Thursday, November 24, 2011

what's up the pike: thanksgiving?

I know I said I wasn't going to post today (what with the whole being with friends and loved ones thing), but I couldn't resist. Here are a few things I'm thankful for this year:

"Things I'm Thankful For" lists. Our friends at Greater Greater Washington are giving thanks for urban blessings today. I didn't add any because I don't currently live in the D.C. area, but I guess I'm thankful for being able to get out of Philadelphia for four days.

And over at Colesville Patch, friend of JUTP Whitney Teal has a list of things she's thankful for in East County (and one of them is this blog!) Thanks, Whitney. I met her two years ago before she joined Patch, and of all the umpteen local Patches I've enjoyed hers the most. (Not that the Silver Spring, Wheaton and Takoma Park Patches are any slouches, but I recognize the challenge of writing about the "Upper East Side" of MoCo.)

The Silver Spring Historical Society, whose Jerry McCoy sent JUTP this ad from Lee's Tea Garden, the first Chinese restaurant to open in MoCo way back in 1936:

This Thanksgiving advertisement was published in the November 18, 1938 "Maryland News." L. S. Ling opened Lee's Tea Garden that year in the equally new Silver Spring Shopping Center (the restaurant's space is today occupied by Panera Bread's kitchen). The oldest known Chinese restaurant serving Cantonese dishes in Montgomery County, Lee's was renamed Shanghai when it reopened in 1950 at 1201 Fidler Lane. This beloved restaurant remained in operation for half a century, closing in 2000. Even in 1938, 85c was a good price. Adjusted for inflation, this is equivalent to $13.55 today. Try finding a four course meal for that.

My aunt and cousin's restaurant, Li'l GT Cafe in Petworth, where I'll be spending part of my Thanksgiving today . . .

and my boyfriend, Professor Vegetable, who no doubt will be trying to feed me Tofurkey later on.

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all. This time, I mean it: I'll see you on Monday.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"if it works for kids, it works for everyone"

I'm currently trying out the ICC as I go home to East County for Thanksgiving. Posting will resume Monday, unless I get bored. If not, I'll see you next week. Happy Thanksgiving!

Play Ball, Bethesda Avenue
Kids goofing off on Bethesda Avenue in downtown Bethesda.

We assume that kids belong in the suburbs, where they've got yards to play in and great schools to learn in. But it's not a foregone conclusion that good, urban neighborhoods can produce good kids as well.

Twenty years ago, sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote in The Great, Good Place that teenagers are a litmus test for a neighborhood's "vitality":

“The adolescent houseguest, I would suggest, is probably the best and quickest test of the vitality of the neighborhood; the visiting teenager in the subdivision soon acts like an animal in a cage. He or she paces, looks unhappy or uncomfortable, and by the second day is putting heavy pressure on the parents to leave. There is no place to which they can escape and join their own kind. There is nothing for them to do on their own.”

What do teenagers need? The ability to get around without a driver's license, for starters. A 15-year-old who can get around town on foot, on transit, or by bike or skateboard isn't just a convenience for their parents, who don't have to shuttle them around after school. They're given the tools for their own independence and self-discovery. So the ideal place for a teenager is probably a neighborhood with sidewalks and bike lanes, ample public transit, and schools, shops and hangouts located within close range to home. It sounds a lot like Takoma Park, Bethesda, or below-the-Beltway Silver Spring. Rockville, with its new town center and excellent bike network, isn't far behind.

Scott Doyon at the PlaceShakers blog also notes that these places give kids the valuable opportunity to make mistakes:

For a child, having increasing opportunities to navigate the world around them, explore, invent, fall down, scrape knees, make decisions, screw up, get into — and solve — conflicts and, ultimately, achieve a sense of personal identity and self-sufficiency is a good thing. The right thing.

Of course, kids who can actually get around on their own two feet might do some unsavory things. Some of the kids who walk to downtown Bethesda, for instance, might've gone to buy drugs at the movie theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. But it's not like the car-bound kids in Germantown and Olney weren't doing that, and it's a lot harder to hide destructive behaviors when you're not in a two-ton vehicle.

