Tony Nuland just wanted to walk his dog.
Cradling Miki, his blind, 13-year-old Pekingese, the D.C. resident scanned crowded Cathedral Avenue NW for an opening. But a procession of cars racing down the hill in front of his home created an impasse.
The 72-year-old didn’t want to risk scampering across two lanes of heavy traffic, so there he stood, helplessly trying to reach a grassy patch less than 50 feet from his front porch.
Lately, this game of chicken has turned into a daily morning routine — man vs. machine — as streams of sedans, SUVs and the occasional turbocharged sports car whiz past his three-story rowhouse, where he lives with his wife, Alexa Simmonds, and two other dogs.
“You’ve gotta pick your time and scurry across,” said Nuland, a securities and banking lawyer. He successfully petitioned the city to install stop signs near his home in 1999, following several troubling incidents on the road.
“There have been numerous near-accidents as vehicles traveling on Cathedral have had to brake suddenly,” he wrote then, citing near-blind curves at intersecting streets.
In the neighborhood, which edges up against the Smithsonian National Zoo, a rainbow palette of rowhouses dots stone sidewalks, and sharp curves on the sloping road obscure the view at two intersections, which flank the residences.
So, asked to calm the traffic 17 years ago, the city obliged.
But in advance of the Beach Drive closure in September, the District Department of Transportation covered up the stop signs Nuland and his neighbors fought so hard for — without consulting them. And it was only after a weeks-long fight involving letters, vocal complaints and two tense community meetings that the District partially reversed its decision in an announcement that elicited loud cheers at a community meeting last week attended by dozens.
The first of four phases of the rehabilitation of Beach Drive is expected to last six to eight months. But the residents’ recent showdown with city transportation officials showcased the pain that the massive three-year project will cause as one of the region’s most heavily traveled thoroughfares is restored to a state of good repair.
It also typified the resilience of a tightknit Northwest Washington community, a neighborhood that banded together to fight the city and, effectively, won at least a partial victory.
It all started in mid-September, a few days before the first Beach Drive closure was set to begin. The National Park Service taped fliers to residents’ doors. It said DDOT and traffic engineers had recommended removing the stop signs “to help mitigate backups on this street.”
Residents weren’t persuaded, but DDOT’s traffic concerns were proved in the closure’s first week: Average daily traffic volume on Cathedral Avenue shot up 70 percent, from about 7,000 vehicles per day to nearly 12,000.
And residents on Cathedral Avenue were quick to notice.
They said the influx of commuter traffic, combined with the lack of traffic control, turned their street into a speedway and a hazard, particularly before and after rush hour. DDOT data showed that average speeds never exceeded the 25 mph speed limit during that time, but it was during off-peak times, when traffic control officers left, that residents were especially concerned.
“I call it training for the Indy 500. These are the wannabes,” said Barbara Ioanes, 74, who is vice president of the Woodley Park Community Association.
Nuland said traffic that used to proceed at 35 or 40 mph down the slope in front of his home now approaches 50 mph.
“It’s just not designed to go that fast,” he said. “The bloody speed limit’s 25 miles per hour.”
The absence of “traffic-calming measures” creates a hazard for both those living in the neighborhood and visitors: zoo patrons pushing strollers, pet owners, public servants and utility workers.
Even the mail carrier has been afraid to cross the street.
“It’s like a challenge, a very dangerous one,” said U.S. Postal Service carrier Sabrina Battle, 42, as she juggled an armful of packages on a recent afternoon. “It’s something waiting to happen.”
Judith Shapiro, 63, erected a hand-painted, wooden sign reading “Slow Slow Stop” in front of her home. “We don’t mind a nuisance, but we do mind the disregard for public safety,” she said. “The fact is that not only residents, but public servants, contractors, are afraid to come here.”
Residents said cars peel down the hill off Connecticut Avenue and race all the way to an intersection near the entrance of Rock Creek Parkway, treating the road as an extension of the parkway.
Nuland emailed government officials, including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo and Tara D. Morrison, the Park Service superintendent for Rock Creek Park, asking them to reconsider the decision to remove the stop signs.
Things came to a head at a community meeting last month when residents confronted Dormsjo. His response, in their recollection: Construction-related detours are not a voting matter. And residents were warned what was coming, officials said, eliciting boos. More than a dozen disgruntled residents walked out of the meeting. A recording of the meeting could not be obtained, but the chain of events was corroborated by multiple attendees.
Meanwhile, the stop signs remained bagged for weeks. And residents continued to fight. D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who represents the area, was among those who took up their cause.
“It was my suggestion that before they cover the stop signs or eliminate them that they consider (A) if it’s really needed, but (B) leave the stop signs there and put traffic controllers there so they can override the backups during rush hour,” said Cheh, who also chairs the council’s transportation committee. “They can just wave people on ‘come on, come on, come on,’ they can be there and ready to relieve any backups, but the stop signs would otherwise apply.”
DDOT did not respond to initial requests for comment. After multiple emails, a department spokesman finally told a Post reporter that officials would be made available at a special meeting organized by the Woodley Park Community Association.
It was at that meeting Thursday night that neighborhood residents learned their efforts had paid off. DDOT pledged to restore stop signs at one of the two intersections — Woodley Road NW — and said it would monitor conditions at the other, Hawthorne Street. The room erupted in applause as DDOT’s Sam Zimbabwe, acting chief project delivery officer, announced the change.
“We think that there is good reason to reinstate the stop sign at Woodley Road,” Zimbabwe said, eliciting cheers.
Work remains, but it was encouraging that DDOT was willing to work with the neighborhood, residents said.
“What this is . . . it’s a good compromise,” said Peter Brusoe, president of the Woodley Park Community Association.
Nuland hopes it will put an end to a bizarre two-week span in which traffic on Cathedral Avenue had even slowed the delivery of the mail. Battle, the mail carrier, said a colleague had recently timed her as she attempted to cross the street. It took six minutes.
Nuland was in a similar situation, holding Miki last week. It was only after a friendly driver stopped and waved him on that he was able to cross. Even then, drivers in the rear honked their horns.
“It’s just a pity, in my view, that we have to do this,” Nuland said.