Friday, March 30, 2007

duchy trachtenberg: anti-trans fats, pro-onion rings

The eighth stop on Just Up The Pike's "County Government Head-to-Head Tour."

One of the elevators in the County Council Office Building has been broken for the past few weeks, so quite a few people are have packed themselves in for the ride down. There's myself and Henry from Silver Spring Scene, three or four County officials in suits and ties, and up against the door is Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), wearing a big fur coat in spring weather. Everyone's talking and joking, shaking hands and making plans, and it's impossible for Henry and I to get off at the lobby. We ride it all the way down, all the way up, and back down again, as I wonder if the coat was real.

"I would like to see the social ills in this County make it on the map."
I didn't have the heart to ask. President of the Maryland chapter of NOW, "grassroots activist" (according to her bio), and a person who refers to the bathroom as "the loo," Duchy Trachtenberg doesn't spit grand promises like most politicians, but it seems like she's too soft-shelled to take those kinds of risks. Or perhaps freshmen councilmembers reserve the right to be so insecure.

In fact, the first thing she did was to jump down my throat in regards to some not-that-incendiary comments I made while trying to make this appointment last January. All I said was that her staff hadn't returned the two phone messages I'd left.

"I take this seriously because I've been told by my staff that you didn't call and I'm offended that you would put that on there," Trachtenberg says. "I find it hard to believe that my staff would not return a call."

Communications Director William Klein explained to me later that unreturned phone calls were "not her policy," but Duchy Trachtenberg still let a few slip through her fingers. Mea culpa, I know.

AFTER THE JUMP: The rest of the story.

Coming from a background in public health, Trachtenberg's main interests for this term are to improve the "delivery of health services" in Montgomery County. She herself is a "parent of a consumer" of health care services, citing her schizophrenic son, currently being held at a facility in New York state. "The quality in Maryland does not compare," she says, adding, "Maryland fares rather badly" in health care delivery nationwide.

For Henry and I, it became clear this wasn't going to be a discussion about development or quality-of-life. These things do not sound like Trachtenberg territory. "Do we make the maintenance of our infrastructure a higher priority?" Trachtenberg asks. (We can only presume that congestion doesn't play a major role in the less-than-two-mile commute from her Twinbrook home to Rockville Town Center.) "I would like to see the social ills in this County make it on the map."

"One thing I think we have to keep in mind is the current Bush administration."
Combating "social ills"? It makes me think of Prohibition. (With all of our liquor stores owned by the County, could Montgomery County bring it back!?) We don't know much about what she thinks about roads or slow-growth outside of ideals expressed on her website such as "County residents wanting to lessen their dependence on foreign oil should be accommodated with safer sidewalks and bike paths."

We do know, however, that former Action Committee for Transit Vice President Richard Hoye (pictured) is on her staff, and that I remember seeing him on my way from work last summer, speeding through the streets of Bethesda on a bike with a poster on the back bearing the soon-to-be Councilwoman's face. So, while our chat with Duchy Trachtenberg was mainly limited to her pet interests, we can assume she's looking out for bus riders as well.

"Ride On service [needs] to be funded to a larger degree," she notes at the one time we did manage to talk about transit. "Routes need to be extended into other parts of the County and the buses need to run longer."

But that was it. Perhaps there just isn't enough money to inspire bigger dreams. "We don't have adequate tax base in this state," she says. "We are down the totem pole in relation to the income level in this county. We do not have a large enough tax base . . . we really need to evaluate our current tax code."

When asked about affordable housing in the County, Trachtenberg took a swipe at the President, the first we've heard during the entire "County Government Head-to-Head Tour": "One thing I think we have to keep in mind is the current Bush administration," Trachtenberg insists. "Less and less money has been designated for these federal initiatives. Housing vouchers are one of them."

"We only have so much in the way of resources," Trachtenberg laments. "More and more of the burden falls on the shoulders of local government."

After an awkward half-hour of conversation, County Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) has to leave for a meeting with Ike Leggett, but she offers up a concession: fried food. As we waited for the elevator, she invited us to a press conference for her first major bill of the session, a proposal to ban all trans fats from Montgomery County restaurants. "Come out to that," Trachtenberg says. "There'll be good french fries. I requested onion rings."

And we don't know if there were onion rings at the event, but if there were, we commend Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg. Just Up The Pike found this encounter so frustrating that we couldn't write about it for a week and a half - but we can respect a woman (who fights for women's rights) and appreciates a good O-ring.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

doug duncan, savior of college park?

BUT FIRST: We asked Duchy Trachtenberg to talk about transit and development, and instead we learned about public health and tax codes . . . we're still working on that profile.

Doug Duncan's back in the game, and this couldn't be a better time - or place. Just yesterday, the Diamondback reported that Doug Duncan - best known for doggedly spearheading the redevelopment of Downtown Silver Spring as Montgomery County executive - is going back to work, this time as VP of Administrative Affairs to the University of Maryland.

Recall that two weeks ago, we learned that Downtown Silver Spring developer Foulger-Pratt will be redeveloping the University of Maryland's East Campus, currently filled with service buildings and dorms a little past their prime. It looks like College Park really will be the new Silver SprUng.

