Saturday, August 30, 2008

new ways to hang on ellsworth emerge post-"the turf"

Tonight, Ellsworth Drive played host to an extended skate session, much as it has every weekend since the block east of Fenton Street (in front of Chick-Fil-A) has been closed off to traffic. And people came to watch: young parents bearing infants; a pint-sized cheering section complete with balloons and chants ("Go, Abdul!") bored teenagers ("I don't know why they tore that thing up," I overheard one girl say, referring to "the Turf").

The older set even stopped to look, mesmerized by the jumps both successful and not-successful. When one kid (at right, in the Nationals cap) wiped out, they all laughed and took out cameras. Public embarrassment? You bet! And only on Ellsworth.

Ellsworth makes me prouder still to say I'm from Silver Spring, and more so when I compare it to Bethesda or Clarendon, where I was earlier today. Not only are Bethesda and Clarendon less diverse, but they lack the spontaneity Silver Spring has. Only here will you find skater kids showing off to a willing audience - and in the middle of Downtown, too! Not tucked away in some back alley or overlooked parking lot.

"The Turf" may no longer be with us, but this three-year experiment in place-making showed there's more to creating a vibrant community than pretty buildings. We needed it to draw people Downtown, but now that they're here, nothing will keep them from coming back.

BELOW: One kid tries to win over a tough crowd, and a little cheering section provides color commentary.

Friday, August 29, 2008

the purple line diaries: who rides the bus?

part TWO AND A HALF of a series aimed to find out just how bad it is commuting across Montgomery and Prince George's counties without the Purple Line . . . and to get my roommate to ride a bus.

On Wednesday, our third roommate, an occasional reader of this blog (and a white person), asked Chris, "So, white people don't ride the bus? You know, I rode the bus to work all summer."

"Yeah, I bet it was a Greyhound," he shot back.

"Hell, no. Not after that thing in Canada. It was a city bus."

Even in a transit-friendly area like Greater Washington, riding the bus can be a shameful thing, which I've never really understood. There's a study from several years ago - I wish I could find it now - that says two-thirds of Metrorail riders are either white and make six figures, and two-thirds of Metrobus riders are black and make less than $55,000 a year. Don't take my word for it, though: after all, when I rode the Z9 to work two summers ago, I was rubbing elbows with a mostly white-collar, briefcase-clutching crowd.

The big challenge is to make the bus attractive for people who can choose to do otherwise. I've gotten a number of comments and e-mails from readers following part one of my "Purple Line Diaries," notably about this column to the Gazette written by a sophomore at Blair who's in love with public transit:
"I feel that my use of the system, instead of limiting me to only the places the buses can go, actually gives me independence. A year ago, I had to wait for my parents to get ready before I could leave, but now regardless of how busy they are, I can get to where I want to be as long as I know the routes.

If you are a parent, allowing your children to use public transportation will give you time to relax on weekends instead of grumbling your kids around town.

Many parents, I know would probably tell me that either they don't trust their kids in the system or that they think it's unsafe. However, I have used the system dozens of times and I've never felt unsafe or that I was in danger of getting lost."
WMATA and Ride-On should hire this kid to be their spokesman . . . that is, if being known as Bus Boy doesn't inadvertently destroy his social status at Blair.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

the purple line diaries: come on, baby, show me gridlock

part TWO of a series aimed to find out just how bad it is commuting across Montgomery and Prince George's counties without the Purple Line.

By 6pm, the Beltway going eastbound is stopped. "Come on, baby, show me gridlock," I say as our Red Line train flies over the carnage.

Chris and I are approaching the College Park Metro station, a fifteen-minute walk from our apartment. The platform is visible a few hundred yards away, as is our train, which is pulling out of the station. After nine minutes of sitting on the platform, cross-legged atop the bumpy dots at the edge, the train arrives. I've got my pad open, and I'm ready to take notes. Every few minutes, I jot down what happened.

2:48 board train to CP (nine-minute wait)
2:57 get off at Fort Totten

"You know, I like Fort Totten because nobody ever gets on or off here," I say. "People are always waiting. It's very poetic."

"Yeah, it sort of is," Chris replies.

"My aunt even lives at Fort Totten, and she doesn't use Metro."

"Why? It's so convenient."

"I don't know. You can see her house from the platform, and it's noisy, living up against the tracks. You pay a price for the convenience."

2:59 upper platform

"Okay, so you can't see her house from the platform because of those trees, but it's around here," I say.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Rockville Pike looking south towards White Flint.

3:00 get on Shady Grove bound train
3:13 Lots of people get on at Metro Center, standing room only

"You know, I can understand why people like in Langley Park would be opposed to the Purple Line," Chris begins, referring to a conversation we'd had the other day. "These people are just trying to protect their neighborhood, what they know."

"The Purple Line opposition isn't coming from Langley Park," I say. "The Gazette did a thing about it two years ago: people are either for it or they don't know about it. It's coming from Chevy Chase and East Silver Spring."

I explain about the Columbia Country Club, about the Capital Crescent Trail and Pam Browning, about SSTOP and my walk through East Silver Spring. "My problem with the people in Chevy Chase is that they don't seem to understand the world outside Chevy Chase," I say. "They'll re-route the Purple Line so it doesn't go on the trail in their community, but they don't care if it runs along the trail in Silver Spring. It's just not fair."

Chris shrugs. I don't like to go on at length about what my friends call "blog stuff," and I figured it was time to stop. "Hey," I say, pointing to a gentleman sitting by the door, "that guy looks like John Edwards."

3:17 notice guy who looks like John Edwards en route to Woodley Park
3:29 arrive at Bethesda
3:34 exit tunnel @ Beltway, I-495, stopped east bound
3:40 Twinbrook
3:43 leave station

To pro-pedestrian, pro-transit, and pro-city people, Rockville Pike is an evil bitch of a highway, eight lanes of office-park-and-strip-mall traffic hostile to any poor sucker who dared show up on two feet. But I'm not gonna lie: crossing the Other Pike wasn't particularly bad. The weather was really nice, and there were pedestrian signals, crosswalks, etc. There weren't any sidewalks leading into the shopping center, which was kind of miserable, but overall, I didn't mind the walk.

