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Major Streetscape Enhancement Propsals for 14th Street Above Thomas Circle Unveiled by DDOT

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this news story can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Federal stimulus funds, Federal Highway Administration moneys, and District of Columbia capital budget accounts are continuing to provide Washington residents with new streetscape improvements and roadway reconstructions, including greater capacity water, sewer, storm drain, and electrical infrastructure — especially in the Dupont Circle and nearby neighborhoods. A 17th Street project, from Massachusetts to New Hampshire Avenues, was recently completed to resounding community commendations, with the Dupont Circle portion of a parallel 18th Street project proceeding on schedule. Detailed plans and construction drawings have also been completed for a remake of upper 18th Street — Florida Avenue to Adams Mill Road — with work slated to begin later this fall. And design plans and drawings are now two-thirds complete for the re-design and beautification of the one-mile stretch of 14th Street between Thomas Circle and Florida Avenue — an important segment of the Uptown Arts Overlay District.

Officials and contractors from the District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) presented an ambitious and fully documented plan for the 14th Street project at a well-attended, two-hour community meeting on September 29th at the 14th and U Streets Reeves Center. In the presence of ANC commissioners, residential and business activists from the Shaw, Cardozo, Logan and Dupont Circle neighborhoods, smart growth leaders, and noted architects and developers — several of whom are members of the project steering committee — DDOT officials provided a PowerPoint presentation, concise and detailed color printed handouts, and large mounted boards with artist renderings of alternative designs for the three major intersections that are the focus of this project’s redesign of 14th Street. Detailed design drawings for the entire one-mile length of the project were also on hand.

The three focus intersections along 14th Street are at P Street, the pioneering Studio Theatre corner; at U Street, the corner dominated by the Reeves Center at the western end of what historically has been known as “Black Broadway”; and at Florida Avenue, the northern point of entry to the Uptown Arts Overlay District. These three intersections were identified by the community and its steering committee as important focus points for highlighting this part of the arts overlay district’s history and diversity. DDOT planners’ aesthetic responses to these community suggestions and proposals for streetscape redesign are — for Washington, DC — unusually colorful, and fancifully patterned to boot. DDOT prepared two alternatives for each intersection, with the first option for all three being that of a more traditional style, albeit handsomely muted monochromatic in color, and with minimally patterned concrete pavers.

Each of the three option’s two proposals obviously challenged the designers capacity to meet fully the community’s desire for identifying and highlighting the history and diversity of each of the three intersections within an overall theme of the arts overlay district. This challenge was met with engaging proposals.

For the corner at P Street dominated by the former car dealer showroom that is now the Studio Theatre, 14th Street’s vaunted history as Washington’s former “automobile row” is proposed to be commemorated with sidewalk tiles and pavers of dark, medium, and light gray pavers adorned with an automobile wheel and tire and chrome strip patterns and symbols.

The Reeves Center plaza style-corner proposed redesign would be one of articulated colored swirls of deep maroon on dark gray pavers echoing the elegance of the U Street corridor’s rich “Black Broadway” heritage.

The Florida Avenue design presented the planners with perhaps the most difficult of their three focus intersections’ alternative designs: namely, that of melding concepts of athleticism, especially that historically provided the neighborhood by the Anthony Bowen YMCA, with the colors and patterns of West African arts and crafts, and finally, that of the waves of immigration that have swept across Florida Avenue, the L’Enfant plan’s northern boundary for the original layout of Washington City.

DDOT planners exhorted community reactions to these sets of alternative designs — and to other aspects of their comprehensive streetscape proposal — by phone, e-mail, or through the community’s steering committee. Reactions from those in attendance were generally positive, with questions centering on cost and maintainability of the patterned corner sidewalks which, with the generously sized corner bulb-outs being planned would represent a significant maintenance responsibility for DDOT — including maintaining an inventory of the colored concrete pavers. This, DDOT’s representatives assured the audience, was something the department was prepared to take on; further, the cost for this aesthetic embellishment was estimated at being no more than one or two percent of total project costs.

Other concerns expressed were the questions of a unifying theme for the three intersection designs and whether or not the designs would be improved by thinking them through again. “They are not quite there, yet,” thoughtfully observed one participant. DDOT’s representatives promised that all community responses would be taken into consideration as the project planners continue to work with their consultants and the community’s steering committee to finalize design plans and specifications for the project by the end of November.

Construction drawings, contract negotiations, and commencement of work will then await the assignment of priority and the availability of FHA and DC highway construction moneys; 80 percent of the project cost will be born by the Federal government, 20 percent by the District.

Other aspects of the project eagerly awaited by the community include roadway redesign to accommodate increased bicycling and more efficient local bus service; the provision of greater pedestrian safety, walkability and colorfully patterned cross walks; handsome new street furniture; and traffic signals redesigned to move vehicular traffic efficiently and to allow for safer passage of pedestrians and cyclists across busy intersections.

Plans for standard sidewalk pavers include the use of brick, PCC concrete, and London pavers. Special bike boxes and bike lanes and a variety of environmentally friendly tree boxes and continuous planting strips are also planned. DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration’s recommendation for street trees include, along with London Planetree, four types of oaks: Willow; Nuttal; Crownright or Sovereign Pin; and English.

Safety and security issues are being addressed by using “best practices” in the context of the advantages of 14th Street’s grand, 110-foot width — which encompasses a 70-foot roadway with sidewalks of 20-foot width on both sides. Bulb-outs will shield curbside parking and improve crosswalk safety for pedestrians and Metro and bus passengers. Planned multi-space parking systems and additional bike racks will accommodate more cars and bicycles. Added sidewalk width from the bulb-outs will allow for more outdoor café and market-style vendor space. Redesigned curbs, gutters, and catch basins should improve storm water draining and twin street light pole systems should improve nighttime street safety.

With federally funded streetscape project moneys off limits to  banners, pennants, and destination district-style signage, there was no discussion of plans — and controversies — over efforts by Logan Circle arts district activists to use a $200,000 District development grant to devise a branding campaign, complete with a logo for the brand and patterned banners for an expanded Uptown Arts Overlay District that would stretch from Massachusetts to Florida Avenues be bounded by 7th and 16th Streets.