Posts tagged ‘mixed use’
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.
Planners are making good progress on community planning work this spring. We transmitted the Planning Board draft of the Wheaton Sector Plan and an amendment to the Clarksburg plan focused on retail staging. Coming soon are Takoma Langley and Kensington, and, later this year, Burtonsville. And if our budget request is funded, Chevy Chase Lake will follow, then the start of several new plans over the next year including Glenmont, Gaithersburg East/the Montgomery Village Sector Plan and White Flint II.
I have been questioning staff as we embark on new planning efforts, asking, What is our Big Idea? What will this planning effort achieve? And, because we cannot ask these questions in a vacuum, What would we want to achieve without constraints versus with constraints?
My last post, “Federal Highways,” outlined the Montrose Parkway underpass (or overpass, depending upon which way you are traveling). The graphic below superimposes one of the sketch plans we received for a several-block area in the heart of White Flint over the area occupied by the Montrose underpass. It is apparent how much land the underpass “sterilized” for future growth, housing, revenue and more importantly, the real impact it has on the possibilities for the White Flint II area.
The White Flint II Sector Plan has as a major constraint that will dictate what can be achieved. That constraint is the barrier the underpass has created. It is, in effect, White Flint’s Berlin Wall.
Ten or 15 years from now, as White Flint hits its stride, there will be plenty of destinations drawing people into the area. Some will take transit, but most will drive. They will seek out parking and walk along new pedestrian-friendly streets lined with windows and activity. Many will work and live in this emerging community.
Will those same people look north to the White Flint II area and say, “Hey, let’s go shop or eat over there?” And if they are making this decision, will they walk? No way. It will be a barrier just like the photo above. As the new streets and activities emerge in White Flint, they will not extend the grid across the underpass.
Would you really drive one-quarter or one-half mile north and find a new parking spot in White Flint II to shop or eat? It’s unlikely you’d find something there that will not already be in White Flint. And this is the challenge of White Flint II. What can it become? What can happen there that will make it distinct from White Flint?
This question would be different if the Montrose / 355 intersection had remained at grade. The street grid could have extended north to south. The building infrastructure could have created a seamless transition across the intersection, not much different than say Georgia and Colesville Road in Silver Spring. People could and would walk across the area into White Flint II because the transition would be lined with active uses day and evening.
So as we prepare to look at the White Flint II area, we have to take a hard look at what is possible. We have White Flint becoming known as NoBe (North of Bethesda), we have Rockville to the north, with White Flint II mostly in the middle. Will it be SORo (South of Rockville) or can it establish it’s own identity? Can we expect the same demand for high-rise construction in White Flint II as in WF I? Will traffic modeling reveal that White Flint I occupies the bulk of the available and projected road capacity?
Or should we expect more like Twinbrook Station, a recent successful project north and east of White Flint at lower densities with a residential focus? Should this be the future of White Flint II, with splashes of retailing that are more convenience-focused than destination oriented? Will there still be a market for destination retail like the Container Store north of Montrose?
Several property owners own land both north and south of Montrose. How they lease south of the road in White Flint I – whether to big box retailers or smaller retail – will have a big impact on what happens to the north in White Flint II. That model does not fit into the urban character of White Flint. Property owners will lease according to the market, and will avoid investments that compete with other uses in the area. This will not only impact the retail market but the residential market as well.
If White Flint I is to be higher density condo and rental, there may not be enough market share for both areas in the next 15 years. Perhaps White Flint II will be about managing expectations, meaning it may take awhile for the collective vision to emerge. This is the approach that we are investigating for the Long Branch neighborhood, where the near and long term goals are differentiated by the actions we can take to create incremental change.
Maybe 20 years from now the Montrose underpass may be MoCo’s elevated expressway. The mistake realized decades later in places like Seattle, Toronto and San Francisco, where lots of money was invested to reverse the damage and open up new opportunities for creating better environments for people, not autos.
There are lots of things to consider when we start the White Flint II Sector Plan.We hope for engaged conversations with property owners, residents and business operators — all of whom will help guide the possibilities that White Flint II can be.
