Monday, August 21, 2017

this new suburban place has some lessons for older suburban places

30 miles north of DC, Montgomery County is trying to build a new kind of suburb in Clarksburg, one that looks more like a small town and where residents don't have to drive everywhere. It hasn't totally worked. But Clarksburg might actually have something to teach closer-in communities about how to grow sustainably.

Urbanism! All photos by the author unless noted.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve made it a tradition to go to Clarksburg at least once a year and tour some model houses. I remember visiting one model house there on a cold, gray day in December 2007. The sales agent, Dorothy, took me on a tour of the whole house, ending at a little balcony overlooking the backyard. As far as we could see there were other houses with beige siding and grey roofs. I asked her, what do you think of this view? And she said, “I try to think about it like I’m looking out over the rooftops of Paris.”

Maybe that’s a little rich. I will say that Clarksburg is somewhat different than what we traditionally conceive of as a suburban community: big houses, big lawns, and lots of driving. As Montgomery County's older suburbs try to create the walkable, transit-oriented places that people increasingly want, Clarksburg might offer a few lessons.

Friday, August 18, 2017

thanks to everyone who came out on tuesday!

Thanks to everyone who came to our happy hour on Tuesday celebrating the 11th anniversary of Just Up The Pike and our friends at Greater Greater Washington!

I address the crowd at Tuesday's event. Photo by Aaron Landry.
Over a hundred people packed the rooftop at Kaldi's Social House in downtown Silver Spring for a special joint happy hour. On top of that, I received a proclamation from the Montgomery County Council for my work. At-large County Councilmembers George Leventhal and Roger Berliner, and District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker were there to present it. (Councilmember Hans Riemer first proposed the proclamation, but he was on vacation and couldn’t attend.)

All three talked about something I’ve tried to do since I started Just Up The Pike in 2006: to help craft a vision for Silver Spring and East County in a way that is both positive and constructive.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

since the great recession, east county's real estate market has diverged

Nearly a decade ago, the Great Recession wiped out house values across the region. Today, booming close-in, urban areas have basically recovered. But many further-out, suburban communities are still struggling. Here’s one example from eastern Montgomery County.

McMansion, Meadowsweet Lane, Sandy Spring
A 2000s-era subdivision in East County. Many of these homes lost value during the Great Recession and have yet to recover. All images by the author.
I grew up in downtown Silver Spring at a time when people were still moving away from urban centers. Twenty years ago, my neighborhood consisted of abandoned buildings and boarded-up stores, and in 1998, my parents started looking for houses outside the Beltway in places like Olney and Burtonsville, which seemed ascendant at the time. Besides, we were already driving to shop there. My parents found a little split-level house a mile from a new shopping center with a Target, Chipotle, and Starbucks.

My high school, Blake, opened that same year, and most of my friends’ parents seemed to have made the same move from Silver Spring and Takoma Park. New subdivisions were popping up with big, luxurious houses, lush lawns, and names like Briarcliff Manor and Hampshire Greens. In the older neighborhoods, houses were sold for the land so big McMansions could rise in their places.
I remember going to a party at the end of high school where we sat in a circle bragging about how much our parents’ houses were worth. I was the odd one out because my parents’ house had appraised recently at a measly $500,000.

Abandoned House in Tanglewood
An abandoned house in an East County subdivision in 2014.
But it wouldn’t last; the Great Recession hit East County pretty hard. Burtonsville Crossing, the shopping center where we hung out in high school, is almost completely vacant. Some of my parents’ neighbors, unable to make ends meet, resorted to running illegal auto shops out of their homes, inviting relatives to move in, or renting out their basements.

Meanwhile, downtown Silver Spring had a comeback as more people sought urban living. A major redevelopment project along Ellsworth Drive brought restaurants, shops, movie theaters, and a Whole Foods. Montgomery County poured millions into new public facilities, including a library, the Civic Building, and Veterans Plaza. In response, private developers built thousands of new apartments and condominiums, including the building I live in now, a converted bottling plant that was still operating when I was a kid.

