Thursday, December 18, 2008

shop-houses could draw people out of cars, into the cul-de-sac

Turning garages into storefronts in car-oriented neighborhoods like Forest Ridge in Fairland is a way to encourage walking and bring people closer together.

It's hard to get people out of their cars in many of East County's subdivisions, where disconnected streets and a rigid separation of residential and business areas makes it almost impossible to get anywhere by foot. Kids and the elderly who don't drive are essentially trapped in their homes, and nobody really meets their neighbors, because they don't have a reason to go outside other than to mow the lawn. In Four Corners, more or less a "walkable" suburban neighborhood, residents can claim a church, a Starbucks, and a high school within walking distance as places where people can meet each other. Can most East County neighborhoods say the same?

This month's issue of Planning magazine has a proposal that might being our suburbanites out of their cars and into the cul-de-sac: turn garages into work space. The HOAs might call foul, saying bringing a commercial use into the neighborhood would hurt property values. My parents live next door to a house whose residents are currently using their garage as a mechanic's shop, and it's neither an attractive or desirable neighbor.

But what about professional offices, small storefronts or cafes? If officially sanctioned by the County and subject to restrictions on use, appearance and hours, they might be a positive addition to any suburban neighborhood starved for things to do within walking distance. For shopkeepers, the garage-turned-storefront is a way to keep overhead costs down by working from home; for everyone else, it's an opportunity to support local businesses and to meet your neighbors, who've suddenly started spending a lot more time away from the TV and out in the street.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Turning garages into storefronts in townhouse neighborhoods could create more vibrant streets, as seen here on Dogwood Drive in Briggs Chaney.

It's certainly not a concept that's without precedent, being based on the apartments-over-the-shop that you'll find all across the District and other American cities, not to mention across the pond in Europe. Along University Boulevard between Long Branch and Langley Park, you'll find everything from attorney's offices to funeral homes and even a tattoo parlor occupying space in single-family homes. For a more cleaned-up version of the shop-house, check out Front Street, a development in Ladera Ranch, California whose $800,000 Colonials each come with room set aside for an office or retail space.

Planning Board chairman Royce Hanson says MoCo needs to adopt what the Gazette calls an "urban development model," citing a growing population and an increase in people who don't want or need a single-family house on a big lot. Places like Downtown Silver Spring are often held as an ideal for this kind of growth - it's got a dense, walkable concentration of people and businesses, reducing traffic and dependence on the car. Of course, not everyone wants to live Downtown. Encouraging some commercial development in residential neighborhoods - especially when it's incorporated into the homes themselves - might be a good way to get people out of their cars and into the neighborhood.

Homes with office or retail space in them could co-exist with homes that haven't been altered, as seen here on Stewart Lane in White Oak.

What might East County look like with these garages-turned-storefronts? We took some photographs of three neighborhoods and sketched over them to see how they could be adapted to accommodate shops.


Bauhaus Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas Hardman said...

've been promoting this for years now.

What genuinely sucks about MoCo suburbia is that it has all of the crowding and traffic of the city, but you can't just walk around the corner or just down the block to buy something, as you could in the city.

Rather, you tend to be forced to shopping malls where you have to compete for parking. In general this might rightly be said to be disagreeable unless you're the sort of person who thrives in crowds of strangers. But for we who like to have a nice little corner store where we know and are known by the proprietors -- rather than being disrespected as chumps by the corporate hireling staff -- we hate the shopping centers and would rather walk downstairs to the little shop next door.

Semi-unzoned but permitted: that's the way to turn a crappy overgrown suburbia --where you have to drive 5 miles to get a bag of chips -- into a walkable urbanized neighborhood with people on the street on foot building community, rather than leaving it a sterile wasteland full of strangers in cars.

Thanks for posting this, Mr Reed.

Richard Layman said...

I don't agree. At some point, you need access to a customer base. Even if your rent is miniscule, you still need customers to make something worth doing. Small remote spaces don't offer much in the way of retail possibilities even if they are fine for home-office related work.

WashingtonGardener said...

I could see this in say the townhomes near the SS or Wheaton metros - those bottom-floor garages could open up at certain times and sell arts and crafts, tailor shops, bike repair, etc. - made by the owners or rented out to others. Could be a nice street fair feel to it. Would I travel out to White Oak or far-flun hoods for this? No. But for close-in neighborhoods by public transit, it could work.