We recently had a walk through the Wheaton central area as part of our Montgomery Plans series on County Cable Montgomery. It was a great opportunity to talk about the wonderful bones of what is one of the most diverse parts of our county. The businesses, activity and residents present a great foundation for growing the social and economic base of the community.
Our Wheaton master planning effort underway builds on the strength of the businesses and existing communities that surround them. The interface between those communities is a critical element to offering new services while ensuring the scale and type of development fits in. This is a challenging exercise, and the level of participation by residents both in Wheaton and Kensington over the past year has helped us develop appropriate planning and zoning tools in the emerging plan.
Have a look at the short video. The exciting new Safeway site development where a state of the art food center with 486 condominiums has just been approved, offers not only the newest food shopping experience in the County, but it also will help bring new people into Wheaton. This has been the experience where other mixed use projects have occurred.
Standing in the County parking lot west of Georgia off Reedie Drive, we can envision the exciting urban form that can complement the existing businesses and attract newcomers into the community.
It is not often we see “double ended” retail: in this case, at the higher elevation along Georgia and the lower level off the alley facing the parking area. The contrasting frontages offer different character and scale in retailing. I always like to shop in small spaces like alleys, and the food selection — Italian tuna for example — is now a staple for my shopping needs. Take a walk here and you’re sure to find something you like.
The Wheaton Mall, with the addition of the DSW, Macy’s and so many other shops including the Dollar Store (so handy for the office party gifts), offers a different experience as well as considerable growth potential. As part of our current master plan process. the mall owners are exploring short- and long-term strategies for reinventing the mall, something they have done in other parts of the country.
Look up Veirs Mills past the mall and the vacant car dealer. This is real opportunity to create a whole new face to the site with active frontages and enhanced pedestrian connections across this busy roadway. While the high level of vehicle traffic may seem overwhelming, I always like to answer that there are plenty of examples of busy streets acting as the spine for active pedestrian scale retail activity. Veirs Mill can be one of these streets and so can Georgia. It’s about investing in pedestrian infrastructure. And this does not mean slowing vehicle movement. We already have some signalized intersections so cars will not be slowed.
This blog is about visualizing the future so think for a moment about the Veirs Mill-Reedie Drive intersection. The pavement is re-striped into a “scramble” intersection where, when traffic stops, pedestrians cross in all directions. Enhanced signalization, wider sidewalks, new lighting systems and buildings frame the sidewalks with large open windows and creative lighting displays. Encouraged by the improvements, people walk to and from the Metro and from the mall into downtown Wheaton for additional shopping, eating, or just browsing.
While folks who drive through on Georgia and Veirs Mill and don’t stop are missing out, we hope the new master plan currently working its way through Planning Board approval will help set a framework for new mixed uses. Key to this is having the County parking lots redevelop to serve as a catalyst.
In the plan, we are seeking the right balance between the desire for insulation from activities that may be seen as creating issues – such as noise outdoor storage places or odors from restaurants – and the need to provide for infill opportunities to help upgrade some properties to more active uses. The recent development proposal on the north side of University across from the Giant store is a good example.
Several houses have been boarded up for some time. A bank branch is proposed for the site. Would a low-rise, three-story building with a mix of uses close to the sidewalk with a setback to the residential properties to the rear, limited and screened parking, been a better proposal for residents and the community? We have lots of drive-through banks, curb cuts and fragmented building forms along our arterials.
As we grow it will be very important to begin to coordinate the building form and uses along our commercial streets to encourage more mixed uses and pedestrian activity. This is a challenge all over the County, and one we are just beginning to explore in the Burtonsville Commercial Crossroads Neighborhood Study.
If you are familiar with Wheaton, many of the points in this posting will be familiar to you. If you are a stranger to Wheaton, take a Saturday afternoon and check it out. Park the car and explore what the area has to offer. It’s a lot more than just the world famous Chuck Levins music store. And don’t forget to eat one of the many restaurants. In fact, try an entrée at one place and dessert at another.