Photo by inked78 on Flickr.

Tucked away in the not-so-scenic brownfields of the New York Avenue industrial corridor, buried between Gallaudet University and Mount Olivet Cemetery, is an isolated enclave of houses known as Ivy City. Theoretically, it is not a bad location: about a mile from New York Avenue Metro station and its actively redeveloping neighborhood, and walking distance to the scenic National Arboretum. But thanks to its isolation from other neighborhoods and years of neglect, it is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the District.

DC Mud reports on a bit of elbow grease the DC government is devoting to this community. Four nonprofit developers will redevelop 37 vacant properties in Ivy City. DC aims to increase home ownership in an area where only 12% of residents own their houses despite the incredible affordability of the neighborhood.

It’s easy to miss Ivy City while driving down New York Avenue. There are only four turns from NY Ave into Ivy City, and industrial superblocks front the avenue along the entire stretch. This is a very unfortunate use of street frontage on a boulevard that has a vista to the White House, especially since it hides the neighborhood.

Perhaps these industrial buildings are here because the neighborhood is so close to the railroad tracks on the north side of NY Ave, but nearby Brookland is a thriving residential community hugging the Metropolitan Branch railroad. And then there is Woodridge, just up the tracks from Ivy City. Unlike Brookland, there isn’t even a Metro Station there. And yet it is still a pleasant residential area, not an industrial wasteland like NY Ave in Ivy City.

Ivy City is not on the wrong side of the tracks, it’s on the wrong side of bad urbanism. Dumping traffic from Maryland freeways onto New York Avenue at Fort Lincoln is poisoning the neighborhood with blight. The John Hanson Highway (US-50/I-595) becomes NY Ave once it crosses into the District, turning 65 mph freeway traffic into neighborhood traffic. This continues all the way down to the entrance to I-395 near 3rd Street NW.

Today, New York Avenue is the only logical way for a car or truck to get from US-50 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the 395 tunnel, and on to Arlington. The street grid connecting to NY Ave was undermined to make it more freeway-like. NY Ave’s six lanes completely cut through the “circle” at Montana Avenue. Instead of an intersection at Mount Olivet Road, there is a freeway-like interchange. At the light at Florida Avenue, a faux “exit” prevents southeast-bound Florida Avenue traffic from turning left onto NY Av. Much of the original grid became super blocks along the corridor. Taking away these intersections made the route more freeway-like and less like a city street. And this makes the area less safe.

Of course there’s nothing but moribund industrial development. Who would want to live on a shortcut between two interstates?

The key, then, is to take the freeway feel out of New York Avenue. Take out a lane in each direction (or make them bus lanes), add a tree lined median and street parking, signalize more intersections, reconnect the street grid, and perhaps lower the speed limit. Then NY Ave is more of a city street.

Then we have to do something about the two interstate highways that feed New York Avenune. The way I see it, there are two largely unpopular options here: connect them with a new freeway or get rid of the two freeway stubs (the I-395 tunnel and New York Avenue Freeway).

The first option would be a freeway that connects the 395 tunnel to the freeway segment east of Bladensburg Road. To avoid razing huge chunks of the existing structures along that route, this would mean either an aerial structure over the train tracks or a tunnel. The original freeway master plan for the District included such a freeway, known as the New York Avenue Industrial Freeway. This would create a much more logical freeway system in the District, and we could toll the new route (though I doubt the revenue would make a dent in the construction costs). On the other hand, this freeway would cost a lot to build, induce new traffic, and abandon smart growth practices.

The second option would mean shutting down the 395 tunnel, forcing all the traffic onto the Southeast Freeway, and closing the New York Avenue freeway segment, pushing traffic onto DC 295 (the Anacostia Freeway). We would then need exit ramps from DC 295 to the 11th Street Bridge, to maintain a connection to 395, as DC plans to do with its 11th Street Bridges project. This would be a much cheaper option without the induced demand, but many commuters would create an uproar over any freeway removals, and residents of Capitol Hill are fighting the new, larger bridge that will carry more traffic.

Meanwhile, DC is stuck in a middle ground with two unappealing commuter options, a freeway route without some ramps and a boulevard that can’t decide if it’s a city street or a freeway. And little Ivy City stagnates as a residential island off NY Av, crime ridden and blighted. Hopefully the refurbished residential properties will help, but I am afraid this neighborhood will languish until bold action is taken to improve New York Avenue.

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Dave Murphy is a Geographic Analyst for the Department of Defense and a US Army veteran. He is also a part time bouncer. He was born in Foggy Bottom and is a lifelong resident of the DC area. He currently resides in the Eckington neighborhood of Northeast.