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Public Spaces


Sidewalk shoveling Hall of Shame: Snochi edition

After two storms in one day, the DC area is finally beginning to dig out. But some are clearing their sidewalks faster than others and, in some cases, making the sidewalks harder to use.


Photo by Leslie McGorman.

In Mount Pleasant, reader Leslie McGorman writes in about a church under renovation whose sidewalks are completely covered in snow and ice. "Despite the fact that there is construction/renovation occurring, people still use this building," she notes. "As such, they should get their asses outside with a shovel."


Photo by Leslie McGorman.

While taking his daughter for a walk today, David Alpert found the uncleared sidewalks near his house especially difficult to manage with a stroller:


The sidewalk in front of a condo under renovation near Dupont Circle. Photo by David Alpert.
Most houses on my block had shoveled, with just a couple of exceptions. Some of the large apartment/condo buildings at the corners had a layer of ice and some didn't; I think though that the ones facing south seemed more clear, probably because the sun has warmed it enough to easily get the ice up.

A slushy corner. Photo by David Alpert.
The worst part was at the corners, where they were all thick slush. Plows had evidently cleared the roads but left a large area, like 5 feet, for pedestrians to cross. A few businesses seem to have cleared their corners, but not most.

The sidewalk in front of Stead Park was a sheet of ice. It looks like it had been shoveled after the first big snow but then not after the 2nd, and then people walking on P Street flattened it into ice. It's too bad that one of the worst spots to walk with a child was past the park!

And in Silver Spring, Kathy Jentz took a video of a mini-digger outside her home on Fenton Street near Montgomery College piling snow on the sidewalk:
Bobcat earth movers are piling huge mounds of snow onto my sidewalk and my immediate neighbors. Who is going to clear this for the thousands if commuters and college students who use that public sidewalk daily? I am so angry!!!!!

Luckily, today's warm temperatures mean that much of the snow will melt, though we may get even more late tonight. Many parts of our region received over a foot of snow this week, but that's no excuse not to clear your sidewalks. It's required by law within eight hours of a storm in the District. Alexandria, Arlington, and Montgomery County will give you 24 hours, while Prince George's County requires it within 48 hours.

How are the sidewalks where you are?

Sustainability


Plans for a sidewalk and bike lane get caught on trees

While a proposed sidewalk and bike lane on Broad Branch Road has community support, possible damage to trees has sparked opposition. But it's unclear why these particular trees are worth saving.


Alternative 4 includes a sidewalk and bike lane, but would impact more trees. All images from DDOT unless noted.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and engineering firm Parsons have developed three alternatives to rebuild the deteriorated road for an Environmental Assessment. Numerous problems make reconstruction necessary: a collapsed culvert, deteriorating roadbeds, and undergrade that is crumbling into the adjacent stream, which is ecologically dead from runoff.


Alternative 2 only has room for cars, but would hurt fewer trees.

Alternative 2, costing $29 million, will rebuild only the road, adding retaining walls and stormwater retention swales. Alternative 3, for $34 million, would also include a sidewalk, while Alternative 4 adds a sidewalk and a 3-foot bike lane on the northbound, uphill side of the road, at a cost of $37 million. But it could also impact up to 460 trees, 175 more than if the road was simply rebuilt.

Environmental groups don't want to give up trees for a sidewalk

Alternate 4 is the only configuration that connects the neighborhood to Rock Creek Park. Currently, residents either have to face a hostile road or drive to appreciate the extraordinary woodland. Rebuilding the route with a sidewalk will allow residents to take advantage of the park without having to find parking.

Additionally, an uphill climbing lane would make cycling, either for recreation or commuting, significantly easier. What makes Broad Branch essential as a bike and pedestrian route is that it was originally designed for non-motorized transportation. The gentle grade and tree shade matter much more for people moving under their own power.


Alternative 3 adds a sidewalk, but no bike lane.

