Real Estate's Road Rage Over New Bike Lanes Has D.C. Officials 'Scrambling'
Bike lanes have become the new battleground in the fight over the future of Downtown D.C., and the front lines have emerged on two of D.C.’s busiest commercial corridors: K Street and Connecticut Avenue.
Business and commercial real estate leaders have pushed Mayor Muriel Bowser and her administration to make changes to a pair of pending projects that would remove vehicular lanes for new bike lanes on these roads, arguing they would worsen congestion and discourage people from coming downtown at a time the area desperately needs more activity.
The pressure campaign has already gotten results.
After more than three years of public meetings on plans to overhaul K Street — the heart of D.C.’s central business district known for its lobbying and legal sectors — with bus lanes, bike lanes and other changes, construction is scheduled to begin this summer.
But D.C. transportation officials last week revealed a substantial change to the project that caught council leaders and bicyclist advocates off guard: shifting the bike lane away from K Street to the parallel L Street.
The revelation came during an April 10 hearing in which District Department of Transportation Director Everett Lott was presenting the agency’s entire budget proposal to the D.C. Council Committee on Transportation and the Environment. After discussing several other initiatives, he flipped to a slide that said DDOT has revisited elements of the K Street design after “discussions with stakeholders,” including removing the bike lanes to improve curbside access on the street.
Lott said the agency will continue to meet with business groups, property owners and bicycle advocates to update the design and remains committed to starting construction this year.
Cycling advocates immediately decried the change on Twitter. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association said it was excluded from the talks over these latest changes after participating in the process since 2019.
“To see that the design was drastically changed, not a slight change but a drastic change, at the eleventh hour is pretty shocking,” WABA Organizing Manager Garrett Hennigan said in an interview after the DDOT meeting. “Especially to hear that stakeholders were consulted, except for stakeholders representing the people biking and walking who are going to be pretty significantly impacted by this change. We were not consulted.”
WABA wasn’t the only one surprised. Council Member Charles Allen, who chairs the transportation committee to which Lott was presenting, said the bike lane shift was also news to him.
“I frankly think they’re scrambling,” Allen told Bisnow Thursday. “They’ve heard that commercial properties, the [business improvement districts], many others just don’t support this project, so I think they’re kind of scrambling to try to come up with last-minute changes.”
Real estate professionals worry that by launching a major construction project in the heart of downtown this year, the D.C. government is making it harder to bring workers back to offices and customers back to retail businesses.
"Congestion is self-inflicted, we’re making this worse, and it’s like we’re watching the bleeding coming off our arm and saying, 'Well, maybe if we just cut it deeper it’ll be better,'" said Bill Miller, the principal of Miller Walker Retail Real Estate. "No, we don’t need to do more damage. This is self-inflicted. Even if we thought we needed to have all these bike lanes, now isn’t the time to do it."
‘A Perfect Storm For DDOT’
Today, D.C.’s high-profile K Street corridor has two primary lanes of traffic in both directions, plus a service lane on either side in which cars drive slower and park or drop off riders.
DDOT’s plan for the K Street Transitway — prior to shifting the bike lane to L Street — was to get rid of the service lanes and create two dedicated bus lanes in the center of the road with bike lanes on either side. The bike lanes would be protected by concrete barriers, and there would be two lanes of vehicular traffic going in each direction on either side.
The agency hasn’t unveiled details or renderings of exactly how shifting the bike lane to L Street would look for either street. But L Street already has a one-way bike lane going eastbound, and the next parallel street, M Street, has a one-way westbound bike lane.
Lott told Bisnow Monday in an emailed statement the new plan would enhance the existing bike infrastructure on L Street and preserve space for curbside drop-off on K Street while still creating new bus lanes and other improvements to the street. He said it decided to make the change after “extensive engagement with stakeholders, advocates, and the business community.”
“This modification is a compromise that provides for the long-term needs of this corridor while being responsive to the concerns of stakeholders,” Lott said.
Allen said he has heard concerns from business and real estate leaders and understands their anxieties about exacerbating congestion on K Street, but he thinks changing the design so close to construction starting isn’t the right way to address them.
“At the end of the day, the K Street Transitway is a nine-block-long, massive construction project,” Allen said. “This needs a lot more serious work than just, ‘Hey, I’ll shift the bike lane somewhere else.’ I don’t think that sounds like a serious response to the concerns that are being raised.”
The Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, a local real estate industry lobbying group, has met with council members and administration officials in recent months to voice concerns about the K Street plan, AOBA Vice President of Government Affairs Eric Jones told Bisnow.
