Georgetown Current

Canal Road to Add Signal in November to Improve Fletcher's Access

August 19, 2015

By Chris Kain
Current Staff Writer

When a forthcoming traffic signal to let pedestrians and bikers cross Canal Road NW near Fletcher’s Cove becomes operational in November, it will mark the culmination of more than a decade of planning and prodding.

“While it took about 13 years or longer — and we were able to get a man on the moon in nine years — it’s done,” said Foxhall Village resident Howard Bray. “It should give pedestrians and cyclists a greater sense of security in a very busy crossing. … I hope it will make it easier to access one of our great treasures.”

For years, Bray doggedly pushed for officials to fulfill commitments to address the intersection’s hazards. Pedestrians must dart across it to reach the boathouse and the C&O Canal towpath from Reservoir Road. (In fact, it’s the main access point from the neighborhood.) Over the years, Bray and the Palisades/Foxhall advisory neighborhood commission enlisted the help of Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

“He has been tireless in attempting to get this done,” Cheh said at a Monday morning groundbreaking event attended by Bray and other area residents to mark the start of construction. “I think we should call this the Howard Bray Pedestrian-Activated Light. … He’s the man of the hour.”

Bray and other residents first urged D.C. Department of Transportation officials to install a pedestrian crosswalk with an on-demand traffic signal at the site back in 2002. The agency’s Palisades transportation study that year included the request — which, residents later learned, echoed a decades-old government plan for a signal there documented in a 1972 map.

But nothing happened for years. In 2005, an agency official assured the neighborhood commission that engineers would soon begin designing the signal. Then, in November 2008, the Ward 3 project director said construction would start the next summer. In January 2014, an agency spokesperson said design work was 90 percent complete, though she couldn’t provide a project timeline since the National Park Service hadn’t signed off on the design.

With poor sightlines and Reservoir Road hitting Canal at a sharp angle, the Y-shaped intersection is particularly complex, but another aspect of the site’s geography has proved even more pivotal: The D.C. Department of Transportation had to design the signals, but the Park Service owns the land where they are being installed and therefore had to approve the plans. The Federal Highway Administration is also involved, given Canal Road’s status as a major thoroughfare that receives federal funding for its maintenance.

At Monday’s event, officials from the D.C. Department of Transportation and the National Park Service joined Cheh and community leaders near the steep, narrow driveway that leads from Canal Road down to the boathouse, the adjoining parkland and the historic Abner Cloud House.

“It’s taken an awfully long time to resolve things,” Cheh told a crowd of about a dozen gathered in the midday heat. “It really was very tricky.”

Cheh’s office had previously arranged for several visits to go over the possible safety measures for the intersection. Bray recalled one of the site meetings occurred in below-freezing temperatures, a marked contrast to Monday’s event.

“You had two different agencies,” Bray said in a later interview. “I think that it was crucial that Council member Cheh remained committed to getting it done and that Del. Norton got the Park Service to move on this.”

In an interview, Cheh noted that the project’s use of Park Service land triggered formal environmental reviews. For the effort to move forward, officials had to address aesthetic, legal and practical considerations, she said.

“The lesson learned, I guess, is just to be on top of it as much as you can,” Cheh said. “I don’t know of any other way to hasten them all to come to agreement.”

Greer Johnson Gillis, deputy director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, said Monday that construction will start immediately, with completion expected by early November. The signal will be pedestrian-activated, with cars on Reservoir Road and the boathouse driveway also triggering a red light for Canal Road traffic.

“Early November — we look forward to it,” responded Cheh.

The signal is designed to balance the needs of motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists, according to a department spokesperson. Flashing yellow beacons on Canal Road will provide advance notice of the signal, and a closed-circuit TV camera will permit monitoring of traffic conditions.

“The signal will remain green for both directions of Canal Road until a pedestrian or a side street vehicle is detected and safely served,” department spokesperson Keith St. Clair wrote in an email to The Current.

Kevin Brandt, superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historical Park and an attendee at Monday’s event, praised community members for pushing the issue, citing the planned signal as “an example of citizen-driven government.”

In an interview, Brandt said the safety issues presented by the boathouse access point are long-standing — a concern for him since he became superintendent in 1996.

“That’s why I’m so thrilled to see this go in,” he said.

Brandt attributed the repeated delays primarily to the site’s geography, as well as its location along a heavily traveled commuter corridor.

Despite Brandt’s excitement about the project, he said more steps are needed to improve access to the popular boathouse. The Park Service has floated the idea of building a new ramp for vehicular traffic, making the current one available specifically for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“This will go a long way toward improving safety, but it doesn’t necessarily address access,” he said. “There’s more work to be done.”

The long-term access project, however, lacks funding and has not gone through the agency’s formal planning process, Brandt said.

This article appears in the Aug. 19 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Tweaks Eyed for EastBanc Development

August 11, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

EastBanc is working on design changes to its polarizing proposal for a new mixed-use building at 2715 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, the current site of a gas station across from the Four Seasons Hotel.

