Friday, January 29, 2010

finally: the great peruvian taste test poll

The poll below should be self-explanatory. Pick your THREE favorite pollos a la brasa and the FIVE that get the most votes will be taste-tested by yours truly, using the criteria we outlined on Wednesday.

Thanks for taking the Great Peruvian Taste Test!

As of 5pm on February 1, the poll is closed. Check back later for the results!

In case you're curious to try these places yourself, here's a map of the fourteen restaurants in the poll, complete with addresses.

View the great peruvian taste test in a larger map

what's up the pike: there's still snow

Piles of Snow at Wheaton Metro

- As noted yesterday, Joe's Record Paradise plans to open their new store in Silver Spring on Monday, February 1. The store has a stage and owner Joe Lee plans to have live entertainment, including a performance by local country legend Chick Hall, Jr. on opening day.

- A 34-year-old man was arrested after raping a 19-year-old girl in a Montgomery College bathroom, Wednesday an incident which put the Takoma Park campus on lockdown for 90 minutes. He's been charged with two counts of rape and one count of assault, but a hearing has been delayed for a week while he undergoes psychological evaluation.

- Takoma Park's thinking about allowing beer and wine shops in the city, which has been dry since its founding by Seventh-Day Adventists in 1883. Supporters of ending Takoma Park's pseudo-Prohibition say it'll bring more businesses to Old Town, while opponents say it'll ruin the city's "quality of life." What happens if your quality of life is directly connected to your ability to have a glass of wine after work?

- I meant to get this out a while ago, but it was on my currently inaccessible external hard drive: Burtonsville-based Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Barry Louis Polisar is coming home for a special show at the Silver Spring Library this Saturday at 11:00am. He'll be headlining the kickoff of Library Lovers Month, which runs through February, and performing songs from throughout his thirty-year career. If for some reason you've never been to the library before, it's at 8901 Colesville Road near Cedar Street.

- Come by at 11:00 for the long-awaited Great Peruvian Taste Test poll, featuring fifteen pollo a la brasa eateries in and around East County suggested by your fellow readers. For a list of criteria for selecting the ideal Peruvian chicken restaurant, check out Wednesday's post.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

joe's record paradise re-opens in silver spring next week

Joe's Record Paradise, the legendary record store currently located on Gude Drive in Rockville, will move to 8216 Georgia Avenue (at Ripley Street) in Downtown Silver Spring on Monday, February 1. That's what friend of JUTP Chip Py heard yesterday when he stopped by to take a few photos and and chat up Joe Lee, proprietor and occasional smoker.

The new store - this is the sixth time Joe's has moved since first opening in 1974 - will have a stage where Lee intends to book live entertainment. Playing at the grand opening will be Chick Hall Jr., best known as the son of Chick Hall Sr., a "country-jazz guitar virtuoso" whose Surf Club, a roadhouse in Edmonston (in case you don't know, that's in Prince George's County near Hyattsville) hosted many of the past century's country greats.

Having worked in Rockville for most of the past three years, I've occasionally stopped by Joe's Record Paradise and have been simultaneously stunned and intimidated by the enormous selection of music. Given, most local record stores (used, new or whatever) have closed in recent years, but Joe's outdoes the ones I've seen. (Even the famous Amoeba Music in Hollywood, which I visited three weeks ago? No, not really.)

Not only is Joe's not a big impersonal chain, but his family - the Lees, the very same whose name graces the building at Georgia and Colesville - has of course been here for centuries. It's a store that will hopefully nurture Silver Spring's arts and entertainment community not just as a place to buy music but a place to see it as well. (Before the Fillmore comes, of course.) Hopefully, it'll draw more foot traffic along Georgia Avenue, bringing customers to neighboring businesses as well.

It's not often that this blog gets to mention something that is generally a good thing, free of controversy or tension. (Unless there's something I don't know about.) And that's why I'm even more excited to have Joe's Record Paradise in Downtown Silver Spring. Better mark your calendars for February 1.

Of course, all photos were taken by Chip Py, who saved me from having to write a more substantial post today.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

great peruvian taste test criteria (polls open friday!)

So, one question I've been asked about the Great Peruvian Taste Test is "how is this going to work?" I admit I wasn't totally clear about that before. Here is my plan:

Through Thursday, I'll be taking suggestions for Peruvian places around the area. I'll compile that into a list which I'll post on Friday as a poll for y'all to vote on your top three favorite Peruvian chicken places. The five restaurants with the most votes will then be taste-tested by yours truly.

What experience do I have with Peruvian food? I eat it. A fair amount of it. I eat many other kinds of foods, too. I suppose that's enough to do a taste test, but even better would be a list of criteria, like:

Juicy meat. The ideal pollo a la brasa has meat that falls right off the bone and into your arteries. It's juicy, tender, and easy to chew or cut with a knife.

Flavor. This may be more subjective, but I like chicken with a dark, smoky taste and just a little bit of tang. A lot of spices go into pollo a la brasa, meaning it should have a fairly complicated flavor.

Skin. It should be charred but not black. I know some people don't like to eat the skin because of the extra fat, but if done right, it compliments the meat nicely. It cannot be tough or stringy. Ideally, the skin should be falling off the meat.

Sides. Each place generally has the same sides, including french fries, yucca fries, fried plantains, rice with or without beans, cole slaw, or salad. Some places charge extra for certain sides, usually the plantains.

My sides of choice are white rice and plantain (as I am from the Caribbean), and they will be accompanying each of the chickens I eat. The rice must be fluffy and fragrant. The plantain should be brown on the outside, golden on the inside, and a little sweet. Some places will cut and fry it when you place your order, which is a nice touch.

So far, these are the places readers have recommended, along with a couple others that I know. I'm noticing a big empty spot around Langley Park. Does anyone have any recommendations for that area? You'll get to vote on these, and whatever other places that are submitted, when the polls open on Friday.

View the great peruvian taste test in a larger map

what's up the pike: i've got the golden scissors

Golden Scissors

- Officials closed Georgia Avenue in Wheaton at rush hour on Monday and evacuated dozens of nearby homes after receiving reports of a foul odor in the area. This happened shortly after a manhole at Georgia and Plyers Mill Road popped off and flew through the windshield of a passing SUV, striking the driver in the face. Though news reports mention the two events together, there seems to be no idea as to whether they're actually connected.

