On Sunday afternoon, traffic will come to a halt in Adams Morgan. Instead of Uber Eats drivers blocking traffic outside restaurants and buses idling at stoplights, 18th Street NW will be filled with diners enjoying restaurants alfresco and families doing yoga together while an entertainer riding a big-wheeled penny-farthing cycles past.
Well, that’s the idea, anyway.
Sunday marks the debut of the Adams Morgan Pedestrian Zone, a pilot program that will close 18th Street to vehicular traffic between Columbia and Kalorama roads one Sunday each month, from noon to 10 p.m., through October. The goal, according to the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District, is to draw more people to the neighborhood, then make it easier for them to move around and socialize or participate in activities on the pavement.
For years, or maybe decades, Adams Morgan business owners and bar regulars have floated the idea of closing 18th Street to cars on weekends, turning the strip of eateries, music venues and taverns into some sort of combination of Les Halles and Bourbon Street. Outside of the annual Adams Morgan Day festival, however, it remained a pipe dream.
Then, in June 2020, the District Department of Transportation announced it was closing 18th between Columbia and Kalorama roads for extended stretches over the course of a weekend — eight hours each on Friday and Saturday and 12 hours on Sunday. The goal was to “reimagine outdoor space in the District” as bars and restaurants began to reopen, creating more room for outdoor drinking and dining. When the weekend finally arrived, it might have been more successful than anticipated: There were long lines and full patios up and down the street. “That was very successful for us,” says Jo-Jo Valenzuela, the owner of the Game sports bar and Tiki on 18th, though he adds that “it was the craziest shift I’ve ever worked in my life” due to crowds ordering cocktails while restaurants remained short-staffed. Dave Delaplaine, the general manager and beer director at Roofers Union, is more concise: “That kicked our a--.”
Despite interest in repeating the experiment, neighbors complained about the lack of social distancing and masking, and it didn’t happen again. But closing the street became a possibility once more this year thanks to the Streets for People grant program, which supports outdoor concerts, movies and events in public spaces around the city. A majority of the funding is going to purchase a system with metal cables that can be pulled across the street to close it to traffic, rather than using dump trucks to block motor access. (An earlier plan to install hydraulic bollards in the middle of the roadway has been nixed.)
Beyond hanging out on rooftop bars and at streateries, free scheduled activities include yoga and Zumba classes, instructors from Words, Beats and Life leading a dance academy, face painting and balloon artists for children, and the creation of a chalk mural in the middle of the street.
During a hearing with the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission in May, Kristen Barden, the BID’s executive director, stressed that the pedestrian zone won’t become a monthly Adams Morgan Day-style block party with stages or booths for vendors set up in the road. “Because a 20-foot fire lane must be clear in the middle of the street, any entertainment will be more pop-up in nature,” she explained — activities that can quickly move out of the way if needed.
Note for those planning to attend via public transportation: The 90 and 96 buses, which usually run on 18th Street, are being rerouted on Florida and Connecticut avenues on Sunday.
Bars and restaurants are cautiously enthusiastic about the project. “I don’t know what to expect,” says Delaplaine of Roofers Union. “I don’t want to plan too much and stretch the staff out.” Instead, he thinks they’ll operate like a normal Sunday but maybe open the rooftop bar at 2 p.m. instead of 3:30. “Because there are three of these, we’re going to base what we do in the future off this Sunday,” he says, potentially adding live music Sept. 4.
Still, Delaplaine says, he’s looking forward to the series. “Part of Adams Morgan has been lacking coming out of covid,” compared with other neighborhoods. “We’ve lost a few restaurants, and people are looking for more outdoor options.”
The Adams Morgan Pedestrian Zone will be held on Sunday, Sept. 4 and Oct. 23. More information is available at admodc.org.