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, 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.
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.