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Jan 11 13

Transit improvements Should Not Be Considered Anything Paved

by joshua sloan

In response to the article, “The year ahead: A top 10 list of transportation projects to watch“, I have to say I’m quite disappointed. Not by the content per se, but the title.

Of the 10 projects listed, only 4 are truly “transit” projects; the other 6 are highway projects/roadway improvements (all 10 of which are “transportation” projects). The problem that drives some of us in the design and planning business crazy is that it is precisely because these two concepts are conflated, that we miss the opportunity to truly assess progress for more sustainable, congestion-reducing transportation solutions. Words matter because there is so much baggage attached to them.

While, broadly speaking, “transit” is the movement of something from one place to another, it should be understood more narrowly in these conversations. And transit is not just “mass-transit”, it should cover bikes, buses, light rail, heavy rail, bus-rapid-transit, or any tool to decrease travel by one driver in one car; so maybe we add HOV, or car/van-pooling. Transportation, then, should cover these, plus improvements for the average driver. And a separate argument should be pointed out that roadway improvements – adding lanes, widening roads, installing interchanges – rarely actually improve traffic flow; they typically just fill up with more cars: if you pave it, they will drive.

We fight for hard-earned victories when we can persuade policy makers to think more like transit planners rather than traffic engineers and require transportation departments to focus more on the transit side of the equation. Given the 4/6 ratio of the projects you’ve mentioned, we still have a lot to do. Thus, I think the article – in pointing out the pending projects that will impact our daily commute – you could have been more aggressive in showing that the projects that really could positively influence the environmental impacts and congestion issues are not getting the attention they deserve. For example, in our jurisdiction, the Corridor Cities Transitway, the Purple Line, and the Bus Rapid Transit Amendment to the Master Plan of Highways. These plans, and similar ones in surrounding jurisdictions need more attention and a more critical eye from journalists; we can’t pave our way out of our congestion problem and we need everyone to look at the issues more carefully and analytically.

Apparently, however, the print edition was corrected for the online version; but I think my argument is still valid.  But to prove I wasn’t going nuts:

Jan 9 13

Transformation in White Flint Recognized by State Sustainability Panel

by valerie berton

Rendering submitted with the Pike & Rose application

Since it was approved in 2010, the White Flint Sector Plan has received much praise. The sector plan establishes the framework to transform a car-centric suburban shopping district known for a sea of under-used parking lots and one of the worst stretches for traffic in Montgomery County into a dynamic mixed-use center.

The plan also envisions new housing options, retail, greatly expanded public use spaces and, above all, a favorable environment for walking and cycling.

Aurora House at North Bethesda Center

In December, planners were pleased to learn that the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission recognized the implementation phase of the sector plan with a 2012 Smart Growth Communities award. Implementation includes a special taxing district to pay for new transportation infrastructure, a new mixed-use zone, and several innovative development applications.

The award is well deserved. Since the plan was passed, things in White Flint have gotten off to a quick start. The project plans submitted to the Planning Department go a long way toward changing the look and feel of White Flint, particularly Rockville Pike.

Check out the applications:

Each development plan looks to remake aging shopping centers into mixed-use communities with public amenities, new streets, urban plazas, open spaces, and parks. They will place more than 3,000 new residential units on the ground or above ground in sleek high rise and mid-rise buildings within 10 years.

North Bethesda Market II

Thanks to the White Flint Metro Station, the plan area is strategically positioned for growth. With the convergence of public transportation, state roads and jobs, as well as a sense that White Flint is Montgomery County’s Next Big Thing, development in the area is taking off.

Buzz about White Flint growth has appeared in myriad regional and national news outlets, such as The Washington Post, American Public Radio and the American Planning Association magazine.

During the creation of the sector plan, a swell of community support emerged. Several large property owners formed the White Flint Partnership to support the plan vision and drive its implementation, including the tax district. The Partnership worked closely with residents, many of whom expressed eagerness for positive change in White Flint.