That's why ANC3F, which represents almost all of Broad Branch, unanimously supported bicycle and pedestrian access, as well as the best possible stormwater management. Tenley-Friendship ANC3E praised it. ANC3G voted to support Alternate 4. Testimony at the November 15th public meeting overwhelmingly supported the multimodal design.

But a number of organizations ostensibly committed to sustainability have come out in opposition to that option, primarily because of the loss of trees. DDOT's environmental assessment counts between 285 and 460 trees of at least four inches in diameter as "impacted," meaning that at least 30% of their root structure would be damaged.

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Casey Trees, and Commission on Fine Arts member Thomas Luebke have objected both to the loss of trees and loss of a "rural" look. One person at a recent presentation said she wasn't so "macho" as to be above driving into the park, if it saved trees. Another compared the 2-lane road to the Center Leg Freeway. On twitter, one critic called Ward 3 Vision's endorsement of Alternate 4 "anthropocentric."

I like trees. Joyce Kilmer likes trees. Everyone likes trees. But if we perpetuate auto-dependent appreciation of the park so as to not risk 175 specimens of unknown quality, then we are literally missing the forest for the trees.

What is a tree good for?

The reason for saving these trees is unclear. Is it for the enjoyment of residents? The environmental benefits for humans? Is it to preserve a tree as an element of the natural world? In all three cases, building the path and the bike lane would bring more lasting ecological benefits.

To preserve an environment for its own sake is to treat it as wilderness, where humans have no more impact than other animals. In a wilderness, the tree fills many niches as part of a larger ecosystem.

The National Park Service defines "wilderness" as the lack of motor vehicles and permanent structures. A paved road frequented by commuters, flanked by houses, and altered by two centuries of use definitely does not qualify.


Broad Branch Road with the Italian Ambassador's Residence gatehouse in the background. Photo by the author.

Critics of Smart Growth see urbanization as environmental degradation, but in the aggregate, densification protects rural and wild environments by using land more efficiently, especially as runoff from roads is the most pollutant-laden kind. However, as the Sierra Club's Kaid Benfield points out, density has its drawbacks in issues of air quality, aesthetics, and volume of water pollution.

Parks like Rock Creek counteract that effect. The "smart" in Smart Growth is striking the balance between those ecological effects globally as well as locally. On Broad Branch itself, the harm from damaged trees weighs against health gains from more activity, lowered vehicle emissions, and modern runoff infrastructure.

Plus, users would actually be able to stop and enjoy the beauty of the valley. It might no longer have the "country road" aesthetic Luebke praises, but it could take on any number of looks that have worked for metropolitan parks elsewhere. Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons, who designed Rock Creek Park, knew that a roadway could complement and frame the landscape, if it is well designed.

Cladding the retaining walls in stone, as the environmental assessment indicates, is a good step in getting good quality. However, where the design requires stream-side walls, using metal railings like the ones used on the Mission 66 bridges nearby would reduce the visual impact. Using dark stone set in dark mortar would make the uphill walls more discrete.

Controls to cut down reckless driving, like speed bumps and cameras are worth considering. A proposed T-intersection at Brandywine, with added stop signs on Broad Branch, would discourage speeding around that dangerous corner. Finally, DDOT should replant trees wherever feasible, with native species.

There are also a number of other projects in the area. Project managers should coordinate with the Soapstone Valley sewer replacement, 27th Street bridge reconstruction, and work with utilities to bury the overhead lines along the road.

Broad Branch Road has some very beautiful moments. A redesign that sensitively opens it to the broadest public will make the city more livable while making it easier to have a light impact on on the natural world.

Pedestrians


Neighbors unite to tackle slippery sidewalks

Fed up with the slippery, dangerous sidewalks in their neighborhood, Glover Park residents took matters into their own hands and came together to de-ice Calvert Street.


Before (left) and after (right) neighbors on Calvert Street cleared the ice from the sidewalks on Calvert Street. Photos by Rebecca Johnson.

