by Mary Beth Ray
ANC 3F03 Commissioner
With apologies to poet Shel Silverstein, many of us know the place at 32nd and Albemarle where the sidewalk ends. And these days if we don’t “walk with a walk that is measured and slow” then we will fall right over the bluff into Soapstone Creek.
A profusion of orange cones, yellow caution tape, and a broken-down crash barrier mark a spot that should be one of the most beautiful park overlooks in our neighborhood. Instead, a clogged drain, damaged trees and neglect have contributed to severe erosion that threatens to send the sidewalk tumbling down the ravine.
Sadly, this intersection seems to encapsulate so much of what is wrong with our beloved city. The morass of a weighty and tangled bureaucracy, declining infrastructure, and short-sighted attitudes all seem to have converged at this site. How can our essential infrastructure co-exist with the natural environment? What gives?
In short, this intersection offers a crash course in the life of an advisory neighborhood commissioner. The land in question is owned by the District of Columbia – it is Department of Transportation (DDOT) right of way, although it is adjacent to National Park Service land. DDOT has been contacted repeatedly by ANC commissioners and neighbors, and while a DDOT crew has poured gravel in the area, there does not seem to be a comprehensive plan or timetable.
Numerous emails over the past nine months have ultimately led to this: DDOT informed me on December 30th that an inspector has been assigned.
DC Water owns the drain that is clogged, which seems to be the culprit in causing knee-deep ponding every time it rains, which then contributes to a river-like surge and erosion. DC Water has been contacted repeatedly, and nobody seems to know when the drain will be cleaned. Mayor Vincent Gray’s office filed an emergency ticket with DC Water to get the drain unclogged, to no avail.
Pepco owns most of the wires and other facilities that come out of the ground and go up to the poles nearby, and Pepco has aggressively pruned and chopped down trees that could potentially fall and create a power outage. The elimination of trees has contributed further to the erosion problem, as there are fewer healthy roots to hold the soil in place. ANC Commissioners and neighbors have met with Pepco representatives on site to attempt to encourage a balanced approach to pruning to protect the hillside. The Urban Forestry Administration (a branch of DDOT) was brought in to encourage less aggressive pruning, and re-planting, apparently to no avail.
ANC commissioners and neighbors have also met with representatives from the DC Department of the Environment (DDOE), National Park Service, and Rock Creek Conservancy to encourage a longer term approach to the erosion, stormwater and stream management issues. DDOE seems enthusiastic in helping protect the stream below, but they seem constrained by money as well as upcoming work by DC Water to rehabilitate decaying pipes.
On a positive note, Rock Creek Conservancy has held several cleanup days in the area, picking up trash, and clearing out invasive species such as English ivy that might contribute to the decline of trees which hold the slope in place. We are grateful to the Conservancy and the many volunteers who have spent their Saturdays clinging to the hillside to remove ivy, trash bags, bottles, even rusted shopping carts. The Student Conservation Association, under the auspices of the National Park Service, a grant through DDOT, and at the urging of the Forest Hills Connection and ANC commissioners, did build a wooden retaining wall and steps nearby. The wall helps correct another area of erosion farther from the road, and the steps provide a wonderful access point for hikers of all abilities.
And meantime, the Montessori school children walk past this site several times a day on their way to the Soapstone woods for play time. Commuters walk to and from the Metro. Hopefully they know where the sidewalk ends!