A few hundred residents attended the County Council public hearing on the sector plan, many testifying in support in an unusually positive hearing.

In 2011, planners drafted – and the Planning Board and County Council passed – the Commercial Residential Zone, which provides developers with options to increase density if they create extra amenities for the public. Those might include payment into a farmland preservation fund, constructing energy-efficient buildings, creating more tree canopy and vegetative plantings, and installing green roofs, among other measures.

Current applications in White Flint include public amenities such as:

  • A pedestrian walkway with wayfinding signs, tree canopy, public parking and artwork
  • Aggressive stormwater management, including green roofs, bio-filters and underground filter systems
  • Innovative building design, including a modular 300-foot glass tower
  • Public park expansion
  • New urban plazas and open spaces
  • Enhanced streetscape and tree canopy
  • Public art

Another key to change in White Flint was creation of a special taxing district to pay for the plan’s transportation improvements. Envisioned is a street grid that alleviates traffic and converts large parcels into walkable, urban-style blocks.

A major improvement is called for on Rockville Pike, envisioned as a boulevard lined with trees, wide sidewalks, bike paths, and transit lanes.

A re-envisioned Rockville Pike

The emphasis on mixed use development leads to less reliance on driving – and resulting carbon emissions – as the main way of getting around. Local residents and workers can walk to services and the Metro, while those traveling to the area by car can park once and walk to multiple destinations.

Planners will receive the award in Annapolis in February.



Dec 20 12

Garden Wars

by claudia kousoulas

Park and Planning’s own “Edenic plot”

How strongly do you feel about your front yard? Is it a reflection of you and your family; the landscape equivalent of putting on a clean shirt in the morning?

As we’ve said before, there are rules for life in suburbia, some written and many more unwritten. And lately, some of the more obscure written rules about front-yard vegetable gardens are being read and interpreted, not always in favor of cucumbers. As this New York Times article points out, one neighbor’s “suitable” groundcover is another’s eyesore.

And as we’ve pointed out before, there are plenty of personal and community benefits to front-yard  vegetable gardens. In fact, some communities, like Santa Monica, encourage digging up the lawn for a more food- and environment-friendly landscape.

In Montgomery County, they’re legal by code. Typically, it’s HOA covenants that restrict them. One of the progressive pushes we made in the Zoning Ordinance rewrite is for more forms of urban farming and local food production.

Community Gardens, Farming, Animal Husbandry, and Farm Markets are allowed in all zones – albeit with some restrictions in the non-Agricultural/Rural zones.


Dec 6 12

Curating Public Art

by valerie berton

Over the past few decades, Montgomery County has seen a steady rise in the number of public art pieces, bringing artistry and creativity to spaces large and small. We see sculptures, art-enhanced plazas, benches and more in schools, libraries, parks, retail centers and office buildings. The collection provides a set of assets that contribute an extra appeal to the look and feel of our communities.

The Planning Department helps build the collection by encouraging developers to contribute public art in exchange for density.

Thus, we have an outdoor pool with real waves correlated to the tides outside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building in Silver Spring.

Pool outside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building in Silver Spring

An outstretched palm with birds at a busy Silver Spring intersection.

Catching the eye of motorists and pedestrians at East-West Highway and Colesville Road, Silver Spring

And a set of three oversized granite block chairs that are both eye-catching and a respite for pedestrians on a well-traveled avenue in Bethesda.

Solid granite seats on Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda

Just how art commissioned through private development should work, and how it fits in with the broader public art agenda will be the subject of Planning Board review next week of a public arts policy drafted by The Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council.

The public arts policy aims to manage, maintain and add value to the full collection. Council members say a more systematic approach to managing and maintaining the artworks will add value to the collection as a whole.

Planners work with professional artists on a review panel that looks for pieces that help build a sense of place. They analyze art and placement with an eye toward access, lighting, durability and other factors. Where pieces are located and how they connect to their surroundings and engage viewers, they say, can be as important as the design of the artwork itself.

