A perennial question hovering over a neighborhood at the epicenter of Washington nightlife is not just which bars offer the best beer selections but how to manage the legions of patrons who descend, often in their cars, to find the answer.
Spurred by a recent hit-and-run that injured two police officers and a D.C. Transportation Department officer, an Adams Morgan community leader is offering a remedy: turn a portion of 18th Street NW, the often traffic-choked thoroughfare where the incident occurred, into a car-free zone.
Imagine Europe, and cobblestones, instead of horns blaring, cars double parking and bicyclists swerving as Uber and Lyft drivers stop suddenly to pick up a fare.
“I think it would be better off,” said Amir Irani, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who is pushing the car-free concept. “It turns it into more of a neighborhood.”
Irani, an entrepreneur who was elected to the ANC in November, first raised the notion of banning cars from 18th Street at a meeting in June.
A few nights before, he had been at a diner on 18th Street, the neighborhood’s bar- and restaurant-lined main corridor, when a pickup driver struck the officers nearby. He described the aftermath as “a heck of a scene,” with the officers’ clothing on the ground and bikes toppled over in the middle of the roadway. The driver was arrested and charged with assault with the intent to kill and unlawful possession of a firearm.
If cars were barred from the strip, Irani said, the collision would not have occurred. The incident, he said, catalyzed discussion about the chronic problems of a street often overwhelmed by weekend traffic.
At least two of Irani’s commission colleagues said they support further study of the concept. Neighborhood leaders are also considering the feasibility of designating areas away from 18th Street for hailing taxis and meeting Uber and Lyft drivers.
But the car-free idea is already being dismissed by an array of community leaders and business owners who complain that it would push traffic into streets adjoining 18th Street NW, virtually all of them lined with stately rowhouses and apartment buildings.
“Oh for God’s sakes,” Val Morgan, the owner of Idle Times Books, an Adams Morgan staple for 31 years, said when told of the idea. “You’re living in fantasy land. Where are all the people going to park? It would make it a dead space except for all the drunks. And drunk people don’t buy books.”
With establishments such as Madam’s Organ and Club Heaven and Hell, Adams Morgan has been a mainstay of the city’s nocturnal life for more than two decades. In more recent years, as bars and clubs in other neighborhoods have flourished, the crowds have eased somewhat. But young professionals and college students still clog the streets Thursday through Sunday nights.
The crowding was one reason the District spent more than $6 million to widen 18th Street’s sidewalks five years ago, a project that cost the strip parking spots and resulted in a narrower roadway, which was supposed to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
Bill Duggan, the owner of Madam’s Organ, a bar that opened on 18th Street in 1992, said a pedestrian zone on the corridor would help Adams Morgan gain a competitive edge over other areas where nightlife has proliferated in recent years.
“From a marketing standpoint, it’s a beautiful idea,” he said. “It would be like a revitalization, and I think it would help business.”
But Denis James, a 46-year resident of Adams Morgan who is president of the Kalorama Citizens Association, said the change would be “terrible” for residents on adjoining streets.
“Traffic is going to come and people are going to come, a lot of them late at night,” he said. “And if they can’t drive on 18th Street that will mean they’re circulating in the residential neighborhood. It’s just going to have an outward ripple effect.”
D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), whose district includes Adams Morgan, said in a statement that she’s “glad” the ANC “is starting this discussion” but wants input from “additional agencies and neighborhood groups.”
Kristen Barden, executive director for the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District, said the idea has not yet gained sufficient traction in the neighborhood to warrant serious consideration.
“There’s no ‘there’ there until there’s a larger discussion,” she said, adding that she would consult her organization’s board “if there’s a real proposal on the table.”
Wilson Reynolds, an ANC commissioner, said the idea of a car-free zone on 18th Street has come up in the past, only to “fizzle out” once the panel considered the potential for displacing the traffic to adjoining routes.
But he said he would support a “pilot effort” if there was a “significant demonstration from the public that this is something they would support.”
Irani said he is researching the effects of pedestrian zones on neighborhoods outside of the District and hopes to hear from “all the stakeholders” about the idea.
“I’m not dropping it,” he said. “It deserves a thoughtful discussion.”