Official Washington and local D.C. can often seem like completely different worlds, existing right next to each other but rarely, if ever, intermingling. But when they do intersect, it tends to be at ANC meetings—upper Northwest ANC meetings, in particular.
Only in D.C. could you spot the late Meet the Press host Tim Russert agitating to have a road closed in Woodley Park, for instance, or his son, Luke, fighting to tear down a pair of Transformers statues in Georgetown. So it’s intriguing, albeit not wholly surprising, to see their NBC News colleague Andrea Mitchell weighing in on a brewing controversy in Palisades.
Mitchell is part of an increasingly vocal group of neighbors who live along University Terrace NW and Chain Bridge Road NW in the tony Northwest enclave and are fighting to see the roads closed to through traffic, arguing it’s the only way to prevent commuters from zooming down their streets to reach popular nearby thoroughfares like MacArthur Boulevard NW or Loughboro Road NW. They’re also arguing against the installation of other traffic-calming measures that could avert the need for a full road closure, such as sidewalks.
The question of whether to build sidewalks on the narrow roads has occupied neighbors for well more than a decade (note that City Paper was covering the issue back in September 2009), making this the ideal sort of hyperlocal matter to occupy scores of contentious ANC meetings. Add in the involvement of a famous name like Mitchell (who owns a $1.5 million home on Chain Bridge Road NW with her husband, former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan) and you get a quintessentially D.C. dispute.
The issue’s been heating up in recent weeks, as the District Department of Transportation has taken steps to close the roads to traffic at all hours of the day, going beyond even the neighbors’ request to shut it down during rush hour (and irking the local ANC in the process). The stakes are pretty low, all things considered, but that proposal is drawing accusations that the city is essentially doing a big favor for some of its wealthiest residents with such a move. Loose Lips would submit that there is no better time than the doldrums of August to dive into such a perfectly absurd neighborhood battle.
“It is just a classic Ward 3 story,” says Commissioner Christian Damiana, who represents Single Member District 3D07.
The one point everyone in the neighborhood can agree on is that University Terrace NW and Chain Bridge Road NW aren’t especially safe right now. Damiana notes that drivers are frequently routed onto these narrow streets by navigation apps like Google Maps and Waze, and they often don’t adhere to the 20 mile-per-hour speed limit. The situation is even worse for pedestrians, who often don’t have as much as a shoulder to walk along. (LL can confirm that a stroll on these roads can cause your life to flash before your eyes, as cars approach suddenly on several sharp curves.)
Since parents and students walk to reach nearby Key Elementary School, the situation is especially concerning. Neighbors debated the issue some in 2019, but things didn’t start moving forward until last year. A group dubbing itself the “Chain Bridge Road/University Terrace Preservation Committee” started passing petitions around agitating for the roads’ closure at rush hour, and got enough neighborhood support to convince Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh to send a letter to DDOT in July 2021 asking for that change.
ANC 3D followed up with a letter of its own in September, hoping to “supplement” Cheh’s request by calling for the prioritization of other traffic-calming measures on the street, particularly sidewalks. Mitchell and some of her neighbors popped up to take their stand against that particular change at the ANC’s September 2021 meeting, arguing that Chain Bridge Road NW (which runs along Battery Kemble Park) simply wasn’t designed to have sidewalks.
“The only way that the street could be widened to accommodate a sidewalk would be from our homes,” Mitchell said. “These are homes that were originally built during the Civil War. Mine was built in 1865, as was my next-door neighbor’s, as farm houses by freed slaves. This is an historic community, an African-American community going back to the 1860s … It’s a very special place, and it’s the unique character of our road that makes it very, very difficult to accommodate, if not impossible to accommodate a sidewalk without taking down houses.”
It wasn’t until this summer that DDOT decided to weigh in on the issue, issuing a notice of intent on June 24 that it planned to close University Terrace NW and Chain Bridge Road NW to through traffic at all hours of the day. Mark Medish, one of the lead organizers of the preservation committee, says this is an option that precisely no one in the neighborhood was asking for, not even his group.
The ANC certainly wasn’t interested in that option, Damiana says, noting that a full-time closure could simply push more traffic to Arizona Avenue NW, which already sees big backups. And then there’s the matter of optics, as such a move making it seem as if DDOT is creating “private driveways” for these wealthy residents, the ANC argued in a July 6 letter to department leaders.
“It makes everybody think that this is really a set-up for the rich and the wealthy and the privileged who live in our city,” Steve Seelig, a smart growth advocate with the group Ward 3 Vision, said during the ANC’s July 6 meeting. “It’s just completely ad hoc.”
DDOT representatives did not respond to a request for comment, but it seems the agency feared putting some sort of time restriction on the road closures would run afoul of federal rules for traffic signs, based on officials’ presentations at ANC meetings. Medish feels it’s a slightly absurd argument to make, as he’s found lots of other examples of rush hour restrictions on D.C. roads and even confirmed directly with U.S. Department of Transportation officials that such a sign would be legal.
“I’m a little impatient with people hollering this is special treatment for us, because it’s analogous to lots of other situations in other neighborhoods,” says Medish, who lives on University Terrace NW and works as a national political consultant. “That’s why we tried to come up with a signage proposal that was minimally invasive, minimally inconveniencing.”
Medish is hopeful that DDOT will return to the option of a rush hour-only closure as a compromise sometime soon (it just closed the public comment period on the permanent closure proposal Monday). He’s less certain about the idea of adding sidewalks there too—he’s personally “agnostic” on the issue, but admits that many of his neighbors are vehemently opposed.
The ANC is hoping to keep the matter alive, asking DDOT for a “reset” on these safety discussions in a separate July 6 letter. And it seems they’ve had some success thus far—a spokesperson for Cheh says she recently convinced agency officials to go on a “site visit” with the ANC, and DDOT now plans to evaluate “traffic patterns post-COVID” and other safety issues before making a decision on other traffic calming measures. Cheh plans to wait for that analysis before taking a position one way or the other.
She’s supported sidewalks in the past, but it may well be a tough feat to manage given the neighborhood opposition to sidewalks and DDOT’s accompanying intransigence. Christian Pineiro, a community engagement specialist with the department, said during the ANC’s July meeting that “drainage issues” in the area would likely make any sidewalk project prohibitively expensive. He said the department broadly supports adding sidewalks there someday, but the difficulty (and expense) of fixing those issues and perhaps acquiring private property to build the sidewalks are major hurdles.
“I wish we could wave a magic wand and just have an unlimited amount of resources to put these into action,” Pineiro said.
Michael Porcello, Cheh’s legislative director, expressed serious skepticism about the budget being the biggest impediment to the project during the ANC’s meeting last September, noting his boss has secured a good deal of money for such projects as part of the Council’s Vision Zero legislation. ANC 3D Chair and erstwhile Council candidate Ben Bergmann went a step further, calling it “an outrageous explanation for why they’re not going to pursue a sidewalk connecting to an elementary school.”
Damiana fears the simplest answer is the correct one: The agency doesn’t have much incentive to move on sidewalks when “the residents there, historically, simply haven’t wanted to do anything to change the neighborhood.”
The ANC may yet be able to overcome that opposition, but this is another tale as old as time for this particular section of D.C. After all, who wants to piss off someone who hosts an hourlong cable news show every day?