- It looks like Silver Spring Daily Photo has started up again after a long hiatus. In the past week, they've posted a moody nighttime scene at Alliance Comics and a grungy coffee break at Highland Origin, both on Fenton Street, and a much brighter photo of the new Mayorga Coffee Roasters opening up in Takoma soon.

- The restless renters at Georgian Confidential say there have been "a number of break-ins and thefts" at the Georgian Apartments since their original owners defaulted on their building loans late last year, literally leaving the 900-unit complex without management. Greystar Management, which ran the building before, will continue to run operations until the complex is sold.

- County police arrested two men who broke into four houses in north White Oak last Friday. At the second break-in, a twelve-year-old boy alone at home heard glass breaking, grabbed his father's BB gun to defend himself, and ran to a school down the street, which called the police on him. Fortunately, everything worked out and the two suspects - one of whom was already wanted for previous burglaries in Wheaton - are awaiting trial.

- Tonight, the Silver Spring Transportation and Pedestrian Safety Committee will hold their monthly meeting. On their agenda are (what else?) pedestrian safety at major Downtown intersections, updates on recent transportation projects in the area, and even a discussion on the proposed Gaithersburg West Master Plan and "its consequences on Silver Spring and the Purple Line." The meeting starts at 7:30pm at the Round House Educational Center, 925 Wayne Avenue on the first floor of the Wayne Avenue Garage.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

the great peruvian taste test

First in a series. Check out which places readers prefer, my reviews (part ONE and TWO) and some of my favorites.

What is there to say about pollo a la brasa other than that it is amazing when done correctly, when the meat falls off the bone, when the skin is tender but not gummy? When it is properly supported by sides of rich, fluffy rice and plantanos charred but still golden inside?

I first discovered Peruvian rotisserie chicken on my lunch break at an internship almost four years ago, led through the streets of Bethesda by a strange new smell to a little strip mall with a place called "Chicken on the Run." I went inside and expecting to find a mom-and-pop Boston Market, but soon realized my life would never be the same again.

Preparing food at the new El Pollo Rico in Wheaton in 2008. Photo by Chip Py.

The streets of the DMV carry the heavy fragrance of rotisserie as chicken joints line up cheek-by-jowl in places like Langley Park or Wheaton. But not all pollo a la brasa is created equal. More than once I've passed up a good rotisserie spot for one with a shorter line, only to leave broken and disillusioned.

Yet most Peruvian chicken reviews are for restaurants in Virginia, be they from foodie and economist Tyler Cowen or top picks from the City Paper or an elaborate blind taste test from Northern Virginia Magazine. We in suburban Maryland deserve a somewhat comprehensive, largely unbiased review of pollo a la brasa to ensure that their lunch breaks and takeout dinners are flavorful and that those who do chicken right stay in business.

That's why JUTP is hitting the streets in the search for the perfect Peruvian chicken, not to mention the best sides. To start, I want to know where YOU go for pollo a la brasa. Do you follow the crowds to El Pollo Rico, or is the best stuff found off the beaten path? What are the best neighborhoods for good chicken? Do chains like Crisp & Juicy pass muster?

I'll use your suggestions to compile a list of restaurants, which I'll then try and review. (If you're willing to take these tasty bullets with me, let me know.) Together, we can end the search for el mejor pollo, the best chicken.

Come back soon, but only after you tell me where you eat. Leave a comment or shoot an email to justupthepike at gmail dot com.

Monday, January 25, 2010

daily snapshot(s): hills

More and ever more thoughts and recollections from my time on the West Coast this month.
The Castro
I hate hills. In San Francisco, you can see them from blocks away. As I approach them, my shoes fill with dread.

TV Antenna Atop Forest Hill
Either the hills are so high, or the clouds so low, that you feel like you can touch the sky. This is not so inspiring as it is daunting when you are walking up a hill.

The Hill of Castro Street
Others will stare at you struggling to climb the north face of Castro Street, for San Franciscans have, like, robot legs or something. There will be cars parked in your way. Their owners are uniformly bad people for doing so.

Cascading Gables, Castro Street
It is hard to appreciate the beauty of hills. You walk up the hill as a show of strength, only to realize that you have to walk down the hill. When you eventually walk down the hill, you will pass a woman running up it. Do not say "God bless you" to her as a show of awe. They do not take to religion here.

Alamo Square (The Painted Ladies of Steiner Street)
A woman sits on a hill, thinking, I will move to Denver, where hills are but a backdrop to the real business of a city, conducted on solid, flat ground. Everyone is on level footing. In a city where you can see for miles, there are no secrets.

what's up the pike: my external hard drive is broke

Bedding Barn Behind Bars

- Good Eatin' in Wheaton gives the thumbs-up to New Kam Fong, one of the Wheat's ethnic-dining gems, but pans Mi Rancho in Downtown Silver Spring. I'm conflicted about this. I got food poisoning after an eighth-grade Spanish class trip there, but I really enjoyed whatever it is I ate at the #DTSStweetup there last Friday.

(Speaking of which: because I haven't done so already, let's take a moment to remember the recently-departed Silver Spring Penguin, which co-organized the event in addition to filling all y'alls blog readers with news and info about Downtown since October 2006. You will be missed.)

- Local builder Ruppert O'Brien, currently putting the finishing touches on their Albany Grove neighborhood in Briggs Chaney, has started a blog about all the awesome things you can do in East County, like visiting the Gardens Ice House or shopping at the Mall in Columbia. (Alas, it's easier to leave here than to find something to do here.) Check out our interview with principal Sean Ruppert from way, way back in 2007.

- The Examiner writes about the "environmentalists' enclave of Quaint Acres, the neighborhood where biologist Rachel Carson lived and wrote Silent Spring in the 1960's. Surprisingly, the article's paints the surrounding area in glowing terms:
"Less than a mile away is White Oak shopping center, which boasts an impressive array of ethnic restaurants including Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Caribbean, and Mexican."
Who needs Langley Park when you have that in your backyard?

