Friday, September 30, 2011

walmart to replace empty office park in aspen hill

aspen hill walmart
Walmart's proposed store in Aspen Hill. Image courtesy of the Post.

Walmart's push into the D.C. area continues with another proposed store, this one in Aspen Hill. A few days ago, Jonathan O'Connell at the Washington Post's Business Insider blog wrote a brief description of the store, to be located at Connecticut Avenue and Aspen Hill Road, a block from Georgia Avenue. According to the article, the store would be 118,000 square feet, roughly the size of the Target on Cherry Hill Road, and sell groceries.

The site's currently a 1960's-era office building owned by Lee Development Group, the folks who brought you the Fillmore. Until recently, the building was home to aerospace and defense company BAE Systems, which moved to Rockville.

I would've liked to see something along the lines of what the Planning Department suggested in their 2008 study of the entire Georgia Avenue corridor from downtown Silver Spring to Brookeville. In Aspen Hill (see page 30), they proposed turning the current commercial area, composed of a few different strip malls, into a sort of "town center" like Rockville Town Square. Walmart could've fit into this vision, instead of being a typical big box in a parking lot. A proposed store a few blocks from Union Station in D.C. will have underground parking and luxury apartments above, while one in Tysons Corner will be closer in size to a Giant supermarket, drawing customers only from the immediate area.

aspen hill bing aerial
Aerial of Aspen Hill's commercial area with Walmart site highlighted. Image courtesy of Bing Maps.

Of course, this kind of development is much more expensive than dropping a one-story box in a parking lot. That's why Walmart's three other stores in D.C., on East Capitol Street, New York Avenue and in Brightwood, just ten miles down Georgia Avenue from Aspen Hill, look exactly like that. In addition, most of Aspen Hill already looks like that and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

So if there's anywhere in East County where a store like Walmart would be fitting, it would be Aspen Hill, which is served by two large state highways and will be about two miles from both the Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road exits on the InterCounty Connector. It's an easy place to reach by car, and a complement to other big-box stores in the area, like Kmart and Home Depot.

It's unfortunate that the Lees didn't try to lure Costco away from their future home in Westfield Wheaton Wheaton Plaza. Downtown Wheaton has a Metro station and several bus routes and, unlike Aspen Hill, will soon see a lot of high-density redevelopment. This won't be the easiest place to reach by car (is it now?) and thus may not be the best location for a big-box store dependent on car access. 

I'm less upset about Walmart's awful labor and manufacturing policies than I am to see another company with real, well-paying jobs move from the east side to Rockville. It doesn't make a difference to the County Executive whether a business is in Rockville or Silver Spring, because the taxes all go to the same place. But for employees who now have to commute across the county, it's more time spent in traffic. What good are having access discount underpants if you don't have any time to buy them?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

powhatan springs

If you're seeking a serene natural retreat, a skate park's probably the last place you would look. But a few years ago in Arlington, the county built a park that welcomes all visitors, not just those with skateboards.

A few weeks ago, I visited Powhatan Springs Park, also known as the "skate park rain garden." Designed by local architecture firms the Kerns Group and Oculus, it combines a skate park with a rain garden and a soccer field, creating a space that welcomes all visitors. It's no surprise that the project was given an award for "innovative excellence" by the Maryland and Potomac Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2005.

Powhatan Springs is located on busy Wilson Boulevard in Dominion Hills, a neighborhood at the far western tip of Arlington. It's a diverse area with a mix of single-family homes and apartments; Eden Center, the Vietnamese shopping mall, is a mile away. The park is well-served by bus and trails, ensuring a steady stream of visitors.

As a result, the park has to accommodate a variety of uses. Along Wilson Boulevard, there's a concrete skate park with a bowl that mimics a swimming pool. Next to it is a soccer field with spectator seating. Behind them is a small parking lot and an interactive rain garden, which collects and absorbs stormwater rather than dumping it into a drainage system.

Water Culvert

This culvert carries water down into Four Mile Run, while an adjacent path connects the park to the surrounding neighborhood and a nearby elementary school.


All the concrete in the skate park can be hard on the eyes and amplifies sound. Meanwhile, the rain garden is filled with lush native grasses.

Water Pump

The rain garden has a pump where kids can play with water. It was meant to be a "sort of unprogrammed, unstructured [space] where you created your own fun, in the words of project manager Robert Capper. The pump wasn't working on the hot, dry day that I visited, but presumably it's quite popular the rest of the time.

Many Rain Pools

However, a set of pools and a cistern that collect rainwater were fully functional.

Water Drain in Parking Lot

The garden motif continues out into the parking lot, where the concrete drains are stamped with leaves and twigs.

Plaza Outside Skate Park

Between the rain garden and the skate park is a little plaza with a bench, giving kids a comfortable, dignified place to sit and wait for a ride.