Jones said commercial real estate and business owners have been more actively engaged on this project than any past road changes because of the importance of K Street to the downtown economy, and he said Friday he thinks DDOT’s change came in response to this engagement.
“It was kind of a perfect storm for DDOT,” Jones said. “Looking at the increased concerns from the business community about how the K Street Transitway would impact business, especially when we’ve seen the downturn in the number of folks coming downtown … I think the mayor’s trying to find a better balance to make sure that she has everything taken into consideration.”
A similar saga has unfolded in recent weeks on Connecticut Avenue, where a bike lane project is earlier in the design phase but has caught the attention of the local business community.
The project would remove two vehicular lanes to install protected bike lanes on a 3-mile stretch of the corridor, a main thoroughfare for commuters coming downtown from Montgomery County that carries more than 32,000 cars daily.
More than 120 business owners and 2,700 residents along the corridor signed a pair of petitions to voice their opposition to the project. Lee Mayer, who organized the petitions through his group called Save Connecticut Avenue, said he delivered them personally to the mayor.
Prominent D.C. restaurateur Ashok Bajaj made waves in local social media circles when he came out against the bike lane plan on March 27, tweeting a link to the petition that garnered dozens of angry responses, followed by an explanation the next day.
I’m all for bike lanes and bikers. I’m a cyclist https://t.co/lWi6fJSo7j lane at proposed stretch of Connecticut Avenue will have a negative impact on residents and businesses, will create safety issues for cyclists and pedestrians on a such a busy thoroughfare!— Ashok Bajaj (@ashokbajajdc) March 28, 2023
On April 5, DDOT revealed it was delaying the release of final designs for Connecticut Avenue to the end of this year, Axios reported. At the April 10 hearing, Lott cited complaints from business owners about the loss of parking and said DDOT is considering revising the bike lane component of the plan, pairing the lanes on the same side of the street to make room for cars on the opposite side.
In his emailed statement to Bisnow, Lott said DDOT is still analyzing the feasibility of combining the bike lanes on the same side of the road, but it is committed to ensuring all commercial areas will have parking available on one side of the street.
Mayer said Wednesday he thinks the idea of combining the bike lanes is “less bad” than the prior version that had bike lanes on both sides of the street.
“The mayor was receptive to our pleas; she is rightfully concerned about businesses and the taxes that they generate for the city,” Mayer said. “Downtown is struggling, commercial real estate values are dropping, which means far less taxes, and the city is in trouble. She recognizes it, and bike lanes aren’t the solution.”
The Downtown D.C. economy is in dire straits. The city’s office buildings still have about 43% of the daily occupancy they did before the pandemic, according to Kastle Systems, and the vacancy rate is at an all-time high of around 20%, according to multiple brokerage firms.
This dynamic is depressing commercial property values, a phenomenon projected to cost the city more than $450M in tax revenues. The darkening financial picture led Bowser to make “tough choices,” reducing funding for affordable housing in her latest budget proposal.
Ridership on the Metro is still about half of pre-coronavirus levels, putting the region’s transit system in a budgetary crisis. But the slow return to downtown hasn’t resulted in less congestion on the city’s streets.
The amount of vehicular traffic in the D.C. area rose to within 5% of pre-Covid-19 levels by the end of 2022, according to a February report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The share of people driving to work increased from 64.6% in 2019 to 78.4% last year, according to a 2022 MWCOG survey. Ten percent of those driving said they previously took the Metro.
Greater Washington Board of Trade CEO Jack McDougle highlighted congestion as a primary issue facing downtown in a January blog post: “The elimination of vehicle lanes is currently causing significant headaches in getting people back in the office."
In an interview, McDougle said his organization supports bus and bike lanes but questioned whether the city should reduce vehicular lanes in the way it is proposing on K Street and Connecticut Avenue.
“Fewer lanes obviously increases congestion, and we do need to look at this in the short, medium and long term,” he said. “How do we take into account some of the current needs, particularly now when we’re trying to get people into the office downtown as a short-term priority?”
‘They’re Pulling Their Hair Out’
Commercial real estate leaders haven’t historically been vocal on D.C.’s bike lane projects, as many of the lanes were installed on residential streets or less busy commercial corridors. But the K Street and Connecticut Avenue proposals have roused the industry to action over what they see as detrimental changes to critical commuting thoroughfares.
Stonebridge principal Doug Firstenberg, a top D.C. commercial property owner, told Bisnow last week that he and other developers have been “pushing to restart a dialogue” with DDOT and other city officials to find a balance between the priorities of bicyclists and those of commercial property owners.
