Wednesday, August 29, 2007

east county in review: power cords and power chords

In today's fast-paced, blog-drunk society, the wires that run through our neighborhoods are a lifeline to our addiction - communication. Here's what people are communicating about this week in East County:

PAPER AND PLASTIC: The blog dl004d points out that newspaper boxes at the Silver Spring Metro now take credit cards, a savior to any harried commuter who left their change purse at home.

IF YOU LIVE IN BURTONSVILLE, YOU'RE PROBABLY NOT READING THIS: According to the Post, A fire on an underground Baltimore Gas and Electric line behind Ace Hardware in Burtonsville damaged adjacent Verizon cables, cutting off phone and Internet service to hundreds of East County homes. The outage should be over by Wednesday night, say Verizon officials.

Punk's still not dead in Downtown Silver Spring: so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

A local underground landmark has resurfaced on Philadelphia Avenue in South Silver Spring as The Corpse Fortress (above), a punk house that also hosts shows, made an appearance in the major D.C. blog DCist.

Until last summer, a similar operation called The Death Star (at left) had existed on Cedar Street. JUTP wrote about its unexpected existence a block away from the corporate lights and sounds of Downtown Silver Spring - and its planned conversion by the landlord into a medical office, which as of this writing hasn't taken place.

A little research on YouTube revealed a clip of a previous show at the house. I don't claim to know much about Silver Spring's local punk scene (one that may demand further exploration), but it's comforting to see that underground communities can still flourish even in the face of Downtown's continued revitalization. That is, at least, for now.

Monday, August 27, 2007

speed cameras a slow-witted fix for pedestrians

WHAT'S UP THE PIKE: The Purple Line competes for limited federal funds; Charles County's Delusional Duck is profiled in the Post.

My car, flying down Calverton Boulevard at forty-three miles an hour.

On Friday, County Executive Ike Leggett unveiled the first of several permanent speed cameras that will be rolling out at various MoCo intersections this fall. According to a County press release, a roving, van-mounted camera at the site - behind Wheaton High School on Randolph Road - was cranking out an average of fifty speeding citations an hour.

At $40 a citation, these speed cameras are filling the County coffers at a rate of $2,000 an hour. That certainly seems like a more palatable option to our cash-strapped municipality - which tore up Calverton Boulevard (another camera location) in the name of "scarifying" drivers into slowing down and has left the road in an unfinished state for over a year - than "to promote pedestrian safety," the goal they claim to have.

I admit that I'm guilty of speeding: in the past month, I've gotten two citations, including one behind Wheaton High. While I'm angry at having to fork over eighty dollars, I'm even more upset that I'm doing so for a cause Montgomery County's paying lip service to. If pedestrian safety were the real issue, we wouldn't be taking measures that only affect motorists. I learned my lesson, but what about the people in the crosswalk? Will the cameras be catching jaywalkers, too?

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Montgomery County recently installed these speed cameras behind Wheaton High School on Randolph Road.

"Drivers were resistant to behavior change," says 5th District police commander Tom Didone in a Post article on the new cameras. "They needed more focused enforcement. . . . When the vans went away, the speeds went back up."

Statements like that show little faith MoCo has in its own citizens to make rational decisions for themselves. Think about how you drive. If you don't perceive any danger - if the lanes allow enough room between you and other cars; if the road is straight; if there aren't any trees, parked cars or pedestrians nearby - you'll hit the gas. That's how most County roads (even Randolph, which does have a pretty, tree-studded median where the new speed cameras have been installed) are designed: moving motorists as quickly as possible.

When you actually have to pay attention, you'll slow down: when the road is narrow and curvy; when it's apparent that pedestrians and bicyclists are in your midst; when roundabouts prevent you from going straight ahead at full speed. Roads designed to slow you down. It's how neighborhoods like Kentlands in Gaithersburg keep cars at bay - and why streets like Ellsworth Drive in Downtown Silver Spring work - and yet the County felt the need to install speed bumps there as well.

Sidewalks alone won't make people walk and cameras won't make it any safer for them, but Calverton Boulevard in Calverton will soon see permanent speed cameras.

Ask any driver what they do at when they see a speed camera: they'll slow down, and once they're far enough past it, they'll speed up again because the perceived "danger" (a ticket) is gone. Sure, a couple of kids crossing Randolph directly in front of Wheaton High School might have a better chance of making it to the other side alive, but what about at the next intersection?

It would be ideal if Randolph Road could be redesigned to make pedestrians safer: on-street parking, wider sidewalks and crosswalks, continuous medians allowing a mid-crossing refuge. But Randolph can't do that so long as it has to accomodate drivers traveling across the County and across the region, though most wouldn't have a choice about using Randolph even if doing so was inconvenient. That's why we have to continue improving east-west transportation - building the InterCounty Connector and implementing a Randolph Road bus line that actually goes somewhere (as we discussed in June).

In the meantime, I'm moving back to College Park for school - in Prince George's County, where speed cameras don't exist. Noting a Post story about Virginia lawmakers who've exempted themselves from their own "bad-driver fees," I personally hope that the speed cameras will nab the elected officials who have pushed for them.

Car mug shot courtesy of the Montgomery County Police. All other photos by Dan Reed.

Friday, August 24, 2007

purple line haze: trail on the wrong side of the tracks

The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail fights for the popular path, but is split over its future. Check out the end of a series on the Purple Line.

Wayne Phyillaier on the unfinished Capital Crescent Trail near Brookville Road. Check out this slideshow of the CCT in Silver Spring.

Reggaeton blasts from a stereo just out of sight. The smell of old trash mixed with new rain fills the air. Dirty walls peek through the foilage, revealing layers of graffiti.

Welcome to Silver Spring's end of the Capital Crescent Trail, a popular hiker-biker path that swings around from Georgetown, through Bethesda, before ending abruptly in Lyttonsville, an industrial area a mile west of Downtown Silver Spring.

"Most people, when they talk about walking the trail, they see Pam Browning's version of the trail," says trail enthusiast Wayne Phyillaier, referring to his colleague in the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail. "She'll take you Connecticut Avenue and turn around. Maybe even the Rock Creek Trestle, and that's only half of the way to Silver Spring."

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

The Capital Crescent Trail passes through an industrial area before ending a mile west of Downtown Silver Spring.

From Rock Creek Park east, the trail becomes weedy and overgrown, and the gravel surface is uneven. The path was draining so poorly that giant ruts had formed; last year, Montgomery County spent $100,000 last year to rebuild a portion of the trail. A Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail survey taken on the trail last year showed 23,000 weekly uses at Bethesda Row. A few blocks east in Chevy Chase, that number falls to 10,000. At Grubb Road in Silver Spring, only 2,586 uses were recorded.

