I have really enjoyed doing my walkabouts around the county. The walkabouts offer an opportunity for me to explore neighbourhoods with locals, hear about how the area evolved, and where people shop, go to school and work. It has been a great way to get out to places in the county where we may not be undertaking any planning activity. Too often we focus on what is happening, rather than learning about what we’ve got. And it gives me a great excuse to get the motorcycle out on a warm weekend.
Last year, I visited Lyttonsville in west Silver Spring. Turns out my wife and I had ridden our bikes over the one-lane bridge and through the community to the Capital Crescent Trail many times. I had a carpet cleaned there after a leak in our storage unit, replaced the tires on my car from the place on Brookville Road where it seems everyone I know goes, and my wife has been there several times to get hardware to rebuild our windows. I may yet get to the motorcycle shop.
Lyttonsville is much more than the commercial/industrial area on Brookville Road. It is one of those hidden gems of a community. Digging into the history helps to understand the devotion of its residents.
During the walkabout, it did not take long to find out the character of the people and how they viewed their community and its future. I remember early in the walk pointing to a new house that was pretty big for the area. I asked, “How do you feel about that house?” The response was, “That’s Nick’s house (not his real name). Nick lives there and he always comes out with tools when anyone needs help.”
The residents did not see the house as big, but rather as a function of who lived there and the part he plays in the community. A simple but often overlooked component of our landscape.
We walked past garden apartments. Edna mentioned that, when she and her family moved to Lyttonsville 40 years ago, this is where they settled. And Edna still lives there today. In the same apartment. That is some amazing community stability.
Then we went by the high-rise apartment building and another member of the group explained that she was able to save enough money, after renting in the building for eight years, for her and her daughter to afford a small house down the street. It was a great example of how rental housing can provide the foundation for future home ownership.
Then we discussed the future rail yard and maintenance facility for the Purple Line. State transit officials were planning to place it in the middle of the only place where this community could grow its services, on Brookville Road. Moreover, it would block the community from connecting to the Capital Crescent Trail. Keep in mind that Lyttonsville is already the site of a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission yard as well as the RideOn bus facility. It seems that this community has its share of service infrastructure.
What struck me was the willingness of the community to accept this third facility, if only it could be placed in a less obtrusive place in the community. As we walked along the trail and to the west of Brookville Road, some ideas emerged. Could the maintenance yard be consolidated with the other facilities, leaving the heart of Brookville Road open to the Purple Line station and some new mixed uses to bring residential uses to this part of the community?
Some of the folks on the tour had lived here for 80 years. They remembered the school and church located where the industrial areas are today and how those new uses had slowly taken over a large part of the residential community. Brookville presents a real opportunity to remake an activity area for the neighbourhood.
A few months later, some of our planners and I returned to Lyttonsville to talk about the Purple Line and future planning efforts. We were very fortunate to be hosted at a private home on a Friday evening at a potluck event that turned into one of the best community meetings I have attended in 30 years. There were more than 20 people, with food for 30 more, discussing the future of the community with maps spread on the living room floor.
The real success is what came out of that meeting. Four months later in mid-March, the MTA announced at a community meeting that the train maintenance yard was going to be moved south, to consolidate as much as possible with the other service facilities.
Is the solution perfect? No. Some businesses will have to relocate including the wonderful cake store. But both the County and the MTA can work with those businesses to find them new space in the community they have served for many years.
The key is that a future mixed-use community hub is still possible on Brookville, serviced by the Purple Line.
This is a community that came together and made a significant difference. I was honored to be invited into their homes and community and help them make that difference. Lyttonsville will grow in the right ways as a result of their participation.
On March 28, we are hosting an open house at the Coffield Community Center to start that discussion. It is the kick off of the Lyttonsville Sector Plan, where we want to hear from the community about their ideas for their future. We are excited about the opportunity to engage and hear how they feel the next 20 or 30 years should evolve.
I keep an eye on advertisements. Every now and again, corporations come up with good ideas that reach beyond the corporate mandate. The IBM Smarter Planet campaign we see in full page ads, for example, shows a new way of thinking.
The best and most incongruous corporate initiative I’ve seen is “The Funtheory” by Volkswagen. It’s incredibly cool. VW posts ideas from around the world that it finds “simple” and “fun” – the more fun, the more behavior changes.
What if we could make doing the right thing more fun? And what if it were creative, helped our daily lives and maybe even improved something as simple as pedestrian safety? It is possible.
My favourite “funtheory” is the staircase retrofit in Stockholm, a wonderful city with a pedestrian scale, although expensive. Have a look at this video and note the simple investment in turning a public escalator into a fitness machine shows how human behavior can change.
