Monday, December 29, 2008

2k8: this year in east county

2008 will be remembered as an epic year for our nation, with an economic meltdown and the election of our first black president merely the icing on the cake. It's been an epic year for East County as well, with the tragic loss of a County Councilmember and the beginning of construction on the ICC - two things that many people wouldn't have predicted even last year. Here's a look at some of the big stories we've reported on over the past twelve months:


- Washington Adventist Hospital unveils its plans to build a new facility in Calverton, which will bring over two thousand jobs to East County according to president Jere Stocks.

- Montgomery County signed a lease with concert promoter Live Nation to build a Fillmore music hall in the former J.C. Penney building on Colesville Road, making the controversial nightclub more or less a done deal. It should open in 2010.


- Four-term Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, a resident of Calverton for forty years, and Planning Board commissioner Gene Lynch, who was instrumental in the revitalization of Downtown Silver Spring, pass away on the same day.

- A fire breaks out at El Pollo Rico, the popular Peruvian restaurant in Wheaton, damaging several other neighboring businesses.


- The campaign to fill Marilyn Praisner's former County Council seat is on, with four Democrats and four Republicans vying for the position. Many elected officials throw their support behind Praisner's widower, Don, though he faces stiff competition from School Board president Nancy Navarro.

- After his defeat in the Democratic primary to Donna Edwards, Congressman Al Wynn (D-Dist. 4) steps down to take a position at a law firm with less than a year left in his term.

- The Dutch Country Farmers' Market, an institution in Burtonsville, signs a twenty-five-year lease for a space in Laurel after being evicted from their current location by Chris Jones, who planned to redevelop the shopping center it was located in.


- In the primary election to fill the recently-departed Marilyn Praisner's County Council seat, the Democratic nomination goes to her widower Don. Aided by political gadfly Robin Ficker, Mark Fennel wins the Republican nomination.

- The Planning Board adopts the Silver Spring CBD Green Space Plan, which seeks to create new, higher-quality parks and squares throughout the business district.


- Don Praisner wins the County Council District 4 election, replacing his wife Marilyn. In keeping with one of her favorite traditions, Don throws an ice cream social at Seibel's Restaurant in Burtonsville.

- The Planning Board approves the Ashton Meeting Place, a proposed mixed-use shopping center in Ashton, the result of a compromise between the developer and residents of the three-hundred-year-old village, who were concerned about the project's scale and context.


- South Silver Spring holds its second-annual Block Party, attempting to re-cast the former industrial neighborhood as a place for arts, music and great food.

- The Fairland Recreation Center and Fairland Library are re-named after former Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, who fought to have both facilities funded and built in the 1990's.

- Burtonsville residents debate traffic, "undesirables" and the future of their community at a charrette for the Community Legacy Plan, which will use state funding to revitalize the beleaguered Burtonsville business district.


- International Downtown Associates, a worldwide network of urban planners and designers, propose building a library and town square to revitalize Wheaton's business district, while the Planning Department begins revising the twenty-year-old Wheaton CBD sector plan.

- WMATA proposes expanding their MetroExtra network of rapid buses with a series of new routes throughout the region, including lines along Route 29, Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, University Boulevard and East-West Highway. The East County routes could be up and running as early as 2012.

- Montgomery County throws a "farewell party" for "the Turf," the popular fake-grass hangout at Fenton and Ellsworth in Downtown Silver Spring. Over the next two years, it will be transformed into Veterans' Plaza, a paved square featuring a new civic center and ice rink.


- Construction of the InterCounty Connector begins in earnest as trees come down along Route 29 in preparation for a new interchange. Dogwood Drive in Briggs Chaney is closed to accomodate the toll road, which is set to be completed by 2012.

- Despite making plans to move to Laurel, the Dutch Country Farmers' Market says it will remain in Burtonsville for the time being - which it later revises to "indefinitely." Chris Jones, who plans to redevelop the shopping center the market is located in, is reportedly unable to get the necessary building permits.

- The kids who used to congregate on "the Turf" instead move to the adjacent block of Ellsworth Drive, while landscape architects wonder if the unexpectedly-popular expanse of fake grass could cost them their jobs.


- The Planning Board decides not to landmark Falkland Chase, instead approving plans to redevelop a third of the New Deal-era apartment complex.

- County Executive Ike Leggett's "Pedestrian Safety Week" gets off to a rough start as he stumbles upon the crime scene for a pedestrian killed on Fairland Road. In response, the county Department of Transportation launches an in-depth examination of pedestrian safety along the road.

- East County residents flock to the eighteenth-annual Burtonsville Days festival, featuring a parade, a food court, local vendors and the first-ever Burtonsville Fashion Show.


- Following last June's charrette, consultants propose new landscaping, reconfigured parking lots and minor aesthetic improvements for Burtonsville's struggling village center in the Community Legacy Plan, which can be used to apply for State funding.

- The County Council approves a raft of new amendments that give developers increased leeway in exchange for building the Fillmore music hall and similar amenities in the downtowns of Silver Spring, Bethesda and Wheaton.

- Silver Spring, Singular and Thayer Avenue host Silver Spring's first Zombie Walk, drawing hundreds to Ellsworth Drive and landing a feature in the Gazette.


- Fourteen-year-old Tai Lam, a student at Blair High School, is murdered on a Ride-On bus while coming home from Downtown Silver Spring. While the neighborhood listservs light up with fears that the Purple Line and development will contribute to a rising crime rate, friends and well-wishers set up a memorial to Lam on Ellsworth Drive.

- A bank robbery in Clarksville leads to a police chase across the river into East County, resulting in roadblocks, schools under lockdown and a violent shootout in the Greencastle Lakes neighborhood of Burtonsville.

- Elected officials and local residents alike make themselves heard at Montgomery College for the last of four public hearings on the Purple Line's Alternatives Analysis/Draft Environmental Impact Study.

- Over Thanksgiving weekend, a middle-aged woman vandalizes the exterior of City Place Mall, breaking the windows of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant on Colesville Road with a baseball bat.


- JUTP does a series profiling Paul Stregevsky, writer of Tracks, the world's first musical about the Purple Line.

- Ten months after its original location on Ennalls Avenue in Wheaton burned down, Peruvian chicken eatery El Pollo Rico re-opens a block away on University Boulevard, though I still have yet to eat there.

- Councilmember Marc Elrich unveils his plan for a 100-mile Bus Rapid Transit system in Montgomery County, which would create a reserved, reversible lane for buses on major roads like Georgia Avenue, Route 29 and Randolph Road.

- The County's Office of Legislative Oversight says that the Northeast and Downcounty consortia, which offer East County students a choice of "signature programs" at one of eight different high schools, has failed its originally stated goal of racial integration.

- Two months after it opens, the Montgomery Cinema 'N' Drafthouse in Wheaton closes, citing financial difficulties, a lack of help from Montgomery County, and very unrealistic expectations from their landlord, the Westfield Group.

- The Planning Board endorses light-rail as their preferred mode for the Purple Line, and suggests using both the Georgetown Branch Trail in Chevy Chase and Wayne Avenue in East Silver Spring for the route.

