14th and L, SE. Image from Google Street View.

NCPC will debate whether “closing” portions of three nonexistent “paper streets” along the Anacostia waterfront adequately respects the L’Enfant Plan. The way to best fulfill the spirit of the L’Enfant Plan, however, would be to focus on connecting the Barney Circle neighborhood to the waterfront.

The railroad first separated the two when it was built in 1872, and the freeway created an even bigger barrier in 1974. The Barney Circle Freeway was planned to extend this segment across the river to the Anacostia Freeway, but was canceled in 1996.

The current 11th Street Bridges project aims to provide the all-freeway link from the Anacostia Freeway to the Southeast Freeway. As a result, this segment is no longer needed, and DDOT plans to remove it at the end of the bridge project.

Freeing up a large strip of land provides an opportunity to add some development and also reconnect across the bridge. Today, L Street, SE runs for three blocks, from 13th to 15th Street, with a fence on one side separating it from the freeway below. There’s then a much larger drop to the surface CSX tracks; this portion is east of the tunnel. M Street runs adjacent to the tracks to the south.

The area in question. Image from Google Maps. Potomac Avenue Metro is at the top; the Cohen development is at the bottom, just northeast of the large parking lot.

The freeway here is actually four separate roadways, two in each direction. The middle two lead to ramps to the 11th Street Bridges, which are being removed; the outer two connect to the Southeast Freeway. On the eastern end, the ramps connect to Pennsylvania Avenue at Barney Circle and also pass underneath as a roadway that runs along the waterfront to RFK Stadium.

Without the freeway, DDOT could reconstruct this roadway as a new local road between L and M. Let’s call it Lamp Street. It no longer needs to cary Pennsylvania Avenue traffic to the freeway, as those cars should take 295 to the 11th Street Bridge. Therefore, it only would carry cars going to and from the stadium and local traffic.

1-2 lanes each way, plus parallel parking, sidewalks, and a two-way cycle track along the railroad side would suffice. With the remaining land, DC could allow some new development fronting onto Lamp Street and onto L. I don’t know what neighbors would like to see, but if I lived there, I’d like to see some townhouses facing L, connected in the back to taller buildings along Lamp.

The townhouses could be 2½-3½ stories above ground. The larger portions could be set back enough to keep L feeling low-rise while also providing more opportunities for adding housing and some nice views of the water on the Lamp Street side.

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Best of all, bridges could then connect over the railroad tracks. If the existing grade of the freeway (and what will become Lamp Street) is high enough above the tracks to allow the CSX double-height trains to pass completely below, then 13th, 14th, and 15th could continue to new intersections with Lamp (with a downward slope), and pedestrian bridges could then cross the tracks.

If that’s not high enough, the grade could be raised to make Lamp the same height as L, or else the extensions of 13th, 14th, and 15th could simply be pedestrian plazas atop the ground floor of the Lamp apartment buildings connecting to bridges over both Lamp and the tracks. That would avoid direct connections from Lamp to the other streets, which some residents might like to avoid drivers using those streets, but would also diminish connectivity.

The next question becomes how the bridges can let pedestrians and cyclists down from the high altitude over the tracks. Extending the bridges down to the waterfront should be part of the Cohen project. Pedestrians and cyclists shouldn’t have to travel long distances to the east or west to get down; they should be able to descend directly toward the waterfront.

These could be standalone bridges extending along the streets’ right-of-way, and they could also connect directly to parts of the new buildings. Cohen should plan to build these bridges and ensure any overpasses between the buildings aren’t in the way. DC could also require CSX to go along with these bridges as one of the conditions of their Virginia Avenue tunnel project.

The bridge at 14th, in particular, would make this new waterfront plaza and the riverfront boathouses easily accessible from the Potomac Avenue Metro. The L’Enfant Plan was about connections: avenues and roadways connected major circles and squares to each other and to the edges of the city. Ensuring an easy connection from the major intersection at Potomac Avenue to the waterfront, and reconnecting the grid across the tracks even for non-vehicular traffic, best fulfills the true spirit of the plan.

Rather than worrying about the width of the right-of-way for paper streets that don’t actually go anywhere, NCPC should focus on guaranteeing these connections and upholding the intent of the L’Enfant Plan.

The center (light) freeway area can be removed and 9th reconnected. Image from Google Maps.

Whether DC goes with this plan or some other arrangement for the current Southeast Freeway segment east of the 11th Street Bridges, it would help to make a decision soon. The most recent designs for the 11th Street Bridges include a ramp from the current northernmost freeway road up to 8th Street.

If Lamp (or whatever it’s ultimately called) ends up using the south side of the freeway right-of-way, DDOT should make sure Skanska lines up the new ramp with the final road.

Instead of directly flowing into the freeway on the western end, DDOT could reconnect 9th Street between I and Virginia Avenue, where current ramps lead to the defunct freeway. The reclaimed land on each side, between the 11th Street Bridge ramps, could provide space for the Marine Barracks expansion instead of taking the nearby community garden.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.