'Paper Streets' Aren't Real — But They Can Lead To Big Problems For Developers Plenty of D.C. streets exist on paper alone. And that can be an unwelcome surprise for property owners and developers.
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NPR logo 'Paper Streets' Aren't Real — But They Can Lead To Big Problems For Developers

'Paper Streets' Aren't Real — But They Can Lead To Big Problems For Developers

This 1922 map shows D.C.'s "highway plan," consisting of streets and roads that existed and were planned. The yet-to-be-built roads are known as "paper streets." Courtesy of/the National Capital Planning Commission hide caption

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Courtesy of/the National Capital Planning Commission

Once it's done, the new City Ridge development on Wisconsin Avenue will boast hundreds of new residences, a hotel, retail offerings and the District's first Wegmans supermarket. The massive project will cost $650 million and, when it's done by 2022, is expected to reinvigorate the 10-acre site that once housed the headquarters of government mortgage lender Fannie Mae.

And to think it could all have been undone by a single street that doesn't even exist.

Last year, City Ridge briefly fell victim to a quirk of historical transportation planning in D.C. and many other old cities: paper streets. Those are planned streets that were drawn on a city map under the expectation that they may eventually be built, but never actually were. And far more than being lines on a map, these sometimes unexpected and often-forgotten paper streets can pose a significant obstacle to property owners, since a critical element of any sale or development project is getting clear title to the land.

In City Ridge's case, the problematic paper street was 39th Street NW, which travels northward from Glover Park through the adjacent McLean Gardens before ending abruptly at the Fannie Mae site. That's in practice, at least. On paper in a city roadway plan dating back to the late 1800s, 39th Street would at some point continue northward beyond McLean Gardens, hugging the western edge of the Fannie Mae site and eventually connecting with Wisconsin Avenue.

That portion of the street never materialized, though. And that meant that building anything on the land set aside for it — like the City Ridge project — would face legal hurdles. Roadside Development, which is building out the City Ridge site, asked the D.C. Council for help last year. Just this month, lawmakers approved a bill erasing the unbuilt portion of 39th Street from city maps and allowing the development project to proceed.

And that wasn't the only one: The Council also signed off on a bill that would erase non-existent portions of Anacostia Avenue and Eastern Avenue NE from city maps, thus allowing construction on a proposed 157-unit affordable assisted-living facility to move forward.

A Brief History Of D.C.'s Paper Streets

Many of D.C.'s paper streets were born of necessity.

When Pierre L'Enfant set out to design Washington, he only focused on what we now consider the downtown core — pretty much the parts of the city stretching from the West End to Capitol Hill and south of Florida Avenue. That meant that surrounding areas, including Georgetown and neighborhoods north of Florida Avenue in what was then Washington County, were left to develop independently.

And that raised the potential that L'Enfant's planned street grid for downtown D.C. wouldn't logically connect to streets and roads outside of it. (There's a similar history in Norfolk, Virginia.) Historian Michael R. Harrison wrote about this in Washington History back in 2002:

Some of the most obvious examples of these conflicting street grids can be found in Anacostia, LeDroit Park, Mt. Pleasant and Trinidad, where streets are often narrower and don't follow the same logic L'Enfant tried to apply in downtown D.C.

To correct this, Congress passed a bill in the late 1880s to require that L'Enfant's grid of streets and diagonal avenues extend beyond downtown D.C. and into the surrounding countryside. One of the first neighborhoods to get such a street grid was Petworth, which included three state-named avenues and two traffic circles. And in 1893, Congress approved a broader bill to "provide a permanent system of highways" outside of the downtown area — streets and roads were then referred to as highways — that mimicked L'Enfant's street grid.

In practice, this meant city planners took pen to paper, drawing extensions of existing streets onto maps of parts of the city that were still to be developed. (There were certain exceptions, largely based on topography.) And the planned streets included 39th Street NW. A D.C. map from 1933 shows an entire planned street grid between Massachusetts Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue NW, where McLean Gardens and the Fannie Mae site were eventually built in the 1940s and 50s, respectively.

As time has passed, plenty of property owners and developers have come across unbuilt paper streets, requiring them to work with the D.C. Council and National Capital Planning Commission to have those streets removed from maps in order to get clear title to their land.

In 2014, for example, the developers of the long-awaited Skyland Town Center project in Ward 7, had to petition the Council to erase an unbuilt portion of 28th and Austin Streets SE on the site.

It's Not Just D.C.

Paper streets aren't just a D.C. phenomenon. Falls Church has 19 of them. In Harpers Ferry, they've become a side story in a broader fight over the redevelopment of a hotel, as documented by The Washington Post. In Baltimore and Pittsburgh, paper alleys and streets have prompted debates over who exactly is in charge of cleaning and clearing them when they're used for crime or dumping trash. And to better address those problems, two professors at the University of Maryland got a grant to study and map paper streets in Takoma Park.

Not unexpectedly, whenever there is a possible legal quirk, there's someone ready to try and take advantage of it. In Norfolk, for example, the Virginian-Pilot reported in 2011 on a developer who claimed ownership of a paper street, which could have had a significant impact on the city:

As for City Ridge, the developers seem to have overcome the legal obstacles posed by the non-existent portion of 39th Street NW. And it's not the first time that site has dealt with the issue — at some point in the late 1940s, a portion of Tilden Street that had yet to be built was erased from maps, likely to clear the way for the Fannie Mae construction. At the time, 39th Street should have been erased also, but it never was.

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