The policy has several goals, among them:

  • Promoting culture, community identity and civic pride
  • Celebrating Montgomery County heritage and ethnicity
  • Integrating art into architecture and the landscape
  • Enhancing the image of the county locally as well as nationally
  • Encouraging federal, state and private support for public art


Above all, it’s intended to help place art where it will be enjoyed by many rather than just a few by placing art throughout the county. A consistent approach would help develop art as a true county asset, rather than a sporadic set of pieces.

The Board will review and adopt the document as the standard for managing public art pieces for private development. Other county agencies and organizations, such as Montgomery College and the County’s Executive Branch, also will weigh in.

It is no accident that the developer-placed art appears mainly in down-County locations like Silver Spring and Bethesda. Since 1974, when the optional method of development was created, property owners in high-density zones have been able to apply for additional density if they create more attractive urban environments. Among their options is installing art.

Last year, the County Council approved the Commercial Residential Zone, which provides a list of public amenities for developers opting to earn bonus density. Among the amenities is supplying public art or pay a fee in lieu of providing a new piece.

Also on tap is creation of a Public Art Road Map, intended to provide a big picture look at existing art in the county and point out gaps.

Art has more of an economic impact than most people realize. Statewide, the nonprofit arts sector has a $1 billion impact on the economy, supporting more than 11,000 jobs, according to a just-released report by the Maryland State Arts Council. The report analyzed the impact of performing arts, visual arts, and multidisciplinary arts by region and found that the Capital Region, which includes Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, was second to the Central Region (Baltimore, Anne Arundel and surrounding counties) in contributing revenue ($431.2 million) and arts-related jobs (4,865) compared to $495 million and 5,745 jobs.

One might conclude that Montgomery County could do a better job in supporting the arts. Art makes communities distinct, but needs curation and care. The public art policy is one step toward making that happen.

Nov 29 12

Smoothing the Way for Bikeshare in Montgomery County

by valerie berton

Capital Bikeshare has grown rapidly in Washington, D.C. and its inner-ring suburbs since 2010.

Since 2008, when Washington, D.C. rolled out bicycles for short-term, commuter-oriented trips, it has grown to one of the largest systems in the U.S. With more than 175 stations and 1,700 bicycles, bikesharing has changed the way people get around in the city and inner suburbs.

The growth in bikesharing reflects a wave of interest in cycling – for commuting, weekend sight-seeing and even running errands. Its business model focused on convenience – inexpensive rentals, hassle-free memberships, flexible pick-up and return locations – taps into a need to get around quickly in traffic. It also provides a green option for environmentally conscious urbanites.

The bright red cruisers and rows of bike docks provided by Capital Bikeshare are now ubiquitous throughout the District as well as parts of Arlington and Alexandria.

For good reason.  Bikesharing makes bike commuting easy. It takes a practice that involves a bit of planning – what clothes to wear for cycling and the office? where to park a bike safely for the day? – and removes the guesswork with outfit-friendly frames and easy drop-offs.

Bikesharing, adopted in droves by 20- and 30-something urban dwellers, is expanding throughout the continent, from Montreal to San Diego.

In a word, it’s hip.

New York’s bikeshare program, expected to launch in summer 2013, has ambitions to become the largest system in North America. Photo courtesy Transportation Alternatives

Eye-catching bikeshare ad for Kent State University’s program

Montgomery County wants to be hip, too. As well as forward-thinking when it comes to transportation options.

Earlier this month, the County Council approved a Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) that makes it easier for developers to build bikeshare stations. Previously, a developer who wanted to add a bikeshare station would need to file a site plan amendment, a process that requires review by planners and related agencies, then Planning Board approval. Typically, it takes months.