"Just think of how many people would use this trail if it went all the way into Silver Spring," says Phyillaier. A Woodside resident, he's also editor of www.SilverSpringTrails.org, a website about biking in Silver Spring. "As popular as it is, it's only using so much of its potential."

According to the Action Committee for Transit, the Purple Line has been endorsed by several neighborhood associations along the trail in Silver Spring, including Woodside, North Woodside and Linden. Meanwhile, Bethesda and Chevy Chase residents continue to protest the Purple Line's construction due to the number of trees that could be lost on the trail. Save The Trail, the leading Purple Line opposition group, claims that "4,500 trees would be clear-cut," while the Save The Trail Petition says "all of the trees" would be removed.

Those numbers may be exaggerated. Two decades ago, when Montgomery County first bought the Georgetown Branch for transit and trail use, they tagged every tree in the right-of-way. 5,400 trees were tagged. But since the width of the right-of-way varies, more trees would be needed in some areas than others. And some of the tagged trees that sit in the path of the Purple Line have already died from other causes.

Nonetheless, Phyillaier is disturbed by the trade-offs. "It bothers me. I don't like the idea of cutting trees either," he says. "But they're looking at it from such a limited perspective . . . if they'd just step back and look at all the other neighborhoods, they'd understand why so many trail supporters refuse to join their parade."

Echoing concerns made by Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail head Peter Gray, Bethesda and Chevy Chase residents have focused on their own neighborhoods too long. Chevy Chase resident Amy Kostant's letter to the Gazette - made infamous by a Just Up The Pike post last winter - said the Purple Line would prevent her kids from running a lemonade stand on the trail.

"There are people who want the Capital Crescent Trail not to be a regional trail and to be kept as a neighborhood park," Phyillaier says. "It's a decision about what kind of trail we want to have - a local trail or a regional trail."

Phyillaier insists that the transitway may be the Capital Crescent Trail's only hope of being completed. "I think the Purple Line is our best chance of finishing the trail," he says. At Stewart Avenue in Lyttonsville, the off-road portion of the trail abruptly ends in an industrial district. A string of poorly-marked signs attempt to guide users to neighborhood streets in Rosemary Hills and Woodside, following a convoluted, mile-long route that ends at the Silver Spring Metro.

"You're stuck with these side path diversions," he says. "The local streets, they're narrow, they're old."

If the Purple Line were built, Phyillaier suggests, the trail and the rail could follow the rest of the unused Georgetown Branch right-of-way - currently owned by CSX and overgrown beyond recognition - behind the neighborhood and onto tracks that lead to the Silver Spring Metro. The trail would likely be elevated over the railway. "If [the Maryland Transit Administration] can negotiate with them, we have the access we need," says Phyillaier, but CSX will not grant the right-of-way for a trail alone.

While the idea of biking on top of trains may scare some, it's the only direct way into Silver Spring, Phyillaier says. "I know Isaac [Hantman, Bethesda resident and Purple Line opponent] rants about what a horrible corridor this is for a trail, but what's the alternative?"

Users of the trail would be ensured complete separation from other traffic, something than an on-road trail can't provide. "Compare that with if you're on a road," says Phyillaier. "How many cars will go by you when you're on Second Avenue? Is that better? I don't think so."

While Phyillaier stresses the significance of the Purple Line in completing the Capital Crescent Trail, he insists that the two projects are not fully intertwined. But it's hard to understand what he means when a business card advertising his website reads Finish The Trail - Build Light Rail at the bottom.

"I would never make the argument that we need the light rail to build the trail," he says. "We can't have the tail wag the dog . . . I think we should sell the Purple Line for its own reasons."

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

purple line haze: one coalition, two sides to a cause

The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail fights for the popular path, but is split over its future. Check out part FIVE of a series on the Purple Line. On FRIDAY, we'll walk the Silver Spring portion of the trail with Purple Line supporter Wayne Phyillaier.

Peter Gray, chair of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, at Kirsten's Cafe in Montgomery Hills. Check out this slideshow of the unfinished trail in West Silver Spring.

Anyone who thinks that Silver Spring's caught up with its ritzier, wealthier neighbor Bethesda might want to take a ride down the Capital Crescent Trail into Downtown Silver Spring. That is, if they can.

Not long ago, "you couldn't ride it on a road bike safely," laments Peter Gray, chair of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail. "That part of the trail was in horrible shape."

A seventeen-year resident of Silver Spring, Gray first joined the Coalition - a hodgepodge of citizens and civic groups united in their love of the trail but divided by how it should be used - because "I was disturbed about the state of the trail east of Rock Creek," he says.

Drainage problems and an uneven trail surface made it a difficult ride for bicyclists - not to mention the fact it currently ends a mile west of Downtown Silver Spring, forcing riders onto a poorly marked, convoluted route through neighborhood streets for the remainder. While the county recently spent $100,000 to rebuild a portion of the trail so it would drain properly, there remains a lot to be done to bring Silver Spring's part of the Capital Crescent up to par.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Montgomery County recently spent $100,000 to correct drainage problems along the Capital Crescent Trail in Silver Spring by installing white rocks in the trailbed.

If the Purple Line is built alongside it, according to Gray, the trail would be fully paved between Bethesda and Silver Spring, replacing the current gravel surface. "The County is not spending millions of dollars to build a trail," he notes. Groups like the Action Committee for Transit have opposed previous campaigns to have the trail paved because "it would preclude the perception of the Purple Line being built," says Gray.

Purple Line or no, the trail is not a high priority for local politicians. "I think the County doesn't seriously take biking as a form of transportation," he says. "For me to be seen biking to work or biking in my neighborhood, it's seen as a little . . . odd."

That sense of being ignored is what unites the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, which is officially "neutral" on the Purple Line. Within the Coalition, you'll find people like Pam Browning, who's collected 10,000 signatures on a petition to keep the rails off the trail entirely. You'll also find people like Wayne Phyillaier, who considers the transitway "our best chance" of finishing the trail in Silver Spring.

"We have people who are adamantly opposed to putting rail on the trail," Gray says. "Folks I would characterize as living right by the trail in Bethesda . . . [And] we have people who are passionately for it."

That split makes the Coalition a fragile one, especially given the Capital Crescent Trail's origins as a freight line given over to recreation. "The neighborhoods that [the trail] goes through were vehemently opposed to it going in," explains Gray. "They thought poor people were going to ride their bikes in and rape their women! And now, ten years later, everyone's going 'Wow! My property values are up because of this trail.'"

And while his organization's common goal is the preservation of the trail, individual members have their own goals. "You have to balance it off the 'greater good'," he says. "For them, the 'greater good' is their neighborhood . . . for people waiting for the trolley, it's not their concern."

