Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What almost was: freeways instead of U Street and Sherman Ave

The Sherman Avenue 14th Street freeway
Browsing around the internet the other day, I found something strange: plans for a freeway that was to be built where Sherman Avenue is. Proposed in the late 1950s and 60s, the freeway was part of a larger plan for freeways in DC, including an inner beltway. One of the plans included the inner beltway passing near U Street. Can you imagine a freeway there? It's crazy.

There were other routes as well, which brought I-95, I-66 and I-70 into the city. The plans caused a lot of opposition in the city, one of the so-called "freeway revolts" around the country. Unlike many places, the opposition was mostly successful, with only a few parts, like the SW Freeway, actually built.

Furthermore, a lot of the funds for the planned highways was shifted over to funding Metro, so we can thank them for that.

The proposal for the U Street and Sherman Avenue freeway was thankfully never built, as it would have demolished a lot of houses and other buildings (see the photo overlaid with the freeway at Sherman to the right), and also physically divided the neighborhood. I'm very glad most of these plans were never followed-through. It's interesting to imagine how the area would have looked had these been built -- think about our neighborhood with the Whitehurst or SW Freeways slicing through. Doesn't seem like somewhere I'd want to go.

Interestingly, in planning circles there's a movement to demolish old highways -- in San Francisco, for example, the Embarcadero freeway was taken out without any increase in traffic, and similar things have happened elsewhere. Luckily we won't need to have that debate.

Sherman replaced by Freeway
The photos in this post all came from A Trip Within the Beltway, which is about the proposed DC highway system. However, it's also kind of a strange blog, in that the writer advocates for building all these highways, just putting them in tunnels, and blames Masons and Catholics, among others, for them not being built, and that Volvo and the phone company have pro-highway subliminal ads. So there's that.

Click the images for bigger versions, there's some interesting details in there.

UPDATE: Douglas Willinger, author of the highway blog, notes that the upper right image is actually an alignment for a highway on 14th Street! Even worse.
U Street freeway
The entire proposed system


  1. It's always cool to see a new generation of Washingtonians re-discover the story of the highway protests and the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis. Channeling that fury into positive change by constructing the Washington Metro system is one of DC's finest moments.

  2. Here's a map of all the city's unbuilt highways:

  3. Nicely done. I've always thought that we should built a memorial to the folks who blocked the freeway plan and got the metro built.

  4. The Takoma Voice made the suggestion of a telephone company conspiracy- to which I merely responded.

    Is it your blog's contention that major property holders have absolutely no interest nor influence over roadway planning for routes near or through their properties- including Chevy Chase Country Club and the Purple Line?

  5. The illustration at upper right is not the Sherman Avenue North Central Freeway, but rather the 14th Street alignment for the 1959 Northwest Freeway.

  6. "just putting them in tunnels"

    Hardly, rather modified or different routes- such as the replacement for the original North Leg West that you show at the upper left

    The I-66 K Street Tunnel was the plan supported during the 1960s by influential opponents of the earlier plan, such as Elizabeth Rowe of USNCPC.

  7. "UPDATE: Douglas Willinger, author of the highway blog, notes that the upper right image is actually an alignment for a highway on 14th Street! Even worse."

    See the illustration that you have at the upper left "U Street Freeway" where one can see the dotted lines for both the Northwest and North Central Freeways respectively along 14th and Sherman.

    And contrast that with the K Street Tunnel plan in the url in my Dec 4 7:22 pm comment.

  8. It should be noted that "entire proposed system" graphic at the bottom is from 1959 and doesn't really include what was proposed outside the Beltway. By 1971, the proposal had largely changed to this:

  9. Correct. The planning under-went significant evolution to reduce local negative impacts, such as the I-66 K Street Tunnel, and the B&O RR Route proposed by the White House in 1962-63 to replace the three separate freeways (which included the 14th Street and Sherman Avenue routes). That plan though would be seriously politically undermined:


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