- A man is shot outside of Wheaton Plaza two days before Christmas, marking the fourth serious crime that has happened at the mall since its multi-million-dollar renovation in 2005.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

just up the [pikes peak]?

I'm currently reporting from the Starbucks at the corner of 16th and Arapahoe in Downtown Denver, Colorado. I don't know where Pikes Peak is in relation to where I am, or what it is, really, but I figured it would be an appropriate pun for where I'll be for the next week. I'm representing the University of Maryland at FORUM, a yearly convention held by AIAS, the association of architecture students - and when I'm not attending seminars and super-cool activities, I'll be exploring the Denver area with nothing more than a bus pass and a camera and, hopefully, shoes.

My plans to post for this week have been thrown off by my hotel's lack of Internet access, hence my location here in the Starbucks. It's located on the 16th Street Mall, a mile-long corridor in Denver's downtown dedicated solely to pedestrians and transit vehicles. Think Ellsworth Drive, but much, much longer, and lined with what seems like every kind of store you can imagine (the majority of which, unfortunately, appear to be chains.) It does, though, remind me a lot of Ellsworth Drive, especially when it comes to the diversity. I've seen a slew of street performers, homeless people, families with little children, and a healthy number of what I refer to as "the emo kids," skinny jeans and all.

I don't know when I'll be posting again, but hopefully it'll be soon. I'm here by myself, so I could use the company.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

what's up the pike: like hell you're reading this now . . .

. . . because this is the one time during the year you've got something better to do than read blogs. Here's a look at what happened the night before Christmas in East County:

- With police in full force, holiday shopping resumed at Wheaton Plaza one day after a man was shot outside Macy's in what police call a gang-related incident.

- Meanwhile, at El Pollo Rico, the constantly-embattled Peruvian chicken eatery across University Boulevard from the mall, previous owner Francisco Solano was sentenced with three years in prison for money laundering and employing illegal aliens.

- So long as we're still in Wheaton: Imagine DC's Dave Murphy talks about how he'd revitalize its beleaguered business district by taking out Wheaton Plaza and completing the area's currently-broken street grid.

- The Gazette talks about a six-month prostitution sting at the Days Inn in South Silver Spring that resulted in over a dozen arrests and the discovery that, yes, pimps really do drive purple Cadillacs in real life. After the campaign's conclusion last July, the state transferred the funding to another assignment on Briggs Chaney Road, though the article doesn't say what it was, which begs the question: have you seen any gentlemen in big fur coats wandering around Briggs Chaney Plaza?

Merry Christmas! We'll see you soon.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

it's christmas eve in washington

It's hard to explain why "Christmas Eve in Washington" by Maura Sullivan is my favorite Christmas song. The lyrics are corny at best, and to say Sullivan's delivery is overdone would be a understatement. But I adore locally grown music - even at its very worst - and I wait until Christmas Eve each year to play this song again.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Just Up The Pike!

It's snowing tonight in the Blue Ridge
There's a hush on the Ches'peake Bay
The chimneys are smoking in Georgetown
And tomorrow is Christmas Day

The Tidal Basin lies quiet
The tourists have found their way home
Mr. Jefferson's standing the mid-watch
And there's a star on the Capitol Dome

It's Christmas Eve in Washington
America's hometown
For it's here that freedom lives
And peace can stand her ground

It's Christmas Eve in Washington
Our joyous wish to you
Is for peace, love and laughter
to last the whole year through

Snowmen peeking through the windows
It's warm with love inside
'Round the tree the children gather
Awaiting Santa's midnight ride

Mom and Dad are counting their blessings
Reflecting on all they've done
So thankful for another
Christmas Eve in Washington

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

two shot outside wheaton plaza macy's

. . . or why, even if the Drafthouse were to miraculously re-open (despite the credit crisis - thanks to Chip Py for a very salient point) they'd still have trouble bringing people out to Wheaton for a show:
A gunman shot two people outside the Westfield Mall in Wheaton this evening, then fired at a police officer as he fled through a crowded Macy's department store, authorities said . . . Macy's has been closed and a manhunt involving dozens of officers is in progress around the shopping center . . . There were reports that a blood trail was visible in the store.

This is the fourth major crime to take place at the mall since a $140 million renovation was completed over three years ago. In August 2005, four teens were stabbed inside Target in a gang-related incident; in October 2006, a man was assaulted while waiting to pick someone up; little over a year ago, a woman was kidnapped in parking lot and subsequently robbed.

Hey, press? Next time, just call it "Westfield Mall." Forget "Wheaton Plaza." Make people think it's Westfield Montgomery, or Westfield Annapolis. Maybe if we draw attention away from Wheaton, criminals won't find it such an easy target - and its revitalization, slow to start, can finally pick up free of more bad press.

Monday, December 22, 2008

planning board endorses light-rail purple line

From the Post. As if we didn't see this coming:
Montgomery County planners today endorsed building a light rail system along the proposed east-west Purple Line and recommended running the trains mostly above ground and next to the Capital Crescent Trail, a heavily used hiker-biker route . . . the recommendation is expected to be well received in Prince George's and eastern Montgomery County communities where residents say they need a better alternative to the current slow-moving bus system that is their only transit link to Silver Spring and Bethesda.
More specifically, the Planning Board's recommendations include:

- Tunneling the Purple Line underneath Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda.

- Using the Georgetown Branch Trail right-of-way between Bethesda and Silver Spring, widening the trail itself wherever possible.

- Retaining the station at Fenton and Bonifant streets and running trains down the center of Wayne Avenue in dedicated lanes east of Downtown Silver Spring, though they suggest studying a tunnel further.

- Eliminating a proposed station at Dale Drive and Wayne Avenue, adjacent to the old Blair High School. This is in response to overwhelming community opposition to the stop, though it would have a projected 1,400 daily boardings (warning! PDF file) - almost as much as the Lyttonsville and Fenton Street stations combined.

Read the Planning Board's decision in full here. They'll have a public hearing regarding their decision January 8; if you'd like to testify, you can sign up here starting tomorrow.

no christmas in east county this year

It's hard to find houses done up for Christmas. I saw this home in Deer Park last year.

My mother, a real estate agent, is cutting back from her normal output of holiday cards and stuff this year: she's only sending holiday cards to houses with very nice Christmas lights. The decorations on our own house have spent the better part of a week to set up; naturally, we assumed a drive around East County would yield people who'd done the same.

"People must be Jewish," my brother insists as we drive down the dark streets winding off of Fairland Road, looking for a light show. (It should be noted that he is only nine, though if you'd like to send me angry comments for being politically incorrect, I'd be happy to receive them.) "It must be the economy. People are too depressed to put up lights," my mother says. "Your father and I used to drive up to Hampshire Greens and look around. They always had the most decorations."

