Agency Eyes Protection for Georgetown Trees

Photo by Brian Kapur/The Current
Several tree boxes along Wisconsin Avenue and M Street are empty because trampled dirt harmed the trees' health.
Several tree boxes along Wisconsin Avenue and M Street are empty because trampled dirt harmed the trees' health.

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

When thousands of pedestrians crowd onto the narrow sidewalks of Georgetown’s Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, it’s almost inevitable that people’s feet will end up in the corridors’ tree boxes. Passersby trample the dirt and risk tripping over uneven surfaces or protective fences.

The Georgetown Business Improvement District and the city’s Urban Forestry Administration are pitching a new material to solve this problem: Flexi-Pave, a porous rubber made from recycled tires. The new surface would sit even with the brick sidewalks and provide a safe walking surface that also protects the dirt in the tree boxes.

The material is being proposed only for commercial streets with high foot traffic, where pedestrians are often forced to walk in tree box space. In residential areas, tree boxes will continue to sport plain soil.

“There’s a lot of desire to have a proper canopy along M and Wisconsin in the main business corridor there,” John Thomas of the Urban Forestry Administration said in an interview. “We struggle because of foot traffic and space that’s available for the trees currently.”

But because of Georgetown’s status as a federally protected historic district, the new material could face some pushback as incompatible with the neighborhood’s brick sidewalks. According to Thomas, some objections are already circulating that the constant transitions from Flexi-Pave to brick will create a “patchwork” effect.

“We understand that, but we’ve reached a point where [plain soil] doesn’t work, and there isn’t really any other option right now,” he said. “This is the only thing we can do to ensure there can be trees on Georgetown’s commercial corridor.”

Flexi-Pave is already in use on 14th Street and in several pilot locations throughout Georgetown.

Betsy Emes of the Trees for Georgetown group, part of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, said anything is better than the empty patches of mud found in numerous spots. She also defended Flexi-Pave’s appearance.

“If you’re looking down the street and not looking [straight] down, you don’t see anything,” she said, adding, “Whatever you put down is going to be a patchwork — if it’s just dirt, you’ve got dirt and brick.”

It’s not immediately clear where the objections are coming from. David Maloney of the Historic Preservation Office said in an interview that he has put forward various suggestions to refine the color and material of the Flexi-Pave — which Thomas said the manufacturer has been working to address — but that he doesn’t oppose its installation.

“We understand what they’re trying to accomplish, and we like trees as much as the next person,” said Maloney.

The material will also be reviewed by the local advisory neighborhood commission on Monday and the Old Georgetown Board  the following Thursday.

This article appears in the March 26 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.