And along the same lines…
A recent idea cropped up in New York that takes advantage of technology change. Remember phone booths? They don’t exist anymore, at least with a phone in them. Who needs a phone booth when everyone on the planet uses a cell phone? (Recently, when I was shooting video of my walk to the grocery store for a recent post, I passed a phone booth in a gas station parking lot just three feet from Georgia Avenue. No phone in it, just the booth.)
A Columbia University architecture student has come up with a novel idea to create public interaction through books. He has devised a bookshelf that fits into the existing shape of the abandoned phone booths. He then stocked the shelves with books, available for the taking. The idea is that people can borrow books and replace them with ones they no longer want. Of the two installed, one is working great while the other had the shelves stolen.
Remember the artificial turf in downtown Silver Spring? The Turf, as it became known, was really a great urban space. It generated tremendous creativity, excitement, camaraderie and exercise. Installed as a transition before the space could be programmed as the entrance to the Civic Center, it had absolutely no design and no trees so it was cheap and inexpensive to maintain. And it became the best used open space in the county.
Not long after moving here, I stood on the walkway overlooking the Turf one evening and took in everything that was happening. The soccer players, the families having picnics well into the evening, small children trying to run away from their parents, teenagers meeting, it was a mosaic of the future of Montgomery County.
The Turf is a great idea of how something can become something completely unexpected. Another terrific example of this is one of the country’s best sculpture gardens. In St. Louis, we had a one-mile swath cut right through the downtown — a barren wasteland at the time – during the City Beautiful movement. Working with Mayor Slay, we partnered with a local nonprofit foundation whose mandate included bringing sculpture into the public realm. Thirty million dollars later (not including the art), in the heart of the city, the group pulled off the most amazing transformation of an unused green space. None of us could have imagined it. And best of all, it came at no cost to the city, even for maintenance.
The City Garden has become the place where everyone in the city comes to play. Stop by on a hot summer night and watch the children running through the fountains, swimming in the waterfalls. (Yes, swimming. Mayor Slay told me someone called to complain and ask what he was going to do about it and he responded, “Nothing.” In fact, the foundation hired lifeguards).
While some bemoan what they say is the “artificial” character of Ellsworth, nobody can deny it has become the most diverse place in the county and, possibly, the region.
Can our region become more fun? Can we step out of the governmental, rigidly designed infrastructure, programmed and efficient design to allow people to explore our public spaces? It happened in Silver Spring. I think it can happen again if we continue to look for new opportunities.
Since moving to Silver Spring, my wife and I have almost always walked to the grocery store. Downtown Silver Spring has several groceries within a short walk of the condo we rented. Now that we live in a house just inside the Beltway, our local grocery store is Sniders. As I have learned, it’s an institution.
While we enjoy shopping there, the 300-yard walk is not pleasant. Unfortunately, that walk resembles pedestrian-challenged spaces so common in auto-oriented environments. Our challenge: we have to cross six-lane Georgia Avenue and several surfaced parking areas for gas stations, dry cleaners and walk in the roadway because there is no sidewalk, to get there.
Georgia Avenue is super busy, terrifying both to walk along or cross. Stand at the bus stop at Seminary Place and Georgia and try to feel safe. Motorists attempting to rapidly change lanes as they get closer to the Beltway on-ramps are traveling fast. Meanwhile it’s also a busy pedestrian space with many commuters waiting to catch the bus. Keep in mind that for a motorist to make eye contact with a pedestrian, they need to be driving less than 24 mph.
While we like our house and neighborhood, do we have to accept such a shoddy, unsafe pedestrian infrastructure? Can better pedestrian routes co-exist with high levels of car traffic?
This situation is not unique to Montgomery Hills. Exhibit A: Rockville Pike. Exhibit B: Route 198 in Burtonsville. Or even Georgia Avenue farther north in Wheaton. There are so many places where the pedestrian is at risk. Is this the best we can do?
The answer is, of course, no. But before we consider how to improve, it is important to consider a number of constraints.
- Anyone driving through Montgomery Hills or the other routes mentioned above, is in a hurry. They cannot get to where they are going fast enough (or drive close enough to the car in front to prevent someone from cutting in to get onto the I-495 on ramp).
- Georgia Avenue is not a special or favored route. Next time you are driving east on I-495 past Connecticut Avenue, read the exit sign prohibiting trucks from exiting to go south. Hmmm, why is that? Georgia Avenue which has a much higher amount of pedestrian traffic gets all the truck traffic.
- Georgia Avenue is a state road.
