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This Saturday, a three-mile swath of Georgia Avenue Northwest in D.C. will be closed to cars. In their place, pedestrians, bikers, skateboarders, and all manner of other alternative transporters will put rubber to the road.
It’s part of the D.C. Department of Transportation’s first ever “Open Streets” event. While District festivals have shut down major thoroughfares before, this is the first time the global Open Streets initiative has come to D.C. Similar events take place everywhere from Philadelphia to Seattle to Bogotá, Colombia. And the benefits — temporarily reduced air pollution, boosted physical wellness and economic activity — are documented to some extent.
That’s not to say that there aren’t logistical challenges. MetroBus routes will need to be rerouted, inclement weather plans assessed, and scooter parking designated. And, because local businesses aren’t allowed to vend on the street, there are questions about how much of a fiscal boost Saturday will actually be.
Kojo sits down with DDOT Director Jeff Marootian, a business owner who’s partnering with Open Streets and a local journalist who’s seen the pushback firsthand.
Produced by Maura Currie
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tune in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast a deep dive into a new book "The Education of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh." But first, this Saturday a three miles stretch of Georgia Avenue northwest will close to motor traffic. No, it's not for maintenance. It's for an event called, "Open Streets." It's D.C.'s first such event, but it's been done everywhere from Seattle to Bogota, Columbia. And the idea is simple, for a day at a time pedestrians and smaller modes of transportation own the streets.
KOJO NNAMDIOf course, those streets don't exist in a vacuum. There are businesses along Georgia Avenue that need to make money. And residents who might need to figure out alternative transit plans. Here to tell us more about the event and how "Open Streets" can really benefit everyone is Jeff Marootian. He is the Director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. Thank you for joining us.
JEFF MAROOTIANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIBefore we talk about "Open Streets," Jeff, there are a few transit news headlines I'd like to get your take on. Last week DDOT released a plan that would allow just four companies to operate scooter and bike sharing programs in D.C., but those companies would also be allowed to maintain bigger fleets and the number of dockless scooters and bikes in D.C. would increase from just over 6,000 to about 10,000. With that increase in mind, what problem is this proposal trying to address?
MAROOTIANWell, thanks, Kojo, for that question. We've relied heavily on public feedback since we launched our dockless mobility program about two years ago. And one of the things that we've heard is that people are enjoying this new mobility option. In some cases they'd like to see more of specific companies available on our streets. So what we're doing is allowing a more managed growth of the program by allowing companies to scale up, but limiting them to only companies that can meet all of our terms and conditions.
NNAMDIHow will this plan try to adjust where in the District scooters and bikes are and where they can be parked?
MAROOTIANWell, first and foremost our program requires that companies, who are participating have equipment in all eight wards of the District of Columbia. We've also taken some steps to ensure that there are safer and more adequate locations for dockless bikes and scooters, and also personal bikes and scooters to be parked. We've created corrals that are in street so that people can place there equipment there versus having to put them in places that are unsafe and inconvenient.
NNAMDIAnd as of today, one dollar fares have been reinstated on the D.C. circulator buses compliments of the D.C. Council. Mayor Bowser was opposed to this. Do you have any sense yet of how this will impact ridership?
MAROOTIANWell, we saw strong ridership increases with the free circulator. And we saw a number of other benefits as well. And so we're disappointed to have to begin collecting fares again. We're hopeful that the Council will take action to keep it free, but we will be operating the service as we do every day, and certainly continuing to incentivize people to use the circulator system.
NNAMDIOkay. Let's pivot back to the event this weekend and start with the basics. What is "Open Streets"?
MAROOTIANWell, "Open Streets" is a concept that temporarily closes the street off to car traffic to allow for physical activity and recreation and really community building across the entire neighborhood. And so in the Bowser administration we've taken steps to further our Vision Zero goals to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. And this is one additional step in that direction by really capturing people's imagination about how our roadways can be safer.
NNAMDIWhat have these events looked like in other American cities?