Five Skater Boys, All Talking But Not To Each Other, On Chestertown Street
Kids talking on a stoop in Kentlands.

The first time I was allowed to go anywhere by myself was at age eight, when my family lived in Georgian Towers in downtown Silver Spring. Given, I was only taking the elevator from our apartment to the lobby, but I was so excited I screamed the whole way down. Pretty soon, I could walk to my friends' apartments, across the street to Woodside Park, around the corner to 7-Eleven, and so on. This ended a few years later when we moved to Calverton, where there's very little within walking distance. But I still knew that I had the power to do things on my own.

My twelve-year-old brother, meanwhile, has spent his entire life in Calverton. When he's not at school, he's at home playing video games, but I've noticed he doesn't have a close group of friends because they don't live nearby. Last year, I took him to walk with my former boss, Councilmember Leventhal in a parade in Kentlands, one of Montgomery County's few truly walkable neighborhoods.

"Isn't this great, Tyler?" I asked as I took him around Kentlands' Main Street, where we could see kids ducking into shops and hanging out in a little green. "Kids your age who live in this neighborhood can walk to school, to friends' houses, and to the movies! Wouldn't you like that?"

Tyler looked at me like I'd said the sky was green. "Why would I want to walk?" he replied. "Mom and Dad can just drive me there."

This Kid Will End Up On The Hood Of My Car (edited)
Outside Blair High School on University Boulevard. Kids who have to walk in a place like this likely can't wait to drive.

As a result, I tend to see most of the issues I write about, from better bike trails and infill development to skateparks and curfews, from the perspective of kids like my brother. I don't just think that good urbanism can make better communities. I think it makes better kids: confident, independent, and more aware of the world around them.

We talk about how urban neighborhoods are drawing young adults and senior citizens alike. But they have a lot to offer kids and teenagers, as well. That's the great part about good urbanism: it can work for everyone, regardless of age or situation.

proposed teen curfew on life support

From the Examiner:
Most Montgomery County Council members say they do not support the youth curfew County Executive Ike Leggett has pushed since July, despite a flash mob robbery at a 7-Eleven in Silver Spring last weekend.

Though the council was scheduled to vote on the bill Dec. 6, that vote has been canceled, said Councilman Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, who is set to take over as council president next month. No new vote has been scheduled.
Councilmember Berliner has been called a "skeptic" of County Executive Ike Leggett's proposed curfew, which would ban teens under 18 from being out at night. As Council President, he'll set the council's schedule, including votes, and it's likely a curfew vote won't be at the top of his agenda.

For now, though, the county government's website still looks like what Thomas Nephew from the MoCo Civil Rights Coalition jokingly calls the "Office of Curfew Advocacy":

It's funny: Leggett's office sent out a press release announcing that the Civil Rights Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union have "joined" him in opposing the anti-loitering bill proposed by Councilmembers Phil Andrews and George Leventhal (full disclosure: my former boss). Of course, both organizations also oppose the curfew, but nobody has to know about that.

I'm glad this curfew crap could be over soon. I know curfew supporters had their hearts in the right place, and hopefully we'll get an opportunity to find more productive solutions to the problem (real or perceived) of youth crime.

As for the anti-loitering bill: it looks like it's still scheduled for review by the Council's Public Safety Committee next Tuesday, December 1, but it's unclear when a vote will occur. I don't feel much better about it than I do about the curfew, but I hope it'll bring us closer to a conversation about those "productive solutions" I just mentioned.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

urban land institute confuses downtown DC and downtown silver spring

Kids On Ellsworth Drive

I always enjoy when photos I post on Flickr pop up in random places, even though I don't always get credit for them. But I was especially impressed to find a photo I took of Ellsworth Drive in, of all places, a report on ways to fix the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in the District:

The report, produced by experts from the Urban Land Institute, talks about finding other uses for the library, which is the only work by Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe in the District. It's supposed to make a case for downtown D.C. as a great location for offices or other activities. And to make that point, there's a photo of kids hanging out on Ellsworth Drive.

