Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Petworth

History


Where DC used to bar black people from living

One of many pieces of America's shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.

According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property's deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.


Lots with racial covenants in DC. All maps by Brian Kraft/JMT.

As the interactive map's text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews—"In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park," says the text.

These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.


Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.

Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring "that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon." As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.

Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms

Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions—often unsuccessfully—in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).

 
Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.

In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased—just what the covenants' creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.

There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.

How covenants from the past still hurt people today

While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation—except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.

Badger writes, "Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn't accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children."

Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:

Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.

Development


The first two efforts to turn Petworth's Hebrew Home into housing failed. Will the third time be different?

Just a few blocks from the Petworth Metro, a District-owned apartment that most call the Hebrew Home has been vacant since 2009, and DC is asking for resident input on its latest effort to redevelop the land (the first two fell through). The end result could be 200 new units of mixed-income housing, along with retail and park space.


The Hebrew Home, looking west on Spring Road. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Located at 1125 Spring Road, the Hebrew Home's name is a reference to the building's original use serving the elderly Jewish population with housing and health care. From 1925 to 1969, the property grew to include an array of social services available to young and old within a community that both understood and supported the specific religious, linguistic, and cultural needs of its clients.

When the Hebrew Home determined it could no longer adequately serve the needs of the local Jewish population by remaining on Spring Road, it sold the property to the District government and moved into a new facility in Montgomery County.


The Hebrew Home and the adjacent Robeson School building, at 10th and Spring NW. Image from DMPED.

This isn't the first effort to redevelop the Hebrew Home

From 1968 until its closure in 2009, the District used the Hebrew Home site as a mental health facility for the homeless. Since it closed that facility, the District has attempted to breathe new life into the building without success.

In the fall of 2010, the DC Department of Human Services proposed using the site to shelter families instead of sending them to DC General. That plan would have cost an estimated $800,000 to renovate the building for 74 families. However, the site was removed from consideration due to then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser's concern that the immediate area had an "inordinate amount of group homes" and two homeless shelters within a two-block radius of the site.

More recently, efforts in 2014 to redevelop the historic structure and the Robeson School (which sits immediately adjacent, to the east) resulted in a plan to create approximately 200-units of housing with 90% designated as affordable, including a senior preference for 25% of the units.


The Robeson School building. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Development stalled again, however, when the District learned that it wouldn't be able to transfer ownership to the DC Housing Authority without a formal Request for Proposals process. Moreover, Bowser expressed reservations about the plan being weighted so heavily toward affordable housing. Due to these factors, the District restarted the process to develop the site in April with what it's calling OurRFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

The Hebrew Home could become much-needed housing for all incomes

The first of two OurRFP workshops to decide how to redevelop the Hebrew Home was earlier this month. There, officials from DC's office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) shared some key data:

  • The lot is 144,400 square feet in size.
  • The site includes three buildings. The development will not include the small building at the western edge of the site.
  • The former Hebrew Home structure is historic, but the Robeson School is not and can be razed.
  • The property has good access to transportation. It's near the Georgia Avenue Metro station, numerous bus lines, and Capital Bikeshare stations.
  • The site has a walk score of 93 and a bike score in the 80s.

A map of the transit options surrounding the Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

Workshop attendees split into 13 working groups to discuss what they would like to see happen with the Hebrew Home.

The site has tremendous potential to provide a significant amount of housing in an area with ready access to public transportation and where housing prices and displacement are of great concern. Within my working group, there was general agreement that the RFP should start from the position of including a strong affordability component, with the financing then driving the configuration of affordable and market rate housing to a balanced level. There was an understanding that the economics of development will have an impact on what can be financed and that, at the end of the day, the development must become a reality for any housing to exist.

With regards to the living units, there's a need for both family-sized units and apartments for seniors. I would like to see every unit (if possible) be ADA compliant; as units become vacant in the future it would be ideal if any resident in need of housing would be able to move into the building and not be prevented due to the unit's configuration.


A map showing existing affordable housing surrounding the Hebrew Home site by location and number of affordable units. Image from DMPED.