MAROOTIANWe have seen what other cities have done and really tried to make this unique and special for the District of Columbia. It involves a lot of physical activity, recreation. There will be everything from Zumba to yoga. Businesses along the entire corridor are engaged offering specials and offering other types of activity to engage people in their storefronts. Really this is about people having the opportunity to experience the street. There will be several events and activations, but there will also be a lot of open space for people to walk, to ride bikes and to otherwise have fun.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, that's Jeff Marootian. He is the Director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. We're talking about this new "Open Streets" event that will be taking place on Georgia Avenue, three miles of it this Saturday. Why was Georgia Avenue chosen as the first site for an "Open Streets" event in D.C.?
MAROOTIANWell, you know, we looked at a lot of different locations to do this kind of event and I should say that this is our first time doing this, and so we hope that people will love it and will have fun. And we chose Georgia because it's a long stretch and we can close it off for three miles, but there's also several businesses and community centers, recreation centers, libraries, a number of different places that are going to be a part of this day. And so it allows us the opportunity to not only close off the road, but to ensure that there are activations along the entire stretch that can be a part of the day.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Amanda Menas. She is freelance reporter with the Northwest Courier. Amanda, thank you for joining us.
AMANDA MENASThanks for having me.
NNAMDIWell, it's clear this is not Georgia Avenue day, which yours truly helped start back in 1983 when we used to run a 10k up and down that same strip of Georgia Avenue. It is also not the D.C. Caribbean Carnival, one of the more enjoyable festivals that used to be held here on Georgia Avenue. And DDOT has never called "Open Streets" a festival. Is that just semantic or is there a real distinction being made here?
MENASNo. There really is a distinction being made. The main thing is that businesses and restaurants are not allowed to vend outside of their stores, which means that they have to maintain everything within their location. And if there is a use of the sidewalk around their property it has to be for alternative purposes, handing out goodies or specials or for lines.
NNAMDIWell, Jeff Marootian, it's my memory that during the events that I mentioned earlier Banneker Field used to be open to vendors. What's going to be happing with Banneker Field this Saturday?
MAROOTIANWell, we've got activations happening at a number of parks and rec centers across the entire stretch. And so I encourage everybody to look at our website, openstreets.dc.gov, for an entire list of what all of those events are. And there will be fun for people of all ages and abilities.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Gerard Burley. He is the owner of SWEAT DC, a workout gym on Georgia Avenue. Gerard Burley, thank you for joining us.
GERARD BURLEYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYour business, SWEAT DC, is running some events at "Open Streets." Tell us what you'll be doing.
BURLEYYeah. So we will be on one of the stages that are close to our studio location. And we will be doing some core exercises and stretching. We'll also have people out front just answering people's questions. Kind of like pick a trainer's brain. Health is always in season as far as I'm concerned. So we'll have a little opportunity for people as they walk up and down the street to learn a little bit how to get healthier and better shape.
NNAMDIAnd he's wearing his SWEAT DC tank top in here just to embarrass me, because I don't have his kind of physic. Let's go do Dave who is in Columbia Heights. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVEHi, Kojo. Thanks so much. I work at a small neighborhood tavern called Smitty's Bar on Georgia Avenue. A friend of mine opened it recently, and we're really excited. We originally heard about the idea. We're kind of nervous about shutting down the whole street, and wondering if that would impact us. But as we learn more we thought it's pretty exciting for folks to be able to come out and walk the streets. I think people love being able to be outside and just not to have cars around. But we're actually partnering with some other businesses in the area and there's a lot of folks who are going to be biking. And so want them to be able to have place to park their bikes. And we're going to have some outdoor music and face painting for kids, and really promoting some of the other businesses, love to promote SWEAT DC and other grocery stores and dance studios up and down the block.
DAVEAnd for us it's really important to make sure that it's just an event or a festival that attracts newer residents. But, you know, we're a small bar in Parkview and care about our neighborhood and those who have been here a long time and we try to keep everything affordable. And so we like the notion that we're going to be able to get to showcase our little place to folks. You know, but especially for the residents and the neighbors in the area. We want them to be able to come out and have a great time. So we're pretty excited to have the music, have people being able to walk and run and bike. I won't be joining the cores exercises I think, but certainly will be walking by to check it out and all the other performers. So we're excited for it and we just hope people really come out on Saturday. It will be a really great time.