The architects were very concerned about giving park visitors places to sit. I was impressed by how many seating areas there are, and for different activities:

The Pier

There's a "pier," set in the trees and overlooking the rain garden. This is the most secluded space in the park. Depending on how concerned you are about crime, it's either a quiet refuge from the outside world, or a hideout for illicit activities. Hopefully, the park is busy enough to keep this area safe.

Spectator Seating

There's two rows of spectator seating, one each facing the skate park and the soccer field (at left).

Bar Area

There's also a "cafe," which has a bar and stools for eating. This space gives people a dedicated place to eat with trash cans, so the soccer field and skate park aren't littered with food wrappers.

Skating Between the Stools

The views from here are pretty exciting.

Skating 1

There are three concrete structures framing the skate park. They hold the cafe, a storage/maintenance shed and a manager's office. They're simple but attractive, helping to define discreet areas within the park as a whole without standing out.

Skate Park Rules

The manager's office isn't always staffed, but a list of posted rules is visible for all users. It's a good sign that the parks authority feels comfortable leaving the space unattended, because it suggests that visitors are taking care of the place.

Skating 7

And they are. The park is clean and the skaters were friendly to each other and to me when I asked to take pictures of them. There were a couple of groups there ranging from high school age to a little kid with his parents, and everyone got along fine.

The Only Graffiti I Saw At Powhatan Springs

The only vandalism I found at Powhatan Springs was a little bit of marker scribble in the cafe area. That's impressive, especially considering that a recently-opened skate park in Howard County was soon covered in graffiti, though officials there decided to keep it as a form of "urban art." I think it's great if a community decides to embrace graffiti at their skate park, as the two are often misunderstood forms of artistic expression. But it's also great if the users of a skate park can respect a prohibition against graffiti and still take care of the space they're given.

As skateboarding becomes more popular, the need increases for more skate parks. However, many communities are hesitant to give skaters a chunk of the public realm, fearful of noise, crowds and crime. Powhatan Springs Park shows that you can give skaters a home without scaring off other users. It's an example that more places should follow.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

when it comes to windows, the fillmore's got area rock clubs beat

Fillmore Sign
Since the Fillmore Silver Spring opened last week, there's been concerns that the Live Nation-owned music hall could threaten promoters in the District and even Baltimore. Already, the venue has beaten most local rock clubs on one aspect: it actually embraces the street, with big windows, bright lights and even a couple of sidewalk benches.
The 930 Club!
The 9:30 Club in Shaw.

2010 07 01 - 1319 - Washington DC - Black Cat
The Black Cat in 2010. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr. 

Music halls don't necessarily need windows. They have shows at night and audiences come to watch the band, not the street. But these venues still exist during the rest of the day, when the neighborhoods they reside in play host to other activities. 

Having blank, featureless façades discourage street life and can send the wrong message. Last year, the Black Cat, which anchors the shopping and entertainment district along 14th Street NW, painted a mural of a cat on their boarded-up second-floor windows. Nonetheless, it doesn't look much different from the outside than it did as an abandoned shell in 1988. Clubs like the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club a few blocks away have helped revitalize their neighborhoods, but by looking like abandoned bunkers, they can perpetuate a run-down image.
The Ottobar
The Ottobar in Baltimore's Station North neighborhood.

Birchmere Entrance
The Birchmere in Alexandria. 

Venues outside of the District are no better. While in Baltimore last weekend, I took my friends to The Ottobar, a tiny club in the emerging Station North neighborhood. Judging from its completely blacked-out storefront, they thought it was abandoned. I can imagine someone walking up North Howard Street, assuming there's nothing there, and turning around, missing out on the awesome coffee shop a block away. 

And in Alexandria, the venerable Birchmere Music Hall is largely invisible from the street, despite being in a fairly dense, urban neighborhood. If it weren't for the murals on the side, this club would just look like a warehouse behind a parking lot.


View Larger Map

One exception would be the Recher Theatre, located in the center of downtown Towson. I drove through Towson last weekend and was impressed at how busy the downtown is, despite being home to one of Maryland's largest shopping malls. With a big marquee left over from the theatre's days as a movie palace and an adjacent bar that's open every day, the Recher keeps the streets active in a way that other area clubs don't.

Of course, rock clubs thrive on an aura of obscurity, while windows suggest openness and transparency. But perhaps venues can create window displays that affirm their image while creating a more interesting streetscape. For example, the Trocadero, a rock club in Philadelphia, has raunchy dioramas of Barbie dolls in their windows.

Great streets require the participation of all the buildings that front them, even rock clubs. By creating storefronts that are visually interesting and engaging, or providing uses like cafes or bars that are open when shows aren't going on, clubs can create safer, more vibrant neighborhoods.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

david moon lays the smackdown on leggett's proposed curfew

There are a lot of reasons to oppose County Executive Ike Leggett's proposed youth curfew. The most significant one may be that he's spent the past two months highlighting a few isolated crimes in downtown Silver Spring, scaring potential visitors, businesses and residents away from the area and anywhere unfortunate enough to have a "Silver Spring" mailing address. Friend of JUTP/former co-worker/political strategist David Moon wrote this lovely screed about the curfew as a public relations gaffe on his blog, Maryland Juice:

The most important job of a County Executive is simply to sell a County. This is done through both policy and public relations, as we noted through the example above. Your audience on any day varies but might include bond rating agencies, potential residents and employers, nervous parents, an angry workforce, or any number of possibilities. Your mission on most days is simple: make good policy and manage the press . . . 

