North Capitol Street, framed by the Capitol dome and used by hundreds of commuters and visitors, stands as an oft-overlooked example of a highway mentality misapplied to an urban setting. To rectify this longstanding gash in the city’s fabric, DDOT should look into reshaping of the less appealing highway-like portions of North Capitol Street around Rhode Island and New York Avenues.
North Capitol Street was originally a wide urban boulevard that hosted a streetcar line (predecessor to today’s Metrobus route 80). Truxton Circle, which sat at the intersection of North Capitol and Florida Avenue until 1947, provided a focal point and pedestrian refuge that enhanced the corridor’s visual appeal.
However, planners in the 1950s were more concerned with getting automobile commuters from the north into and out of downtown quickly than with aesthetics or neighborhood cohesiveness. They sped through traffic by building underpasses beneath Rhode Island and New York Avenues and replacing Truxton Circle with a signalized intersection.
Things could have been worse. Much of the neighborhood could have been bulldozed to make way for a proposed expressway. But these underpasses have remained eyesores that detract from a community whose century-old turreted rowhouses otherwise maintain considerable curb appeal.
The District government has already undertaken some studies towards enhancing North Capitol. Improvements for the segment north of Michigan Avenue around the Old Soldiers’ Home have been proposed, but the segment from Michigan Avenue south to M Street remains largely unexamined.
Well-designed enhancements to North Capitol would enhance the community, improve safety by increasing pedestrian activity and putting “eyes on the street,” and would serve as an amenity to attract business investment in a corridor the city has targeted for commercial revival. It would also serve as a nice complement to the current plans for the McMillan site development, which would make the view of the Capitol from the site a focal point.
DDOT should begin by studying the cost, feasibility and impacts of decking over the dug-in portion of North Capitol between Rhode Island Avenue and T Street and creating an attractive public square — replacing a noisy eyesore with a neighborhood amenity. Should a full decking over prove prohibitively expensive, other more affordable aesthetic enhancements, such as covering the fences with native flowering vines, ought to be considered.
Converting highway corridors into public parks is becoming a trend amongst American cities. Boston exemplifies how greatly a city can be enhanced when an ugly highway corridor is put underground and converted into a well-designed park. Dallas also seeks to convert its Woodall Rodgers Freeway into greenspace.
Improvements to the North Capitol Street and New York Avenue intersection should also seek to address traffic bottlenecks. The ramp from southbound North Capitol onto New York Avenue, which is now used by two high-ridership Metrobus routes and several delivery trucks, is a notorious one. A redesign of this intersection that improves traffic flow, while also leaving space for a greenery or a public monument or fountain would greatly benefit this developing part of the city.
Instead of a noisy, unattractive mini-freeway that benefits those driving through Bloomingdale/Eckington/Truxton Circle/NoMa at the expense of those who live along it, future residents and business owners and patrons could benefit from visual enhancements that complement the surrounding Victorian architecture and the view of the Capitol, while still allowing traffic to flow smoothly. Turning this part of the North Capitol Street corridor into a desirable destination would generate benefits that could exceed the significant costs of remaking parts of the infrastructure.