Since the ZTA was approved on November 13, developers wanting bikeshare at their projects may apply for building permits from the county, provide a copy of the permit to the planning director, and ride away. The Planning Board recommended approval of the ZTA in October, saying streamlining the building permit process for a bikeshare facility for approved site plans would speed along possibilities for Montgomery County to join the bikeshare system.

The Council also encouraged bikesharing by approving a bill allowing transportation impact taxes to go toward funding new bike stations. Transportation impact fees are paid by builders as part of the development review process.

Bikesharing requires strategic planning. Transportation planners have been working with the county Department of Transportation to map bikeshare locations mainly in down county and mid-county communities, where they would attract customers in central business districts, those using Metro and others trying to connect to DC bikeshare stations. As part of the mapping, they are acquiring easements on parcels that reserves space for future bikeshare stations. Their ambitious plan calls for rolling out bikeshare to Bethesda, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Friendship Heights, Rockville and Shady Grove starting in the spring, adding 50 stations and 400 bicycles.

Bikeshare got more visible here when planners included it as an option in a list of public amenities in the new Commercial Residential Zone. Developers who want to build at higher densities in the CR Zone choose from a menu of public amenities, such as structured parking, public art, small business opportunities, vegetated roofs and other measures, like bikesharing.

Nov 6 12

Considering a New Way to Combat Traffic

by admin

guest post by Larry Cole

Rapid transit vehicle running down median strip.

Transportation planners often say we cannot build enough roads to fix congestion. In fact, building new roads or expanding existing roads accommodates growth but can also encourage people to move farther out. The result is more people driving longer distances, more carbon emissions, more wasted time in traffic. This effect can be amplified when increased traffic on widened roads lessens the desirability of established neighborhoods.

We believe that there is a better way. This week, we will present the Planning Board with preliminary recommendations for a countywide transit network. Our goal is to increase the appeal of transit serving our activity centers, such as Silver Spring, Bethesda, White Flint, and Germantown, and to move people faster.

The recommended transit corridors would accommodate all-day service with 10- or 15-minute wait times, stations or stops every half-mile or mile, and high-quality vehicles that resemble streetcars rather than traditional buses.

As always when considering public transportation, we estimated the number of potential riders. Sparsely populated areas don’t warrant frequent transit service, but densely populated activity and employment centers generate a greater number of transit riders in a smaller space and warrant more frequent service by high-quality transit. Pairing high-quality transit with growing mixed-use centers brings truly sustainable development, by making the best use of available road space. It’s also more sustainable from the standpoint of County finances since these high-density mixed-use centers also generate the highest tax returns per square foot, lessening the need for subsidies for transit service.

Where Should We Place Transit?
While it makes sense to put transit where people are and want to be, fitting it into existing roads will be a challenge. Our recommendations identify roads within first-ring communities inside and near the Beltway, as well as along the I-270 Corridor, where we could convert travel lanes to bus service.

As we considered where to place BRT service, we concluded that it made most sense to work within our existing master plan rights-of-way by repurposing existing lanes to serve transit, which will minimize impacts to property owners. By working within our existing roadway pavement wherever possible, we can avoid large capital costs, environmental impacts, and the problem of induced traffic. Where we can move more people in a travel lane via transit than private automobiles, we believe that repurposing lanes is a more sustainable solution than obtaining more land and constructing new lanes.

In our analysis, the threshold for dedicated lanes was 1,000 passengers per hour in the peak direction in the peak period. In areas with lower levels of forecast transit demand, we recommend that buses generally operate in mixed traffic but prioritized at traffic lights.

Our studies showed:

  • Highest forecast ridership (49,000 riders a day) along MD355 between Friendship Heights and White Flint. Dedicated lanes or a dedicated busway would provide frequent all-day service in this corridor.
  • To accommodate high ridership on more commuter-focused corridors we recommend a mix of options. For example, along US29, with 17,000 forecast daily riders we recommend a mix of dedicated lanes (south of Lockwood Drive), mixed traffic (on Lockwood Drive and Stewart Lane in the area of the White Oak Transit Center), and a median busway north of Stewart Lane.

