Sidewalk of Shame
Connecticut Avenue from Chevy Chase to K Street NW bears some resemblance to a string of pearls: Long, empty stretches with large residential buildings, broken up by vibrant little commercial districts, usually clustered around a Metro station. Mimicking the shape of the streetcar suburbs that trace out from urban centers, most of them are fairly well set up for commerce and street life, featuring broad sidewalks dotted with café tables.
Two pearls north of Dupont Circle, however, there’s an anomaly: the east side of Connecticut Avenue between Ordway and Macomb streets. Instead of a wide pedestrian right-of-way, that stretch has a narrow ledge for pedestrians to stand on, and another lane for deliveries and parking separated from the rest of the avenue by a raised median. Walking along the strip is quite nerve-wracking, with twice as many hurdles to cross from one side of the street to the other. Here there are no sidewalk cafés, no street trees—just people hustling along doing their errands, afraid they might be run over.
Early last year, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh landed $1.5 million for this part of Cleveland Park—not enough to actually make significant changes, but more than enough to spend a lot of time studying it. Thanks to that cash, debate has raged in meetings, on blogs, and over neighborhood email lists over whether the service lane should stay or be converted into a spacious sidewalk.
To the faction that wants to remove the lane, local activists who insist on a comprehensive assessment are just car-brained NIMBYs who’d just as soon see nothing done at all. (And you can imagine the umbrage those activists take at that accusation). The ones clinging to the service lane most determinedly, of course, are the businesses whose customers can now park in one of 30 or so spaces right outside the front door.
“We need more parking, not walking,” says Shahram Shad of Town Jewelers, whose customers often come from Maryland and Virginia. “If they want to help the people, help the parking spaces.”
“I think for a lot of the businesses it would be devastating if there were changes,” adds Susan Linh, owner of a trinket shop called Wake Up Little Suzie and president of the Cleveland Park Business Association. “It’s been functioning for what, 70 years, the way it is.”
Even though restaurants can sling a lot more drinks with a sidewalk café, some eateries—many of which already have pleasant back patios—still say letting their customers park and helping trucks drop off supplies is more important. “What is the point anyway? There’s a huge sidewalk across the street,” says Lavandou owner Florence Devilliers, in a thick French accent. “There’s no parking in this neighborhood! If the service lane closed, it would be even worse.”
Of course the businesses don’t want to give up the service lane. It’s been treated as theirs, for free, for decades. But businesses don’t own the public space outside their storefronts. Nowhere in the Constitution is there a clause protecting your right to park next to the shop where you get your vacuum fixed.
And slowly, the balance is shifting. All over the city, the claim to driving exactly where you need to go is being gradually chipped away: Parking spaces are being filled up with bike racks. Parking-garage taxes are going up 50 percent. Zoning pooh-bahs typically rubber-stamp requests from developers to get out of minimum-parking requirements—which will no longer exist when planned code revisions are finally approved. In an even quicker change, the Zoning Commission recently agreed to forbid parking spaces between storefronts and the sidewalk, effectively preventing the creation of any more suburban-style strip malls.
But preventing more car-centric design in the future isn’t enough. To really create a walking city, the District needs to aggressively reclaim space for pedestrians and bikes that previously had been given over to cars.
Yes, that means getting rid of the Cleveland Park service lane. And maybe some other changes, too.
It’s nice to think that history moves in a linear fashion, trending upward to ever-more enlightened ideas. That’s unfortunately not the case on D.C.’s streets. The Cleveland Park service lane was forged out of a full-bodied sidewalk back in the 1960s, when the automobile was the way of the future. (A few decades later, neighbors also helped kill a large apartment and retail complex that would have added more of a customer base than the one-story strip mall and parking lot that had been built in the 1930s.) Pierre L’Enfant’s avenues and circles were mutilated in other ways as well: North Capitol Street was widened into a high-traffic expressway that obliterated Truxton Circle around 1950. Virginia Avenue, which used to bend around Juarez Circle near the Watergate complex, now plows straight through it. The list goes on.
Restoring these spaces to their original shape in any way that would impede traffic flow could make city life better. But for now, the District Department of Transportation is just focused on restoring the worst of D.C.’s streetscapes to some level of functionality: Widening sidewalks in Adams Morgan and on U Street NW, for example, where late-night revelers spill dangerously into the street. And, it works. The places where DDOT has finished streetscaping, like Barracks Row and H Street NE, have absolutely blossomed (or look like they’re about to).
Improving street life isn’t just about widening sidewalks, though. There are plenty of vast expanses of pedestrian space downtown so empty that you could do cartwheels without kicking anybody in the face. By contrast, the short little strip of stores in Cleveland Park looks quite bustling and bohemian, as do the stores along Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW in Georgetown, where pedestrians are often in as much of a traffic jam as the cars.
The problem with commerce along Connecticut Avenue is often Connecticut Avenue itself: The six-lane-wide road creates too much noise and exhaust for sitting outside to be pleasant. At least the service lane insulates passersby from the speeding cars on the straight-as-an-arrow highway, creating some semblance of a small village street. In an ideal world, it’d be better if Connecticut Avenue weren’t a major commuter route to Maryland.
We can’t move the buildings closer together, though. Basically, we’re stuck with the skeleton we’ve got. What we can do is build as many different bloodstreams into an avenue as possible, making driving less convenient and transit alternatives more convenient in the process. Planners have a name for this kind of design: a “complete street.” In fact, D.C. has a complete-streets policy, which is supposed to encourage building space for all users into its roads. This is a particularly good opportunity for the boulevards that are slotted for streetcars, like 136-feet-wide K Street NW, which has a service lane on both sides. The vision for the new “transitway” includes dedicated space for buses, a trolley, bikes, and no more than two lanes of cars to cross at a time, making it feel narrower, even if the distance is the same.
That concept of layers, or depth, applies to pedestrian space, too. In the best sidewalks, the public realm leaks into the semi-private, as merchants’ wares spill outside their doors, and vendors set up shop near the curb. Passersby stop to chat with café-sitters, and maybe stop for a beer, perhaps thinking that it’s a nicer space than even their own backyard might provide.
There are places in D.C. that come close to that ideal. Pennsylvania Avenue SE, 14th Street NW, parts of Penn Quarter, 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan, and even 12th Street NE in Brookland are all getting there. But there are ways to push it even further. If we were in New York City, a super-empowered transportation commissioner would slap down some green paint and set up café tables to expand the stage for public life. If we were in Zurich, the city would time traffic signals for bikes instead of cars, figuring that the harder it becomes to drive, the more people will simply choose not to. We happen to be in Washington, which means that every change will require more process, politics, and pushiness from the top—but we don’t have to wonder what the end result would look like. It’s happened, and it’s helping to create livable public spaces, in cities around the world.
Cleveland Park should be low-hanging fruit in this whole project: It’s right on top of a Metro station, with comparatively dense housing around it, and there aren’t even bike lanes yet. If people really need to get their vacuum fixed, they’ll find a way to get it there.
To see just how hard it is to walk in the service lane, here's a video by Matt Bevilacqua: