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Neighbors’ Ire Over 17th Street Tree Removal Plan Results in DDOT Reversal and Satisfactory Solution

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

In spite of the season’s first mixture of bitterly cold rain and large light snow flakes on a recent Saturday morning, over 20 Dupont Circle residents, alarmed by reports of plans for the chopping down and removal of 32 trees along 17th Street between P and R Streets, joined ANC Commissioner Bob Meehan and DC Urban Forestry Administration Director John Thomas for a two-hour walking tour of the stretch of 17th Street from Massachusetts to New Hampshire Avenues.

This project, slated to start of November 30 by the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) for a dramatically improved streetscape renovation at a projected cost of $4.5 million — all from Federal stimulus money, has been long awaited and is estimated to take 240 working days for completion. At least four or five formal presentations have been made to the community by DDOT over the last year. These have included designs and specifications for proposed new scored-concrete, pedestrian friendly sidewalks, handsome street lamps, new tree boxes and a line of laid bricks for tree box strips, granite curbs, brick gutters, repaving of the street bed surface, additional storm drain catch basins, and fully compliant ADA ramps both onto sidewalks and into retail stores and restaurants in the commercial portions. These preliminary plans have been widely applauded.

What first raised alarms, however, were the final plans displayed to the community by DDOT during the November 23rd public meeting at St. Thomas’ Parish Episcopal Church. Specifically, what became apparent was that transportation planners and the Department’s arborists intended to use the magnitude of this once in every 20 or 30 years streetscape project to radically improve the quality — and in some cases, the quantity — of the street’s tree canopy, especially in the mixed commercial and residential blocks between P Street and just past R Street. This would require wholesale removal of trees to accomplish, rather removing only trees with less than 10 or more years of expected life remaining — which had been the neighborhood’s earlier understanding from DDOT.

Urban Forestry arborists, however, were now planning the wholesale replacement of smaller, individual tree box grates with state-of-the-art soil extender grates that can be placed in continuous stretches of tree box strips along the public space between curb cuts. This would allow for dramatic improvements in soil, percolation, aeration, and room for roots to more fully develop without popping up and breaking into bricks and sidewalk concrete squares. DDOT appeared to presume that this approach should be applied to all blocks between at least P to R Streets or not at all. According to Commissioner Meehan, word from a DDOT spokesperson was that it is either chop down 32 trees of all conditions — healthy, damaged, or dead — or just seven of the hopelessly damaged or dead and dying street trees, was the,

Urban Forestry’s John Thomas’ approach was quite different. He delivered a walking lecture — in the rain and snow – street on contemporary streetscape planning which served to highlight his detailed knowledge of every tree within the project area and of the precise DDOT plans for new and additional street lighting with “tear drop” light poles at intersections and the traditional Washington Globe fixtures between corners, the doubling of catch basins to better accommodate large volume storm drain run-off, the widened handicap street to sidewalk ramps, the possibilities in new tree box fencing, some of which incorporate racks for planters and bicycle locking, and changes to parking meters, utility boxes, and traffic signal controls — all of which directly affect the placement of street trees. Thomas further emphasized that the soil extender tree box grates being proposed was not an “either/or” matter.

Thomas and Commissioner Meehan then led the group, which had now been augmented to include at least three of Meehan’s fellow ANC commissioners and the president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, Robin Diener, in a real time colloquy to identify those stretches on either side of 17th Street that were — or might be — desirable candidates for these new, innovative tree box soil extender grates.

Three individual half-block stretches on the east side identified are, from south to north, Komi at the alley to Church Street; JR’s Bar & Grill at the alley to Jack’s Restaurant in mid-block; and McDonald’s at Corcoran Street to Art’s Shoe Repair at the alley. In addition, a single strip on the street’s west side opposite the CVS store at P Street would be included.

A proposal to remove a tree in front of the Copley Plaza apartments, one that is struggling to compete with the Copley’s front yard crepe myrtle canopy, will be pursued with the Copley residents. Other trees slated for removal include an aggressively invasive mulberry next to the First Baptist Church parking lot, and a smaller tree interfering with pedestrian access to the horseshoe shaped walkway leading into the Brunswick apartment house. No trees north of R Street are slated for removal.

John Thomas’ direct, deft, and informative responses to neighborhood questions and comments served to both diffuse what could have been an explosive confrontation and created instead a forum for further understanding on the parts of the community and Urban Forestry. And, after speaking with Thomas at the conclusion of the walking tour, Commissioner Meehan summarized to this reporter the sense of the community — and on the part of Thomas — that “it looks like we would lose more like 10 trees rather than the threatened 32” in going forward with this ambitious streetscape proposal. Meehan and Thomas plan to further refine DDOT’s and Thomas’ charts and plans in preparation for consideration of this matter at the Dupont Circle ANC’s December 9th regular monthly meeting.

Another issue that has raised concerns is the matter of the scheduling of the entire project and the protection of sidewalk café and other retail businesses during their spring to fall business seasons. Residents are questioning whether or not work on the P to R Street commercial stretches will only occur in the winter months so as to minimize adverse affects on those establishments. DDOT has made repeated promises to respect these concerns and protect those businesses; detailed scheduling plans for such, however, have yet to be published.

This and similar issues remain to be worked out between DDOT, the ANC, and the businesses. The tree issues, as outlined above, were endorsed by the full ANC at its December 9th meeting, on the basis of a detailed resolution drafted by ANC Bob Meehan. Urban Forestry Director John Thomas, who was present, concurred with Commissioner Meehan’s articulation of the new and revised plans for the improvement of the 17th Street tree canopy. – which includes, according to DDOT Director Gabe Klein, who was also present, 11 additional trees.