Monday, June 23, 2008

b'ville charrette: defining "undesirable" (updated)

part TWO of a series on last week's Burtonsville Community Legacy Plan Charrette. Check out part ONE, where myself and a few local residents try to chart a new path for Burtonsville's village center.

Table 6 tries to reconcile the "old" Burtonsville with plans to redevelop its village center at last week's charrette.

After the discussion period, each of the six tables appointed a speaker who told the entire charrette what their group had come up with for Burtonsville's village center. While our table had tentatively embraced mixed-uses and increased density on a strip of Route 198 between Old Columbia Pike and Route 29, others were decidedly against it. One table advocated implementing "green design" in new construction, but insisted on keeping parking out front of the stores, even if they had to face away from Route 198.

"We don't want to attract undesirables," says a speaker from another table, suggesting that the village green proposed in every option we'd been given for the site would be a draw for crime. The "village green," currently three acres of unkempt County-owned land behind Tony's Garage, was first discussed in the Fairland Master Plan eleven years ago. while local activist Stuart Rochester - who served on a citizens advisory board for the Master Plan - argued that the inclusion of affordable housing would be "contrary" to the plan's goal of increasing diversity.

I gritted my teeth as I got up to speak for my table. People can be NIMBYs all they want . . . but "undesirable"? Did someone really say that? No matter what they meant by it, their words pointed straight to the predominantly-black apartments on Castle Boulevard, the townhouses of Greencastle, the kids hanging out on corners and parking lots or riding the Z9 bus into Downtown Silver Spring. I have friends in Greencastle. I had family not too far away.

I hoped this was a misunderstanding.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

All-residential and mixed-use concepts for redeveloping a portion of Route 198 between Old Columbia Pike and Route 29.

Calmly, I explained the conclusions my group had come to and when I was done, I turned to Stuart Rochester. "I wanted to address those speakers who referred to the 'undesirables' in East County," I added. "I do not believe there are any 'undesirable' people in my community, especially not in this gathering place we are trying to create. We need to make it welcoming, and we need to make it safe. But we are not going to keep people out. That is not the community I want to live in."

The room roared in applause. Don Hauprich, speaking for Table 5, jumped to the village green's defense, saying that it makes Burtonsville a destination. "There are people who like to go out at night with the family or with other people," says Hauprich, youth pastor at Liberty Grove United Methodist Church. "And it isn't always unseemly behavior."

Table 6 seemed to agree, saying they liked the idea of "bringing back a sense of what the town is," in the words of one speaker who recalled when Burtonsville Day parades were held in the village center as opposed to down Old Columbia Pike by the Praisner Library. "We liked Kentlands, we liked Seaside, but not as homogenized," she continues, referring to the products of more famous charrettes, "but we liked the idea of making some order in the space."

After the meeting, Hauprich says it's important to help older residents understand that development can be an asset. As a father, youth pastor and former president of the Paint Branch High School PTSA, he's interested in creating spaces for younger people to call their own, even if some people he knows would "rather poke their eyes out than go to Downtown Silver Spring," he says. "Your best bet is to get the seventy-year-old people to understand we're not bringing crime," adds Hauprich. "you may fight change, but the world is gonna change around you."

He points out that many businesses in the village center don't last long. "I don't want people to panic about 'oh, old Joe's Lawnmower Shop,'" he says. "Businesses have turned over in the past ten years, and it's not because they jacked the rents. The place is a dump."

The Bedding Barn at Route 198 and Route 29 is a local mainstay and, to many, a symbol of Burtonsville's past.

By the time I've finished talking to Hauprich, it's 9:30 and the school parking lot is empty. Chuck Crisostomo from the East County Regional Services Center is carrying display boards out to a little Chevy with the county seal on it. Stuart Rochester is leaning against his car, talking to another gentleman. "I want to have a word with you," he says the other man walks away.

I approach cautiously. It's dark, and we're more or less alone. We've known each other for roughly a year now, and Stuart Rochester has since been a good source for quotes at events throughout East County. (In fact, I last interviewed him little more than a week earlier.) He begins speaking quietly without stopping to take a breath. I put my notebook away, assuming he wants this to be off-the-record, but take it out again and start writing, and he doesn't object.

