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Posts about Rock Creek

Public Spaces

The difference between Maryland and Virginia in one photo

If you've ever flown out of National Airport, you might try to pick out the geographic landmarks you recognize: the Washington Monument, Rock Creek Park, or the Potomac River. Next time you're heading west, keep an eye on the river as it passes through Maryland and Virginia, and you'll notice one big difference between each state.

Virginia sprawl on the left, Maryland farms on the right. Photos by the author.

This is a photo I took Sunday morning when I flew to San Francisco. On the Virginia side, in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, there are all the typical signs of suburban sprawl: subdivisions, freeways, and shopping centers. On the Maryland side, in Montgomery County, there's...not very much.

That's because for over fifty years, Montgomery County has aggressively tried to protect its open space. In 1964, the county's General Plan said that growth should cluster along major highway and rail corridors leading from the District, and that the spaces in between should be preserved.

In 1980, the county made it official with the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, which covers one-third of the county will remain farmland and nature forever. (Combine that with the county's 34,000-acre park system, and nearly half of the county is open space.)

That decision has lasting effects today. Montgomery County residents benefit from an abundance of open space for recreation, enjoying nature, and of course, keeping our air and water clean.

In order to preserve this open space, we have to accommodate growth elsewhere in the county, particularly in our town centers like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville. People who try to stop development in their close-in communities may not feel they benefit from open space 30 miles away. But the urban and suburban parts of our region benefit from the Ag Reserve too.

Allowing inside-the-Beltway communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring to grow lets us preserve open space.

Maryland has an abundance of green space thanks to dense urban development

By focusing growth and investment in existing communities, we get thriving downtowns that support local businesses and local culture, and less traffic as people who live closer in can drive less or not at all. We also spend less money building public infrastructure, like roads and utility lines, to far-flung areas, while generating tax revenue to support the infrastructure we do need. (And obviously, those places can and will have open space.)

This is the path Maryland, and Montgomery County, chose over 50 years ago. So far, it's working pretty well. And you don't have to get in a plane to see it.


Part of the US Capitol building is in Rock Creek Park

There are heaps of sandstone in the heart of Rock Creek Park that used to be a part of the Capitol Building. They were taken down in 1958 when part of the iconic building was expanded and rebuilt in marble. Now, they've kind of been forgotten.

Photo by the author.

J. George Stewart, the architect of the Capitol, wanted to see the eastern front rebuilt in marble. The old facade was cracking, it didn't line up with the Senate and House extensions that went onto the building in the 1850s, and he thought marble was just nicer.

Steward, a former one term congressman from Delaware, had never actually received any architectural training, and he faced a huge uphill challenge convincing people this was a good idea. A bitter war played out in Washington's editorial pages over the following months between the sandstone purists and the marble backers.

Powerful Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn liked the idea. But the American Institute of Architects blasted the proposal, calling it a "desecration" and labeling Rayburn as a "historic barbarian."

Rayburn pushed the plans forward in any case.

On December 13, 1958 the Daytona Beach Morning Journal wrote that "Workmen are saving everything, even the debris and rubble, and storing it safely on the Capitol grounds".

The old Aquia Creek sandstone facade was taken apart piece by piece by the John McBeath & Sons company. They finished the job in seven months, dutifully cataloging each stone and stacking them by the House of Representatives.

In their place went Special Georgia White marble, provided by the Georgia Marble Company for $2.8 million. The new front was 33 feet farther than the original, and lined up with the House and Senate stairways.

Image from the Architect of the Capitol.

What to do with the stones?

According to the Washington Post, when the project started nobody had thought through what to do with the stones. "Eventual disposition of the dismantled portions is to be determined [at a later date] by the Commission for Extension of the Capitol, headed by House Speaker Sam Rayburn."

Steward and Rayburn consulted with the advisory architects who suggested donating the stones to the Smithsonian, or reconstructing them into a new museum. However, Steward (who was being crucified in the press during all of this) had spent the last year trying to convince everyone about all the ways in which sandstone was deficient.

Highlight the stones in a new museum? No way! He wanted the blocks out of sight and out of mind.

The stones first traveled to the Capitol Powerplant, where they sat until 1975 when facilities there expanded. That's when they made their way to a National Park Service facility deep inside Rock Creek Park.

At the time, they were under the custody of the now-defunct Commission on the Extension of the United States Capitol. According to a 1982 Washington Post article, possession of the stones then passed to the House and Senate office building commissions.

Present day

The stones have been sitting in Rock Creek Park for the last 40 years, slowly gathering moss and sinking into the ground.

The United States Capitol Historical Society has been cutting up a small number of the stones and selling them as bookends (with permission from the Speaker of the House). The stones are also occasionally used for small restoration jobs in the Capitol and White House.

The 22 corinthian columns from the old east front were rescued from obscurity in 1984 by DC local Ethel Garrett, who successfully lobbied to have them moved to a more fitting location. Today, they stand sentry over a reflecting pool and 20 acres of meadow at the National Arboretum.

Photo by Fred Dunn on Flickr.

