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Posted at 11:49 AM ET, 07/ 1/2010

The Washington that almost was

By Dan Malouff

Map of unbuilt D.C. highways. Click to enlarge.
Map of unbuilt DC highways. Click to enlarge.

Imagine three beltways around Washington.

In addition to the I-495 we all know and love, picture a more inner loop slicing through Glover Park and Brightwood, and covering the top of Arlington's Four Mile Run.

Then imagine bulldozing U Street, Florida Avenue and Independence Avenue to build a third beltway looping around downtown.

Don't stop there. Next, picture an extended I-270 covering Connecticut Avenue. Picture a new, inside-the-beltway I-95 slicing through the middle of Brookland before tearing Capitol Hill in two by replacing 8th Street NE with a new expressway. Picture elevated highways lining the National Mall and a new Interstate cutting off Old Town Alexandria from the Potomac River.

Sound crazy?

In 1958, that was the plan. Mid-century planners, dedicated to the principles of universal driving and the clearance of urban historic neighborhoods, thought it would be a good idea to bulldoze most of Washington and start over. They wanted to replace Victorian rowhouse neighborhoods with Modernist high-rises, so knocking down or cutting off large portions of the city to build a Los Angeles-style highway network was no concern to them. In fact, it was all the better.

Luckily, sanity prevailed. Most of the central city highways were canceled, and much of the money that would have gone to build them went to build Metrorail instead. Neighborhoods weren't wiped out, downtown wasn't physically cut off from its surroundings (except to the south), and beautiful historic buildings weren't replaced by parking lots and boxy modernist high-rises. Because these highways were canceled, Washington is the beautiful, walkable, vital city that it is today.

Thank goodness.

Dan Malouff is an Arlington County transportation planner who blogs independently at BeyondDC.com. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Dan Malouff  | July 1, 2010; 11:49 AM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, Local blog network, traffic, transportation  
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Comments

Before we pat ourselves on the back too much, a little humility is in order amongst those of us sneering at these mid-century proponents of urban renewal.

After all, these planners were the best and brightest of their age, applying scientific principles to the task of creating a better tomorrow. Our planning successors will no doubt have a few bones to pick with the process-oriented, charette-laden and often ineffectual planning efforts of today.

Posted by: krickey7 | July 1, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Thank goodness this never happened, it isn't a coincidence that southeast and southwest where the highways were built were turned into wastelands and northwest where they were blocked has prospered as DCs most desirable area

Posted by: macheko | July 5, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Thank goodness this never happened, it isn't a coincidence that southeast and southwest where the highways were built were turned into wastelands and northwest where they were blocked has prospered as DCs most desirable area

Posted by: macheko | July 5, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Yes, having a two lanes of highway each leading into the District from the northeast and northwest directions is great if one lives in Maryland. After all, it should take 45 minutes to an hour to get from Rockville and Silver Spring to downtown. That's great urban planning.

Posted by: avpcomp2 | July 5, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

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