Georgetown Current

Neighbors Fight Plans to Enclose Georgetown Alley

July 2, 2014

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

To Georgetown residents living on parallel stretches of O and N streets between Potomac and 33rd, the open area in the middle of their block is the public alley that gives them rear access to their homes. The D.C. Department of Transportation appears to agree, having repaved the space upon neighbors’ requests about 10 or 15 years ago.

But when the city auctioned off various properties at tax sales a few years ago, it instead treated this site as five small private lots totaling about 3,000 square feet. And much to the outrage of residents, the new owner of all five lots — a Rockville investor — is seeking permission to fence in that property.

“I think it’s one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard,” an O Street resident said at Monday’s Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission meeting. “As far as we’re concerned, this is a public alley. We use it, our neighbors use it. It’s used by anybody who owns a home and wants to park in their garages.”

Landowner Kebreab Zere said that’s the reason he needs the fence. “I need security. People are trespassing,” he said in an interview after the meeting.

At the meeting, Zere defended his right to the space, pointing to decades of ownership history. “It’s not an alley — it’s a private vacant lot. They have the subdivision in [the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] as a lot; I pay tax on it,” he said.

Neighbors responded that they also have documentation of their property rights to a rear alley, and they called upon city officials to clear things up.

Michael Fabrikant of the D.C. Office of Neighborhood Engagement said the city intends to address the issue, and he said plans are in motion, but he wasn’t ready to publicly describe the actions officials will take.

According to neighborhood commissioner Jeff Jones, similar situations appear to affect some other Georgetown alleys, though an individual seeking to close one off is unprecedented.

Residents speculated that Zere hopes to use the fence as leverage to sell the land to neighbors or the District. He told The Current that his goal is to develop the land, but he added that he might also be open to selling his lots.

Neighbors do have extra protection from the fence plan because Georgetown sits within a federal historic district. The neighborhood commission unanimously urged the Old Georgetown Board design review panel, part of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, to reject Zere’s application for a chain-link fence — both because the application lacks detail and because it would be out of character for the community.

Zere said he is open revising the fence but intends to enclose the area, “it being my constitutional right to use and dispose of my property.”

The Old Georgetown Board is due to consider the issue at its monthly meeting tomorrow.

This article appears in the July 2 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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ANC Seeks Help on Bike Traffic Issues

June 25, 2014

By Kat Lucero
Current Staff Writer

Below the Whitehurst Freeway, a one-mile stretch of road has become increasingly popular for cyclists. Although there are no designated bike lanes on the connecting Water and K streets, commuters use them to connect to two bike trails — the Capital Crescent to the west and Rock Creek Park’s path to the east.

“It’s a chaotic environment,” said Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner Bill Starrels, who represents the area in Georgetown.

The Georgetown neighborhood commission is urging the city to examine and improve the area’s safety. In a June 5 letter to transportation director Matthew Brown, the commission specifically asks the agency to determine ways to calm the bike traffic, including possibly by installing raised crosswalks.

Traffic on the stretch is most concentrated during the weekday morning and evening rush hours, mostly from commuters living in Maryland and westernmost D.C.

The Capital Crescent Trail is one of the most heavily used “multiuse trails not only in the region, but in the entire country,” attracting millions of users each year, according to Gregory Billing of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

The heavy flow of bike traffic then goes into Georgetown’s Water Street. Problems arise when cyclists ignore the “rules of the road,” Starrels said. He said a growing number of fast-riding cyclists pose safety concerns for pedestrians and drivers, whose numbers have also increased.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s necessary to get a dialogue going” with the D.C. Department of Transportation, Starrels said.

Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans said he has also heard complaints about cyclists — and even seen them zooming through this corridor.

“I jog every day. I can’t tell you the number of times bikes just fly through there. … I’ve seen people almost get hit,” he said.

Asked why there hasn’t been action to solve this traffic issue, Evans said, “Nobody knows what to do.”

Two ideas he’s heard — installing speed bumps on the street and requiring license plates for bikes — didn’t prove popular, Evans said. And while he doesn’t have an effective fix, he said the issue does raise the bigger question of how to get the cyclists to obey the law.

“It’s a problem all over the city,” he said.

Districtwide, the number of cyclists on the streets has quadrupled since 2006, according to Billings. He attributed the problems beneath the Whitehurst to overstressed infrastructure.

“The street is not designed to carry all that bike traffic,” he said.

The D.C. Department of Transportation’s Sam Zimbabwe said yesterday that this area is “not one of our high crash locations,” but he acknowledged that there are issues to address.

Zimbabwe also conceded that there’s no easy solution, with all the cyclists there converging to head to “various locations downtown.”

