Greenbelt sector plan defeats its own walkability goals
What do you get if a planner writes the first part of a plan, and then a highway engineer writes the second part without bothering to read the first? You get something that looks like the preliminary draft of the Greenbelt Metro/193 Sector Plan.
Whether the two parts have disparate authors who consulted or not, the result is a contradictory plan. The plan, from the Prince George's County planning department, sets out some very progressive goals, including building walkable, mixed-use nodes in several locations. But the transportation recommendations then defeat the plan's own aims.
At the public meetings, planners talked about using road diets to reduce the barrier effect of some high-traffic arteries. Instead of employing that useful tool, the draft plan does the opposite, and recommends widening several roads in a way that will deepen the problem in the area.
One of the targets for redevelopment in this area is the Greenbelt Metro station site. Currently a sea of almost 4,000 parking spaces, it's a prime site for transit-oriented, mixed-use development. The transit hub is home not only to the Metro, but also to MARC trains and several bus lines. The plan also leaves open the possibility for the site to develop for a GSA tenant like the FBI.
The plan also targets Beltway Plaza and the Greenway Shopping Center for redevelopment. Both of these auto-oriented retail centers are along Greenbelt Road, a major suburban arterial corridor. This wide roadway forms a barrier separating neighborhoods.
The plan notes that major roadways like Greenbelt Road have created "significant barriers to connectivity and pedestrian and bicycle safety, effectively separating the sector plan area into isolated sections." Greenbelt has been split into several pods over the years by freeways like the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and Kenilworth Avenue, and citizens spoke out about the divisions these roadways have created.
"The sector plan area is characterized by major highway intersections and freeway interchanges that directly and negatively impact pedestrian and bicycle mobility and access."The plan proposes to transform the area to "maximize pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, mobility, and safety." It calls for completing a continuous network of sidewalks, bikeways, and trails; for reconfiguring Greenbelt Road to include dedicated bike facilities and wide sidewalks; for coordinating transit services to increase ridership; and to enhance safety for all users.
All of those improvements are terrific ideas, and they've been needed for years. Unfortunately, it sounds like the plan isn't really serious about these improvements.
Plan counteracts its own solutions
Seeming to have forgotten about all the problems created by bigger and wider roads, the plan calls for widening several arteries in the sector plan area. Most notably, the plan calls for adding a lane in each direction to Greenbelt Road in front of Beltway Plaza and Greenway Center. It supports widening Kenilworth Avenue and the Capital Beltway. The county also proposes widening a 2-lane section of Hanover Parkway to 4 lanes.
The plan still includes a proposal to spend several million dollars reconfiguring the Greenbelt Road/Kenilworth Avenue interchange into a "diverging diamond," which will be even less friendly for non-motorized users.
It's especially ironic that these elements are in the plan, since at the community meetings planners talked about the exact opposite: road diets.
And in this case, road diets are probably warranted. A traffic study conducted as part of the planning process found that none of the roadways in the sector plan area was failing. Neither were any of the intersections.
So, despite a lack of congestion; despite talk of road diets; despite wanting to increase walking and bicycling; despite all of that, the plan still calls for widening roads.
It's almost as if, having decried the unintended consequences of the transportation policies of 1975, the plan says: there's nothing wrong with solving those problems with the same solutions.
Widenings confound positive changes
Word cloud showing community desires. Image from the plan.
A walkable node at Beltway Plaza is all well and good. But how well will it be connected to Berwyn Heights on the south if it's separated by a 10-lane road? Putting bike lanes on Greenbelt Road sounds nice. But how safe will it be to bike alongside 10 lanes of traffic? Completing the sidewalk network is long overdue. But how pleasant will it be to walk alongside one of the widest arterials in the region?
Speeding trips through Greenbelt will also encourage more suburbanization in the less-developed sections of the county. That will take office and retail demand away from the parts of the county where the infrastructure already exists to serve it.
No, the plan will not enable the future it envisions, because it still clings to the infrastructure changes that created the divided, pedestrian-hostile environment it seeks to fix.
It's not too late for Prince George's to build the foundation for a more walkable and sustainable Greenbelt. But the Planning Board and County Council need to urge changes to the plan. Without the uncalled-for widening of the roadways in the area, the plan has a chance of creating the mixed-use nodes and increasing walking, biking, and transit use in the planning area.
The Prince George's County Planning Board and County Council will be holding a joint session public hearing at 7 pm Tuesday in Upper Marlboro. If you're a resident of Prince George's, write the Council or come to testify. Tell them that positive change requires taking a different approach than ones past.
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