We ran our transportation model both with and without a test of lane-repurposing on segments of four corridors: MD355/Rockville Pike, MD97/Georgia Avenue, US29/Colesville Road, and MD650/New Hampshire Avenue to determine the relative impacts on transit ridership, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and vehicle hours traveled (VHT) in the year 2040. Our results varied by area but were generally favorable, and the benefits were greatest in the down-County area; in Silver Spring alone, VMT would be reduced by six percent.

Transit Stations

Passengers queue up at a BRT station

Sufficient forecast ridership is needed to justify transit, but we need a pedestrian-friendly environment to succeed in attracting that ridership. Safe, handicapped-accessible pedestrian facilities are needed at a minimum, but so are attractive shelters and landscaping, and sufficient bike access to the stations. Refining the standards for these items is one of our tasks for the next phase of our work.

Sustainability Goals
The master plans in some of our activity centers set an ambitious goal of up to half of all travelers using alternative transportation modes – transit, walking, cycling, carpooling – rather than driving alone in a vehicle. Half of all travelers is a large share, but this goal is grounded in our desire for long-term sustainability. BRT is perhaps the best option to get us there and we recommend moving quickly to implement transit improvements on the corridors where we currently have the highest demand.

Nov 1 12

Designing for Joy

by claudia kousoulas

Childe Hassam’s painting of New York’s Fifth Avenue captures the exuberance of the shared environment of a city street.

At a panel discussion in late October, where architect David M. Childs of SOM received the George White Award for Excellence in Public Architecture from the American Architectural Foundation, the notion of joy in planning came up.

Amid discussions of floor area ratio, compatibility, function, and infrastructure, bringing up joy seems frivolous in the least, perhaps even foolish.

Childs recalled that he and George White, the ninth Architect of the Capital between 1971 and 1996, proposed allowing ice skating on the reflecting pool, an idea that was quickly dismissed as not serious.

But imagine the feeling of gliding between Lincoln and Washington. That stretch of city would become a place for people as well as a place for history. I love pedaling in the bike lanes down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue; it is my opportunity to participate in the monumental avenue.

Architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote “Flags snap, high heels tap: a little sex and aggression, the city’s delights.” It is one of my favorite quotes about urban life and environment. It captures the anything-can-happen excitement of downtown. He takes delight in the urban physcial environment and the social environment that it provides a stage for.

So how do you incentivize joy in project review? I don’t think it can be quantified or measured, but it is something that you know when you see. I hope there is room to create joy in between the regulations.

And consider as well how joy can contribute to sustainability, by using one place for many purposes. Layering uses is an efficient appraoch to resources—good planning by any measure.


Oct 17 12

Operations Research Institute (1963), 1400 Spring Street

by clare lise kelly

Montgomery Modern

This sleek blue building, constructed in 1963, is another mid-century modern gem in downtown Silver Spring. Built three years after the American National Bank Building, the Operations Research Institute building was designed by prolific local architect Ted Englehardt. Previously we blogged about Englehardt’s Weller’s Dry Cleaning. For the Operations Research Institute, Englehardt designed an International Style office building with beautiful turquoise spandrel panels made of porcelain enamel.

Developer Carl M. Freeman moved his offices here in 1964. The firm occupied the first and part of the second floors. Freeman, who pioneered the modernist garden apartment in the DC area, was at this time one of the top 12 builders in the country.

Washington Post, October 30, 1963

Some part of the ground floor was originally open, as seen in this historic photo. Today, the west section retains a ground floor drive-through to connect the parking area with Spring Street entrance.

Architect Ted Englehardt’s trademark signature block may still be seen on the building, near the parking lot underpass.

Green marble skirts the perimeter of the building’s exterior and also enlivens the interior lobby.

The spandrel panels are made of porcelain enamel.