Cross-posted from If you enjoyed reading about the capitol stones you might also like the old Civil War fort hidden in Rock Creek Park.


The Red Line could have had amazing views over Rock Creek

Between Dupont Circle and Woodley Park, the Metro Red Line runs in a very deep tunnel to get under Rock Creek. But early plans would have put it inside the bridge that carries Connecticut Avenue across the ravine.

Drawing by Weese & Associates.

The blog Architect of the Capital chronicles the history of many battles between WMATA and the National Park Service. NPS vetoed a track through the structure of Connecticut Avenue's Taft Bridge and another, later plan to actually use the bridge for a station:

A station would not have been a very good idea, as much of the half mile "walkshed" would have been wasted on parts of Rock Creek instead of maximizing the number of residents, businesses, and other destinations near the station.

As Zachary Schrag explains in The Great Society Subway, WMATA ended up using a deep tunnel to get under Rock Creek; that is the reason the Dupont Circle and Woodley Park stations are so deep.


An 1886 plan would have built atop Rock Creek

An 1886 Washington Post article outlines a plan to put Rock Creek in a tunnel from about M Street to just north of R Street, fill in the ravine, and create city blocks between Georgetown and Dupont.

Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

Proponents estimated it would create 50 "squares" (generally city blocks) of space, for a cost of about $600,000 to $650,000, or about $15-16 million in today's dollars.

By keeping Rock Creek, DC has not only a surface waterway but a number of park spaces on the banks, such as Rose Park. Unfortunately, a different plan ultimately greatly marred the creek: Rock Creek Parkway, which dominates this section of the creek valley.

At any spot, someone trying to enjoy the edge parks or trail has to contend with a large freeway creating most of the noise and taking up much of the ravine floor. National Park Service management practice in this part of Rock Creek prioritizes motor vehicle traffic over any other user. Features in the park, like signs that tell trail users to yield to cars when crossing the on- and off-ramps, further make clear that nature and recreation come last here.

Here is the map from the article:

Tom from Ghosts of DC also posted an excerpt from the story:

"From what I have seen in the papers," said Capt. Symonds, when asked by a POST reporter for his opinion regarding the cost and practicability of the proposed Rock Creek tunnel, "I should consider it a perfectly practicable and feasible scheme, and I should think that the benefits resulting would fully justify the outlay necessary."

"How long would be the tunnel?"

"From the location as described it would require a tunnel about 2,000 feet long with some open cut work at the ends."

"What would be the cost?"

"Its cost would depend largely on the nature of the rock encountered. It would probably be necessary to arch it over throughout its length and if the excavated rock were suitable in quality it could be used for this purpose. In this case I should estimate the cost of the tunnel, with a sufficient water-way for all floods, to be about $250 per lineal foot. This would make the 2,000 feet of tunnel cost $500,000. Another $100,000 would cover all the open work at the ends, and all engineering expenses, etc. If it was found necessary to use brick for arching the cost would be about $50,000 more. This would make the cost from $600,000 to $650,000, which I believe would cover all expenses for the work proper without including any question of right of way. The excavated material would be used for arching in the form of rubble masonry, not in the form of concrete. The bed of the creek could not be used for a dumping ground. It could not be filled up directly with the excavated material, for it would have to be kept open for the passage of water until the tunnel was completed.

"It is not at all improbably," continued Capt. Symonds, "that a sufficient amount of good material would be excavated to arch the creek over from the lower terminus of the tunnel to the outlet of the canal. In this way the improvement could be made more far-reaching and beneficial. The creek would be blotted out of sight from Lyons' Mill to the mouth of the canal. I should think that the best use for the excavated material, beyond that used for curbing the tunnel, would be in building embankments across the valley of the creek connecting the streets of Washington and Georgetown, thus doing away with bridges and uniting the two cities. The spaces between the embankments could gradually be filled in. If properly managed it would be a splendid improvement.

We originally ran this post in 2013, but since the history hasn't changed, we wanted to share it with you again!

Public Spaces

Work on the Rock Creek Park Trail will fulfill a long-ago promise

Two complementary projects starting in the near future promise to completely change the bike trails in Rock Creek Park. Both will address trail issues first raised over 20 years ago.

Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.

The first project will rebuild Beach Drive and 1.5 miles of the 5.9 mile trail that runs alongside it. It will reconfigure the part of the trail that runs through the tunnel that goes under the National Zoo, build a new bridge over Rock Creek, and reshape the trail's intersection with Shoreham Drive. It should start this year, and finish in 2018.

Meanwhile, the District Department of Transportation wants to start a complementary project in the spring of 2017 that will build one new mile of trail within Rock Creek Park and rehabilitate another 3.5 miles of trail.

This project has been a long time coming. It was first publicly announced in October 2005, at which time work was to start in January 2007 and be finished by the end of that year, but since DDOT and the NPS couldn't agree on some details, it's been delayed. But it actually goes back even further: Many of the problems it's hoping to address (along with some the FHWA project will address) were first identified all the way back in 1990, in a National Park Service report called "Paved Trails of the National Capitol Region." That plan is currently being updated.

But at the Bicycle Advisory Council's March Meeting, DDOT's Michael Alvino said the project is moving forward. A rebuilt and expanded Rock Creek Trail promises to make the trail safer and and more useful. Here's a rundown of the specifics:

Rose Park and the P Street Ramp

Rose Park is on the east side of Georgetown, south of P Street and east of 27th. On the east side of the park there is a trail, about 40 feet above the parallel Rock Creek Park Trail (RCPT), called the Rose Park Trail. From M and 28th to P and 25th, that trail will be widened by about one foot, making it about six feet wide.

From the northern end of the Rose Park Trail, a ramp connects P Street to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. Right now, there's a trail connection on the downhill side of that ramp, and there's now a plan to install a second path along the uphill side. This should help cut down on the number of times cyclists need to cross the ramp, and help minimize times those climbing up the hill and others biking down come into conflict. This project will add trails to both sides of the ramp.

Trail at the P Street Ramp. All images from DDOT unless otherwise noted.

The Devil's Chair

The Devil's Chair Bridge just north of Q street requires trail users to make two quick 90 degree turns to cross Rock Creek. While it won't be realigned, it will get a wider curve on the Mt. Zion cemetery side. Also, the fenced in landing on the opposite side will be replaced with a curved approach.

The north landing of the Devil's Chair Bridge.

Trail straightening

DDOT will straighten the trail in several places. One example of what this looks like is below the Calvert Street Bridge, where the trail curve has resulted in a well-worn desire line. Realizing the people have spoken, DDOT will make the desire line the new trail, and the curved portion will be removed.

Straightened Rock Creek Trail beneath Calvert Street.

New access to Harvard Street

Between Cathedral Avenue and Klingle Road, a distance of about a mile, the only trail access point is Zoo Drive, just south of Harvard Street. Zoo Drive gives trail users a roundabout access to Harvard Street, but only when the Zoo is open. The trail project will create new, more direct access to Harvard Street, via a route that is not impacted by Zoo hours. A small trail spur will connect to a crosswalk across Beach Drive. On the other side of Beach, trail users can connect to Harvard Street at Adams Mill Road via a five foot wide ramp. Part of the ramp can be bypassed by a set of stairs with a bicycle runner.

New trail connection to Harvard Street.

Paved desire line north of Tilden

Just north of Tilden, the current trail splits in two. A paved trail connects to the parking lot off Broad Branch Road and a desire line leads to the current crosswalk. DDOT will pave the desire line, connect the two trails and create a new curb ramp at the existing crosswalk across Broad Branch.

Twin trails between Broad Branch and Tilden.

Improved Beach/Blagden/Broad Branch intersection

The double intersection of Beach Drive with Blagden Avenue on one side of Rock Creek and Broad Branch on the other side will be reworked to make it safer for trail users, and to create a better connection to the trail along the south side of Blagden Street.

The new intersection will remove the slip lane from Beach to Blagdon to slow down turning vehicles. Three new crosswalks with curb ramps and new sidewalk on the east side of Beach will connect the RCPT to the trail along Blagden. Another curb ramp will connect the end of the RCPT to Beach.

New Beach Road intersections with Blagden and Broad Branch.

New trail along Piney Branch Parkway

In addition to improving miles of existing trail, DDOT will build about one mile of trail along Piney Branch Parkway. Connecting, via a crosswalk across Beach, to a new section of trail that the FHWA will construct adjacent to Beach Drive, the Piney Branch Trail will climb up to Arkansas Avenue on the north side of Piney Branch Parkway, passing under 16th Street on the way.

Once at Arkansas Avenue, DDOT will extend the trail east to Taylor Street and west to 16th Street.

Piney Branch Trail terminus at Arkansas Avenue.

Klingle Road connection

The current trail spur to Klingle Drive will be removed and a new one will replace it about 10 feet closer to Rock Creek. This will allow DDOT to install two new crosswalks to the sidewalk on the other side of Klingle and use the existing median as a pedestrian refuge. The sidewalk along Klingle will also be improved, connecting to the new FHWA-built section of trail along Beach to the Piney Branch Trail.

Crosswalk to Klingle Road Sidewalk.

As comprehensive as these projects are, and as much of an improvement as they represent, they—and other ongoing or previously completed projects—still don't address all the needs identified in the 1990 Paved Trails report. In fact only one of the four "high priority" projects have been completed. We still need a complete trail between Broad Branch and the Maryland boundary, a re-design of Zoo security "so that the streamside trail can be used 24 hours a day all year", and a trail along Broad Branch (though a plan to install a sidewalk and bike lane is scheduled for construction in 2019).

Since the Klingle Valley Trail is currently underway, there is only one unaddressed medium priority project: using the Lover's Lane path to connect the trail to Massachusetts Avenue.

Finally, the three unaddressed low priority projects are a trail from W Street and 44th to Rock Creek via the Whitehaven Parkway and Dumbarton Oaks Park, rehabilitation of the Oregon Avenue/Bingham Road loop and the addition of a trail along Park Road NW from Beach Road to the Piney Branch Parkway.

Still, this project represents a major step towards the fulfillment of that plan.


A safer bike ride through Rock Creek Park is on the way

Later this year, work will begin to reconstruct Beach Drive and parts of the Rock Creek Park Trail. The road will get a lot of work that should mitigate the environmental damage it causes, and the trail—in particular, three spots that consistently give cyclists and pedestrians trouble—will get wider.

A cyclist navigates the National Zoo tunnel under Administration Hill. Photo by Jay Mallin on Flickr.

Headed up by the Federal Highway Administration, the project should take between two and three years. It will focus primarily on Beach Drive, a 6.5 mile long road that runs from the Maryland state line to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, rehabilitating nearly a dozen bridges and rebuilding the roadway and adjacent parking lots.

New pavement markers and centerline rumble strips will also go in, along with new steel-backed timber guardrails and better lights and signs.

To mitigate stormwater runoff, stormwater management elements like bioretention ponds and bioswales will go in at strategic points along the road, and workers will stabilize the creek bank with retaining walls.

In addition, DC Water will take the opportunity to add 16 manhole vaults to the Rock Creek Main Interceptor beneath Beach Drive. This will allow DC Water to rehabilitate the interceptor and Beach Drive sewers at a later date without cutting Beach Drive's newly-added asphalt.

Rock Creek Park Trail is a big part of the project

As part of the road rehabilitation, the project will resurface and widen parts of the Rock Creek Park Trail in the sections closest to Beach Drive.

The main section of the Rock Creek Park Trail is a 5.2 mile stretch from Peter's Point along the Potomac River, just south of the Roosevelt Bridge, to Broad Branch Road, near the Forrest Hills neighborhood. Another 0.7 mile long section starts north of there at the intersection of Joyce and Beach Drive and then follows Beach to Bingham Drive.

The FHWA work will focus on a piece of the main section from Shoreham Drive just south of Connecticut Avenue to Bluff Bridge just south of Tilden Street.

Changes to several problem areas along the trail, which users have long said were dangerous, will be a signature of the project.

The tunnel that runs under the National Zoo's administration building is currently an unappealing option for cyclists and pedestrians because there is little space set aside for them, and what is there is totally unprotected. As of now, it's the only option for getting through the park when the trail section that runs through the zoo is closed.

To make it more appealing, the FHWA will narrow the travel lanes inside the tunnel and widen the sidewalk from two feet to five feet, with a new 21 inch tall crash-worthy railing. "Cyclists Must Dismount" signs will also go up.

FHWA will widen the sidewalk through the Zoo tunnel. Image from US DOT.

Just south of the Zoo tunnel, the trail currently crosses Rock Creek on a notoriously narrow five foot wide sidewalk. The FHWA will build a new 11 foot wide, 140 foot long bridge just upstream from the existing zoo tunnel bridge that will serve as the new trail bridge. The existing sidewalk will also remain.

Rendering of the new trail bridge adjacent to the Zoo bridge. Image from US DOT.

Another trouble spot is where the trail crosses Shoreham Drive, the ramp that runs from Beach Drive to Calvert. There, trail users must cross two lanes of fast moving traffic on a diagonal crosswalk without the aid of a traffic-control device.

Shoreham Drive intersection and trail reconfiguration

Already improved once less than 10 years ago to remove the old dual crosswalk configuration, the crosswalk will be straightened to take the shortest path across the road. The crosswalk will also be widened to 12 feet, and include a pedestrian island. The trail just north of there will also be straightened, and the intersection with the trail along Cathedral Avenue will get separate paths for those going north or south.

The trail is getting work in other places too

The FHWA will pour new asphalt, straighten the trail in several places, and widen it to ten feet in most places, eight in others (it's currently between six and seven feet wide in most places).

The FHWA will also construct a new trail, running from Porter Street to Bluff Bridge and connecting to a 0.8 mile long trail that DDOT plans to build later along Piney Branch Parkway from Beach to Arkansas Avenue. All trails will be designed for speeds of 18 mph (designated speeds for bikes mostly have to do with the turning radius and the amount of space at turns).

Delays and completion time

The project, promised since before the adoption of the Park's General Management Plan in 2006, has been delayed again this year. Last year WABA announced that these projects would start in the fall of 2015 and then in December the Park Service said they would start this spring, but since then the proposal due date has slipped from November 5th to March 29th, putting them a little less than five months behind, with a "no earlier than" date of August 2016.

Public Spaces

Would it be the end of the world if fewer cars could pass through Rock Creek Park? We'll find out soon.

Work to reconstruct a nearly 6.5 mile stretch of Beach Drive, from Rock Creek Parkway to the Maryland line, will start soon. That will mean closing a section of the road that the National Park Service, environmentalists, and cyclists have long wanted to close but that motorists and some neighbors have fought to keep open.

Cyclists enjoy Beach Drive without automobile traffic. Photo by Oblivious Dude on Flickr.

The work, which the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will oversee, will happen in five phases, with a section of Beach Drive closing for between four and eight months during each phase. The fourth phase will involve the section of Beach that runs from Joyce Road to Broad Branch Road, which officials have considered closing in the past but have not due to strong opposition.

The closures could be a chance for traffic engineers and Park staff to study the impacts of closing parts of Beach Drive to cars.

There was a movement to close Beach Drive in the 60s and 70s

Rock Creek Park has a long history of turning its roads over to cyclists and pedestrians. The first time Beach was limited to bike and pedestrian traffic was in 1966, on the section from Joyce Road to Broad Branch on Sunday mornings only. Over the following years, additional sections of roads eventually closed, and for more of the weekend. There was even an experiment with closing a lane of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway north of Virginia Avenue for a week.

Efforts to encourage recreation in Rock Creek Park, and to make it more of a park and less of a commuter route, continued through the 1970s. Pointing to how both Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City had seen success with limiting car traffic, NPS announced in 1983 that it would gradually close the section of Beach from Joyce to Broad Branch.

At first, one lane would be reserved for cyclists and joggers during weekday rush hours, and the lane pointed in the direction of the rush hour commute would stay open to cars. Later, once the Red Line was completed beyond Van Ness, the Park Service planned to place a gate near Boulder Bridge and permanently close the section of Beach from there to Joyce.

Political pressure has pushed against efforts for long-term closures

Three months later, however, under pressure from automobile groups, commuters, and the DC Department of Public Works and Transportation, the Park Service backed off from that plan and decided to keep Beach open. Instead they promised to build a 2.5 mile trail on that section of Beach Drive. Later, due to the constrained geography of the area and the objection of the National Parks and Conservation Association, the plans for the trail fell through altogether.

In 1988, a FHWA report concluded that Beach Drive was getting more traffic than it could handle. Since expanding the road wasn't an option, FHWA recommended adding tolls, instituting HOV requirements, or permanently closing all or part of Beach Drive.

The report, along with the limited impact of a 10-week closure of the Zoo Tunnel in 1990, emboldened both activists and the Park Service to again look at further limiting automobile traffic in the park.

The process of writing Rock Creek Park's General Management Plan (GMP), which lasted from 1996 to 2006, turned into a showdown between the People's Alliance for Rock Creek Park (PARC), a coalition of environmental and cycling advocacy organizations in support of closing Beach Drive, and a less-organized coalition of Maryland commuters, Park neighbors, and motorist organizations, like AAA.

The fight over how to use Beach Drive left it open for cars

Several possibilities for closing Beach Drive received consideration, and advocates for limiting automobile traffic finally settled on a compromise to close only the section between Joyce and Broad Branch—the same section as in 1983, where no trail exists and where Ross Drive is an alternative—in the time between rush hours.

But in 2005, the Park Service, again facing opposition from commuters, automobile advocates, and political leaders like Maryland's congressional delegation, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the majority of the DC Council (Phil Mendelson, Jack Evans and Harold Brazil, all who had supported the closures) and others, chose a different option that was close to the status quo: leave the road open during the entire weekday.

Despite a 2004 traffic study that found midday limits on Beach Drive between Broad Branch and Joyce would have "minimal impact" on travel times and on nearby streets, especially if drivers were encouraged to use Ross Drive and Glover Road, one of the main concerns of the GMP was spillover traffic.

In fact, all of the letters from members of Congress were about the closures, ignoring all other aspects about the GMP. They questioned the utility of the closures, criticized the methodology of the traffic study, expressed fear that diverting traffic onto other roads would be unsafe and inefficient, and promised to find money for a trail in this section.

DC Councilmember Carol Schwartz, for example, feared that closing any part of Beach Drive at any time during the week would have "severe" impacts on Cleveland Park, Crestwood and Mount Pleasant.

Another concern, brought up by Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, was that closing this section to through traffic would limit access for those with disabilities. NPS pointed out that "all park facilities, such as picnic areas, parking lots, historical features, and trails, would continue to be available to visitors traveling by automobile. The only limitation would be on driving the length of Beach Drive between these facilities."

Instead of midday closures, NPS proposed a lower speed limit in this section, down to 20 mph, increased enforcement, and speed bumps or speed tables. But to date, none of those things have actually happened.

NPS also promised to improve the existing trail south of Broad Branch—a process which is, finally, nearly underway—and study expanding the trail north of Broad Branch to Joyce. The upcoming projects will not build a trail north of Broad Branch, nor are there any plans to ever do so. It's not clear that there was ever money to study the trail in that segment or if a study was performed.

Beach Drive Closure similar to 1983 and 2005 proposals

Upcoming work is a chance to test some of these hypotheses

Phase four of the Beach Drive rehabilitation project involves the closure of the very section of Beach Drive, Joyce to Broad Branch, that faced opposition in 1983 and 2005. Will the impact of such closures—during the midday, not rush hour—be "minimal," as the Park Service concluded, or will it be "severe?" Will neighborhood roads be filled with traffic? Will safety be compromised? Will travel times dramatically increase? Will those with disabilities stay away from the park? And what are the impacts during rush hours?

We'll now get a chance to study these things in a much more robust way—during a real-world experiment, which is exactly what Norton, Van Hollen, Mikulski and others asked for.

Unfortunately, since the road won't be open for non-automobile traffic, we won't be able to determine to what extent its closure would increase recreational use.

With phase four still more than a year away, now is the time for DDOT and FHWA to put a plan to study the impacts into place. There is still no trail on the section of Beach Road between Broad Branch and Joyce. Perhaps such a study will show something two reports have already shown: limiting this section to non-automobile use, for part of the day or permanently, is not that big of a deal.

Public Spaces

The National Zoo will be open for 1,000 fewer hours in 2016

Starting in 2016, the National Zoo's grounds will be open for three fewer hours per day. Beyond not having as many chances to see the animals, the change means people who use the Zoo to walk and exercise early in the morning or late in the afternoon won't be able to anymore.

Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Year-round, the Zoo will open two hours later and close one hour earlier than it does now. That means it will open at 8 am instead of 6, and close at 5 pm in winter and 7 pm the rest of the year rather than the current 6 pm in winter and 8 pm otherwise. The later opening will allow the animal house buildings to open at 9 am, one hour earlier each day than they are now.

The changed hours are the equivalent of the Zoo shutting its doors 7.5 days a month compared to the current winter schedule.

There's more to the Zoo than animals in buildings. When it's open, residents walk through the grounds for fitness or relaxation before and after work or school. The Zoo grounds provide a direct east-west connection, especially for pedestrians. Also, a section of the Rock Creek Trail runs though the Zoo.

In an email to members earlier this month, the Zoo cited visitor and animal safety as the primary reason for this change, particularly when it gets dark on shorter fall and winter days. Not having the public on the grounds will also allow Zoo staff and vendors "to move freely around the park during early morning hours."

What's unclear, however, is the degree to which new safety measures are actually needed.

The Zoo is great in the early morning and late afternoon

Congress chartered the Zoo for "the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people," and some of its wonderful sights and sounds only happen outside during early morning hours. Visitors can watch the Zoo staff introduce new orangutans to the overhead "O Line" when there aren't many people around, or hear sea lions bark or lions roar.

Nearby resident and Zoo member, Sheila Harrington, describes the value for her family of accessing the grounds prior to the Zoo's planned 8 am opening.

I've been walking in the Zoo early in the morning, before starting work, often 2-3 times a week (unless it's freezing or pouring), for decades. My husband used to visit the gibbons with each of our babies in a Snugli, and bonded with the mother gibbons similarly burdened. When the children were in strollers they rode along on my walks—up and down those hills pushing a stroller is a great workout. It's quiet, mostly without vehicles, and the animals are lively and fascinating. Sometimes I stop to sketch. The Zoo staff are usually working on some interesting tasks. Opening at 8 am would be too late because I need to get to work!

The Zoo is a useful travel route across Rock Creek

The paths and roads that the Zoo maintains also fulfill transportation needs, intended or not. The Zoo's 163 acres are directly adjacent to Rock Creek Park, an area with somewhat limited routes through the parkland.

When the Zoo closes its grounds in the evening, there are two big negative impacts to transportation. First, four Zoo entrance gates close across walking paths and roads that normally allow direct east-west (or west-east) routes into and through the Zoo for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers (yellow marks on the map below). Second, two gates close at the two ends of the north-south Rock Creek Trail within Zoo boundaries (green marks).

The yellow dots are entrances to east-west paths that cut through the Zoo, and the green dots are entrances to those that run north-south. Base image from Google Maps, with labels from the author.

Whether the four Zoo entrance gates are open affects anyone who wants to travel across the Zoo and Rock Creek at this point. Pedestrians can walk just 0.8 miles to get from the Harvard Street NW bridge through the Zoo to Connecticut Avenue NW. But the walk doubles to 1.5-1.6 miles when the Zoo is closed when they have to walk around to Porter Street NW or Calvert Street NW. The distance similarly doubles for cyclists and drivers when they have to use Calvert or Porter instead of North Road.

When the two trail gates close, pedestrians and cyclists instead need to traverse the Beach Drive tunnel on a narrow sidewalk. (This area will be widened in late 2016 and early 2017 by planned NPS construction.) DDOT, NPS and the Zoo explored closing Rock Creek Trail at night during the Rock Creek Park Multi-Use Trail Environmental Assessment. Trail users want to see it open 24/7, but Zoo insists this is infeasible "in order to maintain ... accreditation by the American Zoological and Aquarium Association (AZA)."

The November Project DC, a "just show up" fitness group, did its Friday
6:30 am exercises on the Zoo grounds. Photo by tusabeslo on Flickr.

Safety issues? What safety issues?

Zoo users are both surprised and disappointed by the change to fewer open hours. They're also still unsure of what, exactly, the safety issue is because the Zoo did not release the crime or safety data used to support its decision or identify any potential alternatives.

Media coverage on crime at or near the National Zoo has focused on incidents that occurred on three separate Easter Monday events at the Zoo. A shooting in 2000, stabbing in 2011 and shooting in 2014 all occurred in late afternoon between 4 and 6 pm. These events were unfortunate, but they were isolated, and they happened in late April when even the new Zoo hours would mean it'd be open until 7.

Zoo management has historically been great about keeping up a dialog with members, visitors and nearby neighborhoods on an array of issues. But the Zoo hasn't shared any details with the public regarding this decision. Even the announcement only went to members by email and on the public website, not appearing on any of the Zoo's active social media accounts.

Warren Gorlick, a nearby resident, said he wants to know the exact safety concerns that warrant the hours changes.

There is not much we know, however, because the [letter] ... was carefully worded to provide almost no details as to the underlying rationale. It simply mentioned "safety" issues repeatedly, without stating what they were or whether the zoo had considered methods other than restricting public access to the zoo. We have to wonder what is causing this sudden concern about "safety" right now that would result in such a major cutback in public access to this space.
Can Zoo users prompt a change of course?

Zoo users want to understand whether closing the Zoo is the best solution to keep visitors, staff and animals safe, but the Zoo's email is correct in saying the change will "frustrate" some patrons. The closure of Zoo grounds three hours a day represents a significant change in public access to the animals and walking trails. The plan to add one hour of animal house access during hours when the grounds were open anyway doesn't outweigh the overall reduction to grounds access.

What remains to be seen is whether the Zoo will share details behind the safety concerns. There may be other options through sponsorships to support hiring more security staff, partnerships with other law enforcement agencies or even establishing community watch groups. Without more information, we only see the locked gates in the name of keeping visitors safely on the outside.

Photo by Tim Herrick on Flickr.

The Woodley Park Community Association will host Dennis Kelly, the Zoo's director, at its upcoming meeting for a discussion of the Zoo operating hours changes. The meeting is open to the public and will be held on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 7:30 pm at Stanford University in the Washington Building (2661 Connecticut Ave NW).

Public Spaces

Ask GGW: Where do you enjoy the outdoors?

With spring weather almost here, it's time to get out and enjoy the less concrete-filled parts of our region. We asked our contributors to tell us about their favorite outdoor spots and why they love them. We also gave bonus points for places you can get to by transit!

A fall sunset on Greenbelt Lake at Buddy Attick Park. Photo by Matt Johnson.

The answers were as wide-reaching as our contributor base itself, but the District had the highest concentration of locations. We'll start there, then get to Maryland and Virginia.

Payton Chung named some downtown and Georgetown favorites:

The urban blocks of the C&O Canal in Georgetown don't just let you snack on a cupcake next to a waterfall while dreaming of escaping it all and riding a CaBi deep into the woods. You also get a great glimpse at what urban places (and transportation) looked like before the car.

Pershing Park is perhaps the most thoughtfully designed park in downtown DC, and a great quiet escape on a hot summer day.

One of the more fantastical park experiences in the District is to run a kayak aground on Theodore Roosevelt Island or Kingman Island and pretend you're an early explorer who's discovered an uninhabited island.

Dumbarton Oaks Park was Topher Mathews' pick:

Dumbarton is a hidden corner of Rock Creek Park tucked below its more famous and rich Harvard-owned sister in Georgetown. It has woods, glades, and a meandering stream criss-crossed by stone bridges, and it's a beautiful example of landscape architecture by one of the country's preeminent landscape architects, Beatrix Farrand.
Tracey Johnstone enjoys the grounds of the National Cathedral:
It's on a hill, so there's often a refreshing breeze. Some of the lawns are large enough you can play catch without endangering others. Or you can sit in the rose garden on the lower, south side of the grounds. There are secluded benches and some small lawns ringed by azaleas and other foliage. It's a great place to read or to have a picnic.
On top of Rock Creek Park and Beech Drive, both of which are largely closed to motor vehicles on weekends, Eric Fidler noted another road, Ross Drive, which parallels Beach Drive south of Military Road but runs along the ridge. It provides great views of the valley and gets very little car traffic. There are moments on Ross Drive when you can stop and not hear or see any signs of human civilization (aside from the road pavement, of course). It's surreal to think such a place exists in DC."

On warm weekends, you'll probably find Mitch Wander out on the river:

Fletcher's Boathouse at Fletcher's Cove is an absolute outdoors gem. You can rent rowboats and canoes to explore the Potomac River and C&O Canal. The fishing is beyond wonderful. Fletcher's Boathouse staff can sell you everything needed, including fishing gear, the required DC fishing license, and insider tips, to catch a variety of fish. Over the coming weeks, the annual shad migration from the Chesapeake Bay will a fishing experience not to be missed. The D6 bus goes to MacArthur Boulevard and then you can walk down to the Boathouse.
"Frederick Douglass National Historic Site has the greatest panorama of the city," added John Muller.

Another great view can be had from the top of the hill at Fort Reno Park, one of Claire Jaffe's favorite spots growing up. "It might be partly the nostalgia factor, but it is the highest land point in the city and has a nice view of the surrounding area. Especially in the warmer months when it's green and sunny, it's a wonderful place to sit and relax. You can also run up and down the hill... if that is what you're into."

Tina Jones gives a shout-out to the Melvin Hazen Trail:

The trail crosses Melvin Hazen Creek three times en route to the confluence with Rock Creek. At the eastern end there's a big, open green field, a covered picnic pavilion with a fireplace, bathrooms, Pierce Mill and the fish ladder, and access to more trails north and south.

From the west, you can get there from Connecticut Ave at Rodman Street, just north of the Cleveland Park metro, and by the L1, L2, and H2 buses. From the east it's accessible on foot from Mount Pleasant.

David Koch went with a classic, Meridian Hill Park:
It has a great classic design and a location that can't be beat, and it's mostly well-maintained by the National Park Service. It always brings a smile to my face to see the sheer variety of uses that it gets from locals, from picnics to Frisbee to yoga to tightrope walking, not to mention Sunday's drum circle. There's also a multitude of quiet, secluded places you can find to read a book in solitude, even on the most packed weekend afternoons. I'd say it's the closest thing DC has to Central Park, pace the Mall.
Speaking of the Mall, Canaan Merchant gave "America's front yard" his nod, saying how much he enjoys people watching there while he bikes home in the summer.

Personally, I'll add the National Arboretum, a sprawling green space off New York Ave NE accessible by bike from NoMa or Eastern Market Metro stations as well as via the B2 bus. There's also Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Arboretum, easily walkable or bikeable from Deanwood Metro, and Hains Point, a great biking spot along the Potomac.

To close off the District review, Neil Flanagan noted the solace to be found at Rock Creek Cemetery, and Dan Malouff called Dupont Circle "perfectly awesome" for its "mix of hard plazas versus landscaping, of city noise versus calm serenity, and of grand landmarks versus intimate hideaways."

Our contributors' Maryland favorites

Greenbelter Matt Johnson makes Buddy Attick Park part of his walk home from the bus when the weather is nice. It "surrounds Greenbelt Lake, and is an integral part of the green belt that surrounds and permeates the planned community. Some of the neighborhoods closest to the park have direct access to the loop trail that encircles the lake. And the town center is just steps away from the east entrance. The easy access and bucolic setting means that almost always, the park is full of families picnicking, teens playing sports, joggers exercising, and couples strolling."

Katie Gerbes loves Lake Artemesia in Berwyn Heights, alongside the Green Line between College Park and Greenbelt. "The lake has lots of gazebos, fishing spots, and a trail going around it. It also connects to the Paint Branch Trail, so a trip to the lake can be part of a larger run or bike ride. It gets a little buggy with gnats in the summertime, but it's a great place for a leisurely walk in the spring and fall."

Jeff Lemieux also takes to the outdoors in that part of Prince George's County:

My favorite natural spaces in the DC area are USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and MNCPPC's Anacostia Tributary trail system. USDA allows bike riding on most roadways through the research farms, which affords a lovely rural experience in the midst of sprawling suburbia. The Anacostia Tributary trails provide scenic recreation and also form the spine of an extensive commuter bike network in northern Prince George's county. Both areas are easily accessible from the Green Line's College Park and Greenbelt stations.
Closing out Maryland, Little Bennett Regional Park in northern Montgomery County is great for rambles in the woods. The downside is that it's only barely transit-accessible, via RideOn route 94—I used a Zipcar to access it.

Virginia destinations

Meadowlark Park, Northern Virginia's only botanical garden, got praise from Jenifer Joy Madden:

Meadowlark Park near Tysons Corner. Photo by Jenifer Joy Madden.
There, paved trails wind through rolling formal gardens and around sparkling ponds. Wilder paths draw you into the woods and great stands of native species. Kids love the Children's Garden, where they are encouraged to smell and touch the fragrant herbs and flowers.

Only a few months ago, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority opened a beautiful paved trail that connects cyclists on the W&OD trail with Meadowlark. Also, Fairfax Connector 432 now gets within striking distance of Meadowlark, but unfortunately it only runs Monday through Friday during rush hours.

AgnŤs Artemel recommended Great Falls Park and Huntley Meadows Park (both in Fairfax County), along with Daingerfield Island and Marina and Winkler Preserve (in Alexandria) for nature lovers, and added she appreciates the stream and trees along Spout Run Parkway between the George Washington Parkway and Lee Highway in Arlington.

There's also the well-known Mount Vernon Trail, hugging the river through Alexandria and Arlington. And Founders Park on Alexandria's waterfront and Ben Brenman Park at Cameron Station, also in Alexandria, deserve mention as great open spaces.

Adam Froehlig, an avid hiker, goes a little farther afield, pointing out the hiking trails along the north side of the Occoquan and along Bull Run. There's Fountainhead Regional Park towards Manassas, as well as the Appalachian Trail, which isn't all that far from DC and is accessible by commuter rail, as it runs through Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and served by MARC and Amtrak.

And when it comes to wildlife watching, nothing beats the beaver-tended wetlands of Fairfax's Huntley Meadows Park, accessible via Fairfax Connector routes 161 and 162, which connect it to Huntington Metro.

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

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