Nonetheless, there are concerns that the Silver SprUng-ification of College Park - and the chain stores it brings - will destroy its character, or at least prevent future opportunities to create what Richard Layman calls "something organic." While I disagreed with his original assessment of the urbanity of Foulger-Pratt's earlier projects, he does make a good point later about the potential of a college town to remake itself, as has occurred in Ann Arbor, usually rated one of the best "college towns" in the country.

I do not think, though, that chain stores are a threat to a town that has little in the way of useful retail. MoCo state delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez may have complained to the Diamondback that Silver Spring "looks just like another Bethesda," I don't know a lot of people who aren't thankful for the new shopping and dining opportunities available Downtown. (And we will gladly take Downtown Silver Spring or College Park over Downtown Kensington, which Delegate Gutierrez represents, any day.)

Mom-and-pops are all good and well, but I doubt your average Long Island party girl who attends Maryland will want to shop for club clothes at a mom-and-pop. Before we talk about "rounding out" the retail offerings in College Park, we need to get a solid base in there - something that attract both students and people from the community at large. For better or for worse, that means chain stores - a Borders, an Urban Outfitters - which can bring in enough people to support smaller stores.

Keep in mind that College Park is far bigger than the three-block downtown on Route 1. The Hyattsville-College Park area is the nexus of North Prince George's County. If East Campus, with its potential to attract high-end, chain stores, is a threat to anything, it'll be to the University Town Center development currently going up in Hyattsville, or even the new Laurel Mall, both only a few miles away.

I suppose the best word is "complement." East Campus will have to complement the existing character of College Park, because as long as the bars are open, it can't change all that much. It'll also have to complement other developments in Hyattsville and Laurel. I don't know how much "neighborhood character" currently exists on Route 1. Big developers may not create an "organic" atmosphere, but at least it'll be more attractive than what we have now.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

the "head-to-head tour" bus gets a flat tire

An interim stop, sort of, on Just Up The Pike's "County Government Head-to-Head Tour". Here's Part Two.

Spring Break at Just Up The Pike has proved to be anything but as we have hit more than a few snags up in Rockville. This morning, Henry from Silver Spring Scene and I braved rush-hour traffic to meet with Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg, only to discover that the councilwoman was quite disturbed by some comments I made in January while trying to make an appointment with her:
"We have yet to hear from Duchy Trachtenberg, Marc Elrich, or the increasingly elusive Ike Leggett, only bolstering my opinion that he does not like me."
If that should offend anyone, it should really be Ike Leggett, but we've already been there.

Nonetheless, Trachtenberg was not amused. "I take this serious because I've been told by my staff that you didn't call," she said testily, "and I'm offended that you would put that on there . . . I find it hard to believe that my staff would not return a call."

"I assure you, Ms. Trachtenberg," I said, surprised, "I would not lie about a missed call." I expect I will be corrected if I make a mistake anywhere on this blog, but I promise you that I wouldn't knowingly lie about something, even as minor as a phone call. This afternoon, I called her communications director, William Klein, to sort the situation out.

"No one here has any record of your calling," Klein said. "Duchy was unhappy to see that [comment] on your blog because that's not her policy. I just hope you would be able to put this behind you and we can move on from there."

"Duchy respects bloggers and cares about the County," he continued. "We respect Just Up The Pike, and we read it."

And I'm glad to hear it. Come back TOMORROW to read more about our meeting with Duchy Trachtenberg. And, AFTER THE JUMP: our not-quite-a-meeting with Councilman Roger Berliner.

Monday's meeting with Councilman Roger Berliner was cut short due to a committee hearing Berliner wanted to attend. I was allowed to sit on the meeting, which covered a report called "Residential Infill Construction: A Review of County Laws, Regulations and Practices."

To be completely honest, the jargon of zoning laws is something that cannot be taken on an empty stomach, and even an aspiring planner like myself couldn't help but dream about the goodies being served in the Council Office Building Cafeteria seven stories below. (As it would turn out, it was closed.)

I did, however, pay close attention to the behavior of the four councilmembers in attendance - Berliner, of course, but also the three memebers of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee: Marilyn Praisner, Nancy Floreen, and Marc Elrich. At any given time, at least two of the four councilmembers at the meeting had their chins propped up. Nancy Floreen left the room twice, presumably to the bathroom or water fountain. And Marc Elrich, embracing the spring weather, was the only one in the room wearing short sleeves.

An Evil Developer, or what I assume an Evil Developer would look like if NeighborsPAC did a portrait of one, sat in the back room, glaring at everyone and everything and twiddling his thick mustache. I couldn't help but wonder if he was going to follow the councilmembers back to their offices afterwards with a thick folder of Evil Development Plans to show them.

Monday, March 19, 2007

marc elrich, gingerly planning for moco's future

BUT FIRST: Why isn't Downtown Silver Spring good enough for some urban planners? Read more.

The sixth stop on Just Up The Pike's "County Government Head-to-Head Tour."

Upon first glance, Marc Elrich, Montgomery County Councilman (D-At Large) seems a little intimidating. He's very quiet and reserved, but with a presence that seems to fill a room, noticeable even in his tiny office in the County Council building. The first few minutes of our meeting are all business - hand shaking, card exchanges, an explanation of what I was here for.

