Wednesday, January 18, 2017

I was frustrated by our region’s housing market. So I got my real estate license.

The housing market in the Washington region can be a pretty daunting place for young homebuyers, particularly those who want to live closer in. I knew I wanted to help. So six months ago, I got my real estate license.

Photo by the author.
My mother has been a real estate agent for over thirty years, primarily doing business in the District. I grew up going with her to look at houses, learning my way around DC and soaking up local history one sale at a time. I vividly remember touring a corner rowhouse on North Capitol Street, near Truxton Circle, that had been turned into a rooming house: ten rooms, each occupied by a single man.

Back in 1996, that house sold for about $100,000. At the time, nobody would have guessed that Truxton Circle would become one of the region's hottest neighborhoods. Through my mother, I got to see the transformation of DC's real estate market firsthand. That house on North Capitol Street was gutted, turned back into a single-family house, fully restored, and is maybe worth a million dollars today.

On the one hand, it's exciting to watch people and investment flow back into DC and close-in areas. Part of me wants to get in on that: everyone else is making money, so why can't I?

On the other hand, I'm deeply frustrated by it. Everyone else is making money, but those flipped houses and trendy restaurants are pretty expensive. I read the now-predictable news stories about the "latest" neighborhood to "revive," as if house prices are the only vital signs of a neighborhood. I listen to my family, who emigrated here from the Caribbean in the 1970s, wonder if they still have a place in a DC that is increasingly white and affluent. And I listen to my friends, white, black, or otherwise, the ones a few years out from school and working steady jobs, also wonder if they will ever have a place here.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

silver spring could get a big music and sports venue

Montgomery County's been talking about building a sports and entertainment arena for a decade. Now, officials want to build it in downtown Silver Spring on the site of an aging parking garage.
Top Of Other Part Of Bonifant-Dixon Garage
This underused parking garage could become a new sports and music arena.  Image by the author.

On Wednesday, county officials announced a request for proposals to build a 5,000-seat venue on the site of two public parking garages on Bonifant Street, one block from the Silver Spring Metro station. The county is looking for a development partner to build a hall on the three-block site, as well as housing, retail, and some replacement parking.

This idea first emerged last year when the Wizards were looking for somewhere to build a practice facility. Montgomery County suggested building it on top of the parking garages, similar to the Capitals' practice rink in Ballston. The Wizards instead chose a site in Congress Heights.

But county officials have been considering an arena for over a decade. A 2007 study looked at building an 8,000 to 10,000-seat venue in Germantown and said it would be successful, drawing a minor-league sports team, live concerts and shows, and hosting high school graduations, most of which are held at DAR Constitution Hall in the District. Five years later, two entrepreneurs suggested building a venue next to the Shady Grove Metro station.

This Silver Spring site could solve two problems. Like many Montgomery County parking facilities, the Bonifant Street garages, which together contain nearly 1,800 spaces, were built in the 1970s and are aging. Meanwhile, 42% of Silver Spring's nearly 10,000 public parking spaces sit empty at all times (full disclosure: my company worked on a study of parking in the county) and are frequently closed to the public.

As a result, county officials decided it may be easier to dispose of underused parking than to do expensive renovations. Last year, the county sold a garage at Colesville Road and Spring Street to United Therapeutics, which is building an office building there, while a parking lot on Thayer Avenue will become an apartment building with some public parking in an underground garage.

A 5,000-seat music venue could fill a big void for concert halls in the DC area. It would be bigger than DAR, which has 3,700 seats, and a proposed 4,200-seat venue at St. Elizabeths in southeast DC. Montgomery County's largest indoor venue is the Fillmore Silver Spring, with room for 2,000. Meanwhile, the next largest venues are either outside, like Merriweather Post Pavilion (19,000 capacity) or major-league sports arenas like Verizon Center (20,000 capacity).

It could potentially be a huge draw for downtown Silver Spring, which has drawn thousands of new homes over the past decade but has a high office vacancy rate. Like the Verizon Center for Gallery Place, more entertainment options would help draw foot traffic to the area's small businesses and retailers, particularly along Georgia Avenue and in the Ripley District, a portion of downtown Silver Spring that is pretty dead at night.

That said, there are some big questions looming ahead. One is how the demand for a sports and entertainment venue might have changed since 2007. The live music industry is consolidating, and bigger concerts and festivals are struggling to sell tickets. Meanwhile, the area's smaller venues have had to compete for acts since the Fillmore opened in 2011.

There are some interesting design challenges too. The parking garages bridge over two existing streets, Bonifant Street and Dixon Avenue, creating two gloomy underpasses that may discourage people to walk through to the other side. Removing these underpasses would improve connections to the surrounding neighborhood, but may not be possible depending how much space a 5,000-seat venue would need (it is, after all, a giant box). There's also the issue of how the venue would work with the Purple Line, which will pass through the site on Bonifant Street.

Big arenas usually don't have a lot of windows or openings to the outside, meaning lots of blank walls at street level that can kill activity. On top of that, they're only busy when events are happening there, meaning the site could be dead most of the time. Ideally this venue will follow the example of the Verizon Center and have shops and restaurants on the ground floor that create activity regardless of if there's a game or concert happening.

Montgomery County's been thinking about building a sports and entertainment venue for a decade. While this project may have gained some momentum, it'll require a lot more thought before the lights finally go up. At this rate, county officials say it may open sometime in the 2020s.

Monday, November 21, 2016

student protests in montgomery county show why public space matters

Suburban communities designed for cars don't always have obvious places for people to gather and assemble. So when students at several Montgomery County high schools and Montgomery College walked out of class in protest this week, they headed onto highways and into shopping malls— and their community supported them.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

silver spring's most prominent intersection could get a new hotel

For decades, Silver Spring's most prominent intersection has been home to a gas station and a giant blank wall. Soon, a new hotel could fill this hole in the urban fabric.

Looking at the proposed hotel from above. Images from the Montgomery County Planning Department unless noted.

County planners are currently reviewing a proposal to build a 173-room hotel at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, two blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station. The hotel is geared towards long-term travelers, containing studio apartments with kitchens and a handful of one- and two-bedroom suites.

The proposal includes some features that would be available to the public, including conference rooms, a rooftop deck and bar, and 4,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, including a coffeeshop. The sidewalks around the hotel, which today are narrow and have lots of curb cuts for the gas station, would become wider and gain street trees, and there would only be a single curb cut on Colesville Road.