A good negotiator of the press will play his or her cards correctly: When crime is on the rise, an Executive can do no more than appear tough on crime and signal to observers that something is being done -- even though we all know little can be done to move crime rates against the current of statistical trendlines. But that is because, as stated above, the Executive's role, first and foremost, is to sell the County. Just ask Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and DC Mayor Anthony Williams about the importance of combating crime fears for attracting residents, retail visitors and businesses.

But when crime is on the decline, when an isolated crime event occurs, an Executive's job is to calm fears and rally the community. Indeed, urban officials around the nation typically express frustration when crime rates go down and the public still thinks crime is going up. They see their job as to act swiftly but combat misinformation -- in order to keep selling their community to the public. The show must go on.

Anyone who's lived in East County for more than a few years knows there's a crime problem, whether real or perceived. The revitalization of downtown Silver Spring (and, soon, the revitalization of Wheaton) hinges on people feeling safe there. And as more people visit these areas, they become safer due to the presence of what Jane Jacobs called "eyes on the street."

Obviously, people were worried about the stabbing two months ago. But Ike Leggett should've been a leader and reminded his constituents that it was an isolated incident. At the least, he should've given us a package of "solutions" similar to the one that MoCo Police Lt. Carter gave us at a meeting last month, so we could have an actual discussion on the issue. Instead, he's dragged the reputation of Silver Spring through the mud, making it hard to draw people back because even if the area's safe (which it is), people won't feel safe there. And that's what really matters.

Anyway. Read David's post. Read it again and again and again. I hope our friends in Rockville read it, too.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

the problem with speed cameras . . .

Speed Cameras, Randolph at Wheaton High
Speed cameras along wide Randolph Road in Wheaton don't do much to slow drivers. This week, two people wrote the Post's Dr. Gridlock complaining that speed cameras actually encourage people to drive fast:
Please explain why it’s all right to go less than 12 mph over the speed limit at Montgomery County schools before getting a ticket? This has been driving me crazy for years. I doubt that it’s okay to go 12 miles over the speed limit anywhere else.
Longtime readers know that I don't like speed cameras, and not just because camera operators often cheat drivers and municipalities alike. That's not to say I agree with speeding, though. Many roads, even smaller arterials and neighborhood streets, are designed to get cars through as quickly as possible. They have two or more lanes in each direction to allow cars to pass each other, or the lanes are made wider so cars can travel at higher speeds. Of course, this comes directly in conflict with the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, who are nine times more likely to be killed by a car going 40mph than by one going 20. Simply dropping a speed camera on a street that's designed for high speeds won't get drivers to slow down. Wide, suburban arterials like Randolph Road in Wheaton, New Hampshire Avenue in White Oak, or Route 1 in College Park all have cameras and posted speed limits of 30-35 miles per hour, but can feel safe at much higher speeds. As a result, drivers see that the sign says 35, remember that Maryland law allows you to go 47, and continue on their way. If we really want motorists to drive slower, cameras are just part of the solution. We have to design roads for slower speeds. That means narrower lanes or even fewer lanes when possible. Take the space gained from those lanes and use it to add landscaping and street trees, which create visual interest and can discourage speeding, or add wider sidewalks and bike lanes, making it easier and safer for walkers and bikers to use those streets. That's the recipe for a safer street. Requiring drivers to slow down on a road that tells them to speed is just a bad joke, even if it's a good way to collect fines for speeding violations.

Monday, September 19, 2011

my studio's installation for park(ing) day in philly

PennPlanning Urban Design Studio Park(ing) Day 2011

While planners and architects in Silver Spring turned parts of Ellsworth Drive into a beach for Park(ing) Day last Friday, my urban design studio in Philadelphia turned a parking space at the University of Pennsylvania into a visual representation of how much space cities around the world give over to parking. We created a three-dimensional bar graph listing the number of parking spaces in the downtowns of major cities, along with a banner showing what we could do with that space instead.

The figures came from this report by Donald Shoup, an economist at UCLA who wrote the book The High Cost of Free Parking. We found that parking amounts ranged widely across the road. In Manila, the entire downtown has only 1,500 parking spaces per square mile, compared to 68,000 in downtown Los Angeles. Assuming a parking space is about 10' by 20', or 200 square feet, there's roughly 12 million square feet of parking in downtown LA - or as our banner points out, 4 times as much space as King of Prussia Mall outside Philadelphia, one of the largest malls in the country. (It's just a little bigger than Tysons Corner Center closer to home.)

