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Sidewalks belong everywhere, even where Fenty friends live

Residents of the North Portal Estates neighborhood thought they were getting a nice, new street reconstruction, including sidewalks to keep themselves and their children safe. That is, until one politically-connected resident intervened personally with Mayor Fenty. Now, DDOT has just finished reconstructing several main streets in the neighborhood as wide roads for cars to speed, without protection for pedestrians heading to work, school and stores.

Tamarack St. Photo by thisisbossi.

North Portal Estates is DC's northernmost neighborhood, nestled into the northern corner of the city where the streets are named for trees and flowers. The neighborhood consists of single-family houses a short walk from Silver Spring, where many residents, such as Katherine Trimble, use Metro to get to work. She walks downhill along Tamarack Street to reach 16th and enter Maryland. Many cars, too, drive downhill, and often at high speed, making many residents feel unsafe in their neighborhood.

In March, DDOT representatives told the neighborhood that sidewalks would be part of the planned reconstruction of Verbena and Tamarack Streets and East Beach Drive. Many residents welcomed this news. Some others, including the leaders of the North Portal Estates Civic Association, argued that the neighborhood doesn't need sidewalks. DDOT has a policy of installing sidewalks on at least one side of every street when they do a reconstruction.

Soon after, however, pedestrian advocates learned that DDOT had dropped the sidewalks on direct orders from Mayor Fenty. According to sources within DDOT, a politically influential resident affiliated with the civic association asked the Mayor to delete the sidewalks. Without any official public notice, DDOT made the change. The crews have just wrapped up their work, finishing the curbs without sidewalks and repaving the streets. Residents will have to dodge speeding cars for decades more until it's time again to redo those streets.

Streets just reconstructed without sidewalks in red.

Sidewalks should be a part of every street reconstruction. Even in more suburban parts of the city, people walk, and our street designs should encourage them to. Where neighborhoods have no sidewalks, the streets are almost always plenty wide to add sidewalks on at least one side without shrinking anyone's front yards or destroying trees.

Last year, Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill to require sidewalks on at least one side of every street when DDOT reconstructs a street. The Council didn't act on the bill last year, because DDOT assured them it already had a policy in place. Now that we know the Mayor will waive the policy for friends, it's time to pass the bill. The Council is holding a hearing this afternoon on this year's version.

However, the draft bill still leaves too much wiggle room for exceptions based on politics. It lets DDOT "issue a finding that it is impractical or unnecessary to install a sidewalk if the Director determines that the physical site conditions would make it impossible or unduly expensive to construct the required sidewalk, or if it would lead nowhere and would be highly unlikely to serve any pedestrians." That's a loophole big enough to drive a road crew through.

Instead, the bill should set specific, objective standards for those situations where a project may continue without sidewalks. Those standards could factor in the zoning classification (commercial street should always have sidewalks), the street classification (collector streets should always have sidewalks), the number of residences (even more than a handful is enough), and whether a street is dead-end or is near a school or park.

The bill should also require public notice and hearings before any project proceeds without sidewalks. If DDOT fails to meet these standards, the bill should prohibit spending any money on the project. It's too bad DC laws need such clear measures, but as we've seen from inclusionary zoning or fire trucks on cable TV, Mayor Fenty has shown few qualms about flouting the expressly stated wishes of the DC Council.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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David! You most excellent muck-raker, you! This story is in the same category as the one below about MoCo road planning, in my mind. This time we know the answer: corruption. (and leaving no wiggle room in the language)

by Bianchi on Jul 1, 2009 11:54 am • linkreport

It's pretty outrageous that DDOT's policy wasn't followed because the mayor ordered the code red.