I'm guessing someone confused it with Gallery Place, also reviled by the hipster/yuppie masses for being a high-school hangout? But I listed the photo under "east montgomery county" and "downtown silver spring," so presumably you'd only find it if you searched those terms.

Oh well. (See? Teenagers are good for business!)

Monday, November 21, 2011

guest blog: flower avenue holiday market opens this weekend

Thanksgiving may mark the start of the holiday season, but it doesn't mean the end of shopping outside. Amanda Kolson Hurley, friend of JUTP/Silver Spring resident/freelance writer who's responsible for my appearance in a professional magazine, sends us this guest blog about the Flower Avenue Holiday Market, making its d├ębut this weekend.

Market founders Christopher Lancette (right) and Won-ok Kim.

A few weeks ago, the Fenton Street Market's long struggle with county bureaucracy seemed to resolve in a happy ending, with the market - which closed out its season on Nov. 12 - likely to return to Veterans Plaza next spring. Now a wintertime antique and flea market opening this weekend in Long Branch will help bridge the gap until FSM's return (fingers crossed).

The Flower Avenue Holiday Market will run on Saturdays from Nov. 26 through Dec. 24 at the corner of Flower Avenue and Arliss Street, one a block from Piney Branch Road. Open from 9 am to 4 pm, it will sell used furniture, antiques, art, vintage toys, local crafts, and more, says Christopher Lancette, a Silver Spring resident who's organizing the new market with his girlfriend and business partner, Won-ok Kim.

Lancette and Kim run Orion's Attic, a home-based antiques business they grew by staging "upscale yard sales" and selling through their website and on Craigslist and Ebay. They weren't ready for a full retail store, but a seasonal market - one that could build on and complement Fenton Street's success - seemed ideal.

Reemberto Rodriguez of the Silver Spring Regional Center steered them to the one-acre parking lot on busy Flower Avenue, and the lot's owner, Greg Fernebok of The Harvey Companies, was so taken with the idea that he offered to donate the lot rental fee to a nonprofit group, IMPACT Silver Spring. IMPACT will also have a role in the market itself - Lancette emphasizes that doing social good and nurturing local micro-businesses are central to the mission. Longer term, Lancette and Kim hope that their venture, in tandem with Fenton Street, Freshfarm, and other local markets, can make Silver Spring a regional "market destination," an idea he's discussed with State Senator Jamie Raskin.

Nine or 10 vendors in addition to Orion's Attic have already signed up, Lancette says, and he and Kim are looking for more. See the Orion's Attic website for the application form and more details, and stop by the market's opening day this Saturday, November 26 from 9am to 4pm.

Friday, November 18, 2011

the dc streetcar should totally go to silver spring

People Inside The Streetcar (2)
These people are waiting for a streetcar to Silver Spring.

Evan Glass, friend of JUTP/president of the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, writes that two MoCo councilmembers want to bring the fabled D.C. streetcar to downtown Silver Spring. Right now, the District plans a line along Georgia Avenue, but only between downtown D.C. and Takoma. From the SSSNA blog:

Montgomery Councilmembers Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer are urging County Executive Ike Leggett and DC Mayor Vincent Gray to consider extending DC’s Georgia Avenue streetcar all the way to the Silver Spring Metro station, rather than making the Takoma Metro station its final destination (as is currently planned).

The logic of the two at-large councilmembers is straightforward: the Silver Spring terminal connects more people to transit than the Takoma station. Redirecting the streetcars north on Georgia Avenue would also help revitalize the struggling corridor’s small businesses.

“While the terminus of each route is at a Metro Station, Silver Spring is also served by MARC Commuter Rail, as well as 46 bus routes and approximately 120 buses per hour in the peak hour—versus 15 bus routes and approximately 50 buses per hour at Takoma,” the duo wrote in a letter to Gray and Leggett.

