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Power plant redevelopment team talks ‘woonerf’ vs pedestrian-only design

Woonerf designs for the Potomac River Generating Station development (image via Hilco Redevelopment Partners)

(Updated 6:17 p.m.) Representatives from Hilco Redevelopment Partners (HRP) recently opened up about some of the behind-the-scenes discussions on whether or not to make the central street in Old Town North’s power plant redevelopment project pedestrian-only.

The redevelopment of the GenOn power plant in Old Town North is one of the biggest projects on the city’s horizon, and the centerpiece of that project will be a pedestrian-focused boulevard called a ‘woonerf‘ — a Dutch design concept that prioritizes pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Simon Beer, with landscape architect OJB, said that the idea is to maintain a pedestrian flow around the project, connecting both to the Potomac River and Old Town North.

But while the city has had some success with pedestrian-only zones in Old Town, the woonerf will not be exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists. Though HRP representatives said the street will be designed to slow traffic, vehicles will still be allowed to travel on the street except when its closed for special occasions.

At a meeting of the Urban Design Advisory Committee Serving Old Town North last week, committee members shared concerns that permitting vehicle traffic means the streetscape won’t truly be pedestrian focused.

“Was it ever explored to have this as a purely pedestrian street?” asked committee member Zaira Suarez. “As long as there are vehicles, there’s never really complete safety for pedestrians.”

Suarez expressed concerns that space that could otherwise be used for community amenities would become on-street parking.

“It becomes a parking space when it could really be such a huge amenity to pedestrians,” Suarez said, “not only residents but people coming in from the park or on bicycles from the trails. Is there something stopping this from becoming fully pedestrian?”

Beer said pedestrian-only was considered during development.

“It was absolutely something that was explored,” Beer said, “In conversations with city and traffic planning, there was a feeling that the ability for traffic to be able to flow along the waterfront was important, not only for emergency access but for general day to day use. However, we think that this can be a really special place.”

Beer said the street is designed to be shut down for weekends or special events.

“Having the ability to shut it down, placing planters on either end, we have the capacity… to shut it down for a weekend for a large event, we have the capacity to do that with the way that this is designed,” Beer said. “It really has the flexibility for a truly pedestrian experience, but designing in that flexibility to still maintain traffic flow.”

Attorney Mary Catherine Gibbs said the street is built with a public access easement and can’t be permanently shut down without city approval.

“The city won’t allow it,” said Gibbs. “The city has asked that it be a public access easement, so there will be limits on our ability to completely shut it down permanently.”

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