Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Roosevelt Island

Bicycling


The Park Service wants to fix a dangerous spot near Roosevelt Island

The National Park Service is trying to make the Mount Vernon Trail safer as it passes by the parking lot for Roosevelt Island. The agency devised four alternatives, but has already dismissed two, one of which which would have done more to fix the problem than the more conservative remaining ones.


Location of the parking lot. All images from NPS.

In this area, the trail passes the entrance to the parking lot which drivers use to access Roosevelt Island. There is a lot going on in this area. Pedestrians and cyclists crowd the trail. Cars enter and exit the parking lot. Hikers cross to get to the Potomac Heritage Trail and Roosevelt Island.

To make matters worse, the trail crosses the parking lot with two sharp 90° turns. ADA ramps and at least one tree extend into the trail space, and the trail through the area doesn't even meet NPS' 9-foot trail width standard. As a result, there have been numerous crashes in the area, some involving cars, others between cyclists and pedestrians.


Current layout of the parking lot and trail.

Besides improving safety, NPS wants to install a water fountain, more and better bike racks (since bicycles are not allowed on Roosevelt Island), and better signage.

Alternative 1 keeps the trail separated from the parking lot by a curb and widens it to 9 feet, with a 2-foot grass shoulder on one side and a 2-foot paved shoulder on the other. It also shifts the parking lot crossing to a gentler angle.


Alternative 1.

This makes it easier to navigate, but harder for cyclists to see oncoming traffic. It also elevates the trail crossing on a speed table (a wide speed bump) which forces cars to slow as they cross the trail. It would also remove an existing curb cut from the west end of the trail that cyclists currently use to go from the trail into the parking lot.

Alternative 2 lowers the trail to parking lot level, separating it from the parking lot by only a stripe of paint, similar to a bike lane. It also widens the trail to 9' and provides a separate 3'-wide pedestrian trail. Like Alternative 1, it changes the angle of the crossing but the crossing would be at parking lot level, rather than on a speed table.


Alternative 2.

Alternatives 1 and 2 are the options NPS officials are still considering. They also developed a 3rd and 4th, but discarded them.

Alternative 3 was the most aggressive proposal. It separated cars from cyclists and pedestrians entirely by eliminating the parking lot and trail crossing. It shifted the parking lot closer to the parkway and rerouted the trail to be entirely on one side of the lot. NPS dismissed this option because it would have eliminated 11 parking spaces.


Alternative 3.

Alternative 4 proposed moving the trail to cross the parking lot entrance and then run between the parking lot and the parkway. This would have been less safe due to the speed of traffic entering the parking lot from the parkway, and the bad sight lines at that spot.

What is best?

The reason many cyclists use the parking lot is to avoid congestion between bikes and pedestrians. Alternative 1 largely takes that option away, while providing only 1 foot of additional width to address the problem. The possibility in alternative 2 to separate bikes and pedestrians onto different trails is a nice step.

However, moving the trail to parking lot level could increase conflict between bikes and cars, as cars could back out of parking spaces directly onto the trail. The speed table from Alternative 1 seems to be a better approach.

It's too bad NPS didn't consider widening the trail beyond the agency's 9-foot minimum trail standard, despite the huge amount of bicycle and pedestrian congestion here. Nationwide, a 10' minimum is more common, and Arlington prefers 12 feet.

Also, Alternative 3 was the the only alternative that would fully separate cyclists and pedestrians from car traffic, but it has already been discarded.

To review the full details of the project, or to submit comments, see the project website. You can submit comments through April 22nd.

Public Spaces


Captain America obliterates Rosslyn and Roosevelt Island

If you're like me, then you're probably pretty excited for the next Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier, coming out in April. Set in a reimagined DC, the film has a very different vision of Arlington's waterfront:


Helicarriers in the Potomac. Screencap by Rob Bricken on i09.

One of the things that piqued my interest was that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarriers, or flying aircraft carriers, are supposedly manufactured and stored underneath the Potomac right where the Orange and Blue Line tunnels are. That would certainly explain some of the delays on my daily commute!

Science fiction blog io9 screencapped an entire trailer of the film, giving us a better look at what that facility looks like. Above is an overhead shot of the Helicarrier facility.

In the film, the Georgetown side of the Potomac looks much the same, but the Arlington side looks very different. It looks like the Helicarrier facility has replaced part or all of Roosevelt Island, whose worth as a park and nature preserve is apparently less valuable than our need to have flying ships that can be blown up by demi-gods, possessed archers, and Hulks.

The Rosslyn skyline is missing, as well as I-66 and the George Washington Parkway which have been replaced with shorter office buildings. But maybe those were just moved underground. It's clear that at least one high-rise remains in Arlington, as we see Robert Redford's character looking out of his office window towards the National Mall.


Looking out across the Potomac. Screencap by Rob Bricken.

At least fans of DC's height limit can look forward to this film, unlike the disappointment they probably felt at the end of Terminator 2.

Public Spaces


Besides Metro and a gondola, plan lays out many ways to burnish Georgetown

Georgetown used to be DC's premier shopping district, but development downtown and in other neighborhoods, coupled with the lack of a Metro station, have made it lose some of its luster. A new "Georgetown 2028" plan lays out strategies to spruce up the neighborhood's commercial areas.


All images from Georgetown 2028 plan unless otherwise noted.

The Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) worked with community groups, residents, the university, and the city to reach consensus on proposals. That gives the plan a lot more chance of becoming reality, but it does also mean that in several key areas it just calls for more studies where there wasn't consensus.

The neighborhood stands solidly behind getting a Metro station, if it can. The plan also suggests studies for an aerial gondola to Rosslyn, an idea that initially seems kind of far-fetched, but is also intriguing. Supporters like BID Executive Director Joe Sternlieb are confident it is a more cost-effective way to move a lot of people; it'll be interesting to see a more detailed analysis when one is ready.

There's also a suggestion to build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge from the waterfront to Roosevelt Island, and then on to Virginia.

Most of the proposals in the plan are smaller aesthetic improvements that can polish up what's already there. If and when a streetcar comes to K Street, that street will need a lot of facelift elements to make it feel more like a gateway to the neighborhood as opposed to a back alley.

To better connect K to the main strip on M, the plan suggests studying a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the C&O Canal west of 33rd Street, and redesigning the one at 33rd, as well as improving other connections. The idea is to integrate K and M and the blocks in between as an integrated district, says Topher Mathews, a Greater Greater Washington contributor and board member of the Citizens' Association of Georgetown who participated in developing the plan.

More buildings south of M could have ground-floor retail, especially once there will be much more foot traffic along those streets between M and the streetcar on K. Where retail isn't possible, maybe there can be public art and seating:

Improve connections west, east, and south

The plan talks about ways to better connect Georgetown University to the neighborhood. One is a simpler pedestrian connection to M Street, perhaps passing through buildings like the Car Barn or new buildings like one that could replace the gas station at the foot of the Key Bridge.

In the longer term, it calls for a study about how to connect the streetcar to the university. But if the streetcar is down on K/Water Street, that probably means some kind of tunnel under the mountain. If there's a way to get the money for it, that could then bring the streetcar even across the university and up to neighborhoods to the north, but tunnels are not cheap.

On the eastern side of the neighborhood, Rock Creek Parkway and the ramps to and from the Whitehurst create a formidable barrier for anyone not in a car (and sometimes even in one) between Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.

Suggestions in the plan include a clear and comfortable pedestrian route to and from the Foggy Bottom Metro station, and a better bicycle connection between the Capital Crescent Trail and Rock Creek Parkway trail. For drivers, there's a suggestion to let the off-ramp from southbound Rock Creek become a reversible ramp for northbound traffic in the afternoon peak, when Rock Creek Parkway is one-way.

And lots more

The C&O Canal is a real jewel, but limited NPS resources and restrictive rules mean people don't have many chances to enjoy it. One section of the plan talks about enlivening the canal, but at this point there aren't many details. Rather, it calls for a "multi-stakeholder" process to figure out how to better use the canal.

And how about real-time information? The Georgetown BID is working with TransitScreen, the company Matt Caywood founded to commercialize the open source screens Eric Fidler built on a fellowship for Arlington's Mobility Lab. (Disclosure: I was involved in managing the Mobility Lab project as well.)

The plan suggests piloting and then expanding screens in shop windows, as well as real-time signs or screens to give information about parking availability. (That's assuming, of course, the BID can work out something acceptable to the historic review boards.)


Concept for Georgetown transit screen from TransitScreen.

What's not in the plan: better parking management and wider sidewalks

However, also notable is the absence of some of the more significant ways to improve Georgetown, but which are also controversial. As is often the case, it mostly comes down in some way to parking.

The sidewalks on M Street are far too narrow for the volume of pedestrians along there. Yet a lane on each side serves as parking, even though only a very small number of cars can park along M and bring only a very tiny minority of shoppers.


Photo by Christopher Chan on Flickr.

Working groups for the plan explored widening sidewalks, but there wasn't enough consensus among people in the neighborhood to reallocate the tight space among pedestrians, rush hour driving, parking, and more. Some argued that the narrow sidewalks were even a historic feature of the neighborhood that had to be preserved as is.

The plan alludes to this dissent, with statements like, "Proposals for permanent sidewalk widening on principal corridors have raised concerns over the potential impact on Georgetown's already heavy traffic congestion. Any sidewalk widening efforts should focus on creating space where, and when, it is most needed."

Instead of recommending any widenings, the plan more vaguely suggests trying some pilot projects on weekends to temporarily widen sidewalks when traffic is low, and to put "parklets" on some side streets. Perhaps if those succeed and residents see the sky doesn't fall, they can become permanent on weekends, or even permanent at all times.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

One reason some fear losing the parking on M is that shoppers headed for M often circle nearby streets to look for free 2-hour (or, on Sundays, all-day) parking. The private lots are fairly expensive, while the streets are free. However, a few spaces on M won't really change this dynamic: the simple fact is that all of those meter spaces are almost always full, and free parking is really appealing compared to pay garages.

I personally have spent 15 minutes or more driving around the blocks near M to find a free space when none of the meters was available and my wife and I needed to do some quick shopping. The problem is that most of the garages, like many around the city, are something like $9 for the first hour and $15 for 2 hours or all day; it's one thing if you're going to stay a long time, but for a 1½ hour shopping trip it seems exorbitant.

Plus, there's always the chance of getting a free space just around the corner. When you first arrive, you might as well drive around to see if there's a space. Once you've been at it a while, it psychologically seems even more silly to give up on spending all that time and go pay the same amount you'd have paid from the start in a garage. Any minute you might find something (and, eventually, you do!)

A simple solution to this is to require drivers who aren't Georgetown residents to pay for curbside parking on residential blocks using the pay-by-phone system. The rate can be lower than the garages for short term parking but high enough to push longer-term parkers to the garages. At the very least it would generate money that could help pay for some of the elements of this plan.

DDOT parking manager Angelo Rao convened some meetings last year to talk about this possibility, which had support from advocates and some ANC commissioners, but they encountered significant opposition from a number of residents. Rao is now no longer at the agency, and many neighborhood leaders have now abandoned efforts to allow paying for parking on residential streets, according to contributor Ken Archer, who participated in the working groups. Mathews notes, however, that other parking ideas might still gain consensus.

A Metro station would be great, but it's a long way off and may never happen. In the meantime, there are ways Georgetown can better use its street space that balance the needs of all road users, but that will mean making some changes that aren't popular with everybody.

Public Spaces


Give DC residents access to Roosevelt Island with a ferry

Roosevelt Island is a DC recreational asset and it's tantalizingly close to Georgetown. But far from easy to access for most DC residents. A ferry from Georgetown could solve that problem.


Photo by Vicki's Pics on Flickr.

Last weekend, as I was taking in the newly-completed Georgetown waterfront park, my eyes (as well as many of the eyes of my fellow layabouts) were drawn to Roosevelt Island. It sits so tantalizingly close to Georgetown, yet it's a difficult place to visit.

From the waterfront park, it's over a mile walk across the Key Bridge and along a highway. This situation inspired me to ponder the idea of creating a ferry service between the Georgetown Waterfront Park and Roosevelt Island.

The distance between the park and the island is just over 100 yards. It would be possible to build a small pedestrian ferry to shuttle small groups of people back and forth from the waterfront park amphitheater to the island. All that would be needed would be a small dock at either end. The ferry could be wire-guided or simply be a small independent boat.


Illustration by the author.

Connected this way, the two parks would truly complement each other. The waterfront park is beautifully landscaped and sunny, but it doesn't provide that much in the way of footpaths. To walk a mile, you'd probably have to walk in a circle a couple times. Roosevelt Island, on the other hand, is almost nothing but paths and wild nature. With an easy connection, visitors could come to the waterfront park, have a picnic, and then make their way over to the island for a hike.

An even better (albeit much more expensive) option would be a bridge:


Illustration by the author.

This would allow a steady flow of visitors to move between the island and the park. Just imagine the beautiful vista that would be created by a sweeping bridge like London's Millennium Bridge going from the base of Wisconsin Ave. over to the island.

Roosevelt Island is in the District of Columbia, yet DC residents have to travel through Virginia via or along a highway to get to this fantastic and wild resource. The new waterfront park is a perfect new gateway to the island. Now it's time to build the threshold.

Crossposted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.

History


Lost Washington: Analostan

Map of Analostan Island from Map of the City of Washington by Robert King Plate No. 1
Mason House sketch
As the detail at right from the 1818 Map of the City of Washington by Robert King shows, Roosevelt Island wasn't always uninhabited, or even known as by its present name.

When the island was purchased in the early eighteenth-century by the father of George Mason of Gunston Hall, it was know as Analostan Island. The name Analostan refers to the seventeenth-century Necostin Indian tribe that once inhabited the area.

The land was not developed until the island and some 2,000 additional acres in Virginia were inherited by General John Mason. General Mason became one of the most prominent businessmen of Georgetown. He was a founder of the Bank of Columbia on M Street in 1793.

He developed Analostan, also known as Mason's Island, into a self-contained estate, producing its own food. Much like today, one way onto the island was via a causeway from Virginia. Unlike today, there was also a ferry from the Georgetown shore that stopped at the island.

The house was built ca. 1796, though never completed. The likely answer is that the house's fortunes were tied to those of General Mason, who was forced to move from the island when the Bank of Columbia collapsed in 1833.

The house was primarily Federal in overall design, but possessed several important neoclassical elements that made it advanced for its time in Washington. These elements included the porch, the stuccoed facade, and the arched windows set into blind recesses.

The property suffered several indignities after Mason's departure. During the 1850s and 1860s the mansion was open to public use and was an army camp during the Civil War -- after which it was unsuitable as a residence. It also served as home of the Columbian Athletic Club and the Analostan Boat Club after 1867.

In 1869 a serious fire destroyed the interior. Another fire in 1906 caused the roof to collapse. The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association acquired the island in 1931 and donated it to the federal government as the future site of a city park. The Civilian Conservation Corps had cleared much of the island and pulled down the remaining walls of the home by 1935. More photos below.

Mason House ca. 1880s

Mason House ruins ca. 1905
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