This idea makes a tremendous amount of sense. Silver Spring was served by a streetcar line along Georgia Avenue fifty years ago, and a new line would help reconnect it to neighborhoods like Brightwood, Petworth and Columbia Heights that are fairly close but sometimes hard to reach. It would also provide access to South Silver Spring, which right now is kind of a hike from the Metro, and to a redeveloped Walter Reed Hospital, which is being used as justification to get a Georgia Avenue streetcar built sooner.

Georgia Avenue's already a well-traveled corridor: when combined, the 70 and 79 Metrobus routes, which runs along Georgia Avenue, have the highest ridership in the system, with 18,000 riders each weekday. (By comparison, the entire Portland Streetcar system gets about 12,000 riders each weekday.) I doubt that the people riding those buses to reach Silver Spring would willingly take a streetcar to Takoma and switch to something else.

At the same time, bringing the streetcar to Silver Spring would make the DC Streetcar project far more complicated to execute. The District can move quickly on their proposed 37-mile streetcar plan because it's entirely within their jurisdiction. (They're not moving particularly fast, but they could if they wanted to.) Adding Montgomery County and Maryland into the mix, even for the one mile between the county line and the Silver Spring Metro, means that District leaders will have to go through several additional layers of community boards, elected officials and government bureaucracy to get anything done.

All the more reason to get Montgomery County electeds on board. I'm glad Councilmembers Riemer and Floreen are reaching out to Mayor Gray, and I hope County Executive Ike Leggett is cooperative as well.

(I'm especially hopeful that a streetcar along Georgia Avenue would help reposition downtown Silver Spring as "the next hot neighborhood" in D.C. rather than a out-of-the-way suburb. Over the summer, I lived in a Petworth group house that was about halfway between downtown D.C. and downtown Silver Spring, but my roommates acted like Silver Spring was the end of the world.)

more visions of bike lanes, this time in silver spring (updated)

UPDATE: Wayne Phyillaier has an excellent write-up on yesterday's Planning Board meeting and some of the other issues surrounding the Bethesda Tunnel.

Yesterday, the Planning Board voted to move the Bethesda Purple Line station out of a tunnel beneath Wisconsin Avenue rather than run the Capital Crescent Trail on the street, which I wrote about yesterday. Their decision isn't binding - it's just a recommendation to the Maryland Transit Administration, which is planning the Purple Line. - but it's awfully shortsighted (The Planning Board "send a very clear message that it will make the alternate trail surface route a priority, especially if the trail is removed from the tunnel," writes Wayne Phyillaier, which is good news.) Not only would moving the Purple Line stop inconvenience people taking the train, but it ignores the real possibilities of creating an on-street biking network that's just as good as one in a tunnel.

Anyway, I whipped up a few Photoshop renderings for yesterday's post to show what an on-street trail might look like in downtown Bethesda, but here a few more I did of Silver Spring:

 Fenton Street Bike Lane
Bike lanes along Fenton Street at Easley Street in downtown Silver Spring.

 Second Avenue Bike Lane
Bike lanes replace parking along Second Avenue at Cameron Street.

 Second Avenue Bike Sharrow

A few blocks north in Woodside, the bike lane becomes a "sharrow," which denote streets where cars are meant to share the space with bikes. This is one of the tools that Portland uses to turn residential streets like this stretch of Second Avenue into "bike boulevards," in which bikes are given priority.

On GGW, Shane Farthing from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association argued that creating a safe biking experience takes a lot more than the green stripes I showed. And he's right. Just striping a bike lane doesn't mean it'll get used, nor does it mean that drivers will respect it. It takes a lot more, like physically separated lanes, planting areas, and even different paving materials to show that this space belongs to bicyclists, not drivers.

I've always felt that bicycling is an important part of the urban realm, but it wasn't until I actually took up bicycling when I moved to Philadelphia last year that I realized how fun and convenient it is. I'd like to think I could move back to Montgomery County and keep it up, but the infrastructure just isn't there. I'm glad MoCo is exploring bikeshare in Rockville and now in Bethesda and Silver Spring, but I'm not sure how many people will use without a real network of bike routes. Biking isn't for everyone, but unless we make it a safe and practical form of transportation, it won't be for anyone at all.