After last week's snowfall, we highlighted a "Hall of Shame" of residents, businesses, public agencies, and even embassies who neglected to clear their sidewalks. As the snow melted and refroze, the unkempt walks became a nasty, slippery sheet of ice.

In Glover Park, no one knew whom to call and report the slippery sidewalks. So one enterprising resident issued a call to arms to her neighbors to clear them.

Rebecca Johnson went on the neighborhood's listserv and asked volunteers to meet her Saturday morning to clear Calvert Street from 39th Street to Wisconsin Avenue. A group of seven volunteers showed up, and along the way, some college students came out and joined them.

It would be nice if homeowners and landlords took responsibility for the sidewalks in front of their properties. But it was nice to see the community come together and make their streets safer.

Pedestrians


One resident really knows how to clear the sidewalk

Uncleared sidewalks are a serious problem in urban areas, but snow makes suburban areas even more impassable on foot. Unless you happen to live near Richard Hoye, who has an actual motorized vehicle to plow sidewalks himself where nobody else will do it.


Photos by Richard Hoye.

Suburban arterial streets can be dangerous to walk on even on clear, dry days, but there's really no consensus about how to clear them for pedestrians after a storm.

Fairfax County closed schools for 3 days partly because students who walk to school couldn't do so safely.

Evan Montgomery-Recht, who lives in Montgomery County, wrote in to the county to ask,

Who is responsible for snow removal on sidewalks along public land or where there is not a clear homeowner or HOA responsible ... I'm specifically referring to Tuckerman Lane, Old Georgetown (including over the 270 spur) and Rockville Pike where there are sidewalks that are actively utilized even in cold weather. Including those who walk to the Grosvenor Metro Station.

I ask as both last year and this year there has been no clearing of the sidewalks. ... Part of the reason I ask because when I lived in MA the towns and counties were responsible for clearing when there was not a clear owner (and yes they would clear them, actually pretty impressive when you realized that all the sidewalks were walkable within 24 hours even when there were many inches of snow.)

Timothy Serrano of the Montgomery DOT's Division of Highway Services replied:
Regrettably, The Department of Transportation is not able to clear sidewalks. We have neither the equipment nor the workforce resources that effort would require. We do rely on residents to be good neighbors and to follow the requirements of the County Code that requires residents and commercial entities to clear the public sidewalks adjacent to their properties.
Hoye, who also knew the county wouldn't do it, decided to take a part of the matter into his own hands, and bought this vehicle, known as "mini-skid steer," to clear part of Old Georgetown Road, where he lives:

Hoye writes,

I bought this slightly used mini-skid steer about a year ago to accomplish a range of tasks. A primary goal was to be able to clear snow from the public sidewalk along Old Georgetown Road from downtown Bethesda to the NIH/Suburban Hospital campuses. I live along that section. My side of 5 Lane Old Georgetown Road has the sidewalk next to the curb.

My mini-skid steer equipped with plow or hydraulic rotary broom is perfect for sidewalks. I'm able to keep up with the snow plows that push the snow back up on a just cleared sidewalk and ram the snow into piles blocking the ADA ramps at street corners.

The machine and accessories has set me back well over $25,000. Hard to justify until you see people walking in the dark, icy street on this major pedestrian route. I got more encouragement a few years ago from our Director of Transportation, who said to one of the County Executive's appointees to to the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee, "I don't do sidewalks."

The DOT should do sidewalks. Since it doesn't, it's good for people who walk on Old Georgetown that Hoye does do them.

Pedestrians


Sidewalk snow clearing Hall of Shame

Around the city and region, a lot of sidewalks are clear, and a lot aren't. Where they aren't, in many cases the snow is now packed down into a sheet of ice, making walking very treacherous.

I asked readers to send in photos and reports of the problem areas along their commutes. Steve Mothershead, who walks along Martin Luther King Avenue, SE to the Anacostia Metro in the mornings, says most of the sidewalks are not clear:


Photos by Steve Mothershead.