"I have seen this community brought down by transients," Stuart Rochester begins. "Too many rentals. I am not opposed to affordable housing, as long as it's not the type exploited by absentee landlords . . . too many townhouses, too many Section 8. And it's the poorest communities, Avonshire [a townhouse development at Briggs Chaney and 29], the Boulevard, that will be affected the most."

I bite my lip. I think of my cousin, who raised a daughter in an apartment in Aston Woods before moving to Calverton; my mother, who jumped back into real estate after a long hiatus by working neighborhoods like Avenshire and the Boulevard; a white friend from high school who, growing up in Greencastle, was forbidden to leave her house for fear of crime. "Then who are the 'undesirables'?" I ask.

Boarding the Z9 bus to Silver Spring at Old Columbia Pike and Briggs Chaney Road, south of Burtonsville.

"I do not believe any human being is 'undesirable,'" Rochester replies. "Healthy communities require a proportionate share of home ownership and a healthy socioeconomic balance. Our area in the 1980's took on so many MPDUs that we fell into imbalance in terms of our turnover rate in our housing. And what they call the "mobility rate" in our schools. Greencastle Elementary has one of the highest turnover rates in the County! I think diversity is important, but you want it to be a healthy diversity in terms of demographics."

"But you're not going to fix Greencastle Elementary by building a bunch of single-family houses," I reply. "This goes to the deeper root of the issue, within those neighborhoods, those households."

"Listen," Rochester implores. "The Dutch Market was important because it brought people together, across generations, across races . . . that was what was special about the Dutch Market, and that's what we need. Places that transcend race and class and bring us together as a community."

As a student of planning, can I disagree with Stuart Rochester that building thousands of apartments within the span of a couple of years is a horrible idea? But can I accuse all of their tenants of "bringing down" my community? And what exactly is this "healthy diversity"? How would you set these quotas?

And that's when it hits me. For twenty years Burtonsville had its "gathering place," at least three days a week, where all sorts of people from all over the region could come and shop and eat and mingle. You could get a whole roomful of consultants together and not come up with something as wonderful, and now it's gone. Sure, it's only moved to Laurel, you say, but it's not really the same. How much harder will it be for us to come together
- on this charrette, on the revitalization as a whole - when the one thing that brought us together is gone?

13 comments:

Thomas Hardman said...

Dan, this is an excellent post and both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Does it occur to you -- or to the charette "facilitators" -- that if one is going to have "moderately priced dwelling units", one might be much better off with scattered-site planning than with concentrated developments?

We all remember what happened with the Welfare Projects; what was originally intended to be an economy-of-scale solution to poverty ended up crushing the life out of the urban cores and condemning generations to lives wracked by violence and hopelessness. I realize that endless suburbias of single-family detached residential housing isn't a viable solution either, given the rising price of fuel. But it's as bad to create enclaves of the upscale as it is to concentrate poverty. I think you rightly caught a whiff of that.

I have to invite anyone considering doing planning activity in Montgomery County to come and see what went wrong -- horribly wrong -- in Aspen Hill. All of the elements generally thought to be essential for a functioning community are here, but the planing people decided (in their supposed wisdom) to concentrate housing in one place, recreation in another, and shopping in yet another place. The kids have no place to congregate other than at the stores, and the commercial intent of the place is somewhat hostile to the concept of playfulness, and so the playfulness turns mean and the meanness makes the experience of the Aspen Hill stores so nasty that I generally refuse to set foot there.

Would it be better if there was a little park right there? Maybe it would be... if only so that people kicked off of store property for troublemaking would have some place to go other than onto the nearby streets to accost or rob people seeking to walk to shop. Our experience of the North Gate Park behind the K-Mart in Aspen Hill, however, is that if you have such a park, you really need to maintain and police it, or it becomes owned by the criminals.

But to move on to your question of "what exactly is healthy diversity?" -I cannot answer you that. But I can tell you that at the concluding meeting of the "Creating Opportunities for Youth", none other than candidate Praisner waved out at the room, as I left early, and said something like "look at all of the wonderful diversity". I did, and I did not see a single German-American, Irish=American, Polish-American, Russian-American, Jewish-American, or any combination thereof. I also didn't see any Asian-Americans of any type. Even blacks were very much in the minority. I didn't see diversity; I saw monoculture.

