Thursday, November 13, 2008

Major Traffic Access to Alley is Blocked

The DC alleys are unique in the nation with their collections of old stables and other bygone commercial buildings such as sausage smoke houses (in Treto Way). Very few are left in the city with the potential to be sensitively developed in an historic manner so that they recall and preserve segments of alley lives of the past. No doubt there will continue to be discussion about traffic management over the coming years with proposals ranging from full traffic access to restricted access to pedestrian access only. Below is an article from Greater Greater Washington that reviews a recent "discussion" about restricting traffic flow from a proposed large development on U Street and 14th Street.

"Our curb cut is limited to the present circumstances"

Article and Photo by David Alpert

How often does Councilmember Phil Mendelson (at-large) personally show up to the Board of Zoning Adjustment to testify in support of a variance? I suspect not often, but show up he did at yesterday's BZA hearing on the 14th and U "Utopia" project.

Mendelson read a letter in support of locating the proposed garage entrance on 14th Street instead of in the alley behind. The developer, the Dupont ANC, and local residents and businesses all want this as well. Councilmember Jack Evans also submitted a concurring letter, which his committee clerk, Jeff Coudriet (who also lives nearby), presented at the hearing. The BZA voted to approve the curb cut and all of the variances the developer needed.

I agree in this case. This is an unusual block with an unusual alley system, and the garage entrance poses many problems. But I'm very concerned that this not set precedent for other, less exceptional situations. Along U Street west of 13th, developers plan to replace the one-story, bland Rite Aid with a larger hotel and ground-floor retail. The rear of the building faces a standard alley, but a row of townhouses back onto the other side of the alley. Some of those residents are trying to pressure that developer to build their garage entrance across the 13th Street sidewalk, instead of off the adjacent straight alley.

Bad idea.

Unlike at Utopia, using this alley doesn't require cars to make two sharp turns and take three separate alleys. Unlike at Utopia, there are no alley dwellings. This garage entrance could be located at the eastern end of the alley, so cars only have to drive on a very short part. I'd even be okay with widening the alley a little bit right at the end, so there's enough room for one car in each direction. But another, extremely wide curb cut right next to an existing alley curb cut harms the rest of the public too much, while alley access to the garage harms the local property owners little.

It's clear that some major political chips got called in to get Mendelson to show up in person for the Utopia curb cut, and to generate the repeated letters from Evans supporting neighbors' position on the project. The political pressure was so potent that yesterday afternoon, DDOT decided to withdraw its original comments opposing the curb cut. That's politics, and I don't agree with those who complain about corruption every time an elected official weighs in. Taking positions on issues and pushing agencies on behalf of constituents is what elected officials do, and if you want to influence them, organize.

While Evans and Mendelson weren't wrong about this curb cut, we need to get organized and connected enough to ensure that Council members aren't sending letters in support of every curb cut when some residents don't want traffic in their alley. Alley traffic impacts the residents, but a curb cut impacts everyone else. A curb cut increases the opportunities for vehicles to hit pedestrians and bicycles; it reduces the space we have for sidewalk cafes; it visually widens the street, making drivers go faster.

Fortunately, Mendelson's letter gives us good ammunition for differentiating the Utopia case from others, like the 13th and U Rite Aid/Hotel:

There are very few communities in the District like the one comprising the residents of [the alleys behind Utopia]. The two others that come to mind are Blagden Alley in Shaw and Brown's Court on Capitol Hill ... It is important to consider that this space is atypical. It is unlike the typical square with all the dwellings fronting on the public street, only to back up to alleys. [The residents of these alleys] must walk down their alleys to go anywhere, which creates unavoidable pedestrian and vehicular conflicts.

Public policy must balance a larger impact on a few against the smaller impact on many. Typically, in the political process, the few are better organized and louder than the many. Through this blog and Smart Growth organizations, we the many are getting organized. And I want to make it clear to Evans, Mendelson, and any other elected official that while I don't disagree with their views on the Utopia curb cut, such an exception, and their political muscle on its behalf, should be extremely, extremely rare.