Image by Famartin licensed under Creative Commons.

At the first of their public meetings last Saturday, September 16, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) unveiled their vision to transform the Southeast Boulevard from an inaccessible highway to a green and walkable neighborhood. However, they still don't have a preferred option.

The area up for development is an ill-used section of the former Southeast Freeway on the southeastern edge of Capitol Hill. DDOT staff updated residents on the Environmental Assessment (EA) process, took comments, and unveiled the official website for the project.

Southeast Boulevard project area. Image by DDOT project factsheet, 2017.

Reimagining the Southeast Boulevard

The Southeast Boulevard runs between the 11th Street Bridge near Navy Yard along the edge of Ward 6, just north of the Anacostia River, to Barney Circle and Pennsylvania Ave. The project, which includes Barney Circle, redevelops this short stretch of what was once the SE Freeway and reintegrates it into the surrounding streets.

Southeast Boulevard under construction in 2014. Image by Tim Evanson licensed under Creative Commons.

As it stands, the road creates a half-mile long barrier between the neighborhood and the river, with a steep drop off that leads down to a four-lane road with a median. Here the DDOT explains some of the DDOT’s goals for of the project:

  • Elevating the boulevard to match L Street SE,
  • Reintegrating the local street network (e.g. 13th, 14th, and 15th streets)
  • Repurposing surplus transportation land
  • Building pedestrian and bicycle connections to the river
  • Incorporating an underground bus transit facility

The project has been percolating for a long time, and it will be years before the city has a long way to go before we see any physical changes to the site. The EA follows a planning study the Office of Planning (OP) conducted with DDOT between 2014 and 2016. The results of that study were a set of conceptual options for the site, although those are not yet what DDOT is evaluating and DDOT presented no specific concepts at this most recent meeting.

Still, the OP concepts are useful because, since they help make the project’s potential more concrete. For example, Concept B, shown below, explains how the SE Boulevard redevelopment could right-size the roadway while allowing for substantial new housing and access to the river. The DDOT plans to be back with concepts of its own for public comment later this fall.

Concept B of the Southeast Boulevard. Image by DC Office of Planning Study, 2016.

Community concerns about buses, noise, pollution

The meeting was not without controversy. Community members raised concerns that have come up in earlier stages of the project. A central issue is a proposed bus transit support facility, which could be tucked underneath a newly-elevated boulevard. The city needs a new facility to store and maintain its bus fleet (WMATA and Circulator), which GGW has written about before.

Other community concerns included traffic, noise, and air pollution. DDOT officials promised to take these concerns into account with the concept design. Some residents along L Street raised concerns about lost views of the river and increased traffic. Residents from Ward 7 at the meeting also voiced concern about how the redesign will affect their commutes into the city.

We should give this project a chance

Nonetheless, the potential benefits to the neighborhood – and to the city more broadly – could be large. The current boulevard is a vestige of an era when we built freeways through major cities and split neighborhoods with impassable roadways. To walk from my house near 13th and E streets SE to the Anacostia river four blocks to the south, I have to either walk past Barney Circle to a footbridge over the CSX tracks or over to 11th Street past the Navy Yard facility.

A large Planned Unit Development (PUD) planned for 1333 M Street is stalled at the financing stage, in part because resident would have no good way to access the Potomac Avenue Metro Station. Even though the station sits a few blocks north as the crow flies, it’s currently almost a mile walk away. While the proposed bus facility provides little direct benefit to the neighborhood, it may be necessary to move the project forward. Moreover it’s an important city goal, and individual neighborhoods need to be part of city-wide solutions, too. Plus, if DC continues to electrify its bus fleet, that will solve many of the valid concerns about pollution

DDOT has a tough task ahead, given the scale and complexity of the project, the challenges of reintegrating a road that has been a freeway for a long time into a residential neighborhood, and of course, project financing. For now, the next step in the EA process is for DDOT to come back with concepts sometime this fall, and for the neighborhood and the city to weigh in on those ideas.

GGWash readers: What do you think of these designs? Is the process to improve the Southeast Boulevard on the right track?

Nick Burger moved to Washington, DC in 2008 and has been an ANC commissioner (6B06) since 2015. He focuses on housing and urban development issues through the ANC and chairs 6B’s Planning and Zoning Committee. He volunteers most weekends with Habitat for Humanity DC. Nick lives in Capitol Hill with his wife and two children.