Even in Silver Spring, a vast amount of land is given over solely for the storing of cars. According to friend of JUTP/blogger at GGW/MoCo planner Matt Johnson, there's 82 acres of parking in downtown alone, almost a quarter of the entire district. Are all of those parking spaces being used? Definitely not. There's tons of things we could do with that space - for instance, we could use part of it to build a real skate park.

Anyway, check out this photoset showing Penn Urban Design Studio's Park(ing) Day installation and the process of getting it built.

Friday, September 16, 2011

council president ervin blames crime on families moving from D.C.

When you can't blame youth crime on "kids from P.G. and D.C.," just blame families from D.C. for moving here, as County Council President Valerie Ervin did during yesterday's committee meeting on the proposed teen curfew:
Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said the county is in the early stages of a migration of families from Washington, D.C., to Montgomery’s suburbs — leading to a shift in the type of youth violence police are witnessing on the streets. “These are kids who are from rough neighborhoods,” she said. “These kids are very street-savvy. They are different than what we were used to in the past.”
My family moved here from Petworth (via a brief stint in Prince George's County) in 1991. I spent as much time in the District. as I did in Silver Spring growing up, and my first library card was from the Shepherd Park library. We are not in the "early stages" of a migration. People have been moving from the District to Montgomery County for decades, except fifty years ago it was called "white flight," and it produced the troubled, poverty-stricken city that suburban politicians enjoy scapegoating. Of course, I'm sure that in the 1950's, county leaders were absolutely giddy to have middle-class families moving here. In fact, we could even argue that families from Washington, D.C. helped make Montgomery County what it is today.

But let's be serious: is there still a migration of families from the District to Montgomery? I looked at the 2005-2009 American Community Survey, a sort of yearly census that provides a rough estimate of demographic trends. It says that 121,000 people moved to Montgomery County within the past five years. (That may seem really high considering that the county's population increased by 100,000 in ten years, but it's offset by people moving out, dying, etc.) Of that group, 51 percent moved from another house within Montgomery County, and 12 percent moved from elsewhere in Maryland.

The Census and American Community Survey don't provide information on which state people moved from, instead lumping them into regions. Given that, we can't tell exactly how many people moved here from the District, which is included in the "Northeast" category. However, only 8,495 people moved to Montgomery County from the Northeast between 2005 and 2009, representing only 6 percent of everyone who moved into the county and less than 1 percent of all county residents.

Even if all of those people were coming from the District, it's hard to call that a "migration," especially when all you'd have to do is move across the street. There are more people in Montgomery County who moved from Rockville to Bethesda.

Perhaps we could say that the District lost its black majority to poor black families escaping struggling neighborhoods for a chance at a better life in Montgomery County. Or, we could say that affluent and middle-class families of all stripes are doing what they've been doing for decades and moving to Montgomery County for better schools. Either way, there's not enough of either group to blame the county's nonexistent rise in youth crime on "street-savvy" kids from "rough neighborhoods" in the District moving to Montgomery County.

Of course, curfew supporters know the best way to get this ill-conceived law passed is to play on fear, whether it's the provost of Montgomery College comparing Silver Spring to the fall of Rome or County Executive Ike Leggett and Police Chief Thomas Manger playing and replaying video of the Germantown "flash mob" that stole candy and sodas from a 7-Eleven. I wish our county's leaders were actually interested in tackling crime and helping youth, rather than trying to blame all their problems on surrounding communities, but perhaps that's too much to ask.

planners, artists take over ellsworth for park(ing) day

A Park(ing) Day installation in San Francisco from 2009. Photo by iomarch on Flickr. Yesterday, we talked about parklets, which turn underused parking spaces into mini-parks. Though they've become a fixture in communities all around the country, the idea originally came from Park(ing) Day, a yearly event (which is today!) where people take over metered parking spaces for a day and show how they could be otherwise used. In downtown Silver Spring, a few local organizations are setting up Park(ing) Day spaces today along Ellsworth Avenue Drive. Our friends at the Planning Department sent us this press release:
The Planning Department’s complete streets display will go the heart of the intent of Parking Day – to rethink the way streets are used and reinforce the need to improve urban areas. The display will transform a parking space using a three-dimensional version of a streetscape with pedestrian- and bike-friendly elements as well as stormwater management techniques that reduce pollution. Planners and urban designers are recommending the complete streets concept to improve Montgomery County’s aging corridors. Environmental tools like stormwater infiltration trenches lined with plants filter runoff that flows from impervious surfaces into streams and rivers. Pedestrian- and bike-friendly features can improve the street’s use for all people, not just motorists. The Planning Department will be joined in neighboring parking spaces on Ellsworth Avenue Drive by local businesses Pyramid Atlantic, the Green Commuter, and Growing Soul, which will offer art activities and demonstrations of the latest urban-designed bicycles and filtering used vegetable oil for diesel engines. The Congress for New Urbanism-DC will display a beach and a county planner will showcase an artistic view of a park constructed of tissue paper.
Personally, I'm most excited about the beach, though today's projected high of 66 means it'll be a little chilly for swim trunks. I'm going to be in Philadelphia today setting up a Park(ing) Day space with my urban design studio (if you're in the vicinity of 34th & Walnut tomorrow, come and say hi!), but if any of y'all have pictures from Silver Spring I'd be happy to post them. And if you'd like to learn more about Park(ing) Day, check out their website and this map of installations around the world.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

parklets add open space one car at a time

Last spring, San Francisco replaced a few unused parking spaces with a little patch of green the mayor dubbed a "parklet." Though they're appearing all over the country, parklets haven't taken root in the D.C. area yet. But in Philadelphia, where JUTP is back finishing grad school, I've got one just a few blocks from my house.

Most parklets are pretty simple: a raised platform with some tables and chairs and, of course, lots of plants. Some host sculptures and artwork, while others hold bicycle parking. They're designed to "extend" the sidewalk, repurposing space once given over to cars for people. Parklets can be temporary or permanent, but they should always be inviting and comfortable for users.

Green Line Cafe Parklet
Parklet outside the Green Line Cafe in West Philadelphia.

Philadelphia's first parklet was installed last month outside of the Green Line Cafe, a coffee shop with three locations in West Philadelphia. It's a prime intersection located along Baltimore Avenue, a neighborhood shopping street. Two trolley lines stop within a block, and the University of the Sciences is across the street, along with Clark Park, a large and well-loved community gathering place that hosts a big, twice-weekly farmers' market. As a result, there's a lot of people around, and a lot of foot traffic, giving the parklet plenty of use.

Green Line Parklet (Side View)
The parklet includes tables, chairs and plants on a raised platform.

Last Saturday, my roommate and I grabbed dinner at our new favorite local carryout and gobbled up organic fried chicken in the parklet. Though it's located in front of a cafe, the parklet itself is city property and open to anyone. It's a nice way of democratizing outdoor seating. Lots of people would like to sit outside and enjoy the scenery, but not everyone may want to grab a cup of coffee while doing so.

My only disappointment with the parklet is that it's located across from a large and well-used park. Though this creates an even more attractive setting for outdoor seating, the installation might've done more good on a block that doesn't already have lots of trees and people. Parklets are a great way to provide usable open space and aesthetic enhancement, and they should be deployed in places that lack them both.
Li'l GT Cafe - From the Sidewalk
The sidewalks outside Li'l GT Cafe in Petworth are only wide enough to hold a single table.

If the District ever starts a parklets program, the first place I'd locate one is in front of Li'l GT Cafe, the Caribbean restaurant my aunt and cousin opened earlier this year on Georgia Avenue in Petworth. Over the summer, I helped them submit an application to set up a sidewalk cafe. Unfortunately, the sidewalk is so narrow that according to city regulations, they could fit just one table with three chairs, and only after receiving a special exception.

Meanwhile, Georgia Avenue has four lanes and parking on both sides; most of the day, the spaces on their block aren't full. The area gets a lot of foot traffic, but could use some sprucing up, which makes it seem like a smart place to locate a parklet.

Sidewalk Seating, Jackie's Restaurant (Head On)
Sidewalk seating in front of Jackie's Restaurant in Silver Spring.

And if Montgomery County ever starts a parklet program (I'll start one myself if I have to), the second parklet I'd build would be in front of Jackie's Restaurant at the corner of Sligo and Georgia avenues in South Silver Spring. Once again, the sidewalk is narrow, but there's still a few tables and chairs set out.  

I prefer outdoor seating and ask for it whenever I'm at a restaurant, but I wouldn't feel comfortable eating here, four feet from the curb. Instead of street trees and plantings, diners enjoy a view of above-ground telephone poles, parking meters and trash cans. Meanwhile, Sligo Avenue, a neighborhood street a mile long, is way too wide, and cars can easily speed down it. Placing a parklet here would help slow traffic and give diners a pleasant place to enjoy their meals. 

The parklet "movement" is an outgrowth of Park(ing) Day, a yearly event started by a San Francisco art collective that encourages people to repurpose metered parking spaces, in the purpose revealing just how much space we give to cars in our communities. While I don't think cars are going away anytime soon, I'm okay giving up a few parking spaces if it creates more attractive and enjoyable neighborhoods. 

And if you don't think that a 180-square-foot park can't create a sublime outdoor experience, I invite you to meet me next weekend at the corner of 43rd and Baltimore in Philadelphia. I'll bring some chicken and we can watch the world go by from the middle of the street.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

council committee reviews leggett's proposed curfew tomorrow

World Cup Fever On Ellsworth
County Executive Leggett says teens need to stay home so we can keep downtown Silver Spring safe.