But even that swanky golf-course community north of Cloverly was pretty dark, though the houses we find must have taken some effort: a runway down the driveway for Santa's sleigh; a giant peace sign hanging in the foyer. The house that won second-place in the neighborhood lighting contest was done up like a girl getting ready for prom: icicle lights, multi-colored strings all over the bushes. The front lawn was littered with electrified vignettes: Santa and his reindeer; trees and snowmen; baby Jesus in the manger with Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men, all glowing.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

It didn't take us long to find the obvious first-place entry, just around the corner, lit up like Times Square: Giant bulbs in four colors tracing the roofline. Candles in every window, with a tree planted in a big window over the front door. Ribbons of light tracing through every bush, shrub and branch on the lawn, ringed by stake lights lining the cul-de-sac driveway. Blue tinted spotlights gave the house an eerie glow, almost as if it was about to lift off.

We had to stop the car. "Let them know we're admiring their house," I say. "They deserve it." A moment of silence follows in appreciation of the one family in East County who actually had the Christmas spirit. "This had to be in first place," my brother says. There was a sign in the front yard. "Lighting By: Christmas Decor," it reads. They'd had it professionally done! No deal, I thought. You can't do that. It totally defeats the purpose.

The Christmas Decor website says they've been professionally decorating houses for twenty years with a network of franchises in forty-eight states and Canada, and even offers a "Decorating Simulator" that shows what they can do to your home. What it doesn't say is how much it costs to do what I'd assumed was an age-old tradition: Dad climbing a ladder to string lights across the roof and nearly falling off, kids arguing over whether the sleigh should be climbing the chimney or landing in driveway. What exactly do you do while people decorate the house for you? Watch while you drink hot chocolate and the kids argue over the remote?

Either way, I figure Hampshire Greens must be wise to the professional decorators, because that house didn't win anything in the neighborhood lights contest.

Friday, December 19, 2008

five for the pike: why the cinema 'n' drafthouse didn't work

Each week, JUTP tries to make a list of just about anything or anything. This time, we look at why the Montgomery Cinema 'N' Drafthouse in Wheaton was forced to close after two months . . . that is, aside from financial insolvency.

1) Wheaton's never been known as a nightlife spot.

Wheaton's gained a reputation for some of the best ethnic dining in the region. But it's never had much in the way of nightlife outside of the mall - which, of course closes at 10pm, meaning that potential patrons would be less likely to consider an evening in Wheaton. They may have also been scared away by the area's (undeserved) seedy reputation.

2) The place just wasn't visible.

Located on the backside of one of Wheaton Plaza's many out-parcels, The Drafthouse was somewhat secluded, practically invisible from University Boulevard or Veirs Mill Road, or from any part of the mall itself. (It's not surprising why the movie theatre it replaced failed as well.) I'll bet that if you asked ten people inside the mall where it was, they wouldn't be able to tell you.

3) Marketing . . .?

Considering we've been talking about the Drafthouse for longer than it was open, it's surprising how little promotion it's gotten outside of the occasional newspaper ad or blog mention. The burden really rested on Westfield to publicize the venue because despite its location the Drafthouse would've been a boon for the mall, which is still reeling from the loss of Hecht's three years ago. The sooner Westfield realizes that Wheaton's not going to become Montgomery Mall East, the sooner they can embrace more unorthodox establishments that can make the mall into something even better.

4) Montgomery County didn't make a big enough deal of this.

MoCo's thrown a lot of time and money into supporting arts and entertainment venues like the AFI Silver Theatre, Strathmore, the BlackRock Center up in Germantown, not to mention the nascent Fillmore music hall. So you think they'd be tickled pink that a private company would come and build (or renovate) a theatre with their own money. I guess not. I mean, the county's name is on the damn marquee. You'd have thought they would've tried to stop this place from closing by any means necessary.

5) We didn't make a big enough deal of this.

I'll admit: I never went to the Drafthouse. As important as I know it is to Wheaton, I never bothered to see a movie here, electing instead to visit Silver Spring or Bethesda. Those of us who patiently waited for this place to open could've made more of an effort to support it. So, for that, I'm sorry.

wheaton plaza evicts montgomery cinema 'n' drafthouse

UPDATE: There's a Facebook group devoted to "saving" the Drafthouse.

The following is an e-mail from Greg Godbout, owner of the Montgomery Cinema 'N' Drafthouse, which opened just two months ago in a shuttered movie theatre (pictured above) at Wheaton Plaza. Godbout says Westfield, which owns the mall, still owes them money from a construction allowance, but nonetheless evicted the venue, which like the original Drafthouse in Arlington offered first- and second-run movies, live comedy, and other events with full table service. He also cites the "anti-small business nature" of Montgomery County's permit process, which also hurt the venue's success.
With great sadness and disappointment, we are forced to close the Montgomery Cinema & Drafthouse. Our family has poured our heart & soul and resources into opening this location, with the hope of providing great entertainment to the Wheaton and Montgomery County community.

In our opinion, we were not prepared for the conduct by Westfield and, in our opinion, the anti-small business nature of Montgomery County's permit process. We simply could not overc ome the excessive costs in money and time that was required to deal with these two overwhelming negative forces. Couple these challenges with a worsening economy and national capital crisis - and the result was a perfect economic storm which was too much to bear.

After being open for 2 1/2 months - Westfield refused to pay the remaining balance on the construction allowance. The bitter irony is that we were evicted by a company that in our opinion owed us more money than we owed them. Our only hope is that Westfield does the right thing and promptly pays the remaining construction allowance (that they failed to release to us) to the builder and contractors who deserve full payment.

More details are to come, but for now our family needs some time to recover and focus on our Arlington location. Arlington will remain open and please join us there for your Drafthouse fun. Best of luck to everyone this holiday season and let's hope next year is better than this year.

what's up the pike: this week in blogs

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own business that I forget to take a second to appreciate what's happening in the rest of the world. Here's a look at what some of the blogs I read (and you should read too, if you don't already) have been up to this week:

- Today, I'll be appearing on Rockville Central Radio, a weekly online radio show hosted by Brad and Cindy from the blog of the same name. Brad and I have discussed things we may talk about, which you will definitely hear if you tune in at 12pm here.

- Maryland Politics Watch mourns the death of two big Maryland blogs, PolitickerMD and Free State Politics, which was home to B'ville schoolteacher Eric Luedtke. I doubt he's too bummed about the end of FSP, as he's on to bigger and better things at the East County Citizens Advisory Board.

- Greater Greater Washington, which will eventually devour all other local blogs with its coverage of things well outside of the District, tackles the debate over the Perpetual Building in Downtown Silver Spring, which at fifty years old has local preservationists anxious to save it from redevelopment.

- Wayne Phyillaier's Finish the Trail blog is doing a five-part series on Bus Rapid Transit and the Purple Line, which definitely raises some key issues about the Town of Chevy Chase's ongoing struggle to stall the transitway.

- My roommate and two of his friends have started a blog about indie music, named after the street in College Park where we live. I know better than to enter a conversation with him before consulting the Knox Road Music Blog Barely a month old, they already has a substantial following in New Zealand, I've been told.

