Lucy had been sitting in traffic on M Street for 45 minutes when she finally made it to Cushing Place. She just wanted to turn left and drive into the alley that led to her parking garage at The Envy, a property located in front of the Nationals’ center field gate. The yellow-vested traffic control officer (TCO) refused to let her make the turn.
Lucy begged, her voice growing more urgent as horns of frustrated drivers blared behind her, no doubt headed for the game. This time she was lucky. The TCO allowed her to turn. Riding the elevator after parking, Lucy sighed with relief, having dodged the alternative. “They could have routed me across the bridge to Anacostia,” she said, “putting me back on I-295 where I started and back in the awful traffic for 45 minutes, when all I had to do was make a left turn and I’d be home.”
Like many residents, Lucy avoids driving on game days. Sometimes, however, “it’s unavoidable,” she said.
Managing Near-Daily Events Proves Challenging
Capitol Riverfront, composed of the Navy Yard and Buzzard Point, is suffering from its own success. Nationals Park, Yards Park, Audi Field and The Wharf draw thousands of visitors, not even counting the commuters who staff the city and federal agencies located in these neighborhoods.
Events in the Capitol Riverfront and Southwest are now the daily norm rather than the exception. Together, the Nationals and DC United host 116 games a year. The Anthem, Pearl Street Warehouse, Union Stage and The Capitol Turnaround are venues for over 190 concerts annually. The Wharf and Yards Park are significant venues with over 50 events planned for 2023.
“The Wharf and the two stadiums are all intertwined,” explained Fredrica “Rikki” Kramer, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission ANC 6D. “We have a very dynamic picture for three different venues, plus what would go on normally for a national capital.”
COVID’s reduction in the use of public transit significantly complicated access. The road network in Southwest and Capitol Riverfront, always a challenge owing to bottlenecks, has seen a narrowing of roadways for protected bike lanes and a traffic oval at the northern foot of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge.
When the traffic flow is good, it can still take hours to get from Maine Avenue SW to the 11th Street Bridge; some fans routinely allocate an hour and a half for travel to a Nationals game. When the flow is bad, traffic can trap residents in their homes, threatening their safety by impeding the movement of emergency vehicles.
The DC Department of Transportation (DDOT), with a team of stakeholders, has created a Traffic Operations and Parking Plan (TOPP). Yet, it is an open question whether TOPP taking into account the tremendous population and commercial growth in the Capitol Riverfront and Southwest neighborhoods. Many residents and stakeholders say it has not.
Isolated Buzzard Point
Ben Joyce lived at The Camden on South Capitol for seven years, then moved to RiverPoint on Buzzard Point last year. “Nats game-day traffic is always fine, but games at Audi are an absolute mess,” Joyce said. “We just don’t have the infrastructure down there yet to accommodate that traffic.”
Access to Buzzard Point remains constrained both by the Anacostia River and a very attenuated road network. Fort McNair occupies the west half of the peninsula. The only two roads running fully north-south are Half Street SW and South Capitol Street. Fourth Street SW, a major artery, ends at P Street. Drivers must then head east to Second Street SW and then south.
Nothing about the way the traffic arrives at or exits from the Audi Field area feels planned, said Southwest resident Marc Levy. “One area that could help residents a lot, though, would be strict, consistent parking enforcement including rapid towing if legally allowed,” Levy said. “But the consistency is critical through the entire season, not just a month or two.”
Congested Navy Yard
Navy Yard residents cite problems with game-day gridlock, parking and enforcement. Like Lucy, they are often unable to leave or return home. Drivers wait upwards of an hour just to exit Nationals Parking Lot T, waiting to turn left toward I Street and onto the interstate, said a resident living across the street.
A recent Bad Bunny concert at Nats Park produced complete gridlock. It took 45 minutes to move three blocks in either direction, the resident said. The signal timing, he pointed out, provides little opportunity to turn onto the interstate. The resident has completely given up event-day travel. “It’s something you have to get used to,” he said. “You have to really adjust your schedule.”
Explosive Residential Growth
The Capitol Riverfront and Southwest have experienced huge commercial and residential growth in the last decade. The empty lots that once surrounded Nationals Stadium and Audi Field are becoming a memory.