He wrote:

Most of the sidewalks have not been touched, except for the one next to the school. Most of the churches have not touched the sidewalks in front of their properties, and of course the sidewalks in front of the abandoned buildings that the city seems to refuse to do anything with haven't been addressed. This is a highly traveled section of sidewalk and I saw many children on their way to school having trouble walking. Some people were even opting to walk on busy MLK.
Jason Broehm and Robin Swirling both reported problems in Columbia Heights, with the large plaza at 14th and Park, and nearby at 14th and Newton:


Photos by Jason Broehm (top) and Robin Swirling (bottom).

Randall Myers reports Freedom Plaza a sheet of ice as of last night. That one is the Park Service's responsibility.


Photo by Randall Myers.

In Dupont Circle, the bridge for Q Street to the Metro (the DC government's responsibility) has a decent cleared path, but as you can see from the fact that more snow is packed down on either side, it's not wide enough for times of heavier foot traffic.

If you needed a reason to like Argentina more than Botswana, the Argentine embassy cleared their corner of Q and New Hampshire, while the Embassy of Botswana did not. (The Botswanans do have much more sidewalk on 3 sides, though.)

Also in Dupont, Joe Manfre writes,

I don't have a picture, but that Scientology building at the corner of 16th and P has been really bad about clearing the walk on the long, long side of their building along P Street (as opposed to the short frontage along 16th).
There are plenty of homeowners who haven't cleared sidewalks either, but the biggest problem is large institutions. They have more sidewalk, and unlike with an individual homeowner who might be 75 with back problems, foreign governments, the District government, the National Park Service, and large corporate apartment buildings ought to be able to fulfill this civic duty.

Development


Good design, lots of parking at Wheaton's tallest building

Last month, downtown Wheaton got a new Safeway, complete with 17 floors of apartments on top. While the new building gives Wheaton a skyline, it also has a lot of above-ground parking and blank walls, making the surrounding streets less inviting to pedestrians.


The Exchange, a new apartment building with a ground-level Safeway, towers over downtown Wheaton. All photos by the author.

Downtown Wheaton is having a residential boom, with 900 apartments in various stages of construction. Over half of them are in the Exchange, which is located across from the Metro station at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive and has a Safeway on its ground floor.

It's one of several residential projects with supermarkets being built around the region. Representatives from developer Patriot Realty says they were inspired by the Safeway with housing above at CityVista in Mount Vernon Square. There's also a Safeway with apartments above being built in Petworth, and a Giant with housing recently opened at the old O Street Market in Shaw.

Wheaton is one of the highest points in Montgomery County, and placing an 17-story building on top means it can be seen for miles in each direction. The county's plan for Wheaton calls for many more buildings like the Exchange, but for now it towers over the downtown's one- and two-story strip malls. And it fills most of a city block, meaning it faces not one, but three streets.


Seen from Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the Exchange (left) looks like three smaller towers. The Computer Building is on the right.

Baltimore-based architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht tried to visually reduce the building's mass by making each wing look like a separate "tower." From many points in downtown Wheaton, it actually does resemble a cluster of small, thin towers.

It works well with the other buildings on Georgia Avenue that are being built or were built a few years ago. The Exchange's "towers" pair nicely with the Computer Building, an office building one block away that's being converted into a 14-story apartment tower. Together, they create an interesting rhythm with the two other mid-rise buildings on the same block, which were built in the mid-2000's, and the six-story Solaire Wheaton across the street, which will open later this month.

Of course, the Exchange also has ground-floor retail, unlike all of those other buildings. The Safeway and an attached Starbucks have lots of big windows facing Georgia Avenue and even an outdoor patio with seating, which will likely attract people and make the sidewalks active when it's warm out.


New, ample sidewalks along Georgia Avenue have outdoor seating.

But the building's structured parking garages threaten to undermine all of the good design features it has. The "towers" sit atop a podium containing several stories of parking for residents. The Safeway sits below that, at street level, and below it is another parking garage for grocery shoppers. Together, the parking garage and Safeway are about as tall as the mid-rise MetroPointe apartments next door.