Unfortunately, Gray says, the fight over the future of the Capital Crescent is one at least partially determined by where you live. It's a revival - or a continuation, really, of the age-old rift between Bethesda and Silver Spring. "I don't know anyone on this side of the County saying 'oh, I don't want to see the trees cut down in Bethesda' or 'oh, I have enough ways to get to Bethesda," states Gray.

And while Purple Line opponents Pam Browning and Mier Wolf use the high number of trail users in Bethesda as a reason for keeping it the way it is, Gray suggests it's only because their end of the trail is complete.

"It is difficult for people to find the trail in Downtown Silver Spring," Gray points out. "If it went into Downtown Silver Spring, people would use the trail."

Monday, August 20, 2007

reflection from up the pike

I remember when I met my first blogger at this forum on Affordable Housing about a year ago. All five of the candidates for County Executive were there, but it was Russ Louch - of the now-defunct Political Yak - I was excited to meet. Finally, I was in a circle where people actually wanted to talk to me about The Issues.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

In a year, I've gone from being some frustrated kid on the bus to being a legitimate blogger, if you will, and from one of three bloggers in Silver Spring to one in nearly a dozen. The scene looks considerably different than it did in 2006, and I'm sure this time in 2008 it'll have completely changed again. Blogs come and go. Big ideas eventually turn into burnouts.

And I seem to have forgotten that. Being written up in the Examiner and the Post; finding out the County Council reads me; having random strangers approach me at work and say "I love your blog!" - it's easy to feel like Just Up The Pike is bigger than it really is. Recently, my own temper and inflated sense of self-worth has gotten the best of me - several times - and I'm forced to remember why exactly I started doing this in the first place.

I've lived in Silver Spring my whole life and love this place with all my heart. That's why I do this - working long hours, pounding the pavement, talking to as many people as I can - with no compensation. I want the East County to get the recognition it deserves, but it will regardless if I'm here or not. Silver Spring doesn't need me. I need Silver Spring.

Thank you so much for reading - and still reading. Every comment, every mention, every hit motivates me to keep going, as long as I can.

Dan Reed
www.justupthepike.com

purple line haze: charm city case study

A preview of the Purple Line is already running in Baltimore: Check out part FOUR of a series on the Purple Line.

A woman tends to her yard behind the Nursery Road station on Baltimore's light rail. Check out this slideshow comparing Charm City's trains to the potential Purple Line.

You might scoff at Baltimore's single light-rail line, but it gives Washington-area transit riders a good idea of what the proposed Purple Line will look like if the Maryland Transit Administration - which runs Baltimore's light rail and subway - decides to use the same technology here. A friend and I rode the rails from the BWI Business District station in Linthicum into Baltimore for Artscape, a yearly art festival, to avoid parking - but also to catch a glimpse of our possible future.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

History

The Baltimore light-rail first began service in 1992 between Timonium, north of the city, and Glen Burnie to the south. In 1997, the line was extended further north to Hunt Valley along with spurs to BWI Marshall Airport and Penn Station. Originally, the entire system had a single track, severely limiting the number of trains the system could run at a given time and stifling ridership. A second track was added last year. Today, the light-rail averages 36,000 passengers a day.

While the Washington Metro's been responsible for revitalizing neighborhoods throughout the region, Baltimore's light rail has been relatively less successful, possibly because it covers such a limited area. It also doesn't connect with the city's single subway line - a major concern for Purple Line skeptics who worry about messy transfers between it and the Red, Green and Orange lines.

People cross the tracks as a train approaches near the Mount Royal station.

Right-of-Way

Simply put, if you hopped off the platform at a Metro station and touched the third rail, you would die. Not so in Baltimore: the light-rail gets its power from overhead wires called a catenary. This enables light-rail lines to be placed at-grade; on Baltimore's system, it runs in the street through the city and on regular train tracks in the suburbs. The catenary wires are visible, but no more visually distracting than telephone wires or streetlights or anything else you'd expect to see in an urban or suburban street.

Where the tracks intersect with a street, gates are lowered to prevent cars from running into the train. This doesn't occur in the city; the trains have special lanes with some sort of barrier between them, but they use the same stoplights as everyone else. One downside to this is that trains WILL stop at every light, slowing the trip through Baltimore into an interminable crawl.

Like the Georgetown Branch in Chevy Chase, the rights-of-way north and south of the city was originally used for freight trains and streetcars. At about thirty feet from end to end, it's only as wide as it has to be, and it appears that the homes and neighborhoods adjacent to the line were not disturbed by the train's operation. We saw kids playing in yards and people tending to gardens pretty much oblivious to the trains rushing past them.

Stations

Even smaller Metro stations like Forest Glen have large platforms, elevators and escalators, and acres of parking. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Highlands station just south of the city consists solely of a bench and a ticket machine under a shelter. There's a park-and-ride lot, but it's small. (Keep in mind that the Purple Line may not even have park-and-ride lots.) The distance from the platform to the nearest house is less than half a block.

The neighborhoods the light-rail serves both in and outside of Baltimore were built around streetcars - much like Chevy Chase and Takoma Park, two towns the Purple Line will stop in. In these older communities, there were a lot of mature trees. We were surprised by how thick the tree cover was along the right-of-way and at some stations. The North Linthicum station, especially, appeared to be in a well-forested area.

Trains

Baltimore's trains are unusually large for light rail vehicles. While that means they're a little more comfortable inside than the smaller streetcars used in Boston or Toronto, it also means they can overwhelm their surroundings. A three-car train is nearly three hundred feet long, which could snarl traffic on some of Downtown Silver Spring's shorter blocks.

Nevertheless, the view from inside a light rail train is commanding. (Take that, SUV owners.) Passengers can actually see what's on a street, giving them more of an incentive to get off and look around. We rode into Baltimore the weekend of Otakon, a major anime convention held at the Baltimore Convention Center, and the sidewalks were filled with cosplayers (people dressing up as anime characters).

The train's height comes at a disadvantage: the platforms aren't high, so passengers have to climb stairs to board the train. MTA is bound to have accomodations for handicapped riders, but they aren't easy to spot.

Passengers wait for a train at the Cultural Center station.

Convenience

We have to admit: the light rail is slow. Wikipedia suggests that trains have a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour - comparable with Metro's - but due to the number of stops on the line and a lack of special timing at intersections, the ten-mile trip from BWI to the Mount Royal station took forty minutes.

A rush-hour trip on the J4 Metrobus takes fifty-seven minutes to go from College Park to Bethesda, a distance of about ten miles. Light-rail may not be fast, but it would still beat the bus.