"I'm not sure if you've read Just Up The Pike before," I begin -

"I've read it. I read blogs," Elrich says, as all county councilmembers take to saying now. (He did, during the campaign, keep one himself, called El Blog de El-Rich.) He notices the buttons on my messenger bag. "Have any good buttons?" he asks.

I'm a little thrown off. "Just for bands," I mumble, a little embarassed that the County Councilman wants to know about my interest in the band Something Corporate. "I'm always looking to see good political buttons," Elrich adds. I think of the Kerry-Edwards pin lying on my desk at home. Was that a joke? It didn't feel like one.

At first I wondered if I'd caught him at a bad time. It was 2:00 on a Tuesday afternoon - our meeting was scheduled for 1:30, but the receptionist explained to me that an emergency budget meeting had just been called, and I'd caught catch councilmembers Valerie Ervin and Nancy Floreen on their way in.

Floreen takes a second to sit down with me. "I have something to tell you about the Annual Growth Policy," she says. "The annual growth rate has been less than one percent."

"Over the last year?" I ask. "No. For a long time," Floreen says.

One percent growth? How would Marc Elrich respond to that? Former city councilman for Takoma Park, dubbed "Berkeley East," memberships in a litany of environmental groups, according to his biography, a campaign for County Council run on limiting developer influence - Marc Elrich is, to many, the new face of slow growth in Montgomery County, as much as Ike Leggett himself.

"I'm very happy" with Ike Leggett's new budget, Elrich says. "He sets the right tone. It's hard . . . to recast a budget for an entire year. He took a very conservative approach." Conservative's not a word you hear often around Takoma Park, but for Elrich, it's just what Montgomery County needs right now. "We're really facing some long-term costs," he continues. "Development brings you revenues, that's fine, but it also brings you liabilities."

"[Moratorium] was a word used by the press and developers to start a panic and scare people."
I don't really have to ask whether that less-than-one percent growth Nancy Floreen mentioned is too much for Elrich, whose campaign signs carried the words "DEVELOPER FUNDING" with a big slash over it. But as Marilyn Praisner and Ike Leggett have insisted before him, what happened last December was not, in fact, a "moratorium."

"We never proposed a moratorium," Elrich says. "It was a word used by the press and developers to start a panic and scare people." But as Valerie Ervin noted, Elrich and Praisner (who first proposed the not-moratorium) both "gutted" the original proposal. "I listened to hours of developers' testimony and came back with some modifications," Elrich explains. "When you first prepare something, you put it on the table to discuss it. If I'm not going to be serious about public input, why bother having a public hearing?"

And why shouldn't he be serious about anything? The County's facing some tough times ahead. "We're really facing some long-term costs" in the future, Elrich laments. "We're building the first fire stations since 1981. [We] never collected enough money to fund the infrastructure." The road situation is no better. "All [planners'] projections suggest things are getting worse," he continues. "If I told you 'things were getting better,' you'd expect it to get better tomorrow. We shouldn't be simply planning for things to get worse."

Marc Elrich's ideal for Montgomery County couldn't be described as worse - or better, for that matter. When asked about what he'd like to see forty years from now, he responds, "That's really complex. Like, woebegone comes to mind." Creases form in his forehead. "I'd like to see a county where our kids are reasonably successful in school," he continues. "Having communities that are safe and people want to live in . . . being able to find work within a reasonable commute . . . dealing with the transportation system so we don't continue to slide into gridlock."

Note the repetition of "reasonable." Marc Elrich doesn't make the sort of big promises for Montgomery County that gets other politicians in trouble. In fact, if Elrich had a grand vision for the County, maybe it's of a place where grand visions take a backseat to pragmatic governance, the sort for which Montgomery County's become famous for over the years.
"You come in with ideas . . . but you don't come in with all the information."
But that isn't what our elected officials have been doing lately. "People say 'well, growth's just gonna happen' . . . but it's not like we can't manage it better," he says. "When it's something [people] wanna do, they're powerful. And when it's something they don't wanna do, they're powerless."

Because of that mentality, our elected officials have been making a lot of promises they may not be able to keep, especially in regards to transportation. "Legislators are gonna be very reluctant to give us ICC, CCT, the Purple Line, the $500 million that Metro wants," he insists. "The State legislators say 'Montgomery County just did off three billion dollars [the cost of the ICC alone] . . . they're not getting anything else.'"

"I'd like to ask [Governor Martin] O'Malley, 'How much money are we really gonna get?'"

"We oughta prioritize the two rail projects over the ICC," Elrich proposes. "The purpose of the ICC is going to be undermined by the way the ICC is funded," referring to the high tolls that may be charged on the highway, sending drivers back to local roads and exacerbating traffic. Meanwhile, he says, "it's just gonna open up that part of the County to still more development."

"I think we're far less successful than we say we are."
The frustrations of local politics have certainly taken a toll on Elrich's daily life over the past few months. When asked about how many engagements he has on a normal day, Elrich responds, "I can't even average them. My weeks seem endless, and my weekends do too. Dale [Tibbitts, his chief of staff] will show me my schedule, and I'll say, 'what have you done to my life today?'" It's a far cry from his days of teaching fifth grade at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park. "Being a teacher, there's something satisfying every day, and that doesn't happen here," Elrich says.

"I think we're far less successful than we say we are," Elrich notes. Living in the county for nearly a half-century, he's seen us go from bedroom community to economic powerhouse. To him, it's clear that we have a long way to go in becoming the kind of all-inclusive, supportive community we appear to be. While big promises may not be his style, Marc Elrich remains committed to making that ideal a reality.

But, before I go, he has one more thing to tell me: "For the record, I have yet to have a NeighborsPAC meeting," he says. "Lots of developers, no NeighborsPAC."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

should college park go "silver sprung"?

NEXT WEEK: The County Government Head-to-Head Tour finally comes to an end, including chats with Marc Elrich, Roger Berliner and Duchy Trachtenberg.

LOCAL COLOR IN SILVER SPRING: A few kids make off with a shopping cart full of goodies last December. Clearly, no one thought to swipe a belt . . .

Last week, Rethink College Park giddily reported that the University of Maryland has selected developer Foulger-Pratt to remake East Campus, a collection of service buildings and dormitories past their prime at Route 1 and Paint Branch Parkway in College Park, with two million square feet of apartments, shops, and offices, completely alter the landscape of a town whose economy seems to run on cheap beer.

While the Diamondback, the on-campus newspaper, eagerly held up Foulger-Pratt's work in Silver Spring as an example of what College Park could be (as opposed to the worst perceptions of what it currently is), not everyone's so happy that there could be a new "East Silver Spring."

Last summer, one blogger called Silver Spring "decidedly vanilla," but this time, it's Richard Layman from Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space leading the charge against Downtown, saying "it would be a shame if this becomes the model for development on a big chunk of land in College Park, Maryland, on land that could be used to create a true center at the heart of the city."

Unlike Bethesda Row, Layman says, Silver Spring fails to mix uses and create "vibrant" urban spaces. (Rethink College Park says the same, but for different reasons.) Has Layman ever been to "the Turf" on a Saturday night, or to College Park on a Saturday night, during the 2 A.M. "drunken rush hour" from the bars on Route 1 to the dorms on campus? Both places prove that you don't need sidewalk cafes serving twenty-dollar tapas to put people on the street.

Silver Spring Metro Plaza, Trizec Properties. Sleek and modern, this pedestrian street screams "skater's paradise," but that's been prohibited. Not that anyone's welcomed here: even the office workers five floors above don't show up here at lunch time.Downtown Silver Spring, Foulger-Pratt. Twenty years of bad design have finally yielded Ellsworth Drive, a street lined with flashy chain stores and fake building fronts. Sure, it's fake, but at least there's other people around, and we're pretty sure they're real.

I mean, let's not forget that Bethesda Row, developed by Federal Realty, is no more a real downtown than the Silver Spring is really silver. Layman's right in saying that Colesville Road's no pedestrian paradise, but I would blame that more on the Discovery Channel headquarters than Foulger-Pratt's work at the Silver Spring Metro Center. They seem to have done a good job in Downtown Silver Spring, if only for a couple of blocks. So what if it doesn't look authentic? I bet someone looked at the newly completed U.S. Capitol in 1811 and said, "man, they totally ripped off those Roman temples."

There doesn't seem to be much holding up Layman's argument other than elitism. Bethesda Row's well-heeled shoppers and diners photograph much better than the skaters and rappers battling for space on Ellsworth. And for some reason, scenes like that seem to be missing from the discussion about whether or not Silver Spring is a "real" place.

On the surface, it's all chain stores - just like Clarendon, or Rockville, or Bethesda. But underneath that is where you'll find the local flavor, and you'll still see that in College Park, even after revitalization takes hold. After all, no amount of gentrification will stop the 2 A.M. drunken rush hour.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"the turf" safe; teenage loitering remains undisturbed

TOMORROW, OR MAYBE FRIDAY, WE DON'T REALLY KNOW: Just Up The Pike sits down with County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) for a super-brief chat about schools and cautious - very cautious - growth.

Two years ago, Silver Spring protested the County's plans to eliminate an ice rink from the proposed Civic Center, but less than a year after the "temporary" turf lawn we've all grown lo love has been installed, residents came back asking to keep it green, and it looks like those in charge have listened. Both the Penguin and the Scene report that Park and Planning doesn't want an ice rink in Downtown Silver Spring after all, concerned that it wasn't the best use of precious public open space.

It looks like Silver Spring residents may have won the battle to keep "the Turf," but will they reconsider? The point of keeping the ice rink was to provide an additional draw to the Downtown area and show that Silver Spring really was worthy of such a large investment, but if it's not worth the expense, what does that say about Downtown?

I'm happy we're keeping "the Turf." It's a boon to the community and shows that, while we are a very fickle people, we certainly can't pass up an afternoon lying on our backs watching the clouds go by - especially in weather like this. Here's hoping that global warming continues to make an ice rink economically unfeasible. (I kid: who knows what I'll get for saying that here.)

What can I say? This is great news, but I wonder if residents really will be happy if the County follows through and finds a way to keep "the Turf" or even real grass on the site. The community fought tooth-and-nail to retain an ice rink in the plans, despite the higher cost. When winter comes, will they be saying we made the right decision?

IN OTHER NEWS: The Wheaton Plaza 11's added two screens for indie films, but moviegoers are still flocking to the AFI Silver; a redevelopment plan for Burtonsville Town Center will crystallize after an "East County Market Study" is completed later this spring; MCPS is smarting after Ike Leggett offers them less money than expected in next year's budget (more on that later); and speed cameras will be deployed on a trial basis at several locations throughout East County, including ones on Calverton Boulevard, Briggs Chaney Road, and Randolph Road.

Hey, go outside today! It won't be like this again for a little while.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

valerie ervin, leaving the campaign trail behind

The fifth stop on Just Up The Pike's "County Government Head-to-Head Tour."

PICTURED: County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin with aide Amparo Macias and intern Avi Edelman. Not pictured: Chief of Staff Sonya Healy.
It's 5:45, time for the Council Office Building to shut down, but things are just getting started with County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring). Two people have already insisted that she move on to her next appointment, and Avi Edelman, intern and Blair High senior, is looking a little nervous, but Ervin doesn't look ready to go anywhere.

But if Ervin has to squeeze just one last comment into this hour-plus-long round-table discussion with three staff members, Henry from Silver Spring Scene and yours truly, she decides to take me to task for a few incendiary comments I'd made last summer regarding some things she didn't say about the County's Gifted-and-Talented program.

"What you said . . . that was all wrong," Ervin says about my suggestion that she'd called for magnet programs to be dismantled because of racial inequalities. "It was completely out to lunch." The issue is "so complicated that you can't describe it in a paragraph," she continues. "People took something that was said and ran with it."

"The problem with Montgomery County," she notes, "is that people wanna find enemies."

And Valerie Ervin isn't like that. Even Hans Riemer, her opponent in last fall's elections, has become a valued member of her circle. "Hans and I talk a lot about this whole development thing," she explains. "We're working on the Purple Line in East Silver Spring, trying to do a charrette." Riemer may have lost the election, but "he's gonna be on the scene for a long time," Ervin notes.

While I didn't originally support Valerie Ervin, I've come around upon realizing that, unlike the rest of the freshman county councilmembers, she hasn't been beating the "no-growth" drum that everyone thought kept time during the campaign. Or maybe it did. "Some people ran on a couple of issues" - growth and development - and in the County Council, "it feels like people haven't gotten off the campaign trail," Ervin laments. "Even though we don't all agree with each other . . . we will at some point have to gel as a council."

"People tend to . . . follow the leader," she points out. "They tend to not have their own points of view. A lot of people think Ike Leggett was elected on this anti-growth platform, but if you talk to him, he really isn't . . . a lot of councilmembers think they were elected to slow growth."

"What we do will have ramifications for a long time."
These kind of suggestions may make Valerie Ervin out to be a sort of maverick, a freshman county councilmember who broke away from her fellow freshmen and even challenged her old boss, George Leventhal, shortly after taking office in December. (But Leventhal remains a friend and mentor: Ervin thinks "he's very thoughtful and poses questions that other people think about but don't say aloud.")

And as the first African-American woman on the County Council, Ervin's definitely in new territory. "Someone who looks the way I look and represents the community I represent you wouldn't expect would be saying what I have," she says. "I think that most people see in black and white, but when you start to take on issues, there are many shades of gray."

"It's why I wasn't following the councilmembers around for the moratorium," Ervin continues. "[It's] bad for the East County." It was an end, she argues, but the means were flawed. Ervin came back to the moratorium several times during our conversation. "It was very interesting to watch," she says. "[Marilyn] Praisner and [Marc] Elrich gutted their own [proposal] . . . I think they listened to what people had to say and they said 'proceed with caution.'" No matter what the County decides to do regarding growth, it needs to do it in a careful manner, so we know our decision is the right one. "What we do will have ramifications for a long time," she warns.

And Ervin is "looking forward . . . twenty years, thirty years, forty years from now," she says. Her idealism and vision - reminiscent of Leventhal's - does seem a little strange coming from a community that in the past few years has become increasingly wary of progress. But there's no question whether or not progress can take place. "Urbanization has happened," she laughs, "whether I'm in favor of it or not . . . Silver Spring is far from being finished. We're still in phase one of a five-phase" program for development."

"We can no longer look at Montgomery County in a silo. This region attracts work."
As the community grows, a regional focus becomes increasingly important. Ervin refers to Silver Spring as "extension of D.C.," noting that school statistics in her district and The District show similar demographics and similar income levels. She's working with Prince George's County Councilman Will Campos (D-Hyattsville) to create the first bi-county master plan in nearly forty years, covering Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Langley Park.

And she fully supports the InterCounty Connector, which for all its controversy, proves indispensable for connecting Montgomery County to the rest of the area. "At the end of the day," she notes, "the people who wanted that road were up in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins . . . they wanted to hook up. We can no longer look at Montgomery County in a silo. This region attracts work."

