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Posts about Upper Connecticut


Fight over 5333 Connecticut reveals dysfunctional process

After decades of fighting, work began last month on a new residential building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. While neighbors had few good reasons to oppose it, the project embodies the loopholes developers use in DC's patchwork of building regulations and zoning.

The site before construction began. Photo by the author.

The 261-unit building has long been approved as matter-of-right. It will not be a great building, but it is legal, and further appeals from residents to stop construction will only reduce their credibility in the future. Elaborate delay tactics will only reduce developers' willingness to cooperate with them.

On the other hand, the opponents' objections do reveal how Calvin Cafritz Enterprises designed the building to be as large as possible, using a thorough knowledge of DC's regulations. Architects Eric Colbert and Associates employed clever interpretations of what constitutes a "cellar," adding living space beyond the site's allowed density. The building's height was determined using the most favorable location of measurement.

However, the 5333 Connecticut Neighborhood Coalition doesn't simply want these irregularities fixed, they want a smaller building. They want a smaller building because they believe the effects of density will "harm" their community. They claim that added activity, reduced sunlight, and reduced tree canopy will degrade their quality of life.

Instead of looking for creative solutions to minor problems, they have chosen to fight the building itself. Rather than promoting uniform regulation across the city, opponents are using legal objections as easy tools to prevent a permissible project.

Recognizing that they have no legal standing, the majority of the ANC commissioners negotiated a memorandum of understanding that stipulated a number of design improvements for energy use and multimodalism. The four commissioners who voted for it were those closest to the project. The three who worked on the memorandum of understanding represented the areas that were most directly affected. The dissenting commissioners were in the suburban part of ANC3G, east of Broad Branch Road.

Despite the negotiations, opponents went ahead to protest the building at the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Given that there is no evidence that what Cafritz and Colbert have planned is illegal, the BZA should dismiss the complaints out of hand to avoid setting a precedent whereby the affluent and the influential preserve the narrow, short-term interests of their property at the expense of the rest of the city.

Opponents' case looks good at first, but lacks depth

With a little digging, it becomes clear that the 5333 CNC has no case against the building.

The project uses two sides of the building to calculate the height, a standard practice explicitly permitted by the Height of Buildings Act. Height must be measured from the existing elevation of the curb across from the middle of the mass of the front of building and height is determined by the width of the wider of the two streets it abuts.

Kanawha is narrower, but it is also at a higher elevation. Using the longstanding interpretation of the law, the Cafritz organization declared the Kanawha side the "front" and gained a few extra feet of height.

Opponents use a document from the Zoning Update process to show that this approach is unpopular but elide that the zoning update closes this idiosyncrasy in section 502.3, defining the height as originating from the midpoint of the facade that is closest to the lot line.

They further claim that the roof deck is 1.73 feet above the legal height because of how the development team calculates the Kanawha street frontage. The permitting calculations include portions of the facade of the longer, Military Road wing visible from Kanawha Street. The developer's midpoint is about 50' to the east, and 1.73 feet higher in natural elevation, allowing for the building to be that much taller.

A plain reading of the regulation suggests that this is permissible, if kind of tacky. Perhaps the regulation should be rewritten. Either way, the developer conceded this issue in the MOU, and will lower the building.

Site plan showing building mass, disputed frontage and measuring points.

A similarly shrewd, but legal, reading of code adds habitable spaces in a "cellar story" that does not add to the official FAR. Regulations distinguish "cellars" from "basements," where a basement is simply below the entry floor, and a cellar is a space whose ceilings are no more than four feet above the adjacent grade.

The architect designed the finished grade to hide a string of apartments along Military Road, but also excavated an full-height window well in front of them. This "areaway" also appears in the interior courtyard, projecting into berms in the central courtyard.

DC classifies areaways and parking vaults as projections from the building, and every story of a sub-grade projection is considered independently of all others. Therefore, their claim that the berms around the areaways are "planters" is at some level correct, but not according to the regulations.

