Tuesday, May 26, 2009

more on briggs chaney and east county's "neglect"

Over the past week, Stuart Rochester, chair of the Fairland Master Plan Advisory Committee, and I have been going back-and-forth about what I wrote about affordable housing on the east side last Monday. Here's where we left off after what I posted last Wednesday. My responses are in italics.


I'm very familiar with the Briggs Chaney area. Many of my friends and classmates have moved there after college because it's affordable and a surprisingly attractive place to live. I'm familiar with Greencastle Lakes. I have friends who grew up there; my mother, a real estate agent, sells homes there. I know people in those neighborhoods are frustrated by the "deterioration" there. But I also know they can't afford to live anywhere else because of the policies of a Master Plan that limits the kind of housing built in East County.

The townhomes in Greencastle or Avonshire are not the townhomes being built in Aspen Ridge (off Briggs Chaney) or ParkView (off Greencastle) - half-million-dollar units going to young families and professionals working at FDA, according to the builders I've spoken to. Attached housing isn't the problem. It's transient renters. Go to Aspen Hill or Glenmont - they have this problem as well, but their communities are mostly composed of single-family homes.

Simply put, I think the focus on attached housing is silly and misguided, and ignores the realities of an area that is increasingly expensive to live in - for low-income households, for middle-income households and everyone else. And I'm not sure what the ideal demographic "balance" is, nor should we be attempting to figure out what those numbers are. What would that accomplish? Our goal should be to create communities that are as economically mixed as possible - from the regional level to the neighborhood level. That means offering single-family homes, market-rate townhomes and subsidized housing in new developments like Fairland Park. We should be trying to keep people who'd otherwise be moving to Olney/Rockville/Columbia in East County, but not everyone is "moving up" into a four-bedroom, two-car garage single-family house.

You want to improve conditions in Briggs Chaney? Convert apartments to condos and give residents an opportunity to "buy into" their community. It's not perfect but, to me, it'd do a lot more than restricting home ownership - and community involvement - to whomever can afford a big new house in Briarcliff or Cross Creek Club.


Thanks, Dan. This the kind of constructive dialogue that is productive and that I welcome. I think we are both agreed that the aim is home ownership and not the price of the houses; I would absolutely support converting apartments to condos. Where we disagree is on what constitutes a "tipping point" and the validity of the importance of demographic/housing balance.

I, and many residents, maintain that many market-rate townhouses in Fairland are bought either for investment purposes or are sold and/or rented by disillusioned homeowners within a year or two of purchase (often purchased and held by HOC for rental) because of the perception of our schools in particular owing to high discipline and suspension rates, low participation in PTAs due to the number of single-family households and perhaps other factors, high transiency rates that affect the continuity and quality of education as well as teacher morale and effective PTAs, etc.--and that to strengthen the schools and PTAs (and communities), and gradually change both perception and reality, the east side of 29 needs more middle-class families, hence demographic housing balance.

THEN you would truly have truly mixed economics, demographics, and housing choices, which is your admirable goal. But to say that the Fairland/Briggs Chaney area has limited housing options at the low end defies County statistics, which show the area to be one of the most affordable in the County.

Anyway, I appreciate your posting my comments from yesterday, and you may want to add our exchange today as well. I believe you are remarkably informed and that your blog is extremely useful so long as it does not become a tool for circulating misleading information and can be relied on for accuracy and credibility.


Hi, Stuart -

What statistics, if any, are available on how many homes in the Briggs Chaney/Greencastle area are renter vs. owner occupied? I'd be interested to see them. I'm not entirely sure if there's a connection between either owner or renter occupied attached housing and a prevalence of single-parent families. Most of the people I know in Greencastle Lakes came from two-parent families there.

I think the biggest problem in Briggs Chaney relates to its physical form, not just the housing offered there. A neighborhood of thousands of apartments, isolated into complexes behind fences and gates and again by a disconnected road system, increases traffic, discourages civic involvement/ownership and encourages illegal activity. Why? Because, even though this area is dense enough to support walking and transit use (and it does, to large extent), all car trips are forced onto Castle Boulevard or Briggs Chaney Road, creating congestion. Because residents identify not with the greater community or region but with a single apartment complex. And within that complex, a dearth of true public space (anywhere from parks and playgrounds to meeting places - squares, plazas, spaces like "the Turf" in Downtown Silver Spring) isolates residents from each other. Sure, the apartment buildings may front onto lawns, but the notion of who "owns" that space is unclear.

If someone were trying to commit a crime, this is an ideal place to do it, because no one around them will feel responsible for watching or protecting that space, and private security or police presence will only do so much to make that area feel "safe." (Not to mention that Briggs Chaney's confusing and disconnected roads, all feeding into Castle Boulevard, make it very easy for criminals to hide out or make a quick escape.) But as the apartment complexes in Briggs Chaney and White Oak age there will be opportunities for redevelopment, and I think reconfiguring how those communities are physically set up will solve many of the problems plaguing them now. More dense housing, in the same form as it's already been built, would only be worse for East County.

It's not that I think East County has limited housing options at the low end as I think there are few opportunities for people living there to "move up," so to say. Take the townhouses built around Waterford Tower (formerly Renaissance Plaza) on Castle Boulevard. That was an opportunity for people living in those apartments to "buy in" to the community, as homeowners, not landlords, and more affordably than a single-family home. Hopefully we agree on that.

