by Jane Solomon
By now, most of us are familiar with the four “alternative” treatments for our much beloved Broad Branch Road. With the exception of Alternative One (not a real option, according to DDOT), all are extremely costly, require large retaining walls and the loss of hundreds of trees. All alter the character of the road we know. It’s just a question of degree and what is gained – or lost – depending on your perspective.
Thus far, I’ve supported Alternative Four’s bike path and sidewalk, as did ANC 3F. I’m no fan of the additional costs of those amenities, but I place a high value on safe, nonvehicular access to the park. I’d hate to see the character of the road so dramatically altered only to have the park as out of reach for those on foot or on bicycle as it is now.
My opinion is no more or less valuable than anyone else’s, and we could go around in circles ad nauseam about DDOT’s proposals. Or maybe we should think about alternatives to the Alternatives? A recent email got me doing just that.
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a copy of an independent analysis and recommendations for Broad Branch. This analysis was prepared by Brock Evans for the Sierra Club Executive Committee, of which he is a member. Evans is the president of the Endangered Species Coalition and has spent decades writing, lecturing, and fighting in the trenches on environmental and humanitarian issues.
And as often happens in DC – where nobody is ever a nobody – he’s a neighbor and lives near Nebraska and Military. He’s given me permission to share his analysis and – spoiler alert – he recommends closing the road entirely in what he calls the “Save Nature Alternative.”
I’m spilling those beans right up front to add that I’m neither advocating nor rejecting his position. There are way too many considerations to jump hastily into “camps” and any discussion of road closure is akin to whacking a hornet’s nest with a baseball bat. (Several years ago I permanently deleted the words “Klingle Road” from my vocabulary as a safety precaution.) But consider it we should, on its own merits and also as a means to challenge the basic assumption of DDOT’s Alternatives: That Broad Branch remains a road open 24/7 to two-way vehicular traffic. Perhaps we’ll discover other ways forward.
One certainty is that there’s no perfect answer – there are simply too many competing demands. Yet could there be middle ground in limiting cars to a reversible single lane and dedicating the other lane to bikes and pedestrians? Most of the traffic is during rush hour anyway. Closing the road entirely on weekends is another possibility, so long as there is safe and simple car access for the residents of Broad Branch. Maybe the road is closed to traffic during non-rush hours on weekdays. Whatever ideas are out there, now is the time to bring them forward for discussion.
For the moment though, read what Brock Evans has to say. At the very least, I found that it flipped DDOT’s approach on its head. Rather than thinking about how to add people to a place currently owned by cars, I’m thinking about how (and if) to keep cars in a beautiful place that should be enjoyed by people.
Brock Evans is particularly eloquent about Broad Branch in his cover email to the Sierra Club Executive Committee. Here are a few excerpts from that email followed by his analysis.
…each “Action Alternative” does so much damage to the natural ambiance now there, that none of them are acceptable—each destroys just too much. Thus I have suggested consideration of an entirely new Alternative – the ‘Save Nature Alternative.’
Broad Branch Creek (and roadway) is unique as it is – a lovely and serene combination – of a narrow twisting road, immediately next to a babbling (except in big storm events!) creek, twisting and turning between steep, heavily forested slopes, all of it roofed over by a magnificent and barely disturbed, closed tree canopy, referenced in the EA itself as “that Country Road Feeling”. In the heart of the District!.
In my view, formed by over forty years of traversing the valley by car, bicycle and foot, there is simply nothing else like THIS kind of special ambiance, certainly not in or near Rock Creek Park, probably nowhere else in the whole District.
This was not an easy conclusion for me, because I have derived so much pleasure just driving this stretch, especially since I can no longer bicycle easily. This is the stretch of road we always take foreign visitors on, to show how much semi-wilderness and forests there are right here, dead center in the middle of a great conurbation of 56 million people.
Broad Branch Environmental Assessment Observations:
1. Proposed new Bicycle Trail. At first blush, this seems like a positive thing. We want our city to be as bike friendly as possible? City Council has approved a Master Plan for same. Here the trail would be 4’ wide, with another 4’ “replanting zone” to, hopefully, ‘mitigate’ for the many large trees which must be cut down to construct it.
