- Bike Lanes,
- Public Space,
- Real Estate,
- The 'wheel' concept at 14th and P Streets NW. (DDOT)
“Fourteenth Street is your street,” Mike Houh told D.C. residents last night. “It’s very difficult for me to come into your house and tell you how the kitchen should look.”
Houh works for Precision Systems, Inc., the D.C. firm contracted to design the new streetscape of 14th Street NW, from Thomas Circle north to Florida Avenue -- a bustling swath of revitalization that’s now among the most critical commercial strips in the city. Last night at the Reeves Center, Houh was soliciting public comments on the plans they’ve developed so far, which the D.C. Department of Transportation says are 65% completed.
Houh was right: Redesigning a premiere artery is no easy task. Although the plans were loaded with the kind of pedestrian- and bike-friendly amenities that 14th Street’s urbanites would cheer, there were certainly a few head-scratchers sprinkled throughout DDOT’s 25-page presentation of the current plans. And hey, this is the future 14th Street we’re talking about here.
From a practical perspective, there wasn’t a whole lot to quibble about. Judging from what’s been mocked up so far (which we'll upload later today), the new 14th Street will be a vastly nicer place to walk, bike, drive, shop, and live. The heavy emphasis, as it should be, is on the walking. The sidewalks on each side of the road will be a generous 20 feet. “That’s very wide,” said Allen Yang, a colleague of Houh’s. “It gives us the opportunity to do a lot of things.”
Among those things are trees -- lots of trees. The current arbor still in good shape will remain while new oaks will be added. We’ll probably see single treeboxes but there may also be “continuous planting strips,” the kind of long successions of trees you’re used to seeing in suburbia. We’ll also have plenty of bike racks and steel benches with central arms that discourage sleeping. And the wider sidewalks will give more room for outdoor cafes.
“More beautiful, more liveable -- greener,” Yang said.
But perhaps most importantly, we’ll see a sidewalk with a bulb-out design -- that’s when the sidewalk juts out a full lane into the road near intersections. The bulbout accomplishes several things at once – it takes the parking lane out of the traffic, it gives pedestrians a shorter crosswalk to pass through, and it allows buses to travel continuously in the same lane and pick up passengers right at the curb without swinging in among parked cars.
According to plans, just off the curb there will be a five-foot-wide bike lane on each side of the road, and between them will be four lanes of traffic -- two headed northbound, two headed southbound.
Where things get far more complicated is at the three designated “focus areas” of the roughly one-mile project: P Street, U Street, and Florida Avenue. Weighted as these intersections are with D.C. history, the design here slips away from pure functionality and toward concept and aesthetics. At these spots the designers are trying to, in their own words, “tell stories” – an ambitious but risky proposition for a streetscape overhaul.
The most puzzling of the three is P Street. The designers’ recommended but by no means finalized concept for this intersection is “the wheel” (see photo above). The four corners of sidewalk here are filled with dark concentric circles that spin off and run long-ways down the sidewalks. From an aerial view, it certainly gives the impression of car tires and motion. I couldn’t help but question the wisdom of designing a sidewalk with an automobile wheel in mind -- since sidewalks are all about, you know, walking, and not driving.
Ramon Estrada, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in attendance at the forum, explained that Precision Systems was urged by the project’s steering committee, a team comprised of local ANC’s and community groups, to come up with conceptual designs for each of the focus areas. The wheel design for P Street is meant as a tip of the hat to the old automobile show rooms that sat along the road decades ago. “We want to pay tribute to the auto history,” Estrada said, adding that this project runs along an arts overlay district. “This is an attempt to capture that.”
The designers’ suggested concepts at U Street and Florida Avenue are a bit more abstract. At U Street the idea is something like a swirl, or a river, and on some level it involves a book I’d never heard of by an author whose name I missed. Regardless, it would include dark portions of sidewalk (purple in the plans) that turned away from the intersection like oxbows in a river. Strange as it sounds, these streams of color would do a favor for the Reeves Center by breaking up the vast and barren-looking expanse of sidewalk outside its doors.
Up the street at Florida Avenue the recommended concept is “sport,” or “energy” – this being the location of the YMCA. The maroon-looking sidewalks here would be embellished with some green and yellow zigzags moving with the pedestrian to suggest motion, running, swimming.
Houh and Yang stressed that the plans are still preliminary, and that these concepts are only the second round that have been developed. They’re hoping to have the design, which was budgeted $576,000, about 90 to 95 per cent fleshed out by the end of the year. A DDOT representative at the meeting said they’re still trying to figure out which fiscal year will provide the funding they need to get started on what’s estimated to be a $8 million construction job. Even if the plans are finalized soon, fiscal year 2011 is “very unlikely” for a groundbreaking, and the plans “could be sitting on the shelf for a year or two years.”
A resident sitting in the back expressed the feelings of several in attendance – myself included -- when he said he loved a lot of the streetscape’s features but felt “the concepts need a lot more development.” Which is understandable. Telling a decent story is hard enough with words, let alone with sidewalks.