"A conversation about jobs has been missing," she says, talking about the "knowledge industries" that our County could be attracting. "We could really become this 'knowledge-based' economy . . . we could be finding a cure for cancer if we're able to connect FDA to Johns Hopkins to biotech corridors in Shady Grove."

This growth in Silver Spring will inevitably spill into East County, Ervin says. Her district includes the Cherry Hill Employment Area, the collection of office parks, car dealers and shopping centers at Route 29 and Cherry Hill Road in Calverton. Right now, she says, "creative developers and other people are looking at ways to bring a 'city center downtown feel' in East County." She holds up Clarksburg as an example of this "nexus of urban and suburban" environments that East County could one day feature.

"When you're a district representative, people expect you to be in the district."
This has become an investigation of sorts for Just Up The Pike: who's really coming to visit our councilmembers? George Leventhal and Nancy Floreen say it's the NIMBYs. Marilyn Praisner insists it's the developers. But Valerie Ervin says it's a mix of everyone. "Everything under the sun that people want to meet about," she says. "We really do get regular people on the street . . . I think what happens is people decided what councilmembers will get them what they want, and that's who they're gonna see."

Avi Edelman, who along with fellow intern Adam Yalowitz served as Ervin's de facto campaign managers, speaks up. "What's interesting is that . . . when we were campaigning, the kind of issues they brought up was 'I want a traffic light on my street and I don't know who to bring it to,'" he says. The big issues may bring voters to the polls, Ervin says, but when the campaign is over, they want the little things taken care of. "When you're a district representative, people expect you to be in the district," she says, noting the creation of satellite offices in Wheaton and Kensington where constituents can speak to her. "I really am enjoying this work," she notes. "You're lucky enough to be given the opportunity to make people's lives better."

With a sigh, she adds, "We're tired, though."

Monday, March 12, 2007

silver spring "mayor" jumping ship?

TODAY: Henry from Silver Spring Scene and I are heading up to the newly Silver Sprung-ified Rockville to meet with Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Mostly South of Randolph Road). TOMORROW: Doing it again - sitting down to meet Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large).

ANYWAY: As the "Silver Sprung"-ification of Rockville Town Center (at right) continues, Silver Spring booster Susan Hoffmann, dubbed our "mayor" by some, might be seeking a more legitimate mayoral position.

Due to matters of geography, Just Up The Pike hasn't been following the Rockville mayor's race, but our friend and Forest Glen resident Adam Pagnucco points out that Hoffmann (who is apparently a Rockville city councilwoman already) has thrown her hat in the ring to replace current mayor Larry Giammo.

East County residents may not mourn her departure from Silver Spring as much as we did for former "mayor" Norman Lane, but we'll be happy if she beats out head Neighbor Drew Powell, who's considering bringing his NIMBY superpowers to the mayor's office as well. Rockville had better watch out!

YOU'LL HAVE TO WAIT FOR THE BIRCHMERE . . . But in the meantime, folk fans can look forward to singer Pete Seeger (pictured in 1944; courtesy of Wikipedia) and family performing Saturday, March 17 at the Woodside United Methodist Church at 8900 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

If you're not a folk enthusiast, Seeger's name might draw a blank, but you've probably heard the 1960's standards "Turn, Turn, Turn," "If I Had a Hammer," and "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," all written by him. The concert is sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, and you can visit their website for more information.

I'm not going to attempt to figure out the FSGW's motives, or if Woodside Church is especially significant to Seeger and his family, but it's pretty cool that we're seeing more famous faces in Silver Spring. (I know, he's not Ben Stein or Lewis Black, but like all Communists, he was spied on by the government, which is still pretty neat.) In this case, we're probably hosting Seeger because of the Silver Spring-Takoma Park area's granolaness - but I am proud to have him nonetheless.

Friday, March 9, 2007

the definition of silver spring, always subject to change (updated!)

BUT FIRST: Twice in the past two days I've gotten calls from Valerie Ervin's office. "Due to daylight savings, we'd just like to confirm your appointment to meet with her on Monday," the person on the other end said each time. None of the other three County Councilmembers scheduled to meet with Just Up The Pike have been so concerned. Is Valerie Ervin's office just being overcautious - or will she and I get the last laugh when Duchy Trachtenberg fails to show because the datebook software failed? (No offense to Ms. Trachtenberg: I am fully assured of your punctuality.)

When people think of Silver Spring, they tend to think of Blair High School. I don't mean to be nitpicky, but there are at least seven other high schools that are either IN Silver Spring or at least serve parts of it.

Why state the obvious here? I'm on a high of high school pride and a little disappointed that the Penguin would, in a story about a high school battle of the bands this Saturday, call The Fighting Janes, a band with members who go to different county high schools (though, as they pointed out, all live in Silver Spring) "Silver Spring's own," whereas Subject to Change (look this one up on MySpace yourself, kids, I couldn't find it), a product solely of Blake High School (located in Silver Spring's vast McMansion fields) gets the bum's rush.

Sure, those of us Up The Pike can't relate to your stories about the Worst Safeway Ever (I rather like our Safeway at Briggs Chaney Plaza), but we want to be considered a part of Silver Spring, too. Blake's an arts school, anyway. YOU NEED US.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

the future of citizen-based planning

MetroQuest is a new "scenario-planning" program aimed to help communities better plan for their future by showing the eventual outcomes of today's planning decisions. It's the kind of thing that I spoke to Marilyn Praisner about a few weeks ago - making the planning process clearer and more accessible to a public that doesn't have the time to go to lots of meetings or charrettes but still wants to have a say.