We spend a little over an hour in the art store, buying things for a new year of architecture school. There are a lot of things to carry: large shopping bags, a carrying case for art supplies; a long prism of a box for a rolled-up desk cover. "Metro wasn't such a good idea," Chris laments as we leave the store. "No, no, this is great for the experiment," I say. "I want this to be as horrible as possible."

"Dan, I don't want my things to get fucked up on the bus," replies Chris.

From there, it's across the parking lot to Panera Bread. Over sandwiches and soup, I go through a bus schedule in my head: there are J4 buses leaving Bethesda at 5:10, 5:30, 5:50. "There's one at 6:10," I say. If we want to catch it, we should get going. I think we've missed rush hour."

"That's good, right?"

"No."

A shoulder strap breaks, and a near-death experience crossing Rockville Pike ensues.

The walk back to the Metro is ten times more difficult with things to carry. Chris manages to hook the strap on his messenger bag to the tube and proudly fling it over his shoulder. There's a Ride-On bus at the corner. "Do you just want to take this bus?" Chris asks. I'm kind of taken aback by his enthusiasm, until I realize the bus is going to Medical Center, and that the driver isn't going to let us on away from an actual stop.

I shake my head and we press on. But then, three lanes into crossing Rockville Pike, there's a snap, and the tube falls to the ground. The Don't Walk signal is flashing, and the light's about to change. "I'll take it," I say, grabbing the tube, and we run across the Pike as the northbound traffic approaches. Chris tries to re-attach the strap on the other side. "I need some duct tape," he says.

5:52 get on at Twinbrook
6:20 get off at Bethesda

We're too tired and lazy to run up the escalator. Chris says he hates the Metro escalators because the hand-holds go at a different rate than the steps, and his arm slowly moves away from him as we reach the top. The Bethesda bus turnaround is a depressing place, dark, crowded, hard to navigate. It takes me a second to find the stand where the J4 stops, and another to find the often-busted electronic board that says when the next bus is coming.

Commuters bound down the escalator at Twinbrook station.

"6:17 J4 COLLE P RK," it says.

"Shit," I say. "What do we do now?" asks Chris. "Do we get on the Metro?"

"We can take two buses back, or we get on the Metro."

"Fuck that," Chris says. "Metro."

"Or we can take two buses back."

"But that would ruin the experiment," he protests.

"Not at all! Two buses would totally make the commute worse."

"But then the time would be screwed up."

"No! I want it to take longer."

"I'm taking the Metro."

And so we bounded down the escalator to wait for another Red Line train. Halfway down, I say, "You know, what if the J4 didn't come yet? Maybe we should wait a few minutes."

"I'm not going back up there."

6:28 get on at Bethesda
6:44 standing room only at Metro Center - people running into train last minute, announcer says 'we'll be waiting on the platform for a minute'
6:49 union station
6:59 arrive at Fort Totten. Green line train 2 minutes away
7:02 Get on green line train to CP, train ridership is light (Nats game & past rush hour?)
7:10 train stop @ CP

RECAP!

Commute from College Park to Twinbrook (Metro-to-Metro): 55 minutes
Commute from Twinbrook to College Park (Metro-to-Metro): 1 hour, 18 minutes
Chris status: Still hasn't ridden a bus yet

"You know, I started this series as a way of showing people who oppose the Purple Line what it's like riding a bus," I told Chris last night. "Now, after all the e-mails I've gotten about the first part, my goal is to get YOU on a bus."

"Boy, you're really adamant about this, aren't you?" he says.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

the purple line diaries

part ONE of a series aimed to find out just how bad it is commuting across Montgomery and Prince George's counties without the Purple Line.

When I met Purple Line opponents Mier Wolf and Pam Browning last summer, it seemed like they didn't know what it was like for the thousands of commuters leaving their hometown of Chevy Chase each day in rush hour traffic. Last month, I explained this problem to Adam Pagnucco from Maryland Politics Watch over quesadillas at Austin Grill, and he suggested I show them just how bad it can be.

I'd dreamed of taking Pam, Mier and other local activists on an actual bus, but Adam told me it just wouldn't work. "They won't do it," Adam says. "What you should do is ride the bus yourself and write a diary about it. Make it as horrible as possible. There's traffic, the bus breaks down, a woman forced to stand faints."

Horrible? There's no better day for a horrible commute than the first day of school, a time everyone's settling into new routines, creating a perfect storm of congestion and confusion. I had a plan for Tuesday: ride a bus from Bethesda and wait for the misery to begin. But in the midst of playing video games Monday night, my friend and roommate Chris asked if I wanted to go to the art store in Rockville the next day.

"Sure. Do you want to ride a bus there?" I replied.

"Uh, I'm white," says Chris, turning back to Super Smash Bros. "I don't take the bus."

(He's joking, I promise. I mean, he is white, and he hasn't ridden the bus much, but . . .)

Hoping for a hellish commute back that evening, Chris and I set out from our apartment in College Park yesterday afternoon for my great experiment. We would take Metro up to Twinbrook and back to Bethesda before switching to the J4 and riding it home. And while nothing broke down and nobody fainted, our journey proved to be quite an adventure, if not a super time sink.

Here's what we're trying to figure out: how can the Purple Line improve on current commutes east? How bad are conditions right now? And does my white roommate actually ride a bus?

"come on, baby, show me gridlock": My roommate and I take a trip to the art store in Twinbrook, encountering little congestion but a near-disaster on Rockville Pike.

"who rides the bus?": So who rides the bus? Two people, at least, and we look at some very, very non-scientific statistics.

Check back for new additions to this series!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

keeping house . . .

I have a new e-mail address! (My old e-mail address is full of spam! Thanks, AOL!)

Send any and all Just Up The Pike related questions, rants, tips, and love notes to just up the pike at gmail dot com.

Also, if you've ever wanted to know what I'm doing at every minute of the day (or, at least, the times of day when I feel like updating), check out Just Up The Pike on Twitter!

cinema 'n' drafthouse opens next month in wheaton

Housed in the former P & G Theatres at Wheaton Plaza, the Montgomery Cinema 'N' Drafthouse will be opening next month.

