Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The Southeast-Southwest Freeway: Southwest Washington's great divider

September 27, 2010 - 11:35 AM
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(Heather Farrell)

In yesterday’s package on the new Arena Stage, Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott had a typically trenchant analysis of the redevelopment challenges facing Southwest Washington. In short, Kennicott says Bing Thom’s new building is a terrific structure that should raise the bar for design in D.C.’s little quadrant – “an aesthetic and intellectual challenge to the city and developers to do better than they have done in the past.”

Even with the recession, Southwest Washington is enjoying a host of exciting redevelopment projects. But as Kennicott points out, none of them take on the quadrant’s greatest barrier to the rest of the city: The Southeast-Southwest Freeway. In most of my time in Washington I’ve enjoyed easy access to this highway, and I’ve appreciated how quickly it gets me out to Virginia while avoiding the monuments and their attendant tie-ups. But Kennicott’s right. The freeway is a debacle of ramps and bridges that destroys waterfront views and discourages people from walking to the fish market and much else that Southwest has to offer. It’s like a Whitehurst Freeway, only much, much worse:

The highway is three long blocks away from the Arena Stage building, but its impact is just as profound. Sight lines are interrupted, and pedestrians are loath to pass under its dark, wide overpasses. The CSX rail line -- another gash in the urban texture -- only deepens the insularity of the neighborhood.

Washington neighborhoods are becoming more interconnected every year, and it’s a wonderful thing. We see it in sweeping, city-wide enterprises like Capital Bikeshare and the Circulator, and we see it in more focused projects like the the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, which will soon link east of the river with west. But the Southeast-Southwest Freeway will remain the great rampart setting Southwest off from downtown D.C. Unfortunately, Kennicott’s hope that the freeway will be converted to a “street-level boulevard” seems an almost impossible dream to me. I can just imagine the wail from commuters – many of them powerful ones who head to the U.S. Capitol each morning – when they hear that some of their lanes may disappear.

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Side note: A few weeks ago I ran a transcript of a chat with D.C. councilmember Tommy Wells. In it I explained that Wells refers to the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue NW between Union Station and Mt. Vernon Square as “the Mediocre Mile” – a very apt nickname, in my opinion. I thought the councilmember had coined this term himself. In fact, it was used in the headline of a great Kennicott column from 2006. So credit should go to Kennicott, or to whichever anonymous and witty Post copy editor came up with the term.

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