Some window units are hinged on top and can be opened with a special tool. Our historic preservation unit of the Planning Department had offices on the top floor of this building in 2011-2012. The space was well-lit and open (and the building is very well maintained). It has held up well over the years!

Montgomery Modern explores mid-century modern buildings and communities that reflect the optimistic spirit of the post-war era in Montgomery County, Maryland. From International Style office towers to Googie style stores and contemporary tract houses, Montgomery Modern celebrates the buildings, technology, and materials of the Atomic Age, from the late 1940s through the 1960s. A half century later, we now have perspective to appreciate these resources as a product of their time.
Oct 15 12

Maybe Money Does Grow on Trees

by valerie berton

Who doesn’t love trees? As we’ve learned, shoppers perusing downtown shops for the latest bargains are among the tree lovers. That’s why property owners in the Silver Spring and Wheaton Central Business Districts should take advantage of the Planning Department’s new program offering free trees.

Last month, the Department unveiled Shades of Green, a pilot program that provides trees of choice to qualifying property owners, plants them, and ensures care and maintenance for two years. That’s quite a deal.

Download our online maps for details on who qualifies – CBD property owners and property owners in Montgomery Hills – as well as tree species on offer.

Learn more about how the Shades of Green program works and why we are doing it in this video.

More than just creating a pretty aesthetic, trees have been linked to a more successful business environment. In a 1999 article presented at American Forests’ National Urban Forest Conference, the author found that tree-lined commercial streets encouraged more frequent shopping and longer shopping trips. More, the study cites shoppers’ willingness to spend 12 percent more for goods. That would make any business owner perk up.

Tree-lined block in the Bethesda Central Business District

The U.S. Forest Service sponsored a series of shopper surveys earlier this decade to determine whether an appealing store or sidewalk frontage affects shopper patronage. The surveys showed images of streetscapes with trees and without. Across all studies, responses were positive about trees in the urban, retail landscape, particularly images with well-managed trees placed with care. The take-home message: shoppers spend more time in retail districts shaded with trees.

Some business owners balk at shade trees that might block their signs and public-facing windows. However, proper tree management with selective pruning can avert the problem. Anyone who has lived – or shopped – through a Washington, D.C. summer can attest that shady spot to park, walk or browse is an oasis.

Shades of Green evolved from tree canopy studies in Montgomery County that revealed the county lacks adequate cover in down-county urban areas. The program is funded through the Forest Conservation Fund, developer contributions paid during the application process as compensation for tree loss and when tree-planting on site is impractical.

Oct 10 12

A new preservation credo

by scott whipple

Takoma Park rehab

About fifty people attended an open house at the Planning Department last weekend. Of all the intelligent questions and interesting conversations I had with people who stopped at the historic preservation station, my favorite was with an elementary school-aged girl who came in with her mom and younger brother. Our conversation went something like this.

I asked if the girl if knew what historic preservation was. She shrugged. I pointed to a display with photos of some old buildings, including a house in Takoma Park that had been abandoned and condemned but has recently been rehabilitated, sold, and is again lived in. She offered that preservation was about saving old buildings. Then I asked if she knew why historic preservation was important. A slight hesitation. A prompt from her mom about the three Rs. That was all it took. The girl took on an expression of understanding and confidence.

She told me that historic preservation is important because it was better to reuse buildings than to throw them in the trash.

Yes! This girl got it. OK, it took a slight prompt from her mom. But she got it. She was thinking differently. It is better to reuse buildings than to throw them in the trash.

I won’t claim that this girl will become a preservationist because of our brief conversation at the Planning Department open house (although I hope she does). But this young girl – and her mom – made my day. And they gave all of us something to think about. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. This environmental credo is a big part of why I think historic preservation is not just important, but essential. Perhaps – just perhaps – as this girl and her little brother grow up there will come a time that more of us will apply the three Rs to our buildings, when it will be just as second nature to reuse a building as it is to refill a reusable water bottle.