Speaking of beginnings and Wheaton: the listservs are buzzing about Montgomery Cinema 'N' Drafthouse's "soft opening" September 19, with a formal grand opening in October, according to their website. Housed in the former P & G Wheaton 11 at Wheaton Plaza, this "6-theatre entertainment complex" will showcase everything from first-run movies to live comedy.

Drafthouse owner Greg Godbout wrote JUTP in May to talk about his theatre, which joins another similar venue in Arlington. I'd originally given him a little flack about not acknowledging that the Cinema 'N' Drafthouse is in Wheaton, though their updated "About" page replete with maps, diagrams and directions to the place.

Although I've never been to the Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse, I'm looking forward to what's in store for Wheaton. Between this new theatre and the AFI, Bethesda is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the East County resident seeking cultured films and alcohol.

what's up the pike: endings and beginnings

Buses line up outside the Fairland Center in Fairland last January.

I'm nursing my first mosquito bite of the summer, which is surprising, because it's already time to go back to school. MCPS opened its doors today with more kids than they anticipated; as he toured schools across the county this morning, superintendent Jerry Weast noted some of the biggest jumps in enrollment were in Silver Spring. It's a time of endings and beginnings - even if you don't have kids, or know kids, or like kids, you can feel the change in season. As our schedules change, so do our routines and priorities, and we can see it in a shake-up with some of our most established local bloggers.

- On Saturday, photoblog Silver Spring Daily Photo published its final image. Just shy of two years old, SSDP compiled over six hundred photos of anything and everything in the Silver Spring area. But keeping it up became "more of a chore than a pleasure," as blogger John (which may be his name, or one I made up, I'm not sure) writes.

- Meanwhile, Rethink College Park, which has written about growth and politics in Maryland's biggest college town, may also be ending soon. With all three of its main contributors out of school and out of town, co-founder David Daddio wonders if it has a future. RTCP was one of a bumper crop of blogs (including this one) born right before the mid-term elections in 2006; since then, its work has been recognized by the Gazette, Money Magazine and Planetizen.

- But while some blogs may leave, new blogs may come to fill the void. This week, we learned about life in (scenic) Wheaton, a new(ish) blog by a resident who calls her hometown "hands down the most exotic place I've ever lived." While I've called Silver Spring home since I was three, I always got excited about going up to Wheaton, whether for the mall or for the glorious Chinese food that surrounds it on all fronts. There's an ongoing fight over chains vs. local stores in Downtown Silver Spring, but for the time being, Wheaton's got it somewhat worked out, I suppose.

Friday, August 22, 2008

the illegal apartment, or three families made homeless

Firefighters tackle a blaze at this home on Dennis Avenue in Wheaton, which caught fire yesterday morning. Photo by Chip Py.

All across East County, there are illegal apartments jerry-rigged out of basements and garages, turning ranchers into rooming houses and causing complaints about overcrowding, trash and crime. A house caught fire on Dennis Avenue in Wheaton yesterday, but there were three families left on the curb that morning, I was told. You wonder how they were living inside this little post-war cottage, built fifty years ago with three bedrooms, a bathroom, an attic and a basement. Is there running water in all parts of the building? Are there smoke detectors and sprinklers? Windows in every bedroom? Who's to say?

A block from my parents' house in Calverton is an illegal basement apartment that was rented for ten years before the homeowners' association finally acknowledged it and took the landlord to court. Ask my mother, who's working to shut down this basement rental, and she'll say it's wrong, it's illegal, and it goes against the zoning in our neighborhood.

But if the space was wrong, how did the owner rent it out for ten years with everyone on her street fully aware? And are these "accessory dwelling units," as they're known to lawyers and County Councilmembers alike, as much of a problem as the fact that most of them are built and maintained with no oversight whatsoever?

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Additions like this one in White Oak, which neighbors accused of being a separate unit, create new homes without regulation or adequate planning.

Despite its good intentions, Montgomery County's affordable housing program can't house every family or individual in need. People living in these illegally-created spaces can't afford to continue staying in housing not built to code: it's literally a life or death situation. And the neighbors can't afford living next to them, either, because unregulated apartments encourage overcrowding and overuse of buildings and neighborhoods built for a totally different use.

But if made legal, ADUs could be a "benign yet potentially effective method for providing affordable housing," in the words of Washington Post columnist Roger K. Lewis. It forces building owners to maintain their properties, reducing blight and preventing incidents like yesterday's fire. By making residents legal occupants of a unit, it encourages them to become more involved in their community.

This "granny flat," or apartment over a garage, was sold as part of a new home at King Farm in Rockville. Planning for accessory units enables them to be incorporated into residential neighborhoods.

And most importantly, it can create a menu of potential housing solutions that both respect and enhance a single-family streetscape. They might include "granny flats," coach houses, basement apartments, or special financial arrangements with friends or family, many of which appear in a well-blogged-about article from Vancouver Magazine this week. It's increased density, yes, but it's a less intrusive form of density than knocking down homes to build apartments.

Accessory dwelling units aren't going anywhere so long as the average new home in Montgomery County tops a million dollars. Why is it acceptable to let people live in unsafe, unregulated housing in neighborhoods clearly unprepared for them? Making ADUs legal is a must - both for the people who rely on them, and for the neighbors as well.

For more information, check out this list of links about Accessory Dwelling Units via Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

judgment pending for trail attack by purple line opponent

From the Gazette:
Isaac Hantman of Bethesda was fined $1,000 and sentenced to probation before judgment for one year on Aug. 1 after pleading guilty to assaulting a woman on the trail on April 24.

According to the statement of charges filed in Montgomery County District Court, Karen Hughes, 48, of Kensington, was walking her dog on a portion of the [Capital Crescent Trail] in Bethesda when she refused to move out of Hantman's way. He was biking toward her and called for her to move.

Hantman, 67, then got off his bike and argued with Hughes, who said she thought there was enough room for the bicycle to pass, according to the charging documents. The arguing allegedly included religious slurs . . .

