14th Street plan brings innovation and a missed opportunity
The intersection of 14th and U, NW is a key retail and transportation hub in DC. A streetscape plan proposed for 14th Street will bring needed improvements to the corridor. But it also misses an important opportunity to create a civic space at this historic intersection.
Wednesday evening, DDOT and its consultant, Precision Systems, Inc., presented the latest preliminary design for the reconstruction of 14th Street NW between Thomas Circle and Florida Avenue.
The plan covers the entirety of the corridor, but focuses on the intersections of P Street, U Street and Florida Avenue with special sidewalk surface treatments.
While these sidewalk concepts grabbed headlines in next-day coverage from DCist and TBD On Foot, there are other important facets to the design, including some new-to-DC bike infrastructure that will introduce small improvements for cyclists.
However, the plan does not pay enough attention to the historic intersection of 14th and U. Project engineers seemed to view the large sidewalk in front of the Reeves Center as a liability instead of an opportunity for a true neighborhood civic space. However, project staff emphasized that they are open to making changes as the process moves forward.
In consultation with DDOT's bicycle program, project engineers included bike boxes at the intersections with U and P streets. However, instead of the non-colorized bike boxes recently installed at 16th and U or the green bike boxes common in other cities, the bike boxes on 14th will be marked with a stamped faux-brick pattern to improve visibility to drivers and traction for cyclists.
In order to eliminate conflict with cyclists near the bus stops, the bike lanes switch to the left side of the bus stop. This practice can be used at bus stops and right-turn lanes. The intersection of Columbia Road and 18th Street NW is striped this way.
The design for shifting bike lanes on 14th Street could be problematic because the bike lane would shift to the left side of a general travel lane, instead of a right-turn only lane or bus-only lane. With heavy traffic, cyclists may find it difficult and dangerous to cross to and from the left-hand lane when instructed. This aspect of the plan may require more thought.
More importantly, the proposal as it stands is missing an uncommon opportunity to create a distinctive civic space at the historic intersection of 14th and U. Luckily, the design, which is at the 65 percent design stage, has not advanced too far to address this issue. As Precision Systems staffers said on Wednesday, "we still have opportunities to make changes...we are willing to entertain additional ideas."
The intersection of 14th & U has long stood firmly at the center of the U Street corridor's rich heritage. While the architecture of the Reeves Center does not live up to the importance of its location, the building does provide an oversized sidewalk on the northwest corner. Project engineers seemed blind to the potential of this space. Saying that this "area is too big," they explained on Wednesday that they were looking at sidewalk paving patterns that would "make the area look smaller."
While most meeting attendees seemed to like the idea of distinctive sidewalk treatments, many said that the designs needed more work. When one resident asked whether the project team had spoken with organizers of the 14th and U farmers market about their needs, or had considered furniture such as benches for the space, DDOT's Muhammed Khalid said they had not but would act on the suggestion.
The historical significance of this crossroads should compel a design that does more than make it feel smaller. The Columbia Heights civic plaza, located further north on 14th Street, could serve as an example of how a large sidewalk area and intersection can be transformed into a civic gathering space that brings a neighborhood together.
While amenities found in Columbia Heights like a fountain or grass terraces may not be appropriate for 14th and U, introducing seating areas and perhaps even extending the sidewalk design pattern into the roadway itself are a start.
Beyond design specifics, other questions remain for this proposal. The long-range streetcar plan includes tracks along 14th Street and no decision has been made on whether or how new tracks would be included in this project, as they were for the reconstruction of H Street NE.
In addition, the U Street reconstruction, scheduled for FY 2011, would have to be coordinated with this plan to minimize disruption. However, there is little likelihood of these projects beginning construction at the same time. DDOT has not yet identified federal dollars for the 14th Street plan, and this project will most likely begin in FY 2012 or later.
While it misses an important opportunity at 14th and U, this plan is an improvement for the corridor. Bus riders, pedestrians, and cyclists will benefit most. While midblock crossings of four traffic lanes will remain daunting, bus stop bulb-outs will make the street a better place to walk. As the design progresses to completion by the end of this year, it's important not to gloss over the design details and forget the importance of 14th and U.
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