That part of Montgomery Hills is zoned commercial-only, perpetuating gas stations, curb cuts, and surface parking lots, all creating points for vehicle and pedestrian conflicts. Is it really necessary for the corner gas stations to have three points of vehicle access? And there are five gas stations within two blocks on a very busy road.
Not every intersection is the same. Different improvements should be considered to fit the needs of each situation.
Believe it or not, the Colesville Road-Fenton Street intersection in Silver Spring was a scramble intersection back in the early 1980s. We have investigated reversing back to that design. I wrote about this in a post last year. This is a place where such an investment could really make a difference to the pedestrian and bring motorists back to reality about driving through more urban places. This design also could work where Colesville crosses Georgia Avenue.
The big reaction against this type of design or many traffic calming measures comes from those who are sure it will slow them down behind the wheel.
The intersection I use at Seminary Place to cross Georgia Avenue does not warrant a scramble intersection because there are too few pedestrians. But the intersection could benefit from some simple fixes.
- Striping. Enhance the pedestrian crossings with highly visible crosswalk markings, possibly even texture changes. I realize the snow plows have a small issue, but how often do they plow Georgia Avenue? Where I come from, the City of Toronto uses texture changes for crosswalks and it snows a whole lot more. And striping is just a few thousand dollars.
- Look at zoning changes that might result in new uses like small buildings with residential uses on top bringing more people to the street frontages. More people on the sidewalk can really help change things by making drivers more aware.
Slow the cars down. People move through this area at well over 40 mph. We’ve got speed cameras a quarter-mile south, and people slow their cars. We should do the same in Montgomery Hills.
- Reduce the number of curb cuts and establish right-of-way requirements so that as properties redevelop, wider sidewalks can result.
- Emphasize at the County level that pedestrians matter. I agree that we need to move cars, but if it takes 15 seconds longer to move though three blocks of Georgia Avenue, is this a big impact on motorists?
The State Highway Administration is starting to look at this stretch of Georgia Avenue and maybe some of these suggestions should be considered. Let’s hope that by working with SHA we can find ways to improve this busy stretch of road that could serve as a model in other parts of the County. This is especially important as we advance the idea of bus rapid transit, which will bring more folks onto the sidewalks to await their buses. Many of those stops may be in a center median, requiring pedestrians to cross, then stand with cars passing on both sides.
Let’s use the Georgia Avenue-Montgomery Hills intersection rethink as a precedent for how to create safe and functional pedestrian infrastructure in harmony with motor vehicle traffic. I welcome hearing from residents where they think we can do better in their neighborhoods.
On January 31, we provided the Council with the “opening act” of an innovative discussion suggested by Council President Roger Berliner on the impact of our changing demographics on service delivery. We were asked to frame the discussion through a presentation highlighting the changing County demographics. I used an approach I have talked about before, which I call the Elements of Sustainability, nine elements which bring together a holistic view of the human ecosystem.
The discussion is not about land use. Rather, this is a way of thinking about the interrelationships of how we move about our environment each day and how one action must be considered across a broad range of impacts that define how, when, where and why we do what we do.
My intent in the Council presentation was to initiate a discussion about rethinking relationships in County actions, stepping out of agency silos to consider how our actions, when considered across service boundaries, can be the most effective form of community building.
The Elements of Sustainability are based on nine factors:
The Council presentation provided examples about how to consider county services within this way of thinking. In a video clip at the end of the presentation, we highlighted the Long Branch Sewing Club, a terrific example of a grass roots initiative that conveys the Nine Elements.
With the rapid growth in the minority population, there are more and more residents with untapped potential for creative activities. The sewing club started as a way for Hispanic women in Long Branch to gather, with sewing as a unifying force. The club has emerged as not just an economic enterprise, but a place to share ideas, experiences and build on each other’s strengths to improve their lives and those of their families. In effect, a grassroots chamber of commerce.
While it is a small enterprise, it has a very large impact on the lives of people in this community.
The group is selling their products at local markets, providing income for the group’s members, many of them stay-at-home moms. Selling their wares at local markets helps circulate dollars in the local economy.
This is an excellent opportunity for the members to share experiences and challenges and help each become more integrated into the community.
Members bring their children, providing a safe environment in which they can play. The members enjoy stress-reducing social interaction and become aware of opportunities in the network of health services.
The group has emerged as a local economic generator, adding to the economic infrastructure and helping to provide demand for services in this neighborhood. They create a mulitplier effect.
The group has found it has greater strength in numbers. Their presence at the market is an example of how, together, they present an organized business group that is becoming known around the area, increasing their market. And the group members are learning a new enterprise that benefits themselves, their families and the community.