Hughes tried to walk away, and Hantman allegedly jumped on her back and placed one arm around her head and another around her throat and applied pressure for approximately two to three minutes, according to the charging documents.
A board member of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, Hantman has been a long-time opponent of the Purple Line, which may run along a portion of the popular trail running from Georgetown to Silver Spring. He is perhaps best known for his occasional letters to the Gazette criticizing the proposed transitway. We briefly met at a Purple Line open house last fall.

b'ville town square: lessons learned from other towns

Part THREE in a series on the new Burtonsville Town Square development: what could have been, what we're getting, and what other communities are doing.

For four years, Burtonsville's been struggling to devise a way to revitalize its struggling downtown, and many saw a solution in the Town Square shopping center, set to start construction this fall. But what are other communities in the area doing? We wanted to find out.

Each of the following shopping centers in Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties met three criteria for comparison: it was similar in size to the Town Square; it was nearby, meaning it could be competition; or in the case of Damascus, the surrounding area has similar demographics to Burtonsville.

DAMASCUS CENTRE


Location: Route 108 and Woodfield Road, Damascus (population: 12,086)
Program: 138,554 square feet of retail
Why we included it: Located in the northwestern corner of Montgomery County, Damascus has a rural heritage that's rapidly giving way to suburbanization, not unlike Burtonsville. It also has similar education levels and average household incomes.
Plan: Redevelop existing strip mall, some of whose tenants have been there for over twenty-five years. Meanwhile, add new shops along Main Street, in keeping with the 2006 Master Plan - which seeks to create a somewhat denser downtown for Damascus.
Tenants: The first phase includes professional offices (an attorney, an orthodonist, Long & Foster); neighborhood services (a florist, an equestrian shop); and a new "lifestyle" Safeway, but the next phase will have all new shops.
Lessons learned: A carefully-planned redevelopment can keep the mom-and-pops in town while accommodating new growth.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

ASHTON MEETING PLACE

Location: Route 108 and New Hampshire Avenue, Ashton (population: 1,761)
Program: approx. 41,000 square feet of retail, 32,000 square feet of office, seven homes
Why we included it: Ashton's barely fifteen minutes away from Burtonsville, meaning the new shopping center will be a competitor for anything here. While both communities have a rural history, Ashton's nearly three hundred years of existence mean new development gets extra scrutiny.
Plan: A mixed-use development meant to give Ashton residents a small-scale commercial center, with sidewalks, a parking garage (to reduce the project's footprint), and a "village green." Local activists helped create the final design, which convinced the developer to downscale an earlier, larger proposal.
Tenants: Sandy Spring Bank (which already has a building on the site), a small grocery store (~26,000 square feet), and others which haven't been decided.
What it teaches us: That a project once derided as the "Ashton Mall" can get built if the community chooses to work with a developer, not against them, and produce much better results.

MAPLE LAWN MARKETPLACE

Location: Maple Lawn Boulevard (near Route 29) and Route 216, Scaggsville (population: 24,079)
Program: 182,000 square feet of retail in development with 1.6 million square feet of offices and 1,500 homes
Why we included it: Its location five minutes north of Burtonsville and upscale tenants mean Maple Lawn Marketplace will be a huge competitor for any retail in East County.
Population
Plan: A six-block "business district" with wide sidewalks, stores below offices and condominiums, and parking lots tucked in back. Grocery store Harris Teeter will face Route 216.
Tenants: A wine bar, a tapas bar, a lingerie store, and the aforementioned Harris Teeter.
What it teaches us: that you can still accommodate the car and the pedestrian, that density can produce a very attractive community, and that branding is very important. There's no mention of Scaggsville in Maple Lawn's marketing materials - you wouldn't be able to sell million-dollar houses with a name like that.

CENTRE AT LAUREL

Location: Contee Road and Route 1, Laurel (population: 25,637)
Why we included it: With a similar layout and similar square footage, this could be the Town Square's twin - not to mention that it's right next door to Burtonsville.
Program: 136,961 square feet of retail
Plan: Conventional strip mall layout, with stores lined up parallel to Contee Road; restaurants occupy stand-alone buildings closer to the corner of Contee and Route 1.
Tenants: Three-fourths of the center's 28 stores are chains, including Applebee's, Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks and PetSmart, with Shoppers as an anchor. The City of Laurel police department has a substation here.
What it teaches us: Absoutely nothing. Design-wise, it's exactly like Burtonsville Town Square, though Chris Jones's promises of environmentally-friendly construction and high-quality faƧades may change that.
For comparison, here's a profile of Burtonsville Town Square.


BURTONSVILLE TOWN SQUARE

Location: Route 198 and Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville (population: 11,470)
Program: 130,000 square feet of retail
Plan: A conventional strip mall - shops arranged around a large parking lot - on the former site of a forty-year-old shopping center.
Tenants: CVS/pharmacy and Giant. Plans show spaces for sit-down restaurants and up to two drive-through banks.

NOTES:
- All population counts are from the 2000 U.S. Census for the zip code each project is located in.

Monday, August 18, 2008

what's up the pike: dumping grounds and new towns

Apartment complexes in White Oak, seen from the new Whitehall Square development at Stewart Lane and Lockwood Drive.

It's a new week, and I'll be kicking it off in New York City, checking out grad schools. (Could Just Up The Pike be moving to the Big Apple? We'll have to wait for those big fat acceptance letters.) Here's a look at what's happening Up The Pike:

- East County has long been considered a dumping ground for affordable housing, with over ten percent of Montgomery County's subsidized units in the 20904 zip code alone. Last week, Adam Pagnucco at Maryland Politics Watch kicked off a five-part series on the county's MPDU (Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit) program, examining where affordable housing is located and why it's become that way.

As always, Adam backs up his argument, with solid data from the Housing Opportunities Commission and some unseemly comments from Bethesda residents who fought to have a county-owned house torn down rather than used for a low-income family. Check it out: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

- Over the weekend, the Post wrote about Konterra Town Center, the centerpiece of the mini-city on the Montgomery/Prince George's line. Set to open in 2012, it'll be like "National Harbor . . . but bigger," with forty-five hundred new homes and six million square feet of office and retail space.