Here's how the real estate market in East County has changed

The real estate market shows how Silver Spring has bounced back from the recession while East County has struggled. Here’s a graph showing average home values in 2012 and 2017 as they compare to 2007 levels. It shows the two zip codes inside the Beltway, 20910 (Silver Spring) and 20912 (Takoma Park), and seven zip codes (mostly) outside the Beltway: 20901 (Four Corners), 20902 (Wheaton), 20903 (Hillandale) 20904 (Colesville, Fairland), 20905 (Cloverly), 20906 (Aspen Hill) and 20866 (Burtonsville).

How 2012 and 2017 home values in East County stack up to 2007 levels. Click on all of these graphs to enlarge them.

Home values all over East County fell during the Great Recession. In zip codes 20903 and 20906, home values fell by nearly half between 2007 and 2012. This year, average home values in the eight zip codes outside downtown Silver Spring are 71% to 85% of what they were a decade ago. But in zip code 20910, which contains downtown Silver Spring, values are actually a little higher than they were 10 years ago.

Home values inside the Beltway have recovered, but remain lower elsewhere. 

Homes inside the Beltway have been more valuable than those outside it for a while now. But the gap in home values has increased over the past 10 years. This graph shows the average home sale price per square foot, as a way to even out differences between houses of different sizes and styles. In the summer of 2007, the price per square foot in zip codes 20910 (Silver Spring) and 20866 (Burtonsville) were fairly close, at $363 per square foot and $304, respectively. Today, they’re $384 and $257; in other words, a difference of 50%.

Those who bought homes in East County before the housing boom, or at the bottom of the market, may have recovered their investments or even made a little extra. But those who bought at the top of the market saw their gains wiped away.
Homes in far-flung zip code 20905 linger on the market longer than homes closer in.

Another measure of demand is the number of days a house sits on the market. During the Great Recession, houses across East County languished for months due to a lack of buyers. In early 2008, the average house in zip code 20905 sat on the market for nearly six months. Demand returned, but not equally. In early 2017, homes in the 20910 zip code spent just 22 days for sale, compared to 59 days in 20905.

There's a huge opportunity in East County, but things need to change

Like many aging suburbs, East County is caught in the middle. The kids I grew up with have either moved to urban areas closer in, or moved farther out to newer suburbs in Olney or Howard County, aided by new highways like the InterCounty Connector that made it easier to commute longer distances. East County is a long drive from Montgomery County’s biggest job and shopping centers, which are all along Rockville Pike and I-270. And the local schools struggle with a negative reputation compared to their counterparts in more affluent areas.

Corner of Springvale Road and Ellsworth Heights Drive
New townhomes in downtown Silver Spring, where home values are higher than they were in 2007. 
Yet the fact that homes here are much more affordable than in other parts of the county could be a big opportunity. Nationwide, some three million Millennial homebuyers have been shut out of the housing market because of high prices and a lack of supply. Millennials are open to living in suburban areas, but want stuff they can walk or bike to.

Providing that lifestyle in East County is imperative to drawing people and investment to this area, just as it did in Silver Spring. Montgomery County’s plans to create a walkable town center and research park in White Oak and a new village center in Burtonsville will bring the amenities people want, while a new BRT line on Route 29 will provide faster, more reliable transit. Combined, the two will give East County access to jobs, shopping, and economic opportunities.

East County has waited decades for the kind of prosperity the rest of Montgomery County takes for granted, and at great cost. Hopefully residents won’t have to wait much longer.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

plans for viva white oak are finally taking shape

Eastern Montgomery County has long waited for the jobs and economic opportunities other parts of this affluent county take for granted. Now, a new town center and research park might finally get off the ground.
A rendering of Viva White Oak's future "Village Center." All images from Montgomery County unless noted.
Fifty years ago, White Oak was a booming suburb that inspired the sitcom “The Wonder Years.” But the area has seen little investment in recent decades, and residents have to travel long distances to access jobs and shopping areas in more affluent areas like Bethesda and Rockville. The lack of access to economic opportunities has resulted in lower incomes and a higher poverty rate than the rest of the county. The Great Recession hit the area hard, and home prices are still recovering.

Montgomery County officials hope to change this by turning White Oak into a hub for life sciences research, centered on the Food and Drug Administration, which moved there ten years ago, and Washington Adventist Hospital, which is building a new facility here.

An aerial perspective of Viva White Oak. Most buildings would be a few stories tall, though some could rise as high as 220 feet.

Last year, the county struck a deal with developer Percontee to build Viva White Oak, a new town center and research park near Route 29 and Cherry Hill Road that was originally proposed under the name "LifeSci Village" over a decade ago. The 280 acre site, located between the FDA campus and the new hospital, consists of a shuttered sludge treatment plant the county owns and Percontee’s former concrete recycling center.

Last week, Percontee (working under the name Global Lifescience Development Corporation) and county officials presented their plans at the White Oak Recreation Center, reports local blog Growing East County. The developers are about to send the Planning Department their sketch plan, which is a more general vision of the development that occur. When the project is ready to begin, the developer will submit detailed plans for specific portions of the project for approval.

Here’s what we know so far

As a result, we only know that Viva White Oak will have roughly 12 million square feet of stuff when it’s completed, including up to 5,000 homes, shops, offices, and research buildings. But the site plans show four distinct “neighborhoods” with different types of activities in them. A grid of streets would thread through the entire project, allowing residents, workers, and visitors to walk or bike, while trails would connect the project to Paint Branch Park. Twenty percent of the 280-acre site (56 acres) would be parks and open space, including several squares and plazas.

Viva White Oak's four neighborhoods. The "West Neighborhood" and "East Side" would be built first.

The “West Neighborhood” and “East Side” are at the edges of the development, closer to Route 29 and Cherry Hill Road, and would have a mix of townhouses, apartments, and some commercial buildings. Those sections will be built first. Viva White Oak’s first phase will include up to 1,000 new homes and 300,000 square feet of commercial space, as per the developer’s agreement with Montgomery County.

The project’s second phase is the “Village Center” at the center of the site, where the three new roads meet, and would have apartments, offices, and shops. The final phase would be the “R&D Core,” located at the south end of the site next to the FDA campus entrance. It would have a mix of offices and academic facilities, and some of the development’s tallest buildings as well. Zoning allows buildings up to 220 feet tall at Viva White Oak, but most of the buildings shown appear to be low-rise, between three and six floors.

To get the ball rolling, the county will contribute $47 million to clear their portion of the land, and to split with the developer the costs of building three new roads connecting the land to Industrial Parkway, Cherry Hill Road, and the FDA. The county's new Bus Rapid Transit line on Route 29, which will open in 2020, could carry workers and residents to Viva White Oak. The project also includes land for a new school; nearby Galway Elementary School is at capacity now and will remain close to it for several years.

But will companies want to come here?

Viva White Oak has been in the works since 2005 and it looks like things are finally coming together. Neighbors who were at the meeting last week say they're really excited about the project. But we still don’t know if scientific companies or research institutions will want to come here. And Viva White Oak’s suburban location may be a turnoff to companies who seek closer-in, transit-served locations.

LifeSci Village Signs
The Viva White Oak (formerly LifeSci Village) site today.
That said, East County doesn’t have a walkable, urban-ish development like what’s been proposed here, and this could both attract the many people who want to live in a place like that or even near a place like that. Retailers seek a base of residents to shop at their stores. And companies increasingly value being in environments where their workers can shop or live nearby. There are still lots of unanswered questions about Viva White Oak. But if something actually happens here, it could be the start of a virtuous cycle.