Montgomery County's zoning code requires lots of parking in new apartment buildings, even when they're literally across the street from a Metro station. Underground parking can be really expensive to build and the foundation could have impacted the Metro station, even though it's one of the world's deepest. So the developer chose to put some of it above ground, and some below.

That means if you stand in front of the Safeway and look up, you see several floors of dark "windows" meant to make the parking garage blend with the apartments above. Around the corner on Reedie Drive, people leaving the Metro pass blank walls. The building's on a steep hill, so you're walking next to the parking garage, not the Safeway. If there wasn't so much parking, there could have been some small shops here instead.


The Exchange turns its back on Fern Street and Veterans Park.

Turn the corner again to Fern Street and there's basically six stories of blank wall facing Veterans Park: loading docks and shopper parking at the street level (it's set into the hill, so you can't see it from Georgia); the double-height windows of the Safeway, all of which are papered over; and three stories of resident parking.

Urban parks should have buildings with entrances and windows and storefronts facing them, which give people a reason to visit the park and provide "eyes on the street" that make it safer. There's already a public parking garage on one side of the park, and it's disappointing that the designers and developers didn't take the opportunity to do something different, or that Montgomery County didn't make them.

It's likely that many residents won't bring cars to the Exchange given its proximity to Metro and location in a walkable neighborhood. If the developer had been able to build less parking, there may have been more opportunities to shape the building's mass to make it feel even less bulky. And there may not have been as many blank walls. There could actually be apartments and shops looking out onto Veterans Park.

Montgomery County's working on a new zoning code that would demand less parking near transit, but it's too late for this building. It's unfortunate, because the Exchange sits on a really prominent site in downtown Wheaton. It's also the first high-rise to be built there, meaning it will set the tone for decades of future development.

In some ways, the Exchange is a good precedent for the projects to come. But it may also be a cautionary tale, showing developers what not to do.

Pedestrians


Sidewalks aren't just for walking

On narrow sidewalks, there's often a tension between different users and activities. But sidewalks in an urban place need to make room for people to do more than just walk through.


Pedestrians shuffle through the sidewalk on Bethesda Avenue. All photos by the author.

On Black Friday, I went to the Apple Store in Bethesda Row to get my computer checked out. Though the area is a really popular destination for shopping and dining, the sidewalks are surprisingly narrow, and seemingly designed to make walking difficult and unpleasant.

Here's the sidewalk two doors down from the Apple Store on Bethesda Avenue. Next to the curb, there's a row of big, mature street trees in large, fenced-off planters. Where the buildings step back, there's also a little seating area with some benches.

The level of the street falls about a foot here, meaning the seating area is actually below the sidewalk. So there's a brick wall around the benches, just in case anyone falls.

That leaves about four feet for the actual sidewalk, which becomes a narrow channel between the storefronts and the brick wall. Since it's also on an incline, there's a railing to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, blocking off about a foot of sidewalk between the railing and the storefronts.


The woman in the red coat is about to walk into a railing.

On a busy day, or frankly on any day when people are outside, you can watch folks struggle to pass each other through this slalom course: shoppers with bags, parents with strollers, or groups of friends chatting. They look down to avoid eye contact, form a single-file line, or swivel their bodies to squeeze through. The sidewalk discourages strolling or lingering here, which is part of the attraction of Bethesda Row.

Given, this is right across from Bethesda Lane, a pedestrian-only street. And Bethesda Avenue itself is a pretty narrow and slow-moving street, which is much nicer to walk along than Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, where the sidewalks are similarly pedestrian-hostile but there's far more car traffic.

But it still shows what happens when designers and engineers don't really think about the experience of walking through a place. Bethesda Row has most of the pieces to be a great place to hang out and gather, and most of the time it works really well. But poorly-designed sidewalks make it hard to enjoy being here.

Public Spaces


New sidewalk shows tension between people and trees

The sidewalk on the east side of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring just got a makeover, with new brick pavers and street trees. But will it have enough room for everyone who wants to use it?