Not surprisingly, residents in Burtonsville - right next door - worry it will "destroy their community's rural landscape," with one complaining that the area "is not ever going to be the same again." I can't wait.

- A photo from Just Up The Pike was selected for inclusion in the Schmap Guide for Baltimore, an online travel site with reviews and information about local attractions. The image - of a light-rail train taken for last year's story comparing the MTA to the future Purple Line - will be used for a piece on Baltimore's public transportation.

It's the second time a JUTP photo appears in a major publication; last spring, a picture of Rockville Town Square appeared in a newsletter published by Rutgers' school of public policy.

Friday, August 15, 2008

fillmore zoning offers compromise for county, developers

A new zoning amendment for the Fillmore could mean redevelopment might not take place on Colesville for fifteen years. For more, check out the Silver Spring Scene, who discussed the changes with County officials and developer Bruce Lee last month.

For over twenty years, the block at the northeast corner of Georgia and Colesville has sat empty, save for a row of languishing shops and the landmark Lee Building, which opened in 1987 without a single tenant. Today, Montgomery County's got a plan to revitalize the block with its Fillmore music hall, set to occupy a former J.C. Penney on Colesville. How? By letting everything around it sit empty for even longer.

Over the past month, many have called foul on the proposal: a pair of zoning changes offered by County Executive Ike Leggett that would give the Lee Development Group, who owns most of the block, fifteen years to build it up - while also counting the new venue as a public space. But Diane Jones, Assistant Chief Administration Officer for the County, says it's a good way to ensure the community's needs are met while accommodating new development.

"[The amendment] provides a means for the County Executive to identify something as the public use space for a project." says Jones in a phone interview earlier this week with Just Up The Pike. "We've identified something in Silver Spring - a boarded-up storefront - that we'd like to see fixed-up."

Applying only to Arts and Entertainment Districts in downtowns Wheaton, Silver Spring and Bethesda - the proposed changes allow Montgomery County to set their terms for how public uses should work, but give developers room to build as they need. In older downtowns where the land is divided up into small, separately owned properties, it's hard to make a difference "short of creating an urban renewal area," Jones explains.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

The former J.C. Penney building - soon to be the Fillmore - shown in September 2007.

Last month, Silver Spring, Singular complained that the new regulations would allow Lee Development Group to "essentially remain a slumlord" in the area, but Jones says there's only so much the County can do. "Do you think we have the ablilty to force somebody to develop?" she asks. "I would encourage you to think about this as a multi-phase project . . . and multi-phase projects get a lot of extensions. It's pretty routine."

Most large developments in Montgomery County are required to provide a public space, typically a pocket park or plaza. In multi-phase projects, it doesn't get built until enough revenue is raised to pay for it, usually after "ten or twelve years," says Jones. With the new changes, not only does the public space get built first, but the County gains several years of appreciation that otherwise wouldn't have happened on a property estimated to be worth $6 million. "We're getting it for free now, instead of in the out years," she notes. "That advanced use has a value associated with it."

Developer Bruce Lee (at left) with County Councilmember Val Ervin (middle), a supporter of the Fillmore, and musician Marcus Johnson at a fundraiser last fall.

From Jones's perspective, it's a huge leap of faith for the Lees, having been "burned" in the past. "I know they built the Lee Building as a speculative building at a time when the economic cycle was down and it failed," she says. "They are not speculative developers [anymore] . . . if they had a project, they would go forward."

"They part with the flexibility with what they can do with their land," Jones adds. "When they do their detail design, they have to design around what they've already given up . . . they'll have to pay for traffic studies; they'll have to pay a site planner to do massing for their ultimate project. And that's not cheap . . . giving them extensions for their land for this amenity space seems fair."

Planning Board chairman Royce Hanson, who soundly rejected the proposal at a hearing last month, points to the Silver Triangle - a giant shopping mall conceived by Lee in 1990 that would have bridged over Georgia Avenue - as an example of the developer's "unreasonable" demands. But his recommendations may not have a bearing on the final decision.

"The actual decision makers for this are the county council, and they've already had their public hearing," says Jones. Over the next month, the County Council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee will discuss the amendments in a worksession, with a vote before the whole council to take place sometime in September.

The recent controversy has been a distraction, Jones says, from the real goals of the music hall project, which first began in 2001. "When we have something that could provide an enriching and cultural public space, I wonder why we shouldn't do that," she laments. "Putting politics aside, it's something that should be done, not a political issue: How we get an old storefront reenergized."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

developer won't say new building is in silver spring

Local developer Duffie Inc. is working on a new office buliding at New Hampshire and the Beltway that will have LEED Gold certification.

Shoved up against the off-ramp for 495, 10001 New Hampshire Avenue - as it's been dubbed - "might as well have a Beltway address," boasts a marketing brochure for the 55,000-square-foot building.

Developer Duffie Inc., whose headquarters are located next door, is also building the Randolph Plaza retail-and-office complex in Colesville that we talked about last month. Following the lead of the proposed White Oak Recreation Center and the Burtonsville Town Square, 10001's going for LEED Gold certification - the second-highest level on the eco-friendly construction rating scale. Duffie calls the building the area's "first totally 'green' private office space," though the website doesn't really mention what makes it so environmentally sound.

The website also doesn't give a specific location. You and I might say this building's in Hillandale; the Postal Service would give it a Silver Spring address. Duffie? "Superb Montgomery County location on the Capital Beltway."

I figured Silver Spring was a reputable address for a business to have now, what with the ongoing revitalization and all. On the other hand, though, all many people outside of Silver Spring know is Downtown - more specifically, the one block of Ellsworth Drive, and everything outside of that is presumably where somebody got stabbed.

("You heard about the stabbing, right?" I can hear my friends/coworkers in Rockville saying. "It was on Channel 5 news last night. Yeah, it was in Silver Spring! Sucks, man. I thought the place was turning around.")

