With over 250 city blocks totally rebuilt by work crews over the past five years, Washington, D.C. is in the middle of a major urban facelift.
Without fanfare and below the radar of many urban observers, Washington is in the middle of a period of significant street reconstruction and enhancement. In neighborhoods across the city, city officials are repaving streets, rebuilding sidewalks, and installing new lamp posts, parking meters, plazas and streetlights.
Street improvements are an unloved necessity of urban life. Inconvenient and messy, these so-called “streetscaping” improvements are as unglamorous as they are important to the creation of a pleasant public realm. This photo from a project on P Street in Dupont Circle taken last August illustrates just how disruptive the work can be – note the haze was caused by dust in the air.
Some brief statistics from D.C. Department of Transportation’s online street construction project database suggests the scope of the work. City contractors have totally reconstructed 255 blocks in the past five years, 45 blocks are currently under construction, and 21 more are already in the pipeline for the next year.
Other improvements are also being made. Some 1,500 crosswalks are now equipped with countdown timers, more than any other U.S. city we are told. Newly constructed bike lanes crisscross Midcity neighborhoods and Capitol Hill, with plans for more in the works. (Proposed routes and lanes are shown to the right.) New parking meters have appeared in Georgetown and new streetlights in Dupont Circle. Such improvements caused the DC Sidewalk Blog to declare “state of our sidewalks is strong” at the start of the year.
In just a few years, city residents can look forward to much needed improvements in several high-visibility neighborhoods. Dupont Circle’s P Street was rebuilt over the summer, causing some complaints by local businesses. Planning is well underway for a comprehensive streetscaping project for U Street NW and H Street NE, with re-designed intersections, widened sidewalks, and new streetlights. At South Capitol Street, the city spent $27 million last summer to lower an elevated freeway to make other improvements near the new baseball stadium.
A civic plaza with an interactive fountain and public art is planned for a space near the Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights.
In addition to physical improvements, the city has hired a consultant to prepare a first-ever pedestrian master plan, which includes detailed analysis of pedestrian injuries, missing sidewalks, and interviews with residents walking the streets along key corridors. Hopefully this document will help set the agenda for future improvements.
The missing element in all of this is the sad state of many of the city’s public parks, epitomized by the neglected Carter G. Woodson Park near my house. (With the possible exception of the new Georgetown Park under construction.) The recently launched CapitalSpace initiative seeks to improve and connect the city’s parks to create a true citywide system. The group’s work is cut out for them. This part of the public realm presents many challenges: coordinating between bureaucracies, managing eclectic neighborhoods, navigating conflicting citizen needs, and confronting the problem of homelessness. Tackling those problems are much harder — and potentially more important — than hiring a construction crew to lay down new bricks and tree boxes.
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