The potential for social and economic growth in MoCo is staggering. The rapid shift in population dynamics is like the great European migration in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Coupled with significant change in the U.S.-born population — the aging population, lower birth rates, youth unemployment – we are seeing a whole new America.
Encouragingly, Montgomery County has seen a recent swing to a positive domestic in-migration for the first time in 10 years. Regardless of where our residents come from, everyone wants to succeed and see their children prosper. The bigger impacts occur as families move into the second and third generations, as new businesses become established, English skills improve and social networks expand. The average age of our foreign born residents is lower than U.S.-born residents. Average salary generally increases as we age, so there is considerable growth potential in household income as our new residents get older.
The growth in minority-owned businesses and the resulting employment is considerable. We can assume, also, that the small businesses that have closed during this recession have a high number of minority-owned businesses. Of the 414 business lost from 2005-2009, 93 percent had fewer than 20 employees. Looking at a map of the distribution of businesses by size around the County, it becomes evident the big ones, with 50+ employees, are centered on the I-270 Corridor. We need to think about the potential of the small businesses serving so much of the county and how we can help them succeed and foster more employment opportunities.
In my presentation, I highlighted some economic facts about McDonalds. Turns out a councilmember and several others in the room had worked at McDonalds. Councilmember Craig Rice pointed out that the kids who start at McDonalds are now in competition with older adults and senior citizens. The scarcity of service sector jobs, usually the source of employment for the under-18 group, shows up in the high unemployment rate that shadows all the other age groups.
Both Mr. Rice and Councilmember Hans Reimer pointed out that our policies have limited the opportunity for employment, especially in this age group, and that we need to think about our commercial policies to ensure that the growing number of young people have entry points for employment.
I also discussed the increasing poverty rate and attempted to put a face on the trend. Many people in poverty are working, many of them part time, but others full time. Many have higher levels of education than one might expect. Considering the cost of living here and the economic crisis, we have seen a huge increase in adult children living at home.
Our shifting demographics underscore the need for policies creating balanced service delivery linking housing, health, transit, jobs, training and education, to ensure all residents have equal access to opportunity. As we map out our services against the changing needs of the population, patterns begin to emerge. Young adults want reasonably priced housing near services and jobs. So does our growing senior population. New residents of the community need access to good transit. Yet, so do our young adults.
MoCo is at an important point in its evolution. Decisions today will set the course for a vibrant community that enhances the important factors in our quality of life like education and stable neighborhoods. Yet it also means accommodating change in a holistic approach where each action builds on the investment in our residents.
Over the holidays, my wife received an email promotion from Washingtonian magazine for a great new dining experience here in MoCo – the Corned Beef King food truck. Corned beef? One of my favorites. And it just so happened that the King was going to park on Fishers Lane just off Rockville Pike near where I get my car serviced. So just before noon we stopped by to sample the corned beef sandwich.
As advertised, the food truck was parked at the curb and a couple of people were walking away with sizeable portions. As an added bonus, dessert was nearby. Cravin Cookies and Sweets, serving up cupcakes, cookies and other sweet fare, was in an adjacent parking space. So the main course and the dessert were just a few parking spaces apart.
People were coming out of the nearby office buildings for lunch. Several cars drove up, people who had been noticed through Twitter or Facebook to the day’s location. It was cold and rainy, but the food trucks offered people the chance to walk to lunch. Locations change daily so the food trucks can reach a larger audience.
Let me add that the food was terrific.
It was the second time in a week we came across a food truck. On Christmas Eve, walking past Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue toward a restaurant, a papusa food truck was parked at the gas station on the corner and folks were picking up food on the way to the subway or headed home.
It’s great to see access to diverse food extending into areas like Fishers Lane in Twinbrook as well as the downtowns. While some may view the food trucks as a challenge to store-based food providers who pay rent or property taxes, food trucks circulating around the county, generally offering food that’s different from the restaurants, can coexist with stationary businesses.
The food trucks provide opportunities for new entrepreneurs to get established in the food business with smaller amounts of capital. Vendors can earn revenue for their business to grow. In the case of the corned beef truck, it represents a spin-off of an existing business that includes catering. The cupcake truck is run by Valerie and her two daughters. They have two trucks to cover a bigger area.
Like the gentleman selling the nuts beside Veterans Square in downtown Silver Spring we wrote about early last year, welcoming new ideas in food will bring more people onto the streets, where the added activity benefits everyone. And with the growing diversity of the County, we can look forward to new opportunities in mobile food.