Maybe I'm exaggerating. But you'd at least think that sharing an address with the Discovery Channel, even if it is four miles away, would be enough for a developer to slap "Silver Spring" on his new building.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

what's up the pike: clouds over highway to heaven

The City of Takoma Park is considering recommendations to turn New Hampshire Avenue into an urban boulevard, shown here in this imagined view of New Hampshire looking north from Sheridan Street.

New Hampshire Avenue's like the Vatican: there are a lot of religious facilities in a small area, except there's no Pope, and no sovereignty, unless you count the People's Republic of Takoma Park. Here's a look at what's happening along New Hampshire this week from the Gazette:

- Colesville's reeling from the theft of one of four "Welcome to Colesville" signs marking the entrance to their community, erected four years ago in an attempt to distinguish them from Colesville Road, which is several miles away. The stolen marker, at East Randolph and Clifton roads, was worth $4,300, though the Greater Colesville Citizens Association, which bought the signs, had them insured. Blaming local teenagers for the incident, resident Fred Pulliam calls it a "sad commentary of the times."

- Citing improved pedestrian access, the City of Takoma Park might slim down New Hampshire Avenue, giving over existing traffic lanes to parking and expanded sidewalks. "We really need to rethink the entire way that we have looked at this road for the past 30 or more years to transform it into a classic urban street, or what we call a multiway boulevard," says planner Stuart Sirota, whose firm was hired to do a design charrette for the city's chunk of New Hampshire last fall.

Suggestions included narrowing New Hampshire from six lanes to four, landscaped medians, and a roundabout at Eastern Avenue. City Councilman Reuben Snipper, a bicyclist, complained that the proposal didn't include lanes for bikes or the rapid bus lines that could eventuallly run up New Hampshire.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

The Lutheran Church of St. Andrew, one of many churches along New Hampshire Avenue in Cloverly, dubbed the "Highway To Heaven."

- New Hampshire may be known for its megachurches, but many are raising concerns about churches run out of private homes along the corridor. Reporter Amber Parcher - whose by-lines probably cover half of the Gazette not already given over to ads - interviews residents who say they churches don't belong in residential neighborhoods, citing increased traffic and yards paved over for parking.

While I'm not a fan of most house-to-church conversions, having lived next to a split-level-turned-Korean-congregation that eventually closed, I'm curious why small, appropriately planned houses of worship should be banished from residential areas. After all, they do provide important services for the community, and at a scale that doesn't have to overwhelm local roads with cars.

Megachurches do as well, but at the expense of eating up undeveloped land and creating a far worse traffic situation than smaller facilities. In fact, many churches buy land on New Hampshire Avenue because they're unable to find suitable locations closer in. This is partially an issue of size; I'm not saying we should let megachurches open up in residential neighborhoods, but smaller houses of worship shouldn't be as limited in where they locate.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

what's up the pike: unannounced vacation?

Community turnout and vendor participation in this year's East County Community Day were considerably lower than last year's. Check out this slideshow of the event's two-year history.

Just Up The Pike's been quiet over the past week, but there's no better time to abdicate blogging duties than during the August recess, when Your Government closes up shop and heads for the Outer Banks. Away from the beaches, however, it's still business-as-usual in East County. Here's a look at what's happening this week:

- Last Saturday's East County Community Day, held at the Windsor Court and Tower Apartments on Castle Boulevard, was a mild disappointment. Held in conjunction with a memorial service for three Windsor residents who died in an apartment fire last summer, the first Community Day benefited from publicity in the Gazette, Montgomery County's events calendar, and local news stations. This year, however, that publicity was nonexistent, with yours truly unaware of when time the event even started.

Those who came out were mainly Windsor Court residents, and vendor participation was also considerably lower, with only seven tables under the big tent, most of whom didn't get much traffic, save for Holy Cross Hospital, which was giving blood pressure tests, and Verizon, who had visors and bags to offer. While their bags were a big hit with residents seeking a place to put their flyers from my table in, I was disappointed that an "East County Community Day" failed to bring out the entire community. My question for Windsor Court is: why do your residents have to die in order for people to know you exist?

- Love it or hate it, the InterCounty Connector is moving along quickly, with construction sites and staging areas appearing up and down the new toll road's eighteen-mile route. In East County, construction means that a portion of Dogwood Drive near Briggs Chaney Road will close permanently to make room for an interchange. Adjacent to Cross Creek Club and lined with new, $600,000 townhomes, Dogwood was until recently home to the few remaining farmhouses from a time when Briggs Chaney wasn't synonymous with "garden apartments."

The ICC's first phase, between I-370 in Gaithersburg and Georgia Avenue in Norbeck, is expected to wrap up by the fall of 2010, with the entire highway, ending at Route 1 in Laurel, being completed a year later. For the Dogwood closure, check out SHA's website or Dr. Gridlock for more information.

- As I'm sure you read in last week's Gazette, the Dutch Country Farmers' Market will remain in Burtonsville through November. Developer Chris Jones is waiting to obtain the permits to start construction on a redevelopment of the Burtonsville Shopping Center, home to the market, which was supposed to begin this summer. The Dutch Market plans to move to a new, considerably larger location in Laurel by the end of the year. JUTP is doing an ongoing series on the Burtonsville Shopping Center revitalization, and it's worth checking out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

community day this saturday

This Saturday, come on out to the second-annual East County Community Day, held at the Windsor Court and Tower Apartments, for food, games and music. The theme is "Striving to Make a Difference," inspired by a fire last summer that killed the Foncham sisters, who lived with their mother in the complex. If last year's fair is any indication, there'll be a moon bounce, a singing competition (dubbed "Windsor Idol") and a petting zoo, which Silver Spring, Singular jokingly referred to as an "animal concentration camp."

There will also be booths for local artists and businesses selling goods and community organizations offering information about various services in East County. Just Up The Pike will have a table, featuring flyers, JUTP buttons and, of course, me, so come by and say hello.

Community Day will be held throughout the day (though we'd assume not too early, so don't show up at 8 a.m.) at Windsor Court and Tower, located at 13802 Castle Boulevard in Briggs Chaney.

Monday, August 4, 2008

b'ville town square: learning to compromise

Part TWO in a series on the new Burtonsville Town Square development: what could have been, what we're getting, and what other communities are doing.