As for the type of building that goes up, it is clear that people want the new construction to fit into the neighborhood context. Whether the building was traditional, modern, contemporary, or something else, the materials, massing, and architectural detailing's ability to make it fit the character of what's around it certainly exists.

We also discussed the massing of the new construction on the Robeson site. Some suggested that a by-right approach would be more in keeping with the neighborhood and better fit in. I countered that I would prefer a Planned Unit Developmentwhere a developer provides the community with benefits in exchange for a zoning exception— for three reasons:

  1. A PUD would allow for a slightly larger building. The existing Hebrew Home building is one story taller than allowed by by right, and I think that an additional story on the new construction that matched the height of the historic building would not be out of place, especially as it would be located between the Hebrew Home site and the Raymond School & Recreation Center.
  2. A PUD would also result in more oversight and community opportunities to participate.
  3. As zoned, the building is residential. But the existing Hebrew Home building has a space on the first floor with a separate entrance that could support a small store or possibly another use such as an early childhood development center.
I think the community would benefit from vetting these options to see if they're a good fit rather than not discussing them at all.

One of the last things the group discussed was the public space and sustainability. As part of this discussion, we talked about trees, benches, green roofs, and other possible uses for the existing green spaces. As this is an opportunity to enhance our natural environment, I also mentioned that we should advocate for all trees and landscaping to be native plantings. The green space between the small building at 1131 Spring Road and the Hebrew Home is also large enough for a small park or other type of public space.

There will be another OurRFP workshop in May, and DMPED anticipates releasing the RFP solicitation in June 2016.

A version of this post originally ran on Park View, DC.

Bicycling


More than 20% of people bicycle to work in some DC neighborhoods

Over 20% of commuters in Bloomingdale, Mount Pleasant, and Petworth get to work each day primarily using a bicycle. That doesn't even include people who use bikes to reach Metro.


Bike mode share in central DC. Image from DDOT.

This fascinating map is part of the background data DDOT is preparing to study a possible protected bikeway on or around 6th Street NW.

It shows how hugely popular bicycling can be as a mode of transportation, even in the United States. What's more, this data actually undercounts bicycle commuters by quite a lot.

It's originally from the US Census' American Community Survey, which only counts the mode someone uses for the longest segment of their commute. People who bicycle a short distance to reach a Metro station, then ride Metro for the rest of their commute, count as transit riders rather than bicyclists.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

History


How U Street almost became strip malls and office parks

Planners in the 1950s wanted to replace large swaths of central Washington with freeways. Canceling those plans saved the city not just from the freeways themselves, but also from an equally stunning plan to demolish thousands more blocks alongside said freeways and "renew" them with a suburban landscape of strip malls, office campuses, and apartment towers.

Justement U St 1
The cloverleaf to the right is what the intersection of 16th, U, and New Hampshire nearly became. Aerial perspective rendering by Louis Justement. Photo by author.

Architect Louis Justement was tremendously influential from the 1920s through the 1960s, both locally and nationally; he chaired the American Institute of Architects' national Committee on Urban Planning for a spell. Gravely concerned with the tremendous overcrowding and traffic congestion that characterized wartime Washington, Justement published a short book in 1946 called New Cities For Old.

In it, he proposed not just replacing many major streets within DC with limited-access freeways. He also wanted to replace the neighborhoods that had grown up alongside those routes—or, rather, along the streetcars which traversed said streets—with modern new buildings suited to line those modern new roads.

Justement U St 2
A more detailed look at the proposed Jefferson Boulevard. Plan by Louis Justement, photo by author.

Justement's startling vision for the U Street corridor would have replaced T Street NW with "Jefferson Boulevard," and the slightly confusing intersection of 16th, U, and New Hampshire would have been radically simplified with a giant cloverleaf. The backs of two-block-long stripmalls, fronted by broad parking areas, would have lined Jefferson.

Between R and S Streets, the rowhouses and small apartments would be replaced by regimented rows of slabby tower-block apartments. Lining the towers up north-south and leaving space in between would, in theory, make sure every unit got an equal chance at sunlight, and would leave room for plentiful surface parking as well.


Development surrounding a freeway that would have run between Decatur and Emerson Streets NW and between 7th and 16th streets NW, north and west of Sherman Circle. Image from the Theodor Horydczak Collection at the Library of Congress.

For the blocks between Buchanan and Gallatin Streets NW, around Sherman Circle in the Petworth area, Justement proposed something even more radical: a ""Lincoln Boulevard" circumferential freeway bound by surface "access roads," with a constant series of loops permitting cars to switch back and forth.

A giant parking garage would fill the two blocks currently bound by Georgia, 13th, Emerson, and Gallatin, serving a monstrous shopping mall (crowned with office towers) stretching from 7th Street over to 16th. The blocks beyond would see yet more towers-in-parking-lots.

Justement plan for NW
Connecticut Avenue NW between Cathedral Avenue NW and Albemarle Street NW. Plan by Louis Justement, photo by author.

Even upper Connecticut Avenue, where developers had been building auto-oriented buildings since 1930, was to be comprehensively renewed. Within 20 years, Justement forecast, Connecticut would become a freeway, with underpasses and "feeder streets" carrying local traffic. The streetcar would be replaced with buses that would pull off the freeway into parking lots.

Cleveland Park's shops, which Justement said caused "traffic hazzards" by being arrayed on both sides of Connecticut and thus inviting pedestrians to cross the road, would be consolidated into a shopping center where Tilden Gardens stands today. The grand apartment houses lining Connecticut would be summarily demolished, replaced with new towers further from the unceasing traffic.

While most of DC was lucky to escape these ideas, there was one DC neighborhood where Louis Justement's vision came to pass: the Southwest Waterfront.

The rest of the country was not as lucky, though. Many of the ideas that Justement sought to impose on DC found their way into other plans all across America. His ideas for Petworth resemble the march of office towers lining the access roads of the Katy Freeway outside Houston; his sketch of Connecticut Avenue looks like the geometric clusters of offices arrayed between Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills, the "feeder streets" paralleling the Dulles Toll Road in Reston; his plan for U Street resemble any number of Edge Cities, like Tysons Corner or Parole outside Annapolis.

Parking


Can a housing development go up in Petworth if it doesn't build new parking?

The developers behind a proposal for a new residential building in Petworth say it doesn't need parking because there are plenty of non-car transportation options nearby. Some residents disagree, saying the area can't accommodate new housing if new parking doesn't come with it. But take a walk around and you'll see their concerns are overblown.


Image from Rooney Properties.

In April 2015, Rooney Properties purchased the property at 3701 New Hampshire Avenue NW. Rooney began making plans to redevelop the site, formerly home to Sweet Mango, into a mixed-use building with ground floor retail and 21 living units in accordance with the property's zoning.

The property is configured as a triangle, with Rock Creek Church Road to the south and New Hampshire Avenue to the north. It is located near seven bus lines, the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro rail station, and a Capital Bikeshare station. Due to these factors, the developer is seeking a zoning variance to exclude parking from the development. But with a number of other new developments to the north and south also receiving parking relief in the past few years, residents are concerned that exempting 3701 New Hampshire Avenue from parking requirements will make it harder for everyone to park.


Base image from Google Maps.

Last week, the plans to redevelop the site encountered opposition from ANC 4C and members of the community. Petworth News did a good job covering the blow by blow of the meeting, accurately describing it as dysfunctional. One of the key areas of opposition in that meeting had to do with how the 21-unit building would impact residential street parking.

Last month, ANC 1A also weighed in on the variances required for this project to move forward. Based on the Comprehensive Plan, the goals of the Georgia Avenue Overlay for the corridor, and need for more density and housing in the community, and how the developer is proposing to find solutions to accommodate potential car owners, ANC 1A passed a resolution in support of this development (read here). It is important to note that neither ANC 1A's support nor ANC 4C's opposition was unanimous.

Concerns over parking are a bit inflated

It is fair to say that parking is an important issue—and an important quality of life issue. It must also be recognized that no two developments are exactly the same. In the case of 3701 New Hampshire, due to the oddly shaped lot, it just isn't physically possible to build underground parking on the property, especially to the extent that zoning would require. The property also doesn't have abutting properties to the north or south within the Georgia Avenue Overlay that would be able to be added to the development making parking possible.


