14th and U has some of DC’s heaviest pedestrian traffic, but recently, a fence suddenly stopped people from walking along this heavily traveled corridor. Developer JBG says they want a walkway, but DDOT’s policy won’t allow it. What’s going on?

A girl walks in the street along 14th St. Photos by the author.

JBG recently began demolishing several buildings on the southwest corner of 14th & U Streets, NW to prepare to build of a major, mixed-use project. The sidewalk on the west side of 14th Street abruptly closed, with a fence blocking it off for more than half the block.

The 14th Street corridor has endured near-constant construction for several years now. Other projects have included varying types of temporary walkways, from bare-bones plastic jersey barriers to lit, covered scaffolding. When construction activities have required closing the sidewalk altogether it generally been for only a day, if not hours, at a time. Why not here?

No sidewalk during raze

Eric Fidler posed the question to DDOT, and an inspector gave this response:

The sidewalk is closed and pedestrians are routed across the roadway in accordance with DDOT’s Pedestrian Safety and Work Zone Standards. This policy provides a matrix for what methods of pedestrian access are the most appropriate based on the phase of construction. In this case the project is undergoing raze. During raze activities the sidewalk is to be closed with pedestrians routed across the street.

Raze is a short period, typically lasting a few weeks to just more than a month. After this phase the sidewalk is to be opened or a pedestrian walkway is to be provided. It is DDOT’s goal to maintain the pedestrian path on both sides of a roadway and will only allow the closure when it is unsafe to maintain it or when the work requires that the sidewalk be closed (e.g. during sidewalk construction).

It’s true that DDOT’s guidelines recommend closing the sidewalk during the raze. But is that appropriate? A raze doesn’t mean dynamiting the building so it just collapses. Workers spend most of the raze period carefully removing materials, mostly from the interior and rear of the block.

Large pieces of concrete swing into place just overhead.

Meanwhile, many active sites around the city long past the raze stage pose far more potential danger to pedestrians than sites razing existing structures. A few blocks north on 14th Street, a large 11-story building is being constructed with a covered walkway along part of the frontage, and an in-street, open walkway along the rest.

Recently, tower cranes have been lifting multi-ton sections of preformed concrete into place, frequently swinging directly above the pedestrians walking below. What about that poses less danger than a one-story brick facade being knocked down on the interior of a block?

When closing a block, especially where there are open businesses on either side, a large percentage of pedestrians will still ignore the signs and walk through along the fencing. By closing the sidewalk altogether under the auspices that any pedestrian accommodations would be dangerous, it creates a far more dangerous situation. Not only do people still have to walk past the construction entrance, they’re doing so in traffic.

Mid-block closures also harm remaining businesses on either side because of the reduced foot traffic from those people that do cross the street. Even where an entire block is closed, businesses on the same side of the street on adjacent blocks likely see a drop in foot traffic. Having been forced to cross, people generally continue walking on the opposite side of the street if the light permits.

While the weekdays produce a lot of foot traffic, the weekends are even busier, and would benefit most from a temporary walkway. Yet, on the past few weekends (and even occasionally during the week), cars could park in the curbside lane, which is used for receiving during the week. Pedestrians still had to walk in the street.

On the weekend, cars park in the loading zone, leaving a woman and her stroller in the bike lane.

If this lane is only needed for construction activities some of the time, it should be a walkway the rest of the time, not parking spaces. If DDOT and JBG can get pedestrians out of traffic for even 30% of the week, that would be a major safety improvement.

Access creates complications

The situation at 14th & U is complicated because the strangely shaped parcel is difficult to access. The project is mostly mid-block, so it can’t receive trucks and stage materials from a side street.

Alley residents are adamantly opposed to the construction company using the alley. There are several alley dwellings immediately behind the site. Many people in that ANC opposed the use of T Street for construction. As a result, the construction company can only receive trucks and materials from 14th Street. All the other projects along 14th are staging along a side street or in an adjacent alley.

JBG says they have been trying to work with DDOT to create an alternative pedestrian path. DDOT officials, however, insist that there is no safe option because the construction site entrance and staging area are on 14th Street.

A JBG spokesman said that DDOT will not let them open a pedestrian path because of this staging issue on 14th Street. JBG is still considering two alternatives, neither of which is ideal:

  • Cut down two street trees and create a path in the treebox zone. There would still be issues since they would have to allow trucks and materials to cross the pathway. Trucks will be received in the parking lane as currently planned.
  • Receive trucks in the parking lane, since there is nowhere else for them, and convert the bike lane to a pedestrian path.

While JBG’s comments imply that DDOT opposes a walkway even during construction phases, DDOT’s John Lisle denied that was the case. “A walkway will be provided after the razing period precisely because there is so much construction in the area,” Lisle said.

Trucks turning into an alley or side street at construction sites elsewhere on 14th Street pose just as much a danger to pedestrians as those that will enter an exit the JBG site at mid-block. But DDOT hasn’t closed R or Swann Streets because of the danger to people on foot.

JBG should be able to use the parking lane or sidewalk for a temporary walkway and establish a site entrance along 14th Street. They should be required to mark it very clearly, and pedestrians and construction workers should both treat it as an intersection.

Instead of being a roadblock, DDOT needs to encourage a developer that wants to accommodate all of the road users and take responsibility for everyone’s safety at their site. Preserving traffic lanes and neighbors’ peace and quiet is important, but so is providing safe, reasonable accommodations for pedestrians.