NNAMDISo, Dave, you are all of this. Jeff Marootian, he said they want to be joining the other -- it sounded a little bit like there would be some entertainment there. What else will there be for people to do? And do you need to be able to walk to enjoy this event?
MAROOTIANWell, there will be activities for everybody. There will be live music. There will be fitness stages. There will be a main event featuring Mayor Bowser at 11:30 at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Georgia Avenue. A number of activities that we are all quite excited about, and really something for everybody. Not just along the Georgia Avenue corridor and in the neighborhood surrounding the corridor, but really for people across all eight wards of the District of Columbia.
NNAMDIAre there any plans to separate foot traffic from scooters and bikers?
MAROOTIANWell, there will be special events that are designed for bicyclists in particular as well as scooters. But all those events will vary throughout the corridor. So some locations will have bicycle events teaching folks how to ride a bicycle, events for kids specifically on bikes, but by and large the streets will be pretty open for people to do whatever mode of travel they prefer.
NNAMDIHere is Tucker writing on Tweeter. I have no question for the DDOT direct. I just want to add my two cents that as a Georgia Avenue resident I am hyped for this event. Joshua in D.C., I'm not so sure feels the same way. Joshua, your turn. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOSHUAYeah, I just wanted to kind of get a better grasp from the contrast of this event and some of the other events that have been, you know, discouraged by the Bowser administration and perhaps previous administrations. Kojo, you mentioned Georgia Avenue Day. You mentioned Caribbean festival. As a longtime Washingtonian to me these were great cultural events. And now it seems like, you know, it's just being kind of replaced. And maybe even, you know, a form of gentrification in getting rid of the more cultural events and now standing up this type of festival. You know, what is the real -- logistically speaking I imagine the same challenges are there along Georgia Avenue. So how is this justifiable?
MAROOTIANWell, you know, this is an event that's designed to do something different. It's our first time doing it in the city, although we've seen a lot of success in other cities who have done something very similar. And it -- we haven't been calling it a festival, because it really will function much differently than that. Everything is free. There won't be commercial activity. That activity will be limited to even people's side store fronts. But really this is an opportunity for people to experience the street as it's closed to car traffic in a way that is totally open.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Joshua. Amanda, part of the conversation about this event has been a lack of clarity about what exactly is closing when. We'll ask the director for clarifications in a moment, but what's your sense of what community leaders do and do not know?
MENASWell, as late as last week there was a lot of concern about when parking was going to be closed for the side streets as well as when the street itself was going to be closed to thorough fare. I know that there's been some clarification of that by ANC members. Different community members, business member were unsure about that as late as last week.
NNAMDISo, Jeff Marootian, how will this work logistically? When will Georgia Avenue close to cars and for how long?
MAROOTIANYes. And I appreciate Amanda's point. We've spent the past several weeks really engaging as directly as we can with the community. We will be -- our parking restrictions will go in place midnight the night before. But the road will be closed to traffic at eight a.m. that morning. The event lasts from 10 a.m. to two p.m. And we've taken as many steps as possible to ensure that people using Metro transit, bus in particular, are aware of the alternate routes that Metro will offering. Of course, WMATA rail service will continue as normally scheduled. And we'll continue to push out information throughout as many channels as we possibly can about what all of the transportation options are for the day.
NNAMDIBefore we go to break let me go to Natasha, who might be a rival for Gerard. Natasha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATASHAHi. Good afternoon. How is everybody doing?
NATASHAGreat. I am a spinning instructor as well as being a house and a life coach. And I'm going to be one of the spin instructors out there this weekend, demoing a spin class. A lot of people -- it's not a fad. It's not going away. So I want people to give it a try. And I am super excited to be outside in the sunshine just rocking on a bike, jamming music. So I really hope people come out. I'm thrilled about this.
NNAMDIGerard, what do you say? The more the merrier?
BURLEYThe more the merrier. There's so many different forms to health and fitness. And people need to kind of find their groove. So maybe I'll join Natasha out there. And I like to spin a little bit too.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation on the first event in the "Open Streets" program in the District of Columbia taking place on Georgia Avenue this Saturday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back we're talking about the "Open Streets" event taking place this Saturday on Georgia Avenue northwest in the District. We're talking with Amanda Menas. She's a freelance reporter with the Northwest Courier. Gerard Burley is the owner of SWEAT DC, a workout gym on Georgia Avenue. And Jeff Marootian is the Director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. Jeff, one of the biggest concerns about this event has been the impact on public transit since Georgia Avenue is a Metro bus corridor. How will Metro bus service be affected on this Saturday?
MAROOTIANYes, Metro bus will be offering alternate routes and detours. All of the information about those routes is available both on our website, the "Open Streets" website, which is openstreets.dc.gov and also on WMATA's website as well. And as I mentioned earlier Metro rail will be operating on a regular schedule.
NNAMDIWhat about Metro access? The paratransit service, how will you accommodate people on or near Georgia Avenue?
MAROOTIANYes. That's a great question. All of the Metro services were a priority for us to ensure that they would be offered. And so folks can work directly with Metro to ensure that they have all the up to date information, but people who need access to transit will have it.
NNAMDIGerard Burley, how long have you been doing business on Georgia Avenue?
BURLEYSo we actually, last Saturday, just celebrated our two year anniversary.
NNAMDIWhere did you operate before and how does Georgia Avenue feel different?
BURLEYYeah, so before that doing a few popups in Shaw and also in Adams Morgan, And then did a lot of personal training in the U Street area. I would say the biggest difference between that Georgia Avenue stretch is it's a lot more community focused. You have a lot more people, who are buying their first home, having their first kid, developing their family. So like you just say like I know my community. I know my members. I know my people around it and people are really invested in our success as well as their success.
NNAMDISo how did you hear about "Open Streets" and how did you get involved with it?
BURLEYSo one of our community development organizations, District Bridges, actually reached to us and let us know that "Open Streets" was coming up. I asked them, what was that? And they came back and told us a little bit more. All I had to hear was a lot people were going to be coming by and it was going to give us a lot of opportunity to show them what we offer. And we're going to have an open house during that day so people can actually come in and experience what we do each and every day.
NNAMDIHere's Marlene in Washington. Marlene, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARLENEThank you. Thank you, Kojo. You know, I think like everybody else there are too many cars on the road, but I'm a little concerned about people not being able to park on Georgia Avenue Friday night starting at midnight. I'm just thinking about people, who may work at night and come home and live on Georgia Avenue and want to park close to where they live. And they've got to be maybe walk -- I don't know where the alternate parking would be, but parking is pretty difficult in D.C., finding a space. And that's a concern. And also there are probably, in my thinking, a lot of seniors who drive, and may view Saturday as a time to be going to these various businesses for one reason or another. And I'm wondering -- I heard that this is going to close too. But my questions is at what time will traffic, buses and cars be allowed to use Georgia Avenue.
NNAMDIHere's Jeff Marootian.
MARLENEI just see this is for -- you know, a lot of people maybe being quite an inconvenience.
NNAMDIOkay. Let me have Jeff Marootian respond.
MAROOTIANThank you, Marlene, for that question. We looked very closely at the route in its entirety and really worked to ensure that in as many places as possible along the side streets and the parallel corridors that there were places for folks to be able to park. Certainly we understand that there is an inconvenience that comes along with closing the road and also limiting parking. This is a one-time event and it's really intended to bring people out to the street in a different way. But we have taken as many steps as we can to ensure that people have access to businesses and storefronts. And I appreciate your point about seniors in particular. I'm very proud that we've got a partnership with several senior centers across the corridor, who will be activating their space, engaging folks as well directly as a part of the "Open Streets" event.
NNAMDIHere's Ana in Washington. Ana, your turn.