3701 New Hampshire Avenue NW today. Photo by Owen Chaput.

Keeping this in mind, along with the property's close proximity to a Metro station, several bus lines, and a Capital Bikeshare station, there is no reason why this building should not be built. Furthermore, ANC 1A's request to remove the loading zone and associated curb cut on Rock Creek Church Road as part of their approval should add two on-street parking spaces to the block.

To manage parking, Rooney Properties (the developer) is planning to provide new residents with SmarTrip cards, a bike share membership and car share membership for the first three years. Rooney is also including space for bicycle maintenance and storage within the new building, and the lobby of the building will offer a transit screen that shows the number of bikes available and a real-time Metro train schedule.

Finally, Rooney is also actively seeking off-street parking options and has noted that several of the recent buildings in the area that have off-street parking are not parked up. The developer would be willing to provide free parking in these garages to new residents for three years as well.

Here's what parking the area currently has

According to the Petworth News report from the ANC 4C meeting, the following gives an idea of how much off-street parking is available in the immediate area. The Swift apartments (above Safeway) have 70 spots leased of their available 158 spots. The Park Place development has 138 spots leased of their 181 spots, and the 3 Trees Flats has 115 spots leased of their 130 spots. There is a lot of untapped parking potential in these buildings.

But another part of the story that wasn't part of the ANC 4C discussion—one important to developing some understanding of the potential hardships the immediate neighbors may face—is how much off-street parking exists in the community.


Rock Creek Church Road NW, with the development site to the north (left in the photo). Photo by Owen Chaput.

Residents from the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road were among those expressing concern about the potential impact this development could have on that block, so I took the time to walk the alleys to the north and south of that block to see if any off-street parking existed for these properties currently. What I learned was that 63% of the residential properties on the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road currently have some form of off-street parking that they are currently using, or have the potential to use. If I include the west side of Warder street, this goes down to 61%.

The map below shows the location of the proposed development and all the residential properties that have off-street parking.


(Map key: Orange=two-car garage; Yellow=one-car garage; Red=four car garage; Dark Blue=two car parking pad; Light Blue=one car parking pad)

Here is how the parking on the residential properties represented on the map above breaks down:

  • There are 54 residential properties on Rock Creek Church Road and the west side of Warder Street. 33 of these properties (61%) have off-street parking.
  • 10 residences (18%) have garages. There is 1 four car garage, 6 two car garages, and 3 one car garages.
  • 23 residences (42.5%) have parking pads. 6 properties have two car parking pads. 17 properties have one car parking pads.
  • Note: in taking this survey of parking, I did not include a garage if its entrance was bricked in, but did include a garage if the doors were merely boarded up. In one case, I included a single-car garage that was too small for a modern car, but which had a driveway currently used for off street parking.

Garages and parking pads abound on the north side of the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road. Photo by the author.

Overall, in adding all this up, there are currently 48 spaces on this block for off-street parking. In looking at the south side of the 700 block of Quincy, each residential property there similarly has at least one off-street parking space.

With the amount of off-street parking currently in this area, one starts to question why parking is so tight currently and based on my observations I believe some (but definitely not all) of this stress is caused by factors other than housing.

For instance, the 700 block of Quebec Place and nearby blocks are often stressed due to church parking from the Fisherman of Men Church. I have also witnessed on several occasions residents from further north in Ward 4 using Quebec, Rock Creek Church, and other nearby streets as commuter parking so that they can easily drive, park, and ride Metro. Whether there are solutions to these stresses or not, they certainly aren't related to development or housing in the immediate community.

Factoring all of this together, I believe that the benefits of the proposed development far outweigh the cons, and that the impact the building may have on parking and the surrounding community will not live up to people's worse case scenarios.

The case is scheduled to go before the Board of Zoning Adjustment on November 17, 2015.

A version of this post recently ran on Park View, DC.

Roads


Petworth residents complained drivers are speeding. DC says it's true, but "acceptable."

Half of drivers on Illinois Avenue in Petworth exceed the speed limit, and residents asked for traffic calming. But an analysis from the District Department of Transportation says that speeding is "acceptable." Instead, DDOT will install signs reminding drivers to stop for pedestrians.


