An Economy of Open Space

Our streets and use of public space have changed. Street life all but closed down during the stay-at-home order. Peaceful protests supporting racial justice reopened them, creating a new plaza dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. Restaurants are using the parking spaces in front of their storefronts to reopen and rehire. What used to be traffic-clogged streets are being dedicated to transit, cyclists and pedestrians. This is an incredible opportunity to open the minds of District residents to the possibilities of our use of public space—and change how we move about it for decades to come that make the city a more attractive place to live and do business.

We wanted to update Trustees on how public space is being transformed in the District and where there are opportunities for the FC2 and Trustees to participate in this transformation.

In cities around the world, local elected leaders are committing to building out bike and bus lane networks, creating subsidies to promote mode shift, and are leveraging existing processes to support businesses and activate public space.

This is also taking form here in the District, with thanks to the leadership of Mayor Bowser and the ReOpen DC committee. DDOT has been moving fast to build out bus and bike lanes, demarcating more 15mph “slow streets” and setting a citywide 20 mph neighborhood speed limit. We are all looking for more ways to be outside. Bicycle sales are booming and the Capital Crescent Trail in Montgomery County saw a 40 percent increase in trips in the early parts of the pandemic.

Many of the main restaurant/retail corridors—Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Eastern Market, 14th Street, Georgetown and the Wharf—have expanded sidewalk dining, taken over parking spaces and, in some places, shut down the streets themselves to cars to create “streateries”. FC2 Trustees like Kristen Barden of the Adams Morgan BID and Joe Sternlieb of the Georgetown BID are helping to make it happen. They are working with DDOT, DMPED, and various agencies to streamline existing processes and navigate regulatory requirements to support economic recovery.

Businesses are saying the use of street and parking space is keeping their business alive. It’s allowed them to rehire employees they had to lay off at the start of the pandemic. According to a survey of the Adams Morgan business community, shutting down 18th street has been a success. After the pedestrian-only zone was put in place in late June, patronage tripled or quadrupled. Many businesses that are using streets and parking spaces for outdoor commerce want greater certainty about timing and are overwhelmingly supportive of longer-term use of this space. Some BIDs are even calling for permanent use of parking spots and street closures.

Mayor Bowser, DDOT and DMPED have a narrow window of time to capture this moment of opportunity to accelerate investments that solidify the transformation of our public space. Streets that prioritize pedestrians and cyclists are good for business. Walkable urban places demand 75 percent higher rent over the metro average in the nation’s 30 largest cities, all while increasing equity and investment opportunities.

There should be more space for public art, as well. There’s been a flourishing of mural art this summer, much of it inspired by racial equity protests. DDOT is all about it. Speaking about the rainbow crosswalk recently painted in Dupont, DDOT Director Jeff Marootian said at the end of June: “We have seen the incredible power of art in public space over the past few months. DDOT recently launched the Art in the Right of Way program and will be partnering with communities from across all eight wards of the District to identify other opportunities to install art on roads, sidewalks, and other public spaces.”

There is also incredible power in using public space for performance art and entertainment. EDENS, led by FC2 Trustee Jodie McLean, set up a drive-in experience at Union Market. Tickets sell out almost immediately. The Kennedy Center, led by FC2 Trustee Deborah Rutter, is using its new outdoor performance space at the REACH for pop-up dining outdoors. In the next reopening phase, there will be a series of free “Sunset Concerts” and yoga. The Kennedy Center also has plans for a “Pop-Up Opera Truck” that will visit all eight of DC’s wards to perform short programs.