Construction trailers that occupy a lane on L Street NW belong to a private construction company that has contracted with the District of Columbia to rebuild a public school. A July 11 article referred to such companies as developers, but their projects sometimes have public purposes. (Published 7/17/04)
Here comes the rush of cars leaving downtown Washington, just as it does most days. And here the vehicles come to the spot, at L and 12th streets NW, where the traffic wedges into a tidy jam, just as it does most days. For it is here, with the city's blessing, that two construction trailers have occupied the rush-hour lane for the past several months.
The trailers, and the tie-ups they cause, will be there for nearly a year longer, one of numerous spots across the District where city officials have allowed developers to overtake streets, sidewalks and alleyways.
In a city where development is firing forward with fevered force, transportation officials are struggling to balance the need for builders to have room for their cranes, offices, dumpsters and supplies against the wants of residents and motorists who find that the streets they can use are decreasing.
The loss of public space is going on across the city, in business districts and in neighborhoods, on streets big and small. Multiple projects are eating up chunks of such major thoroughfares as Massachusetts Avenue, K Street and 14th Street in Northwest Washington and others that are taking up neighborhood blocks, in some cases for years.
Residents said the District has gone overboard in accommodating developers in a desire to attract new condominiums, offices, supermarkets and other amenities.
"It's all well and good in the beginning, but enforcement is the problem," said Kara McCabe of the 1400 block of Church Street NW. For the nearly two years she has lived there, the street has been cordoned off during the day and virtually all sidewalk space has been blocked.
When there's a problem, she said, "you call [the Department of Transportation] and they call the developers and they plan a big meeting and DOT threatens to pull permits and then one of the higher-ups calls and says that will slow us down. It happens time and time again."
Residents said another chronic complaint is contractors using fenced-off areas simply to park their personal vehicles -- a problem that city officials acknowledged and said they were trying to fix.
The District has pages of guidelines that developers must follow once site plans are approved, but city officials retain wide latitude in what they allow. Rather than enforcing general standards on every project, District officials said they prefer a case-by-case approach that allows them to weigh developer needs against traffic and parking concerns at a site.
Some results counter efforts by transportation officials and business leaders to reduce congestion on city streets. In recent years, for instance, officials have tried to reduce traffic on downtown streets through small measures, such as posting "Don't Block the Box" signs at intersections.
"You close a lane during rush hour, in particular, when the system's loaded, and things get screwed up," said Joe Passonneau, a transportation consultant who said that as many cars come into the District daily as to any U.S. city. "The city can't afford to give up any, any, any traffic capacity if they want the system to work."
Some cities have more standardized approaches. Officials in New York generally require builders to construct wooden structures around sidewalks so the walkways can be used during construction, and officials there regularly make developers perch their trailers above street level.
"There are parts of the city where we act exactly like New York," said Dan Tangherlini, the District's transportation director. "But why create a cost of doing business similar to New York's when we don't need to?"
Tangherlini said the public interest has to be weighed against the District's desire to continue to attract development. "I guarantee there will be some annoyance," he said. But the District needs to "maintain this incredible economic boom."
Officials in urbanizing suburbs around Washington said they, too, have come across more problems in recent years, but they said their challenges are limited to localized spots and have little effect on wider transportation networks.
Not so in the District, where examples that irk people abound.
On Fourth Street NW, a lane running the length of the block between G and H streets was fenced off, keeping people off sidewalks and from parking spots in an area desperate for them.
The only equipment there was a dumpster and a small generator. The limited work on the site was relegated to an area well inside the fence.
City officials inspected the site after being asked about it by a reporter and concluded that the developer needed to remove the fence from the roadway, said Douglas Noble, chief traffic engineer at the Department of Transportation.
In Foggy Bottom, H Street between 19th and 20th has been cordoned off for a year and a half -- and will remain so for at least four more months -- to make way for construction. Blocked by the project, one scooter-rider zipped up the sidewalk on a recent morning.
District officials said the project has required a lot of excavation work and delivery of materials, so they chose to close H Street instead of busier roads, such as Pennsylvania Avenue.
In Adams Morgan, furor over a crane that has interrupted trash removal and interfered with some residents who want to park in their private spots has ignited a movement against the increasing reach of developers on their streets.
"Developers seem to have the attitude -- which seems to be fostered by the city -- that just because they have a right to build a project, they have a right to impose any manner of inconvenience on anyone else around," said Alan Roth, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Adams Morgan. "People seem to do whatever they please. There's a public interest here, too."
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents Adams Morgan, said the city's site-by-site approach isn't working.
"What we're getting are the K Street standards," Graham said. "But we need a different approach because we have densely populated neighborhoods."
Graham said that he doesn't want to slow redevelopment but that too much leeway is given to builders. "My impression is, if a developer is moving as a matter of right, then everything is done to accommodate them," said Graham, who met with transportation officials Friday to discuss changes.
Some developers said they wouldn't slow down a bit if tighter controls were in place. "We're there to follow whatever is deemed to be the best methodology," said Scott Forrester of Forrester Construction, which is building several projects in the District.
Forrester said that changes likely would add to the cost of projects but that they would be minimal and would simply be passed on to condo buyers, office tenants or renters.
"D.C. has never been a New York, let's face it," Forrester said. "It's never been a Boston. Guess what -- it sure as heck is starting to become one real fast. As a result, it's got some regulations and enforcement measures that may not be fully up to speed."
Like on L Street. Noble said that "typically where we have a rush-hour traffic lane, sometimes we allow taking the lane off rush hour."
Asked why the rush-hour lane on L Street had been forfeited at all times for months, he said, "Trailers are there because it's the only place on site for construction offices."
Asked whether the trailers could be elevated, Noble said: "We could do pretty much anything we want, but they're already on site in that location. They're already connected to power sources and power lines. It's something that's a lot easier to do at the beginning of a project."
Tangherlini added that "we have this very limited public space and very limited right-of-way and all these demands on it. It's very different from our prior experience."
"Sometimes we get it right," he said. "Sometimes we don't."