Illinois Avenue at 9th Street, NW. Images from DDOT.

Responding to resident concerns, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 4D, passed a resolution in January, saying,

Several of these blocks of Illinois Ave. have awkward intersections leading to pedestrian safety concerns. Cars are parking within signed areas but too close to the intersections, blocking the view of crossing traffic. Additionally, the lack of stop signs on Illinois at the intersections with Emerson and Farragut Streets result in speeding traffic. When combined with the difficult visibility, the community believes this leads to unnecessary accidents[sic].
Illinois Avenue has just one driving lane in each direction and one parking lane on each side. The buildings are mostly row houses, some small apartment buildings, and small detached houses. There's also a public school, the Truesdell Education Campus, serving children from 3 years old to eighth grade.

A team from DDOT's Traffic Operations Administration studied the area and reviewed crash data, culminating in a report in June. The report says that from 2012 to 2014, there were 47 crashes including 19 injuries. Three of the crashes involved pedestrians and two involved bicycles.

Two of the crashes involving people not in cars happened at Farragut Street, where there is not a four-way stop or a traffic light, as the ANC resolution highlighted. The other three happened at other intersections.

The speed limit here is 25 mph, and the analysis concludes that only 52% of drivers are staying at or below that level. Another 34.2% are driving between 25 and 30 mph, while 13.8% traveling faster than that (one, it appears, clocked at 56-60 mph).

The report's language casts this as not a problem, such as by saying that 67.8% travel below 30 mph and that the average speed was 23 mph. It concludes:

Additionally, the 85th percentile speed is within an acceptable range for the posted speed. Of note, the criteria typically employed by DDOT for installation of traffic calming measures requires the measured 85th percentile speed to substantially exceed the posted speed limit, defined as exceeding by at least 25 percent (31 miles per hour in this location). Thus, while the 85th percentile speed is 4 miles per hour above the 25 miles per hour speed limit, this measured speed does not substantially exceed the posted speed limit. (Emphasis added.)
In other words, while legally there is a rule that everyone has to travel below a certain speed, DDOT's policy is not to take action unless at least 15% of drivers are traveling at least 25% faster.

This is the opposite of Vision Zero

Certainly, it's fair to say that this is far from the worst street in DC for speeding or for safety. However, DC has adopted a policy called Vision Zero. The objective:

By the year 2024, Washington, DC will reach zero fatalities and serious injuries to travelers of our transportation system, through more effective use of data, education, enforcement, and engineering.
The report doesn't say if any of the 19 injuries were serious or fatal, but the blasé attitude of the report toward speeding and 19 injuries is the polar opposite. It's Vision Zero, not Vision Nineteen.

Remember, the chances that a driver striking a pedestrian is fatal rises from 5% to 45% as the car's speed goes from 20 mph to 30 (and then to 85% at 40).

To eliminate—not just reduce somewhat, but eliminate—fatalities and serious injuries will require a readiness to actually make changes. A policy that nothing can be done beyond posting signs unless 15% of drivers regularly go more than 31 mph in a 25 mph zone will not achieve this.

There will be a lot of ways to improve traffic safety that don't also slow down cars, but DDOT will have to also be willing to calm streets, and not just where speeding is egregious. A smaller residential avenue with a school, where the local ANC wants traffic calming, would be a good spot.

Roads


Petworth residents say changes to a dangerous traffic circle should go further

Many people in Petworth lament how dangerous it is to cross the street and get to Grant Circle, one of their neighborhood parks. DDOT has an initial plan for addressing the problem, but pedestrian advocates say the real way to make the circle safer is to make the streets narrower and add more crosswalks.


Photo of Grant Circle by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

Like a lot of circles in DC, Grant Circle has a design that's invites people to use the interior space as a park but, more recently, has made moving traffic between its several intersections a major priority.

Drivers tend to speed through Grant Circle, partly because it has two wide lanes surrounding it that encourage passing. With drivers entering from the eight different intersections around the circle, and sometimes speeding to pass each other, it can be a harrowing place for people on foot or riding bikes.