Remaining Questions

Obviously, our experiment leaves a lot of questions to be asked. What's ridership like on a weekday? Are riders willing to transfer between the light rail and other modes of transportation (car, bus, subway, commuter train)? Baltimore's system also doesn't have the added requirement of accomodating a trail next to the tracks. What's it like biking next to the light-rail train? It looks like we might have to do some more research.

Heads-up to Scott Kozel's Roads to the Future for enlightening us on the history of Baltimore's light rail.

Friday, August 17, 2007

purple line haze: pam browning's trail

Class war butts heads with the environment as activist Pam Browning tries to keep her end of the Purple Line out of sight. Check out part THREE of a series on the Purple Line.

Activist Pam Browning on the Capital Crescent Trail. Browning's organized a petition to stop construction of the Purple Line on the popular path. Check out this slideshow of the Capital Crescent Trail/proposed Purple Line route in Chevy Chase.

I'm introduced to Pam Browning in her kitchen, spooning yogurt from a cup. Trees fill the view of a picture window behind her. A box of Trader Joe's dishwashing detergent prominently located on the kitchen counter.

"I'm a tree-hugger," she says. "You can write about that on here. It makes me want to cry."

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Like most people, Pam Browning likes trees. Organizer of the Save the Trail Petition, Browning has spent the past several year fighting the Purple Line, a proposed transitway between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Its preferred route would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a well-used and heavily-forested hiker-biker trial that runs through her back yard.

While some 11,000 trail users have signed her petition, but it appears considerably fewer actively support ther work.

A tree is chopped down in front of a house being rebuilt.

"We're going through a lot of mansionization right now."
On our way to the trail, Browning points out a construction crew working on a new house. "This used to be the 'other side of the tracks,'" Browning says, "and now we're having all this mansionization."

A man hacks away at a felled tree in the sidewalk. "And these guys are raping all the trees," she moans. "I'm having huge battles with the town about not stopping them."

I ask an elderly woman what she thinks of the Purple Line. "Purple Line? What Purple Line?" she spits. "The trains they want to put here," Browning responds. "I don't want it. Not a bit," she says.

"The observation is that the buses aren't full," Browning says as we enter the trail. "People come here to find what they can't elsewhere in this urban area."

"They're telling us it'll be a nice trail," says Browning, referring to the Maryland Transit Administration's plans to build the Purple Line alongside the trail. To do so would involve the removal of thousands of trees dating to the area's original development a century ago. "I say it's a fiction in the most generous terms."

The exclusive Columbia Country Club has been on of the Purple Line's biggest opponents since inception.

The trail's right-of-way ranges from sixty to ninety feet, the majority of which is completely forested. Many backyards infringe on it, making the area seem smaller than it really is. In the Columbia Country Club, which surrounds the trail on both sides, the trail is hemmed in on both sides by tall chain-link fences. Columbia, the most exclusive country club in the region, has historically been the Purple Line's largest opponent, suing the County for control of the railway in the 1980's when the project was first proposed.

A country club in one of the wealthiest communities in the nation is an easy target for proponents of a transit line that would serve some of Montgomery County's poorest neighborhoods. The Action Committee for Transit, who advocate building the Purple Line along the Capital Crescent Trail, blame Columbia Country Club for the project's twenty-year delay:
"Were it not for the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Columbia Country Club has spent on political contributions, public relations, and lobbying, the segment from Bethesda to Silver Spring would already have been built."
But they aren't the only ones opposing the Purple Line, insists Browning. "The Ben Rosses [from Action Committee for Transit] . . . to them, it's all the country club. They don't see any of these houses," says Browning. "The people who use this trail don't go to the country club."

"They [MTA] don't have to look at the neighborhood or the trail. It's not their criteria."

A mother stands in the path, holding a bottle to her baby's mouth. A leashed dog stands guard. "What do you think of the Purple Line?" I ask. "I'm sort of still indifferent," she says. "As long as they make some kind of accomodation for pedestrians."

Take Columbia Country Club out of the equation, Browning explains, and class is no longer an issue. "These are not mansions [in Chevy Chase]," says Browning. "A lot of the people in this neighborhood are government workers or teachers."

For decades, she's been advocating for people in need, a fact she was quick to point out to me. "My senior thesis was on red-lining on the South Side of Chicago before Barack Obama was there," she notes.

"I wanted to get a job with the NAACP in Chicago, but they didn't know who I was," Browning laments. Instead, she moved to Washington over twenty years ago and started working in non-profit groups. She runs through a list of the advocacy and lobbying work she's done: migrant workers. Civil Rights. The decline of Black farmers. After-school programs for low-income kids. A national campaign for sustainable agriculture.

"[The controversy] it's like pitting Black people against Hispanic people."
"All my life I've been campaigning in non-profits for justice," she says, brow furrowing. "And I hate seeing this [the Purple Line controversy] painted as a justice issue when it's an environmental issue. It's like pitting Black people against Hispanic people."

Browning admits, however, that she doesn't know much about the Purple Line's proposed route east of Silver Spring and through some of Montgomery County's poorest neighborhoods - not to mention struggling neighborhoods on the Prince George's side as well.

"I'm not in the discussion of Silver Spring to New Carrollton. I don't know those areas," she says. "I'm saying the best transit plan for this area is Metro, and if it's tunneled or along the Beltway . . . I don't know everything that's at stake, but I know what's at stake here."

Two mothers power-walking with their kids. "What do you think of the Purple Line?" I ask. "We love it!" one says. "We were just saying we live in such a great place."

"I don't think she heard what you were saying," Browning suggests.


"So the developers said . . . Let's do whatever we have to to get the goddamned development!"

We can hear the roar of traffic on Connecticut Avenue up ahead. Six lanes of traffic stream from the Beltway through Chevy Chase and into the heart of D.C. The Capital Crescent Trail stops at a metal guardrail, takes a sudden jerk to the left, and ends at a poorly marked crosswalk. On the other side, next to a tall office building, the trail starts again.

There, the land on both sides of the trail is owned by the Chevy Chase Land Company, responsible for the development of the umpteen villages that bear the Chevy Chase name. If the Purple Line is built, Browning says, the company would make a fortune from a proposed development called Lake East to be built adjacent to the trail and a proposed Connecticut Avenue stop.

"This was not a transportation plan, it was a development plan," she spits. "There was nothing about your New Carrollton."

The trolley first proposed in the 1980's "would never get approved," Browning says. "So the developers said, 'Let's make it go to University of Maryland! Let's make it useful! Let's do whatever we have to to get the goddamned development!'"

Browning points to a bike shop in the office building that faces the trail. "They're crass enough to put a bike store here because they know how popular the trail is," she snorts.

