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DC Inaugurates its First Open Streets Ever

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the November 2019 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

On October 5th, nearly three miles of Georgia Avenue intersecting with New Hampshire Avenue, NW, was closed for the Open Streets DC program.   This is a program that celebrates “no cars; just people. . . . Open Streets is a program that temporarily closes street to motor vehicle traffic and opens them to people for healthy activities suitable for all ages and abilities.

Open Streets is a time to celebrate all of our city’s transportation options. We challenge you to get to the event by walking, biking or taking public transportation.”

District Bridges’ [ed.: see companion lead story in this issue] Carolina Buitrago, who managed the programming for this major event described the event as follows:

“There were a total of 4 stages; 2 fitness stages including Yoga, Zumba, Cardio Kickboxing and Blast Workouts, a demonstration area including capoeira and jump rope and the main stage which included entertainment; dance and music and where the mayor gave her remarks.

“There were 6 activity areas throughout the route that included a bike fair, an inflatable obstacle course, a climbing wall, a children’s traffic garden, a skateboarding area, protected pop-up bike lanes and free bike tune-ups and wheelie clinics, health screenings and HIV and STD testing,  scooter lessons and an obstacle course, business activations, tents from different agencies and organizations including ANC 1A ANC 4B, PEPCO, GoDCgo, Circulator Bus Bike Demo, Skatemobile, Howard University Zumba classes, etc.”

Mayor Bowser’s enthusiasm for this new undertaking initiated by her was celebrated through her Twitter feed.<https://twitter.com/openstreetsdc>

Partnering with District Bridges, in addition to DC’s transportation department (DDOT) which assisted in underwriting much of the program planning cocts, were were other DC agencies: public works (DPW), parks and recreation (DPR), and police (MPD).

With District Bridges, located on 11th Street in Columbia Heights having undertaking the the lead role for this city-sponsored event, The InTowner sought out Executive Director Briane Dornbush for evaluation of the event’s impact. Following is a summary of the email-conducted interview:

■ InTowner: “How was this event received?”

Dornbush: “The event was received very positively. The Tweets and the smiles on everyone’s faces down Georgia Avenue say it all.”

■ InTowner: “When did the planning begin for this? (9 bus routes were affected.)”

Dornbush: “District Bridges won a grant to coordinate the programming component of the event. This started in June 2019, however DDOT, the Mayor’s Office and other city agencies had been in conversation and planning at least since the beginning of  the year.”

■ InTowner: “Was there ANC endorsement?”

Dornbush: “DDOT presented at all ANC meetings in August. All ANCs in the area (1A, 1B, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D) were invited to have a table at the event.”

■ InTowner: “Did the merchants or restaurants pay for the use of sidewalk space?”

Dornbush: “Only businesses in the corridor were invited to activate the space in front of their storefront. They had to register and submit a sketch of their proposed activities, but there was no charge. In addition to the businesses, there were a few local non-profits, city agencies and sponsors who had a presence at the event.”

■ InTowner: “Where will be the next event?”

Dornbush: “DDOT is having conversations with the Mayor about this, but we don’t have any additional information regarding the next location.”

■ InTowner: “How did this affect the Georgia Avenue businesses?”

Dornbush: “DDOT is collecting data from businesses through a survey and will know the exact impact once that data is analyzed. The feedback we have received from some of the businesses that participated at the event from Lower Georgia Avenue was very positive. They were extremely busy and reported having lots of new customers that day.

“There was also a participant survey at the event and one of the questions asked was if the event had made them aware of a business on Georgia Avenue that they didn’t know existed.”

History

The first Open Streets event took place in 1974 in Bogota, Columbia. Now more than 400 cities throughout the world are participating — 122 in the U.S., including, for example (in addition to now DC), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Atlanta, Ft. Collins, Charlotte, San Francisco, Los Angeles.

It is expensive to close roads. Los Angeles devoted $4 million to fund 17 open streets. It is estimated that one event can cost from $10,000 to $70,000 (which San Francisco spends.) Economists have discovered that this event is “cost beneficial”, possibly costing $1.36 per person.

Reaction of DC Residents and Businesses

Retired Business person Travis in an email exchange expressed a negative view, commenting, “This seems to be a poor decision to close down an important street causing delays and inconvenience. Where is the common sense?”

Also by email, Columbia Heights Resident Kerry offered a mixed assessment: “Not sure what the goal was for this first Open Streets on Georgia Ave. It was convenient to walk to the Petworth Farmers Market at Georgia Ave., 9th and Upshur without having to dodge traffic and panhandlers. It appeared to be geared towards childrens activities with a few things for children to do. Yes, a busy traffic artery was shut down but I think it was a fair trade-off to walk about the neighborhood. For the next one I would like to see more opportunities given to the local businesses on Georgia Ave. to be able to promote their businesses so local residents become familiar with those businesses.”

And another mixed assessment was shared through email by Park View fesident and ANC 1A 09 Commissioner Michael Wray: “Open Streets was a fantastic inaugural event and I’m thrilled that Georgia Avenue was chosen, as it is my nearest cross street after all. I would like to see this as a regular and frequent event, but observed that it required a heavy security presence which may be a cost impediment. The city will need to address this in order to truly open our streets more often.”

And there were also residents who were very enthusiastic, like Otis Place NW, resident Jay who wrote in an email, “I was amazed by the number of people who attended, and we discovered several new businesses during our walk on Georgia Avenue. I’d love it if this were a monthly event.”

Max Zuckerman of Georgia Avenue’s Colony Club emailed that “[w]e had a great time at the Open Streets event. Our businesses definitely benefited quite a bit. We’d love  to make it a regular event.”

Former Columbia Heights Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Betty Pair said that she “thought it was great that they had provided for little people interactive things to do (as well as the usual bounce house), they had big people stuff (like the spinning class!) and a bike repair station. I loved all of it, and the mood of everyone was UP! I rode my bike up and down Georgia Avenue, even stopping at the Upshur Fresh Market.”

Conclusion

At-Large Council Member Elissa Silverman concludes, “Open Streets illustrates why we shouldn’t be divided by race, age, or income when it comes to making our streets safer. As a cyclist, walker and public transit user, I look forward to future Open Streets events and continue to support implementing policies toward Vision Zero that meet the needs of every resident. We need to make investments in every ward to ensure this happens.”

The Open Streets program seems to be here to stay. “We believe that every municipality, no matter the size, can benefit from open streets”; it is a global movement and the North American Open Street Project is ready to provide technical assistance.

[Editor’s Note:] The neighborhoods in this part of Northwest have been the subject of several highly informative articles by our senior writer since 2013 and it is recommended that clicking on the links to the five listed below will provide much additional context:

■ “Park View Neighborhood Sizzles; Residents Enjoy Georgia Avenue’s New Eateries and Other Amenities” — click here

■ “Upshur Street, NW Has Become a Bustling Corridor” — click here

■ “Columbia Heights Transitions from Rural to Urban Reflecting DC’ Growth” – click here

■ “North Columbia Heights Losing Churches as Demographics Evolve, Though Some Stay” — click here

■ “Columbia Heights Retail Center That Opened in 2008 Sustains Itself During 2016’s Challenging Retail Environment” — click here

* Senior writer Larry Ray has served on Advisory Neighborhood Commissions for both Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights. He also has served as president of the North Columbia Heights Citizens Association. Presently, he serves as the liaison for DC Next Door-Columbia Heights.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.