ANAHi, Kojo. Hey, Coach G. It's Ana Valero. I am with Hook Hall. I own a large event space in neighborhood Watering Hole right in the Parkview neighborhood. And personally I'm really excited that the mayor has decided and chosen the Georgia Avenue corridor to highlight for "Open Streets." There is so much really awesome stuff happening on Georgia Avenue. And what I love most about it is that you have a lot of local businesses who are started truly by locals here in D.C. area and who are working together to really make this a bright bright community.
ANAAnd, you know, it's really great to hear, you know, Coach G, who's just down the street from us. And to hear that, you know, DDOT and such is really looking to highlight an area of the city that's not downtown. And that is really a mix of what I think is best about D.C. You know, you have a lot of diversity happening up in Georgia Avenue just in terms of, you know, you have Yoga studios next to Jamaican joints next to a vegetarian place. And I just -- I love that about D.C. And I think that Georgia Avenue is the perfect snapshot.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for you call. Coach G as she familiarly calls you, what are you hoping to get out of "Open Streets" and have you seen the impacts already as far as increased word of mouth?
BURLEYDefinitely I would say a lot of my following or people that I know who may not live directly in our area, as soon as this was announced immediately my phone started blowing up. Like, "What are you doing? What are you doing? Are you going to have a workout? Did you know this is going on?" So I think also that especially where we are in Parkview it's one of those areas in D.C. that feels far, but isn't far. So you have a lot of people, who live in U Street or Logan Circle even in Columbia Heights, who think that Georgia Avenue is really far away. But an event like this will show them like, "Oh, it's just a few steps away." And hopefully that will bring that traffic to come back to our business, because for us to survive and to stay flourishing. It matters what happens after the big day of the event.
NNAMDIAmanda, you attended the first few public meetings on this iteration of "Open Streets" last month, heard some of the pushback from business owners, some of them trying to prepare for this event. They seemed to fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, because others seem to be preparing for no business at all. Tell us about that.
MENASYeah, one of the big things that kind Coach G just mentioned was that there are a lot of people that are coming in from outside of the Georgia Avenue area, who see this as kind of far away. But just because neighbors don't know about it doesn't mean that the culture that is there doesn't exist. And as was kind of mentioned earlier the word activate came up a lot during the meetings. And Georgia Avenue is very active. Georgia Avenue for Georgia Avenue Day, the Caribbean Day, those were very active festivals that met many of the objectives that "Open Streets" D.C. is meeting.
MENASAnd the business owners were feeling left out of the initial conversation that came to them mid-August later than they might of liked. Many businesses, coffee shops that had author talks that were coming in are now having them offsite. There are 29 salons in the first -- in the southern mile and a half of Georgia Avenue that many of them are choosing to close, because of their Maryland clients that cannot park within the radius that make it accessible for them.
NNAMDIWell, this is all about us getting out of cars. Jeff Marootian, how is "Open Streets" tied into the Vision Zero initiative to reduce pedestrian fatalities?
MAROOTIANWell, this is one of several steps that we've taken under the mayor's leadership to really, one, capture people's imagination about what our roadways could look like, but also to think about all of the ways that we are incentivizing active transportation, incentivizing transit use. And so this is one of the ways that we're engaging people directly in that conversation because fundamentally Vision Zero and creating safer modes of travel for everybody has to be bought into by the public. And so that's what we're focused on at DDOT and really across the government under the mayor's leadership.
NNAMDIAmanda, we're almost out of time. But Georgia Avenue is much like the rest of the District facing the reality of gentrification. Could events like this help preserve communities or is there a worry that events like this are really meant to attract people from outside the existing community?
MENASThe business community members that I spoke to during these meetings were really worried about it. It seemed like a very imposed event that was happening and that it was replacing an undermining culture that was there. Many people are super excited about it though, and it has the opportunity, but it just has to be taken into consideration that there is a culture and a community that already exists there.
NNAMDIWell, we'll have to see what happens, because right now we're out of time. Amanda Menas is freelance reporter with the Northwest Courier. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGerard Burley is the owner of SWEAT DC, a workout gym on Georgia Avenue. Thank you for joining us. And Jeff Marootian is the Director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. Jeff, thank you for joining us.
MAROOTIANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back a deep dive into the new book "The Education of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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