"If everyone who wanted transit got together and said 'we want underground Metro,' we would have it. But instead, we're battling each other."
Four teenagers and a mother on bikes near Jones Mill Road. "I think it's a good idea," one kid says. "I want to have my cake and eat it, too," the mother says. "I want the bike trail and I want the Purple Line."

"Bike trail on top!" another kid adds.


The Chevy Chase Land Company is not "viewed favorably," she says, nor are most developers here. "Our developers are greedy," she says. "They just want to build up every inch of Bethesda that they can. Why not give some of that development to Silver Spring?"

Browning stops. "Have you ever been to Mexico?" she asks. "In every village there's a zocalo, or town square. These are areas where people come together. Every evening, they talk, and they don't go shopping.

Public, non-commercialized spaces such as this - whether on the currently undisturbed Capital Crescent Trail, Downtown Bethesda, or even in the land company's proposed development - are what communities need the most, she say. Places where people come together, instead of polarizing issues that only force people apart.

Several times during our conversation, Pam Browning appears to be on the brink of tears. It's hard not to be moved by her devotion to the trail. "It's a beautiful resource, and I've spent a significant amount of my life trying to save it," she says. "If everyone who wanted transit got together and said 'we want underground Metro,' we would have it. But instead, we're battling each other."

"I would love to have a Purple Line. I'd just like to have it underground," laments Browning. "We shouldn't be pitting transit against the environment."

Most voices in the Purple Line debate have yet to experience the Capital Crescent Trail, Browning says, and few are interested in learning more about it. "I would organize people to tie themselves to trees," proclaims Browning, "but short of that I can't get anyone to even walk the trail with me."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

purple line haze: a history lesson

The Purple Line won't be the first time some Downcounty neighborhoods see trains going through their backyards. Check out part ONE of a series on the Purple Line.

The Capital Crescent Trail in Chevy Chase was a former rail line. Check out this slideshow of the Purple Line route through Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

Twenty-five years ago, households in Bethesda and Chevy Chase already had trains running through their backyards. A few times a week, trains carrying coal would travel a single track, dubbed the Georgetown Branch, from Silver Spring to Georgetown. The coal was used to power over a hundred federal buildings.

"People would wave from their backyards" at passing trains, says activist Pam Browning. "They thought it was quaint."

When the freight trains stopped running, Montgomery County started looking at ways to use the land for transit. What we have today is the "future" Capital Crescent Trail, named as such because its completion hinges partially on the construction of the Purple Line.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Guest blogger Adam Pagnucco explains:
In 1986, CSX decided to file for abandonment of its tracks. The county then passed the Georgetown Branch Master Plan Amendment in 11/86 designating the tracks as "a public right-of-way intended to be used for public purposes such as conservation, recreation, transportation and utilities." The amendment stated that "a transit facility could be an important element of the County's long-term transportation system."


This trestle bridge over Rock Creek was once used for freight trains.
In 1988, the county purchased the right-of-way from CSX for $10.5 million. Two years later, the county passed the Georgetown Branch Master Plan Amendment of 1990, which "designates the Silver Spring & Bethesda Trolley and the Capital Crescent Trail as suitable uses for the 4.4-mile portion of the Georgetown Branch right-of-way between Bethesda and Silver Spring."

The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Master Plan, also adopted in 1990, reinforces the intended right-of-way use for both trail and transit. It states, "Use of the route for transit would provide an alternative to driving on East-West Highway and Jones Bridge Road. It would assist those people who rely primarily on local public transit. The key to attractive, successful transit service is providing reliable, speedy service. The Georgetown Branch provides an existing travel corridor that could readily be adapted for transit use."

See the sector plan for further details - pages 103 and 104.

Newspaper articles from that time show that the county government intended transit use at the time they bought the CSX land. Chevy Chase residents reacted by first opposing possible residential development on the land and later by opposing rail service.

In 1989 the county council voted to accept state money to pay for most of the cost of what was then known as the trolley by a 6-1 vote. [Then-councilman] Ike Leggett was the sole dissenter. Two years later, the trolley line died because of rising cost estimates and state budget problems.
County Executive Ike Leggett explained his reasoning behind opposing the Georgetown Branch Trolley in this JUTP interview last February. The trolley would have used the same single track as the freight line, meaning that trains could only go one direction at a time.

"It would have taken forty-three minutes with single-track [there] and back," he says. "If you're on the platform in Silver Spring and the train just left, that's forty-three minutes you have to wait."

And while groups such as the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition already opposed that project, Leggett's push to make it more efficient - by having two tracks instead of one and extending the line east to New Carrollton - have only increased their opposition. The current trail is exactly as wide as the original rail. In order to fit two tracks, a trail, and the necessary separation of the two, most of the trees in the right-of-way would have to be taken down.

"We don't think you could feasibly put a train and a trail here and not have it ruin the experience of the trail," says Mier Wolf, a Chevy Chase town councilman who proposed a town-led study of the Purple Line. "You don't get a [tree] canopy like this overnight."

Photos taken on the Capital Crescent Trail in Chevy Chase. Research by Adam Pagnucco; analysis by Dan Reed.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

purple line haze: paralysis by analysis

Chevy Chase wants to do its own study of the Purple Line, but will it stall discussion? Check out part ONE of a series on the Purple Line. On FRIDAY, we'll continue our adventure in Chevy Chase with a visit to local activist Pam Browning.

Chevy Chase councilman/former mayor Mier Wolf on the Capital Crescent Trail. Wolf has proposed a $250,000 study on the Purple Line, which may run along the trail. Check out this slideshow of the Purple Line route through Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

I am walking through Chevy Chase with Mier Wolf, a man who for the past quarter-century has alternated between being a town councilman and being town mayor. Every block, it seems, someone stops to say "hello" to him. A Latino garbageman is throwing refuse into the back of a truck. "Thank you," Wolf says.

"This is a friendly town," says Wolf. "The strength of this town is there's a lot of community - but there's a lot of privacy."

Chevy Chase likes to keep to itself. All but one side street leading into the town from Connecticut Avenue is marked with a forbidding "DO NOT ENTER" sign, while the entrances of the town's two very exclusive country clubs - Columbia and Chevy Chase - have no signs at all.

In June, Chevy Chase residents even voted to take regional transportation matters into their own hands by approving a $250,000 study of the Purple Line, commissioned by Wolf himself. The town's got concerns about the proposed transitway between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which would skirt the town's northern edge for a few blocks - and even if the state of Maryland's already doing a multi-million-dollar study, Chevy Chase needs to look out for its own.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

the Capital Crescent Trail directly east of Bethesda in Chevy Chase.

"We want what's good for the County," Wolf says, but "the town is almost entirely in favor of undergrounding the Purple Line." The study will look at the line's impacts on Chevy Chase. "If they are what we think they are," he adds, the town will press the State to change its plans.