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.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

against all odds, students take "hard-line" stance against ICC

"Here we are, and it's seventy-one degrees outside on November 15th," says Davey Rogner (pictured), sitting down with me in the Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland. We are both wearing T-shirts and enjoying the last throes of Indian summer. Or could it be global warming at work? It's just one reason why Rogner, an environmental science major who grew up in White Oak, has joined a small cadre of Maryland students fighting to stop the InterCounty Connector once and for all.

About a month or so ago, Rogner responded to a column I wrote arguing that the ICC - set to open in two years, according to State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen - is "too far gone" to really be stopped. He agreed to sit down with me to talk about growing up in the shadow of the long-debated toll road and why it's still worth fighting.

"One, there's politicians willing to go out of their way to stop the ICC," says Rogner. "Two, there are people vehemently opposed to this thing. Three, it doesn't make any sense to build it."

Since September, Rogner has been involved with a group of students at Maryland working to stop the InterCounty Connector once and for all. The group has met with the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club and local neighborhood associations, predominantly in Prince George's County. "The people most hard-line against it are from P.G. County," says Rogner. In November, they met with State Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) to discuss de-funding the highway, only to be politely shown the door.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

ICC construction underway in Tanglewood, east of Route 29.

Rogner grew up in Springbrook Village, a neighborhood at the intersection of Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue. In many places, a thin shield of trees is all that separates backyards from the traffic of Columbia Pike. To show where he lives, Rogner places a finger on the table. "I live here," he says. Another finger goes a few inches away. "And it's [the ICC] going right here."

He suggests that living next to an existing highway has been a detriment to his health, which agrees with a University of Southern California study which discovered that people living hear highways have a higher occurrence of asthma. "I'm an asthmatic," says Rogner, "and I know it's partly due to the genetics, but I know the congestion's made it worse."

Building the ICC seems to contradict the State legislature's focus on the environment, he says, citing initiatives to combat global warming, car emissions - which make up 30 percent of all pollution in Maryland, he says - and the "No Child Left Inside" program, signed into law by Governor Martin O'Malley last spring, which encourages "environmental literacy" among state youth. "I wanna see a healthy, productive bay and to see our kids enjoying the natural world," says Rogner. "But why would they want to go outside if there's a giant highway?"

"When you build more roads, it doesn't mean there will be fewer people in the road. It means more people will be driving," Rogner says. "When you build more roads, you increase congestion."

It's hard to deny, however, that local traffic can be unbearable. As a student at Montgomery College, Rogner would drive on Norbeck Road to classes in Rockville. "Norbeck is a nightmare," he says. "But from a stand point of water quality, and increased air pollution, and the debt, I'd have to know how much it'd cost to take [the traffic] off."

As much as possible, Rogner tries to avoid driving in his daily life by using a bike to get around College Park, where he currently lives - and by taking public transit "two to three times a week," he says, including to his parents' home. It's not hard to ditch the car because "I just don't leave College Park that much," he notes.

Traffic at Route 28 (Norbeck Road) and Georgia Avenue during afternoon rush hour.

Many ICC opponents argue that the communities it travels through would be better served by improved transit, though the issue of how much density is needed to sustain new bus or rail lines is rarely discussed. Would Rogner accept more jobs and households in East County in exchange for better public transportation?

"I'd be willing to make that sacrifice," he says. "In all actuality, I think the answer to a lot of Americans' inability to turn around in this economy is based on this dependence on foreign oil. I would like us to travel less and build real compact, smart growth."

For a class assignment, Rogner visited Konterra, the planned mini-city set to rise where the ICC meets I-95 west of Laurel, to test the water quality in nearby streams. "Now that it's already clear-cut, you'd think that's the right thing" to develop it, Rogner says. "But we could still bring it back."

"We need to develop on areas that are already developed with more efficient infrastructure," he continues. "Konterra, it's already owned by this guy and he gave a lot to see the ICC built."

But while the ICC would be "going back to the old status quo," Rogner admits that the alternative solution wouldn't be as easy as putting up a few more apartment buildings. "Would MoCo do it? I don't know. I feel like, with all these houses and all this infrastructure, it'd be hard to change."

I suggest that, rather than try to stop the entire highway, the student movement could focus on the portion between Georgia Avenue and Route 29. Also known as Contract B, this section has yet to begin work, though the State already awarded it to a construction firm in July - at 22 percent over earlier estimates. Cutting across the environmentally sensitive Paint Branch watershed, this segment was the first to go when Governor Glendening cancelled the ICC in 1997.

ICC construction near the intersection of Route 29 and Fairland Road.

It's also predicted to have much smaller traffic volumes than the rest of the highway - a 2004 study from the SHA (appearing in this Baltimore Sun online chat) estimates that between 63,000 and 66,000 vehicles would travel the segment each day, compared to over 110,000 vehicles west of Georgia Avenue and 85,000 vehicles east of Route 29.

"I'd like to see the whole thing be stopped, but if we could get a portion of it stopped, I'd be happier," says Rogner. "Well, I couldn't be happy . . . Push for everything, and take the hard-line stance, and hope that something good happens."

Support for the InterCounty Connector has never been unanimous, says Rogner. The following week, the Maryland students would be in Rockville to protest the highway at County Council's unveiling of their yearly transportation plan, with State Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-Dist. 20) and other elected officials in attendance.

"I can't see us reaching the goals of a more sustainable society by building these gigantic highways, and I'd have the same approach regardless of where it was," says Rogner. "When something's a really, really bad idea, you should try to stop it before it's gone through."

Monday, December 15, 2008

what's up the pike: not-so-affordable housing edition

- A guy in Burtonsville wants to rent out his home for visitors attending next month's inauguration for the princely sum of $5000. The home, located in the Saddle Creek neighborhood, offers such amenities as "bathroom Shower", "Living room and reading room in the middel", and "carpet." Meanwhile, rates at the Gaithersburg Marriott Washingtonian Center - the closest hotel to B'ville with a vacancy - were a mere $550 a night.

- In a report presented last week, the Planning Department said they might appeal a court ruling that allows a developer to repurchase land seized by the State Highway Administration in 1997 for an ICC route that won't be used. Located at Route 198 and Peach Orchard Road in the Upper Paint Branch Special Protection Area, the 118-acre site is the "crown jewel" of the Planning Department's attempts to mitigate the environmental impacts of the highway, currently being built south of Briggs Chaney Road. Nonetheless, the Montgomery County Circuit Court says the SHA is required to sell back the property because they won't be using it for the actual ICC.

Winchester Homes, who has built several developments throughout East County (one of which, Fairland View, is pictured) in recent years, had approval to build 130 homes on the property and had started construction when the land was condemned. Unbuilt streets on the site still appear on maps today.

- Over on The Other Pike, our friends at Rockville Central are seeking support for a controversial affordable housing project that's been proposed for their neighborhood. Just steps from the swanky new Rockville Town Square (a place I once worked at, and miss quite, quite dearly), the Beall's Grant II development would bring 109 subsidized apartments to a neighborhood where a one-bedroom will easily run you $1,600 a month.