Of the high speeds on bikes, he noted that the area is one where cyclists adjust from riding down a “high-quality trail” devoid of stop signs to a “free-for-all” in a commercial section of Georgetown.

“The selected route for the streetcar also adds to the complexity,” said Zimbabwe, referring to the city’s long-range plans for the corridor. He said detailed planning for the streetcar, including an environmental assessment, will give the agency an in-depth look at the area’s transportation issues, including bike safety.

Many avid cyclists say a designated bike lane is part of the solution.

Billing recommends “a protected lane or dedicated bike space, especially for that eastbound traffic to get it out of the flow from all the other traffic out there.”

Georgetown commissioner Tom Birch, who cycles frequently, also supports a dedicated bike lane along that street.

Marco Dicapua, a cycling commuter living on the 1000 block of 30th Street, would like to see a bike lane and maybe increased signage; but he “personally doesn’t see any good solutions for K Street” between 27th and 34th streets. He noted the commercial strip’s disjointed connections, as well as the presence of several driveways that pose an additional safety concern.

Dicapua, however, said he “feels quite safe” biking through the wider K Street in comparison to the busier, narrower M Street. “The street is wide enough where there’s enough room for cars and cyclists if we all share the road,” he said, adding that he hasn’t seen accidents involving bikes.

Zimbabwe of the Transportation Department noted that installing bike lanes there would create other transportation consequences, such as eliminating parking spaces.

While neighborhood commissioner Starrels acknowledges that a solution won’t happen right away, he said the point of the resolution he authored is to “to wrap up this problem.”

This article appears in the June 25 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Cathedral Commons Aims to Wrap Up Work This Year

June 17, 2014

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

The long-planned Cathedral Commons project at Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street continues to take shape, as construction progresses on the large mixed-use development and more retail tenants sign leases.

Cathedral Commons, which is replacing the neighborhood’s one-story Giant Food supermarket and a nearby shopping strip, is expected to be complete in December. Lauren Neuvel, spokesperson for developer Bozzuto, said yesterday that residential leasing will begin in September, and anchor retailers CVS and Giant are set to open in October and November, respectively, along the south side of Newark.

Other confirmed retail tenants include Barcelona Restaurant & Wine Bar, featuring Spanish fare; Raku, an Asian restaurant with sushi and sake; and a Wells Fargo bank branch along Wisconsin Avenue on the southern portion of the project. On the northern section, between Newark and Idaho Avenue, confirmed tenants include SunTrust Bank; iDoc Optical, a full-service eye-care office; and Starbucks, all along Wisconsin.

Eleven retail spaces totaling about 26,000 square feet remain available, according to the project website; four more have pending leases, including two on the second floor of the southern parcel that are slated for Pilates and spin centers.

The project also includes 145 rental housing units: 13 apartments south of Newark, due in September; eight Idaho Avenue town houses behind the Giant, due in November or December; and 127 apartments north of Newark. The 127 apartments will be the last phase of the project when they’re completed in December, aside from some possible retail build-out, Neuvel said.

Some neighbors and businesses have faced disruptions from the Cathedral Commons work since the project kicked off in October 2012. Newark Street has been closed between Idaho and Wisconsin, and portions of Idaho have also been closed at times (including now). There have been issues with construction traffic, worker parking and runoff from the construction site, according to advisory neighborhood commissioner Nancy MacWood.

Now, said MacWood, residents must prepare for four to six months of nighttime water main work under Wisconsin Avenue. This work began late last week, and MacWood said she’s already gotten “the first round of complaints” from constituents.

According to MacWood, the D.C. Department of Transportation is allowing the work only overnight, despite requests that the noisiest work take place during the day.

MacWood also said the community has faced a resurgence of construction workers parking in the neighborhood, which violates an agreement with Bozzuto as well as Residential Parking Permit restrictions. Cleveland Park advisory neighborhood commission chair Carl Roller reported at the commission’s Monday meeting that he sought more parking enforcement.

But overall, MacWood praised Bozzuto’s efforts to work with the community, including monthly meetings with key stakeholders. “We knew because of the size of the construction project and its location that it was going to be very disruptive,” she said. “It’s been very helpful that they’ve taken the neighborhood’s interests very seriously.”

She also said she’d heard positive community feedback on the planned retail tenants — in particular Raku, which has a good reputation from its Dupont Circle location. (Barcelona also has an existing restaurant, on 14th Street NW.) She also expects that the fitness centers “will be embraced.”

At its Monday meeting, the neighborhood commission endorsed an application for a 26-seat sidewalk cafe for Barcelona, contingent upon adequate sidewalk space remaining for pedestrians. The commission is also due to consider a liquor license application for Giant in July.

This article appears in the June 18 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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