We're walking through a playground and into the Capital Crescent Trail now. Chevy Chase's chunk of the Purple Line falls in this "wildly popular" and heavily forested hiker-biker trail that swings around from Silver Spring to Georgetown. Until not long ago, it was a freight line, running slow trains a few times a week on a single track. ("People used to wave at it from their backyards," Wolf says.) But the Purple Line, however, would involve faster light-rail trains passing through every six minutes, posing a danger to users of the trail and neighboring houses.

"We don't think you could feasibly put a train and a trail here and not have it ruin the experience of the trail," says Wolf, gesturing to the majestic trees that blot out the sun and sounds of urban life. "You don't get a [tree] canopy like this overnight."

"Because this trail has existed, it's easier for [Purple Line] proponents to say 'let's just put the tracks here,'" says Wolf.

There are 11,000 people who use the trail each day, Wolf points out. That's half a million each year. The Purple Line can't claim that kind of ridership, he suggests.

The Maryland Transit Administration "couldn't find ridership justification for the route," he snorts. "There is not sufficient demand - especially from Bethesda to New Carrollton. There isn't enough to say people would go from Bethesda to New Carrollton."

I point out that, since Bethesda is a large job center, the majority of commuters would be headed from New Carrollton to Bethesda, and ask if Wolf has ever driven or used transit along congested East-West Highway before.

"No, I haven't driven it because that's not the route I take," says Wolf, adding, "I think the people on that transit should have a better understanding of the history of the trail."

Soon enough, we reach the East-West Highway underpass - the end of the Purple Line in Chevy Chase. Mier Wolf suggests that I speak to Pam Browning, a local activist and head of the Save the Trail Petition, which claims over ten thousand signatures of trail users who want it kept just the way it is.

We walk back to the Chevy Chase Town Hall and Community Center, a sprawling complex at the rough center of town, to make a phone call. In the lobby, Chuck Norris appears on a TV hanging from the ceiling. There's a heavy-set black woman at the front desk; like everyone else in Chevy Chase, she says "hi" to Wolf and they briefly chat about how hot it is.

"How do you get to work?" I ask the woman at the desk. "Do you live in Chevy Chase?"

"Oh, no!" she says, explaining how she takes the Metro from Naylor Road in Temple Hills across D.C. to work. "It was congested. It's horrible. On several of the trains it was no air."

"And they barely run any trains after eight or nine," Wolf commiserates.

I'm reminded of every night coming home from the 9:30 Club, waiting twenty minutes for a train to arrive. Could the Purple Line be the same? Trains wouldn't come every six minutes the whole day, right? Surely, Chevy Chase could live with that.

I propose this to Wolf. He frowns. "You know, when you talk about ridership estimates on a train that would only run during the rush hour, I have problems with that cost-wise," he says. "But if it's undergrounded, I don't have a problem with that."

Mier Wolf walks me the block-and-a-half to Pam Browning's house, one of a few dozen that actually backs to the trail. On the way, he explains how he'd ridden the Metro "since it was built" to his job at the department of Housing and Urban Development, better known as HUD.

"I'm a big Metro advocate," Wolf says.

Monday, August 13, 2007

purple line haze: twenty years of debate

An MTA light rail train arrives at the BWI Business Station outside of Baltimore. Light rail is one option for the proposed Purple Line.

Nearly twenty years after Montgomery County first proposed an east-west transit line between Bethesda and Silver Spring, the debate rages on. Once former Governor Glendening's top transportation priority, the Purple Line has become mired in debate and utter confusion. Most people aren't even familiar with the technologies - bus rapid transit or light rail - that it'll use if built.

Last year, we explored the Purple Line route in East Silver Spring and on the buses that currently run along it. But what do people on the other side of Rock Creek Park think about the Purple Line? And has anyone actually ridden a light-rail train before?

Over the next two weeks, Just Up The Pike takes a further look into the once and future Purple Line debate:

WEDNESDAY: Chevy Chase wants to do a quarter-million-dollar study on the impact of the proposed line on their town. Why do the extra legwork? JUTP interviews Mier Wolf, the town councilman who conceived the study.

THURSDAY: The Purple Line won't be the first time trains are running through some Bethesda and Silver Spring neighborhoods. Guest blogger Adam Pagnucco looks at the history of the Georgetown Branch.

FRIDAY: Activist Pam Browning says the Purple Line would be an "ecological disaster" on a popular trail, but do its users necessarily agree? JUTP takes a long walk down the Capital Crescent Trail.

FRIDAY: Check out this slideshow of the Purple Line route through Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

MONDAY: While most feel strongly about the need for light rail trains on the Purple Line, few have actually ridden one before. JUTP travels to Baltimore to experience light rail first-hand.

WEDNESDAY: Supporting the Capital Crescent Trail often means taking sides on the Purple Line. JUTP meets Peter Gray, chair of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, a group struggling to stay objective on this controversial issue.

FRIDAY: Silver Spring's chunk of the trail doesn't inspire calls for preservation. In fact, it's not even finished. JUTP walks to the end of the Capital Crescent Trail with Wayne Phyillaier, editor of www.silverspringtrails.org.

Friday, August 10, 2007

down briggs chaney: sean ruppert, bringing colorado to east county

UPDATE: We've revised this post to reflect the new name of the builder at Aspen Ridge, OPaL. You can check out their latest projects in Montgomery County and across the region at their website, www.opaldc.com.

Part of a continuing series on Briggs Chaney Road - what it is and what it will become.

Photos graciously provided by Sean Ruppert. To see more pictures of Aspen Ridge and Albany Grove, check out our "model house reviews" slideshow.

For local builder Sean Ruppert of OPaL, inspiration comes even after you've mentally hit a wall.

"Look at the condos next door," Ruppert says, pointing to a three-story-high blank wall visible from his office at Aspen Ridge, a new townhouse development going up off of Briggs Chaney Road. "They look really old and tired, but I just love the architecture. See how steep the roof is? It really reminded me of a ski chalet."

With the help of an architect from Boulder, Ruppert (at right) created a Colorado dreamscape in East County with his latest developments, Aspen Ridge and Albany Grove. With exteriors painted in rich blues and reds, stonework and shingles, these houses break the brick-Colonial mold. Inside, huge windows frame views of the trees and the surrounding apartments.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Inside the Breckenridge, one of two models offered at Aspen Ridge and Albany Grove. Photo provided by Sean Ruppert.

"You take into account the positives," Ruppert says. "This is a great location. There's a lot going on, and you're still in Montgomery County." East County's improved dramatically over the past few years, he explains. The Aspen Ridge website even refers to Silver Spring as "Montgomery County's sweetheart city."

