Monday, July 17, 2017

come celebrate 11 years of JUTP

Kaldi's. Photo from Google Street View.

Just Up The Pike turns 11 this year, and I'd like to do something about it. We've built a community of a couple thousand readers, contributors, and local leaders, and I invite all of you to celebrate over a decade of celebrating East County on Tuesday, August 15 from 6 to 8pm at Kaldi's Social House, located at 918 Silver Spring Avenue. As one of Silver Spring's fifteen (and counting) coffeeshops, Kaldi's is not only known for its brewing techniques but its rooftop bar overlooking downtown.

Joining us will be our friends at Greater Greater Washington, a regional website and advocacy organization that I've been a part of for eight years (and have worked for as well). I organize the monthly GGWash happy hours, which rotate around different parts of the DC area, and I'm always excited to bring it here.

Kaldi's Social House is an eight-minute walk from the Silver Spring Metro station (Red Line), as well as dozens of Metrobus and Ride On routes (if you're coming from DC, you can take the 70/79 and S2/S4/S9.) There's a Capital Bikeshare stations two blocks away at Ripley and Bonifant streets. If you’re driving, there’s free parking after 7pm on the street and in the public garage in back.

I hope you see you there! You can RSVP here.

Monday, July 3, 2017

this community landmark just became a chain store. why?

For over a decade, Pyramid Atlantic was a Silver Spring landmark, offering studio space, art classes, and a gallery that hosted events and concerts. Now, its bright red building on Georgia Avenue is a chain paint store.


New Sherwin Williams (former Pyramid Atlantic)
Meh. (All photos by the author.)
Pyramid Atlantic opened in 2003 and helped to usher in downtown Silver Spring's revitalization over the past decade. They sold their building in 2014 anticipating a move to the new Silver Spring Library a few blocks away; when that arrangement fell through, the organization moved to Hyattsville last year. The building's new owner, Harvey Maisel, rented the space to paint store Sherwin-Williams, which will open this summer.

I can't help but be disappointed by this. Over the past several years, I've gone to lots of events at Pyramid Atlantic, from the DC area's only PechaKucha Night to a pop-up version of Fenton Street Market. Pyramid Atlantic also hosted the annual Sonic Circuits festival, a celebration of experimental music that spilled out into its parking lot on Georgia Avenue. It wasn't just a place to see cool things, but a supporter of the local economy: a locally-based organization promoting local artists and businesses.

And besides, one might wonder why a paint store makes sense here, considering that the existing paint store across the street is closing.

So why did this happen? There are a few reasons.

It's easier to leave a building vacant than rent to a local organization

Federal tax laws let commercial property owners depreciate the value of their buildings over time, which can give them a perverse incentive to let a space sit empty for years until they find the right tenant. There are number of vacant storefronts in downtown Silver Spring, sometimes filling entire blocks. The Guardian Building, a 1950s-era office building on Cameron Street, put up fake store signs in their windows while they waited for actual stores to move in, and now the building may be turned into apartments instead.

As Richard Layman notes, retail rents in DC (and by extension Silver Spring) tend to be pretty high, even in neighborhood shopping streets. Large out-of-town retail developers perceive DC as being part of a national or even international real estate market and set their rents accordingly, That leads even local property owners to raise their rents as well, which in turn makes it even more difficult for independent retailers to qualify, so they either close or don't open at all.

Chain stores are reliable tenants

And of course, the landlord just needs someone who will pay the rent. I know that from experience.

Among the many things I do, I do property management, and have to find and screen tenants for rental houses. When I'm renting out a house, I meet lots of really nice people, who tell me how much they love the house and the neighborhood, and promise to be great tenants. Most of them seem like awesome people. But when it came to a decision, I select tenants based on a few criteria: their credit score, their annual income, and a background check.

I need someone who would pay the rent.

Former Joe's Record Paradise for Lease
A number of downtown Silver Spring's stores sit vacant. (This one just got a new tenant.)
Property owners and landlords are much the same, whether they're locally-based or from out of town. They may have different individual motivations, but they all want somebody who will pay the rent each month on time and in full. I have friends who own businesses in Silver Spring and they all say the same thing: landlords are very, very reluctant to rent to them. And I've spoken to landlords who've gotten burned by small businesses who for whatever reason couldn't pay the rent. They want tenants with a long track record and a guaranteed stream of income.

More often than not, that means a chain. That's part of the reason why a number of Silver Spring's most-loved local businesses have been replaced by chains. Mayorga Coffee, which helped revive South Silver Spring fifteen years ago, is now Davita, a dialysis clinic. Beloved Italian restaurant Da Marco is now a Pollo Campero. And Pyramid Atlantic will become a Sherwin Williams.

If we want more local businesses, we have to support local businesses

There's a demonstrated difference in the way chain stores and local businesses contribute to their local economies. One sends money out of town. The other keeps it in town; creates a spinoff effect as that business works with local vendors and suppliers; builds local wealth; and can help create or boost a local culture. We have a real incentive to promote local businesses on our streets.

