Between Capitol Hill’s thriving Barracks Row commercial strip along 8th Street north of the Southeast Freeway, the new Riverfront District around the Ballpark, and the Washington Navy Yard, is a largely neglected area around 8th Street SE from I to M Streets. When the Southeast Freeway was built in the 1960s, it cut this area off from the rest of the commercial corridor, but development pressures (at least until the current crisis) from the Riverfront District rekindled interest in the neighborhood.

A team of graduate students from the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation studied this area, which they call Lower Barracks Row, for their final studio project. The team includes frequent GGW commenter Chris Loos and Track Twenty-Nine author Matt Johnson. The team evaluated four scenarios for the area:

  1. Keep all zoning and transportation as is;
  2. Develop the area primarily with larger office buildings, like the Riverfront District, making it an eastern extension of that area (“Riverfront East”);
  3. Remove or bury the Southeast Freeway to reconnect Lower Barracks Row with its more successful Upper counterpart, making this district a blend of the two types;
  4. Create a new, primarily residential “urban village” neighborhood with its own identity connected to both Barracks Row and the Riverfront.

You can experience each scenario using the video walkthroughs the team created for each one.

The report recommends the fourth scenario, which would preserve most historic buildings but also add some density to better integrate the taller Riverfront buildings and the lower Capitol Hill neighborhood. A mix of townhouses and apartments would give people diverse housing choices, with neighborhood-serving retail along 8th Street.

Scenario 4 suggests a series of shops underneath the freeway, along one side of 8th street, to join up the retail north of the freeway with the retail south, reducing the freeway’s role as a barrier. It would also restore Potomac Avenue to the original L’Enfant configuration to join M Street, instead of the strange curve today that hooks it into 8th. This would recover some space that could become a fairly nice neighborhood park right in the center of the neighborhood and adjacent to the commercial corridor.

Left: Potential shops under the Southeast Freeway along 8th Street, and the streetcar approaching from the south (left). Right: The new park created by reconfiguring Potomac Avenue (diagonal) to intersect M Street (bottom) instead of 8th (top left).

The team also conducted several meetings with the community, to collect ideas and input and then to present their findings. They also built a pretty amazing physical model of the site in addition to the digital model that generated the above drawings and videos. (Can we collect the models made by this and other studio teams, the ones NCPC has of major federal buildings, and others into a master model of DC like the NYC Panorama?

Left: Presenting the study to the community. Right: The physical model of the area and scenarios.

One element that wasn’t clear in the report was the reason the authors broke up the many possibilities into these specific scenarios. Scenarios 2 and 4 put a streetcar on 8th, while only scenario 3 removes the freeway. Why not a Riverfront East and no freeway? How about approximately equal parts of residential and office (scenario 3) while keeping the freeway and adding the shops underneath? Some alternatives reconfigure the intersection of Potomac Avenue, M and 8th one way, others a different way. Obviously, the authors had to divide up the universe of possibilities somehow, and some combinations make more sense than others, but some decisions seem to simply bucket things into four options for the sake of having four options.

The team will post their final report here soon. One thing is for sure: after studying the site, listening to community input, building models, and creating an extensive report, this group is ready to go out and do real planning outside the classroom.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.