So far, MetroQuest has only been implemented in Canadian cities, including Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, but it is now being introduced to some smaller American cities as well.

To get a feel for MetroQuest, check out the "scenario animator" they've created for the City of Guelph, a suburb of Toronto. (Don't laugh at the name. I have family in Guelph.) It's very, very straightforward - the program asks you six questions and creates a growth scenario from it. This tool could be indispensible in helping Montgomery County residents get a feel for our county's future.

the slow return of just up the pike

If you've ever driven down Fairland Road, you've probably seen this homemade sign for John Kerry taped to a telephone pole, still there three years after the election. I don't know if it (or the pole) will survive the construction to widen the road, so I decided to take a photograph of it for posterity.

Here's what's happening in the area, to the best of my knowledge:

IT'S RACHEL CARSON'S BIRTHDAY! Not until May, but when it comes, the State would like it to be a holiday commemorating the life and work of the Silver Spring resident and environmental activist. From her house on Berwick Road in Quaint Acres, Carson spearheaded the environmental movement with her then-controversial book, Silent Spring. She's probably the most influential person to come out of Silver Spring - except for neighbor Lewis Black, of course.

LAUREL MALL ASCENDANT? Three months after first reported by Just Up The Pike, the Post takes a detailed look at the twenty-eight-year-old mall's new lease on life. In less than two years, the center could have a slew of new stores, a movie theatre and a completely different look, creating a huge impact on the city of Laurel and, by proxy, East Montgomery County.

WHITHER GEORGIA AVENUE? The Penguin has been doing a series of sorts on the stretch of Georgia Avenue between Wayne Avenue and the railroad bridge. It's not Downtown Silver Spring and it's not dopey SoPo (short for South Point, which makes no sense, because Silver Spring sits at the very NORTHERN point of D.C.) but rather somewhere in between, and you can bet that none of those people who hang out on "the Turf" Friday nights would think to go there.

While the Hook and Ladder brewpub (a big waste of the old fire house, as I've said before) will bring some foot traffic to the area, it'll take a lot more to make it not only safe but exciting. There is a lot south of Wayne, but the blocks are long, the sidewalks narrow, and the lighting poor, making the area rather uninviting to young people used to the sensory overload of Ellsworth Drive.

And I wonder what changes could encourage people to visit the area, commonly known as "Fenton Village" (though the Penguin has a poll with new name suggestions) short of a tabula rasa redevelopment like what happened on Ellsworth. Thinking about Laurel Mall, I can't help but imagine Downtown Silver Spring as a giant mall, with the Majestic/Borders/City Place as an anchor at one end, and the clubs and galleries of South Point anchoring the other end. What goes in the middle? (Mall logic would dictate some sort of food court, or a giant carousel.)

Monday, March 5, 2007

why I can't walk to marilyn praisner's house

The long-awaited fourth stop on Just Up The Pike's "County Government Head-to-Head Tour."

My first question to County Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Calverton) was about her failed attempt to place a moratorium on new permits in Montgomery County, and it got our conversation off to a bad, bad start. Before I could finish my question, she cut me off: "Nothing 'went down,'" she insists, taking me to task for my unusual word choice. "Moratorium was and is a misnomer."

"I sought to accomplish a focus on trying to respond to the inadequacies of our Annual Growth Policy," she explains. "We've provided such a grace period that there's a lag time" between when policies are created and when they are implemented. Not taking building permits for six months would have allowed that lag time to disappear, she says.

Councilman George Leventhal (D-At Large) said that incidents such as these were signs that his fellow councilmembers thought they were "responding to the people" in their push to slow growth. It's a sign, he said, that citizens' groups such as the Neighbors for a Better Montgomery really are as influential as the media make them out to be.

However, Praisner says that she hears a lot more from developers than from real people. I asked her about what both Leventhal and Nancy Floreen called the "activists," the citizen groups who lobby her office on a regular basis. "You mean developers and their attorneys?" she spits. "I mean Drew Powell and Jim Humphreys from Neighbors for a Better Montgomery," I say.

"What do you have against the Neighbors for a Better Montgomery?" she asks, incredulous. I read the quote from Where Are The Brakes that George Leventhal had famously contested a few months ago: "We must break from the traditional view that growth is inherently good . . ." but Praisner was unimpressed. "I can't comment on it," she says. "I don't think that's accurate."

"I've never seen [Powell and Humphreys] in here. Most folks who come in are the lawyer for a development who wants to brief you on their plan."

Building Community

Marilyn Praisner is often cast by people familiar with County politics as the congenial "grandma" of the County Council, one of its oldest members and, for that matter, a long-time resident of a county where most people have only lived for a couple of decades. Forty years ago, a newly married Praisner was encouraged by some friends to visit Calverton, a new development going up on former farmland six miles out of Silver Spring. Thinking it "looked like a good family community," Praisner and her husband moved into a house on Shanandale Drive and never left.