I agree with the opponents that this common interpretation of the regulation is sneaky. The city should revisit this regulation, not because density is bad, but because it is opaque to the public.

North-South Section showing disputed projections

The final legal challenge in the opponents' BZA testimony is that the Military Road wing of the building extends beyond the plot of land zoned as R-5-D by 40 feet. A 1965 amendment extended the zoning of the plot to a length of 290 feet on Military. The zoning maps in 1966 and 1973 show this number. For some reason, from 1975-2003, the numerical description of the zoning plat appears as 251'. The graphical description of the lot remains the same, following the existing alley.

Changes in the zoning plat 1958-1984

Neither side can find why the number was changed. Cafritz's lawyer claims that it is a misreading of the lettering of the 5/9, which I find unconvincing. Opponents have no better case, claiming without proof that the ZC wanted to prevent inappropriate growth and so changed it. The current, digital zoning map shows the current line ending at the alley, as consistent with all maps since 1966.

The opponents' limited familiarity with development issues extends beyond legal practices and into architecture. In response to the MOU, opponents write that they are for "practical, modest changes that would not require wholesale redesign," including shifting the mass towards Connecticut Avenue and creating a "buffer zone."

However, re-masssing a building is a redesign at a fundamental level. Foundations, floor structure, column placement, parking spaces, circulation routes, apartment layout, pipe routing, curtainwall drawings, and even the landscaping plan would have to be redone. Other than a few design motifs, there isn't much work left to save.

By suggesting that their objections are simple, legitimate, and simply resolved, opponents are disguising their desire to have as little built on the site as possible. It's hard to believe that anyone would put up this much of a fight over less than two feet of height and a cellar.

Fighting a legal building discourages collaboration in growth

The majority of the legal objections are in response to loopholes that will be resolved by the update of the zoning code initiated under Harriet Tregoning. The other dubious interpretations should be resolved uniformly across the city. It is unfair to reject these rules in this case specifically when so many other projects have employed them.

It's not fair to other communities if this building is an exception. Closing loopholes would benefit the city by making the development process more predictable for the public.

Tellingly, the opponents of 5333 Connecticut do not want to resolve these regulatory flukes. At a September 15th meeting, Peter Gosselin, one of the 5333 CNC's leaders specifically said he would not ask for city-wide change to any of their complaints.

More locally, all of the objections could be resolved by removing one floor of the building. They are not asking for that either. The 5333 CNC are asking for the Cafritz team to come back and negotiate for their own property on the neighbors' terms.

The developer was under no legal obligation to engage the community. But that does not mean that they shouldn't have. In an ideal world, developers should go into communities in a transparent and open-ended way.

New projects often alter the dynamics of neighborhoods, and developers should work with communities to make a new building amplify the value new residents bring while minimizing the negatives through walkability and sensitive design. Similarly, neighbors should recognize the need for a city to grow and respect others' property rights.

With that in mind, I can't blame the Cafritz organization for not asking permission. The strife over this project is part of long-term context of opposing development through extremely effective legal means. Whether it is the lawsuits that delayed the Cathedral Commons project for ten years or the defeat of the Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Study through lobbying, the neighborhood has shown that it has the means to oppose legal changes.

If I were a developer, I would choose the least complicated permitting option and hire an architect who can get me the most out of the zoning envelope. In other words, I would build matter-of-right and hire Eric Colbert.

The process for this building has proceeded so poorly because Upper Northwest's anti-development groups have consistently punished developers without providing guidelines that are commensurate with the demographic realities of 21st-century Washington. Even when developers try to work with neighbors, as at the Akridge and Babe's projects, they have faced stiff anti-urbanism groups. Now, a dangerous cross between the cost of collaboration and the desirability of the land ensures that development in Upper Northwest will proceed without community input for the forseeable future.

In the current political climate, only large developers, working with the government can handle the risks of Upper Northwest. That is the reality a handful of vocal opponents have earned multiple neighborhoods.