- Jerry McCoy notes on his blog that blasting will start at the Silver Spring Transit Center today and continue at 11am and 2pm each weekday through March 5. (Kinda jealous, kinda glad I don't work in one of the NOAA buildings across the street.) The work will cut through bedrock to make room for a new bus terminal. When completed next year, the Transit Center will look like this.

Friday, January 22, 2010

what's up the pike: can't always get what you want (updated)

The Sandy Spring Store, Route 108
- A proposed school and office building on Route 108 would bring up to 150 jobs to Sandy Spring, but not everyone's excited about it. The three-story building "definitely does not preserve and enhance rural village character," says Michelle Layton of the Sandy Spring-Ashton Rural Preservation Consortium. Supporters say that Sandy Spring won't get the little shops and boutiques they want if people aren't there to shop in them.

- There may not be any funds to renovate the Old Blair Auditorium, much to the chagrin of the project's supporters. The forty-year-old hall, adjacent to the former Blair High School on Wayne Avenue, has sat empty since 1998; last year, Calverton-based architecture firm Grimm + Parker did a feasibility study to see how it could be re-used.

- But there is another new local blog: What's Up Wheaton, though there's some Kensington in there too, because that's where the couple who writes it now live. They've already delved into Big Issues like the financial troubles at DeJaBel Cafe and the new Montgomery Royal Theatres. It's strange they'd write about said cinema while tweeting that they're going to see a movie in Tysons Corner, but this can be forgiven. JUTP wishes them the best of luck!

- Speaking of Wheaton and Kensington: I'm convinced that this photo, yesterday's DCist photo of the day was taken somewhere in eastern Montgomery County, specifically around Wheaton or Kensington. Can anyone figure out where this is and prove it? (I also note that I like the shoes in the photo.)

UPDATE: the photographer informs us the photo was taken at the corner of East-West Highway and Grubb Road in west Silver Spring.

I knew I recognized the houses in the background, particularly the one with the grey-purple porch. I wonder if people who live on major streets or highways realize how famous their houses are.

- The ongoing budget crisis means the Connect-A-Ride D bus, which runs between Burtonsville and the Laurel Mall, will be discontinued at the end of the month. Central Maryland Regional Transit, which operates the twenty-year-old route, says cutting it will save them $100,000.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

short story time!

Norwood at Route 28

One thing most JUTP readers don't know is that I also write a lot of prose. Figures that if I'm going to enter Bethesda Magazine's short story contest (deadline is February 26, folks), I should test the waters and see how my writing does in a public forum.

So this is a short story, semi-autobiographical, based on something that happened my senior year of high school. Tell me what you think, or come back later when I'll have some tasty news or gossip or photos of Safeway for you to enjoy.

My friends and I sat around the table in the breakfast room as night fell, shaking our heads. The afternoon had been given over to Super Smash Bros. and play-wrestling on the basement floor; but we’d all woken up the same, tuned to the morning news, watching the televised procession of classmates to a makeshift memorial on the side of Norwood Road where a girl from school had died. What was her name? I forgot; I didn’t know her. But I knew the pale kid from my Algebra class I saw on TV, laying flowers next to a bent fender and smashed taillight.

In class tomorrow the rumors will begin: the boy was driving 110mph; they weren’t wearing seatbelts; they were making out and he lost control. But tonight it’s questioning mortality at sixteen. In a year or two A.’s mom will succumb to cancer. S. will go to Iraq and see people perish before his eyes. M. will lose her grandmother. This will raise more questions, namely, how much time do I have left?

I think about crying but I can’t. I want the feelings of loss to be there but they aren’t. In its place is the longing to feel what everyone else is feeling. I wanted to fit in and this was no different, even if it meant taking on complete and paralyzing grief.

M.’s mother is making us beef stew, Filipino-style, with all sorts of spices I don’t know about. When I walk home my parents will complain that I smell. She goes into the mud room to get some sodas and places a Coca-Cola in front of each of us.

“I’m sorry,” A. says, “I only drink Pepsi products.” I laugh and am ashamed of myself. She returns to the mud room and hands him a bottle of water.

We sit around the table late into the night, alternating between conversation and staring. Words are handled gingerly like they’ll break. I wonder if anything will be the same again. I wonder if I will feel sad. I try to, I really do. I drink my Coke and wait.

unrelenting progress at burtonsville town square

For the first time, I actually stopped by Burtonsville Town Square, the new shopping center being built on the site of the 1960's-era Burtonsville Shopping Center. Not sure if it's progress that we're replacing a strip mall with a bigger strip mall, even one that developer Chris Jones calls the "greenest suburban retail" in the nation.

New Burtonsville Town Square Plan
The new Burtonsville Town Square will have about 140,000 square feet of retail in one main building and seven "outparcels," containing things like drive-through banks, drive-through pharmacies, and of course drive-through fast-food joints, ringing a big parking lot. Currently, three buildings - those on the west side of the site (the left side if the picture) are being built, including a bank, a new CVS pharmacy, and an additional retail building.

It's about half the size of what was originally proposed for the site, an ambitious mixed-use complex with offices, a large anchor akin to hypermarket Wegmans, and an actual town square.

Temporary CVS/pharmacy, Burtonsville Town Square
The site is currently a construction zone, save for CVS, which will operate out of this trailer while a new store (with a drive-through pharmacy!) gets built. There's a rudimentary parking lot with a few spaces and lots of dust. It doesn't feel like a place you should be in, which suggests to me that the CVS isn't getting a lot of business.

That gazebo in front comes from Beiler's Structures, which operated alongside the Dutch Country Farmers' Market before both were basically evicted. Beiler's is now across the street, and as we all know the Dutch Market has decamped to Laurel.

Burtonsville Shopping Center, Jan. 2010 (5)
This will be a Chevy Chase Bank, replacing the Citizens National Bank at the old shopping center. Along with Giant, the bank will be jumping ship from Burtonsville Crossing across the street, leaving two big holes for that strip mall to fill. This is one of Chevy Chase's "prototype" banks, looking more or less the same as their branches in Glenmont, Calverton, Colesville, Downtown Silver Spring (at Georgia and Cameron), and just about everywhere else.

Like the CVS, it'll have a drive-through.

