Stuart Lempert’s objective was simple—walk a short distance down Wisconsin Avenue to buy a sandwich at Jetties.
Right about at 7770 Wisconsin, he started realizing he was in for some complications.
“Sidewalk Closed. Cross Here,” read a sign, with an arrow directing him toward a crosswalk without a stoplight.
As he watched cars whizz along the busy thoroughfare, Lempert ruled against crossing. And seeing open sidewalk ahead of him, he pushed forward. A little further down, he was face-to-face with a fence blocking off the sidewalk around the site of the future Marriott International headquarters, where construction crews recently started installing utility lines. Rather than backtrack, Lempert, like a number of other pedestrians, decided to test his luck by walking unprotected down a lane of Wisconsin Avenue to the Norfolk Avenue intersection to get around the closure.
“I try to be careful, but yeah, it’s not the safest street to be walking in,” Lempert acknowledged last week.
Pedestrians walk down a lane of Wisconsin Avenue to get around a sidewalk closure at the Marriott International headquarters project site. Credit: Bethany Rodgers
Walkers around downtown Bethesda say there are no easy answers when it comes to dodging sidewalk closures, especially on main arteries such as Wisconsin Avenue.
“We understand the frustration around sidewalk closures during development, however, safety is a priority,” Greg Rooney, vice president of development at the Bernstein Cos., which is working on the Marriott project, said in a prepared statement.
Rooney said the Wisconsin Avenue sidewalk closure along the project site is necessary for plumbing work, which should take about a month to complete.
“We will follow up with the contractor as well as Bethesda Urban Partnership to ensure that the signage is clear and that they are placed in appropriate locations,” he said.
Sidewalk closures are nothing new—they’ve been a perennial pain in the neck and safety concern for many Bethesda pedestrians. But the Marriott project foreshadows a new wave of development heading toward the downtown area that is sure to create more obstacles and frustration for pedestrians.
Currently, pedestrians are facing closures on sidewalks around the former Apex building site on Wisconsin; along Woodmont Avenue near Bethesda Chocolates; on Rugby Avenue; and on Del Ray Avenue.
Adequate signage is one issue on the minds of local pedestrians as they consider the flurry of downtown projects. They’re also wondering: Why can’t more developers install covered walkways instead of shutting down the sidewalk? Is it safe to reroute pedestrians across Wisconsin Avenue at crosswalks without a stoplight? Shouldn’t closures be better coordinated? How can pedestrians plan their route on any given day?
“With multiple construction projects in Bethesda, you never know where you can walk,” said Ted Gutman, who is legally blind and walks to the Bethesda Metro daily to get to work. “Obviously, we understand that for certain periods of time, they’re going to need to close the site. But developers need to provide residents with notice, and there needs to be some coordination around how pedestrians are able to traverse Bethesda.”
Officials say they’re trying to limit the inconvenience through careful planning and better information-sharing between the county, which oversees closures along local roadways, and the state, which manages the Maryland routes including Wisconsin Avenue.
A sidewalk shed along the construction site at 7900 Wisconsin Ave. Credit: Bethany Rodgers
Diane Schwartz Jones, the county’s permitting services director, said county agencies are developing a “construction activity tool” that could give the public real-time updates on open work permits in the downtown area. Work on the tool is still ongoing, but it could help clue the public in to construction closures, she said. Officials are also thinking of requiring developers to give project updates, potentially supplying additional information for the tool, she said.
Schwartz Jones said she’s all in favor of using more covered walkways, or sidewalk sheds, although developers tend to put up resistance because of the cost. Chris Conklin, the county’s deputy director for transportation policy, said the sheds don’t always offer pedestrians enough protection from falling debris, in which case a complete sidewalk shutdown might be necessary. But he added that the county might start requiring sturdier sidewalk sheds, potentially expanding their use.
However, stronger structures would cost more for the developer, and Conklin said county officials do need to balance the expense with the benefit.
Both the county and the Maryland State Highway Administration work with developers to determine on a case-by-case basis whether sidewalk sheds are a feasible alternative to closures.
“Sheds are not designed to protect pedestrians from falling debris. Because demolition is involved in the Marriott development and safety of all roadway users is MDOT SHA’s top concern, it is critical to divert pedestrians away from the work zone,” state highway officials wrote in a prepared statement.
Like Lempert, Gutman was thrown off by the closure signs that recently went up at Commerce Lane and Middleton Lane. Because his vision is limited, he tries to avoid crossing Wisconsin Avenue where there isn’t a stoplight, so he too walked past the sign and ended up stuck where the fence blocked off the sidewalk. He said he and a group of kids and other pedestrians waited until the coast was clear, then headed down a travel lane of Wisconsin Avenue to circumvent the closure.
Gutman and others say pedestrians should’ve been alerted to the upcoming blockage before the un-signalized crosswalk, near a safer Wisconsin Avenue intersection.
Council member Roger Berliner said he’d like to see SHA install pedestrian-activated signals at some of these crosswalks, especially as construction heats up and complicates the pedestrian landscape. When asked whether SHA was looking at adding these signals along Wisconsin Avenue, a spokesperson said that for the Marriott project, “pedestrians are being detoured toward safer controlled crossings – such as at the Norfolk Avenue and the Old Georgetown Road signalized crosswalks.”
A sidewalk closure sign directing pedestrians to cross Wisconsin Avenue at an unsignalized crosswalk at Middleton Lane. Credit: Bethany Rodgers.
Proper notification has been a key concern for state Del. Marc Korman, who submitted legislation that would’ve forced developers to provide notice of closures and post signs stating the duration of the blockage and a contact number. Korman said he withdrew the 2016 bill when state transportation officials offered to enact the notice requirement administratively by making it a condition of the closure permit.
When asked if SHA sends an inspector to make sure developers are following the notice requirement, the transportation officials said they do monitor projects for safety and plan compliance but initially stated that “there are no specific requirements from the state that developers post signage.”
Asked whether the agency had stopped including the notice requirement in permits, SHA answered that the permits do still include the language.
The county in 2016 passed a law that set up a similar notice requirement for sidewalk closures; county inspectors enforce the mandate. Berliner sponsored the legislation and said he views construction zone safety as a significant piece of the county’s Vision Zero effort to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2030.
“It is not OK to take public right-of-way away when we are constructing buildings in our downtown areas, when places like New York City and Chicago do it just fine,” Berliner said.
Closures are unavoidable in certain cases, but they should be used as a last resort and have a limited duration, he added.
Lisa McCabe said she and her husband moved to the East Bethesda neighborhood about 15 years ago because she prefers walking to driving. She travels on foot to the Metro station every day and would walk her daughter to Bethesda Elementary if the trip felt safer. The closures are making it tough for all of them to get around, she said.
“This is supposed to be the walkable, livable community. That’s what’s being touted, and that’s why Marriott is coming here,” she said. “But it’s getting more difficult.”
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.