That attention to detail - both inside his houses and inside the community - has won over the neighbors. Sort of. "The condo association next door loves us," Ruppert notes, "and the people in the apartments just don't care."


"Townhomes as Unique as You Are . . . Don't Settle for Yet Another Colonial Townhome." - Aspen Ridge advertisement
OPaL's first project in Montgomery County - the more traditional Towns of Aston Manor a few streets over - was "something safe" that would sell. But at Aspen Ridge, "We just wanted to do something that would appeal to people who expect something different from their home," Ruppert says.

"My mother worked in real estate, and she always said what makes a good home for resale is what makes it unique," states Ruppert. "When you walk through our homes . . . you just feel good. You feel good about the space you're in. Most of our competitors build ordinary Colonial homes, and on the inside, they feel ordinary."

Most builders are familiar with their competition. Ruppert used to work for NV Homes, his biggest local competitor. He actually lives one of their houses - one he sold to himself sixteen years ago. And don't get him started on Whitehall Square, the latest NV Homes development a few miles away in White Oak.

"Whitehall? Of course. They build the same thing everywhere," Ruppert says, a giddy smile crossing his face. "That's the Carnegie and the Astor. You can get it in Tysons for one million, on the Eastern Shore for seven-seventy-five, and in Baltimore for three-fifty. I was the first to sell the Carnegie in 1996 for $233,900 at the Springfield Metro."

When Ruppert got tired of shilling Carnegies, he decided to start his own firm. Since 1999, OPaL's been building small projects across the region - from Northern Virginia to Baltimore - and he'd like it to stay that way.

"I think that it's completely and utterly insane with this NIMBY mentality. If we'd had that in the '60's and '70's, no one would be living here."
"I like the size that it is now," Ruppert says. "A few employees, a few key people. I'd like to do a few more projects in Northern Virginia."

Would that mean Aspen Ridge and Albany Grove will be OPaL's last projects in Montgomery County? The red tape is just too expensive, laments Ruppert. Problems with a sewer line caused a delay, he says, in addition to others imposed by Montgomery County, WSSC and the State Highway Administration, which will start construction on the InterCounty Connector nearby next year. And that time spent means money lost.

"I can't say I would actively ever look for another project in Montgomery County," says Ruppert. "Park and Planning has been a challenge at every stage . . . it's so expensive, and every time you turn around there's a fee that wasn't there before."

Ruppert blames the current "NIMBY mentality" in MoCo for his difficulty in getting houses built - despite the fact that his project's neighbors are happy with what he's doing. "They [the NIMBYs] preach Smart Growth? This is Smart Growth," he says. "It's close-in, it's near that transportation hub."

He's referring to the Briggs Chaney Park-and-Ride (at left), about a half-mile away. A visit to the station revealed a single bus stand boiling in the midday sun. One person was waiting for a bus and staring idly at the cars for sale in the Auto Park across the street.

"I understand there's more traffic congestion" in Northern Virginia, Ruppert laments, "but they're so much more business-friendly." A sales contract in Virginia or the District of Columbia, he points out, is only six pages long. In Montgomery County, it's an inch thick.

"It's such a shame because it's such a great market, and there's people who want our product," says Ruppert. "You should stay here on Sunday and see what people have been saying about the model. 'We've never seen something like this,' or 'Montgomery County deserves this.'"

Thursday, August 9, 2007

down briggs chaney: the attack of john stabb

Part of a continuing series on Briggs Chaney Road - what it is and what it will become.
"anyhoo, i'm about a block away from my place coming home after work & really exhausted. out from the outdor pool area of my condo community pops up 5 enthusiastic (now i'm thinking all hopped up on goofballs!) young hs kids. i pay no mind until one of them comes up to me "hey whassup, hey hey hey". now i'm thinking this might turn into a random assualt & robbing. because they're all around me i can't pay attention to them all & one of them sucker punches me . . ." - John Stabb, lead singer of Government Issue
Thanks to DCist I find out that the lead singer of a 1980's D.C. punk band was attacked and beaten outside of his condo in the Briggs Chaney area a few weeks ago.

Sift through the Gazette's weekly Police Reports and you'll notice a lot incidents from Briggs Chaney. This one's only news because it's a person well-known within D.C.'s punk scene - but to the kids that jumped him, he's just some white guy.

"Seriously, never doubt the power of a group of clean-cut kids (not to play the stereotype card but this time they happened to be black teens) if you're walking alone somewhere," Stabb writes on a message board. "And i have my theory they actually live in this condo area so they can hit, rob, and run back to their homes."

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Park and Planning reports that the Fairland planning area - which comprises Calverton, Briggs Chaney and Burtonsville - has nearly a thousand Moderately Priced Dwelling Units, the overwhelming majority of which are in Briggs Chaney. The concentration of affordable housing - both subsidized and market-rate - in Briggs Chaney contributes to a distrust of perceived "outsiders." I'm not sure if the kids thought Stabb lived in the condo. This brings up a question of whether or not the kids would've jumped him (regardless of race) if they knew who he was.

There's also a lack of police presence. East County falls in MoCo's 3rd Police District, which covers the entire Route 29 corridor from Downtown Silver Spring to the Howard County line. Where are the cops? Downtown? In Long Branch? White Oak? They can't be everywhere at once, and kids know it and take advantage of it.

Briggs Chaney as it is exists today is a poorly-designed community where public and private space is ill-defined. It's easy to hide and easy to escape responsibility for maintaining the area around you. This enables crime by default.

And it's pretty easy to get lost, which creates more "outsiders" and offers "insiders" more opportunities to take advantage. While trying to find the East County Community Day last Saturday, a man pulled up in a car next to me and yelled "What the fuck is your hot ass doing out here?" Welcome to the neighborhood!

There are solutions, but they aren't simple and they aren't cheap. We have to rethink how Briggs Chaney is physically set up. We have to encourage the construction of more higher-end housing. And we need a greater police presence. Is the will there? Probably. But the money isn't.

the lindes: downtown's crosswalk crusaders (updated)

Pictured: Michael and Wendy Linde of Georgian Towers cross a street near their apartment building. Check out this slideshow of the most dangerous intersections Downtown.

I'm crossing Georgia Avenue at Spring Street in Downtown Silver Spring. With me are Michael and Wendy Linde, a couple for whom pedestrian safety has become something of a crusade.

Neither of them can drive. Michael has epilepsy and has to wear a bicycle helmet in case of a seizure - and he had one once, right in the middle of Georgia Avenue. Wendy has anxiety and sometimes uses an electric scooter to get around. But even a disability isn't enough to get motorists to pay attention.

Wendy heads first into the intersection, her husband guiding the scooter along. A man in a white sedan peels out of Spring Street, stopping merely seconds before knocking Wendy's scooter.