Framed Building, Burtonsville Town Square
This is one of the retail buildings. It may be the new CVS, but I'm not totally clear. The tall element on the left looks like it could be the building in this rendering.

B'ville Town Square with B'ville Elementary School In Background
Here you can see Burtonsville Elementary School in the background. Eventually, the school, the shopping center, and businesses on the north side of Route 198 will be connected by the Burtonsville Access Road, if it gets funded.

Burtonsville Town Square Under Construction
Here's that third building. I'm not clear which one it is on the site plan above, but we'll find out soon enough.

The Hole, Burtonsville Town Square
This is a hole. The ladder was very tempting, but I resisted. You can never trust them, and I've fallen in enough holes to know that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

daily snapshot(s): wheaton safeway (updated)

Wheaton Safeway and Bike
The Safeway at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive in Downtown Wheaton abruptly closed last month to make way for a mixed-use development that will take its place. In the meantime, however, the abandoned building remains as a boarded-up shell. When I visited last Friday afternoon, a lone bike was chained to a lamppost, and a mother taught her kid how to drive in the empty parking lot.

This is known as a Marina Safeway, a design prototype the grocery chain used extensively across North America (here's one in San Francisco, and another in British Columbia) in the 1950's and 1960's. Fans of the Marina Safeway consider it to be an exemplar of Googie or Mid-Century Modern design, with its sweeping arched roof, minimal decoration, and plate glass windows.

On Flickr, reader Stu_Jo asks where other Marina Safeways in the D.C. area are located. JUTP knows of the one on University Boulevard in Four Corners, photographed here by Googie adherent Sligo of Silver Spring, Singular, and one on New Hampshire Avenue in Colesville that was demolished in 2000. Where else have you seen one? Leave a comment or shoot an e-mail to justupthepike at gmail dot com.

UPDATE: Here's a map of Marina Safeways in the region, based on locations given by our commenters.

View marina safeway in a larger map

'Where We Value Our Customers'

Wheaton Safeway Closed

'Welcome to Safeway'
For more coverage of Wheaton's revitalization, check out yesterday's post.

what's up the pike: subway and muffins (updated)

Random Breakfast Trash On New Hampshire
- Goldberg's New York Bagels will move into the former Kirsten's Cafe at Georgia Avenue and 16th Street, reports the City Paper, which notes that the chain has several iterations, all originating from the same dough factory in . . . New Jersey. There's already another Goldberg's off Randolph Road in Rockville.

- Awesome food blog Lunching in the DMV (as in "that dude's lunchin'") reviews Azucar, a Mexican/Latin American restaurant in the Layhill Shopping Center at Layhill and Bel Pre roads. "They have a great menu with a salads, meats, seafood and specialities," writes blogger Dskco, who notes "the place was packed," meaning it must be good.

- I couldn't stomach their narrative "A Chevy Chase Morning," but I'm still entering Bethesda Magazine's short story contest, open to residents of Montgomery County and parts of Northwest DC (of course, only the zip codes that border Bethesda. Guess Shepherd Park and Takoma aren't literary enough.) Winners will receive $500 ($250 for their "high school" category), a gift certificate to the Writer's Center, and of course get published in Bethesda Magazine.

Submissions for both the adult and high school categories are due on February 26. (Thanks to Rockville Central for the heads-up.)

- Do you ride the bus on 16th Street? BeyondDC points us to this petition from the Coalition for Smarter Growth to build a busway down 16th Street, presumably from Downtown Silver Spring to somewhere around the White House. "Buses account for 1% of the vehicles on 16th Street, carry 30% of the people traveling on it, and are allocated 0% of it as a dedicated running way," writes blogger Dan Malouff. "What’s wrong with this picture?" Nothing's been funded yet, but in the meantime, check out this video of the (also unfunded) K Street busway:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

metro rapid, or what we could've had if catoe stuck around

It's rush hour in Los Angeles, but I'm sitting on a bus, flying past the BMWs lined up on Wilshire Boulevard. When we reach an intersection, the light turns green. Cars swing out of the right lane to let the bus pass. And before my eyes is a parade of famous landmarks: Miracle Mile, Rodeo Drive, the beaches of Santa Monica at sunset.

720 Bus At Dusk, Wilshire at Fairfax
A Metro Rapid bus on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

This trip is why I was disappointed that Metro head John Catoe resigned last week, because he'd revitalized Los Angeles' bus system while running its Metropolitan Transit Authority before coming here in 2006. Last summer's accident at Fort Totten had many people demanding his ouster, but I was waiting to see what he could do here with a little more time.

Catoe's tenure with Metro, as Los Angeles calls its transportation authority, was a triumph of organization and marketing. Metro's small but impressive network of rail and BRT lines has been growing rapidly since opening in 1993, but it still barely covers a county with ten million residents. Without rail to my hotel or many of the places I wanted to visit, my sightseeing took place mainly on the bus.

In a city obsessed with image, the LA Metro aggressively brands itself. Billboards across the city show "sexy" Metro Rapid buses and boast of the faster service. Coffeehouse baristas in uber-hip Silver Lake wear Metro T-shirts. And the county's 191 bus routes are broken down into three color-coordinated services. Metro Local buses are painted orange and stop every few blocks. Metro Rapid buses are painted red and have stops about a mile apart. And Metro Express buses, painted blue, run on freeways and make few stops at all.

Local and Rapid Buses, Broadway at Ocean Avenue
Metro Local and Rapid buses pass each other on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica.

As a result, 1.2 million people ride the bus each day, or more than the subway and bus in D.C. combined. The agency claims that ridership on the 26 Metro Rapid routes has increased 40%, travel times have dropped by 29%, and one-third of the system's new riders are people who've never used transit before.

Metro Rapid won't fool anyone into thinking it's a train, but it's a good substitute in places that won't get rail for decades. It's what you might call Bus Rapid Transit lite: it doesn't have special lanes or fancy stations like the HealthLine in Cleveland or Los Angeles' own Orange Line, but it does provide faster service than a typical bus.

On many routes, buses come every 12 minutes or less, making schedules unnecessary; signs at each stop use GPS to tell when the next bus is coming. Bright red livery and specially marked stops distinguish Rapid buses from the rest of the system. And buses have special transponders that keep traffic lights green; when stops are far apart, they can easily reach speeds of 30 to 40 miles an hour.

