Peter Craig, 81

Peter Craig, lawyer in D.C. highway battles, dies at 81

Peter Craig battled developers and others who wanted to build a bridge over the Potomac to carry Interstate 66 into Georgetown.
Peter Craig battled developers and others who wanted to build a bridge over the Potomac to carry Interstate 66 into Georgetown. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 2009

Peter Craig, 81, a lawyer who was one of the leaders in the crucial but little-remembered battle that prevented interstate highways from bisecting Washington, died Nov. 26 at his Cleveland Park home. He had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a degenerative brain disorder.

For more than two decades, Mr. Craig battled business interests, developers and members of Congress who wanted to build a bridge over the Potomac River to carry Interstate 66 into Georgetown and seven multilane highways, which would have destroyed more than 200,000 housing units, many in historically black sections of the city.

He also prevented an effort in 1973 to replace McLean Gardens with high-rise condos, a hospital, hotel and offices; forced the city to throw out 9,700 flawed property assessments in 1996; and recently fought unsuccessfully to overturn the District's method of assessing property taxes.

But he had his biggest impact in his role in the citywide coalition to keep superhighways, for the most part, outside the city limits.

Mr. Craig was working for the powerful Covington and Burling law firm in the 1950s, specializing in transportation regulation matters, when he became aware of plans to build a freeway from the Georgetown waterfront up Glover-Archbold Park and out Wisconsin Avenue into Bethesda, where it would have joined what is now Interstate 270.

Using Capitol Hill contacts, he and two other lawyers in 1960 won a five-year ban on freeways west of Rock Creek and north of M Street. That success pushed highway plans to the east, where black activists called the proposal "white men's roads through black men's homes."

Joining an interracial coalition called the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, Mr. Craig began drafting a lawsuit, saying that an 1880s law mandated that no road in the city be wider than Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Mentioning his name at the Highway Department is like waving a red flag in front of a bull," a Washington Post reporter wrote in 1968.

Meticulously prepared, tenacious in the face of bureaucratic obfuscation and a stalwart supporter of the subway system, Mr. Craig maneuvered between presidential-level politics and public protests. Feelings about the freeways ran so high that a 1969 D.C. Council meeting devolved into either a riot or a melee, depending on which local newspaper you read.

All sides agreed that fistfights broke out, chairs were thrown and an ashtray whizzed past the ear of council Chairman Gilbert Hahn Jr. Fourteen people were arrested. Some protesters chained themselves to trees, and others canoed to the Three Sisters, a trio of midriver boulders, and hung a banner on the rocks that read: "Stop the Bridge."

Sentiments were inflamed by a stubborn member of Congress who refused to free subway funds until highway construction started coupled with the District's role as a ward of Congress. In 1970, John Sirica, then the chief judge of the U.S. District Court, ordered work on the bridge halted.

Still, Mr. Craig said in a Washington Post Magazine story on the fight in 2000, "I was not satisfied that the war was won until Teddy Kennedy got the Highway Trust Fund opened up. That plus home rule tipped the scales here."


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