Praisner became involved in the community, serving as a Girl Scout Leader, an officer in the Calverton Citizens Association, and president of the Banneker Junior High PTSA. From there, she sat on the school board for eight years and, in 1990, she ran for County Council and won. After nearly two decades of service, she is now council president.

If there's anyone in Montgomery County who embodies community service, it would have to be Marilyn Praisner, who's stood by her neighborhood through forty years of change. And the word "community" becomes a recurring theme as she talks about the future of East County.

"We need to look more at the vision of building communities," Praisner says, "using more of the tools available to help us look at the vision. A 'creative discussion process.'" (Did you understand that? I didn't.) While Fairfax County's new role as "second center" for the D.C. region has some worrying that Montgomery's falling behind, Praisner brushes it off. "I would take Montgomery County any day," she insists. "[Fairfax] doesn't work as a community." Maybe the suburban sprawl and mess of highways are off-putting, but I feel like a place where people can live and work in the same location is more of a community where the jobs-housing imbalance is making long commutes increasingly common.

Making Connections

ABOVE: Dead-end roads in the Tanglewood development.

As most in East County know, our local sense of community is hindered by the lack of connecting roads. Marilyn Praisner lives a quarter-mile from me, but without any access between her neighborhood and mine, walking to her house would be impossible. "One of my biggest frustrations for the area between Route 29 and I-95 is the lack of the development of a good infrastructure for connecting roads," Praisner laments. It has a lot to do with the County line. In 1968, Montgomery and Prince George's counties drew up a master plan for the area between Route 29 and Route 1, dubbed the Fairland-Beltsville Plan, but it has since been abandoned. "The border is a challenge in dealing with governments," Praisner says. "It's hard to get around." (Literally.)

On the Montgomery County side, at least, Praisner says some attempts have been made to improve connectivity, such as the interchanges being built on Route 29 (at left), but it's the natural barriers that make the process most difficult. East County is traversed by the Paint Branch and its tributaries, which has some of the cleanest water and healthiest trout populations in the state.

"The East County is some of the most environmentally sensitive areas" in the county, Praisner notes. Connections like the Palermo-Pretoria Bridge, a pedestrian bridge in Calverton that crosses a tributary of the Paint Branch running through a concrete channel, would be impossible to build with today's environmental standards, meaning that many disconnected East County neighborhoods shall remain so.

Nonetheless, Marilyn Praisner seems positive on the present and future of East County. The FDA campus, currently under construction, will "continue to have an influence on the kinds of businesses that will want to locate" in East County, states Praisner, adding, "We have a good mix of people from a standpoint of economics as well as ethnic diversity." That won't change any time soon.

"I don't see gentrification happening on the east side." she says, somewhat contradicting Ike Leggett's concern that the residents of affordable apartments in Briggs Chaney and White Oak may be pushed out by higher-end development. "The focus of development [is] in other areas of the County. East County is not a Smart Growth area."

In fact, that couldn't be further from the truth. A map of Maryland Priority Funding Areas (at right) places where the State provides public funding to encourage Smart Growth projects - shows that the entire Route 29 corridor south of Route 198, with the exception of some rural pockets in Colesville and Cloverly, is eligible for Smart Growth funding.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

While Marilyn Praisner feels confident in the status quo in East County, it's only because she likes this area so much. There may be some of a stigma to the east side, but that shouldn't set us apart from the rest of Montgomery County. She asks why I haven't made appointments to meet with Mike Knapp or Phil Andrews, councilmen representing the Upcounty and Rockville, respectively, and I say that they're pretty far away from here.

"Folks tend to get the perception that their corner of the County is unique," Praisner says, "when we all have the same problems." It takes someone who's been around long enough to know when all of Montgomery pretty much looked the same - white and rural - to make a statement that, even after forty years of growth, still rings true.

just up the pike is still here

The Post wants to tell you about the redevelopment of Laurel Mall NOW, but Just Up The Pike was there three months ago to break the story to East Montgomery County.

Bloggers: we don't always keep deadlines, but we're always ahead of the times.

Friday, March 2, 2007

which citizens involved?

"I wanted to take our reputation back," - Eileen York, Citizens Involved
There's a new East County citizens group, and while their name isn't very original, Citizens Involved wants to bring East County residents together. The Gazette mentions TWICE in the article that attempts to create an "East County umbrella group" in 2001 failed, emphasizing the importance of such an organization, but Citizens Involved isn't filling the need, either. Founder Eileen York invites "residents of Sandy Spring, Spencerville, Cloverly and the surrounding areas" to attend a meeting this Wednesday at Paint Branch. What about Fairland? White Oak? Briggs Chaney? The quote above is referring to crime, but I doubt there's so much crime in Sandy Spring.

I live in Calverton, so I'm not invited. (I could go to a Calverton Civic Association meeting if I wanted, though.) An umbrella organization would bring the 100,000+ people who live in East County together. Citizens Involved sounds dangerously like another civic group - something Cloverly needs, but by no means a solution to fixing East County's reputation.

FINALLY: A haiku for the impatient reader.

Midnight, books piled high
Hands shake, Pepsi cans on floor
Miss Praisner can wait.

I'll see you next week.