Push for sidewalks in Hyattsville faces resistance in one neighborhood

In Hyattsville’s campaign to put sidewalks on every block, one neighborhood is holding out.

Just six years after voting to become part of the city, the community of University Hills is bucking City Hall and trying to keep its streets sidewalk-free. People who live in the quiet neighborhood of red-brick homes say sidewalks would spoil the suburban charm that brought them to University Hills in the first place.

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“In my block, I see no need for it,” said Anne Kelly, 82, a resident of Pennsylvania Street since 1960. “We didn’t have sidewalks for 50 years, and I have not seen any problems without it.”

Kelly, who has signed a petition against the sidewalk plan, said she worries that sidewalks will narrow her street, take away parking spaces and cost the city too much money.

But for Hyattsville, creating walkable neighborhoods with easy access to transit and shopping is essential to drawing more residents to sustain the development that has brought hundreds of new apartments as well as popular destinations such as a Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore.

“It is a struggle,” Hyattsville Mayor Marc Tartaro said. “The idea of you changing the character of the neighborhood is something that needs to be weighed very carefully. At the same time, that has to be weighed against the overall benefit to the community.”

From Bethesda to Falls Church and beyond, campaigns for more sidewalks often mean unhappy homeowners like the ones raising objections in Hyattsville. Opponents often fret over their landscaping and worry about increased foot traffic in front of their homes. Proponents counter that a lack of sidewalks compromises public safety and slows the shift away from a car culture.

“A lot of these neighborhoods are the child of an era when we thought all we needed was the car,” said Vikas Mehta, an architecture professor at the University of South Florida and author of “The Street: A Quintessential Social Public Space.” “The predominant culture was of being in the vehicle, and sidewalks had no place in that. Now we are finding that is not the best for us.”

In 2009, a plan to install 200 miles of sidewalks throughout the District provoked what some residents called a “sidewalk war.” Nevertheless, the D.C. Council passed legislation a year later mandating a sidewalk on at least one side of each street.

In Montgomery County, a state plan to install a sidewalk on Wisconsin Avenue between Friendship Heights and Bethesda has neighbors divided. Some say the sidewalk would increase pedestrian safety, but others say the loss of dozens of large trees is too high a cost.

And last year, Falls Church postponed a pedestrian plan after residents raised concerns that the addition of sidewalks would reduce street parking.

In University Hills, a neighborhood of about 350 homes, sentiment against sidewalks is strong, although not universal.

Randy Fletcher and his wife, Rose, own a historic home that is surrounded by tall trees on Rosemary Lane. “It feels very much like we are in the country, and yet we are inside the Beltway,” Randy Fletcher said. “A lot of the residents . . . moved here for this feel.”

Hyattsville’s efforts comesas Prince George’s County begins to implement its recently updated master plan, which envisions more sidewalks to connect people to transit, libraries and schools.

But if Hyattsville is leading the way, it’s also encountering a lot of resistance. Residents and city officials say they can’t remember a more contentious municipal issue than the sidewalk plan, which has been debated for two years in community meetings and council hearings. Some University Hills residents have questioned whether voting to join Hyattsville in 2006 was the right call.

The Hyattsville City Council is expected to decide soon how to proceed. Some members say sidewalk construction could begin next year on main thoroughfares such as Wells Boulevard.

But more discussion is likely before sidewalks come to the neighborhood’s side streets, said Ron Pedone, president of the University Hills Area Civic Association.

Pedone is a sidewalks supporter, but he understands some of the concerns, especially about the process, and he has conveyed those concerns to officials.

“In many ways, to argue against sidewalks seems to me ridiculous; it is almost like arguing against seat belts, or helmets on motorcycles,” he said. “But we can’t ignore the tension. It is almost as if this is being forced on people.”

A city of about three square miles, Hyattsville has grown by about 2,000 residents in the past decade to 17,700. City officials say that Hyattsville has drawn nearly $1.8 billion in investment since 2005, including more than 1,200 new housing units.

“Hyattsville was a ghost town, but now it is a gem in Prince George’s,” said City Council member Carlos Lizanne (Ward 4), a city resident for 37 years. “Now people are walking to the Metro station, to the bus stop and the shopping areas.”

The city needs to find ways to accommodate pedestrians, he said. In that spirit, Hyattsville has launched green initiatives, installing bike racks, designating bike lanes and promoting the use of public transit, including the two Metro stations within the city limits.

Cheryl Hoffman, 65, who often walks with her husband to University Town Center, a mixed-used development a mile away, said the sidewalks would be beneficial.

“We are not suburbia anymore,” said Hoffman, who said she also takes long walks with their dog on most mornings, sharing the road with cars and cyclists.

The Fletchers, who live down the street in an 1840 Italianate where Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland were frequent guests, say they hope the city’s plan will stick to the main roads and not go onto the side streets.

Their two-acre property, a former horse farm, is minutes from the county’s growing commercial and residential development, but it preserves a rural feel with a long driveway surrounded by tall trees. They fear any road improvements will mean the loss of trees.

“We hope that it stays the way it is,” Randy Fletcher said. “Once you put more sidewalks in . . . it is going to add an urbanized feeling into this bucolic setting, which would be really very disappointing.”

 
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