The company is responding to last month’s feedback from the Old Georgetown Board, which supported the general idea of a new five-story building on the site but had reservations about the way all upper-story windows would be deeply recessed into the facade. EastBanc is planning eight rental apartments of about 2,000 square feet apiece atop a ground-floor restaurant, sitting at the eastern gateway to Georgetown.

EastBanc’s Mary Mottershead said the project’s European architecture team is now “looking at the western facade of the building,” the area facing the corner of Pennsylvania and M Street. The architects are also considering whether to shift a proposed service driveway from the western side of the building, as currently planned, to the eastern side.

Asked whether EastBanc intends for its next design proposal to be largely similar to the version the firm presented a month ago, Mottershead said that’s a difficult question to answer at this stage.

“It depends on what you think of as largely similar,” she said. “To you it might be largely similar; to the architects it probably wouldn’t be.”

Mottershead added that EastBanc hasn’t seen what the architects are working on, and the firm doesn’t expect to go before the Old Georgetown Board again until October. The board reviews projects in the neighborhood to ensure architectural compatibility with the federally protected historic district.

In the meantime, EastBanc filed an application with the Zoning Commission on July 31 to seek permission for greater height and density than allowed on the property, and to forgo an on-site parking requirement.

Most of the parcel is currently zoned to allow buildings up to 50 feet tall with a floor-area ratio of 2.5, matching the buildings along M Street, but part of it has no current zoning category. EastBanc would like the whole property to be granted the higher limits that are allowed south of Pennsylvania Avenue, and also to have a smaller minimum setback from the rear property line than would otherwise be permitted. Also, although the zoning rules would ordinarily require three parking spaces, EastBanc would like to include none.

EastBanc is seeking the flexibility through the planned-unit development process, in which a developer offers community benefits intended to offset the impacts of its project. At 2715 Pennsylvania, EastBanc says its project offers superior architecture and better use of space compared to the 1950s gas station. The firm also pledged to improve the area of Rock Creek Park immediately to the east of the property with new trees and other plantings, new benches and permeable pathways.

Meanwhile, to prevent tenants from parking on nearby residential streets, EastBanc committed in its application to preventing the building’s residents from obtaining Residential Parking Permits, to providing at least eight long-term bike parking spaces, and to offering residents a choice of a Capital Bikeshare or car-sharing membership.

The Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission earlier this summer voiced support for the project in general, while raising questions about the architecture. The commission will weigh in on the revised project this fall before it returns to the Old Georgetown Board.

This article appears in the Aug. 12 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Glover Park Hardware Store Set to Reopen Soon

August 5, 2015

By Mark Lieberman
Current Correspondent

Glover Park Hardware is scheduled to reopen in its new location at 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW in mid-September, more than eight months after the store’s lease expired at its old location a block away.

Rite Aid is building a new store at the old Glover Park Hardware location, according to the drugstore’s spokesperson Kristin Kellum.

The hardware store closed at that 2251 Wisconsin spot in January after its landlord sought a large rent increase. After scouting several options in the neighborhood, owner Gina Schaefer opted for a nearby site down Wisconsin, right next to Breadsoda.

Schaefer signed the lease for the new location in February, but the opening has been on hold ever since. The missing link is a freight elevator needed to transport goods from a ground-floor loading dock down into the hardware shop, which is located below street level. Schaefer said scheduling the elevator’s construction has taken much longer than expected, and the work itself is expected to take several weeks once it does begin.

Glover Park Hardware’s new space is smaller in square footage than the old store, but Schaefer said the store benefits from a friendlier relationship with the landlord, cheaper operating costs, and a nicer appearance than the unrenovated old space.

Schaefer, who owns 10 Ace Hardware locations in the D.C./Baltimore area, guessed that her former Glover Park space will likely be a better fit for Rite Aid and the landlords than her store was.

“The landlords in our old space did not want to negotiate with us. They wanted us to leave,” she said. “They wanted a tenant that would pay a lot more money than the market is technically getting right now.”

Nonetheless, Schaefer said she’s heard from many regular customers that they consider Rite Aid to be a less productive use of that space. “People were upset that we were closing,” she said. “They were frustrated that there was a Rite Aid going into the space where there could be a hardware store.”

The loss of the original location hit the community hard, according to Glover Park advisory neighborhood commissioner Brian Turmail, who said he often visited the store on Saturdays for his home improvement efforts.

“When the store shut down, it was heartbreaking,” Turmail said. “It’s the kind of store that really filled a void in the retail mix of the neighborhood.”

The staff members from the original Glover Park store were offered transfers to six other Ace Hardware locations in the D.C. area (the company also has three stores in Baltimore, as well as one set to open in Adams Morgan). Aside from five or six employees who chose to move on to other companies, all of the former Glover employees still work for Ace, Schaefer said, and some will return to work at the new location.

The shutdown of Glover Park Hardware was a significant blow to the company’s finances, Schaefer said, especially since that location was among the company’s three highest-grossing stores. On the other hand, Schaefer said the Tenleytown Ace Hardware has experienced a boost in business that she attributes partially to Glover Park customers.

Schaefer said she’s eager to restore business to Glover Park. “The team is really looking forward to get back into their own store in Glover Park and seeing their customers,” she said.

This article appears in the Aug. 5 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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