In 2000, 1,825 people lived in census tract 72, roughly the Navy Yard between the river and I-695, South Capitol Street and 11th Street SE. By 2020, that had increased to more than 18,900. New restaurants, hotels and bars have joined swanky condominiums and luxury apartments.
Development in Southwest quickly followed. Phase One of The Wharf, opened in 2017, added 2 million square feet of residences, retail and attractions such as the 6,000-seat Anthem concert hall. Phase Two added another 1.25 million square feet. Added to this is construction of mid-rises along M and I streets SW. By 2020 the population north of P Street SW and south of the National Mall, slightly under 4,300 in 2000, had increased to just under 8,400.
Buzzard Point is now on the same trajectory. Since the opening of Audi Field in 2018, its resident population has reached 6,763, a doubling since 2000 with more on the way. Just to the south of the stadium, developer Akridge is building The Stacks, bringing 2 million square feet of residential development and consuming a two-block parking lot that served as the main parking facility for Audi fans.
Managing this explosive residential growth would prove a challenge to any city, but it is compounded in the neighborhoods south of I-695 by huge influxes of visitors.
A Plague of Visitors
In a 2014 analysis of the Capitol Riverfront transportation network, a DC-commissioned study predicted that simultaneous weeknight events at the soccer and baseball venues would overload neighborhood roadway and transit systems. The zoning order for Audi Field specifically noted that DC United had committed to coordinated scheduling between the teams.
Nationals Park and Audi Field have a combined total of 61,000 seats, 41,000 at the former and 20,000 at the latter. The schedule for 2023 shows 12 simultaneous events at Nationals Park and Audi Field. That number does not reflect the schedules of other neighborhood venues such as Yards Park, The Wharf or The Anthem.
The Wharf hosts a Christmas tree lighting, July Fourth fireworks, a holiday boat parade and cherry blossoms programing as well as weekend festivals for nearly every holiday. In 2022, seven million people visited The Wharf. The schedule at Yards Park is similarly packed, especially in the summer. Collectively, these venues have more than 200 events scheduled for the year. Moreover, The Anthem, along with the two other neighboring concert halls, can draw as many as 7,000 on a single night.
TOPP does not fully address this influx. “There is no time for one group to clear out before the next takes over; it’s madness,” declared Levy.
Area resident Conner Bruns thinks building more parking garages or widening roads definitely won’t solve the problem. “It’ll just cause more people to drive in and congest the neighborhood streets,” he said. He thought it would help if visitors relied more on public transportation.
Yet, the pandemic has decreased public use of public transit.
Public Transit Woes
Metro ridership has not fully recovered from its pandemic decline. In 2022, daily ridership was an average of 220,000, compared to 626,000 in 2019. “At one point, 55% of fans arrived by Metro,” said Gregory McCarthy, the Nationals’ senior vice president of community affairs and community engagement. “We’re probably at less than half that now. That’s a disappointment.”
Applying McCarthy’s statement to a hypothetical scenario, and assuming that DC United fans behave similarly, if both stadiums host simultaneous sold-out games and 75% of fans drive, half in carpools, 15,677 cars would flood the road network south of I-695. This does not account for visitors to The Wharf or Yards Park or fans arriving in for-hire vehicles (FHVs).
Nationals Park and Audi Field officials said they discourage driving to their venues. Fearing gridlock, the Nationals are working with WMATA to promote ridership, the team said.
Bus access remains constrained. Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed eliminating the L’Enfant to Eastern Market Circulator in her 2023 budget. Metrobus 74, the only service to Buzzard Point, runs every half hour but in 2022, not below P Street SW on game days due to road closures. (WMATA said they had yet to confirm routes and adjustment for the 2023 DC United season).
Given the limited public transit, visitors often choose to take FHVs provided by rideshare companies like Uber or Lyft.
When Nationals Park opened in 2008, Uber was still three years from launching in the District. By 2017, for-hire vehicles picking up and dropping off wherever they wanted prompted a DDOT analysis of potential designated spots. However, the rideshare companies decide where passengers will load and unload.
According to the 2023 TOPP, it is impractical to designate specific pickup spots. Instead, DDOT encourages rideshare companies to do it several blocks from the event venue. DDOT has banned pickups and dropoffs during games days near Nationals Park, including South Capitol Street between I-695 and the Douglass Bridge. M Street between Fifth Street SE and Delaware Avenue SW has been placed off-limits. That is also true near Audi Field (R Street, Potomac Avenue and Second Street SW), as well as in the residential neighborhood north of Q Street SW.
