Cleveland Park streetscape proposals face pushback

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The Cleveland Park Metro station flooded last year due to poor drainage along Connecticut Avenue NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/May 2017)

Long-discussed plans to upgrade the run-down yet historic streetscape in Cleveland Park are now facing more delays after two recent rejections from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

The project to improve the Connecticut Avenue commercial corridor is now expected to break ground in August of next year, two months later than the original start date, according to Paul Hoffman, program manager at the D.C. Department of Transportation.

The federal arts commission opposed designs on March 16 and again on May 18, with another review expected this month. While the panel has supported the intent to improve the commercial streetscape, members criticized the designs for “poor conceptual clarity,” according to a May 25 letter by commission secretary Thomas Luebke to the Transportation Department.

In an earlier letter in March, Luebke called for plans to commit to one theme: “Either draw upon design precedents in the corridor’s strong architectural context, or it could establish a modern design expressive of its own time.”

The project intends to bring a host of aesthetic, safety and environmental improvements to Connecticut Avenue from Porter Street NW to south of Macomb Street. Upgrades include drainage modifications — propelled in part by last year’s Cleveland Park Metro flood — as well as reconfiguring traffic and installing new street furnishings, gathering areas and green infrastructure. One of the most prominent changes would address the area’s northbound service lane, paving it with cobblestones and relocating its exit.

The city’s plans for the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Porter Street NW include eliminating a direct lane from Quebec Street to Connecticut. (Brian Kapur/The Current/May 2017)

At a June 19 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood 3C (Cleveland Park, Massachusetts Avenue Heights, Woodley Park), residents and ANC members raised concerns about parts of the proposal they believe might cause traffic issues.

In an interview, Nancy MacWood, chair of ANC 3C, highlighted a proposed sidewalk extension at Connecticut and Macomb. “The roadway is already quite narrow, and it’s currently difficult for cars to turn from Connecticut Avenue onto Macomb Street,” she said. “It’s going to make two-way traffic there very hazardous.”

MacWood, however, said she was surprised the Commission of Fine Arts had rejected the streetscape designs. “It seems they are back to the drawing board,” she said of the Transportation Department.

That agency has pressed forward with its plans to retain the Connecticut Avenue service lane and add an exit to feed traffic directly onto the avenue — a change that will eliminate two of 29 parking spaces near local businesses. Hoffman said a decision is pending on whether to fill in the service lane so that it’s level with the sidewalk.

Over the years the service lane has been the subject of much debate in the neighborhood, with some earlier plans calling for removing it entirely.

At last month’s ANC meeting, commissioner Emma Hersh called the current plan for the service lane a “recipe for disaster,” given the high volume of cars that use the area.

MacWood said the city hadn’t properly assessed outcomes for the service lane. “It’s questionable whether proposals should be presented for public comment when they haven’t been thoroughly evaluated by [the Transportation Department],” she said.

Hersh also raised concerns about how construction on the streetscape project may impact the avenue’s collection of eateries that rely on sidewalk patios. She implored the Transportation Department to time the sidewalk construction in a way that limits financial losses for local business owners.

“It is a big blow to businesses,” Hersh said. “If the timing could be scheduled such that it’s during the winter months when people aren’t likely to be sitting outside, that would be greatly appreciated.”

While Hoffman said he respects that concern, he argued in an interview that scheduling construction around events and seasons simply isn’t realistic.

Hoffman said the area’s drainage issues warrant relatively urgent solutions. While last year’s flood did not result in any injuries, the escalator was in operation for 15 minutes during the incident — placing riders at risk of electrocution.

“Every storm you run a risk. Every 15 years you get one that goes over the curb. But if you get one every two to three years, you’re doing something wrong,” Hoffman said in the interview.

The Transportation Department intends to present revised streetscape plans to the Commission of Fine Arts again in July, and provided they win approval, the designs would be finalized by January 2018, Hoffman said.

Of the disagreements on details that came up at the ANC meeting, Hoffman noted: “You never get more than 50 percent agreement.”

Residents may review the current streetscape plans at tinyurl.com/cleveland-streetscape.

This post has been updated to identify advisory neighborhood commissioner Emma Hersh on first reference.