Photos

How the Highway Killed Washington's Waterfront

And how the city plans to bring it back to life.

In the shadow of the I-395 overpass, Washington, D.C.'s Maine Avenue Fish Market looks, sounds, and smells like any fish market in any commercial port. Barge-mounted stalls line an open pedestrian and parking plaza, fishmongers broadcast their specials and the air is ripe with the fumes of fresh fish and idling diesel engines. What sets this scene apart from similar ones in other port cities are those diesel engines; they belong to trucks, not trawlers. At the Maine Avenue Fish Market, for all its maritime ambiance, seafood arrives by land.


The fish market exemplifies Washington’s disengagement from its waterfront.

On paper the Southwest quadrant, situated to the east of the Potomac, was meant to play a critical role in the developing city. The master planner envisioned low-lying Southwest as a grand harbor and gateway to Washington in a world dominated by enterprises of the sea. On L’Enfant’s map, the Capitol and its monumental surrounds were projected to be the focal point, not only of the processional expanse of what is now known as the National Mall, but also of boulevards extending to the Southwest waterfront.

Off paper, L’Enfant’s grand vision for the federal city was quickly forgotten. Despite a lengthy frontage along the Potomac and Anacostia, the two prominent rivers play only minor roles in the life of the city and its evolution.

The reason is partly historical. As the Industrial Revolution unfolded, the capital’s limited industry and infrastructure requiring access to the water found ample frontage in Georgetown. While cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York overwhelmed their water’s edge with industry and commerce, the bulk of Washington’s waterfront remained idle.

Then, there was geography. Southwest is low and swampy, sitting at the bottom of a bowl on whose rim the Capitol and other important structures were slowly rising. Over time, the District’s Southwest quadrant had become the locus for the city’s least desirable infrastructure, industry, and populace.

For Southwest, the first decades of the twentieth century are viewed largely as something of a heyday. Washington’s need for transient housing was increasing and Southwest was affordable. Political and economic change in Europe brought a new wave of immigrants, and as war broke out worldwide, an influx of temporary workers arrived to support the American war effort.

Immigrants found housing and community in Southwest, establishing churches and civic groups that still exist today. In 1922, the area where the Jefferson Memorial now sits was known as Tidal Basin Beach. East Potomac Park was the location of more than twenty different recreational activities and the site of publicity junket for silent film empresario Mack Sennett’s new movie "Bathing Beauties."

Things got even worse when the city dropped a freeway into southwest. The highway was part of an ambitious urban renewal program, designed for the city in 1951 as part of a plan for an inner loop ring road. In reality, the nine lanes of elevated highway severed the southwest quadrant of the District from the rest of the city.

I-395 was designed to be part of a larger inner beltway planned for the District. The Inner Loop, as it was called, was part of a regional planning trend towards ring roads - proposed and in some cases built - around and through America’s cities. In the District, only the Whitehurst freeway on the Georgetown waterfront, and the Southwest and Southeast Freeway portions of the loop were built. These highways were planned to facilitate movement to and between the new suburbs developing on the periphery of major cities.

For Southwest quadrant of the District, the construction of the highway was a tourniquet that squeezed off the flow of boulevards and streets.

Maryland Avenue, once a primary artery of the neighborhood, now ends in a barrier of office and hotels that abuts the freeway. Smaller streets not severed are served by overpasses to the west (where the more expensive real estate is) and underpasses in the east, where land values fall off. Where Southwest terminates and Southeast begins, the Freeway is exclusively overhead. Like other well-known inner-city freeways – the Gowanus, and Cross-Bronx in New York City are good examples – the trajectory of Southwest Freeway has dug a real estate value trough. The area is replete with surface parking lots for federal workers,  a federal power station, and property yards, some vacant, some filled with equipment and vehicles.


There have been some efforts to reconnect Washington and its waterfront. In the 1970s, the city built a pedestrian walk along the waterfront.

Visitors would arrive by car via the eleven lanes of traffic on Maine Avenue and Water Street, and park in the expansive lots that parallel these streets. This car-centric access via repeated parallel strips of macadem sets up a hard edge separation that mirrors the highway and rail lines to the north. Menacing and unattractive for local residents heading to the waterfront by foot, the gamut of car traffic is further aggravated by exit ramps off of I-395. For pedestrians coming from L’Enfant Plaza and the National Mall there is no straight-forward connection at all.

This is the condition in Southwest today. The hard edge of the public promenade continues beyond the walls of Fort McNair. Moving up the Anacostia, however, the shoreline reverts to a natural edge, but with only limited access. Here L’Enfant’s ragged city fabric still terminates at the water at First, Second, and Half Streets. The blocks that front the water here are occupied by an outlying building of Fort McNair’s National Defense University, a public marina, a power plant, and a municipal scrapyard and cement factory. Apart from the Marina, there are no spaces for public recreation and the interior streets between Fort McNair and South Capitol are exclusively industrial and commercial.

But with an innovative redesign, we think we can reclaim the waterfront. What we propose is an urban vision for Southwest that reestablishes connections and generates new ones at the level of the alley, block, quadrant and region. In addition to eliminating the transportation canyon dug by I-395, we propose interventions that would recapture the waterfront by restoring east Potomac park Fort McNair and a ferry terminal as a cultural hub.

The current main areas of use of East Potomac Park are occupied by a golf course and an indoor tennis facility at Hains Point. The Park is also the location of the headquarters buildings of the National Park Service National Capital Region, the U.S. Park Police, and National Mall and Memorial Parks, as well as park maintenance facilities, a U.S. Park Police substation and visitor transportation operational facilities. In our proposal, the park becomes a public green, accessible by several bridges and a new Metro stop. A ferry terminal will provide commuter and tourist traffic from Maryland and Virginia, tourist rides to various attractions and access to all forms of public transit.

Renderings from Studio Twenty Seven's proposal for a new southwest.



Fort McNair is replaced in this plan as a New Mall, providing space for memorials, monuments and music venues. Extending the National Mall further into Southwest is not a new idea. At the turn of the century, the original proposed location of the National Arboretum was in Southwest, a logical location in which a great variety of trees and shrubs could be planted along the water’s edge without detracting from the natural appearance of East Potomac Park.

Rather than impose yet another route to patch areas together as previous master plans have attempted, the addition of a ferry terminal attempts to serve as a mediator of routes to the existing urban fabric and the other aspects of the proposal for Southwest. The terminal becomes the hub of all forms of public transportation and social gathering at a new destination point. Located adjacent to the New Mall, the ferry terminal is both a destination point and an access point to all other major destinations in the greater D.C. area. It disperses and collects various forms of transportation and encourages social activities at the site. The new ferry terminal will provide access to the other sites of the proposal as well as the current existing major points of destination in the greater DC area.

We see the thoughtful redevelopment of Southwest as a process that must take into consideration forces of change that are only just becoming apparent. Our research and exploration is not a finite process, and our proposition is not a discrete object, like the city itself it will continuously change, update, and reframe.

All images courtesy of Studio Twenty Seven.

About the Authors

  • Craig Cook is employed at Studio Twenty Seven Architecture in Washington DC. The Studio has recently published a book entitled Southwest DC: (A)Mending L’Enfant’s Plan documenting their research into the history of urban development in this quadrant of the city from the introduction of L'Enfant's plan in 1791 to the opening of Nationals' stadium in 2008.
  • John K. Burke is employed at Studio Twenty Seven Architecture in Washington DC. The Studio has recently published a book entitled Southwest DC: (A)Mending L’Enfant’s Plan documenting their research into the history of urban development in this quadrant of the city from the introduction of L'Enfant's plan in 1791 to the opening of Nationals' stadium in 2008.