Rendering of the Burtonsville Town Square, which was supposed to begin construction this summer. Click here for a site plan.

By 2006, it looked like developer Chris Jones' plan to revitalize Burtonsville's struggling village center was dead in the water. Without the support of local residents who feared his ambitious development - dubbed the Town Square - would bring a Wal-Mart to town, he wouldn't be able to survive the development review process, which includes a public hearing. (Jones declined to be interviewed for this series, citing a busy schedule; when we e-mailed him questions, he did not provide a response.)

But today, Burtonsville's turned in favor of the Town Square again. In June, he unveiled new plans for the shopping center to the East County Citizens Advisory Board, giving residents their first glimpse of the project since 2005. "He was as forthcoming as he could be at this time," Kim Bobola, chairwoman of the board, told the Gazette, citing "frustration within the community" about the shopping center's slow progress. "No one can fault [Jones] as they have in the past," said Bill Strassberger, who sat on the board.

Outside of the Board, few have ever seen the plans. Several weeks ago, however, county officials discovered this marketing brochure on a password-only commercial real estate site. "Join Giant," the ad reads. "Dominant Location in Market. Limited Competition In Large Trade Area. Very Substantial Barriers To Entry For New Competition . . . A Green Development."

Not only does it confirm that earlier rumors that Jones, unable to attract the high-end grocer he'd promised, had lured Giant from its current location across the street. Meanwhile, it also reveals that what he's called "greenest suburban retail" in the nation may be betrayed by its sprawling, car-oriented design, using the same amount of land to hold half the retail space ambitious originally proposed - a concept which Jones later called a "maximum-build scenario" that was "unlikely to represent the final plan."

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Final layout of the Burtonsville Town Square, which was supposed to begin construction this summer. Click here for a larger version.

The new Burtonsville Town Square will be powered by geothermal heat pumps drilled 400 feet into the ground, landscaping with only native plants, and recycling 75 percent of the existing shopping center into the new one. But gone is the square intended to become Burtonsville's gathering place; instead, there are free-standing restaurants and drive-through banks forming a ring around a sea of parking.

And for Burtonsville merchants, that was absolutely fine. Business owners interviewed in a Gazette story about an economic development study conducted in June called pedestrian improvements like sidewalks "a waste of time." "I don’t need pedestrians; I need cars going by," said Kirk Whiteman, owner of Hobby City, adding, "Big changes are bad." Lynn Martins, whose Seibel's Restaurant is next to the Town Square, looked forward to its completion. "I think when [Chris Jones] revitalizes the shopping center, we’re all going to be surprised," she said.

It's a far cry from two years ago, when residents fought to save Dutch Country Farmers Market an anchor in the existing Burtonsville Shopping Center for nearly two decades and home to dozens of vendors selling everything from fresh produce to backyard structures. In a community that clings to its rural heritage, the so-called "Amish Market" represented a piece of Burtonsville that many felt had been lost to suburban development. In a 2006 Gazette profile on the store, Shelley Rochester, Stuart's wife, called it Burtonsville's "town center," and collected names from two thousand households as part of an awareness campaign for its impending closure.

Citing that the market might be competition for his new tenants, Jones began working with Montgomery County and the market's vendors to find them a new location in Burtonsville. It would be a difficult find, however; the market, a tight warren of shops and stalls that looks as homemade as the goods they sold, need more space. The market drew large crowds that required more parking than other stores of similar size - but also only being open three days a week, creating a "dead zone" from Sunday to Thursday. And the "well-below-market" rents they paid would also be hard to find elsewhere.

In June 2007, Bethesda resident Yoav Katz, who owned an auto repair shop on Route 198, approached the Amish Market about relocating to a new facility he'd build on his property. However, they'd already secured a location in a former grocery store in Upper Marlboro, in southern Prince George's County. At 30,000 square feet, it was twice the size of their current home in Burtonsville - and Katz's proposal as well. "We feel there is an opportunity here," manager Elam Petersheim told the Gazette shortly after the new market opened in March 2008.

The late County Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, who represented East County, was upbeat about the move. "This is a measure of their success that they're expanding," she told the Post in June. Meanwhile, Praisner, County Executive Ike Leggett and two County departments continued searching for potential sites in Burtonsville. In February, sites emerged on Dino Drive in thee Burtonsville Industrial Park, and in Laurel just across I-95.

By March, however, the Amish Market announced it had signed a five-year lease for a former furniture store on Route 198 in eastern Laurel, partly aided by Prince George's County Councilmember Thomas Dernoga. Like their new Upper Marlboro location, the Laurel store was twice as large as their site in Burtonsville, with "wider aisles and spacious floor space that will allow the market to offer faster, better service to customers," according to manager Sam Beiler.

With the Amish Market gone, Jones could finally draw attention back to his new shopping center, but he held his cards close, keeping most information about the development out of public view -and, thus, public debate. He dismissed questions about the Giant move at the Advisory Board meeting where the plans were unveiled. In June, the Post Office, a tenant for ten years, was evicted for being unable to commit to an additional ten-year lease. Recently, vendors at the Amish Market have told customers that they will remain open through November, citing Jones's difficulty in obtaining permits for the redevelopment.

Four years in the making, the Town Square represents a turning point in Burtonsville's history. Burned by suburban growth and wary of change, many residents hoped it would be a step back to more prosperous times - or, at least, maintain the status quo. For the developer, it was an opportunity to give the community the kind of upscale shopping that East County lacks. As the two clashed and attempted to compromise, neither managed to win in the end. But until the first shovel hits the ground, it's still just business as usual in Burtonsville.

Click here to see a site plan for the new Town Square. LATER THIS WEEK: What kind of retail similar communities in the area are getting.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

guest blog: patuxent ridge developer responds

Ryan Homes, whose Whitehall Square development in White Oak is pictured above, will be among those building condominiums on a site at old Route 29 and Dustin Road. Developer Tom Norris presented his proposal for Patuxent Ridge to local residents last Wednesday at the Praisner Library, raising concerns about its proximity to the Patuxent Watershed. In response to an earlier guest post by Burtonsville resident Barry Louis Polisar, Norris sent us the following:

I was disappointed to see so much anger and deliberate disinformation displayed at this meeting to discuss a small Senior Housing Project. It was obvious from the start that there was an orchestrated campaign of falsehood and misinformation taking place.

