Over two nights this week, city officials and residents of the University Hills neighborhood clashed in public meetings designed to inform about proposed streetscape improvements. As has become the custom in Hyattsville, much of the debate centered around heated disagreements on the necessity and utility of new sidewalks in residential areas.
Residents opposed to new sidewalks were the most vocal at Thursday night's meeting, frequently interrupting city officials and contracted engineers as they tried to gather input from residents about the proposed streetscape overhaul.
The project, dubbed the University Hills Green Streets project, seeks to address a number of different issues with the infrastructure of the northern Hyattsville neighborhood. Planners propose the installation of new sidewalks and the narrowing of residential streets to slow traffic and make the neighborhood more accessible for pedestrians.
Elizabeth Landy, a longtime resident of Rosemary Lane, said that the project was too expansive. She objected to plans to add another sidewalk on the opposite side of her street, arguing that additional sidewalks were unnecessary.
"Just pave the streets and put in speed bumps," said Landy. "That's sufficient."
Pennsylvania Street resident Sandra Dwiggins doubted that city officials were truly listening to resident feedback about the project.
"This is all a done deal," said Dwiggins. "The design is there. They've already paid out thousands to engineers for work so far without asking anyone if they wanted this."
For Ward 3 Councilor Matt McKnight, the contentious objections over sidewalks and pedestrian facilities confounds him.
"I've heard that it will bring the 'riff-raff closer to my house', I've heard that it will 'bring my property values down', I've heard everything under the Sun," said McKnight about opposition to new sidewalks. "The bottom line is, it is safer to segregate pedestrians from one ton vehicles going down the street. It's the public right of way, and it's supposed to be managed in the public's best interest."
McKnight theorized that much of the opposition to new sidewalks comes from residents who have lived in the area for a long time and have becomes accustomed to the existing infrastructure.
McKnight, however, notes that the equally contentious debate about sidewalks in the 41st Ave and Quintana Street area resulted in a well used pedestrian thoroughfare.
Mayor Tartaro, who was the subject of much resident vitriol throughout the two nights of public meetings, acknowledged that he was not anticipating some of the negative feedback. His biggest task was convincing residents that their input was being taken to heart.
Tartaro promised to distribute some sort of feedback form to residents of University Hills to gauge their opinions about street scape improvements in the area.
He also echoed McKnight's assertion that those opposed to additional sidewalks in the city were people who had lived in the community for a long time and did not see a need for sidewalks.
"Some people feel it's unfair that they have to pay for something that they don't want," said Tartaro in an interview.
The project is now at a "30 percent" design phase. The next task for city officials and engineers is to take the project to a "60 percent" design phase. That means that engineers will be gathering input from residents, law enforcement, transportation, environmental and public safety agencies about the feasibility of the project.
"At that point we'll have to make some decisions about what is in and out of the project," said Tartaro.
Councilor Tim Hunt (Ward 3), joined the chorus of residents skeptical about various aspects of the streetscape imrpovement plan. He pointed out that the city's most recent five year capital improvement plan does not contain any cost projections for the University Hills green streets project.
"The mayor seems to be constantly changing his story and saying things differently," said Hunt in an interview. "He seems to be saying whatever it takes to shut people up so he can move forward…I hope he and the rest of the City Council can really get an understanding as to what the residents want and move forward."
Elaine Stookey, city treasurer and acting city administrator, said that it was too early to estimate costs for the University Hills Green Streets Project.
"There are still options for different areas," said Stookey. "Until we tie down which different options we go with, we can't estimate cost."
Stookey said that the project would be funded across multiple bond issuances.
"It will have to be done in phases," said Stookey after the meeting. " We won't bond the whole project at once, because it's going to take a while. They're not going to come in and just do them all at once."