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.
"Georgetown is arguably the most historic district in the world," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "But you look at the waterfront and it looks like Camden, New Jersey. It's horrible. It's ridiculous."
But what drivers see in the Whitehurst, which connects to Key Bridge and Canal Road on its western end and 27th Street to the east, is a way around Georgetown.
"It's just an invaluable road," said D.C. resident Will Meyer, who has spent the past two years commuting across the Whitehurst. "All the other streets are either clogged with traffic or stop signs or both. It would double or triple the amount of time it would take to get a couple miles" if it were removed.
District officials, however, say drivers such as Meyer have the illusion of time savings because stoplights at both ends reduce the average freeway speed to as little as 9 mph in rush hour.
The plans to take down the freeway hinge on whether there's a way to give those people another route downtown. District officials said K Street is wide enough to turn into a four- or six-lane road with traffic lights that would favor cars during rush hour and walkers the rest of the day. The trick in doing that, though, is finding a way to connect K Street and Canal Road, which sits about 60 feet above the waterfront.
Gary Burch, the city's former chief transportation engineer who was in charge of the Whitehurst project in the 1990s, said he could never figure a way to do that.
"We looked at the same thing, but it's a difficult transition," Burch said. "I wish the people there well."
Tangherlini said the city is studying ways to make it happen. "I look at it, and I don't see what the big deal is," he said. A bigger deal, he said, is the connection to Key Bridge: The ramp might have to be eliminated if the freeway goes.
Tangherlini added that "if everyone gets on board and everything's great, we could be moving forward in less than a year's time."
That seems optimistic. There is a fierce battle over the Whitehurst, just as there was a decade ago, that pits some residents and developers in Georgetown against their deeply suspicious neighbors.
"Over here in Foggy Bottom, we're afraid," said resident Ed Gable. "If the Whitehurst comes down, that's bad enough, but it will lead to development of land between Georgetown and Foggy Bottom. It'll be exposed, and developers, I'm sure they can't wait."
A recent informational session in Palisades began with an audience member screaming profanities at District officials. That got another resident yelling, and security had to be called before city officials returned to their presentation.
Palisades resident Larry Doyle summed up the sentiment of those at the meeting. "My main concern is that there are a lot of wealthy developers in Georgetown who understand their property values will go up considerably if their condos didn't look over a freeway," Doyle said. "Clearly, the key thrust of this study is the effect on land values in Georgetown, but if this adds 15 minutes to my commute, what does that do to my land values?"
Raymond Kukulski is one of those whose land values would probably go up. He can see the freeway from his townhouse windows in Georgetown, and he said it should come down because it's ugly, dangerous and inefficient.
These are the same arguments he made a decade ago to no avail, but this time, he said, he thinks things will be different.
"I think this time there is a much fairer assessment going on," Kukulski said. "This time, I see real intent of getting the job done."