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Underpass development moves forward to connect Navy Yard, Capitol Hill

Difficulties with contractors held up progress to a small degree, but project managers expect to see construction by the end of the year.

Redevelopment of underpass areas beneath Interstate 695 in Southeast, D.C. is moving forward, with construction expected to begin by the end of the year, community partners of the project say.

The Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District hopes its plan to connect the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill neighborhoods will make the area friendly to pedestrians and revitalize underused spaces. The BID proposed the plan in August 2022, and the project has moved along steadily since.

Erik Salmi, deputy chief of staff for Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, said that those involved were still trying to find a contractor for the section of the plan near Garfield Park, which delayed the project somewhat, but they expected to see construction begin by the end of the year.

“Councilmember Allen has been pushing to create that space, working with DDOT, funding it in the budget. We’re all systems go at this point,” Salmi said.

A map of all planned developments, current and future, for the underpass.
Source: Capitol Riverfront BID’s

Salmi said there were active communities on either side of Virginia Avenue that would benefit from making the area more walkable.

“The Virginia Avenue underpass connects to a dog park and another part of the underpass that has a really nice vibrant park already in place, and I think you can get a good sense there of what we’re trying to get to in terms of creating a welcoming and fun and open space that people of all ages can enjoy,” Salmi said.

Salmi said it was an exciting project and he was glad people were taking an interest. The plan overall includes a variety of different small developments across the length of the highway, including new murals, green spaces, and sidewalks with better lighting.

“The idea is to create both a safe and welcoming place to cross underneath 695, which obviously is not friendly to pedestrians at all, and at the same time, use that space to create more park space, gathering space, community space, and do so in a way that assures neighbors on both sides feel like they own it,” Salmi said.

Many residents echoed Salmi’s enthusiasm for the project.

“A lot of these places would benefit from better lighting and plants,” resident Diego Garces said.

Resident Jason Secrest said he “didn’t know about the project, but it’s long overdue.”

The BID took note of residents’ opinions when it planned the developments. It also considered existing assets in the area, such as dog parks, community gardens and walkways.

Some areas of the underpass have already been developed. The space on the L and Second Street block has dog parks and sidewalks going beneath the overpass. Residents offered mixed reviews of the fixtures already built.

“I like having a skatepark and a mural wall, but the current version is so decrepit and uninviting,” said Maura Kennedy.

The pickleball courts outside of Garfield Park in Capitol South.
Photo by Madeleine Sherer

Other residents brought up concerns about the homeless encampments that exist under the currently undeveloped portions of the underpass.

When asked about the project, the first thing Bob Craycraft from Southwest Waterfront North had to say was, “Aren’t they primarily shelter for the homeless? How would ‘revitalization’ impact them?”

The BID’s acknowledged the homeless encampments as a challenge facing the project and said it would find “long-term housing solutions” for anyone using the underpass as a home. The BID did not respond to questions about whether they had any substantive plans to act upon this challenge.

Salmi said that Councilmember Allen had subsidized housing vouchers for his ward in the past, but for matters pertaining to the homeless under Virginia Avenue, he deferred to the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser.

“The city runs an encampment team that does regular engagement with folks and tries to find a better and long-term living situation for them, so that’s what we hope is going to happen here as we get closer to construction,” Salmi said.

Salmi also said his team understood the complexities of the situation.

“It’s important. In all of these scenarios, we want to see people get into housing. This shouldn’t be an acceptable place for people to live, and I know it works for the moment,” Salmi said. “The whole point is not to punish folks who are out on the street, but it is to get them to a more stable housing environment and assess their individual needs, which can be challenging and can take time.”

Salmi said walkable neighborhoods were an important thing on people’s minds all across D.C., and that this project would help with that.

“It is ultimately going to be a nice connection between two neighborhoods. It’s kind of reclaiming space taken by the highway for so long,” Salmi said. “The Vision Plan has been in place for a long time, and so it is exciting that it’s finally moving forward.”

Madeleine Sherer

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