But, of course, talk of affordable housing can set men's hearts ablaze, with opposition groups claiming that the project will depress property values, create crime, and possibly rape their daughters. (We're kidding on that last part, but who knows if they are.) If you'd like to put your two cents in on Beall's Grant II, the city council's holding a meeting on the development tonight at Rockville City Hall.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"i want to find the nicest part of montgomery county near campus . . ."

About a month or so ago a friend invited me to a church meeting on campus here at Maryland in College Park. She promised a free dinner, so I agreed to come. Not surprisingly, most of the twenty or so people who came were students - both undergrad and graduate - and before the meeting began, one woman asked the women around here where she should live next semester.

"I'm looking for a place near campus," she said.

"You should go to Montgomery County," replied a woman in red, who I later learned was more or less the meeting leader.

"Where is that?" she replied.

"I thought we were in . . . Prince George," a third said.

"Some of these streets," added a fourth, gesturing around her, "they lead to Montgomery County."

"I want to find the nicest part of Montgomery County near campus," the first woman said.

"Takoma," one person said.

"Takoma isn't nice," snapped the woman in red. "You want Bethesda and Rockville. They are in Montgomery County. Richard Montgomery High School is, like, number one in the country."

"I don't have kids!" whined the first woman. "It doesn't matter to me. Just what is the best part of Montgomery County?"

"Well, the nice part is considered to be Bethesda and Rockville," began the woman in red, "and the bad part is Silver Spring-Wheaton -"

At this point, I'd just been eavesdropping for the sake of eavesdropping, and I always like listening to people who aren't from here try and figure the area out, but I figured my 'hood was being dissed here, so I had to say something.

I leaned towards the woman in red. "I live in Silver Spring," I said quietly.

Suddenly her sweater wasn't the only thing that was red. She smiled faintly, trying to hide her embarassment. "Oh, Silver Spring is very nice," she said.

Then the meeting started, so the conversation died. Afterwards, the woman in red gave me an earful about their church, and asked was I a Christian (my mother was a Methodist pastor, I explained, much to her chagrin), and said maybe I should come back. And I just might, because the food was spectacular.

Friday, December 12, 2008

chevy chase residents decry "self-centered" opposition to purple line

The Town of Chevy Chase has funded a quarter-million-dollar study on the Purple Line's effects in their community.

In a letter addressed to the Mayor and Town Council - and sent to twelve additional local, state and national officials - fourteen Chevy Chase residents condemned their town's use of public money to fight the proposed Purple Line, saying it has "unfairly boomeranged on the integrity and sensibility of all town residents." The town commissioned a quarter-million-dollar study on the transitway's effects on the Georgetown Branch Trail, a former freight line in Chevy Chase that is the preferred route. Two of the letter-writers, Ruth Fort and Arthur Rowse, already wrote a similar letter to the Washington Post lamenting how "self-centered" town residents appear in press about the controversy.

"We residents of the town think it is time to cease these costly efforts to fight the state's attempts to relieve traffic and pollution in the area," reads part of the letter. "If not, the town's reputation will continue to suffer."

To read the letter, click here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

in our schools, "diversity" goes much further than race

Outside of Blake High School, one of three campuses in the Northeast Consortium.

A study released last month by the County's Office of Legislative Oversight says that the Downcounty and Northeast Consortiums - which allow eighth-grade students across East County to select between signature programs at eight different high schools - has largely failed at its main goal of promoting racial integration. The report, which you can find here (warning! PDF file) concludes that the $3 million spent each year on the Choice Program, as the process is called, may not be be worth it.

I was told as an eighth-grader at White Oak Middle School many years ago that the Choice Program enabled me to select a high school based on what interested me. At Paint Branch, I could learn about medicine; at Springbrook, I could take drafting classes; but at Blake, I'd have sculpture classes, chamber singers, creative writing and film studies. And I picked Blake because of those classes, all of which I took. Nobody told me that I might've gotten in there because my race might have evened out the demographics of a school that white families supposedly sent their kids to because they were uncomfortable with the ethnic makeup of Springbrook and Paint Branch.

The Blake I attended was a school of pretentious punks and ambitious artists, surrounded by million-dollar houses populated by the kind of kids who had the time and resources to learn about Japanese cinema or start emo bands. It was, as my friends called it, "the liberal faggy school on a hill": if a student called someone "gay," he might get a lecture from teacher but would definitely endure dirty stares in the hallway for a week. Maybe Blake was majority-white, but it was a "diverse" school, if that word even means anything now, and I think I got exposed to a hell of a lot.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

But, of course, MCPS wants to see the racial numbers - a quarter black, a quarter white, a quarter everything, kind of like at Springbrook - so they gave students on free and reduced lunch preference in the application process. As a result, artsy kids with a little money who applied to Blake get rejected so that lower-income kids who may have signed up for Springbrook or Paint Branch were sent there instead. You've made a marginal impact on demographics, but you've also put two kids in programs they're not interested in, reducing morale and defeating the purpose of the schools' signature programs. It would be irresponsible to link that move to plummeting SAT scores at Blake, but the connection is unsettling.

East County's racial makeup is an issue of geography, and the Northeast Consortium was an opportunity to push the problems of Paint Branch and Springbrook - who are in lower-income areas and have higher minority populations - on a new school that had neither. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the Choice Program and Blake High School made me who I am today, and that's a triumph. We've given a generation of students the opportunity to attend schools that nurture their interests and talents, but we're throwing away that success because Blake is apparently "too white."

Our public schools are obligated to expose their students to an increasingly diverse society, but in the Northeast Consortium, using race as a measure of difference might be missing the forest for the trees.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

last column of the semester!

- It's Wednesday, which means my weekly column appears in the Diamondback, the University of Maryland's independent student newspaper. In the last piece of the semester, I'm talking about increasing parking rates to deal with congestion in Downtown College Park.

next stop, broadway: the musical derails

part FOUR of a series on writer Paul Stregevsky, currently working on a musical about the Purple Line. Check out part ONE | part TWO | part THREE

Paul Stregevsky, writer of a musical about the Purple Line, in the Rockville Library.

"Back in aught-nine, the Purple Line was still a fairy tale," says Helina to Duran in the second act. "Now it's real. Now we've met. Because people like us believed."
In an attempt to find money, Stregevsky launched a website for the project, complete with a synopsis, song clips, and videos from their pitch to PLN and ACT. Stregevsky also poured some five thousand dollars of his own money to keep Denhard and White at work, acknowledging that they wouldn't be willing to press on otherwise. "Neither of them had enough faith to work for free . . . which disappointed me," he says.

To finish the project, he's looking for an additional ten to twelve thousand dollars to continue production. The money's needed to pay Denhard, the composer and to hire professional singers for a new recording of the songs.

Tracks has also been entered in the Strathmore Music Center's twenty-fifth anniversary contest for new works of art. The winning piece gets performed in 2009 with a real orchestra. "I think all of the entries will be fine arts . . . this won't," says Stregevsky. "It'll be a hometown favorite."

The cover of Tracks, the musical being written by Stregevsky, Marshall White and Jared Denhard.

