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Half a century ago, D.C. residents banded together against plans to build a network of freeways through the heart of the city. Portions of the Inner Loop were completed, but much of it was abandoned in the 1970s, sparing several neighborhoods destruction in the name of traffic flow.
Since then, fights over freeways through the District have largely subsided. But in one neighborhood, this old battle is flaring up again.
Early last year, the District Department of Transportation closed a portion of the Southeast Freeway—-itself one of the parts of the Inner Loop that did get built—-as part of the 11th Street Bridge reconstruction project. Now, DDOT is preparing to reopen the ramp connecting the freeway to Barney Circle, on the western bank of the Anacostia River, by the end of the year. And some neighbors claim the department is jumping the gun in restoring freeway access through a community that would prefer a more pedestrian-friendly approach.
Brian Flahaven, who chairs ANC 6B in the Hill East neighborhood, argues that DDOT’s work conflicts with that of another D.C. agency: the Office of Planning, which is studying options for a “boulevard” stretching between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle that would better serve the Hill East Community. “It’s going to undermine the study,” says Flahaven. “Once it’s open and they spend all this money to build it, what’s the motivation to do these other plans?”
Ravindra Ganvir, deputy chief engineer at DDOT, says the closure of the stretch of roadway was always intended as temporary, and reopening it is needed to alleviate traffic in nearby areas. “We’re trying to address the traffic concerns that exist today in Ward 7 and the conditions on DC-295,” he says. Of course, to Hill East residents, traffic concerns across the Anacostia River aren’t the paramount concern. Flahaven, who isn’t convinced that the new freeway portion will mitigate traffic at all, worries that when cars back up on the freeway, they’ll spill out into his neighborhood, causing congestion, noise, and pollution.
But the main concern is what DDOT’s work will mean for the Office of Planning study. On Aug. 4, the Office of Planning presented four design alternatives for the boulevard to the community, which received them more favorably than DDOT’s plans. These options mostly connect the boulevard to the neighborhood street grid and add green space.
Ganvir says DDOT’s construction and the Office of Planning study aren’t mutually incompatible. “We are working with the Office of Planning to make sure their comments are addressed to meet the needs of transportation, ” he says.
But neighbors fear that once the freeway portion is in place, it’ll be hard to undo. Local ANC Commissioner Kirsten Oldenburg writes on her blog that if DDOT completes its freeway work, then “this freeway segment becomes the No Build option.”
Office of Planning Chief of Staff Tanya Stern insists her office’s study hasn’t been neutered by DDOT’s actions. “OP’s study is intended to assist DDOT and the community in developing a vision for the new street,” she says in an email. “Whatever happens in the short-term, our focus is still on what the long-term goals should be for the neighborhood and the District.”
Stern says the Office of Planning expects to present more detailed concepts for the boulevard to the public this fall. We’ll see then whether the reopening of the freeway segment is compatible with the kind of neighborhood-serving streets the community is clamoring for, or if the momentum has already swung too far the other way.
Background image via the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative