When work started on the New York Avenue Metro station, property owners in the immediate area made contributions to that project. One of the contributions they made was of an easement for the Metrorail line and another for the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT). Most of the MBT easement is currently being used, except for the southernmost portion - the ramp to L Street. Instead a temporary path connects to L Street via a staircase with a bike trough. A neighborhood connection to M Street is being used as the temporary route for the trail, but that connection - with the 180 degree turn - does not meet AASHTO standards.
The easement for the L Street ramp is still there, owned by WMATA, but the ramp has not been built, some 10 years after the Metro station opened. DDOT has said in the past that they want to wait for the development of the lot at 1st and L, behind which the ramp will pass, to begin so that the work can be done contemporaneously. But, with the current owner showing no signs of starting development soon, DDOT began tomove away from that plan and instead wanted to build the ramp independently from any project on the lot. To that effect they created a conceptual design of the trail. That design includes a wide trail with terraced retaining walls, setback lights and trees and all the amenities that a finished trail would need. They've also been negotiating with the landowner to begin work, but issues involving core samples and contaminated soil have slowed those negotiations. So, for now, the ramp is not moving forward.
Meanwhile, people in NoMa need park space and the NoMa BID applied to partner with the DC Office of Planning to design a Playable Art installation to fit onto the currently unused portion of the easement between the current trail and the rail line. The unused portion is about 15' wide on the north end, 25' wide on the south end and about 400' long. There is no design or concept for what that installation will look like, or how much space it will use.
That's where things stand right now. DDOT wants to use the easement to build a ramp, but they only have a conceptual design and thus aren't sure how much of the easement they need or when they'll need it. NoMa wants to use some of the easement for a Playable Art installation but has no idea what that will look like or how much space it will take up. So, what that means for the trail all depends on one's perspective.
It's possible that DDOT will have a breakthrough in negotiations and be able to move forward on the ramp design before the art installation is finalized. NoMa BID does not think that is realistic and that a ramp could be 5 or 10 years away (or that it will never happen). Or it's possible that someone - OP, DDOT, NoMa BID or WMATA - will pull the plug on the art installation and it will never be built. WMATA may not want kids playing on an art installation a few feet away from their tracks, for example.
But if the art is installed it could preclude the future ramp, even while it leaves the current trail untouched. Again, it's all about how one foresees future events.
The pessimistic view for trail supporters is that the art installation creates a constituency for preserving the unused east side of the easement and that DDOT gives in to this constituency by building a narrow trail between retaining walls for a Death Star trench feel or, worse, not build the ramp at all.
An optimistic view would be that the trail design will leave enough space for the art installation and a trail with all the necessary width to provide for terraced retaining walls, set back lights, set back trees etc... Residents will get access to a playable art installation and cyclists will get the trail they were promised. Everybody wins.
A slightly less optimistic view would be that the art installation would temporarily fill some of the unused easement but, when ramp construction begins, it is moved to a permanent location.
However, even with those optimistic possibilities in mind, it's naive to think that the installation doesn't add at least some risk to the L Street ramp. It doesn't kill the project for sure, but it does reduce the probability of it happening - or of being as good as it could be - by some amount greater than zero. There is probably no one who will fight to keep the "gravelly/weedy" strip east of the trail, but likely some(one?) who will fight to preserve their kid's play area.
So that's the question, do we leave a gravelly/grassy strip between the trail and the tracks for years to maximize the chances of the best possible ramp being built; or do we maximize the use of that space sooner, while recognizing that it places the ramp in some measure of jeopardy?
If there were more guarantees that the ramp took absolute precedence over the art installation it would be less worrisome. But, unfortunately, DDOT has shown a willingness to shortchange bike facilities to accommodate local or political interests, and OP - who has the final authority on the art installation (though not the easement) - has stated that they will defer to DDOT on trail matters. So NoMa BID's assurances that they are bike friendly and that they support the ramp are nice, but not too relevant since DDOT and OP are the ones who will make the final decision, and who knows how the community will feel about these things when that time comes? Or how DDOT and OP will react to the community?
Luckily for everyone, I see a pretty simple way out of this (no charge for my services) - move the art installation onto the lot west of the easement.
NoMa BID has talked to the property owner and they support the art installation on the easement. The lot is currently a lightly used parking lot and it seems that some space could be found there to add the art installation on a temporary basis. So maybe the owner will support the art installation off the current easement.
There are a lot of advantages to this placement.
- Moves it off the WMATA easement, which takes them out of the decision-making, while also moving the installation away from the tracks
- Leaves the easement untouched for future trail construction and removes the risk that the trail could be impacted or precluded.
- By re-purposing some of the parking lot, it could make for a more environmentally beneficial option.
- Removes the design constraints of the narrow strip between a trail and a train (though a design not tailored to this strip could not be moved onto it after the ramp is built).
- Since it's more likely that the ramp is built before the building than the other way around, the art installation would be able to stay where it is longer before having to be moved.
The property owner might get a tax advantage from donating the use of the necessary land - and they'd likely also need to be protected from litigation.
But if the installation is to go on the easement, that places the ramp at some risk. Assurances that the installation will not impact the ramp are hard to put absolute faith in since neither the final design of the trail nor the art installation are known. And while current attitudes may be that the ramp is absolutely something people in the neighborhood want, creating a Playable Art installation will likely create a constituency for the status quo.
DDOT probably shouldn't sign off on another use for the easement until they're sure they won't need it for the MBT ramp. And there is no way that they can be right now.