Better Know a Single-Member District: 7D06
"The fightin' 7D06"
Walkable urbanism is coming to 7D06 and the surrounding neighborhood. The burning political question in the area is, are residents ready for it, and will it benefit their community?
7D06 is one of four Single-Member Districts touching the corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, often called "downtown Ward 7." For better and worse, this is a transportation hub of the area, with two Metro stations (Minnesota Avenue station and Benning Road station) and a busy intersection that carries many bus lines and large numbers of car commuters from Maryland each day.
The traffic makes this a prime location for retail, and the transportation makes it a great spot for mixed-use housing. But the heavy traffic, pedestrian and auto, also makes Minnesota and Benning the number one pedestrian crash intersection in DC, narrowly beating 14th and U.
Planners have a lot of plans for the area. Benning is one of DDOT's Great Streets priority corridors. Minnesota will get new mixed-use, mixed-income housing, as Cavan wrote about this morning. These plans could transform a fairly suburban-style, busy vehicular area into a real center for this community.
Residents see both promise and danger. There is a great deal of fear, some founded, some not. As Tony Scurry, current ANC commissioner for 7D06, told me, "many residents worry that [the developers and city officials] only want our property, only want our land, and are going to price us out" of the neighborhood. They fear that taxes will rise and they'll no longer be able to afford their homes, especially the older residents who make up a large percentage of 7D06.
Tony Scurry and Willette Seaward.
Scurry, who owns his own event planning firm, was on the advisory committee of the Ward 7 vision project, and participated heavily in the Great Streets planning, knows that's not the intent of planners and economic development officials, but it's a real fear in the neighborhood. That's why communication is so important from city agencies, and whether in poor Ward 7 or affluent Ward 3, that's not always as forthcoming as residents would like.
Willette Seaward decided to run against Scurry for the ANC seat in 7D06 specifically because of transparency. She feels that not enough residents receive enough information about plans for the neighborhood. For example, talking about the Great Streets project, Seaward argues that "[DDOT] came with a plan and then they told us about it." Especially since many residents of 7D06 are not online, she would try to find other ways to communicate, including conducting regular surveys of residents and quarterly SMD meetings.
In my experience, no matter how many announcements, flyers, public meetings, newspaper notices, or other communication agencies conduct, many residents nonetheless feel left out, and the less politically engaged the population is in an area, the stronger and more widespread this feeling.
Both Scurry and Seaward listed affordability as the most important issue in development. Scurry said planners need to ask themselves, "when we bring in mixed use, are we bringing in mixed income?" and ensure area residents can afford the new housing. Seaward suggested tying inclusionary zoning and other affordable housing programs not just to area median income but to a more local, ward medan income; AMI includes the high-income parts of the metropolitan area and thus is far above the median income in Ward 7.
Seaward was very involved in the Benning Library and its associated controversies. Leading among them was a proposal to move the Benning Library from its current site (on the south side of Benning across the street from Fort Mahan Park, which is the large park in the middle of 7D06) to a new spot farther south and east. As Scurry explained, moving the library has its good points: right now, it's on a major road with no light or crosswalk to let people cross in front of the library, and it's hemmed in between two retail developments, limiting its future growth. The owners of the surrounding retail proposed a land swap to a site on 40th Street, at the end of a new pedestrian-friendly road through their current shopping center.
However, the new site is farther from the Benning-Minnesota "downtown" area, and would move the library away from the future Benning "great street." The best solution would place the library at the corner, to anchor a new walkable downtown like the Rockville library in Rockville Town Center. But that wasn't one of the options, and DCPL is moving ahead with the library at its current site.
Seaward personally opposed the move, among other reasons because the current site has a good view down Benning and H Street. She'd hoped to get a second floor to provide more expansion space, pointing out that "when employment is down, library use is up," at least in poor communities like 7D06, with people using library facilities to create and send resumes.
While many residents along H Street and in Northwest DC are dying to get streetcars, residents of Ward 7 are still skeptical, and both Scurry and Seaward echoed these concerns. According to Seaward, many residents have told her, "What do we need streetcars for? We have enough problems with traffic now." Scurry pointed out that Ward 7 has the highest percentage of residents who don't drive, and already use the Metro or buses. Therefore, a streetcar has less effect on Ward 7 residents. Scurry said many residents "feel like they woke up one day and heard that the streetcar is coming."
Seaward has one specific suggestion for traffic safety: move the bus transfers from the Minnesota-Benning corner into the Minnesota Avenue Metro station loop. That station is set off from the neighborhood in a suburban style, with parking and a traffic loop. Currently, Seaward explained, many people transfer between buses at the corner of Minnesota and Benning, forcing them to cross the street (sometimes at a run to catch a bus). Instead, she'd have all the buses stop inside the Metro station, where the environment for pedestrians is more protected.
That's a car-oriented suburban-style solution; it might reduce injuries, but would also inconvenience bus riders and slow buses. It would also harm prospects for a vibrant and walkable downtown in Ward 7. At least to some residents, currently laboring under the burden of heavy traffic, traffic danger, and high poverty and illiteracy, that may sound like a good tradeoff. (The Great Streets plan also moves stops, but to safer locations still near the intersection, and adds a small side street.)
It's harder to think about the long-term benefits of urbanism when people don't have jobs and are afraid to cross the street. Shifting the land-use paradigm in a place like Ward 7 will take a lot of time, a lot of careful commmunication to build community buy-in, and most of all, active listening. We affluent, mostly white, well-meaning urbanists must take careful care to tailor our plans to the needs of the community and ensure they really do solve the community's problems and enrich the community's current residents.
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