A new proposal by the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District is designed to improve connectivity, culture and increase high-quality and useable public space in the neighborhood.
The Underpass and Virginia Avenue Public Space Vision Plan seeks to make these positive changes to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 7th and 8th Streets, and New Jersey Avenue underpasses along I-695.
“This effort addresses several important goals for the neighborhood,” says Ted Jutras, vice president of planning and development for Capitol Riverfront BID. “The elevated freeway creates a physical and mental barrier between Capitol Riverfront and Capitol Hill, and generally creates a sort of dead zone that extends to both sides of it. We’re working to reconnect the neighborhoods and bring active and passive uses under and next to the freeway so that these spaces feel more alive and welcoming.”
Though the big shiny projects are the 2nd Street Underpass — where there is activation space, and a large group of city and community stakeholders working together — as well as New Jersey Avenue Southeast and 8th Street Southeast, the smaller pieces are just as important, according to the plan.
“We really want the whole corridor to work well together and feel cohesive, while also reflecting different aspects of the neighborhood and its story,” Jutras says.
Pickleball players will be excited to hear that the plan includes adding courts, and there will also be space for skateboarders and basketball courts as well.
“The pickleball community already exists and has been advocating for improved playing space in the area—we’re just supporting that,” Jutras says. “DC Department of Parks and Recreation is going to be involved on that front, but for now we envision skateboarding, pickleball and basketball to be core components at 2nd Street. The vision plan that we released is conceptual, and each of the individual projects will go through additional phases of community engagement before anything is finalized.”
Art installations are also a big part of the plan. In addition to beautifying the spaces, they will also provide a visual connection between spaces—some will be interactive, some will enhance the lighting and public safety in the underpasses, and all of them will somehow reflect the character or story of the surrounding neighborhoods.
“One element that we’re looking at is finding ways to showcase D.C.’s cultural economy,” Jutras says. “There are so many talented artists, performers, chefs and so on in the city and the region, and we hope that this is one way to support them and bring them to the forefront through permanent installations as well as through events.”
Additionally, the Capitol Riverfront BID is looking to improve connections between adjacent neighborhoods wherever possible, whether that’s improving the connections across M Street, or South Capitol Street, or the Anacostia River or in this case, the freeway.
While the exact timetable for all of this is still being worked out, some of the plan has already started, with a small project underway outside of the Emblem condo building at 8th Street and Virginia Avenue Southeast.
“We’re working with Barracks Row Main Street, the building owners, and a design-build team led by Jennifer Horn Landscape Architecture to redesign the plaza outside of that building into a useable community space and gateway into Lower Barracks Row,” Jutras says. “We completed a temporary improvement two weekends ago and are working towards a finished project completed by spring of 2023.”
Currently, the BID is deciding which of the other projects to pursue next, and begin the process of design competitions, calls to artists, or whichever process is most appropriate that particular site.
“The projects will also involve additional community engagement since we really want the overall vision to reflect the community,” Jutras says. “And finally, while the BID is budgeting funds for this initiative, it will also require other public and private funding, so we’re working to build those relationships now. Our goal is to complete one or two of the 11 projects each year over the next 5 to 7 years and anticipate a total investment of around $5 million to complete the vision.”
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