The only way out is for residents to take a broader perspective towards the issues a growing city faces, and propose a vision for development that integrates new residents and buildings into a diverse city. It is up to citizens to begin that kind of planning.


Men are from Rosslyn, women are from upper Northwest

Aimee Custis sent along a great map from Trulia, showing the ratio of single (straight) men to single (straight) women across the region:

The Washington metropolitan area and "Bethesda-Rockville-Frederick," which the Trulia data breaks out separately, have the nation's highest ratio of women to men among the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas.

The zip code with the most male-heavy singles is Rosslyn; the most female-heavy, upper Connecticut Avenue.

Trulia economist Jed Kolko writes:

Billy Joel was right: in most metros, the neighborhood with the highest ratio of men to women is in or near downtown, as well as in recently redeveloped neighborhoods. ...

The neighborhoods with the highest ratio of women to men tend to be more residential, like San Francisco's Marina and Seattle's Queen Anne, and more upscale (and safe), like the Upper East Side and Upper Connecticut Avenue.

What do you notice in the map?


Cafritz presents Chevy Chase building to skeptical neighbors

"This neighborhood doesn't need any revitalizing," said one resident who lives near 5333 Connecticut Avenue, NW, throwing back into developer Jane Cafritz's face a newspaper quote where she said the proposed glassy, 9-story, 263-unit residential building would revitalize the neighborhood.

Photos by the author.

Hearing this, the crowd of Chevy Chase DC residents, most over 50, erupted into applause. Over 200 residents packed the Chevy Chase Community Center Wednesday evening to hear about the project firsthand from Jane and Calvin Cafritz and their team.

One side of the parcel abuts Military Road, the major east-west corridor across the top of the District. The other borders Kanawha Street, a very narrow residential street featuring mostly mid-sized bungalows.

At the outset, Mrs. Cafritz promised the skeptical audience that the glassy design that had been circulating widely was, in fact, not the building they planned to construct. She promised a forthcoming website to collect input on design and other concerns, which would give architect Eric Colbert, one of DC's most prolific residential apartment designers, an opportunity to revisit the design.

Not what Cafritz plans to build.

Zoning permits the building as of right

A group of residents has been actively organizing against the project, but their influence is limited because the Cafritz proposal will be completely "as of right," or fitting into the existing zoning without needing any special approvals.

Attorney Whayne Quinn explained the area's zoning and noted the building conforms to all requirements. It will cover only 45% of the lot. Quinn said that the project would be only half the size of the Kenmore building, 2 blocks to the north, with half the floor-area ratio and half the units, although one neighbor commented that the Kenmore itself ought not to be something the Cafritzes would be proud to emulate.

The building will be 90 feet, the height allowed under zoning, Quinn explained. However, one neighbor questioned whether they should measure the height from Connecticut Avenue or Kanawha Street. A representative from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) confirmed that the Cafritzes could measure the building from either, and it looks like the they will choose the method that will provide the greatest height.

Jane Cafritz.
The height issue was one that resonated with the neighbors, many of whom complained about the sun shadow the building will create during the winter. None of the Cafritz team rebutted or discussed this complaint.

In one of the livelier and more bizarre exchanges, the owner of several abutting residential apartment buildings admonished the Cafritzes for building a 9-story building on a block of 8-story buildings, saying to do so is taking advantage of the neighbors.

Another neighbor raised the common complaint about school overcrowding, and argued that those moving into the development would cause additional strain on the system. In a prior meeting, Councilmember Mary Cheh had taken another neighbor to task for a similar statement, letting him know that it was the right of any resident to have the city school their children. Certainly, school overcrowding is a real concern, but Cheh was correct to point out that this is not reason to prevent anyone from living where they want in our city.

Design tries to reduce mass along Connecticut, Kanawha

Colbert said he designed the building to have more mass along Military Road. A break and driveway on Connecticut Avenue will make it appear less massive from the front.

The Cafritzes' landscape architect said they plan to provide mature trees and as much of a green buffer as possible between the building and homes on Kanawha Street, and to the rear of the building. He argued that the smaller lot occupancy would permit more trees. Despite this, some complained that mature trees would need to be cut down, as these trees lie in the proposed building's footprint.

Grainy photo of proposed footprint.

The development team's presentation emphasized that the building would embrace green elements, in construction, use of materials, energy consumption, and rainwater management. However, when pressed on the environmental benefits, the architect admitted the building was not seeking any LEED certification, because the process of doing so was "too expensive."

Almost the entire crowd applauded a neighbor who asked why the building could not be brick instead of glass. She said the glass made it look like a building at 9th and K Streets.

Mrs. Cafritz seemed open to changing the glass, although in continued questioning it did not appear Colbert, the architect, had yet started to think about this change. Also, the Washington Post reported today that Mrs. Cafritz told subsequently Councilmember Mary Cheh they plan to stick with glass

Colbert spent considerable time explaining how a glass building would be energy-efficient and that interior light would not shine on neighboring homes, although he admitted there would be considerable sun reflections from the glass.

Traffic analysis doesn't please opponents

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented a traffic assessment which found the building would not have a significant effect on traffic. Zimbabwe explained to the crowd that they should expect traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue to get worse over the next decade, with or without the building.

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented information about the current traffic levels in the area. Traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue has actually declined slightly between 2006 and 2011 according to DDOT's traffic counts, Zimbabwe reported, which drew derisive laughs from the audience.

The traffic analysis predicts that the new construction would add 97 cars to morning rush hour and 127 cars to evening rush hour, but DDOT does not view this as likely to have a significant effect on traffic.

"any intersection where one has to wait more than one light cycle is a failed intersection"
This drew murmurs from a skeptical audience. One neighbor, describing the traffic backups each rush hour on Military Road as it crosses each intersection from Western Avenue to Rock Creek Park, pointed out the classic traffic engineering rule of thumb that if drivers need to wait more than one light-cycle, the intersections are all "failing."

Zimbabwe argued that this is precisely the type of project that will help cut down on area traffic. Residents will have a shorter commute downtown, and could would walk the ¾ mile to Metro. At this, the crowd erupted into laughter.

Later in the evening, one of those laughing at this statement shouted out, in complete sincerity, "why isn't the building installing geothermal heating?" Perhaps I was the only one who found that ironic.

Can the building avoid straining the alley?

One of the main issues neighbors raised, and one that might be easy to solve, is the project's intent to use the existing residential alley for both a 197-space parking garage and delivery access. Currently, only the 20 or so homes that are on the alley tend to use it, so there would be a marked increase in traffic.

However, DDOT policy does not permit additional curb cuts into to the property. Zimbabwe explained that DDOT wants to minimize the number of separate entrances off a street, each of which create the opportunity for conflicts between turning cars and other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, just as in an intersection.

A solution came up that could satisfy both DDOT and residents: widen the curb cut for the alley, so that the building vehicle entrance is not directly off the alley but immediately next to the alley entrance.

DDOT can't forbid residents from getting parking stickers

If traffic flow issues drew a skeptical response, the increased impact the project would have to on-street parking brought even more consternation. One neighbor handed DDOT his own parking assessment of Kanawha Street, where he said it is already difficult to find parking after 10 pm at night, He estimated he'd need to walk 4 blocks to find a parking spot after the building is completed. This fired up several in the audience, one of whom shouted, "bad parking rules."

Zimbabwe explained that while the block was not zoned for Residential Permit Parking today, DDOT would permit residents to obtain RPP stickers if they petitioned DDOT to do so, as is its policy for other blocks.

The DC Council considered a bill last year that would have let building owners work out a deal with DDOT where their building would never be eligible for RPP, or not for a set period of time. However, a group of councilmembers, led by Chairman Mendelson, voted the bill down.


Calvin Cafritz.
It appeared to me there that the neighbors expressed a few very valid concerns. It should be possible to address each, at least to a certain extent.
  • It would be nice for the Cafritzes to work on ways to minimize the building blocking sunlight for nearby residents. However, I would imagine them reluctant to relent even a bit, because the neighbors might seek a far greater reduction in height than they may be comfortable with.
  • The glass façade seems to be one where the Cafritzes are ready to listen to alternatives. Red brick was the consensus of the audience.
  • A parallel driveway immediately adjacent to the alley entrance would seem to address the concern about alley access.
  • The parking/traffic conundrum seems difficult to solve. Neighbors who want more underground spots would then see more traffic in the neighborhood, and might then complain about more cut-through traffic on other streets.
  • LEED certification ought to be in the cards. Or, at least, the Cafritzes should consider doing what Douglas Jemal did at the Babe's site, which was to design the building to LEED standard but not actually undergo through the expensive certification process.
  • How the property sits on the land will continue to be a bone of contention. The site plan did appear to have as much of a buffer as possible to the rear and along Kanawha Street, although much of the open space it devoted to a rear garden area for building residents.

    It would not appear the Cafritzes are willing to have a smaller footprint and more massive building sited closer to Connecticut Avenue, as such building would not permit him to have the same number of smaller units that he contemplates.

Mrs. Cafritz said a website would open soon for the community to offer comments. Beyond that, it is hard to know how willing they are to have more meetings with interested neighbors, given that the project is as-of-right.

Correction: The original version of this article erroneously reported that Sam Zimbabwe had said that traffic would increase in the future, when in fact he said that it had decreased (slightly) in the past. It also said that DDOT had conducted a traffic study for the building; DDOT instead reported some information about traffic in the area, but does not do its own traffic studies for matter-of-right buildings.


Promised pedestrian fixes now "not a priority" for DDOT

DDOT and residents worked together to prioritize and fund pedestrian safety enhancements along Connecticut Avenue. Now, the agency has stopped moving forward and says the fixes are "not a priority," according to pedestrian advocates.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Last year, Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Action (CAPA), organized by IONA Senior Services, worked with community volunteers and staff from Toole Design Group to develop a plan to improve pedestrian safety on the busy—and sometimes deadlyConnecticut Avenue corridor.

Since then, CAPA has been working with DDOT planners and engineers on a first round of improvements, including identifying funding for the changes.

However, CAPA organizer Marlene Berlin told CAPA volunteers and supporters in an email last night that "Everything was ready to go and was stopped in its tracks because," according to DDOT, "it is not a priority."

This project is another example of how DDOT's energy to move forward with meaningful improvements for walkers and bike riders has all but vanished in the past few months.

While the precarious future of downtown cycle tracks is the most high-profile example of the agency's lethargy, it's disappointing to see the malaise begin to infect small-scale neighborhood improvements, as well.

Funding was available for changes to increase the length of walk signals and establish leading pedestrian intervals at 12 intersections in Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Van Ness and Chevy Chase.

CAPA is also pushing for two new pedestrian signals at Northampton Street and between Ordway and Macomb Streets.

CAPA suggests that supporters email DDOT Director Terry Bellamy and Councilmember Mary Cheh, the new chair of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Here's an email text they suggest:

I am a CAPA (Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Action) supporter who supports the pedestrian audit of intersections on Connecticut Avenue. After all the work of over 80 volunteers on this audit, I want you to support this effort by directing your staff to implement CAPA's recommendations to increase traffic light timing on Connecticut Avenue which George Branyan and Wasim Raja have been working on and progress has been halted. Also, we need DDOT to install much needed pedestrian signals, one at Northampton and another between Ordway and Macomb Street on Connecticut Avenue. Please let me know when DDOT will take action.
Update: DDOT spokesperson John Lisle says: "At this point there's no indication we've halted anything. Trying to determine why they think that's the case and to put together some specific information" to explain the issue. We'll post more as we get it from John.

