WHAT'S UP THE PIKE: Blair and Paint Branch bands appear in Russell Crowe movie; Several roundabouts planned for East County; Downtown Wheaton could see new library, apartments.
Part FOUR of our "District 4 Head-to-Head Tour," which seeks to interview all eight candidates running in a special election to replace Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, who passed away in February. A primary will be held April 15, followed by a general election May 13.
County Council candidate Thomas Hardman stands in Downtown Wheaton. Check out Hardman's campaign website and blog.
"If I seem a little disorganized and incoherent," explains Thomas Hardman while we're sitting down at Dunkin' Donuts in Wheaton, "it's because I don't have this [computer] screen in front of me serving as my short-term memory."
Ten years ago, the Aspen Hill resident was making a name for himself online, with a prolific posting streak on Usenet, an early bulletin board system, and a website that you could call an early blog. But today, he's stepping away from the keyboard and onto the campaign trail, running as a Republican for the open District 4 seat on the County Council.
"I'm finally realizing it's more important to do things in the real world than to write and write," Hardman says. "You actually have to go out into the streets, shake hands, talk to people in order to make changes. Writing is just grist for the mill."
Today, Hardman is dismayed by the County's inability to acknowledge the issues affecting many communities, including his own Aspen Hill. "I was going on and on about gangs in my neighborhood for eight years and the County pretended it didn't exist," he says. "Security here is a big issue, and there are huge gaping holes that people ignore here for political reasons."
so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .
A new townhouse in Wheaton is up for foreclosure. A downturn in the economy has made foreclosures increasingly common throughout Montgomery County.
Overcrowding has changed the place his family moved to forty years ago when it was "pretty much the end of the world," Hardman says. He would see "people that would pave their yards, three to four families a house . . . most of those people were construction workers here to work on the [building] boom," he notes.
And the Department of Permitting Services, who is charged with making sure that homes are legally occupied and meet building codes, hasn't done a thorough job. "If you look at most of the fires in Aspen Hill, they were in homes with excess occupancy . . . if they had been inspected, these problems could have been prevented," he laments. "In some situations you may want to speed up the process for more egregious violations."
With the faltering economy, however, overcrowding isn't the only problem in his neighborhood anymore. "You drive through Aspen Hill now, especially on the main thoroughfares, and it's one For Sale sign after another," he says. "I read about a town in Ohio that has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, and it's just melted down . . . I could see some of those problems happening here."
Meanwhile, the County budget keeps growing larger and larger, he laments. "I'm trying to think of the right organic metaphor," Hardman says. "You ever see those science fiction movies with the giant amoebas?"
However, raising taxes isn't an option. "We're also gonna have to cut a lot of services," he laments. "You have a lot of these agencies that try to be everything to everyone . . . focus on the core competencies and less money will slip through the cracks," Hardman adds. "The last thing we want to do is tax the middle class into insolvency."
Hardman fears that Montgomery County could be getting too big for its britches. "Stop inviting more growth," he insists. "If you look at living things, the size of an organism is designed for its environment. You're not gonna have an elephant where there isn't enough food for it to eat . . . things are scaled by design."
While the pace of growth may be too high, the quality of the growth isn't nearly high enough, creating a "disconnect" between "here's where people work and here's where people live," he says. "That's where mixed-use zoning comes in. I lived in the District for several years and what I liked the most about it was within two blocks you had a variety of stores."
The addition of high-end housing in Downtown Wheaton allows people to live, work and shop in the same place.
We're outside at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive now, voices fighting the traffic, commenting on the accelerating redevelopment of Downtown Wheaton. Hardman keeps returning to the idea of the 'arcology,' a kind of superstructure in science fiction where a large amount of people can live, work and play without ever leaving. Places like Wheaton could almost be considered arcologies, he says. "If you think of the arcology as the reinvention of the village, you've got places to live, places to shop, places to work and transit," he explains. "All the stuff is there, you just have to build boxes and put people in them."
Hardman says it's possible, but he's skeptical. "This is the city, but it wasn't designed to be . . . other than saying 'this is a commercial area,'" he says. "The roads just weren't designed for this kind of traffic and the transit system is at its breaking point."
"These places will be pretty nice 'cause they're near Metro and shopping," he continues, motioning to a block of apartments and offices rising across the street. "The issue is can the people who work there afford to live across the street . . . can people who live there work at the mall?"
While Hardman supports public transit - he would like to see the Metro augmented with a system of "circulator-type" buses in business districts and longer-distance express buses - he rarely uses it anymore. "It's an increasingly unpleasant experience not because of the character or the quality of the people but because there are so many of them," he says. "It's getting to be more like Japan where they hire people to push you through the door."
Nonetheless, he states that "rail of any kind is the most efficient form of transportation that we have," but further implementing it here wouldn't necessarily be that way. "If we move to an urban planning concept that resurrects the village and have rail connecting them. . . I don't know how well that would work for Montgomery County as it's configured now," he says.
"All of this that runs on oil . . . all of this here will have to be massively downscaled - and sooner rather than later, or we could wind up like squirrels who haven't stored enough nuts for the winter."
Boarding a bus at Briggs Chaney Road and Old Columbia Pike. Hardman feels that creating more mixed-income housing in Briggs Chaney could have a large effect on the surrounding area.
I was flattered when Hardman e-mailed me to say that he'd been so inspired by JUTP's series on Briggs Chaney Road last summer that he drove down it a few days before our interview. The portion west of Old Columbia Pike "looks like a pretty nice neighborhood, the kind of place people would want to stay the same, save for a little less traffic," he says, though the areas east of the Pike were another story.
For their candidate profile, the Gazette asked Hardman if he felt the Planning Board was to blame for low test scores at Paint Branch High School, which serves the square-mile amalgamation of low-rent apartments and townhouses at Briggs Chaney and 29. "Probably concentraing [low-income people] all in one district isn't going to make them happy," says Hardman. "You look at scattered-site housing . . . maybe they could convert some of those high-density areas into luxury condos and have a wider mix of incomes."
Hardman was very disappointed, though, to read that local punk legend and Government Issue lead singer John Stabb was assaulted outside of his Briggs Chaney condo last summer. Twenty-five years ago, he was a fan, he explains. "You probably shouldn't write this, but I was kind of one of the first Goths in town," says Hardman. "I was not really super involved in the hardcore [punk] scene, but I probably drank in the same bars as they did."
Today, however, his musical involvement consists of some very respectable noodling on the guitar, which he's featured on his campaign website. Hardman likes to play guitar on his front porch, adjacent to a bus stop, which earns him both cheers and jeers from passers-by. "Most of the neighbors were like 'hey, great job, keep it up,'" he says. "But the people on the bus were like 'cut that mess down,' so I don't go on the porch anymore."