Prince George's Town Aims to Pave a 'Greener' Path

Decatur Street in Edmonston, the town's main road, will be ripped up in a few weeks and refashioned to treat rainwater and help avert flooding.
Decatur Street in Edmonston, the town's main road, will be ripped up in a few weeks and refashioned to treat rainwater and help avert flooding. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

For decades, the town of Edmonston in Prince George's County has been an industrial back lot for a toxic and stinking waterway. In the suburb split in half by the Anacostia River, freight trains rumble along Route 1, factories churn out auto parts and Greyhound repairs its buses. Stormwater rolls down warehouse roofs and swells the river, flooding already threadbare homes.

Now the hamlet of 1,500 near the District line, with numerous foreclosures and many residents out of work, is trying to remake itself by joining an environmental movement more often embraced by wealthier communities.

In a few weeks, workers will start ripping up Edmonston's main road and replacing it with an environmentally friendly street of rain gardens, porous brick and a drought-resistant tree canopy designed to shade the concrete, filter rainwater before it flows into the river and put people to work.

When the work is done, Decatur Street will naturally treat more than 90 percent of the pollution from the 40 inches of rainwater that sweeps into the Anacostia each year. "We're a town that's been beaten up by floods," said Adam C. Ortiz, Edmonston's mayor and the firepower behind the project. "We have to make things happen for us instead of making things happen to us."

Ortiz, 35, who speaks Spanish with many of his constituents, has a framed poster in his Town Hall office from Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign: "Let's keep building the Great Society."

Edmonston's "green" street will be its biggest public works project, employing about 40 workers from the town and neighboring communities. The project qualified for $1.3 million in federal stimulus money. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) got Ortiz an audience with Vice President Biden at an Earth Day event in April, and Ortiz said that Biden told him that he would try to attend the groundbreaking next month.

"A little town like this?" mused Robert Kerns, a Town Council member who works as a ground supervisor for FedEx. "In a million years, I would never have thought it would happen."

Green streets have been built in Seattle and Portland, Ore., but they're novel in small towns such as Edmonston, which has no system to filter stormwater. Planners are just beginning to use roads to reduce the community's carbon footprint. There are apparently no similar projects underway in the Washington area.

"As we start rebuilding infrastructure, this is a great way to do it," said Neil Weinstein, executive director of the Low Impact Development Center in Beltsville, who is working with Edmonston with help from planners at the Environmental Protection Agency. "The thing here? Edmonston's got diddly."

The town, between Hyattsville and Bladensburg, is one of the Washington area's lowest-lying communities. It probably got its name from James Edmonston, a captain from Bladensburg who paid five shillings in 1742 for land that eventually was developed into dairy farms.

It has always been a working person's community: Just 8 percent of the adults went to college, the mayor said. It's a diverse place where newcomers, many of them construction workers, hail from 19 countries, a fact celebrated in a mural that artists are painting on the retaining walls of the bridge over the river. It reads: "Diversity Without Division Creates Harmony."

Flooding has always been Edmonston's Achilles' heel. A new pumping station was built at the river's edge in 2007, and it has helped keep the town dry.

Decatur Street runs three-fourths of a mile, and it's a throughway for trucks whizzing between factories on Kenilworth Avenue and Route 1. It is lined with Sears model homes, old Victorians and Edmonston's only restaurant, La Fondita. Grass peeks through the cracked sidewalks. There's no bike path. Main streets in wealthier towns often have a strip of grass between sidewalks and roads, but the area along Decatur Street is just a foot wide, browned by the sun.

The project, to be completed in six months if construction goes as planned, will usher in dramatic changes. Thirty maple, elm, sycamore and oak trees will line the street, and energy-efficient streetlights will be powered by wind. The street will be eight feet narrower to reduce paved surfaces, with landscaped "bump-outs" filled with moisture-loving plants to absorb and filter stormwater. The sidewalks will be laid with permeable concrete blocks to absorb the residue of daily life. And a bike path will encourage people to get out of their cars.

"The biggest thing to me is, it will help us find shade," said Jose Hernandez, 17, who moved to Edmonston from El Salvador in 2005. And there are a lot of people who don't have jobs, said his brother, Luiz, 16, as they helped artists from the Port Towns Youth Mural Project paint the bridge one morning last week. Their father, a construction worker, has steady work, they said.

Most of the design and engineering work was done for free because the town couldn't afford to pay.

Maggie Pooley got involved right away. She has raised her four children in a Sears house on Decatur Street. Although she said she is disheartened about the foreclosed Victorian two doors down that's for sale for $145,000, she is proud that the town is trying to revive its fortunes.

"This will put us on the radar screen," Pooley said of the new street. "Even a working-class community can glom on to being a little bit aware of the environment."

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