by the freeway gash to celebrate its imminent demise. The road won’t actually disappear, of course; it’ll just vanish from the sight of people on the streets above, decked over to create a major new mixed-use development called Capitol Crossing. The project has been nine years in the making, and construction is already underway on the freeway. Today marked the official groundbreaking, a symbolic moment that provided a chance for officials to heap their bile on the urban-planning mistake that brought us here and their praise on the development that will supplant it.
A promotional video from the developer, Property Group Partners, calls Capitol Crossing “one of the great projects of our time.” The company’s founder and president, Jeff Sussman, hailed the groundbreaking as “a great day for Washington, D.C. and a great day for us.” His colleague Bob Braunohler labeled it “an urban planner’s dream for over 50 years.” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton painted it as a victory for the District over the suburbs, which have historically subordinated D.C.’s priorities.
“395 is about the region,” she said. “You hear all that noise? That’s more about them than about us.” Capitol Crossing, she continued, “gives us back a neighborhood, a whole section of our city that was lost to us.”
Here’s what the project actually entails. Where the exposed freeway currently runs between the east end of downtown and the Union Station area, three new city blocks will emerge, covering 7.5 acres. On top of them, Property Group Partners will erect five mixed-use buildings with 2.2 million square feet of space, consisting mostly of offices over retail. Sussman has promised that Eataly, the heralded Mario Batali restaurant and market, will be among the retailers. The first building is expected to be completed in 2017, with the last coming in 2019.
Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner says the project will create 8,000 permanent jobs. What’s more, he trumpeted repeatedly at the groundbreaking, there will be “no significant government subsidy” of the project, which is expected to cost $1.3 billion.
But the city will ask drivers on 395 to endure a lengthy hassle. City officials rejected a proposal from Property Group Partners to close a section of the freeway altogether for more than a year in order to speed up construction, but commuters can still expect lane closures for the foreseeable future as the developer prepares to deck over the road. Mayor Muriel Bowser urged residents to “pardon the dust.”
But to Bowser and other officials, the project’s benefits will far outweigh the cost. Kenner told the crowd that Capitol Crossing is one of the four biggest projects taking place in the city right now, alongside the Wharf on the Southwest waterfront; Walter Reed on upper Georgia Avenue NW; and the St. Elizabeths redevelopment near Congress Heights. Bowser said she’d just met with a major employer looking to relocate employees and put Capitol Crossing at the top of her list of potential sites.
Then came the dramatic orchestral music as the officials moved to the ceremonial sandbox for the portion of the event intended to represent an actual groundbreaking. With a rallying cry of “let’s turn some dirt!” they lifted their shovels to do their small, symbolic part to start filling in the gash that the freeway created.
Renderings from Property Group Partners; photos by Aaron Wiener