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 | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

EDMONSTON - 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 might need to do to help save the Chesapeake Bay.

In a bid to make the working-class community of 1,500 more pedestrian- 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," said 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 officials, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

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 Washington bedroom community.

It's also long been subject to serious flooding, which was alleviated only two years ago by controls installed by the 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. 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 regulations requiring them to reduce the amount of runoff and to filter out pollutants in water draining from their sites. But about 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 from the storm drains into newly created 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.

It's not cheap - $1.1 million overhauls just two-thirds of a mile. To do similar greening along the tens of thousands of miles of city and suburban streets in the bay watershed is a "multibillion-dollar effort," MDE's Summers said.

Legislation recently introduced in Congress by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and others would authorize up to $1.5 billion in federal money toward retrofitting pollution controls in bay communities, but Summers said state and local governments have to chip in.

For Edmonston's mayor, the cost of greening the town's main street is not much more than would have had to be spent upgrading and replacing aging infrastructure anyway. But the benefits are many and widespread.

"If every street and sidewalk in the watershed incorporated these very basic storm-water practices, we could have a thriving watermen's industry and crabbing industry," Ortiz said.

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