Streetview of Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Every few months, a new thread starts up on the Petworth neighborhood listservs about near misses or actual crashes around Grant Circle like one last week, when someone drove their car into the circle.

"Grant Circle is an absolute mess for pedestrians," wrote one resident recently. "When I drive, I often hesitate to stop for pedestrians because I know cars will zoom around me and make it much more dangerous for the people that are crossing. When I do stop I often go between both lanes to try to ensure the pedestrian safety which is obviously not the best thing to do."

While well-intentioned, that second solution obviously isn't a safe alternative to Grant Circle's hazards.

"The design of the circle is so wide and big that instead of helping to slow down cars, it makes them to speed up," added another. "If so many of us have already had nearly misses, some tragedy will end up happening."

Plans to calm Grant Circle's traffic have fallen short of a bigger vision

After hearing from community members and ANC commissioners, DDOT released initial plans to both add new striping to the streets around Grant Circle and to narrow their lanes. Both should calm traffic as it enters the circle.


DDOT's immediate plans to add striping to Grant Circle to narrow lanes and calm traffic as it enters the circle. Image courtesy of DDOT.

This is a step in a process that started in 2009, when DDOT completed its Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan's goals were to make it safe and comfortable to walk anywhere in the city, both through city-wide policy solutions and targeted changes to certain streets' designs.

The Master Plan placed a heavy focus on L'Enfant's radial avenues, which is where the majority of today's crashes involving pedestrians happen. It plan designated "priority corridors" in each ward, which were places that saw a lot of pedestrians, had a dangerous design, and had a lot of crashes involving pedestrians as a "priority corridor."

New Hampshire Avenue, including Grant Circle, is Ward 4's priority corridor, and it was slated to get bumpouts along New Hampshire and a new design to calm traffic around the circle. These plans represent a more complete vision to calm traffic than the initial striping DDOT is proposing, though new ideas in traffic engineering could help even more.

Grant Circle's two-lane design is needlessly dangerous

Every street intersecting Grant Circle is one lane in each direction, except for New Hampshire Avenue south of Grant Circle. There, New Hampshire has two lanes in each direction until it turns into Sherman Avenue, which has one lane in each direction.

If New Hampshire has one lane in each direction north of the circle and again a few blocks south, does it really need two lanes in the first place?

The two lane design means that parents with kids, dog owners with dogs, elderly people and those with disabilities, and anyone else trying to get to the park have to contend with serious traffic, which enters the circle from eight different points, to do so. And while relatively few cars use the passing lane, those that do tend to speed and pose an extra risk to people walking.


Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Let's consider some possibiltiies

All Walks DC, an organization I'm a part of, has a few thoughts for how Grant Circle could be made safer to walk and bike to and through.

When you look at Grant Circle's interior paths, you can see where the original designer intended for people to be able to cross into and through the circle (though for some reason it leaves out paths to 5th Street NW). But out of the 12 places that those interior paths intersect Grant Circle, only 5 have crosswalks today. Some streets, such as Varnum on the East, don't have any crosswalks at all, meaning that all the neighbors on that street have to walk a block south to use a marked crosswalk.

One simple fix would be to to add the crosswalks that are obviously missing.


DDOT's 2009 plans for Grant Circle include a raised brick inner lane to calm traffic. Image from DDOT.

Narrowing Grant Circle to one lane would make crossing on foot much safer. DDOT's 2009 plan includes a proposal to make the inner lane raised brick, which is a half step in this direction. But while this would discourage speeding and passing, it would likely be expensive, and there are probably better uses for that space.

For a lot less money, DDOT could bring down speeds and make Grant Circle more pedestrian and bike-friendly by allowing parking in the inner lane and building bumpouts at all the crosswalks.


Bumpout on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Image from Google Maps.

DDOT could also car lanes by creating a protected bikeway, which the Move DC plan calls for, along the outside of the circle.

Finally, it's worth considering using lanes to increase park space, which has happened in New York City. Extending Grant Circle outwards would be more complicated due to coordination with the National Park Service, but would add about a half acre to the area of the park.

