Residents of the North Portal Estates neighborhood thought they were getting a nice, new street reconstruction, including sidewalks to keep themselves and their children safe. That is, until one politically-connected resident intervened personally with Mayor Fenty. Now, DDOT has just finished reconstructing several main streets in the neighborhood as wide roads for cars to speed, without protection for pedestrians heading to work, school and stores.
North Portal Estates is DC’s northernmost neighborhood, nestled into the northern corner of the city where the streets are named for trees and flowers. The neighborhood consists of single-family houses a short walk from Silver Spring, where many residents, such as Katherine Trimble, use Metro to get to work. She walks downhill along Tamarack Street to reach 16th and enter Maryland. Many cars, too, drive downhill, and often at high speed, making many residents feel unsafe in their neighborhood.
In March, DDOT representatives told the neighborhood that sidewalks would be part of the planned reconstruction of Verbena and Tamarack Streets and East Beach Drive. Many residents welcomed this news. Some others, including the leaders of the North Portal Estates Civic Association, argued that the neighborhood doesn’t need sidewalks. DDOT has a policy of installing sidewalks on at least one side of every street when they do a reconstruction.
Soon after, however, pedestrian advocates learned that DDOT had dropped the sidewalks on direct orders from Mayor Fenty. According to sources within DDOT, a politically influential resident affiliated with the civic association asked the Mayor to delete the sidewalks. Without any official public notice, DDOT made the change. The crews have just wrapped up their work, finishing the curbs without sidewalks and repaving the streets. Residents will have to dodge speeding cars for decades more until it’s time again to redo those streets.
Sidewalks should be a part of every street reconstruction. Even in more suburban parts of the city, people walk, and our street designs should encourage them to. Where neighborhoods have no sidewalks, the streets are almost always plenty wide to add sidewalks on at least one side without shrinking anyone’s front yards or destroying trees.
Last year, Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill to require sidewalks on at least one side of every street when DDOT reconstructs a street. The Council didn’t act on the bill last year, because DDOT assured them it already had a policy in place. Now that we know the Mayor will waive the policy for friends, it’s time to pass the bill. The Council is holding a hearing this afternoon on this year’s version.
However, the draft bill still leaves too much wiggle room for exceptions based on politics. It lets DDOT “issue a finding that it is impractical or unnecessary to install a sidewalk if the Director determines that the physical site conditions would make it impossible or unduly expensive to construct the required sidewalk, or if it would lead nowhere and would be highly unlikely to serve any pedestrians.” That’s a loophole big enough to drive a road crew through.
Instead, the bill should set specific, objective standards for those situations where a project may continue without sidewalks. Those standards could factor in the zoning classification (commercial street should always have sidewalks), the street classification (collector streets should always have sidewalks), the number of residences (even more than a handful is enough), and whether a street is dead-end or is near a school or park.
The bill should also require public notice and hearings before any project proceeds without sidewalks. If DDOT fails to meet these standards, the bill should prohibit spending any money on the project. It’s too bad DC laws need such clear measures, but as we’ve seen from inclusionary zoning or fire trucks on cable TV, Mayor Fenty has shown few qualms about flouting the expressly stated wishes of the DC Council.