“We want to get people downtown during rush hour and during nights, evenings and weekends,” he said. “We have to revisit the paradigm that set up these bike lanes to face the new reality that there are going to be more cars on the road.”
Three D.C. retail brokers — Dochter & Alexander’s Dave Dochter, Papadopoulos Properties’ John Gogos and Miller — all said in interviews they have heard from retail tenants who are anxious about the effect the city’s bike lane program has on their businesses.
“Everybody in the business community is like, ‘Make it easy to get downtown, fix the Metro … don’t shut down any more lanes,’” Miller said. “I talk to people who work downtown, and they’re pulling their hair out because it’s so hard to get around D.C.”
Tom Fulcher, who leads the D.C. regional office for tenant-focused brokerage firm Savills, raised the issue of bike lanes unprompted in a recent interview with Bisnow about the office market. He said office tenants are concerned about their employees not wanting to commute downtown because of the traffic.
“People are saying, ‘It’s hard enough to get people in, why are we throwing another barrier in front of them?’” Fulcher said. “If we take what used to be four lanes, drop it down to two, all you’re doing is making it a little harder to come in. If bike lanes add 15 minutes or a perceived 15 minutes to a commute, you just made it a little harder to come in.”
The perception of a more difficult commute could be enough to harm the downtown economy, real estate brokers said, even if studies show the changes may not substantially worsen traffic.
DDOT predicts the K Street Transitway project would not only quicken the trips for cyclists and bus riders on the road but would also actually make vehicular traffic move more efficiently down K Street. A 2019 DDOT study found traffic moving eastbound on K Street during the morning rush would save about one minute and 20 seconds of travel time, while westbound traffic would save about one minute, The Washington Post reported.
A pre-pandemic study of the Connecticut Avenue bike lane plan, however, found the commute time going southbound during the morning rush hour would increase by about eight minutes and the northbound commute during the evening rush hour would increase by about seven minutes.
The six-lane road previously had reversible lanes that created four lanes in the main rush hour commuting direction, but those were scrapped during the pandemic and haven’t returned. The bike lane proposal would cut the number of commuting lanes down to two.
Bike lane advocates argue that slight increases in commute times for drivers are a worthy trade-off for making the street safer for pedestrians and cyclists and encouraging the use of the Metro. The Red Line travels directly below Connecticut Avenue from Dupont Circle to Friendship Heights.
The mayor’s street safety improvements have been part of a Vision Zero campaign that aims to reduce the number of street fatalities to zero, but data shows the region has been moving in the wrong direction.
The number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths across the D.C. region last year totaled 141, a 37% increase from the prior year, according to MWCOG’s Street Smart campaign. Twenty-two of those deaths occurred in the District.
Advocates also point to the environmental benefits of biking, arguing that policymakers should prioritize transportation modes that reduce carbon emissions.
Research has also shown that removing parking for bike lanes often doesn’t negatively impact retail businesses on a street. A series of studies in Portland, Oregon, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and elsewhere found that pedestrians and cyclists spend more money weekly and monthly at retail businesses than drivers, and removing parking for bike lanes has been found to have a negligible or even positive impact on retail sales, Bloomberg reported.
But the real estate and business owners anxious about the effects of the K Street and Connecticut Avenue projects aren’t just worried about the long-term state of the roads once the overhauls are completed; they are worried about the short-term disruption caused by the construction. With some businesses and properties on K Street hanging on by a thread, they say the projected three-year construction timeline could be a fatal blow.
“You start digging up the entire street, relocating all the utilities on K Street, it’s a three-year year construction project,” Miller said. “At the entrance to downtown, is this the right time to do that?”
The contentious nature of the bike lane debate was on display last month at a Bisnow event focused on the region's retail real estate.
When asked what the D.C. government should do to enhance urban retail, Papadopoulos Properties principal Tom Papadopoulos responded, “Get rid of the bike lanes.”
“They’re just making it more difficult for people to come to work,” the prolific retail leasing broker said after the 150-person industry crowd applauded his initial response. “Why would someone from Bethesda want to drive downtown to 14th and K Street when they have to fight traffic and bike lanes and everything else? They’re going to open their office in Bethesda or Chevy Chase. That really needs to be re-examined, because I think that’s a big factor of what’s going on downtown.”
“I don’t think bike lanes have anything to do with it,” Lanier said, adding that urban residents want to ride bikes because it improves their quality of life. “Eliminating bike lanes is just a vacuous argument of Tom Papadopoulos.”
“I bet there are a lot more people in here that agree with me than you,” Papadopoulos responded, followed by laughter from the audience.
“Get out of your car and shop, and then retail would do better,” Lanier shot back.