- The Connecticut Ave median was installed in the '60s. (Photo: Google Maps)
Don't dismiss your medians, D.C. pedestrians — here's a classic story of how District officials, business owners, and others devote attention to this community resource in obsessive, dedicated ways, with hot opinions that can vary wildly. The setting, in this case, is Dupont Circle, where a median has occupied a block of Connecticut Avenue north of the Circle between R and S streets for the past half century. Along the street are bistros, yogurt vendors, the coffee shop Filter, Teaism, Maddy's Bar and Grille, and other businesses that serve the roaming pedestrians of Ward 2's Dupont Circle neighborhood. The median was first installed between 1964 and '68 when the capital's trolley system was shut down, according to Paul Williams, executive director of Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets. 30,000 cars drive by the block every day. The median itself is about 8 by 600 feet, and the eye can't escape its presence.
The median has attracted a lot of attention in the last couple years, the subject of ongoing funding and approval struggles. Around September 15, District Department of Transportation contractors finally began a project years in the making — an $85,000 DDOT and Urban Forestry Transportation Enhancement grant sought by the Dupont Main Streets organization to provide better irrigation and plants to the various boxes of the meeting. The new grant will enhance much of what's already there in the center of the road.
"The trees have been there for around 30 years," Williams told me, explaining that the Magnolias would not be touched.
Contractors have begun removing soil that's built up and have a water main in mind to help keep the plants in five planter boxes quenched. The irrigation work is nearly complete, and new planting should begin next week. DDOT and Williams imagine a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the median upgrades will take place in coming weeks, just as D.C. officials and the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District held for the fancier Connecticut Avenue median installed south of Dupont Circle last month.
"Everyone seems pretty happy with the project, as far as I can tell," said D.C.'s Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. "It's going to be a fabulous addition."
4,800 square feet of planting area, folks! Evans emphasized the scope of the grant and project in conversation with me as well as reiterated points he made in the first press release announcing the $85,000 grant — all the way back in January of 2011. Work on the median only began last month due to a holdup over federal approval. The Federal Highway Administration, it turned out, controlled the process. "It was winding its way through the federal approval process," DDOT spokesperson John Lisle observed about the delays. "We didn't drag our feet on it."
Yet despite the enthusiasm, two other D.C. residents have voiced objections involving the median — in which the business attorney and executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchant and Professionals Association called the median an "eyesore" and said he's essentially given up on the city to provide the streets north of Dupont Circle with any sort of beautiful median. Yes, a median can inspire these emotions ... and more.
- (Photo: flickr/Elvert Barnes)
"It's been in such a dismal state for so many decades that we just kind of ignore it," said Edward Grandis, the head of D.C. MAP. "We worked out an agreement years ago [before Main Streets, in the late 1990s, early 2000s] ... They even agreed to include electrical outlets ... I guess funding is always the issue. They intend to do what they promise."
Both Grandis as well as Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, have vocally demanded that the median work be more thorough and include improvements to the decades-old masonry. They both say that electrical outlets should be upgraded and outfitted to allow these small businesses north of Dupont Circle to feature holiday lights along the median. Grandis speaks of how competitive these different D.C. neighborhoods have become in recent years and suggests that better holiday lighting would allow the stores between R and S streets to lure in more D.C. residents and visitors. They compare what's happening north of Dupont Circle to the elaborate median additions and streetscaping south of Dupont Circle, where millions have been invested. Lynch attributes the different scale of projects to the fact that big corporations and businesses lie south of the Circle contrasted with the "mom and pop" establishments and small businesses north of it. Grandis was reluctant to attribute the difference to that and instead pointed to the organizing power of a BID and how it could command attention, respect, and action. But both agree that more should be done with the median north of Dupont Circle.
"It's a no-brainer as far as I can see," Lynch told me. "Lots of restaurants face right on to that median."
Lynch went as far as including his concerns in letter to the editor of the Northwest Current newspaper in its September 28 edition, where he called out DDOT and "poor governmental planning." "The masonry walls have suffered breaks, lengthy cracks, and other damage related to vehicles and weather factors," Lynch wrote. "Yet the Department of Transportation is doing no masonry rehabilitation!"
But others responsible for the median's upgrades this fall, from Councilmember Evans to DDOT's Lisle to Main Streets' Williams, are quick to dispute the narrative advanced by Grandis and Lynch.
Williams told me that the median's masonry is fine, that an architect had checked out the work and said there was no problem with the stone. He indicated that the electrical upgrades that Grandis and Lynch allude to simply aren't possible on those medians due to regulations regarding electricity and water. Williams said he's met with both of them multiple times and walked them through the site, but they don't seem to understand the realities of the median. To his mind, the two individuals are "stirring the pot" a bit. He also emphasized that Dupont Main Streets has been "fully in charge" of the $85,000 upgrade to the median and all the work going into it and that Grandis and Lynch have not been a part of that effort. The grant specifically provides, according to Main Streets, an "extensive set of professionally produced plans for existing conditions, irrigation, fencing (between planters), planting, and even traffic control measures required for the installation. Its design was guided by a local committee that ensures hearty plants, vivid colors, year- long blooming, and non-evasive plantings that will result in maximum visual impact." When I brought up their concerns to Jack Evans, the councilmember pointed out that Lynch is downtown and doesn't even live in Dupont Circle's ward. He called Grandis a friend but seemed unfazed by the median concerns, instead praising the current upgrades to add the irrigation and planting. Further upgrades may be possible with time, Evans said, and the current grant work reinforced lessons he first learned as a Dupont Circle ANC commissioner: "Set your goal and stick with it."
In this case, the goal was to add irrigation and plants, not outlet upgrades and masonry. As Lisle said, "We are doing the project that we funded."
Grandis, however, says the whole median business is so discouraging he doesn't even look at the structure these days. He calls it "ridiculous" and adds he doesn't "believe the city's word" on improvements to the median after his years in D.C. "The least the city could do is give us a nice median," Grandis told me.
Is any town as median-obsessed as the District? Expect a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly upgraded median north of Dupont Circle in the months to come this fall.