Like I may have said before, when I visited the Whitehall Square and Albany Grove/Aspen Ridge developments two years ago, the sales agents and builders I spoke to at both sites said they were getting a lot of sales from FDA employees, predominantly working couples, some of whom had young children. These are people who might, at a later stage in life buy a single-family house but, in the meantime, they're buying a townhouse. The quality of design and construction is much higher than what exists in some of East County's single-family neighborhoods! These aren't "cookie-cutter" units, and I'd like to see more developments like it here.



I will try to dig up the statistics, which I have seen in the past and are available from Park and Planning. I believe you make some valid points regarding the location and configuration of Castle Boulevard but then how do you explain the chronic and serious issues at Avonshire? And as for "physical isolation," remember that Castle Blvd/Briggs Chaney has all kinds of amenities in terms of a walkable shopping center, rec center, County services center, etc.--how many places have those kind of advantages so close?!

I think there are fundamental underlying social-economic issues that are key here and that you tend to minimize. There are large concentrations of apartments on Rockville Pike around Grosvenor, etc and there are none or few of the problems associated with Briggs Chaney. Still, from a planning standpoint I agree Castle Blvd a disaster because of overconcentration of rentals, much like White Oak/Lockwood Drive--there should have been a mix, a balance. Greencastle Lakes could have been a great diversified community in terms of income levels and housing options but having trouble because of spillover from Briggs Chaney.



Thomas Hardman said...

Stuart Rochester allegedly wrote:

[...] I believe you make some valid points regarding the location and configuration of Castle Boulevard but then how do you explain the chronic and serious issues at Avonshire? And as for "physical isolation," remember that Castle Blvd/Briggs Chaney has all kinds of amenities in terms of a walkable shopping center, rec center, County services center, etc.--how many places have those kind of advantages so close?!

[ ... ]
Well, there's Aspen Hill, and Glenmont, both of which are characterized by a great deal of walkability and easy access to shopping, and we can also mention the parts of Layhill near the Plaza del Mercado shopping center. All of these are special grant designates due to persistent crime problems. And these originally got their designation as "Hot Spots" not merely because of the level street crimes, but because of persistent problems with truancy, spouse abuse, calls-for-service to crisis centers, etc.

The biggest problems there are poverty, really, though in Aspen Hill we see a lot of quality-of-life problems that had to do with overcapacity illegal rentals of subdivided single-family homes, etc. A lot of that had to do with the use of 7-11 and Home Depot as unregulated day-labor centers. Yet this doesn't reflect all that much into the schools or the general police calls-for-service since most of the workers were there to work, and were not there with their families. One of the biggest crime problems here in recent years were the so-called "amigo shopping" incidents, and most of those took place in and around the rental apartment/condo communities.

I'll give an example by anecdote, it's the best I can use to illustrate, unfortunately.

Saturday night, I decided to catch the last bus to Rock Creek Village shopping center. There's a bar there that has bands and this band has a great reputation.

Aspen Hill is usually safe enough in the daytime where I live. But at night I usually just stay inside. Here's why:

Waiting for the bus at the stop in my yard, I couldn't see if the bus was coming so I walked a few houses down to the hilltop. No bus. No biggie, it's a few minutes late.

Thomas Hardman said...

[Continued, Dan can you please raise the 4096 character limit on comments?]

While walking back to the bus-stop in front of my house I see this drunk little guy with a backpack. He's talking to himself, etc., and proceeds to lie down on my lawn and starts telling me all sorts of stupid stuff. Still no bus, so I run over to my car and load up on a few more business cards. Meantime, this guy is stumbling around in my yard, lies down in my flower bed. He's world-class drunk, declares that he's hispanic and he can drink all he wants, who am I to follow him around and harass him, and then he goes into his pants and pulls out something and starts waving it at me. Basically he's too drunk to stand and so I just walk away from him, because if I take the time to call the cops, that means that my whole night is blown and I'd have to drive to the bar and walk back, rather than take the last bus to the bar and walk back.

Meanwhile, the bus comes, and the guy has decided that he doesn't want to sleep in my yard, he wants to sleep in the yard across the street. He's still shouting something like "where you come from, joto" but thankfully the bus comes and takes me away from my crappy end of Aspen Hill down towards the far end where they don't have as much of this idiocy... mostly because they're real jerks down there to almost everyone they didn't grow up with going to the same school and church.

My point? I could go drink in a bar (but with no band) at the Aspen Hill Shopping Center, and have my choice of about three of them, and it's all only 3 blocks away. I could walk there easily. But I would rather take the bus the other way, and walk home afterwards, about two miles.

Why? Because walking towards the Aspen Hill shopping center, I am about guaranteed to run across two or three more drunk idiots sleeping in yards and waving knives at all passersby. Or worse, I might run into two or three or even just one person who is stone cold sober and out there to rob the drunken idiots, or anyone else who happens along.

Aspen Hill, in my part of it, is exceptionally walkable... but there is effectively no security. Just about any time I stick my head out the door at night, to smoke a cigarette or whatever, god knows who's going to be walking by or doing what, or in what condition. Even in broad daylight, now and then I get this or even this.

To conclude, never mistake the map for the territory. Look at the map of Aspen Hill in my neighborhood, and you see prime walkability. Actually go walk around the territory, and you'll go back to your map and whip out a pen and write "here be tygers" so that the next person reading the map doesn't make the same mistake.


Dan Reed said...

I don't know anything about the character limit on comments . . . but sometimes, it's good to be concise.

Thomas Hardman said...

Somehow "I can't make it from my house to the bus-stop in my front yard without being accosted by knife-waving drunks" has neither the same impact nor believability.

Then again, this is not a daily occurance.