Considering the state of the economy, it is a positive sign to see these new businesses starting. As more food trucks get started, there will be a growing need for the providers to network and help each other. For example, Valerie chooses where she will set up by following where the main course is going to be. Simple: she provides dessert after the sandwich.
A good example of small entrepreneurial collaboration is happening in the Long Branch neighborhood. A group of women have created a sewing group called El Rozal de Long Branch. They were most visible at a holiday market held on Saturdays in December at the Flower Avenue Shopping Center in East Silver Spring. The women have banded together to help each other in their craft of sewing, creating new products as well as taking in repair work. They were aided in forming their group by IMPACT Silver Spring. I received a terrific shopping bag in traditional patterns with the sewing group name on the side for Christmas. It will be great in avoiding the new bag tax — which is how the women marketed it at their table.
The sewing club is a model for other start-up groups to consider to bring strength in numbers to their trades. It is also a good example of the emerging business trends in the county, reflecting the changes in our demographics. Since most new businesses are expected to be both minority and women-owned, the County, with its continued growth in immigrants, has a real opportunity to create new businesses and wealth for our residents.
Later this month, we will present ideas on how the changing face of the county will impact County services to the County Council. Our approach to small business is a part of this discussion. Can we help trades create new business networks like El Rozal or a web site for the food trucks to network? Simple ideas, yet a huge leg up for our enterprising residents.
The opportunities are limitless. A growing population of young entrepreneurs and consumers are looking for ways to network and socialize. Cities are promoting food trucks as an attraction. Creating opportunity for new ideas to grow and create synergies between them – as simple as the corned beef truck parked next to the cupcake truck – is an important economic development and cultural amenity that will help our County prosper.
I have talked a lot about what I call the Nine Elements of Sustainability, which outline the elements we should think about in our decision making. These include the following:
My hope is that by bringing these nine elements into our decision making, we will raise awareness of how creating links between them will make our efforts more sustainable. The food trucks and the Long Branch Sewing Circle are good examples of how one activity crosses over many elements of our daily activities.
The cultural aspects of the sewing club are linked to creating economic opportunities for moms working from home. Home occupations allow the mothers to play a bigger role in their children’s lives, such as helping with their education. Assembling the materials they use, like the traditional fabric material used to make my shopping bag, spurs more commerce.
So tomorrow when you are hungry and lunch time approaches, check out where the food trucks are or where your nearest small restaurant might be. Or next Saturday, bundle up and experience the nearest open air neighborhood market. Consider the multiplier effect of the Nine Elements and the opportunities your shopping habits create.
We have a rich mosaic of cultural diversity, and we are better place for it.
For Thanksgiving this year, my wife and I drove 900 miles to visit friends and family in St. Louis, Missouri. We drove an extra 50 miles to go the southern route — via I-64 past Charleston, West Virginia and Lexington, Kentucky, before stopping over in Louisville for the evening. Despite the rain, it was a great opportunity to visit the city for the first time.
The cities of the Midwest are poised for resurgence. Filled with creative, energetic people and with a low cost of living, a new generation of artists, entrepreneurs and immigrants are seeking to establish themselves. In fact, recent surveys show cities like St. Louis are experiencing a more than 80 percent increase in young residents.
First impressions are always important when you are pulling into a strange city after dark and in the rain. Louisville is no exception. The Google directions bringing us along the rain soaked I-64 along the Ohio River to our exit on South 9th Street didn’t show off the city’s best side. To a person unfamiliar with center core cities in the U.S., it could feel a bit like Chevy Chase traveling across America in the “Family Truckster” and reinforce the stereotypes held by many people about inner-city America.
The great scourge of industrial cities is the race to create as much parking as possible. Some civic leaders see demolition and paving as a sign of progress and Louisville along with Kansas City, is a prime example. William Whyte in his book “City: Rediscovering the Center,” says “If you tear down enough of your downtown for parking, pretty soon there won’t be any reason to go there and park.”
Sure enough, downtown Louisville has plenty of examples intended to prove this proverb. They have the waterfront development and “Louisville Live” the Cordish downtown entertainment district similar to Kansas City. These developments are intended to draw people back downtown, the place they left kind of because, well, lots of stuff was torn down for parking lots.
And guess what? Nobody parks on those surface parking lots because they are too far away from “Louisville Live” for anyone to park there. And if someone did, they would not feel safe walking across all the vacant lots to get to the entertainment centre.
The Louisville parking landscaping really hampers the potential to create depth to the downtown. As you move south away from the river along 4th Avenue, going over one or two blocks to the east or west you arrive at a sea of surface parking. Those parking lots spawn the decline of adjacent properties, the very places the surface parking was intended to help. The lots are vacant at night, so the places next to them begin to decline.
Louisville is clearly a place of contrast, just like so many other cities in the Midwest. Pockets of success separated by surface parking lots and questionable decisions about frontages, highlight some of the toughest challenges with the core of the city. The challenge of creating “depth” to the success, linking the positive nodes, is so difficult when growth is first limited, then competing with the unlimited sprawl of the burbs.
Louisville has some tremendous assets. But it has lost tremendous assets as well.
1. They have torn down a lot of stuff.
Downtown Louisville is an old architect’s dream, what remains is shaped like a T square. There are lots of buildings that parallel the waterfront, some good and some bad, and then there is the South 4th Street corridor stretching at right angles back from the river, forming the spine of activity, the “straight edge” of the T square. I love South 4th Street, but only the area south of the convention center.
So many cities tried to revitalize their downtowns by bringing in convention centers. While convention centers bring people into hotels and to patronize local business, almost all create sterile street frontages that mimic big box stores.
Government buildings are also a challenge, creating long expanses of inactivity that work against creating a vibrant neighborhood. They are like parks after dark. Nobody wants to walk past them. I learned a great lesson from an urban pioneer by the name of Joe Edwards in St. Louis. He singlehandedly revitalized the “loop” neighborhood, including bringing trolley lines back to the commercial district.
As Joe rehabbed commercial buildings, he would work to lease space to a variety of retailers. Too many restaurants would mean little happening during the day. Too many shops would leave the street vacant past after 9 p.m. So he would mix the uses, creating variety along the street. Both the convention centers and government buildings work against this principle.
2. Historic assets
Much of downtown Louisville is gone forever. There are pockets of underutilized historic resources where only the ground floor is being used. This is a real shame. These small pockets offer the potential for affordable redevelopment through the use of historic tax credits and other financing tools. With all the creative forces in the city, one has to believe there is a solid constituency for these spaces with rents being offset through the tax credit restoration.
The Louisville slugger museum would not be the same if that big bat was leaning against some run-of-the-mill, recently constructed building? Could the small strip of historic buildings nearby has the bones for a terrific neighborhood, where people walk dogs, eat breakfast at the local eatery on Saturday morning, alongside tourists visiting the Slugger Museum or the Muhammad Ali Center just to the north along the river.
Louisville is not alone. In Atlanta, where I did some consulting work about eight years ago, I was shocked that city officials were not using historic tax credits to help revitalize. In St. Louis, we created over 4,000 new units of loft housing in the core of downtown historic tax credits and the like. Building the local capacity in the developer, legal and government sectors to make these things happen is critical.
3. One-Way Streets
Other than saying they serve horse meat, nothing kills a restaurant faster than locating on a one-way street. One-way streets serve one purpose and one purpose only: getting people in and out of the core area as fast as possible. A driver needs to travel 25 mph or less to make eye contact with a pedestrian. So if you are trying to create vibrant pedestrian streets, how does a one way street that pushes cars through as fast as possible work toward that goal?
There are few places on the planet where retail succeeds on a one-way street. And these places have density, something Louisville does not have. Is there really a need for four lane roads running one way in front of the Louisville Slugger Museum?
Show me a city without congestion and I bet it is not a place where people go and members of Gen X and Y live. We want people to slow down, look out the window at the retail environment and have street parking to liven up the sidewalk.
In Louisville, I saw pockets of amazing creativity and resiliency. Take the grand old hotels. Louisville has some great ones like the Seelbach (we stayed here) and the Brown. I understand the wedding sequence from the Great Gatsby is modeled after the former. It has a great long wood bar with some real tradition.
And to contrast these great old hotels, there is the fabulous Museum Hotel over by the Slugger Museum. The restaurant/hotel is themed as an art museum and is one of the coolest concepts in North America. A terrific example of the creative energy in this city and the Midwest. Fun, unusual and full of energy, these are the spots that are the nucleus for change. This hotel and museum is the focal point to transform this neighborhood.
The scale of the streets is another asset. Most are narrow, and where the buildings remain, framed right up to the sidewalk, giving a real urban feel. There are good examples of architecture from many eras and this is really noticeable when you stand along the waterfront and look back towards the downtown. And where the city has invested in those streets, they have created some great urban furniture and property owners created some great small urban spaces.
Walking through any city, it is fun to look to discover hidden spaces that really open the potential of a commercial district, creating the intimate spaces that attract people to an area. With sidewalks, these are really the “public spaces” in an urban area that are most frequented.