2. Same with the proposed new 6’ sidewalk uphill, and winding through the bluffs above the roadway. After all, the City Council has just passed (2010) a Sideway Assurance Act (L 180227), haven’t they? Its purpose was to guarantee pedestrian access alongside city streets… and, as alsofor bicycles, there is no such infrastructure there at the present time.
The problem here is larger–much more–larger–than a simple calculation of how many large trees would be cut down in this narrow valley/creekside strip of forest, in order to accommodate more paved infrastructure. The problem is because it is precisely those attributes: a splashing creek with all its life-forms, its banks lined with big trees, plus the steep forestcovered hillsides right behind it. It is these features which, all together and right there, create a special ambience –that “Country Road Feeling,” to be found nowhere else in the District.
Most crucially is this combination: of closeby creek and its immediately adjacent forest of large trees spreading a cooling canopy – which make this particular tributary of Rock Creek such a special feature, already enjoyed by thousands of District residents each day.
Regarding the sidewalk: such a huge adverse impact on existing unique natural features including the inevitable destruction of a significant part of the existing canopy – surely this could not have been the aim and purpose of the Sidewalk Assurance Act! The few residents who do live nearby are strongly opposed to these natural feature-altering constructions.
The same observation obtains for the proposed bike path. Not only is it proposed to be located right next to the Creek, in its most exposed erosion-zone… but, ironically, its construction will, of itself, physically remove many of the best and biggest trees now there, holding the line, and providing that precious canopy.
So, given a broad general support for new bike paths and sidewalks, it is still possible to say Not Here! Not when so much natural beauty and special characteristics provide such a unique ambiance already.
Recommendation: that is why I, after a lot of analysis, plus personal trips, at first intended to favor Option 2. There would still, unhappily, be a significant amount of tree cutting/canopy removal, and
We can try to prevail on DDOT to minimize this – as Casey Trees and The Rock Creek Conservancy have already done. Biker/pedestrian safety can be assured with traffic-calming speed bumps and signs. This course best protects wild nature and all users.
But since that first impression, I have changed my mind. This is because Alternative #2, with all its “streamside retaining walls,” “curve straightenings,” and logging to produce the ‘rain gardens,’ would still wreck the valley’s most important feature: that closed canopy.
Personally, having treasured the experience of the valley all these years, that feels like a lot to give up. But—just when I campaigned hard for the closure of Beach Drive in the 70s80s, I would rather give up personal enjoyments to know that nature is still safe.
Broad Branch DDOT Environmental Assessment: Final Observations
Another question: how “unique” really is this 1.5 mile stretch of Broad Branch Road?
Brock’s response: I do not know every single possible such drive, especially in the far SE part of the District. But I do know the whole Rock Creek area pretty well. Thus:
1. Klingle Road. Much shorter, (2300) yards in the (former) roaded section than is Broad Branch. And steeper. Pretty. Hopefully the creek banks can be somewhat managed to contain erosion. On the other side of Connecticut, is it a very pretty valley, rather far from any roadway and surrounded in parts by residential homes.
2. Soapstone Creek. Very pretty valley, full of big trees. Roadway is far away though, canopy ambience cannot be experienced without scrambling down its steep slopes.
3. Pinehurst Creek. Creek is level with roadway before it enters Rock Creek Park proper. But it (and its tree-lined bank) is 4,050 yards from the roadway, and there is a solid wedge of 20+ closely packed houses just on the other north) side of the road. No forest canopy at all, unless one walks to the narrow strip along the creek.
4. Rock Creek itself, following Beach Drive. This is the section I and others campaigned to have closed permanently, in the 70s-80s. Parts of the Drive do follow a winding creek, very scenic, and there is some closed canopy for some of its length. The section from Blagden Avenue to Military Road can have that feel, on weekends, when closed to motorized traffic. But because it is also so much larger than Broad Branch, and must accommodate all the users, there are long stretches of no closed canopy at all.