But DDOT has no enforcement mechanism ‒ a chronic problem, noted many residents. The ANC commissioner for the area around Nationals Park, Rick Murphree (8F02), said DDOT had done a relatively good job of traffic management around Nationals Park, but enforcement around rideshare dropoff and pickup was a problem.
Last year, rideshare was dropping passengers on the south side of M Street near Van Street SE. “They were just lining up, dropping people off ‒ not even curbside, just in the middle of the intersection,” Murphree recalled. “It was crazy, people were just running across the middle of the street.”
“Like everything with DDOT, they have great plans,” Murphree said. But when it comes to the enforcement, which doesn’t fall to them, there’s a need to make sure everybody’s on the same page.”
Fan use of rideshare threatens to add more vehicles to already overburdened streets. This is complicated by recent major changes in the road network itself.
New Traffic Patterns
New traffic ovals opened on both sides of the Douglass Bridge in February 2023. This season is the first time fans will encounter them.
The Nationals and the city, said McCarthy, have done a great job of informing people about the new traffic pattern. The oval helps local drivers who want to turn left into their neighborhoods. They can access Buzzard Point at Q Street SW by showing a special placard. TCOs will be stationed to prohibit northbound turns from the oval after games at either stadium, directing drivers across the bridge.
The bridge is not the only change. Protected bike lanes, installed over the past two years, have reduced the number of travel lanes on many streets leading to the ballpark, including First Street SE, Potomac Avenue SE and SW, I Street SW and SE and New Jersey Avenue SE.
The Nationals have an ongoing concern about the loss of the First Street travel lanes and the lack of parking enforcement, stated McCarthy. “That is a chronic bottleneck.” The Nationals have yet to see the impact of the arrangement on a post-COVID game. “I think we’ll see it this year more acutely,” McCarthy said. “That’s something that we’ll be asking the city to look at throughout the rest of the season.”
DDOT has plans for the Capitol Riverfront road network. This summer, the agency intends to install dedicated bus lanes and protected bike paths on M Street SE between First and 11th streets. Edward Daniels, chair of ANC 8F, questioned agency representatives at a February meeting, asking why they would do this in the middle of the baseball season. According to Daniels, “They said, ‘We’ll get back to you.’”
Fans who drive in will likely find the public parking significantly constrained.
Vanishing Public Parking
Nationals Park has around 1,100 parking spaces at the stadium and official lettered lots. Audi Field has no off-street parking. The teams do not have an arrangement to share parking facilities.
The 2023 TOPP counts 29 parking garages and surface lots, hosting more than 4,500 spaces. However, not all are public facilities available to fans. Further, this inventory was not surveyed prior to the issuance of the plan. Many of the surface facilities have been absorbed by residential and commercial development. For example, the lot at 1880 Second St. SW is now a construction zone for the first phase of The Stacks.
Taking a minute to consider the earlier hypothetical: There is no space to park 15,677 cars in the neighborhoods below I-695.
Driving can be further complicated by game-day road closures.
Game Day Road Closures
Van Street, Half Street and Cushing Place SE will be fully closed between Nationals Park and M Street, with travel directed south from M Street to the ballpark garages or across the Douglass Bridge. After the game, the streets north of the ballpark will remain closed, as will First Street SE, with travel directed south from M Street around the park and to the Douglass Bridge.
At Audi Field, no vehicles are permitted south of M Street SW at Half or First streets; First Street will be closed between Potomac Avenue and T Street SW, as also S Street between First and Half. After games, vehicles are not supposed to travel west of South Capitol on Potomac Avenue SW or on R Street between Second and First streets SW.
Residential & Emergency Access
DDOT plans to give residents near the stadiums placards that will grant access to roads closed on game days. But residents complain about being prevented from turning into the alleys accessing their parking garages even with a placard. “It doesn’t even matter that I show them the resident placard they give us at the beginning of every baseball season,” said a resident of F1RST Residences (1263 First St. SE). “We should be allowed to get home!”
One building, The Envy (70 N St. SE), is not even listed as a residence. It appears to be lumped with a neighboring apartment, The Kelvin (1250 Half St. SE). Murphree’s own building, the Avidian (1211 Van St. SE), is also not on the list. It is unclear if those residents will receive placards.
