Remaking Main Street

A small Prince George's County town sets out to 'green' its thoroughfare and help out the bay

November 25, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Baltimore Sun reporter

This little town in the paved-over heart of suburban Washington, where cows grazed long ago, is "greening" its main street — showing what Baltimore and other cities in the region may need to do to help save the Chesapeake Bay.

In a bid to make the working-class community of 1,500 more walkable and environmentally friendly, Edmonston has begun a $1.1 million makeover of busy Decatur Street, narrowing the two-lane residential thoroughfare to make room for pollution-absorbing trees and grasses, a bike lane and energy-efficient, classic-looking street lamps to be run on wind power purchased from out of state.

"Our priority is to redefine the American main street and get it from top to bottom as sustainable and community-oriented as possible," explained Adam Ortiz, the town's part-time mayor. He and other town officials celebrated Tuesday the recent launch of construction work by showing it off to state and federal officials, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

Jackson called this "one of the greenest streets in the country" and said this Prince George's County town "can show the way for other communities across America."

Tucked between Hyattsville and Bladensburg on the banks of the Anacostia River, Edmonston was home to a dairy farm until the turn of the 20th century. Since the town's incorporation in the 1920s, it has been a bedroom community of the nation's capital, its streets lined by modest frame and brick cottages and bungalows.

It's also long been plagued by serious flooding, which was only alleviated two years ago by new flood controls installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. While pressing for the new controls, the mayor said he and others realized that much of the water inundating the town's streets came not from the river but from storm water washing off all the parking lots, streets and rooftops of all the communities that had built up in the area over the years. Edmonston was simply the lowest point around for all that runoff to collect, he said.

Storm-water runoff from urban and suburban communities like Edmonston is a major — and growing — problem for streams and rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. New developments and redevelopments face tightening regulations requiring them to reduce the amount of runoff and to filter out any pollutants in water draining from their sites. But roughly 90 percent of the developed land in the bay region was built before storm-water controls were required, says Robert Summers, Maryland's deputy secretary of the environment.

For older communities like Edmonston and Baltimore, he said, "we've got to go back in and retrofit."

In Edmonston's case, the retrofit is being underwritten with a federal economic stimulus grant. Town officials say they expect that the streetscape overhaul will provide work for 50 or 60 laborers, landscapers and technicians before it's finished next year.

The street, which was widened after World War II to accommodate growing suburban traffic, is now being narrowed, from 30 feet to 24 feet. Rainfall running down the street will be diverted away from the storm drains into newly created landscaped areas planted with trees and a variety of grasses. Porous pavers will replace asphalt along the curbs to mark bike lanes and allow more rainfall to soak into the ground.

These pavers and the "bio-retention cells," as environmental planners call the landscaped areas, should soak up 80 percent of the runoff from gentle and even moderate rains, explained Neil Weinstein, executive director of the Low-Impact Development Center, who's helped the town design its project.

Town officials aim to line the street with native oaks, maples and sycamores, which they hope will thrive with careful ground preparation and ample water from runoff. Once mature, those trees should provide much-needed shade, help clear the air and attract birds and other wildlife.

"We also have a mosquito problem," the mayor said, "so we want to rebuild the habitat for birds and bats so they can help us fight the mosquitoes, because right now the mosquitoes are definitely winning."

The project is about making Edmonston a more attractive, walkable community as well as a greener one, Ortiz said. To get more residents out and about, town officials say sidewalks are being widened to allow mothers with strollers and the disabled to use them. Traffic will be slowed and made quieter by narrowing the street and by introducing a "wiggle" into its previously arrow-straight alignment. Trucks will be banned, and the streetlights, with their harsh sodium vapor glare, will be replaced with shorter, more historic looking street lamps, illuminated with energy efficient LED bulbs. Ortiz said the town is contracting with an energy provider that buys power generated by wind turbines.

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