But I don't see how the policy's "loophole" can have a truck driven through it, so long as it's actually followed. "Unduly expensive" surely can't mean just "costs more than not doing it" and "lead[s] nowhere" can't reasonably mean "leads somewhere". There are plenty of oddball roads that end in DC at the edge of, say, a park/forest/ledge, where a sidewalk right up to the end might well be a waste of money.

by ah on Jul 1, 2009 12:13 pm • linkreport

@David -

How did you get the scoop on this? Any idea on how neighbors feel that one of their own scuttled a sidewalk project?

by smax on Jul 1, 2009 12:33 pm • linkreport

If a road goes "nowhere," then it shouldn't be built or reconstructed; if a road to "nowhere" is built, then the sidewalk should be built, too. Or instead. Anywhere the government decides to burden the right to walk by constructing a road in public space, a sidewalk should be constructed along with it. If we can't afford to construct the sidewalk, then the whole project, including the road, should just be abandoned. No exceptions.

by Eileen on Jul 1, 2009 12:34 pm • linkreport

The bigger question is 'do the neighbors really want the sidewalks'. Putting sidewalks into a non-urban area is a pretty serions step. It changes the character of an area into urban ... And the people living there have to make the ultimate decision as to whether they want their neighborhood to change. It should not be forced on them on the pretext tha there's one or maybe two folks who currently have a hard time getting down to the bus stop. (After all, these folks knew what they were getting themselves into when they moved there.) It should be the entire community deciding what is best for them ... and not what we, or the District government, or anyone else thinks is best for them in terms of whether they should be an urban area or not.

And wouldn't we object if someone told us we had to tear up all our sidewalks so that we'd be less urban. I.e., this isn't a matter of whether sidewalks work better for an urban community or not (clearly they do), but rather a question of whether this neighborhood must urbanize or not ... possibly against its own wishes.

by Lance on Jul 1, 2009 12:37 pm • linkreport

Lance there's nothing inherently urban about sidewalks. You don't need some high tapas-per-person ratio to justify them. They functional well in a dense suburban development, like this.

Neighbors don't own a neighborhood. What it looks like is not solely theirs to determine. The city is right to make a policy decision on what the neighborhood will look like tomorrow and into the future when the current residents are long gone.

by Reid on Jul 1, 2009 12:56 pm • linkreport

Along the same line as Reid i would say: any neighborhood in Washington DC left "not urban" behind long ago. It's in the city. This neighborhood has a Walkscore of 74. It's not the presence or abscence of a sidewalk that makes a place urban or not. In any case the process described stinks of political corruption.

by Bianchi on Jul 1, 2009 1:06 pm • linkreport

Putting sidewalks into a non-urban area is a pretty serions step. It changes the character of an area into urban ...

Um, WTF?

This seems somewhat unhinged from reality to me.

by ibc on Jul 1, 2009 1:18 pm • linkreport

Eileen -- I'll give you an example. It's not a road to nowhere, but the road continues to nowhere (technically there's a ROW to continue it, but DC has decided not to use it). Idaho Ave--google street view linked below (I hope). The end is needed for a turnaround, but why spend money building a sidewalk past the last house? That's what I take the city to mean by "nowhere".,+Washington,+District+of+Columbia,+District+of+Columbia&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=58.555544,84.023438&ie=UTF8&cd=1&geocode=FREaUgId2vFn-w&split=0&ll=38.940869,-77.070701&spn=0.014253,0.020514&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=38.940951,-77.07071&panoid=cG-DsVek5bwhrREGfLvwRw&cbp=12,359.96,,0,14.17

by ah on Jul 1, 2009 1:42 pm • linkreport

So is Lance's rational the only reason why someone would not want a sidewalk in their neighborhood (that they are concerned the neighborhood becomes more urban)? I'm just trying to understand why someone would want to kill the project.

by Steven on Jul 1, 2009 2:09 pm • linkreport

I don't understand the objection to sidewalks in a neighborhood, unless I own property that will have a sidewalk put across it where currently I have plantings.

And, yes, I know that's not the case here--the land used for the sidewalks is public "parking", so it's not private property. But I'll bet the objectors use that space as if it's theirs, or at least garden it.

by ah on Jul 1, 2009 2:20 pm • linkreport

Quite frankly, nothing DDOT does should be guided by ANY political influence. The safe movement of people, regardless of mode of transportation is a non-partisan, non-political issue. The implementation, particularly where FHWA monies are involved, are subject to guidelines.

Traffic lights, speed bumps, sidewalks etc should all be implemented according to the standards and guidelines which the engineers are supposed to embrace.