Due to the County's policies in a variety of areas, Aspen Hill has become a zone concentrating poverty at a level exceeded only by parts of Maryvale or the MoCo section of Quebec Terrace. Turnover has been severe, even in the single-family detached parts of the neighborhood, in part because of the illegal conversion of many such homes into multifamily boarding houses. The crimereports.com map shows a serious problem here, with assaults on the rise and with a rash of daytime burglaries. What we need here is more jobs, and more places hiring. What we got, until very recent police activity began to deal with it, was a hundred or more people congregating in the parking lot of Home Depot looking for day-labor gigs. Theft From Vehicle was up 700 percent in that parking lot, according to one of the managers at the site. You definitely don't want that in Burtonsville, and as far as I know, that's something that you don't get from the Amish.

Dan Reed said...

I don't think the whole complex as proposed (100-200 units) would be subsidized. I'd also assume that they would probably have to market this as a "luxury" apartment complex (or townhomes, whatever they end up with) in order to make a profit, so I wouldn't worry about too much affordable housing. Because of Briggs Chaney and Greencastle, the community will not let any else come through, for better or for worse.

As for the public space, meanwhile:

"Our experience of the North Gate Park behind the K-Mart in Aspen Hill, however, is that if you have such a park, you really need to maintain and police it, or it becomes owned by the criminals."

Why does North Gate Park have an issue with crime? Because it's "behind" the K-Mart. If you want to go to a park for a legitimate reason (people watching, recreation, etc.) you want it to be in front of a store, civic building, etc., where you can see and be seen by other people. Nothing goes without being noticed, including crime activity.

Some may laugh at "the Turf" in Downtown Silver Spring, but it's a perfect example of a safe and active public space. It is centrally located and visible from dozens of stores and (in the future) apartments and a civic building, allowing activities there to be watched by countless people. You won't rob somebody on "the Turf" because you know you'll get caught.

A public space isn't unsafe on its own, but poor design can make it so. The B'ville "village green" will be fronted by a school and, hopefully, some new shops and housing as well. It'll probably be a hit with the kids, and that's a good thing. I can tell you from my high school days that my group would've killed for a space like this, and we weren't exactly the criminal sort, either.

P said...

Dan, I have been reading your posts for a while, and really appreciate your perspective on this. I'm new to the area, but very concerned about affordable housing and inclusive planning processes, and it's good to know that others are as well.

On the other hand, I'm a little troubled by the overly familiar scapegoating I see in your first commentor's post. The post carefully avoids naming the group he refers to as "monocultural" (which is a problematic statement on its own). I'm not familiar with the area, but it seems like the comment is jumping on the "blame Latino immigrants" bandwagon.

While his comment seems to agree with you about some things, it actually seems like he's doing exactly what you're writing against: profiling and casting specific communities as undesirable. Criminal acts like theft and robbery are clearly things we don't want to encourage - but the comment blurs so many lines that the message I got was: "they" aren't part of "our" community.

I would also prefer that people don't use Asian Americans as a token community to allow them to make shielded comments about other communities. If he wants to actually talk about issues within Asian immigrant communities, that's fine, but please don't use them as props to support intolerance.

Anyway - thanks Dan. I'll keep reading.

Dave Murphy said...

Excellent commentary on the state of development in the county. Rochester's concerns are somewhat warranted, though it sounds as if his perceptions are a bit 1950's.

Frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing more of a town in Burtonsville, a small street grid on that little corner that might make the area a little more walkable. Anything to strengthen the argument for a transit line up 29.

I personally believe this type of isolation (i.e. no transit) has a negative impact on the area's ability to get a good socio-economic mix in the denser areas. Put a reliable and integrated transit line through there, more different types of people will have an incentive to reside there.

Anonymous said...

I have read alot of comments and stories about the future revitalization of Burtansville but what I have not seen anyone make a suggestion of is attracting Office Buildings to the area that will complement the future mix of Retail and Housing. I'm thinking that the purpose of the revitalization is supposed to be Smart Growth Related and possibly Transit Dependent but how can it accomplish that if there aren't enough High Paying Jobs in that portion of Montgomery County to prevent the locals from having to make long commutes to DC/Virginia for employment, where instead they can make a short commute to Burtansville if the County can Come Up with Ideas of Attracting the High Paying Jobs to Relocate to Burtansville and the surrounding areas.

Anonymous said...

P said...
Dan, I have been reading your posts for a while, and really appreciate your perspective on this. I'm new to the area, but very concerned about affordable housing and inclusive planning processes, and it's good to know that others are as well.