Tomorrow, the County Council's Public Safety committee reviews County Executive Leggett's proposed youth curfew, which would bar teens under 18 from being out after 11pm during the week and midnight on weekends. Over the past two months, curfew opponents (myself included) have offered many reasons why this is a bad idea:

There isn't enough for teens to do. We don't expect midnight basketball to prevent youth-related crime, but having activities for young people will give them an alternative to causing trouble. The "youth cafes" Councilmember Nancy Navarro started at the East County Community Center are a good start, as are long-standing plans to open a teen center in downtown Silver Spring. In Richmond, organizers of a "First Fridays" art walk set up an art gallery for teens to give youth a venue of their own.

There are also "private sector" solutions. The D.C. area's had a long tradition of "punk houses" that host shows, providing youth a forum for expression and a sense of community. We know of two in East County: Scumbag Nation in Colesville and the Corpse Fortress in Fenton Village, which was recently condemned by county building inspectors.

There are more effective solutions. Our friends Abigail Burman and Leah Muskin-Pierret at Stand Up to the Montgomery County Curfew have uncovered plenty of studies showing how curfews don't work. Baltimore's had a curfew for decades, and even they admit it hasn't done much. And Lt. Robert Carter of the police department's 3rd District, which includes Silver Spring, says a curfew would eliminate only a "quarter" of area crime, and offered a list of additional crime-fighting tools, ranging from harsher penalties to more funding for gang prevention programs. Lt. Carter noted that there are just six cops assigned to downtown Silver Spring, compared to 28 in the 1990's. A larger police presence, particularly on foot and bikes, would have a huge impact on crime.

Silver Spring resident Jim Zepp, who's spent twenty years researching criminal justice for the Justice Research and Statistics Association, says there's a need to look at the entire "nighttime economy" in downtown Silver Spring as a means to reducing crime. He points to Nighttime Economy Management studies, like this one from San Jose, as a way to understand and fight the root causes of youth crime.

Fear has seized the discussion. In the face of considerable evidence against a curfew's effectiveness, County Executive Leggett says he could "debunk" any study he doesn't agree with. Even the police department's own statistics that show crime, and especially youth-related crime, has been falling in MoCo for years. On his new blog Maryland Juice, political consultant David Moon suggests that Leggett has drawn attention to the "flash mob robbery" in Germantown last month as proof we need a curfew, despite the fact that most of the kids involved were first-time offenders. These are isolated incidents. Downtown Silver Spring is safe, and as it grows, they'll be even safer because there's more people out to provide "eyes on the street." In my opinion, Silver Spring's reputation has been harmed more by the County Executive's eagerness to highlight the July 2nd stabbing than by the public's actual perception of crime.

Councilmember Phil Andrews of Rockville, a strong opponent of the curfew proposal, happens to chair the Public Safety committee, The other two members are Councilmember Roger Berliner of Bethesda, who seems skeptical of the curfew, and at-large Councilmember Marc Elrich, who tentatively supports it. Though Leggett tells the Post that he's confident the curfew will pass when it goes before a vote this November, we hope it'll face serious examination during tomorrow's committee meeting.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

councilmember andrews seeks curfew alternatives (and a look at one)

Ellsworth Drive Is Alive (I Saw No Emo Kids)A police substation on Ellsworth Drive is just one of the alternatives to a curfew we have. Councilmember Phil Andrews (D-Rockville), so far the strongest opponent of Montgomery County Executive Leggett's proposed teen curfew, has a sharp, insightful op-ed in the Gazette today:
Police officers have many tools to maintain order, including laws against harassment, public drunkenness, disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct. In communities where crime is a problem, such as downtown Silver Spring, the county has added police officers. The County Council recently approved 28 additional officers for the Third Police District, including 12 more for downtown Silver Spring. The county also should pursue federal grants to fund surveillance cameras in problem areas, as County Police Chief Tom Manger proposes, and continue to deploy the Police Community Action Team to bolster police presence where needed . . . The council should reject Leggett’s proposal for a permanent youth curfew — a proposal which falsely signals that crime and youth in the County are out of control, when crime is actually down and the overwhelming majority of youth are law-abiding.
I don't know why people aren't more outraged that Police Chief Thomas Manger and County Executive Leggett has worked so hard to change the perception of Montgomery teens from overachieving honor students to remorseless criminals. Or that the provost of Montgomery College, who presumably works with young people every day, would compare youth crime in MoCo to the Great Fire of Rome. So that's why we have Councilmember Andrews, always the voice of reason, telling the rabble-rousers to calm down. He's totally right in saying that the county has many alternatives, and many more effective alternatives, to a curfew. Lt. Carter of the police department's Silver Spring district, gave me a list of eleven crime-fighting tools, ranging from gang prevention programs to a greater police presence. The most intriguing idea he offered was opening a police substation on Ellsworth Drive. Currently, the Third District police station, which covers downtown Silver Spring and most of East County, is on Sligo Avenue, six long blocks away. In a few years, the station will move to White Oak, several miles away. A police substation on Ellsworth would put police officers in the heart of the action, allowing them to see what's going on firsthand and respond as quickly as possible. It would also allow the public to have regular, positive interactions with police officers, building a relationship. Go to Ellsworth today and you can already see security guards hired by the Peterson Companies (the folks who brought you the Downtown Silver Spring complex) reaching out to customers, answering questions and palling around with teenagers. A police substation would give visitors another place to ask questions and seek help in case of an emergency. As a result, people will begin to trust and respect these authority figures. Not to say there won't still be problems (see this video of a Peterson security guard arguing with a kid who then threatens the guard) but this would be a step in the right direction. Besides staffing, all a police substation needs is space, and very little at that. One former substation was a 400-square-foot, single-wide trailer in the parking lot at Briggs Chaney Plaza. The Downtown Silver Spring complex alone has three vacancies, not including the soon-to-be-closed Borders, totaling 12,000 square feet. But space is expensive. The average rent for retail space in Silver Spring is $26/square foot. Yet if Leggett is truly serious about reducing crime, he should be willing to find the funds to open a police substation on Ellsworth. Or perhaps Peterson can provide a space for a discounted fee. They, along with the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, have come out in support of the curfew. It's in their company's best interest to create a safe, vibrant environment on Ellsworth Drive. Surely, reducing the rent of a small storefront on Ellsworth would be worth the investment. Like Councilmember Andrews said, there are lots of good kids in Montgomery County. Rather than vilifying them, we should be trying to work with them to make this county a stronger place. Having a greater police presence in downtown Silver Spring is the first step to creating a constructive relationship with this constituency, rather than antagonizing them with a curfew.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