Political intervention, unless it is to expedite a dangerous situation, should never happen. I know there are realities, but this is too much.

by William on Jul 1, 2009 2:32 pm • linkreport

"And, yes, I know that's not the case here--the land used for the sidewalks is public "parking", "

The public parking area (i.e., the greening space) is definied as that area between the sidewalk and the building line. So no, the land used for sidewalks is NOT public 'parking'. Actually, I don't think the public parking regs even apply to that part of the city. They were intended for the City of Washington and not Washington County (i.e., the area outside of Florida Avenue, previously known as Boundary Street). These are non-urban areas and the neighbors have all the right in the world to insist that some bureacrat not come in and change the character of their neighborhood. And yes, adding in a sidewalk in front of your home changes the character of a place. I personally like the urban environment created by sidewalks, but I don't live there in that Ward. A long time ago I lived in an adjoining area in Maryland ... also without sidewalks ... and it definitely is a different lifestyle than in the L'Enfant City (the old Washington City), but that is what some people want. Not having sidewalks makes the area a place where cars drive by more slowly (because of the possibility of people, bikes, kids, in the streets), a place where people are less likely to walk by and look into your yard, etc etc. It's a different lifestyle than those of us who opt for an urban character want. And it's their right to seek to retain that lifestyle and not have a totally different one forced on them by a bureaucrat.

by Lance on Jul 1, 2009 2:55 pm • linkreport

This same issue has popped up in parts of Ward 3 with no sidewalks.

DDOT came by and told the residents it knew what was best for their low-traffic streets and that it would install sidewalks, even though very few residents wanted them, and they had been living just fine for decades with no sidewalks.

The residents put up a stink and DDOT backed down. That was the right response. If the majority of residents don't want sidewalks and there's no pressing need for them (i.e., very low-traffic residential side streets far from main streets or secondary streets), then there shouldn't be an automatic declaration that DDOT must install sidewalks.

I'd be interested in whether the North Portals neighborhood had any sort of consensus on the installation of sidewalks. If the consensus was against the installation of sidewalks, then I'm fine with the Mayor's decision.

by Fritz on Jul 1, 2009 3:03 pm • linkreport

Lance, if you're correct as a technical/legal matter (and I think you are), then there's even less justification as the space would have been reserved for sidewalks.

by ah on Jul 1, 2009 3:03 pm • linkreport

Generally speaking, the land from the center of a street for 15 feet in either direction is public space. The land in question in both the Portals and what Fritz refers to (that was Ward 4, not Ward 3) is in fact in public space.

by William on Jul 1, 2009 3:35 pm • linkreport

"Lance, if you're correct as a technical/legal matter (and I think you are), then there's even less justification as the space would have been reserved for sidewalks."

Not necessarily ... It might not be reserved for anything. The District owns the public space between building lines (on behalf of the citizens) ... with its primary purpose being to provide access to those same citizens from one piece of private property to another. Period. Depending on what gets voted in, that public space can also be used for granting utility rights of way, setting aside 'parking areas' to green the city, and even for building sidewalks. I.e., there's no 'reservation' on that space other than what the District rules there should be. And my argument is simply that since these are neighborhood streets providing service to neighbors ... they should get the most weight in deciding what they want. As Fritz' posting shows, oftentimes people living in these areas don't want sidewalks ... And it's not just because bushes will get dug up. I'd guess it has more to do with these people wanting a quieter life than those who are into being able to walk everywhere. I remember reading on this blog where studies had been done that where you separate the road traffic from the pedestrians (as happened en masse in the States in the '20s) that you end up with a street where people are driving faster and being less careless about pedestrians in general ... because they tend to view that street as 'reserved' for car traffic. Maybe these folks adjoinig these now quiet streets with slow traffic want them to stay that way. Is there anything wrong with that? Should a bureaucrat looking to implement 'theories' have the right to overrule what the people in any area want?

by Lance on Jul 1, 2009 4:22 pm • linkreport

Correction ... I meant to say 'between property lines' and not 'between building lines'. (In the older part of the city they are often one in the same ...)

by Lance on Jul 1, 2009 4:25 pm • linkreport

Lance -- I suppose it has to do with your theory of government. So far as I know North Portals isn't its own community association. If DDOT's policy applies to DC, it should apply to DC, not just DC to the extent local neighborhoods object. If DDOT (or all of DC) wants to give neighborhoods the right to object or opt out, it could do so, but hasn't.