Even if bicyclists get to use a tunnel for a couple of blocks under downtown Bethesda.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

on-street capital crescent trail could be a better experience for bikes and peds

Future CCT Sign
Rising costs may force parts of the Capital Crescent Trail onto local streets, but it could actually give pedestrians and bicyclists a better experience.

Ever since the Purple Line was first envisioned as a trolley between Bethesda and Silver Spring in 1986, plans have included a bike and pedestrian trail next to the tracks, giving people an alternative to negotiating busy streets. Today, the Capital Crescent Trail is a popular amenity. A survey done in 2006 counted 23,000 people using the trail at one point in downtown Bethesda.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Transit Administration says rebuilding the Capital Crescent Trail next to the Purple Line could cost as much as $103 million, $40 million of which would go to building a raised platform for the trail in a tunnel beneath Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. That's why Montgomery County planners are looking at placing the trail above ground, as Matt Johnson wrote about yesterday. Not only is this option cheaper, but it'll be better for users and for neighborhoods.

Capital Crescent Trail Alternatives in downtown Bethesda
Alternatives for an on-street route through downtown Bethesda. Image courtesy of the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Supporters of separated tunnels and bridges over busy streets say it makes pedestrians (and occasionally bicyclists) safer by keeping them away from heavy car traffic. But they can also isolate users from their surroundings, encouraging criminal activity. Both the Forest Glen pedestrian bridge and the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which sit above the street level, have had problems with attacks and muggings.

At the same time, taking pedestrians and bicyclists from the street only reinforces the thinking that they don't belong there. "I think [Montgomery] County doesn't seriously take biking as a form of transportation," said Peter Wolf of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail when I interviewed himin 2007. "For me to be seen biking to work or biking in my neighborhood, it's seen as a little . . . odd."
15th Street Cycle Track, Looking North
The 15th Street cycle track.

Putting more pedestrians and bicyclists on the street in Bethesda shows that they have a right to use that space and makes those activities seem "normal." Building wider sidewalks or a parallel path like the Silver Spring Green Trail provides ample room for pedestrians walking for transportation or recreation. Cycle tracks, like the one that currently exists along 15th Street in the District, give bicyclists a protected route away from car traffic similar to what they'd have on the Capital Crescent Trail. This would give users the protection the Capital Crescent Trail currently provides while allowing them to see their surroundings and be seen, making them feel safer.

Not only that, but an on-street trail would provide direct access to homes, shops, and places of work in downtown Bethesda. The existing tunnel only has entrances at Woodmont Avenue and Elm Street, meaning that anyone going to places in between already has to use surface streets.

These changes may require taking out car lanes or removing on-street parking, as county planners recommend, which might increase congestion. But it will also help to slow car traffic in Bethesda, an area where drivers shouldn't be allowed to speed through anyway, while providing safe, attractive alternatives to driving for short-distance trips. That could help reduce car traffic, in turn making it even safer for people to walk and bike around downtown Bethesda.

Bethesda Avenue Bike Lane
What a trail network might look like at the intersection of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues. Wisconsin Avenue Bike Lane
What a trail network might look like on Wisconsin Avenue.

Placing the Capital Crescent Trail on local streets in downtown Bethesda to accommodate the Purple Line doesn't have to be an inconvenience for trail users. In fact, it could make Bethesda a better and safer place to live and visit. It also helps conserve money for other portions of the trail, which currently dead-ends 1.5 miles short of its intended terminus in downtown Silver Spring. As trail advocate and contributor Wayne Phyillaier points out, eliminating the Bethesda tunnel may be the only way to finish the trail.

Developing a network of off-street trails is a great way to tie our region together, and finishing the Capital Crescent Trail is an important part of it. But it's also important to provide links to neighborhood and activity centers, and the best way to do that is on surface streets. Running the trail through downtown Bethesda instead of under it lets us build that regional network while also giving local communities the option to bike or walk.

Friday, November 11, 2011

another ICC post

The ICC Through Longmead Crossing
The ICC under construction near Layhill Road in 2009.