Update 2: Marlene Berlin writes:

As a result of the emails that everyone sent, I got word that, in fact, the traffic engineers had continued to work on increasing traffic light timing on Connecticut Avenue, but lines of communication had broken down. So on 7/21 the work orders will be submitted, and by the end of October, the project will be fully implemented.

As for the pedestrian signals, Cleveland Park with get one in Spring 2012 between Ordway and Macomb, and DDOT will do a warrant study on Northampton in August 2011. The traffic engineers need more information than what was included in the Rock Creek West Livability Study to determine what kind of signal would best be suited for this intersection. I will keep you posted.

I am still waiting on word from MPD about the status of their contract for increased photo enforcement.

Thank you for all the emails.


Upper NW study suggests traffic calming, bike boulevards

DDOT has completed its "livability" study for upper Northwest neighborhoods, which recommends a number of changes to calm speeding traffic and improve pedestrian and bicycle safety.

42nd and Albemarle. Photo from DDOT.

The study focused on Friendship Heights, Chevy Chase DC, Forest Hills, AU Park, and Tenleytown. DDOT tabulated motor vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle crashes; surveyed residents to find out about problem spots; and analyzed the street network.

Recommendations include adding bulb-outs to aid pedestrian crossings, small roundabouts to slow traffic, speed cameras, and new "bicycle boulevards" that have bikes and cars share the road at slow speeds.

Here's a video about bike boulevards from New York:

The bicycle boulevards would go on certain streets which travel through residential areas but stretch long distances. This not only gives cyclists a safe and comfortable through route but also discourages motor vehicles from using the streets for long trips, instead pushing them to use the major arterial routes and making the resident streets quieter and safer.

Map of proposed bike boulevards.

Several other roads would get "sharrows," which also promote sharing space between bikes and cars but don't give priority to bicycles.

For a number of intersections, DDOT is proposing curb extensions, or bulb-outs. Some, where there is a high volume of pedestrians, would be paved, adding space for pedestrians to wait and also shortening the crossing distance.

In other places, they would be "green curb extensions," where most of the added space is filled with plantings and designed to capture and hold stormwater that runs off from the surrounding street.

Curb extensions would go along River Road at 45th/Fessenden (paved) and 44th (green), on Davenport at Reno Road and Connecticut Avenue (both green) and 36th (paved), and at a lot of corners in Tenleytown.

Recommendations for Tenleytown.

At some places where three roads come together, small side roads serve as slip lanes encouraging fast turns and speeding. The study recommends closing a small section adjacent to main streets at 36th Street between Connecticut Avenue and Fessenden Street, and Brandywine Street between 42nd and River Road.

The former road space would either become a basic grass area or get additional stormwater facilities, like rain gardens, to capture and store rainwater and runoff.

From Albemarle to Brandywine Streets just east of the Tenleytown Metro station, between the Whole Foods and Wilson High School, is a pair of parallel roads, 40th Street and Fort Drive. They are only a median's width apart and serve essentially as two directions of one street with a median in between. The report calls the intersection between these and Albemarle Street "awkward, confusing, and obstruct[ing] some views."

40th Street and Fort Drive. (North is to the right.)

It suggests reversing the direction, so cars travel clockwise instead of counterclockwise, and replacing parallel parking adjacent to the median with angled parking, almost doubling the amount of parking. A break in the median for U-turns, currently adjacent to Albemarle, would be moved to the center of the block, lining up with the Whole Foods while also adding crosswalks there.

42nd and Warren.
42nd Street and Warren Street meet in a large, gently curving triangular intersection which also encourages speeding. The plan suggests a pair of small neighborhood traffic circles, essentially small islands in the middle of the intersection which drivers have to travel around more slowly instead of zooming through the large intersection.

These items are far from all the suggestions for improving safety and mobility in Upper Northwest. Part 2 will look at Ward and Chevy Chase Circles, other ideas that didn't make it into the report, and when all of this might actually become a reality.


UDC will fix dead plaza with student center

The University of the District of Columbia wants to build a student center on what's now an empty plaza creating a hole in the Connecticut Avenue streetscape right at the Van Ness Metro station. An active building here would be a big improvement over dead space.

The plan calls for landscaping and some cafe seating along the Connecticut Avenue frontage. The building will also have a green roof as well as a rain garden between it and the existing buildings. The remaining plaza area will also get a small lawn as well as some other landscaping.

Here's the new building:

The design happens to look quite a bit like DC's new libraries, for better or worse:

Left: Benning library architectural sketch. Image from DC Public Libraries.
Right: Anacostia library. Photo from And Now, Anacostia.

These new libraries have gotten some architectural praise, and since both are institutions devoted to learning, it makes some sense for UDC to look somewhat library-like. Certainly this is far better than the concrete bunker architecture of the buildings behind it.

On the other hand, this still seems a bit boring. It would be nice for the building to have a more defined top. and the current urban design thinking discourages arcades along the ground floor like this building appears to have.

What do you think?

Update: several commenters pointed out that the ground floor doesn't have an arcade, just a "structural reveal" where the ground floor has visibility into the structure.


Ped/bike safety enforcement stories, part 3: Charles Schwartz

At Friday's hearing on pedestrian and bicycle safety enforcement. Sally Schwartz related the story of her father, Charles Schwartz, killed at Connecticut and Nebraska Avenues by a driver allegedly on his cell phone.

Police investigated and prosecutors brought charges, but unable to conclusively prove he was using the phone at that very moment, the driver was acquitted.


Ped/bike safety enforcement stories, part 2: Nancy Szemraj

At Friday's hearing on pedestrian and bicycle safety enforcement. Nancy Szemraj explained how her daughter was hit last June, while crossing Connecticut Avenue at Macomb Street, by a driver running a red light, and suffered long-term physical and emotional scars.

The only penalty for running a red light and hitting a person is a small fine, and the DMV told Szemraj that they don't even pursue out-of-state drivers if they don't pay such tickets.


What would make Connecticut Avenue safer for pedestrians?

Bulb-outs, elimination of slip lanes, introduction of Leading Pedestrian Intervals, left-turn restrictions, raised crosswalks and improved visibility at crosswalks are some of the many pedestrian safety recommendations from a recent audit of upper Connecticut Avenue.

Proposed treatment at Veazey Terrace. Click for PDF.

IONA Senior Services and Murch Elementary's Safe Routes to School Program partnered to create Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Action. CAPA raised funds, including a grant from the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, to hire Toole Design to create recommendations that would inform DDOT and other stakeholders of the community's priorities.

As part of the assessment process, Toole and CAPA recruited and trained 80 volunteers to audit current conditions at 156 crossings and 160 street corners along the corridor in the past few months. In addition, the team received 652 survey responses, hosted four community meetings and received over 200 comments on an online map.

The section of Connecticut Avenue under study, from the bridge over Rock Creek Park to Chevy Chase Circle, runs for 3.28 miles through through five neighborhoods. From curb-to-curb, the street is approximately 60 feet wide for most of its length. It includes 43 blocks and 44 intersections; 26 of the intersections are signalized and 18 are unsignalized.

As a result of this outreach and audit process, the team learned that top concerns for pedestrians included turning vehicles, traffic speeds, insufficient time to cross, mid-block crossings, visibility and ADA accessibility. For motorists, top concerns included poor visibility at crossing locations and a lack of dedicated turn lanes.

Although the final report is not yet available, Toole's Bill Schultheiss gave a sneak peek of many of the planned recommendations at a meeting on Saturday.

At numerous locations along the corridor, Toole recommends bulb-outs to slow turning traffic and reduce the distance pedestrians must cross. The plan also recommends the elimination of the slip lane from southbound Connecticut Avenue to Veazey Terrace. The slip lane from northbound Nebraska Avenue to southbound Connecticut Avenue would be narrowed and redesigned to include a raised crosswalk.

Many crosswalks along Connecticut Avenue have push-call buttons that require a pedestrian to press a button to request a crossing phase. Toole recommends eliminating many of these buttons in favor of signals that automatically include a pedestrian phase. Where push-call buttons remain, it recommends replacing them with newer models that inform a pedestrian when the button has been pressed by emitting a small noise and light.

Toole also recommends instituting a Leading Pedestrian Interval, perhaps first during off-peak hours, at many intersections to give pedestrians a head-start on crossing the street before turning traffic. The elimination of visual and movement barriers at crosswalks by installing advanced stop lines and moving poorly-placed bus shelters, newspaper boxes and parking zones that are too close to crosswalks are also key recommendations.

One recommendation that might do as much to ease the nerves of drivers as those of pedestrians is the proposed elimination of many uncontrolled left turns, especially when it would require crossing four lanes of traffic. Drivers, already busy looking for a gap in four lanes of moving traffic, are often not concentrating on the pedestrian who may have just entered the sidewalk. By reducing the number of places where these left turns can be made, it would improve pedestrian safety but perhaps increase traffic on those roads where left turns are permitted.

Although this is not an official DDOT plan, it aims to inform official plans that may come down the road. Toole estimates that it would cost appoximately $1 million to install the recommended curb ramps, curb extensions, signs and markings along the entire corridor. It would cost $1.5 million to signalize all 6 currently unsignalized intersections that have bus stops, and it would cost $3 million to signalize (perhaps with HAWK signals) all 12 crosswalks that currently are not signalized.

While this plan is more about putting forth a vision and less about project implementation, there are opportunities to advocate for implementation of these pedestrian recommendations. Tonight at 6:30 at the Chevy Chase Community Center, DDOT is hosting a public meeting of the Rock Creek West II Livability Study, which includes reconstruction of the intersections of Connecticut Avenue with Northampton Street and Nebraska Avenue. If you live in the area, show up and let DDOT know what pedestrian improvements would make you feel safer on this busy corridor.


On the calendar: Lincoln Park CaBi tonight, tons Wednesday

There's no need to stay home Wednesday evening, since at least five fascinating and/or important events are vying for your time. First, tonight is the showdown over placing a Capital Bikeshare station at Lincoln Park.

Photo by Rukasu1 on Flickr.

ANC 6A, which covers the area northeast of the park, is meeting tonight to discuss the controversy over placing a station in the area.

The meeting starts at 7 pm in the Community Room of the Capitol Hill Towers, 900 G St, NE. If you live in the neighborhood, be there to make sure the ANC, DDOT, and other neighbors hear your voice. We've criticized DDOT for simply assuming a few complaints reflect the broader community; now we need to make sure DDOT actually hears the broader community.

There are four of Vince Gray's town halls left, Tuesday in Columbia Heights, Thursday in Barry Farm, next Tuesday in that area that few agree what to call it, the part of 14th Street north of Spring Road, and next Wednesday on H Street.

And Wednesday is a community meeting extravaganza. I wish I could split myself into five people that night.

The Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground will discuss their plans to turn the old trolley tunnels under Dupont Circle into a performance and exhibition space. Up the Red Line, DDOT will discuss pedestrian and bicycle safety in their Rock Creek West II Livability study.

In the aforementioned hard-to-name 14th Street neighborhood, the Office of Planning will talk about revitalizing retail. And farther east, the Historic Preservation Office, HPO, and Councilmember Muriel Bowser will discuss the Takoma Theatre, a landmark that's become a controversial flashpoint on historic preservation versus development debates.

If the federal sphere is more your thing, NCPC is hosting White House officials to talk about how agencies are responding to President Obama's directive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. GSA has done a lot; I'd like someone to ask why the Park Service, which ought to be one of the greenest agencies, isn't pulling its weight.

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