Downtown Louisville is a case study on urban America. It can become one of the cooler places in the Midwest. It has a lot of assets: the obvious creative spirit of so many residents, the great bourbon selections in so many establishments. But it will require baby steps, moving forward one small area at a time. Ignore the quick fix ideas that require more buildings to come down, closing a street, or sterilizing the street activity through long blank walls. If a bank or pharmacy wants in, make them open up the facades, no walls that don’t have doors every 50 or 60 feet.
Explore the myriad of incentives that make downtown projects economically viable and attractive to everyone. Work with property owners and find new ones who have the energy and vision to make these projects work.
And, please, get rid of the one-way streets.
In recent weeks, I have fielded several inquiries about how to expand our relatively new Commercial Residential (CR) zoning to some of the commercial areas of Montgomery County. Landowners, it seems, are eager to have a chance to redevelop commercial areas in a more community-oriented, practical, profitable and energy-efficient way.
We need to make infill work for us if Montgomery County is going to accommodate all of the people who want to live here. That includes our kids and grandchildren who grew up here and hope to stay as well as seniors looking for compact, accessible environments.
Yet, current zoning rules do not help what we see as the next phase of land use changes. Montgomery County has aged past the era of large, single-family subdivisions – the simple fact is that we lack the land and our single-family housing market represents 97 percent of our residential land area. We need to evolve and that means concentrating our growth in commercial areas, many of which could look so much better. It’s no surprise that our commercial areas largely reflect the 1950s style of retailing in the suburbs. Fine then, not so great now.
How does zoning make good growth happen? One would think the numerous commercial zones we have would mean an abundance of opportunities to create development that meets the needs of residents. Not exactly. Montgomery County has a lot of land with antiquated zoning that may encourage developers to underuse land and choose uses that do not reflect the type of projects the county needs.
In fact, much of our commercial zoning only allows for single use zoning. Moreover, some of those 121 zones are way out of date. Where we want a mix of uses near metro stops, where we know people want to live, several of our commercial zones do not permit it. And we end up with low level strip malls with oceans of parking, an unattractive pedestrian environment and not a soul in sight after 5 p.m.
The zoning creates challenges for planners responding to applications in areas where we hope for walkable, mixed use neighborhoods. If mixed uses are not permitted, then single purpose applications are going to be submitted, and prime real estate for creating great places will be lost for the life of the lease of the new retail space.
The north block of the Falklands will soon be subject to an application for staged, mixed-use development as illustrated in these renderings prepared by Shalom Baranes Associates, architects for Home Properties. This application will set the bar for future mixed use development in the County. It blends residential and commercial uses and a higher range of affordable housing with market rent housing. The architecture, blend of uses and comprehensive site planning, represent how our “smart growth” areas should evolve .
This is very important in today’s real estate market. Property owners look for tenants. New projects that are more complex, like mixed-use buildings, create financing challenges and risk. Complicated zoning rules create more barriers.
Take the H-M zoneas an example of an obscure zone creating headaches for property owners. The zone permits hotel and motel uses. Only. There are not too many places with this designation and this is a good thing. Does anyone still build motels in infill sites?
One of these sites is in Pook’s Hill, near the Bethesda Marriot. Six acres zoned H- M. Is another hotel needed there? What about a residential project with ground-level retail instead? Would residential uses to meet the growing demand for a range of housing types in the county, particularly rental apartments or condos with a range of unit sizes be a more practical, desirable use?
Our zoning includes rules that create issues for neighborhoods adjacent to commercial areas. In some commercial zones, parking for the commercial use can be provided on a lot in the adjacent residential area. This commercial encroachment is allowed, but, understandably, residents are not pleased.
In the past, this permission has been considered as a way to create a buffer. But that is being questioned today. Does allowing commercial parking in a residential area protect the neighborhood?
The CR zone has a great many protections for existing residential neighborhoods. One of the details in the CR zone is its approach to parking. It does not allow parking off site. To further protect the neighborhoods, the CR zone imposes a new standard: a greater setback for buildings that includes an angular plane to provide added protection for adjacent residential areas. Site plan review, which is a public process requiring a Planning Board hearing, is required in this new zone for most projects.
Perhaps the best evidence of weak commercial zoning appears along our commercial corridors. Does our commercial development set us apart from any other place? If we stand on any arterial road here, does it look any different from any similar place around the country? This “before” video of White Flint shows an area that is already changing as a result of our new CR zoning.
The county is considering a rapid vehicle transit strategy that would see enhanced buses traveling on arterials and serving nodes and corridors throughout the county. Many people see an opportunity for existing commercial land at major intersections that may be served by the new lines as prime sites for neighborhood-scale mixed use.
