Officials in charge of a Wisconsin Avenue sidewalk project promised less of an environmental impact on Chevy Chase’s “Green Mile” than first feared during a public meeting on Monday.
But in a packed room of the Somerset Town Hall, the long controversial issue seemed as divisive as ever. The State Highway Administration wants to build a 0.7-mile, $1.2 million sidewalk to connect bus stops on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue between Grafton Street and Bradley Lane.
“Why do we need this at all? We feel we are being railroaded,” said one resident against the sidewalk proposal. “I have trouble understanding where this demand is coming from. Clearly there is a very strong demand from people that are bikers.”
Cyclists were just one group involved in the discussion, which at times devolved into heated arguments between a crowd of about 60 people split by a variety of interests.
A number of cyclists from neighborhoods just south of Chevy Chase spoke up in favor of the sidewalk. They argued it would allow less experienced riders a way to get from Friendship Heights to downtown Bethesda without risking safety on the busy road, more important with the coming introduction of Capital Bikeshare.
Some Chevy Chase residents said they were opposed to the sidewalk because they can’t envision anybody using it, especially without the promise of additional crosswalks that would encourage east-to-west movement across Wisconsin Avenue.
There were plenty of Chevy Chase residents who said the sidewalk was necessary to connect the four bus stops in the stretch.
“I think it is very sad and unfortunately laughable the square chunk of concrete that northbound riders are faced with when they get off the bus,” said one resident in favor of the sidewalk.
“I think people are living in the past,” another said. “How could you not have sidewalks on both sides of Wisconsin Avenue?”
There were opponents concerned with the sidewalk’s effect on the environment, a charge the Little Falls Watershed Alliance has led since the process began more than a year ago. The project was originally going to mean the removal of 53 trees along the stretch, which borders the golf course of the Chevy Chase Club.
The SHA removed five of those large elm trees last fall because they were decaying. SHA assistant district engineer Kate Mazzara said the agency has retained a new design consultant after hearing the community’s environmental concerns. Designers are now going “tree-by-tree,” looking for ways to move the sidewalk around critical existing trees or replace them by tearing out stumps on the opposite side of the road.
Another SHA engineer said the vast majority of the trees that would be removed are invasive and unhealthy, though the number of trees that would be removed has not yet been determined.
Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) attempted to placate opponents by assuring them that SHA officials went back and thoroughly examined how to minimize the removal of trees.
Berliner, who is sponsoring legislation that would require a permit before cutting roadside trees in public right-of-ways, said he was satisfied with the SHA’s effort after touring the stretch with their engineers and arborist.
That didn’t sit well with a number of sidewalk opponents.
“I think it’s a little unfortunate that you’ve reached your bottom line before we’ve concluded our public process,” one resident told Berliner.
“The purpose of this project is to connect these pieces of our community which are not connected, to make them walkable and bikeable,” Berliner said. “We are trying to evolve our community into a walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible community and this piece doesn’t work with that. I came to a conclusion. I think you will see that it’s not that bad. There are people that actually do believe it will enhance the aesthetics of that side of the road. It’s not like people just made this up in a vacuum.”
Mazzara revealed a rendering of what the sidewalk could look like if raised above the roadway in certain stretches. The path would be eight feet wide, but potentially “pinched” at points to protect certain trees, she said. The project will be federally funded and would take about four months to build.
“We do feel we will be able to preserve a lot more than we thought,” said Mazzara, who estimated revised plans would be made available in the spring.
That wasn’t good enough for one opponent, a retired resident who said she felt the debate had been hijacked by cyclists who want to use the sidewalk. (Members of the Washington Area Bicycle Association in favor of the project were careful to distinguish the planned shared-use sidewalk from a dedicated bike path.)
She said cyclists on sidewalks would be dangerous for her and other elderly pedestrians.