"Sir, you need to watch where you're going!" she yells at the driver.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry," the man grumbles before speeding away.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

The intersection of Georgia and Spring from above. While not one of Downtown Silver Spring's biggest, it's one of the area's most dangerous to cross.

It's like this every day for the Lindes. Ask Michael or Wendy to give you a list of the dangerous intersections in Silver Spring and they'll rattle them off: Colesville and Georgia. Colesville and Second. Cameron and Fenton. ("A truck almost hit us," Wendy says). Georgia and Spring.

At Georgia and Spring, "Michael had to wave and the driver rolled his window down and said 'be nice!' when he was the one about to hit us," says Wendy. "I said 'if you won't be nice, then we won't be nice.'"

And that's the issue: driver behavior. WalkScore, a site that promotes walkable neighborhoods, gives Silver Spring a rating of 97 out 100 points, meaning there's a lot to walk to. But with several state and national highways converging in Downtown Silver Spring, wide intersections are designed to get cars through as quickly as possible. Cars turn without watching pedestrians, who decide to cross before the light changes, putting them in the path of moving cars.

"Every time I cross the street, a car either turns ahead of us or behind us," laments Michael. "It's getting worse."

While the Department of Public Works and Transportation has a special department for traffic calming (such as the "scarifying" tactic in Calverton we reported on) - and the County Council recently approved a new "road code" that favors pedestrians over cars in road design - the Lindes feel it won't change the way drivers, well, drive.

"[The Road Code] doesn't solve the real problem," says Michael. "They need to reinforce the laws they already have."

Last winter, the Lindes were the subject of a Channel 9 report on pedestrian safety. Cameras followed Michael and Wendy around the intersection of Georgia and Spring, dodging cars and even getting into arguments with drivers who just didn't seem to care. But eight months after the publicity, they haven't seen many changes on the crosswalk.

Getting hold of a politician "is hell," according to Wendy. Calls to state delegate Sheila Hixson were left unanswered; delegate Tom Hucker replied back to them, but only after several tries. They've left messages with County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, who represents Downtown, but they were to no avail.

Even County Executive Ike Leggett's blown them off. At his Town Hall Meeting last month, Michael stood up and asked why the County hasn't responded to his concerns about pedestrian safety., but Leggett didn't say anything in return.

"I was not about to bully him because he did not answer my question," says Michael.

Of course, the Lindes also called the County police, but they didn't bite. "They say 'if we didn't see it, we can't do anything about it.'," says Michael.

"We asked, 'you'd wait for someone to die to do something?'" Wendy adds.

"They said 'yes, we will.'"

"So you'd be an accessory to murder?"

If you're having trouble crossing the street, you might want to report it to the Department of Public Works and Transportation. It's also worth checking out the County's plan for "making walking safer."

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

down briggs chaney: model house reviews

Tucked away within what wilderness remains in East County, are - what else? - new homes. A few weekends ago, I wandered into three developments now under construction Up The Pike. Here's another installment of Model House Reviews: Down Briggs Chaney edition.

Check out this slideshow of ParkView, Whitehall Square and Aspen Ridge.


ParkView

Don't let the name fool you: there's a park, but there sure isn't a view. This fifty-house development by national builder D.R. Horton faces the large Fairland Recreational Park, but all you can see from the houses are brush, trash, and traffic on busy Greencastle Road in Burtonsville.

And you can forget about walking to the park - sidewalks are absent, especially in the development itself. The real view is asphalt, lots and lots of asphalt, and it's ugly as sin.

AFTER THE JUMP: Colorado comes to East County, disappearing salesmen, and the ongoing fight to have "Silver Springs" banished.

I toured the Lafayette model, which sells in the $480's. The construction feels incredibly cheap: the stairs creak with every step; the sound of the air conditioner in the basement rumbles through the entire house, competing with the noise of traffic on Greencastle. A bowl of lemons placed on a kitchen counter said more about these houses' value than I ever could.

The sales associate was nowhere to be found - I finally discovered him in the basement, staring blankly at a computer screen, oblivious to my presence. For a few seconds, I stood there, wondering what I should do (and what he was looking at), but instead gave up and quietly slipped out, leaving my card on a table.

Whitehall Square

As is the trend in East County subdivision names, there is no "square" in Whitehall Square, located off of Stewart Lane in White Oak. Local juggernauts NVHomes and Ryan Homes have put together an all-star lineup of their best townhome models, the Carnegie and Astor. How do we know they're the best? Because they're the same homes offered in all of their other communities.

With models named for 20th-century American socialites, Whitehall Square demands an aura of grandeur. And yes, never before has the jumble of apartments in White Oak's center looked so beautiful as from atop the majestic hill on which Whitehall Square is perched. It's especially true when compared to the detritus that surrounds the rest of the site: multiple boarded-up houses, glimpses of barbed wire from the neighboring FDA campus, and an abandoned trailer from a Giant truck.

The Whitehall sales office was staffed by no less than three associates, outnumbering the two actual potential homebuyers there at the time. One of the sales associates offered me his spiel, citing the proximity to the FDA, the Metro, the wooded site, the affordable price - starting in the $440's, he says, adding, "It's not what you'd expect in Silver Springs."

"Silver Springs?" I ask.

"Silver Springs," he repeats.

"No. Silver Springs?" I repeat, incredulous.

"He means Silver Spring," Sales Associate #2 counters, rather annoyed.

Aspen Ridge

The hills on Dogwood Drive aren't good for skiing. But at the end of the road, two new developments by local builder Ruppert O'Brien advertise "Telluride-Inspired Townhomes." Whether or not the location off of Briggs Chaney Road reminds you of Colorado, it's clear from the start that Aspen Ridge and its sister community Albany Grove - the subject of one of JUTP's first posts, by the way - have a style all their own.

Much to my surprise, Sean Ruppert - the head of the company - greeted me inside the model house. The homes were, in fact, designed by a Colorado architecture firm, he explains. And sounding very like an HGTV host, Ruppert led me around, pointing out the open floorplan ("We try to be very 'cas'," he says) and the polished concrete countertops in the kitchen.

"Isn't it very 'mod'?" he asks. I nod in reply.

With stone-and-cedar-shake fronts, large windows and a splashy color palette of blues and reds, the Aspen Ridge townhomes are a breath of fresh air in East County, where most homes both new and old are traditional Colonials. But "townhomes as unique as you are," as the advertising suggests, comes at a price: the cheapest house is just under $500,000.

Come back on FRIDAY as Just Up The Pike sits down with developer Sean Ruppert to figure out just how Aspen Ridge came into being - and if he'll ever want to come our way again when it's finished.