New brick sidewalks and street trees on Georgia Avenue. All photos by the author unless noted.

Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) managed the $650,000 project, which began this summer and lasted about five months. The agency's main goal was to level and lower the sidewalk to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It replaced the existing concrete sidewalk, built in the 1980s, with sturdier and more attractive brick pavers, and created large new bumpouts at some intersections.

The new sidewalk is very attractive and will hopefully encourage visitors and shoppers to stray from the Ellsworth Drive strip and check out the businesses on Georgia. But it also reveals the tension between different users on Silver Spring's often-cramped sidewalks.

DHCA also removed all of the mature Zelkova trees along Georgia, arguing that the sidewalk reconstruction would disturb the trees and kill them. The new trees are Princeton or Lacebark Elm trees, which will apparently improve the visibility of shops and restaurants from the street.


The old sidewalks on Georgia last year.

The old sidewalks had trees in tree grates, allowing room that businesses could put out tables and chairs and leave enough sidewalk for people to walk past comfortably. But the new trees now sit in long, wide planter boxes with little gaps in between for street lights or people getting out of parked cars.

This isn't the only place in downtown Silver Spring with new planters. The county's Department of Transportation (MCDOT) also installed the same planters along Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, except with three-foot-high hedges. Some planters, like one on Fenton Street, extend for most of a city block to discourage jaywalking.

In 2009, when planning on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk project started, county-hired arborist Steve Castrogiovanni recommended doing the same thing with the new trees to "strike a [balance] between the trees' needs and the needs of pedestrians." But officials endorsed the bigger planters, saying it would give the trees more soil and help them live longer.


A corner bumpout at Georgia and Silver Spring avenues.

Street trees have a lot of health and environmental benefits. They can provide a feeling of enclosure on a street or sidewalk, calming traffic on busy streets like Georgia Avenue, and making pedestrians feel safer.

However, these planter boxes seem to provide the wrong kind of enclosure. Crowded sidewalks can be a good thing, creating a feeling of excitement and vitality on a city street. But when you push pedestrians and outdoor dining tables into too small a space, it can feel uncomfortable, and people won't want to stick around and spend money.

That's why restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum, who owns Jackie's, Sidebar, and Quarry House Tavern, all on Georgia Avenue, didn't want trees planted on the narrow sidewalk outside her businesses. "THIS WILL ELIMINATE MUCH OF MY PATIO SEATING!" she wrote in a 2010 email to DHCA. "This is NOT an improvement and is unnecessary, even undesirable." In the end, DHCA agreed not to plant any there.

Having healthy street trees and vibrant sidewalks aren't mutually exclusive. DHCA could have still created a bigger soil pit for the trees, giving them room to grow, while putting tree grates or permeable pavers on top, ensuring that there's still enough sidewalk space.


Wider sidewalks mean ample room for walking, for dining, and for nature. Photo by Jim Malone on Flickr.

And if county officials really wanted planters, they could have at least used a more attractive design, like these low, stone planters in NoMa that provide space for trees and plants while staying out of the way. Or they could have looked at a bioswale that cleans and filters stormwater in addition to looking pretty.

The real issue isn't the planters, but that the sidewalks on Georgia Avenue aren't appreciably wider. DHCA's project was simply to make the sidewalks meet ADA regulations.

This sidewalk may not get rebuilt for another 30 years, meaning we've missed an opportunity to have a larger conversation about how Georgia Avenue works. Wider sidewalks mean we wouldn't have to decide between landscaping, walking space, and outdoor seating. They mean we could have added new features, like benches, or a "shared use trail" for cyclists similar to the Green Trail on Wayne Avenue.

Doing this would require taking space for cars, which today constitutes the vast majority of Georgia Avenue, and giving it back to people. While that would probably be bad for drivers passing through, it would ultimately be a good thing for downtown Silver Spring, whose historic main street would become a more attractive, pleasant, and safer place to walk and spend time.

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