Despite putting in so much time and effort into a musical about the Purple Line, Stregevsky doesn't have much to say about the actual thing. He hasn't done a lot of research on the project, and living over twenty miles from the nearest Purple Line stop, chances are he may never ride it. But he looks forward to seeing his muse come to fruition one day. "I hope the rich people of Chevy Chase don't get their way, and we plow through their golf course," says Stregevsky, referring to the exclusive Columbia Country Club, which has attempted to stall the Purple Line since its conception twenty years ago. "It's only going to be built if it's surface instead of cut and cover."

But whether or not the Purple Line ever actually happens, it seems that Tracks will have a legacy of its own. "I wanted to make a difference," says Stregevsky. "Every writer wants to make a difference in the world . . . it's good to know there's so many people who believe in my dream and try to support me."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

what's up the pike: kids and chicken

Preparing food at the new El Pollo Rico in Wheaton. Photo by Chip Py.

"I am in line at the New Pollo Rico!" text-messaged Chip Py, local amateur photographer and Peruvian chicken enthusiast, to JUTP on Sunday. The popular restaurant's former location in Downtown Wheaton burned down last winter; the year before, it was shut down by INS after many of its employees were discovered to be illegal immigrants. The new El Pollo Rico, which opened fairly recently, is located in the Georgia Crossing shopping center at Georgia and University.

"My favorite money laundering, fugitive harboring, illegal alien employing chicken joint opened back up again this week," wrote Py in an e-mail to us. "And I was proud to stand in line, belly up to the counter and say 'Quatro to Go!'"

- IMPACT Silver Spring, the Gandhi Brigade, and the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board are hosting an Action Planning Session this weekend to explore ways to make Silver Spring safer for local youth. In an e-mail to JUTP, community organizer Megan Moriarty says the event was set up in response to a recent streak of youth violence - notably the fatal shooting of a Blair High freshman on a Ride-On bus last month. The meeting will be held from 10am to 12:30pm this Saturday at the Gandhi Brigade's Media Center, located on the fourth floor of City Place Mall.

Monday, December 8, 2008

what's up the pike: thrown under the bus

We might as well call this blog Just Up The Purple Line, because there's been no shortage of transit-related brouhaha these past few weeks. (We have a story about the ICC to post, though.) Anyways:

- Dist. 18 Delegate Al Carr's review of bus rapid transit in Cleveland has caused quite a stir among MoCo's light-rail pushing transit advocates. Purple Line Now!, whose goal needs no explanation, sent Carr a fiery response over the weekend, calling up a former Ohio transit commissioner to debunk the delegate's conclusions about the HealthLine, a new BRT route in East Cleveland. It would've been surprising if Delegate Carr had come away from his trip with a negative impression of the project, given his testimony in favor of BRT for the Purple Line at the public hearings last month.

- As much as he knows about urban planning, Richard Layman - of Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space - never has much to say about Montgomery County, living in the District and focusing primarily on issues down there. This week, however, he posted a presentation dubbed "Transit Beyond the Purple Line," all about how MoCo needs to create a real plan for mobility, not just rapid bus lines as Councilmember Elrich is proposing. (By the way: Elrich's plan was featured in yesterday's Post.) It's definitely something worth checking out, as Layman knows his stuff - even if he's not a big fan of Silver Spring.

next stop, broadway: switching tracks

part THREE of a series on writer Paul Stregevsky, currently working on a musical about the Purple Line. Check out part ONE | part TWO | part FOUR

Paul Stregevsky, writer of a musical about the Purple Line, in the Rockville Library.

"They were telling me we weren't going to have a black guy playing the lead."
The Purple Line didn't become a part of the story until Stregevsky read about in 2005, but it made sense to set the musical on an unbuilt line. "All the other lines are already there, they already have the ridership," says Stregevsky. "Imagine the narrative credibility . . imagine needing to get the riders."

Stregevsky chose to set the musical "six to eight miles east" of the Purple Line's planned terminus in New Carrollton, he says, seeing the diversity of his cast in the people of Prince George's County. "You're looking at the face of America in twenty years," he says. "I want whites to look around to see that they'll be just another minority."

Most of the musical is set on the platform of an imagined station in Prince George's County, at the end of a Purple Line spur that receives one train in the morning and one in the evening. If enough riders aren't attracted to the service, it'll be shut down, forcing those who already use it to draw others in. "No one talks when they're waiting for a train . . . it's like peeing at the men's urinal," says Stregevsky. "I had to find a reason for them to be so friendly, so they had to be friendly so they'd attract riders.”

The cover of Tracks, the musical being written by Stregevsky, Marshall White and Jared Denhard.

Stregevsky's attempts to get funding or even a read-through of the musical were often unsuccessful. He pitched his project to the Prince George's County cultural affairs office, promising that Tracks "will make your county the most desirable place to live in America," but they refused to look at it.

The American Public Transit Association, a lobbying group, were unmoved by his claims that the musical made mass transportation "cool to ride," while gay rights groups didn't respond to his request that they make sure that Pierre, the musical's one gay character, was represented fairly. "What is with people?" he laments.

He did, however, get a response from Purple Line Now!, a new advocacy group for the transitway. Two days after telling them of his "ambitious, multi-cultural musical about people riding the Purple Line," PLN offered him funding if he gave them a pitch.

With a shot at getting the money he needed to start writing, Stregevsky teamed up with music teacher Marshall White and Baltimore composer Jared Denhard to write a few songs. He emphasizes the "great working arrangement" he has with his collaborators. "There are no prima donnas here. We always put the musical first," he says. "[White] saved my ass so many times . . . I'll go to his house with a tune and he'd say 'this tune sounds familiar.'"

Students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, where White teaches, were cast as actors for a brief pitch for the Action Committee for Transit and Purple Line Now!, both transit advocacy groups, which decided to throw money at Stregevsky's production. But it came with strings: they wanted him to locate the play at the Bethesda station, on the other end of the Purple Line. Doing so would defeat its purpose, he laments. "You're not going to build this family" at a station that already exists, says Stregevsky.

They also demanded that the musical be shortened to an eight-song concert. Stregevsky contends that a longer product would be a much better one, noting that the last twenty-five Tony-winning musicals all had over twenty songs each. "Their goal wasn't 'Let's have a full-blown book musical,' it was 'Let's build the purple line'," says Stregevsky. "It's what everyone wants: a love story. There are five love threads throughout this story."

Willing to compromise, ACT pledged a $10,000 grant for Tracks, the first half of which was delivered in the spring of 2007. Noting how good the B-CC student actors were, the trio of Stregevsky, White and Denhard and the two transit groups agreed to stage Tracks at a local high school the following year. "The kids had so much spirit and spunk and it'd be out there and we'd bring in legislators and get the press," says Stregevsky. The goal was to have the musical co-produced at B-CC and at Suitland High School in Prince George's County, eight miles from the end of the line in New Carrollton. A Suitland production would bring together the two counties the Purple Line would serve - and with its predominantly-black student body, it would help Stregevsky fill roles in his diverse cast.

"There weren't enough people of color at B-CC," says Stregevsky. "They were telling me we weren't going to have a black guy playing the lead."