incremental change in burtonsville (still lipstick on a pig)

Route 198 Shopping Center Sign
Local businesses in Burtonsville are sporting new storefronts, thanks to funding from Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs. While they may be more than "lipstick on a pig," they don't do enough to solve the underlying problems in Burtonsville's struggling village center.
Pothole, Route 198 Shopping Center
A pothole outside the newly renovated shopping center.
Shopping Center Where Peking Used To Be
The same building two years ago. The first set of new storefronts have just gone up in a retail building on Route 198, Burtonsville's "Restaurant Row." A few other properties along the corridor whose owners applied for funding will also receive new façades in the coming months. Covered in fake stucco and stone veneers, the new storefronts look better than they used to, even though they have that contrived "make this building look like three" look that way too many developments do today.

It's also unfortunate that the new façades no longer have a covered arcade in front. Suburban strip malls have long included covered arcades because they shield shoppers from the rain and sun, but they're often narrow and cheaply detailed. They also block views into shops, especially from passing cars. As a result, new shopping centers in East County, like the WesTech Village Corner on Tech Road and the recently-renovated Briggs Chaney Plaza, don't include them at all. Yet when done well, arcades like this one in downtown Rockville can create a nice "outdoor room," the kind of space that humans flock to like bees to nectar.
Traffic On Route 198
The rest of Route 198 looks much as it used to, unfortunately. 

Despite its good intentions, DHCA's façade improvement program is undermined by a lack of attention to Burtonsville's public realm. This building has a new, arcade-less storefront, but the parking lots still have huge potholes in them, adjacent property owners who didn't participate in the program still have dumpy buildings, and there's absolutely no accommodation for pedestrians, not even a continuous sidewalk along Route 198, a twisty rural road that's become a congested through-route for drivers going to Howard County or I-95. 

When asked, the community's said they want a lot more from Burtonsville. Results of a planning workshop held by Montgomery County planners last spring revealed that residents want more things to do, a more attractive streetscape, and more alternatives to driving in the village center. Some respondents explicitly called for an "Old Town", "village" or "urban-lite" feel in the area, giving people more reasons to spend their time and money there. 

One thing that could draw more shoppers to Burtonsville is some sort of public gathering space. For nearly fifteen years, there have been plans to create a "village green" behind the shops on Route 198, though civic leaders complain it would "bring undesirables" to the community. Meanwhile, a small pocket plaza was built as part of Burtonsville Town Square, a strip mall at Route 198 and Old Columbia Pike that opened last fall. It's a very attractive space, with a ring of benches and ample landscaping. At the center of the plaza is an interactive sundial and a piece of public art that appears to be the door from a bank vault.
Plaza, Burtonsville Town Square
The new pocket plaza has attractive seating and landscaping, but it's in the middle of a parking lot.
Public Art Safe Door 2
Public art in the new pocket plaza at Burtonsville Town Square. 

However, I came by on a pleasant, cloudless, 82-degree summer afternoon and the space was empty. Why? It's in the middle of a parking lot, placed as an afterthought in an awkward spot where no more spaces could fit. This means that customers are unlikely to pass through the space on foot, because it's far from most of the shops and restaurants in the shopping center. 

