District Trying to Topple the Whitehurst

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

There are two sides to the Whitehurst Freeway: The one above, where drivers catch a sweeping view of the Potomac as they swing around Georgetown on the elevated bypass. And the one below, a darkened, grimy underbelly of urban highway, filled with exhaust and the constant clack-clack of the cars rumbling overhead.

It is the latter view that is propelling D.C. officials to move forward with plans to tear down the structure. They say the freeway divides Georgetown and casts a dark shadow, literally, on a slice of waterfront that is fast turning into a chic hot spot.

District Transportation Director Dan Tangherlini said knocking down the three-quarter-mile freeway would make K Street NW, which runs below the thoroughfare, "something other than the basement. There's a chance to really capture that riverfront, have a beautiful boulevard, an enlivened streetscape. Rather than a bunch of back doors and shadowed entryways, that could be a real place."

Elevated freeways like the Whitehurst were built in the mid-1900s in many cities with the goal of connecting suburbanites to their downtown jobs. Sixty percent of the 42,000 drivers who use the Whitehurst on weekdays come from Virginia and Maryland.

But there has been a strong effort to take those hulking highways down as cities look to reclaim neighborhoods and skylines.

San Francisco dismantled the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway in 1991 and has replaced the waterfront property with parks and developments. Boston sunk its elevated "central artery" as part of its Big Dig, and green space now stands in its place. Other cities as varied as Fort Worth, Portland, Ore., and Milwaukee have made similar changes.

Washington officials considered doing the same to the Whitehurst a decade ago before community and construction concerns caused them to instead spend $35 million to rebuild the freeway.

Nonetheless, the idea is back under consideration -- to the chagrin of the communities that sit off its ends -- as part of a broader look at dismantling the city's elevated freeways. Others that could be taken down include parts of the Southeast Freeway, which officials say block off the Capitol and separate neighborhoods, and a short stretch of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway near the Lincoln Memorial.

"Part of the issue is turning back the clock a little bit on this freeway plan," Tangherlini said. "We have these bits of infrastructure that are designed to connect but that also impede. The question we're asking more broadly is how do you make these communities more livable."

The Whitehurst was built in 1949 to link the Key Bridge to a citywide freeway system that was never completed. In those days, the Georgetown waterfront was not the hip destination it is today; it had a lumberyard, cement works and a meat rendering plant.

The waterfront has changed considerably, even since 1998, when the city finished rebuilding the freeway. A Ritz-Carlton residence, a 14-screen movie theater and other attractions have come. Construction on a 10-acre riverfront park is slated to start in the fall. And property values have more than doubled in the past seven years.

The Whitehurst, some say, is all that stands in the way of creating a premier spot.

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