Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Streetscaping to improve traffic, pedestrian safety

One project under way, another to begin this year; officials say work is key to Wheaton’s redevelopment

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Two streetscaping projects, one currently under construction and one that received federal funding last week, are small but important steps to the traffic and pedestrian improvements that will be key to Wheaton’s redevelopment, officials say.

On July 9, the Wheaton Redevelopment Program received about $417,000 from the Maryland Transportation Administration as part of a federal grant. The money will go toward streetscaping on Fern Street, which connects University Boulevard and Reedie Drive, just outside the Wheaton Triangle.

The goal is to boost pedestrian access to the Wheaton Metro station, located at 11171 Georgia Ave.

‘‘It’s all part of improving the public area,” said Sharon Lasswell, manager of economic development and relocation programs at the Mid-County Regional Services Center. ‘‘It makes it more attractive and it makes businesses want to be there.”

Currently, the sidewalks on Fern are too narrow, Lasswell said, so about 800 feet of sidewalk will be widened to provide greater distance between pedestrians and the street and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Beds of soil for trees, or ‘‘planting panels,” also will be installed on the east side of Fern Street, where any trees or foliage affected by construction can be replaced on the sidewalk.

The funding for the project is a result of efforts from County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington. Van Hollen sponsored the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, which allocates federal money to state transportation authorities.

After the bill passed through Congress in August 2005, Van Hollen and Leggett petitioned the MTA to allocate some of the money to Wheaton, which is the first location in the region to receive funding from the bill. The county will match 20 percent of the MTA funding for the project.

‘‘We have seen great revitalization of Silver Spring and we want to provide a similar boost to the Wheaton area,” Van Hollen said. ‘‘Part of that success is making it a thriving Metro center.”

Streetscaping around the Metro also will help attract future developers, Van Hollen said, with projects like the MetroPointe Apartments at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive serving as examples of Metro’s drawing power.

‘‘If you are trying to encourage or promote that type of development, it’s important to have easy pedestrian access,” he said.

Fern Street is also adjacent to the Safeway grocery store at Reedie and Georgia. That site could be a candidate for future development if the store is moved to the proposed Avalon Bay mixed-use development on the corner of Georgia and Blueridge avenues.

Construction on the streetscaping project is set to begin later this year.

In the Wheaton Triangle area, the county’s Department of Transportation began streetscaping June 30 on a stretch of Ennalls Avenue between Veirs Mill Road and Grandview Avenue.

Joe Callaway, chief of operations for the Wheaton Urban District, said a median will be installed on Ennalls to block an entrance to the Triangle Park shopping center on Ennalls that is very close to Veirs Mill Road. Now, cars that turn onto Ennalls from Veirs Mill can hold up traffic on Veirs Mill as they wait to make a left turn off Ennalls into the shopping center, Callaway said.

The project also will include new trees on the south side of Ennalls and concrete additions to the sidewalk to shorten walking distances across the street, Callaway said.

‘‘Pedestrian movement is a big challenge with pretty major highways running through large state roads like that,” Callaway said, referring to Veirs Mill, Georgia and University Boulevard.

After the Ennalls project is completed in mid-August, similar streetscaping efforts will be made on Price Avenue and Elkin Street, said Rob Elder, project manager with DOT. ‘‘Wheaton wants to have that distinctive, classy look,” he said.

The improvements to Ennalls will be the first streetscaping project to be funded by the Wheaton Redevelopment Program’s Capital Improvements Program budget after previously being funded through grants on a project-by-project basis. Callaway said the CIP allocates money specifically for streetscaping, and the Ennalls Avenue project’s budget is $416,000.