WASHINGTON — Plans to create a permanent art installation at Black Lives Matter Plaza have drawn frustration from residents and community leaders who feel it caters more to vehicles than people.
In a meeting with the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B on Wednesday night, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) presented the details to commissioners.
Renderings showed the two-block stretch of 16th Street near the White House would be open to vehicular traffic once again after it remained mostly closed for pedestrians since last summer. The proposals would allow traffic on both sides of the road and limit pedestrians to a 14-foot wide walkway right down the middle.
Both lanes for traffic are each designated to 12 feet with five-foot bollards made up of a cobblestone material to act as buffers so drivers can safely pass other vehicles.
In earlier meetings with commissioners, DDOT engineers said the goal is to make the plaza more open for everyone including the access needs for businesses that line the street.
“Open it safely and give access to every property that we have and also maintain the mural because that’s one of the most important aspects of this project,” DDOT Chief Engineer Dawit Muluneh said.
City crews and volunteers could be seen repainting the two-block stretch of 16th Street near the White House with the Black Lives Matter lettering on Thursday, just two days after the mural was removed as Pepco constructed an electrical infrastructure underground.
However, commissioners like Robin Nunn worry the return of the bright and bold symbol of the movement for racial justice will lose its purpose. She agrees with other commissioners who believe the new plan defeats the purpose of being called a plaza and serves vehicles more than people.
“My residents felt like they were led to believe that this was not for a moment, but that this was permanent,” she told WUSA9. “It was unfortunate and a bit of a surprise that it was being changed so quickly and so suddenly like this.”
“I really don’t accept that we need to open this back up to traffic,” Commissioner Michael Scott McKernan said in the Wednesday night meeting with DDOT. “We’re right now in the mix of an unprecedented rise in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in the city. What has been created is an island that is surrounded by a sea of traffic and it’s just not a place that people are going to feel comfortable.”
One of the biggest frustrations from commissioners is the lack of input from residents but particularly Black Lives Matter stakeholders when most of the designs are nearly completed. They feel BLM advocates should have more of say since the mural was seeded by them in the first place.
DDOT staff admitted the department has not reached out to the BLM group since the focus of the current plans is on the infrastructure and maintenance of the road. In a previous meeting, a special assistant to the DDOT chief of staff Naomi Klein said there are plans in the future to seek input from the group to expand the meaning of the plaza and create more storytelling.
“What we’re looking at is a phased project where we’re not only looking at curb-to-curb but starting with curb-to-curb and looking beyond that,” Klein said Wednesday night. “This is not the only opportunity for engagement.”
Klein previously said multiple staff members with the mayor’s office and Councilmember Brooke Pinto have approved the proposal.