Archive for October, 2011
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.
Wedges and Corridors is the name of our governing master plan. While it was updated in 1992, the basic framework is the same. Revered by many, forgotten by few who were active during that time, the General Plan, as it is also known, has stood the test of time.
It is important to put this landmark Wedges & Corridors Plan in context. It was developed in the post World War II period — in the late ’50s and early ’60s. That was two generations ago, and a lot, of course, has changed.
Wedges and Corridors was a simple, yet pioneering concept. Truly a great plan in the history of planned growth in this and any other country. The planners and others who worked on it should have a place in the urban history books. The plan covers both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, both of which make up the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
While the majority of the folks in the county have no knowledge of the General Plan, it defines what the county is today and still shapes the future.
The big ideas from the plan revolve around the concepts of cities laid out along corridors and wedges of different land uses between those corridors. Note that the “corridors” is plural, referring to the single one the plan identified in Montgomery County and the others in Prince George’s County. So as it applies to MoCo, there is one corridor identified, and that is I-270.
It is interesting to consider where the plan predicted we would be today, and to consider the next 40 to 50 years of the plan.
The General Plan was surprisingly accurate in predicting job and population growth in MoCo. (It was less accurate for Prince George’s, where the population there was anticipated to be larger than MoCo’s.) The MoCo population was forecast to be 995,000 in the year 2000. The actual population that year was 873,346, about 122,000 fewer, or 14 percent less than predicted. By 2010, the Census puts us at 971,777 residents.
The plan predicted there would be 301,515 households by the year 2000, while in actuality we had 323,400, a difference of seven percent, again pretty accurate for a 40+ year projection. By 2010 that number grew to 360,500, an 11.5-percent increase over the 2000 number.
The job count is the reverse. The plan projected we would have 335,000 jobs in the county in 2000.Our actual job count then stood at 474,300, about 41 percent more than the predicted total. By 2010, the job total reached about 506,000.
So, if the plan was close on predicting the population and number of households, how did it miss the mark on the number of jobs in the county? This is an easy answer. Keep in mind the era in which plan authors made these predictions – within 15 years of the end of the World War II.
Couples married and had kids. Women stayed home while their husbands went to work. The plan’s founders could never have imagined the boom in the number of women in the workplace and the advent of the DINK household (double income no kids). In fact, today we see only 20+ percent of households forming the “traditional” family of two parents with kids, and we have about an equal percentage of households where one of the parents is staying at home. Add to this the explosion of single-parent households, and it is easy to understand the inaccuracy in the job predictions.
If the demographers of the late ’50s and early ’60s had factored in the two-working-parent trend starting in the late ’70s and beyond, they would have been almost dead accurate on the job count.
Pattern of Growth
The plan called for a series of cities along the corridor. The idea was to centralize the bulk of the growth in smaller urban places, connected by roads and transit, preserving land for agriculture and open space. Clearly, strategic places of higher density were viewed as the way to preserve large parts of the county and, in fact, MoCo was planned to have urban places. The plan authors did not envision that MoCo would be a wholly suburban place.
Overlaying the 2010 population distribution over that 1960s plan map shows we pretty much grew as the plan called for. But while we grew as the plan authors had envisioned, we lag behind on the connections. Today, there are few options for moving north to south or east to west, hence the daily traffic congestion we have just measured in our latest biennial mobility assessment. (And why I choose to live a four-minute bike ride from work.)
Germantown is a corridor city with a population of just over 86,000.This is the largest defined place in the county, 25,000 greater than Silver Spring at 71,500 and Bethesda at 69,000.Yet, where is the downtown in Germantown? Compare the block or two around the Black Rock Center to downtowns in Silver Spring and Bethesda. Clearly, the density of that corridor city is different than the other two. Perhaps centralizing more of the density could have created a walkable pedestrian-oriented downtown for Germantown.
MoCo has plenty of roads. However, we have too many cul-de-sacs or roads that just end. We lack a larger grid pattern that might mimic an urban setting, but at a much larger scale. And this will not change, meaning big challenges in trying to create an effective transit system that serves a low density, unconnected string of corridor cities, centered on one corridor: I-270.
Check out this graphic showing all the roads in MoCo. Whenever I show this in a presentation, I get the same reaction, that people are not aware we have this many roads. I am looking into trying to graphically show how many miles of roads we have and what percentage of them actually carry the bulk of the traffic. The results may be interesting.
And what about that transit the plan called for? We got the Red Line. Takoma Park, Bethesda and Silver Spring realized the potential of the rail stops. But what about Forest Glen and the Grosvenor metro stops? Did we realize the vision of the Plan at major transportation infrastructure investments? There are townhomes being built within walking distance of the Grosvenor metro stop, yet the mid-rise, multi- unit buildings are farther away
Not all transit stops are equal in terms of the density around them and that is how it should be. Yet perhaps the investment could have been better utilized in a few locations.
It has taken 40 years and a zoning change to finally realize the potential of the White Flint metro stop. We are creating more density and housing at Twinbrook and it is something to consider as we move forward with White Flint II and Glenmont plans.
Next: What does Wedges & Corridors mean for the future? Given the projections, the resulting landscape of 45 years of Wedges and Corridors, and the fact we built what was planned for, what are the implications for the future of the County?
This is something every community asks itself. The value of a new building or business varies from one place to another. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months discussing new mixed-use zoning – commercial residential zoning, or CR – with the County Council. A big question was whether we are receiving enough public amenities from new development.
Most new growth will be on the small amount land zoned for commercial and mixed use where we have already built. Most of those areas are zoned commercial, and in the typical commercial zones (C-1 and C-2), new development does not go through a public review. So right off the top there is no public amenity.
Rezoning these areas to our new CR zoning is a big shift that will bring amenities, and an added cost to development.
However, most of our strip malls have paying tenants generating revenue. In today’s marketplace, a paying tenant is a valuable thing. Asking a landlord to cancel a lease, or in the case of a development on Rockville Pike, relocate an entire business, is a very expensive hit to the balance sheet. The current conservative lending strategies of our financial institutions are not helping either. Many strip mall owners already have paid for their properties and carry little to no debt, so there is little incentive to redevelop.
While it is popular in real estate to say “location, location, location,” a more descriptive term would be “location, density, return.” In other places, planners have secured big public benefits by increasing the floor area and height in appropriate areas, which raised property values. In Toronto, we would calculate the value of the additional floor area granted above the zoning limits, and request 50 percent of that to come back to the city in various forms – land for public housing, construction of public housing, nonprofit day care facilities, and funds for social services.
The density limit in big cities, like Chicago, is way higher than in Montgomery County. Big cities can be as dense as 20 times the area of the lot, while White Flint is four times the area. Going less than four generally does not create too much in the way of value, as the buildings tend to be smaller and the developer does not have as much floor area over which to defray the costs of the amenities requested.
Clearly, the bigger the density, the more economical it becomes to secure additional public amenities.
This is important when considering Tysons Corner in Fairfax County, Va. The densities there peak at six times the lot area (FAR). This is 50 percent more than in White Flint, a considerable difference.
In the White Flint area, we are asking builders to in effect, “buy back” some of their permitted floor area buy purchasing the rights to building lots that have been created in the Ag Reserve but not yet built on (referred to as a “building lot termination” or BLT). While the cost of each lot has not yet been set by the County Executive, it could run as high as $225,000 per BLT. Tysons Corner does not require such an exaction. And while some folks complain that, in White Flint, we are not building more affordable housing above the minimum 12.5% requirement (in a 100-unit building, 13 units must be moderately priced dwelling units, or MPDUs), let’s consider the additional cost of the BLTs.
So the required amenity package in White Flint strikes a balance between policies that reflect needs in this county: affordable housing and farmland preservation. While some neighboring counties have affordable housing laws, ours tends to be more expensive. And no other regional county requires the purchase of lots for agricultural preservation.
The new mixed-use zone has been criticized for not achieving extra MPDUs like we now achieve in the existing Central Business District (CBD) zones. We looked at projects from 2006 to 2008, perhaps the biggest boom in recent memory, and of the 21 projects in CBD areas, seven of them provided extra MPDU units totaling under 20 extra units. The BLT payment is not required in the CBD zone, meaning builders there are not required to make that estimated cost of $150,000 to $180,000 per BLT requirement. So comparing the CBD zoning to the CR zoning is not an apples-to-apples comparison.
In one of the projects submitted in White Flint, at the price for one BLT noted above, the developer would be required to pay about $1.7 million. Assuming an MPDU cost between $150,000 to $180,000 per unit, that same $1.7 million could have provided for 10 to 12 MPDUs in addition to the 12.5% already being provided. Clearly, this would result in a lot more MPDUs than we are getting in the CBD zones or any other zone where MPDUs are required.
That said, within one year of the CR mixed-use zoning going into place in White Flint, there are plans submitted for 341 MPDUs, which equals about 27 percent of the total 1,200 MPDUs expected in the area when it is built out around 20 plus years from now. That is a substantial number of new affordable units that would not have existed if the area had not been rezoned. It is important to remember that little changed in White Flint during the boom years of the mid 2000s.
The new CR zone allows for mixing the densities allocated to commercial or residential units. Simply put, as new master plans are prepared, the CR zone can establish lower limits for the commercial component while permitting higher amounts of residential density. This allows master plans to encourage more housing in some areas. So right off the top, the new CR zone can get us more housing and that means more units that are priced within reach of more people.
There are other reasons why comparing the public benefits package in White Flint to the affordable housing requirement in Tysons Corner is not appropriate. In White Flint, not only is the zoning in place, but so are the staging requirements. (Staging requirements cap new development at specific stages where the provision of infrastructure, like roads or road improvements, is required.) Tysons has none of these things.
White Flint also has a financing plan. Property owners are taxing themselves to pay for transportation infrastructure improvements. At Tysons, Fairfax County pays a significant percent of the same costs. This should be factored into the cost of development. We are taxing the property owners up front, and that should be factored into the amenities we are getting. The transportation improvements serve everyone, including the existing communities.
So what about the other amenities we have set out in the new CR mixed-use zone? The list covers a lot of things that will help create better buildings and spaces. For example, one would be hard pressed to say we are ranked high in the interest factor of our building stock. There just is not that much to put in an architecture magazine.
The new site plan application for the block north of the new high rise building on the Pike will add some exciting new architecture to the area. Coupled with that is a very well-designed mid-block pedestrian connection network leading to common areas with interesting design features that will have small retail bays to provide an inviting experience. The front of the building facing Rockville Pike will animate a space that is now dead and will create the pedestrian environment needed to bring people out onto the sidewalk.
All of the above are encouraged by the CR zoning. Some cost more than others, but together they result in what should be an exciting, inviting and active street frontage that so many people enjoy in other places like Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Bethesda. Do these features represent less cost to the developer than adding more MPDUs? Perhaps, but not always. It is important to remember that this new application will have the 12.5 percent MPDU requirement and the residents of those units deserve an exciting and well-designed pedestrian environment.
Not much happened in White Flint for decades. The great news is that the property owners seem to be making up for that inactivity now. And as the area develops, as the pedestrian amenities evolve into a network of active public spaces that begin to create a neighborhood, the increased land values will free up capacity for even more affordable housing.