On the other hand, I'm a little troubled by the overly familiar scapegoating I see in your first commentor's post. The post carefully avoids naming the group he refers to as "monocultural" (which is a problematic statement on its own). I'm not familiar with the area, but it seems like the comment is jumping on the "blame Latino immigrants" bandwagon.

While his comment seems to agree with you about some things, it actually seems like he's doing exactly what you're writing against: profiling and casting specific communities as undesirable. Criminal acts like theft and robbery are clearly things we don't want to encourage - but the comment blurs so many lines that the message I got was: "they" aren't part of "our" community.

I would also prefer that people don't use Asian Americans as a token community to allow them to make shielded comments about other communities. If he wants to actually talk about issues within Asian immigrant communities, that's fine, but please don't use them as props to support intolerance.

Anyway - thanks Dan. I'll keep reading.

June 23, 2008 1:47 PM


Since when does Illegal Mexican-Central American Immigrants equate to the ENTIRE(especially the Leagals) Latino Immigrants?????????????

Anonymous said...

Dave Murphy said...
Excellent commentary on the state of development in the county. Rochester's concerns are somewhat warranted, though it sounds as if his perceptions are a bit 1950's.

Frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing more of a town in Burtonsville, a small street grid on that little corner that might make the area a little more walkable. Anything to strengthen the argument for a transit line up 29.

I personally believe this type of isolation (i.e. no transit) has a negative impact on the area's ability to get a good socio-economic mix in the denser areas. Put a reliable and integrated transit line through there, more different types of people will have an incentive to reside there.

June 23, 2008 11:36 PM

RE: What would you have against the possibility of Burtansville building a two level Upscale Shoping Mall with a Macy's and Nordstroms like Dulles Town Center in Sterling, VA. That will definately Fast Track the options of increasing Mass Transit.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I had to install extra RAM in my PC just to process the extreme levels of self-righteousness in this post.

nancy said...

Dan,

Thank you for keeping track of what is becoming an unfortunate trend in our County. More and more, terms (or code words) like: poverty, overcrowding, diversity, crime, affordable housing, undesirables, etc. are used by "well-meaning Community Activist" to instill fear.

Of course, no one would dare just say that we are talking about communities of color. That would be too politically incorrect!

I believe it is time to face an undisputed truth:
Montgomery County is not and will never be the same Montgomery County of 20 years ago.

We have become a tapestry reflective of this nation aand the world. This calls for continuous improvement in all that we do. We have to look at new ways to build communities, provide services, and include the many voices.

In that respect we are fortunate because we have countless opportunities to enage in discourse about things that we care about.

I just hope that we can all agree to strongly reject the infusion of fear and hate in our quest for improvement. Our County deserves better than that.

Take care,

Nancy Navarro

Thomas Hardman said...

Wow, I post something thoughtful and suddenly paranoia strikes deep in the heartland! Some people need to understand that as a rule, I have excellent command of my native language and when I write something, in almost all cases, exactly what was written is exactly what was intended. "P", stop trying to libel me.

That being said: to respond to Dan's remarks about parks needing to be visible and under observation in order to not become trouble spots, I could not agree more. Please see my blog posting on the ongoing clean-up of North Gate Park. It's practically a dissertation on "CPTED" which stands for "crime prevention through environmental design".

That park, to clarify, isn't directly behind K-Mart; there are apartments surrounding that store. Beyond the apartments is Grand Pre Road, and the park is in a sort of wedge between Grand Pre Road and Connecticut Avenue. See also the MNCPPC website for that park.

The problem was, more or less, that a semi-natural (second or third growth forest) area was left as if they thought it was some sort of nature preserve... in the middle of an apartment-city. Lack of maintenance let it get infested with invasive vegetation and the interior became effectively invisible from the street. Playground equipment became the place to "tag" and as the park went downhill, so did the surrounding rental and condominium properties. Only a half-decade of fairly intensive volunteer work (and use of people needing community-service hours to stay out of jail) has brought the place back. Now it's increasingly used by the intended population, local residents seeking recreational opportunities, rather than opportunities for crime.

Keep in mind that this was where they had 70 or so robberies in only a bit over a month, the so-called "amigo shopping" robberies.