It's on Wilshire Boulevard where Metro Rapid shines. Running sixteen miles from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, Wilshire is like Wisconsin or Connecticut avenues here, lined with high-rises and posh shopping malls. Traffic is notoriously bad, but walking can be very pleasant in compact neighborhoods like Westwood or downtown Beverly Hills.

720 Map
Metro Rapid stops have simplified maps for each route.

There are two Metro Rapid routes on Wilshire. The 720 stops every mile or so and is good for short trips. At rush hour, it does the 9.3-mile trip from Wilshire and Fairfax to Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade in fifty minutes, making thirteen stops. The commuter-oriented 920 stops about every three miles and makes the same trip in just forty minutes, stopping three times.

Both services are faster than a comparable "express" route in this area, the J4 Metrobus between Bethesda and College Park, a corridor with lots of activity and lots of traffic. During rush hour, it takes fifty-six minutes to go from the Bethesda Metro to the corner of Campus Drive and Regents Drive at the University of Maryland, a distance of 10 miles, making eighteen stops.

The J4 was one of the routes that could've seen Metro Rapid-like service as part of Catoe's proposed 100-mile MetroExtra network of rapid buses, first unveiled in 2008. Today, just two of the proposed lines, the 79 on Georgia Avenue and S9 on 16th Street, are up and running while a third on Veirs Mill Road has been delayed. It's unclear whether Metro's next head will expand MetroExtra, especially at a time when the existing system is starved for funding.

I didn't think I'd come back to Maryland with a squishy red toy Metro Rapid bus, but it goes to show how a few small improvements can make public transit both fun and memorable. It's a shame that John Catoe won't have the chance to bring more of his innovative ideas to the D.C. area, but hopefully their time will come soon.

Check out this slideshow of Los Angeles transit and other stuff.

Monday, January 18, 2010

do costco and safeway proposals signal start of a wheaton revival? (updated)

The debate over how to fix Wheaton has gone on for twenty years. JUTP has looked at what residents want, what planners' visions are, and how we're going to get to the safe, vibrant, prosperous business district we all say we want. Yet within the past month, two very big proposals have appeared, threatening to get this revitalization started once and for all. Neither of them involved much community input initially. Right now, that might be just what Wheaton needs.

Safeway and MetroPointe Apartments
The now closed Safeway at Georgia and Reedie and the new MetroPointe apartments across the street.

Last month, the Safeway at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive abruptly closed with little notice or reason, other than of their plans to build a new Safeway similar to their store CityVista in the District, as part of a mixed-use complex with apartments and smaller stores. Until then, they've left the store a boarded-up shell. "They didn't want to tear it down, but they didn't want to put the money into it," Gary Stith from the County's Department of General Services, explained to me last month.

Then, Westfield asked the County to kick $4 million their way to lure big-box store Costco and two other, unnamed retailers to their Wheaton Plaza mall. As a staffer to a County Councilmember, I've gotten a front-row seat to the proceedings, and I witnessed some anxiety about whether the community approves of the idea. Over the past few days, Wheaton resident Adam Pagnucco has weighed in on the plans at Maryland Politics Watch, giving up some indication of the local mood.

The two projects seem very different at first glance. One's a tower in the middle of Downtown, aimed at walkers and yuppies eager to live within sight and smell of Wheaton's awesome ethnic restaurants. The other's a warehouse store in a mall, aimed at the minivan-driving masses from Olney and Bethesda who like their toilet paper in bulk. But they've given Wheaton residents and businesspeople alike the opportunity to examine the costs and benefits of two real development proposals.

Taylor Gourmet
The Safeway at Georgia and Reedie will be replaced by a mixed-use complex similar to CityVista in the District.

Filippo Leo, 54-year resident and owner of Marchone's Deli, told the Examiner that spending $4m on a chain retailer that will kill his business is an affront to "Wheaton-loyal people" like him. In the same article, Eddie Velasquez of DeJaBel Cafe expects it to bring more customers. "The more people come here and the more they see what's going on in Wheaton, the better," he says.

Can Costco have a good or bad effect on Downtown Wheaton, so long as Wheaton Plaza is physically and psychologically detached from the rest of the CBD? (In Brian Sloan's novel Tale of Two Summers, set in Wheaton, protagonist and mallrat Hal admits he's never been Downtown before.) Janet Yu of Hollywood East Cafe, one of many locally-owned stores inside Wheaton Plaza, has come out in support of Costco. But Leo and Velasquez stand to benefit more from projects like the Safeway redevelopment, which will put people on the sidewalks in front of their stores.

There is a symbiosis between businesses large and small. That's why shopping malls like Wheaton Plaza seek anchor stores like Costco and Macy's. Steve Silverman, the county's economic director, claims that some 12,000 businesses in Montgomery County have Costco memberships. Richard Layman, who writes Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, warns against mom-and-pops feeling guilty for acknowledging the chain stores around them because they can draw traffic to their shops as well.

School Buses Behind Former Hecht's, Wheaton Plaza
Under Westfield's proposal, Costco and two other retailers would replace the shuttered Hecht's at Wheaton Plaza (pictured) in a newly-built wing.

Back in December, I went to a holiday fiesta thrown by Local First Wheaton, a branch of the Latino Economic Development Corporation. LEDC's been helping small businesses in places like Adams-Morgan, to which Wheaton is often compared, for twenty years. But despite the bad economy and the ever-present fear of redevelopment in Wheaton, the mood was upbeat as people munched on Gambian fish pies, chicken empanadas, and other meat-in-pocket dishes from around the world.

The goal for Wheaton, said LEDC Executive Director Manny Hidalgo, was for "redevelopment without gentrification," as the room nodded in approval. Whether or not you support every development proposal in Wheaton, it's encouraging to see that developers are proposing something here. Each one is an idea about how the CBD can grow and an opportunity to set Wheaton in the right direction. After twenty years of waiting, it looks like Wheaton's time has finally come.