Consequently, as the developer, and a participant at this meeting, it is my responsibility to correct a number of false and misleading statements that have been put forth.

1. The first correction that must be made is the name of the builder; it is Ryan Homes, not Ryland as incorrectly reported.

2. The second error is to pretend that this is a "high density" project when it is not. In 1998, the County Planners recommended approval for 291 units, in three, four story buildings on this same parcel. (Special Exception S-2322). While the County planners made the determination that this site was compatible and necessary, the Board of Appeals did not approve the submission because neither the ICC nor the new Rt. 29 had been funded or finalized as yet.

While 291 units on 10 acres does indeed represent "high density," our proposal of 86 units on the same site cannot possibly be placed in that same category and it is misleading to pretend otherwise. This is NOT a high-density project, especially for 10 acres surrounded by highway on three sides and anchored by two Shopping Centers to the South.

3. Another error promoted at this meeting was to pretend that this project is in an agriculture zone. It is not. The Rural Cluster is a residential zone that is different from the agriculture zone and this fact needs to be honestly acknowledged. It is not a point of debate.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

4. Furthermore, it is not true that this project would harm the watershed, nor open the door to large amounts of future development. This area already has very strict guidelines in place to protect the watershed, and these rules are not mitigated, revised, or removed in any way by the use of Sewer in this area as some claimed.

This is just another dishonest diversion by those who want to stop all development, ignore the shortage of Senior Housing, and allow the County's tax base to erode away. For what purpose?

Moreover, it is a fact that there is very little land left to develop in this area. Why? Because there are so many streams, which are protected by the PMA restrictions that are in place to protect the watershed. This greatly reduces the available land for development.

So here is yet another false argument that must be corrected. There is very little development possible in the Burtonsville area because of the extremely tough environmental regulations. And this project does not change this fact.

5. While some also tried to raise an incompatibility issue, it cannot be denied that this property is surrounded by major highways on three sides, even as there are a number of commercial sites and churches to the West and South, including two large shopping centers. This area north of the Shopping Center is obviously neglected and thus it needs revitalization because the status quo is well below the standards of most other areas in the County.

Moreover, this claim that a 4-story building is too high for the neighborhood is only wishful thinking, as a dispassionate view of the skyline will prove. In fact, abutting this land to the North is a very visible 50' fire tower, which is close to the street and in full view of those on both the old and new 29.

This tower has been there for many years in plain view of the neighborhood. Has anyone complained that it is too high or taken action to remove this tall structure? This tower has become a fixture and a landmark in the community, and thus it is not correct to try and claim that anything as high as 4 stories is not compatible with the neighborhood. That is obviously not the case.

In addition to this tall tower, there is another, even taller structure further south; here is a 60' Communications Tower for all to see. But there is more. This second tower is followed by a number of very high, and very visible towers of gigantic proportions a little more south. Thus, there are a number of 12 story transmission towers that cross both the old and the new 29, behind the shopping center. They are very visible throughout the entire neighborhood.

For anyone to ignore these numerous and very large 12 story towers, along with their accompanying strings of wires in the sky, is utter nonsense. Why pretend that they don't exist, and why ignore the shopping center, with its 4 story office buildings or pretend that this area is not full of many tall towers?

This is not a little county area anymore, and there is no use pretending otherwise in order to push the seniors away from the Eastern part of the County. Don't they have a right to live in the County?

The fact of the matter is that this community is full of tall towers-- all in excess of 4 stories. The Community also contains a pair of 4 story office buildings and a large-4 story Giant Food Store. Such obvious facts disprove this notion of height incompatibility. It was just another excuse to stop any and all development, no matter how necessary or lawful. This is shameful behavior.

If ever there were a site that works for Senior Housing, this would be it. Patuxent Ridge is a low-density, clean and quiet project that would be an asset to any Community or County. The project will also be connected to the Shopping center by a sidewalk, which will give some additional and much needed character to this neglected portion of the neighborhood.

6. While it is true that no one stood up to defend the project at the meeting, it was only because the crowd was so hostile and rude. I am pleased to say that after the meeting numerous people came up to me and apologized for the lack of civility. (Some even called later). A number said they supported the project, but they had no desire to stand up in such a hostile environment and be ridiculed by those with such a rigid and uninformed agenda.

So it is very misleading and false for anyone to write: "None of the local residents attending the meeting voiced approval of these plans." Like so many others things that have been said, this is not true, even though it was unfortunately correct to state that "at times the exchange became a little heated."

In conclusion, the County is falling far behind in Senior Housing. The present situation forces many to move to the adjacent Counties where there are numerous choices available for such Active Adult projects. However, this unnecessary erosion of the tax base will drive up taxes for the rest of us, even as it separates us from those that are forced to retire in other locations outside the County. This makes no sense.

This senior project is low density. It has been reduced from 291 to 86 units. It is compatible with this unique configuration of land that is surrounded by highways on the North, East, and West as well as a Shopping Center to the South. It is a smart use of the little remaining land that is left in this area.

I hope this information will clear up some of the propaganda that has been so irresponsibly promoted by some. It is obvious to many that the Burtonsville area needs to be dramatically improved and rehabilitated, and this small Senior Project is a good start.

Neither the County, nor the Community, should ignore the growing needs of its Senior Citizens. As the Baby Boomers age, they should not be discriminated against, nor pushed out of the Eastern part of the County by those with other agendas. Such action is obviously against public policy as well as common sense and decency.

I think the Burtonsville Community can do better. I think they should do more to encourage Senior Housing, not less.

Thank you for allowing me to correct the record and share my viewpoints.

Tom Norris, Patuxent Ridge LLC
[phone number removed]

If you've got something to say, Just Up The Pike is always looking for guest bloggers. While I don't always agree with the statements made, guest blogs offer an opportunity for all sides to be heard on East County issues. Contact me at danreed at umd dot edu if you're interested in contributing.