Now, let's return to "P", yet-another anonymous coward, who stops by to snivel a weaseled insinuation. Yet there is in fact a serious crime problem here in Aspen Hill, and I assure all reading this that it's not the exclusive purview of any one ethnic group. There are criminals and gangsters of all kinds, so nobody can say anything stupid like "oh all of those people are criminals". That would be wrong in many ways and on many levels.

With that being said, some people come from cultures where gregariousness is more prevalent than is "usual". Our local legal standards for housing density are in fact based both on longstanding local cultural standards, and also on public safety and fire-safety considerations. We have a severe problem here with home-overcrowding and illegal rentals. This contributes both to actual crime and to widespread public perception of crime even where there is less crime than is perceived.

Back to Burtonsville: There are quite a lot of office buildings in the Burtonsville Crossing office park, which are far from being at capacity.

What Burtonsville CBD does need, in my humble opinion, is the same thing as Sandy Spring desperately needs, something mentioned by another responder: a grid system. As it is, there are a few main roads, and they don't have any paralleling roads, or those paralleling roads have limited connectivity. There are a very limited number of ways to get from any one point to another point, and this is where the traffic congestion originates.

And last but not least: Ms Navarro, if that is actually you, when you go talking about "code words", you're stoking the fires of paranoia, doing exactly what you seem to impute that "well-meaning community activists" are doing.

Keep in mind that I am German-American, and even back in the 1730s the "english" like Ben Franklin didn't much like us and thought we'd never assimilate. And for about 150 years, my father's people didn't. We lived apart even as the Amish do to this day. Yet in the time of the first World War, we stopped speaking German at home and in public. Suddenly we became no longer those weird people from that town where nobody speaks English, and started being the same as everyone else, even if we clearly were not the same as they were. We stopped being weird hicks with poor language skills who were only good for manual labor and housekeeping jobs.

As an ethnic, we went through the exact same thing as every other group of "immigrants". We know our history; you might study it. The German-Americans also had their anti-assimilation organizations such as the Bund, and a lot of us arrived on these shores as indentured servants, in debt to our own "polleros", and a lot of us sent remittances to enable our relatives to join us. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

And we got accused of poverty, home overcrowding, etc etc. So anything you say isn't news to me. A lot of the laws against home overcrowding originated in anti-German sentiments; the "english" didn't like our custom of building accessory apartments onto the houses so that our elderly could "age in place".

Yet the laws are the laws, they were passed by people elected by the majority in free and fair democratic elections. If the "english" get to destroy our way of life and culture, they get to destroy everyone else's, as well. Nobody is to be excused on the basis of race or national origins. That would be racist.

As for "undesirables" being not wanted in Burtonsville or wherever, they probably are thinking of any or all persons making less than about $100,000 a year.

eileena said...

what we need in Burtonsville is not bickering or snobbery, rather, a sense of neighborliness that existed when this truly was a small rural town. Can we look each other in the eyes when we pass by and possibly smile, or minimally, show some sort of friendliness? When driving, can we wave thank you or offer some sort of acknowledgement when someone has shown some sort of courtesy? We might be dumpy looking, but we can act in a manner to show that we care about each other and our town. There were several people at the Charrette in the table next to mine (table 6) who were making very rude and cruel comments about one of the speakers during his table's turn. It turned my stomach when they commented to each other that this speaker belonged to "their" church and he "doesn't stop talking there either". It is people like this that are truly hypocritical, and spread ill will. The person they were talking about does more for our community than most anyone else, and i am proud to know him. We have an opportunity to change Burtonsville for the better, but it must start with each of us being kind to each other, despite our differences of opinions, appearances, and financial resources. We can change our buildings, but if we don't embrace what truly makes a community, our neighborliness and genuine concern for others, we will lose much more than we will gain. i commend both Daniel Reed and Don Hauprich for what they said that evening about the "undesirables"...

Brian White said...

Anything to strengthen the argument for a transit line up 29.

I personally believe this type of isolation (i.e. no transit)


What 29 DESPERATELY needs is a dedicated bus line that actually runs all the way down to downtown Silver Spring, instead of ending as soon as the road really backs up. I used to live on Greencastle, and ride from the Park and Ride lots. The other thing it needs is bus service more often.

There wasn't a single thing I liked about Burtonsville except for living across the street from Fairland park. That 'village center' is going to be a strip mall forever.

Jennifer said...

You can still have a tapestry but it is no shame to take preventative measures against snags . . . .