On the merits, it's probably not a neighborhood where sidewalks are particularly critical, certainly as compared to others. And that's a fair debate to have. But the process by which the question was resolved seems particularly anti-democratic.

by ah on Jul 1, 2009 5:01 pm • linkreport

As Fritz said, it would be interesting to know whether there was a consensus in the neighborhood against sidewalks, or whether a rogue resident interfered and had secret changes made that violate DDOT policy and the neighbors' wishes, but I don't think that should be determinative.

The City has the right to determine how streets will be built, even if the local residents object. My neighbors might want our street paved with cobblestone to slow traffic on our street, but that doesn't mean that we should get it, even if cobblestone was cheaper than asphalt/concrete. We also might want our brick sidewalks replaced with concrete to make a more even surface, but that doesn't mean we should get that either. DDOT's responsibility is to provide a transportation network to ALL the residents of the District (since all of us pay taxes to support DDOT), and to do so they have standards. These standard should be followed unless there is a clear reason why they are inappropriate in a particular location. "A friend of the Mayor doesn't like it," is not good enough.

by Stanton Park on Jul 1, 2009 5:16 pm • linkreport

"But the process by which the question was resolved seems particularly anti-democratic."

ah, I'm with you there. And I hope no one got the impression I was saying otherwise. My concern is just that DDOT may be making policies based on one set of circumstances which doesn't necessarily fit a second set of cirmstances ... and thereby unintentionally transforms the second by applying the wrong set of rules. Some planner or District Councilmember somewhere is thinking 'downtown' and coming up with rules such as this sidewalk rule that end up getting applied universally through the District when if they'd really though it through they'd have realized "how stupid can we be to push sidewalks on people who don't need them ... or even want them?"

by Lance on Jul 1, 2009 6:05 pm • linkreport

Lance, the point is a fair one, but then we ought to be discussing DDOT's policy, not the method of exception to it. Right now it has a blanket policy--all new streets have a sidewalk. In DC that seems at first blush to be a reasonable one. But if it's not, the DDOT needs to set criteria for when one isn't even necessary (other than the roads to nowhere). I'm sure it could come up with some that might exempt these streets, as well as some others, but it hasn't done so nor does it seem to be interested in doing so.

by ah on Jul 1, 2009 9:05 pm • linkreport

ah -- you had me going for a minute because the Google view initially took me to the view of Idaho leading to Tilden. After I turned around, I see your point. But I remain concerned about the language in the bill. It doesn't say that DDOT can decline to pave a sidewalk in the "nowhere" part of the road; it says they can decline to pave a sidewalk on a road that leads nowhere. (And would that part of Idaho really need to be repaved?) I think a better way to look at possible exceptions would be to focus on whether the portion of the road involved impedes the pedestrian's rights or safety. That would allow an exception for the end of Idaho if pedestrians don't use that part (there does seem to be a path beyond the "dead end," but I don't know where it goes). On the other hand, if the construction of a road burdens the right to walk (as the original article above implies that the roads in the North Portal area do), then either a sidewalk should be paved or other steps taken to address pedestrian needs (for example, if DDOT wanted to put in concrete barriers to designate a portion of the road for pedestrians, I think that would be acceptable as a substitute).

by Eileen on Jul 1, 2009 11:44 pm • linkreport

Another reason why I am glad I live in Arlington and not DC....

by Daniel on Jul 5, 2009 8:23 pm • linkreport

What about a speed limit requirement? It would obviously have setbacks for higher speed limits (25-45) but if is were at or below 25 then a sidewalk would be required. If people on a cul-de-sac or whatever really didn't want a sidewalk they could defer in favor of a 45 mph speed limit.

I'm sure many of the homeowners in those areas would rather have maniacs going through their streets at dangerous speeds than the sight of lowly pedestrians.

by bayma on Jan 15, 2010 7:41 pm • linkreport

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