Not only that, but customers probably won't walk through a boring, empty parking lot to sit here. And as a privately-owned space, it's meant only for customers of Burtonsville Town Square, meaning those visiting businesses along Route 198 can't go there either. The problem with Burtonsville's village center isn't a lack of retail. 

Burtonsville Town Square developer Chris Jones has cannibalized the community's existing businesses, leaving an existing shopping center half-empty and in need of government assistance. Meanwhile, shoppers are already traveling two exits up Route 29 to Maple Lawn, a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use complex with upscale stores and restaurants that directly competes with Burtonsville for customers. 

What Burtonsville really lacks is a sense of place. It has great ethnic restaurants and long-standing family businesses, but they're obscured by a mess of cracked parking lots and congested highways. These assets deserve to shine, and to do so, they need attractive storefronts, streets that slow traffic and encourage people to look around, and legitimate public gathering places. 

As Montgomery County planners work to create a neighborhood plan to revitalize Burtonsville's village center, these are the goals they should seek to accomplish.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

how to turn a strip mall into a public gathering space

How do you turn a strip mall into a vibrant gathering space? At one shopping center in Fairfax County, it's done by making room for people, not cars.

Walkway, Heritage Plaza, AnnandaleHeritage Center, a shopping center in Annandale, has a landscaped plaza that's popular with customers.

Heritage Center is a 1970's-era shopping strip off of Little River Turnpike in Annandale, which is dubbed "Koreatown" for its large Korean community. Like many retail complexes from this time, it's set far back from the street behind a large parking lot. But between the parking and the stores at Heritage Center is a large, tree-studded plaza that seems to have become a local meeting spot, where families eat lunch, neighbors mingle and little kids play.

Landscaped plazas like this one are a common feature of recently-built suburban "town centers" like The Market Common at Clarendon, which have upscale stores aimed at drawing well-heeled customers from a wide area. There, the provision of public space and a walkable environment is meant to be the main draw.

Yet at Heritage Center, the plaza is secondary to the neighborhood-serving shops located there, which include a CVS/pharmacy, a laundromat and a Peruvian restaurant, along with Korean grocery chain H-Mart as an anchor. These shops would draw customers even if there wasn't an attractive green space at their door, so why is this space so popular? The answer lies in its design and the changing demographics of the surrounding area.

Heritage Plaza Aerial
Bird's-eye view of Heritage Center from Bing Maps.

The plaza at Heritage Center is simple. It's a long, narrow space, bounded on three sides by the H-Mart, two retail buildings, and an office building built after the rest of the complex. The fourth side is a parking lot. A few clusters of tall, mature trees provide shade and define the space, obscuring views of the cars. The trees sit in raised beds of landscaping and mulch that are large enough for kids to run around in. Stone ledges ring the planted areas and serve as benches.

In front of the retail buildings is a long, covered arcade, giving the complex a sort of "front porch." Throughout the plaza are wide, twenty-five-foot sidewalks, creating more than enough room to walk and gather. The result is a comfortable, shady space that invites people rather than pushing them away.

Sitting on a Ledge, Heritage Plaza, Annandale
A family spends a summer evening in the plaza at Heritage Center.

It also helps that the surrounding neighborhood is pretty dense by suburban standards, providing a built-in customer base for Heritage Center. A mix of apartment and townhouse complexes push the population density to over 15,000 people per square mile, comparable with many neighborhoods in the District. The area is pretty auto-oriented, however, and 86% of residents drive to work, according to the 2009 American Community Survey.

But it's not a terrible place to walk around because there's a network of paved sidewalks and informal "desire paths" that cut through the residential areas and tie into Heritage Center. Acros the street from the strip mall is Annandale High School, whose 2,200 students can walk there for lunch and after school, along with a church and recreational park, which give people more reasons to pass through Heritage Center while they're in the area.

HMart (Tilt-Shift), Heritage Plaza, Annandale
Korean grocer H-Mart fronts the plaza at Heritage Center in Annandale.

The area's demographics might also explain why the plaza is so well-used. With a median income of $54,263, half the average salary in the nation's third-wealthiest county, there's a low-income community around Heritage Plaza that may be more likely to walk there instead of driving such a short distance. Also, 35% of the neighborhood's 7,276 residents are Hispanic or Latino, while 22% are Asian; 61% of residents speak a language other than English at home.

In a study on immigrants and Smart Growth, former University of Maryland professor Shenglin Chang found that Latinos and Asians who emigrate from urban areas want to retain the convenience and vitality of those places when they come to the United States, even while embracing the "American Dream" of a suburban, single-family home. Heritage Center lets them live in a leafy suburb while being able to walk to shops and meet friends and family in a semi-urban space.

As Greater Washington becomes a majority-minority region, demand for public spaces where people can mingle and hang out will grow, especially outside of traditionally urban neighborhoods where this may already exist. Heritage Center is an example of how to create a vibrant public space, albeit on private property, in suburban communities. We'll need to make more places like it in the future.