Councilmember Janeese Lewis George participated in two public meetings this week regarding the DC Council proposal to permanently close portions of Beach Drive north of Broad Branch Road and Blagden Avenue to automobiles.
In April, the Councilmember and several of her colleagues proposed a “Sense of the Council” resolution to request that the National Park Service (NPS) close three stretches of Beach Drive to cars (the NPS is the ultimate authority on the matter; the DC Council can only make a recommendation).
The District, along with many cities throughout the country, limited car access to many roadways during the public health emergency to allow residents to use the space for socially distanced recreation. The resolution stated that, “Many District residents have found the closure of upper Beach Drive to cars to be a safe and pleasant space for biking, walking, and enjoying the serenity of Rock Creek Park.”
The sections that would be closed permanently are the same that had been closed for recreation on weekends and holidays for the past 40 years. Wise Road, Military Road and other East-West connections would remain open.
At two prior meetings, the Councilmember and her staff heard nearly unanimous support for the permanent closure from residents. However, at Wednesday’s meeting, hosted by ANC3G01 Commissioner Lisa Gore, residents of the Hawthorne neighborhood, which borders the west side of the park, spoke up forcefully against the idea.
Their main concern was that the closure of Beach Drive as a commuter route forces Maryland drivers headed downtown to cut through their neighborhood on a variety of streets that are not designed to handle that amount of traffic. They were not convinced by DC Department of Transportation data that said that traffic decreased on major commuter routes such as 16th Street NW and Connecticut Avenue NW during the reconstruction of Beach Drive from 2016-2019.
Hawthorne residents say that Western Avenue NW, Oregon Avenue NW, and Chestnut Street NW all experienced a dramatic increase in traffic. As a Shepherd Park resident who works in downtown Bethesda, I can confirm that the pre-pandemic commuter traffic through that corridor was significant.
Another concern that was raised was DC Fire and Emergency Medical Service access. CM Lewis George stated that this concern had not previously been expressed and that her office would contact the DC Fire and EMS Department to research the issue. I cannot recall seeing a fire truck or ambulance traveling north-south along this stretch of the road.
Other arguments presented by local neighbors were less convincing. Speakers speculated about the motivations of people who support the closure (lobbyists! WABA!), claimed that driving on Beach Drive was also a form of recreation or that only young people (i.e. cyclists) would use the roadway. On the day after the meeting, I took my dog for a mid-afternoon walk near Picnic Grove #10, which is the northernmost on Beach Drive in the District. In less than five minutes I witnessed dozens of people using the road for walking, jogging, or riding bikes and most of those users were senior citizens.
Councilmember Lewis George pledged to take the input that the speakers provided under consideration as she and staff decide how to proceed with the resolution.