Posts tagged ‘redevelopment’
Last Friday, I spoke to the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce. Great event, and, like always, they get a good crowd that’s very engaged. The first speaker was a visiting fellow in the Metropolitan Policy program at the Brookings Institution. I was sitting at the back of Roundhouse House Theatre, doing some changes to my powerpoint and listening to his presentation about transit-oriented development.
All of a sudden, my interest spiked when I heard him criticize the Planning Department because, in his opinion, we were not maximizing the opportunity presented by the Purple Line in Chevy Chase Lake. Specifically, he referred to the Chevy Chase Land Company’s holdings at Connecticut and the Capital Crescent Trail. He mentioned he thought it was critical to maximize the transit investment.
Wow, that was from left field, as I was unaware he had participated in any of our considerable public engagement sessions to date.
I quickly added a slide to my presentation to address his comments. And what I told the assembled when I had the floor was that there is no transit system in the world that creates 18-story buildings at every transit stop. In fact, most transit stops have very little density relative to what the Brookings speaker may have thought is appropriate.
I included in my presentation a video I took at a major intersection in Toronto on a cold spring day around 4 p.m. More than a dozen street cars go through this intersection in about 30 seconds. The buildings are all four floors or less.
The same is true for the Toronto subway stations. The one I used for commuting if I did not take a streetcar passed through neighborhoods of three to five-story buildings all along the corridor. The subway line ran under Danforth Ave, including Greektown, an incredibly vibrant 24-hour neighborhood, then continued for miles, with a stop every four blocks or so. (Cue the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding). In sum, a pedestrian-oriented, active, mixed use, diverse corridor with three-story buildings on top of a subway line with about a dozen stops. Any Toronto resident would say we capitalized on our transit infrastructure.
The point is simple. Not every transit station has to be downtown Silver Spring or Bethesda. In reality, the best transit systems have a very diverse network of transit stops.
A month ago, I spoke to residents in Park Hills, located around the Wayne-Dale intersection west of downtown Silver Spring. Great people, willing to listen about change, transition, transit and stable residential neighborhoods. They asked about the changes the Purple Line might bring to the Wayne- Dale intersection in terms of land use. Well, not much, for a number of reasons.
- This is a stable residential community. The purpose of public transit is to move people to where they want to go, not to tear down neighborhoods to do it. These goals are not at odds, they can work together.
- Wayne & Dale will not be downtown Silver Spring. There is a lot of property to develop in downtown Silver Spring for decades to come, and we hope the Purple Line will help. And maybe the residents of Park Hills will ride the Purple Line to get to Fenton Village and its restaurants in the future. Imagine, public transit getting people to entertainment rather than just being used to up-zone every neighborhood a rapid transit line runs through.
- Nobody would invest the money, even if it were permitted, to buy up small lots at high prices, just to build a low-scale building where the number of units would not be a whole lot different than the original houses on the site.
- There should never be tall buildings at Wayne & Dale. It does not make sense. With so much infill to do elsewhere, new rapid transit will help maximize the potential for redevelopment where it makes sense. And it does not make sense everywhere.
For those of us who have run streetcars into new emerging neighborhoods, who rode them each day through vibrant, ethnic, low-scale neighborhoods to reach the 50-story buildings downtown, we understand how transit connects people and neighborhoods. Rockville Pike has a subway under it, and, we hope, terrific bus service in the future.
This building height/use relationship is terrific; after a few months, everyone seems happy, except for a few people quoted in the paper saying they are not used to parking in a parking structure to go grocery shopping. (Welcome to the 90s – this is how the rest of the urban world shops.) This is a place where we decided maximizing transit investment makes sense.
There is road capacity on the Pike. There is an existing transit line with lots of capacity. The location is a major regional shopping node, and it can be designed so that within a block, there are townhouses.
Chevy Chase Lake meets none of those characteristics. In Chevy Chase Lake:
- There are considerable issues with traffic
- If this was such a desirable location, something would have happened here in 2004, during the biggest real estate boom ever, when there was 250,000 square feet of approved building capacity that was never taken advantage of.
- This is not downtown Bethesda, so would 18- and 19-story buildings really be appropriate at this location?
- Would 4.5 million square feet make sense at this location, as some have suggested?
- Should there be a near- and long-term strategy of phasing zoning and infrastructure to provide for sound, orderly development with higher levels of capacity once the Purple Line arrives?
We believe there should be orderly development structured around reasonable expectations of what might and should happen within this small node along a busy street. We have floated the idea that the near-term strategy should reflect the current approvals for development that has existed for many years — an extra 250,000 square feet, with the added flexibility to convert some of that space to residential uses.
We also suggest that once the Purple Line is under construction, additional floor area capacity be raised another 750,000 square feet, for a total of just over one million additional square feet. Those recommendations fall right within the Brookings fellow’s criteria for upzoning around transit. With the exception of a transit corridor running out of Dallas, I believe he will be hard pressed to say the early ideas for this plan are not building on transit investment.
I stated to the Bethesda Chamber that the role of the planning department in master planning was not to increase land values, but to manage expectations. This means creating plans that have both short- and long- term scenarios. It also means setting the stage to maximize real estate where it makes sense, and at a scale appropriate to the immediate environment.
I have asked the staff working on several master plans to look at implementing “phased” zoning, where changes are made now in expectation of local potential, and then, when certain conditions and infrastructure change occur, maybe additional capacity is freed up. In this way, the community understands how the future landscape can evolve over time, and builders and landowners realize how their land holdings may develop over the next five, 10 and 20 years.
The County has had many master plans built on grand visions that had little basis in reality. Not every commercial area has the potential of White Flint, not even the area north of Montrose, as I wrote about a few weeks ago. And this is a good thing. MoCo is very fortunate to have such a diverse set of neighborhoods. Our planning efforts should capitalize on the individuality of each of those communities to help them grow and thrive and, more importantly, help the diverse people living in our communities realize the potential of their neighborhoods.
Moving to Montgomery County from the Midwest, I’ve enjoyed seeing historic sites unique to the region. However, I’ve been surprised about the lack of knowledge and understanding about the importance of leveraging our historic resources.
A few years ago, I was in Atlanta to help restructure their planning functions and was shocked to discover they had no procedures to use historic properties as a redevelopment tool. But perhaps it is not that uncommon for primarily affluent areas to overlook funding opportunities. Places that have experienced disinvestment more regularly seek funding to make the economics work.
See the video below to tour an area of St. Louis where the downtown area was rediscovered – along with many neighborhoods using historic tax credits. Virtually every building in the video was vacant in 2000, yet seven years later, every one was occupied with about 4,500 condos and apartments and mixed uses.
Montgomery County does not have the historic commercial building stock of many former industrial cities, but it does have a lot of buildings over 50 years old that are representative of specific periods of growth in America. Montgomery County has designated more than 20 historic districts and 400 sites, all of which can take advantage of preservation tax credits.
The National Park Seminary is one of the best examples in the country that shows how a coalition of people can bring a national treasure back to life through dedication, coordination and tax credits. Take a walk through the development and see how restoring this unique complex spurred new development on the surrounding land.
The County is the second biggest user of state residential historic tax credits already. But we could do a lot more. In a county where the median house cost is about 2.5 times the national average, cost savings are important. Depending on the use of a property and its historic designation, property owners may be able to tap into federal, state and local historic tax credits to offset the renovation costs.
Now some people are afraid that historic designation means they cannot change their home. This is not true. Designation in the National Register of Historic Places does not limit the changes a property owner can make. Local designation is more restrictive, but generally in Montgomery County the rules are quite pliable.
It is important for the future of the County to provide the opportunity for people to upgrade their houses and to preserve neighborhoods. Imagine if homeowners in places like Connecticut Estates, McKenney Hills or Damascus could tap into a pool of tax credits offering a return on their renovation costs.
We are talking with the Long Branch community about the historic designation of the Flower Theater and Shopping Center on Flower Avenue. While much of the theater’s interior has been removed, tax credits could help renovate the building and attract new tenants.
If designated, the shopping plaza next door is also a candidate for rehabilitation tax credits. Historic designation of the shopping center and theater would allow for the buildings to be renovated with tax credits, while new construction could occur on the adjacent parking lot or on top and slightly behind the existing structures.
Tax credits for historic properties are manna from heaven and can mean the difference between making a project work or not doing it at all. It is a critical tool for investing in properties that might not otherwise be restored or reinvented for other uses. Communities across the country have embraced historic designation as an important economic development plan. In Montgomery County, we need to do a better job of educating people not to be afraid of historic designation. We should embrace these districts as part of a successful “green” strategy for upgrading our neighborhoods and creating jobs and services.
Remember, the greenest building is the one that already exists.