Given all this, what can we as community members do? We can't ban national companies from owning property here. We can't tell property managers who to rent to. Local governments can zone properties for certain activities but they can't dictate whether, say, a chain or a local business occupies a certain space. I don't know enough about tax laws to know what can or can't be done there.

But as a start, we can support the local businesses that do exist by spending money there, which makes it easier for them to pay their rent, which in turn makes them more viable candidates for landlords. That won't bring Pyramid Atlantic back, but it will help us keep the local businesses that are still here, supporting and promoting this community.

Monday, June 26, 2017

11 years!

wherever you go in #silverspring it feels like the skyline is always there. I find it comforting—I grew up in one of the tall buildings, and when I see them I remember that this is where I came from and where I belong. #latergram #hills #skyline
Looking down Silver Spring Avenue towards downtown Silver Spring. Photo by the author.
One of my favorite things to do is go for long walks around downtown Silver Spring, whether with my partner or a friend or, occasionally by myself.

It's been eleven years since I started Just Up The Pike (and twenty-six years since my family moved to Montgomery County). We almost always run into somebody I or we know, and they usually have an update about their life or a bit of local gossip or simply say hi. My boyfriend groans because it means we have to stop for a minute and he likes to keep walking.

I was eighteen when I started this blog and had no real idea of where things would go, and each year on June 26 I take a minute to reflect on it. This blog changed my life. It shaped (and continues to shape) my perceptions of the world. It shaped my career, and as I sought out new topics to research and write about, it reshaped my career multiple times. It's brought me friends online and off.

Occasionally, it has brought me some notoriety. Frequently (more than you may believe, and quite a lot this spring) I question myself and whether this is still worth doing. When that happens I try to remember the speech at the end of "Amputations" by Death Cab for Cutie (taken from motivational speaker Glenn W. Turner), which ends:
"In this modern day and age we have instant coffee and instant tea--instant disbelief. Thats the reason we will never become anything--it is because we will never believe in ourselves. We will always listen to the mass majority. If everybody's making fun of you and criticizing you, then you know you're on the right track. Cause most people ain't got it."
I am thankful for each and every one of you who has read this blog and supported me over the past eleven years. I don't think you know how much that means (and continues to mean) to me.

In any case, I would like to celebrate this birthday with y'all at some point this summer. Please keep an eye out for an announcement soon.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

ride on's most popular routes aren't where you expect them to be

Montgomery County’s Ride On is the busiest bus system in the DC area after Metrobus, carrying 75,000 riders each day. Its most popular bus routes, however, might surprise you.

Ride-On Bus, Century Boulevard
A Ride On bus in Germantown. Photo by the author.
Here’s a map of the ten most heavily used Ride On routes in Montgomery County. They all have a couple of things in common, which can tell us a lot about the state of transit in the county.

These are the most popular Ride On bus routes. Map by the author using data from MCDOT.

For starters, many of these routes have simple, easy-to-remember routes, a key feature for growing ridership. The 46 (Rockville-Medical Center) and 55 (Germantown-Rockville) both run on Route 355 with few deviations. The 100 (Germantown-Shady Grove express) follows I-270, making one stop in Germantown and another at the Shady Grove Metro station. Riders don’t need to be intimately familiar with each route in order to use it. They just need to know where that street goes.

In addition, most of these routes are pretty frequent, running all day, every day, and every 15 minutes or more during rush hour. That means riders can rely on them at all times, without worrying how they might get home if they miss the last bus.

Where these 10 routes go, however, might be the most interesting part. Three of them, the 15, 16, and 20, run between Silver Spring and the Takoma-Langley Crossroads area, a dense corridor with tens of thousands of residents, shops, and jobs. It’s also where the Purple Line will go, demonstrating the there’s a lot of demand for transit here.

A map of Ride On's Route 46, which has a pretty clear, easy-to-follow route along Route 355.

But five of the routes, the 46, 55, 59, 61, and 100, all serve the Upcounty, the newest, most suburban, and most spread-out part of Montgomery County. The prevailing wisdom among some county officials is that transit “doesn’t work” in these areas, unlike the denser, more urban Downcounty, where all of the county's busiest Metrobus routes are. In the Upcounty, the roads are big and fast and you have to travel long distances to get from residential areas to jobs, shopping, or popular hangouts.

Yet these areas still manage to support frequent, heavily used transit service. There are thousands of car-free and one-car households in areas like Gaithersburg and Germantown who depend on transit. The Upcounty also has lots of places that people want to go to: Montgomery College and the Universities at Shady Grove; two hospitals; big shopping centers like Lakeforest and Milestone; and walkable, urban-ish neighborhoods like Rio/Washingtonian Center and Germantown Town Center.

That’s something to remember as the county considers building new transit lines to serve the Upcounty, like the Corridor Cities Transitway and bus rapid transit on Route 355 - as well as big highway projects like M-83 and adding new lanes to I-270. Driving rates in Montgomery County have stayed flat over the past 15 years, even as 100,000 new people moved here. And it’s because some of those people, even those coming to Germantown, took the bus.