DC is beginning a study of the roads, sidewalks, and travel patterns along Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park. Some neighbors hope to take this opportunity to restore the original, wide sidewalks in the commercial strip which were torn up and turned into a parking lot in 1962.

The original sidewalk, shown here in 1949, was destroyed a few years later to create the “service lane” that we still have today. Image from the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Cleveland Park’s sidewalks gave way to parking lots

Just over 50 years ago, Cleveland Park’s “main street” along Connecticut Avenue had broad, graceful sidewalks on both sides lined with grocery stores, hairdressers, confectioners, and drugstores. But the whole country was redesigning its built environment to make it easier for people to get around in automobiles.

Cleveland Park, home to one of the country’s earliest strip malls, the “Park and Shop,” was no exception. The streetcar closed, and the neighborhood became increasingly car-dependent.

The neighborhood was more successful than some in resisting the onslaught of asphalt: In the early 1960s, citizens successfully fought off plans to run a freeway down Reno Road.

But in 1962, a local merchant on the east side of Connecticut persuaded the city to replace the sidewalk in front of his liquor store with a parking lot. It reduced the sidewalk to 4 feet and turned the rest into 20-odd parking spots and an access lane. On the Uptown Theater side, the original graceful sidewalk is still in place, but across the street, the infamous “service lane” remains one of DC’s strangest traffic configurations.

Residents want their sidewalks back

There have long been calls within the neighborhood to restore the sidewalk to its original state. Neighbors point out that the service lane configuration is unsafe and unpleasant for pedestrians. The sidewalk isn’t even wide enough for two wheelchairs, or two strollers, to pass each other. Families walking to the Zoo are forced into the service lane, where cars often speed through to catch the green light at the end.

This video from the Washington City Paper shows the difficulty of walking along the sidewalk:

A restored sidewalk would be just as appealing as the ones across the street, which are pleasant and accommodating, with park benches, tree boxes, bike racks, sidewalk cafés, and plenty of space for people to walk.

In 2010, volunteers formed Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Action (CAPA) to audit pedestrian safety in the area. Councilmember Mary Cheh allocated $1.5 million for streetscape improvements, and CAPA held a community forum to gather input from citizens on their vision for the corridor. One of their recommendations was to use part of the streetscape money to study alternatives for the service lane.

Meanwhile, over 700 people signed a petition to “Restore the Connecticut Avenue Boulevard.” A poll held on the Cleveland Park listserv came out 2-to-1 in favor of closing the service lane and restoring the sidewalk. But realistically, the city couldn’t do anything until the proposed transportation and parking study took place.

Three years later, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has finally launched the study. Led by landscape design and urban planning firm Rhodeside & Harwell, it will create a blueprint for transportation planning along this stretch of Connecticut Avenue for years to come.

We don’t know what the study will propose. In an ideal world we could have the sidewalk and the parking spaces too. While there are some potential alternatives, as a practical matter, the only realistic options are to leave the space as it is today, or to simply restore the sidewalk to the way it was originally designed and built.

We have a choice

If you were in Cleveland Park in June, you might have noticed yellow-vested workers standing around, intently watching an intersection or a sidewalk, with a high-tech counting machine in hand. Or someone with a clipboard might have approached you to ask about your transportation, shopping, and dining habits.

These researchers are collecting data on how people use Connecticut Avenue. Do they walk or bike? Take Metro? Drive? If they drive, do they park in the paid lot, in the metered spots, or in the neighborhood? How many different establishments will they visit? What would make them more likely to come?

Once the people in the fluorescent vests have finished their counting and the urban landscape designers have drawn their diagrams, we will still have to decide what kind of future we want for Cleveland Park. Do we want our “Main Street” to be the kind of place where people drive up, run an errand, and drive away? Or do we want it to be a place where people actually want to be?

There are plenty of examples of the drive-and-go model. But there are also beautiful urban spaces where people come and linger because the space is lovely and appealing and interesting and accommodating to human beings. We have an opportunity now to restore this vital piece of the Connecticut Avenue boulevard to its original state. Let’s not let it slip away. 

The consulting team will host a series of three public workshops where they will discuss the objectives of the study and seek input from citizens. The first will be Wednesday, July 17th, 6:30 pm at the 2nd District Police Station, 3320 Idaho Avenue NW. If you want to have a voice in the future of this commercial corridor, please attend and speak up!

You can also sign this petition to ask our elected representatives to restore the sidewalk to its historic state.

Herb Caudill lives in Cleveland Park with his wife, Lynne, and two young boys. He has lived in DC since 1995; he taught math as a Peace Corps volunteer in West and Central Africa, and currently runs DevResults, a web-based mapping and data management tool for foreign aid projects.