Not all transit stations are equal in terms of what type and scale of uses are appropriate. However, it is sound planning to ensure our commercial areas have zoning that can be a base for well-functioning, attractive, environmentally sound growth that meets the needs of a growing population.
We also need to consider our office parks, which require everyone to drive. The office parks typically are located on acres of grass managed with chemical fertilizers and/or pesticides. Is there an opportunity to create a zone category that transforms these single purpose uses and instead encourages housing next to the office building? This could reduce driving, provide additional housing, offer affordable housing and reduce monthly costs for people choosing to live near where they work.
The department will release the commercial part of the zoning rewrite effort at the end of November. (The residential zones draft has been available for some time.) We hope to generate discussion of the draft that addresses such questions as:
1. Should we expect more amenities from our commercial areas?
2. How can we provide for greater public participation in how the commercial areas evolve?
3. Should there still be single use commercial zones, or is it time to think differently?
4. What is the best way to introduce revised commercial zones?
We are working to create a commercial zoning approach that brings more integration between different uses and provides for the creation of walkable streets with new amenities for new and existing residents. This approach can help build commercial areas that are more active, pedestrian friendly, and provide a lifestyle that many seniors and the young graduates and families we need for the future, may choose to live in.
The biggest determinant for carrying the Wedges & Corridors vision into the future is land. We are not making any more of it and, in fact, we have restricted its availability by placing a growth boundary, the Ag Reserve, around the top third of the County.
This is a great thing, and it is unfortunate that surrounding counties did not do the same. The Ag Reserve, parkland and our established single-family residential areas comprise about 89 percent of the County, and these areas will remain largely the same as they are today.
But the plan compels us to look to the lands we have already serviced as the places to grow. Maybe this is the real vision of Wedges & Corridors: the first real Sustainable Growth Plan in America, 40 years before it was in vogue.
Did the plan authors realize there would be a time when we would be forced to look in a more limited fashion within Montgomery County to maximize the infrastructure to achieve their vision? They must have known we could not grow out forever. I like to think they thought about this and said to themselves, “We have created a framework that will challenge future community leaders to rethink our growth, leverage what we have built and at that point, become the one of the most sustainable suburbs in the country.”
Wedges and Corridors was — and still is — very forward thinking. The plan established the concept of strategic urbanization through “corridor cities.” The next stage in the evolution of the plan is to fill in the gaps.
Strategic growth on former strip malls will strengthen existing communities by creating new services and raising land values. We already know in Bethesda and Silver Spring that residential neighborhoods near mixed-use centers see higher home values because they are close to the amenities people want. Surrounding communities enjoy both convenient services and the preservations of their established neighborhoods.
Ask folks around Dale Avenue in Silver Spring or in the Luxmanor neighborhood of White Flint if they love their new grocery stores. Those stores are made possible through the kind of redevelopment that creates an incentive for property owners to create desirable new projects.
The large number of foreclosures over the past four years shows that neighborhoods isolated from services and jobs are susceptible to high rates of foreclosure, even in MoCo. These neighborhoods are sensitive to fluctuations in the cost of transportation, mainly gas. The average homeowner in MoCo spends over 18 percent of household costs on getting around.
Strategic infill near these neighborhoods, such as a small strip mall converted into a mix of housing and services, can help reduce transportation costs. Housing around office parks can bring people closer to work with the added increase in affordable housing.
To preserve the quality of life of our residential areas, we must generate new thinking for the areas we have left. The following maps show what little land we have left to effect change. Is this a function of Wedges and Corridors? I think it is more due to the zoning we created over the past 50 years. Clearly, we have not designated enough land in which to accommodate the growth that was expected to happen in Wedges and Corridors.
With 70,000 new households expected in the next 20 to 25 years, the need is pressing. Land for new single-family housing is almost gone, and we expect nearly 80 percent of the new housing to be in multi- unit buildings on smaller infill sites (about 5 percent of the County).
We expect 155,000 to 165,000 new jobs. Where we put those jobs and how people get to them is critical. We cannot price out our workforce from our jobs and force them to live outside the County.
This means attracting new services and housing to strategic areas. Our master planning efforts in White Flint, Kensington, Wheaton, Silver Spring, Takoma and Burtonsville all address the issues left to us by the founders of Wedges & Corridors.
While we have been handed a legacy, our thinkers of 50 years ago left us with new challenges. Limited resources, with the challenge to create a sustainable network of neighborhoods from what appears to be a network of suburban sprawl. It is up to our generation of thinkers and those who follow, to create a sustainable network of connections focused on mobility, design and the environment that will set the stage 50 years from now for the next evolution of the Wedges and Corridors.