UPDATE: The Gazette finally reports on the story.

what's up the pike: don't stop believing

Don't Stop Believing (Paint Branch HS)
Happy Martin Luther King Day! If you've got the day off, take some time to think about the reason why you're not at work. And if you're feeling especially generous, check out this website for events across Montgomery County commemorating the life and accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr.

- You've probably heard that Rick Santos, who lives in the Oakview neighborhood of Silver Spring, is safe at home after last week's catastrophic earthquake in Haiti left him trapped inside a collapsed hotel for fifty hours. Welcome back! Santos, who works for an international aid group, says he plans to return and help rebuild.

- Silly Washington Post! Who told you Paint Branch High School was built in the 1940's? At least the Burtonsville campus, which opened in 1969, is one of many across MoCo getting lots of money for construction projects, including its long-delayed new building.

- Speaking of Paint Branch: did you know the school was supposed to be named after astronaut John Glenn? So says this nifty PDF and companion Wikipedia article on the school's history, both of which sound like they were written by a bitter civic activist. ("Paint Branch, once a rural high school now deep in the heart of suburban sprawl.")

- Local rapper Phil Adé, who grew up in Silver Spring, now writes his rhymes from New Carrollton, perhaps because the cleaning up of Downtown has sent him seeking a more legitimate 'hood to call home. New Carrollton is best known to Montgomery County residents as the mystical place at the end of the Purple Line they have never been to.

Friday, January 15, 2010

georgian's landlord has frustrated tenants nationwide

'Georgian Cafe'
Seeking to recast their 1960's-era Georgian Apartments in Downtown Silver Spring as a luxury complex, Stellar Management topped off their multi-million-dollar renovation by throwing a party with a well-known DJ, models and the now-infamous "sushi girl." Five months later, they've defaulted on a $58 million loan, according to local real estate site CityBiz. It's just part of a $215 million mortgage taken out to fix up the buildings at Georgia Avenue and Fenwick Lane.

Stellar Management left the Georgian's twin seventeen-story buildings were unstaffed and unpoliced over New Year's celebrations, according to the tenant-run Georgian Confidential. The lack of security resulted in vandalism of common areas and reports of a stabbing shortly after midnight.

A 2007 article in Real Estate Week calls the New York-based Stellar Management the "pre-eminent renovator of large, gateway-market rental assets in America," with properties in six major metropolitan areas. In Silver Spring, they still own The Enclave, a high-rise apartment complex located at Columbia Pike and New Hampshire Avenue similar to the Georgian where they've borrowed $270 million for renovations and a new clubhouse.

Sushi Model

Georgian residents aren't alone in complaints about Stellar's lax service and unjustifiably high rents. Nationwide, the firm's received bad marks not only for the management of their apartments but for community relations as well. An article in Crain's New York says tenants consider Stellar head Laurence Gluck a "decent landlord" but say he's very litigious, suing his own buildings to prevent them from being rent-controlled.

Tenants of Stellar properties in New York City, many of which are rent-controlled, complain of negligent management and drastic rent increases. Even neighbors of the firm's newly constructed buildings say they're poorly designed and shoddily built. At Parkmerced, 1940's-era garden apartments in San Francisco that Stellar is already renovating, tenants are upset over proposals to basically raze the entire neighborhood for redevelopment.

Having grown up in the Georgian in the 1990's, I was glad to see the aging complex restored to its former glory. But it's disappointing that in this case, redevelopment had to bring mismanagement, threats of gentrification and ultimately a financial meltdown that's not too surprising in the current recession. It shouldn't be too much for tenants to live in a well-maintained building for a reasonable price, whether or not it comes with granite countertops. Hopefully, the building's next owners will understand that.

what's up the pike: have you noticed the sun sets later now

Sunset, East-West at Blair Mill

- John Landis of Crisfield Seafood Restaurant on Georgia Avenue says construction of an adjacent apartment building didn't hurt their business. Nearby Mayorga Coffee Roasters, who blamed the recently-completed Veridian Apartments for taking away parking and killing their business, which closed last month. "Businesses can and do survive and do well in south Silver Spring," writes Landis, noting that the Veridian's developers helped Crisfield find parking for their customers during while the building was finished.

- A Burtonsville woman says she's so afraid of the alleged drug dealers in the parking lot of the Safeway at Briggs Chaney Plaza that she now buys groceries in Howard County. She knows she passes the Burtonsville Giant on her way to HoCo, right? (And we wonder why businesses there are suffering.)

- The Post's John Kelly interviews local DJ Barry Richards, who as legend has it brought Led Zeppelin to a youth center in Wheaton in 1969. Throughout the 1960's and 70's, Richards hosted a series of rock TV shows on Channel 20 with live appearances by music acts both big and small.

- NewsChannel 8 covers First Baptist Church's plans to build apartments and retail on their property at Fenton Avenue Street and Wayne Avenue to pay for a new sanctuary. "The neighborhood would just be overwhelmed" by the proposed building, complains one local resident. Five stories tall, the new apartment complex would of course be the tallest thing ever built in Downtown Silver Spring.

- Within three months of opening, the Homewood Suites hotel on Colesville Road had to replace dozens of blankets that disappeared from guestroom beds, says USA Today in a story about hotel theft. The hotel sells the "ultra-soft, butter yellow" blankets for $110 each, but apparently guests weren't interested in opening up their pockets.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

we need higher fares, not service cuts for ride on

Catching A Bus, Wayne at Dixon
Thirty-one Ride On bus routes, including thirteen routes serving East County neighborhoods from Takoma Park to Olney, could see reduced service or be eliminated altogether under cuts proposed by Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. The changes would close the county's $70 million budget gap by $2 million, but it would also eliminate a million of the thirty million annual trips taken each year using Ride On.

The full list of cuts (PDF!) include five Ride On routes in East County which would be cut completely. Four routes would stop running on weekends, including two Metrobus lines operated by Ride On, the L8 (Connecticut Avenue Line) and Z2 (Colesville-Ashton Line). Two routes, the 7 (Wheaton-Kensington) and 22 (Silver Spring-Hillandale) would lose some weekday service. Routes 15 & 17 (Silver Spring-Langley Park) and 34 (Aspen Hill-Friendship Heights) would run less often in the evenings.

At Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, planning consultant Richard Layman points out that the $2 million saved by reducing Ride On service could be made up by increasing fares by ten cents. It's easy to say that this would be unfair to working people - after all, that's exactly what they say about tolls on the InterCounty Connector. But if you don't want to pay to drive on the ICC, you can take another road. Transit users who don't or can't drive have no other alternative.

Going to the West Coast revealed to me just how cheap bus fares are in this area. Like Metrobus, Ride-On costs $1.35 to ride, or $1.25 with a SmarTrip card. In San Francisco and Portland, it's $2.00. In Seattle, a variable fare structure means you could pay up to $2.75 to ride the bus at rush hour. Like most public transit systems, none of these cities' buses pay for themselves, but they make it clear that people willingly accept higher fares. If a small increase in bus fares means keeping the service we've got, then by all means it should be implemented.

Bus Stop, Good Hope Road
A bus stop on Good Hope Road for Route 39, which would not be cut.

On the other hand, why should we continue paying for routes with anemically low ridership? The five routes being eliminated are either redundant or serve areas where there are few people. Route 3 (Silver Spring-Takoma) loops around Downtown Silver Spring, blocks from any major attractions. Not surprisingly, it carries just eight people each hour.

Route 33 (Glenmont-Bethesda) avoids major roads like University and Connecticut in favor of a slow, winding trip down neighborhood streets. Route 21 (Silver Spring-Briggs Chaney) was created in 2006 to make up for Metrobus routes that were either cut or changed, but the indirect route that resulted attracts few riders.

Route 31 (Wheaton-Glenmont) wraps around Wheaton Regional Park. Route 53 (Shady Grove-Glenmont) ambles through parks and farmland outside of Olney. Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener magazine, has written about the importance of bringing transit to nature, but farms and parks aren't good at drumming up riders.

Rather than saving $2 million by cutting underperforming lines, we should redirect the money toward creating more efficient service. And if that's not enough to put buses in places where people can and will use them, we should increase bus fares as well. Paying more to ride the bus can be a financial hardship - but if people can't get to work, how do we expect them to cough up any money at all?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

seattle central library

Fifth Avenue Entrance

If you're not a fan of the new Silver Spring Library (at left), Civic Building, or any other of the modern buildings going up in Downtown Silver Spring, you might be thankful we're not in Seattle. It's in the Emerald City where Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas - whose previous work includes everything from public toilets to porno scripts - designed an ambitious, modern downtown library that opened in 2004.

The New York Times called it a "blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon," while the Project for Public Spaces condemned it as a "self-contained architectural object that adds little to public life around it." Naming it his "Eyesore of the Month" in June 2004, writer James Howard Kunstler asked, "What the fuck is it?"

Fourth Avenue Entrance

The library fills an entire city block, making it a major presence in Downtown Seattle. Even so, it's pretty unwelcoming at street level. Where's the door, you ask? Those bikes aren't going to tell you, though the adjacent building might have something to say about being cast into darkness most of the day.

Living Room And Teen Stacks

Inside, you go up to the third floor for what Koolhaas called the "Living Room," a space for people to congregate or just chill out. There's a cafe, a gift shop, and a bunch of benches that make better sculptures than seating. Overall, it's a nice space to be in, filled with sunlight. It's hard not to notice all of the homeless people who congregate here.

Book Spiral

If you're looking for a book, you'll have to head up into the Books Spiral, a multi-story ramp lined with stacks in order of the Dewey Decimal System. This is an idea that would've wowed my professors in architecture school. In real life, it's a really big and tedious ramp.

Looking Down From Observation Deck

If you make it to the top of the Books Spiral, you'll be rewarded with a sort of observation deck cantilevered ten stories above Downtown Seattle. It's hard to avoid looking outside while in this building, but looking down on the city below is a great way to induce vertigo.

Now, don't you feel better about our library? If not, check out these photos of the new Silver Spring Library, which will start construction next year.

what's up the pike: celebrity sighting, sort of

Temporary Stage, Downtown Wheaton

- The Examiner reports that guitarist Phil Collen of the 80's heavy metal band Def Leppard visited Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center in Silver Spring Wheaton to borrow a guitar while staying in the area. Sources say Collen also delivered comments on the redevelopment of Downtown Wheaton - suggestions for which have included creating a performance venue for musical acts older than I - but we haven't been able to find them.

- The folks who run The Lab and The Camp, two "anti-malls" mixing art and commerce in Orange County, California that I visited and wrote about last week, sent JUTP some love.

"Thank you for the kind words and great pics on your blog," wrote development director Chris Bennett in an e-mail to us. "We have an amazing group of artists, builders, and businesses to work with to make these places unique."

- Learn more about First Baptist Church's development plans at the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association's monthly meeting. The congregation, located at Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street in Downtown Silver Spring, wants to build five stories of apartments and retail on the property adjacent to a new church. It's at 7:30pm Thursday in the basement of the Silver Spring Library at 8901 Colesville Road.

- Marco Polo's Treasures, a home furnishings store specializing in imports, will close its store in Lyttonsville at the end of the month. Owner Deb Sagerholm opened the outlet, originally called Ancient Rhythms, in Bethesda in the early 1990's before moving to Kensington in 2004 and eventually to a warehouse off of Brookville Road.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

do netflix maps reveal demographic divide in silver spring?

No doubt you've already seen the New York Times' map of Netflix subscriptions broken down by zip code, with all of the demographic analysis that followed. We want to see ourselves in our movie choices - or, more accurately, we want to judge others by the movies they watch. A noble goal, indeed.

Map showing the popularity of foreign film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Downtown Silver Spring and Takoma Park take after Bethesda and Chevy Chase, rather than other parts of Silver Spring.

So what can we glean from Netflix maps of East County?

- Below-the-Beltway renters favor the kind of serious, indie, or foreign films you might see at the AFI Silver Theatre. Milk, the biography of slain gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, was #1 in Takoma Park and #2 in Silver Spring's 20910 zip code, but only #13 in above-the-Beltway Burtonsville. Not surprisingly, the heavy environmental message of kids' movie Wall-E appealed to renters in Takoma Park (#11), but didn't crack the top 50 in Burtonsville.

- Up the Pike, action and comedy movies prevail. Valkyrie with Tom Cruise was #8 in 20905 (Cloverly), while Eagle Eye starring Shia LaBoeuf was #8 in 20866 (Burtonsville). Paul Blart: Mall Cop hit #13 in 20832 (Olney), the only East County zip code where it broke the top 20.

- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire topped rental lists countywide, except in Takoma Park (20912) and Bethesda (20814), where Milk was #1.

- Zip codes in rural areas with smaller populations had less consistent lists, either because the sample of renters was too small or because there's one person in Sandy Spring with bizarre taste in movies.

That's why in Sandy Spring (20861) melodramas like Australia (#2) and political movies like Frost/Nixon (#7) can coexist in the top ten. Or in Spencerville (20868), Lakeview Terrace (#6) and its red-state fears of suburban terrorism rub elbows with the Connecticut blue-bloods of Rachel Getting Married (#4).

- Along the future InterCounty Connector, where highway construction has left many broken promises and sleepless nights in its wake, romantic comedies like Nights in Rodanthe have taken hold. It's #14 in 20905 (Cloverly), #12 in 20906 (Aspen Hill) and #11 in 20866 (Burtonsville).

- Wheaton (20902) liked Twilight (#7) more than anywhere else on the east side, not surprising because it's the only east side zip code with a Hot Topic.

- East County doesn't seem to watch Tyler Perry movies, which didn't crack the top 50 anywhere except in Burtonsville, where The Family That Preys was #24.

New AFI Marquee
Are more obscure films popular in Downtown Silver Spring because of its proximity to art-house theatres like the AFI?

What's most striking is that lists of the top 10 movies rented in 20910 (Silver Spring) and 20912 (Takoma Park) more resemble those in 20814 (Bethesda) and 20815 (Chevy Chase) than other zip codes in Silver Spring. If we wanted to make a gross, irresponsible, generalization, we could say that a revitalized Downtown Silver Spring has attracted educated, affluent people whose interests and values line up with our stereotypes of people in Bethesda, while everyone else has been forced to take refuge with their shitty action movies in places like Wheaton and Burtonsville.

Which is absolutely fine with me. I loved watching Liam Neeson shoot sex traffickers in Taken.

Monday, January 11, 2010

learning from los angeles

LA Skyline Again (With Edge Cities Labeled)
And now, what you've all been waiting for: the answer to Friday's question about this photo of Los Angeles. (This is really a topic for another blog, but they don't have a Greater Greater Los Angeles, so this is all I got.)

What really excited me about Los Angeles is that it's pretty spread out. This isn't so strange to someone from the D.C. area, where the District's height limit has forced growth outward rather than up. But in many places there forms a critical mass of people and jobs and general stuff, creating what Joel Garreau called "edge cities."

In his book of the same name, Garreau describes the edge city as a concentration of office and retail space that are not the major downtown of a city. They don't necessarily have to be outside the city limits. Of Los Angeles' twenty-three "edge cities" (according to Garreau), nine of them are within the city proper. Garreau counted twenty-three edge cities in the D.C. area as well, including Silver Spring and Bethesda.

In the photo above, the blurry thing in the far background is Downtown Los Angeles, which isn't really the center of the city or the region. Moving west from there, you'll pass Mid-Wilshire, Miracle Mile (which dates to the 1920's), and Beverly Hills (which is a separate city). Century City is where the big buildings in the foreground are. To the right is Westwood, where UCLA is located.

It's in these places, more so than Downtown, where Los Angeles does its business. And in a city renowned for its car culture, they can be surprisingly compact, dense, and even walkable. (Especially when temperatures don't dip below 50 degrees in December.) They feel like a city, with people and traffic and big buildings. But as the photo shows, they're surrounded by leafy residential neighborhoods filled with the ranch houses that Southern California is famous for.

I realized that Montgomery County isn't all too different from Los Angeles, which has the same land area but four times the population. Wilshire Boulevard, lined with apartment houses and country clubs, could pass for Wisconsin Avenue with palm trees. And as Sligo pointed out in a comment, he got the idea to nickname Downtown Silver Spring "the Promenade" after seeing the outdoor Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. And what is heavily Latino East Los Angeles but a really, really big Langley Park, where one can eat pupusas from out of a truck to their heart's content?

People might want to lump MoCo in with super-crunchy San Francisco - Takoma Park did get its nickname "The People's Republic" from nearby Berkeley - but after visiting both, I definitely found more that reminded me of home (or just more of everything) in Los Angeles.

what's up the pike: openings and closings

It's nice to be back, y'all. I hope you enjoyed JUTP's posts on my trip to the West Coast, because there are plenty more on the way. But in the meantime, here's a look at what's happening on the east side:

Fender Bender at Colesville and Georgia
- So-called "irreverent food blog" Crispy on the Outside reviews Ray's the Classics (pictured, sort of) on Colesville Road in Downtown Silver Spring, "tucked away a good 20 minutes from downtown DC." (Nothing's more irreverent than complaining about how far Maryland is.) The blogger did enjoy the food and the prices, however.

- Here's another food review from Till It's Done of Quarry House Tavern at Georgia and Bonifant. It's hard to describe Quarry House without using the terms "dive bar" or "basement," so bloggers Adam and Val let some awesome photos of the food and beer do the talking.

- As I'm sure you've heard, Fenwick Beer and Wine is up and running at the corner of Fenwick Lane and Second Avenue. They strive to have the "largest selection of craft beer in Montgomery County," as Eric from Thayer Avenue can attest to. The store will have a Belgian beer tasting at its grand opening next Saturday, January 23.

- Good Eatin' reports (via the Gazette) that Wheaton Plaza will soon be home to a re-opened Hollywood East Cafe, which shut down last May, and a new "children's pizza shop" called Noble Roman's. Meanwhile, the Borders Express bookstore in the mall will close this month, signaling the end of literacy in Wheaton once and for all. (How about moving that library downtown now?)

- And of course, Mayorga Coffee Roasters will reopen in Takoma Park the Takoma neighborhood of D.C. on January 25 after closing their flagship coffeehouse in South Silver Spring last year. Customers of the beloved local institution are already looking forward to the new Mayorga's easy street parking and proximity to Metro, two things that their former store lacked.