By January 2008, the first half of the grant money had been spent and the first ten songs were completed, with Stregevsky and a handful of other singers providing the vocals. But the project, including the high school productions, would stop indefinitely when ACT informed the creators of Tracks that the second half of their grant - promised for 2008 - had fallen through.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

twelve families homeless after white oak apartment fire

From the Post:
Fire gutted a Silver Spring apartment building today, injuring two and leaving 12 families displaced from their homes on a morning when temperatures hovered just above freezing.

The 10:30 a.m. fire at White Oak Gardens on Lockwood Drive created a scene of pandemonium, as those who lived in the three-story building tried to escape rapidly spreading flames and thick, black smoke, witnesses said.

At least one child had to be dropped from the top floor, and at least one woman jumped to safety from a balcony on the third floor, witnesses said.

guest blog: riding north america's newest transit line

The HealthLine, Cleveland's new Bus Rapid Transit system, pulls into a station downtown.

While visiting relatives in Ohio over Thanksgiving Break, State Delegate Alfred Carr (D-Dist. 18) took the opportunity to ride the HealthLine, Cleveland's new Bus Rapid Transit line. For more pictures and the original post, check out Generally Assembled, the District 18 delegation blog.

As a kid growing up in Ohio, I was fascinated with railroads and transportation. The first passenger train I ever rode was a PCC car on the Shaker Rapid (short for rapid transit) which is a light rail line that ran in the median in front of my godparents' house in Shaker Heights into downtown Cleveland. This rail line first opened in 1913 and was expanded and improved throughout the 1920s. Unlike many other U.S. cities, Cleveland never dismantled their light rail network and this line still runs today along with the "Red Line" heavy rail line.

My interest in transportation continues and during my Thanksgiving trip back to Ohio to visit with family, my 6-year old son Miles and I spent an afternoon trying out Cleveland's new 9.4 mile "Silver Line" that opened a few weeks ago. I've ridden many commuter rail, heavy rail, light rail and conventional bus lines over the years. But this was my first experience with Bus Rapid Transit.

Here in Maryland, several new transit lines are under consideration and I wanted to see for myself whether BRT might make sense. The lines under consideration in Maryland include the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, and County Councilmember Marc Elrich's thoughtful new proposal for BRT lines on suburban arterial roadways. Local blog sites Maryland Politics Watch, Just Up The Pike and others have been contributing to a lively debate of transit policies.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

East 105th Street Station.

Bus Rapid Transit is very different than conventional bus service.

BRT uses a number of design features to gain many of the speed and efficiency characteristics of light rail but at a much lower cost. Instead of bus stops and climbing steps up onto the bus, there are enclosed stations that allow you to enter onto the bus across a platform. The fare is paid in advance at a machine in the station instead of placing money in a farebox on the bus. The vehicle travels in dedicated lanes so that it does not compete with other traffic. Traffic signals are specially equipped so that they sense an approaching vehicle and remain green a little longer to let the vehicle pass through the intersection. Instead of a printed bus schedule, there is a frequency of one bus every five minutes at peak times. Cleveland's BRT vehicles use hybrid diesel-electric technology and low-sulfur diesel fuel to reduce emissions.

The Silver Line runs along Euclid Avenue, one of Cleveland's main east-west thoroughfares. The eastern terminus of the new line is in East Cleveland at the Windermere/Stokes Transit Center it runs through University Circle and on to Public Square in downtown Cleveland.

In addition to light rail, Cleveland has had a heavy rail line for many years. The heavy rail line is called the Red Line and it already runs between Windermere, and the two main hubs of activity at University Circle and Public Square (before continuing on to the airport). So why create a new transit line that runs between these same hubs?

The reason is that the current Red Line route bypasses many important points of interest because it follows an old freight railroad right of way. In a sense, the Silver Line is a do-over to correct missed opportunities from the past.

By following a direct east-west route down Euclid Avenue, the new BRT is able to directly serve many more points of interest such as Case Western Reserve University, Severance Hall, museums, Playhouse Square, Cleveland State University and the burgeoning health-care institutions of University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic (birthplace of your humble Delegate). The hospitals bought the naming rights which is why it is referred to as the "HealthLine". It is also designed to serve as a catalyst for revitalization along the entire length of this once grand avenue of commerce and culture.

Since Cleveland had existing light and heavy rail lines, why was BRT chosen as the mode for the new line?

The planning for the line began in the 1970s. George Voinovich (R-OH) was one of the proponents throughout his career path as a Cuyahoga County Commissioner, Lieutenant Governor, Mayor of Cleveland, Governor of Ohio and finally U.S. Senator. It was originally envisioned as a rail line. But over the long period, changing federal transit funding rules and decreasing density in the City made the cheaper BRT mode emerge as the winning option.

The construction of the Silver Line provided an opportunity for the complete rebuilding of the avenue with enhancements to the form and function. Underground utilities were replaced, sidewalks were widened, street lights were upgraded, public art, benches and street trees were added all using sleek urban design features. Bike lanes were added along much of the route. As my mom pointed out, even the defunct 19th century coal chutes in front of many older buildings were filled in.

The bus lane passes through Cleveland's downtown.

Our Impressions

We began our trip near the eastern end of the line at 118th Street. This is also a station on the parallel red line. The glass and metal station is sleek, open and airy. There is an overhead information display to let you know when the next bus will arrive. At the eastern end of the line, the stations are placed along the side of the road.

The vehicle pulled up and we got on board. It is longer than a regular bus with an accordion section in the middle. It holds about 50 seated passengers and around 100 total including standees. It is fully ADA accessible and even has storage space inside for bicycles. The low sulfur diesel electric propulsion system is quiet. It emits 90% lower emissions and gets much better mileage than a standard diesel bus. After we reached the end of University Circle, we observed that the stations move to the median.

According to Deputy General Manager of Operations Michael York, the vehicles have some unique design features. There is a precision docking system with an arm on the vehicle which connects to the station. The planners had seen it used in on a European BRT line and had to reverse-engineer it and get special permission from the feds to use it in the U.S. Also, there are doors on both the right and left side to accommodate the different station placement configurations.

The vehicles travel mostly in dedicated lanes with a 35 mph limit compared to a 25 mph limit in the adjacent automobile lanes. Car drivers are still getting used to the new lane markings and rules of the road. The picture above shows a lane configuration with bike lane along the curb, then a lane for cars and dedicated bus lane on the left. You can see the driver's hesitation to turn left from the right lane across the bus lane. This is a temporary problem that will correct itself as residents get more experience with a lane configuration that is different from what they knew for many decades.

We passed Playhouse Square where the narrowest right of way posed some design challenges. Median stations here serve vehicles going in both directions and passengers enter through the left side doors. We enter the loop through the public square area downtown and remain on the bus for the ride back. At each stop, passengers are able to board quickly and efficiently.

Our travel time from downtown to University Circle is about 25 minutes. We spent more time than expected stopped at right lights. This should be addressed once the transit signal priority system (manufactured by Opticon) is fully activated shaving about five minutes off the trip.