Worse, roadways get completely locked up, potentially hindering DC Fire and ambulances, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) has pointed out. All of the DC Fire companies within two miles of the stadiums are located north of M Street (Fire Engine 7 at 1101 Half St. SE, Engine 13 at 400 E St. SW and Engine 18 at 414 Eighth St. SE) or on the other side of the river (Engine 15 at 2101 14th St. SE). “We’re talking about if somebody had an emergency, you couldn’t get an ambulance down there,” stated Allen. “The roadways get completely locked up in a way that actually hurts our first responders’ ability to get where they’ve got to go and get to our residents in need.”
Allen said, “I think there are a number of ways in which this process is failing our neighbors.”
Yes Virginia, There Is a Plan
The first Nationals Park TOPP was released prior to the 2008 season, a result of two years of negotiations, research and community planning. It outlined strategies to improve travel for large crowds and to minimize the impact on residential neighborhoods. DDOT and stakeholders committed to reviewing TOPP annually. When Audi Field was under construction, it was integrated into the plan.
The 2020 TOPP established a Stadium Event Zone (SEZ) bounded by Second Street, Delaware Avenue SW, I-695, Fifth Street SE and the Anacostia River. Street parking is prohibited in this area south of M Street from 7 a.m. to midnight on days when there are events at Nationals Park and Audi Field. North of M Street, there will be partial restrictions.
The 2023 TOPP includes a new Traffic Management Center (TMS). It is a 24-hour operation monitoring roadway use in real time and coordinating with enforcement agencies such as the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the Department of Public Works, which issues parking tickets. The TMS has a dedicated phone line for resident complaints: (202) 671-3368.
Residents worry that the TOPP will be insufficient. There was little resident outreach. An email survey by DDOT received hardly more than 90 responses from the Navy Yard neighborhood population of 18,900. Many told the Hill Rag they did not even know there was a plan.
Others said the planning process was too rushed. Stakeholders met with officials to discuss traffic concerns on March 6, barely three weeks before Nationals opening day. ANC commissioners received a draft of TOPP only at the end of that week, hindering thorough comment. “We’re always catching up,” said ANC 6D’s Kramer. “They have not understood that they have to get to us early on and get this fixed.”
“TOPP has not worked well for the community for years now,” said ANC Commissioner Rhonda Hamilton (6D08), whose single-member district sits across South Capitol Street from Nationals Stadium. “It also does not address the cumulative impacts of game and event-day traffic on the overall health of the community including the quality of life.” She added that DDOT invites the commissioners to the table too late each year to have any real input. “It is as if our constituents are an afterthought,” Hamilton added.
Kramer questioned the terms of the SEZ and the TOPP. The SEZ, she complained, focuses largely on the Navy Yard and a small area around Audi Field, and the TOPP fails to recognize that the two stadiums are intertwined with The Wharf and the larger Southwest community.
Kramer urged DDOT to start its 2024 planning now. “This requires a kind of microanalysis, and they need to accommodate that with a variety of stakeholders and knowledgeable (individuals) so they can come out with a plan that makes sense,” Kramer said. “There’s stuff that they could correct now, before the middle and end of the season, and I think they should be required to do that.”
DDOT has called TOPP “a living document,” subject to continual improvement with community input. Planning for next year is already underway, the agency stated.
2023: What, Me Worry?
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen has pushed DDOT to produce a comprehensive plan for the entire Southwest and near Southeast area. As chair of the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, Allen said he is prepared to call hearings to focus on TOPP.
“We’ve asked DDOT repeatedly to have a more comprehensive approach that encompasses all of this, and they have just not done that.” Allen said. The alternative is to look at a legislative solution, he stated at a recent ANC 6D meeting, though he did not propose specifics. TOPP must include an enforcement component, Allen said. “It makes no sense to have a plan and then have no enforcement plan to go with it.”
Allen’s observations are confirmed by local residents. “We are often locked in and out of the neighborhood because of the huge traffic backups. It is not fair to us to have no effective plan that works well for our neighborhood,” said ANC 6D’s Hamilton.
Many residents agree. They don’t want to be stuck in traffic or worse, like Envy resident Lucy, trapped and redirected to drive in circles right past her own home.
DDOT, DC United and Councilmember Trayon White Sr. did not comment on the record in time for publication of this story.