Calming traffic around Grant Circle is an important part of kicking off DC's Vision Zero efforts, as it would be an example of a community-supported project to make a street with known dangers safer for people walking. Several residents have already noted dangers around Grant Circle on DDOT's Vision Zero map, which you can view and add to here.

If you live nearby and would like to sign a petition for a safer Grant Circle, click here.

Roads


Finally, the stop signs residents pushed for... along with some startling news

Residents near the intersections of Kansas Avenue and Quincy Street NW spent the last few years asking for four-way stop signs at the intersection. Recently, the intersection saw two traffic collisions on the same day. The stop signs followed soon after.


The new stop signs on Kansas Avenue NW. Image by the author.

Whether you were on foot, bike, or car, poor lines of sight made it very hard to cross Kansas via Quincy when there were no stop signs. In asking DDOT to install stop signs in every direction at the intersection, Petworth ANC commissioners noted that they were a feature at almost every other four-way stop in the area.

Still, DDOT representatives refused the neighborhood's requests for a long time, suggesting instead that the solution was to remove parking spaces to make it easier to see. Residents objected, saying doing so would both cut needed parking supply and entice people to drive faster on Kansas.

About a month ago, the community members turned up the pressure after yet another avoidable crash. On Saturday, July 11th, back-to-back collisions in the morning and afternoon prompted a deluge of neighborhood concern, expressed at the scenes of the crashes, over local listservs, and even in the Post.


The aftermath of the first July 11th crash. Image from a neighbor, who lives adjacent to the intersection.

Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, along with representatives from the mayor's office, the police department, and DDOT, were quick to pay attention. DDOT's representatives tracked traffic patterns and deployed a Traffic Control Officer.

On Thursday, July 16th, all-way stop signs went in at the intersection.

Neighbors are thrilled. People on foot no long have to detour around the intersection when walking with their children or pets, and drivers on Quincy have a much easier time crossing Kansas.

When it comes to traffic safety, there's still work to do

Because the second July 11th crash was less serious than the first, officers at the scene didn't file an official police report. When witnesses asked why, they learned that the Metropolitan Police Department doesn't require reports on some minor collisions.

Given that DDOT decision makers consider the number of reported crashes at an intersection in a 12-month period when weighing whether or not (PDF) to install an all-way stop, MPD's policy creates a dangerous information gap.

If crashes go unreported, are decisions that affect safety all that reliable? How many other intersections in DC meet the criteria for an all-way stop?

History


Ask GGW: Why is the street grid lopsided east of Georgia Ave NW?

The street grid east of Georgia Avenue and south of Madison Street is slightly lopsided, with horizontal streets angled slightly towards the northeast and vertical streets angled slightly towards the northwest. Reader Robb wants to know why this is the case.


Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Petworth 1903-1916. Photo by Ghosts of DC.

Truth be told, we're not sure.

What we do know is that the neighborhoods that this section of Georgia Avenue traverses—Brightwood Park, Petworth, Park View, Pleasant Plains (where Howard University is located), and LeDroit Park—are all north of Florida Avenue (formerly known as Boundary Street), which means they're outside of Pierre L'Enfant's original DC street grid.

Many of these neighborhoods were developed in the late 1800s after the Civil War.

In 1893, Congress passed a law mandating that existing streets must be changed or moved in order to conform with the city's street plan, the System of Permanent Highways. ("Highway," like "parking" is a common law term whose meaning changed in the 20th century. Here it denotes only that it's a maintained public right-of-way.)


From top to bottom, Brightwood Park, Petworth, Park View, Pleasant Plains, and LeDroit Park, all with a "lopsided" street grid east of Georgia Avenue NW. Base image from Google Maps.

Previously, Congress passed a law that said future DC subdivisions had to conform to the street, but that existing ones could stay how they were. This covered the neighborhoods along Georgia Avenue, so they kept their alignments even the System of Permanent Highways came into place.

Other neighborhoods in DC, like Brookland, Kalorama, and Columbia Heights, also deviate from the L'Enfant grid. LeDroit Park, for example, was originally a suburban neighborhood outside of the original city of Washington, and is laid out differently.

What we're still unsure of is why these particular streets were built at an unusual angle. Do any of you, our readers, know?

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll pose a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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