A bus pulls up to the platform at the Cornell Road station.


Down the road in Washington D.C., a stimulus package is being debated that promises to invest in our infrastructure across the nation. We all hope that this results in smart transportation investments instead of more bridges to nowhere. Although the kinks are still being worked out, Cleveland's new transit line appears to be the former.

I came away convinced that BRT is a practical, efficient and cost effective transit option. Giving buses priority at traffic signals seems to be a key factor in achieving its full potential for fast trip times.

Here in Maryland it would be unwise to rule out BRT for the any of the new transit lines being considered. In a time of fiscal constraints, we need to keep all options open.

For Maryland's Purple Line, there is a lesson to be drawn about the choice of route. Cleveland made the mistake of bypassing a world class medical institution and other population centers when the original Red Line was built. An old freight rail line initially was the the path of least resistance but did not prove to be the best route over the long-term. We would be wise to learn from their experience.

Transit Signal Priority (TSP) is a system that can greatly benefit the capacity of conventional buses as well as potential new BRT lines. This seems to me like something that the Washington region should have implemented years ago. Maryland appears to have invested very little to date in testing or implementing such a system on our roadways. This stems from outdated policies that seek to maximize the movement of cars instead of the movement of people.

It is regrettable that Maryland's lack of experience with TSP is reflected in the planning and analysis for projects such as the Purple Line. The Alternatives Analysis/Environmental Impact Statement is biased in that fails to adequately analyze TSP. This tends to make BRT appear slower that it might actually be. It also makes it harder to coordinate with the planning of transportation improvements for the BRAC expansion of the nearby Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

Friday, December 5, 2008

what's up the pike: chevy chase bank is dead

It's true - and kind of sad, I have to admit, even though just last week I was telling my local branch manager I'd had it and was about to switch banks. It's a volatile relationship, but the love is there. Anyway:

- The Gazette went up to sunny Philadelphia for a look at the Fillmore at the Theatre of the Living Arts, a music venue gobbled up by the Live Nation empire - the very same people who'll be opening a Fillmore-branded hall in Downtown Silver Spring. The whole point of the Gazette article seemed to be to placate people concerned about increased noise and crime around the new Fillmore - and it doesn't seem like it'll be a problem, given that the Live Nation security are so strict they'll take away your Sharpies:
"Since it's been introduced as the Fillmore, security has become a lot more non-relaxed, a lot more strict," French said. "My favorite memory of going to shows is bringing in a marker to hope to get the bands' signature on the ticket and now you can't even do that."
- Recording label Snail Sounds is creating a tribute album to Barry Louis Polisar, a children's singer-songwriter from Burtonsville who appeared on the Juno soundtrack last year. The twenty-eight songs covered - which span Polisar's decades-long career - have been re-done in different genres, he said in an e-mail to JUTP.

"They've done three different punk-inspired versions of my songs so far and plan to record a couple more for this project," said Polisar. "There's a Klezmer song sung in Yiddish and [my son] did one of my songs as a jazz piece." For more information, check out the Snail Sounds website.

- Just in case you don't already do a great deal of shopping in Rockville at stores we don't have on the east side, our friends along The Other Pike have launched a "Buy Rockville" campaign to bolster the local economy. They'll be on Rockville Central Radio today at noon to talk about it. Our local economy must be quite fine in East County, because the Peterson Companies - the good people who brought you Downtown Silver Spring - told the Post's Marc Fisher that their complex at Ellsworth and Fenton has "the strongest sales of any of its properties" throughout the D.C. area this holiday season.

unsettling memorial forces passers-by to reflect

Check out this photoset of a temporary memorial to a Blair High freshman who was shot riding the bus home from Ellsworth Drive.

Last Fall, I went to a lecture by writer and sociologist Richard Sennett. He talked about places or events in a community - particularly in diverse urban settings - that force people to deal with things that are foreign and sometimes unsettling to them. One example was an AIDS clinic in a strip mall in Queens. The neighbors were initially upset by it, but being exposed to people who were suffering while they ran daily errands became a reminder of how beautiful and fragile life really is.

I didn't really appreciate what he said until last weekend when I visited Downtown Silver Spring and encountered a woman breaking the windows of City Place Mall with a baseball bat. The event was unexpected, frustrating and deeply disturbing - but, at least for a few minutes, it brought together a group of strangers who all shared the same feeling of helplessness.

A block over on Ellsworth Drive, a different sort of crowd was forming around an impromptu memorial created for Tai Lam, the Blair High freshman who was murdered on a Ride-On bus last month. Suddenly, the grieving process - a deeply personal thing for his friends and family - had been thrown into the most public of public spaces in Silver Spring. People who had never heard of Tai Lam were drawn from Christmas shopping and nights out to a momentary reflection on the loss of a life.

It's unclear how long this tribute will remain in Downtown Silver Spring, but I hope that many more people can see it and be moved by the outpouring of support for a person who - just by being young - embodied everything that we seem to love (and hate) about weekend evenings on Ellsworth Drive.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

what's up the pike: making plans and taking names

Maryland Politics Watch is doing a series on Councilmember Marc Elrich's plan for a 100-mile Bus Rapid Transit system criss-crossing Montgomery County. While the East County Citizens Advisory Board got a look at it last month, MPW's Adam Pagnucco spent quite a while trying to get the councilmember to spill the details before he "eventually ambushed" Elrich in his office. (We're not sure whether Adam was kidding or not, but if he wasn't, we hope he used a net.)

Elrich proposes over ten rapid bus lines along major roads throughout the County, including New Hampshire Avenue, Randolph Road and Route 29 on the east side. They'll use permanent stations similar to a rail line (perhaps like this bus terminal in Shirlington, Virginia) and a dedicated lane that switches direction based on traffic. For instance, buses headed for the District will use it in the morning, while buses leaving the District will use it in the evening.

While the Purple Line is reported to cost up to $102 million a mile, BRT routes - like the line Cleveland just built - can cost as little as $20 million a mile. At those rates, Elrich's entire proposed network could be built for $2 billion, two-thirds the price of the InterCounty Connector.

- As always, check out my weekly column in the Diamondback, the University of Maryland's independent student newspaper. This week, I'm writing about the need for more variety in College Park's downtown, which just got its very first Five Guys this month.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

- Tomorrow, the Planning Board is set to approve a site plan review for Washington Adventist Hospital's proposed new facility on Plum Orchard Drive in Calverton. The new hospital, located on forty-eight acres in the WesTech Business Park, will have 290 private rooms, 2,100 parking spaces, and a quarter-million square feet of office space for physicians. Upon relocating from their current campus in Takoma Park, Washington Adventist could bring up to 3,000 jobs to East County, says hospital president Jere Stocks.

- Things don't look quite as good for a proposed bed-and-breakfast in Spencerville. The Planning Board may reject plans for the Edgewood Inn because of minor revisions to an earlier design, which was first submitted to the department in 1990. The new plan, staff say, encroaches on naturally sensitive areas (the site is located in the Agricultural Reserve) in order to create additional parking.