U Street's worst pedestrian hazards will soon disappear
DDOT will begin reconstructing U Street this fall. Stretching from 9th Street to just short of 14th Street NW, the project's first phase will fix many of the worst pedestrian problems with this street. Sadly, not being a Great Streets project, it isn't getting some of the decorative touches of other projects like H Street NE.
Most of the details in the plan are the same as they were three years ago. A major theme is that the street will better accommodate pedestrians, especially those in wheelchairs. DDOT is guaranteeing a 4-foot-wide clearance throughout the project, and to do so the agency will eliminate parking spaces and driving lanes and move walls, street poles, and trees where necessary.
On the 1300 block, the staircases of three buildings on the south side currently make for a sliver of a sidewalk. Instead of trying to move or reconfigure the stairs, which are on public space, and instead of looking for an exception to the 4-foot clearance, DDOT will remove parking spaces and extend the sidewalk toward the travel lane.
Additionally, the construction process itself is designed to minimize disruptions to pedestrians. The city will require its contractor to work on only one block at a time and will divert pedestrians to the parking lane when the sidewalks are being replaced.
Phase 1 will start in the fall and construction is expected to last 9 months. Phase 2, which stretches from 14th Street all the way to 18th Street, will start after phase 1 and the 18th Street reconstruction project are both finished.
In phase 1, the roadway will simply be milled down and resurfaced, a process that itself takes about 3 hours per block. The sidewalks will also be replaced except in front of the African-American Civil War Memorial and the Ellington, where they are very new. Phase 2 is more complicated, involving digging up the entire road bed, replacing a century-old water main, and rebuilding the entire roadway. The phase 1 section's water main was replaced in the late 1980s with the construction of the Green Line, so the road work is less extensive there.
On the 1700 block, the north side's sidewalk is notoriously narrow, poorly lit, and buckled by tree roots. DDOT will eliminate an eastbound driving lane on this residential block and redistribute the reclaimed area to both sidewalks.
At the intersection with 16th Street and New Hampshire Avenue, the agency will include bulbouts ("B") to reduce the street-crossing distances for pedestrians.
Just east of the intersection and on the north side of U Street, the agency will remove an existing retaining wall ("A") on the public right-of-way and rebuild it several feet back. This move will widen this otherwise narrow section of sidewalk.
The elimination of the slip lanes onto New Hampshire Avenue on both sides discourages speeding and creates small pedestrian plazas.
As we have documented before, some transportation departments are prone to neglecting pedestrians or expecting them to take needlessly long detours around construction. This will not be the case on U Street, much to the relief of pedestrians and business owners.
To minimize obstructions along the sidewalks, the city will install multi-space meters. This will be a good time to consider implementing performance parking for the U Street corridor, as parking becomes especially difficult on Friday and Saturday nights. The increased revenue could be used to improve and maintain the street amenities over the coming years, as is being done on Barracks Row.
The city will save street trees where it can and replant new trees in empty boxes and where trees cannot be saved.
While these improvements will enhance the experience for the many pedestrians who traverse the corridor, this reconstruction lacks many of the decorative design touches of some other projects around the city including the Great Streets projects.
U Street will receive the standard blue-gray concrete sidewalks instead of the beige, exposed aggregate concrete sidewalks now on H Street and currently being installed in Adams Morgan. H Street's sidewalks enjoy pedestrian-scaled street markers etched in granite slabs embedded in the sidewalks. The metal street banners are another nice touch on H Street that won't come to U Street under the current plan.
We can certainly add some decorative elements later, but the sidewalk pavement is something expected to last decades and must be done right the first time. With such a storied history, U Street deserves some of the qualities of a Great Street.
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