Thursday, September 17, 2009

the once and future white oak: part three

White Oak residents are frustrated with plans to build a mixed-income neighborhood next to the future police station on Milestone Drive. But is their anger misplaced? Here's what we should be focusing on in part THREE of our series "the once and future white oak." Check out part ONE | part TWO

Village at King Farm Apartments, Over Retail
The Village at King Farm in Rockville was Montgomery County's first "workforce housing" community.

3) Some concerns are valid, but killing this project is the wrong way to "fix" White Oak.

There are a few points about workforce housing that I wasn't able to make in yesterday's post, namely examples of it in action. The County's workforce housing program operates separately from the MPDU program, with its own website touting their first project, a converted apartment complex in Rockville called the Village at King Farm. (The apartments we showed yesterday are also in King Farm, but not subsidized.)

Here, families making up to $120,000 a year can purchase large, townhouse-style units at prices ranging from $207,500 to $377,500 (warning! PDF file.) based on unit size and household income. Owners are selected from a priority list culled from current MPDU residents, government employees, and so-called "first responders." They aren't allowed to rent the homes out; when they sell, must give 15% of the profits to the County. But in return, they have a home with hardwood floors and granite countertops in a convenient, desirable location near the Shady Grove Metro station.

The workforce housing web page says they'll only be built near Metro stations, allowing those who may rely on transit to bypass the often-high price tag those areas carry. However, a 118-home mixed-income community DHCA has planned on the edge of Olney far from Metro, frequent bus routes or anything else will set aside thirty percent of its units each for MPDUs and workforce housing. By comparison, the Milestone Drive site is far more convenient, within walking distance to several bus routes, the FDA campus, a library, four schools, several parks, and soon a recreation center.

white oak census map - income and apts
Note that White Oak's affluent neighborhoods, shaded darker in this 2000 Census map, are concentrated north of Columbia Pike and west of New Hampshire Avenue. The Milestone Drive site is in the northeast corner of the intersection where they meet.

But that shouldn't negate concerns about the congestion this project could potentially add to Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue. At the meeting in June, traffic analysts from the County were lukewarm about the possibility of adding a stoplight at New Hampshire Avenue and Heartfields Drive, adjacent to the future police station. This is just one of the improvements the community should push to have incorporated into the project.

This may not be under the jurisdiction of DHCA, but one way to reduce traffic AND improve the area's image is to push for improvements to the White Oak Shopping Center, right across from the Milestone Drive site? This is a place perceived as unsafe after dark where even the Starbucks closed for lack of traffic. We're already generating traffic by driving to Rockville/Columbia/Downtown Silver Spring for the shops and restaurants we can't find here. You'd think that if residents wanted a "better quality of people" in East County they would be targeting fast-food joints the Chick-Fil-A that's going to be built on Tech Road.

White Oak Shopping Center
The White Oak shopping center.

Passing this place on New Hampshire Avenue, you wouldn't imagine that homes on the winding side streets around it sell for upwards of a million dollars. Or that in the 1930's, developers called this area "a community of country estates" and "aristocratic," attempting to set this area as the more exclusive part of Silver Spring. These are demographics that already support steakhouses and bookstores. If you don't think that's enough, go count the number of expensive cars outside the apartment buildings on Lockwood Drive. You'll find out quick that people want nice things no matter how much money they make, and they sure aren't finding them in White Oak.

The effort that the White Oak community has put into trying to kill mixed-income housing on Milestone Drive is misplaced. For starters, it shouldn't rely on finger-pointing at those with lower-incomes, or inaccurate characterizations of affordable housing as "open-air drug markets." It should be directed at producing what we don't have enough of (shopping, jobs and transit) instead of what we have too much of (i.e., affordable housing), because the potential buyers of high-end homes aren't going to pay top dollar for a location with a horrible commute AND nowhere nice to eat.

Everyone, rich or poor, suffers from congestion or a lack of nearby amenities. Reducing housing choices in White Oak only benefits those with fatter wallets. We need to find solutions that make this a stronger community for all parties involved.

No comments: