A single item was on the agenda at the Hyattsville City Council’s March 25 meeting: the University Hills Green Streets Project, which calls for improving (and in some cases adding) infrastructure. The neighborhood lies north of Northwestern and west of Adelphi Road, and many people who live there turned up in force that night to express their views.
The same could not be said for the councilmembers themselves. Of the 11 seats on the dais, six were empty, including the mayor’s. With only five legislators, attendance fell short of a quorum, which meant that the council could not have an official meeting. Instead, Council President Matt McKnight (Ward 3), who acted as chair in the mayor’s absence, announced that the evening would go forward as a public hearing.
Patrick Paschall, who is running unopposed in Ward 3, reported that in the course of campaigning, he had heard from many residents that “sidewalks on Gumwood, Wells, and Stanford are not just acceptable but desired. Rosemary Lane doesn’t want any improvements at all, including sidewalks, drainage and paving.”
The city’s sidewalk policy, which lists several exceptions, “is that continuous pedestrian sidewalks are important public infrastructure and that the sidewalks should ordinarily be installed and maintained on one side of every block of every City-maintained street (two sides where existing).”
But some residents of University Hills do not want sidewalks. Several returned the following week to repeat their objections during the council meeting of April 1.
One was Rose Fletcher, who lives with her husband, Randy, at the historic Hitching Post Hill. Built in 1840, the stately house was once part of a thousand-acre horse farm and, said Fletcher, regularly hosted presidents Grant and Cleveland, as well as Buffalo Bill Cody and his herd.
“We are committed to preserving this house and its grounds and hope to pass it on to the next caretakers as intact and true to its historic nature as possible,” said Fletcher. “We feel that the widening of Rosemary Lane will be an irrevocable step away from its historic past.”
Another Rosemary resident, Jim Menasian, asked: “Why would a rational person want to install infrastructure on a two block dead-end lane that hasn’t even had a fender-bender, let alone an accident involving children?”
Menasian and others spoke in favor of a plan put forth by Councilmember Tim Hunt (Ward 3), who both lives in and represents University Hills. After canvassing the residents and presenting petitions on their behalf, he put together a set of block-by-block recommendations.
“I think this addresses both the letter and the spirit of our sidewalk policy,” said Hunt during the April 1 meeting.
Council president Matt McKnight, the other Ward 3 representative, defended the city’s sidewalk policy, pointing to studies that supported benefits of sidewalks. The city slogan, “A World Within Walking Distance,” he said, should be considered a goal, and sidewalks would help achieve it.
“We’re talking about are sidewalks in the public right-of-way,” McKnight told his colleagues. “It’s the broader public’s right to access a sidewalk and not have to walk in the middle of the street. I don’t think residents on a particular block get to veto those rights.”
He took issue with some parts of Hunt’s proposal, advocating sidewalks on both sides of Wells Parkway rather than one and installing a sidewalk on one side of Rosemary instead of leaving with none.
“It’s not so much about having a sidewalk on every single street as it is creating an effective network of sidewalks,” said McKnight.
Tartaro said he was thinking of future generations in going forward with design work. “In terms of stewardship and responding to the city policies as they exist, doing a comprehensive plan makes sense,” said Tartaro. “It doesn’t mean we’ll implement [it], but future councils and future residents could choose to do so.”
Tartaro speculated that future residents may feel differently. “What if, for whatever reason, residents down the line decide they want sidewalks? If it’s not planned for now, it would be very difficult to accommodate on a number of different levels.”
While he said there was room for compromise on installing sidewalks on particular blocks, one non-negotiable is street paving.
“Leaving Rosemary Lane as an unpaved roadway is not in the cards,” he told the audience. “If the ambulance needs to get to your house in a snowstorm, the road needs to be plowed.”
Safety concerns were paramount in the arguments of the few pro-sidewalk residents who spoke. “Which family member do you want to sacrifice if you don’t have sidewalks?” asked David Marshall at the March 25 meeting, raising the specter of potential pedestrian accidents.
The council is likely to have many more opportunities to weigh in on various aspects of the Green Streets project.
“There will be several votes on this,” said Tartaro. “It’s not like we’re going to do all this in one year. It’s going to be the largest single paving project in the city.”