Neighborhood leaders react to plans for Black Lives Matter Plaza

Plans for a more permanent version of D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Plaza along 16th Street Northwest have been unveiled, and they’re not going over well with neighborhood leaders.

District Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Dawit Muluneh presented the details at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B.

Plans would allow traffic to move through the two-block stretch in both directions, leaving just a 14-foot wide area down the middle for pedestrians.

The mural would be recreated with yellow-colored bonded concrete surrounded by black pavers. Grey pavers would be used in the passing lanes, and would make drivers feel as if they are passing over cobblestones.

blm plaza
On both sides of the road there would be a 12-foot wide traffic lane, a 5-foot wide passing lane, and a strip of steel bollards separating traffic from people in the plaza’s center strip. (Screenshot Courtesy DDOT)

DDOT representatives said their agency and Mayor Muriel Bowser worked long and hard with stakeholders to come up with a plan that’s fair and equitable. They said the plaza can’t be completely closed to traffic because people need to be able to drive to businesses there, which include hotels.

Anna Chamberlin, associate director of DDOT’s planning and sustainability division, said the plan isn’t a permanent solution but an intermediate one. She said a long-term solution will involve environmental studies and other work that will take years to complete.

“This is just the way for us to be able to take the jersey barriers down and allow the access that the businesses have been demanding,” Chamberlin said.

“I really don’t accept that we need to open this back up to traffic,” said Commissioner Michael Scott McKernan. “We’re right now in the mix of an unprecedented rise in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in the city.”

blm plaza
The plaza can’t be completely closed to traffic because people need to be able to drive to businesses there, which include hotels. (Screenshot Courtesy DDOT)

“We need to go back and sharpen our pencils,” said Commissioner William Herbig, who added that the plan doesn’t serve anyone effectively. He’d like to see DDOT partner with Black designers from around the country to re-imagine the plaza for the future.

Asked if the agency had talked to members of Black Lives Matter to get input on the design, DDOT Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff Naomi Klein said no because no substantial changes would be made to the art.

“As an African American, and as a member of Black Lives Matter DC, I find this pretty disturbing and horrible,” said Commissioner Robin Nunn. “I just don’t get the sense that you guys are taking this as seriously as you should.”

The plaza had been completely closed to traffic for almost a year, until cars were allowed to start accessing it again in March. Then after Pepco completed underground electrical work there in recent weeks, the bright yellow mural was entirely covered with plain black pavement.

In a statement released Wednesday, Black Lives Matter DC said plans for a permanent art installation at the plaza won’t bring any of the changes it is demanding Bowser make. It reads in part:

“Instead of trying to silence the BLM movement with false promises of change coming with the confirmation of a Black Police Chief who oversaw the Gun Recovery Unit (GRU), Bowser must terminate the unit and fully ban the use of all of their racist and violent tactics throughout MPD. She must stop denying MPD’s racist stop-and-frisk program we sued her over to justify over-policing that has had no impact on violence or homicide and doesn’t remove guns off the street. Anything less is still a stunt.”

Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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