In less than two weeks, the newest segment of the InterCounty Connector opens, extending the toll highway from Georgia Avenue to I-95. Some neighbors are already worrying about what the road will bring:
David Plihal, president of the Stonegate Citizens Association, which represents about 1,400 homes off Bonifant Road in northern Silver Spring, said he’s concerned that the ICC will bring more local traffic by spurring development in the area. “I think people are resigned to the fact that it’s there and it’s built,” Plihal said, “and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
I appreciate his frustration. I was never entirely comfortable with the highway being built, and I admit it really sucks for people whose neighborhoods are now bounded by it.

There's a jobs and housing divide in Montgomery County (and Greater Washington as a whole), with most of the region's jobs on the west side in places like Gaithersburg and most of its residents in places like East County. I'm nervous that the ICC will just make it easier for people here to go over there, only reinforcing that division.

But it also has the potential to change the way people think about all parts of Montgomery County, which could result in more investment in East County. This Washington Post article from 2005 predicts that the highway will dramatically increase the level of development allowed over here, due to formulas the county uses based on how much "capacity" local roads have.

Does David Plihal really want to get on the highway that goes through his backyard and drive to Gaithersburg for work or shopping? Or would he rather have those things closer to home, meaning he won't have to travel as far? If the InterCounty Connector works as planned, people in East County might have a lot fewer reasons to go west. That might mean more "traffic," but it means residents like Plihal get to spend their time actually doing things rather than going elsewhere to do things.

(Of course, it's worth questioning why MoCo used to only allow development in areas with less traffic,  meaning that places that are congested but are accessible by foot/bike/transit like downtown Silver Spring got passed over for decades, but that's for another post.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

leggett impatient for vote on his curfew proposal

From the Examiner:
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett wants to know why the County Council hasn't made a decision on his proposed youth curfew yet . . . 
"It's time to recognize the introduction of the loitering bill for what it really is — a stall tactic intended to confuse the debate on the curfew bill and delay action on the curfew bill," Leggett wrote. "Even if the loitering bill never goes anywhere and withers on the vine at council, it is nonetheless serving its intended purpose: to deny council members who support the curfew bill their rightful opportunity to vote on it."
So let's get this straight:

County Executive Ike Leggett proposes a curfew based on a couple of isolated incidents last summer, despite stats that say crime is dropping and an actual drop in crime when the county placed more cops in Silver Spring.

Leggett says he'll disregard the countless studies saying curfews don't work and creates a media firestorm that negatively portrays downtown Silver Spring as being overrun with gangs, hurting its reputation at a time when it needs as much business as it can get.

The County PTAs are opposed. Seniors at Leisure World, one of Leggett's core constituencies, are opposed as well. Of course, so are the the kids the curfew would affect, who were invited to town hall meetings so they could get talked town to. Just two of the five Citizens Advisory Boards appointed to give Leggett advice have endorsed the curfew, while two others refused to take a vote and one hasn't voted at all.

On top of that, Leggett still lacks the support of a majority of Councilmembers! And one of his biggest allies, Phil Andrews, has become the leading opponent of the curfew.

Does he wonder why the council hasn't taken a vote AND has proposed an alternative (which isn't much better than a curfew but might end this discussion once and for all?)

This isn't about a curfew anymore. This is about a leader who's bereft of the ability to lead, and when he doesn't get his way, he whines like a little kid. Ike, I think it's time to give it up.

Monday, November 7, 2011

nothing says single-family homes and townhomes can't play together

Clarendon Park Townhomes
Townhomes proposed by local developer EYA on the site of the former Chelsea School could look like ones they built a few years ago in Arlington.

Neighbors of Chelsea Court, a proposed townhouse development at the site of the former Chelsea School outside downtown Silver Spring complain it's too dense for a neighborhood of single-family homes, and last month, the County Council agreed. But why can't different housing types coexist?

Local developer EYA bought the Chelsea School's campus in May 2010 after the private academy announced they were closing. EYA, which has built dozens of townhome and condominium projects around Greater Washington over the past twenty years, wants to build 76 townhomes on the site, located in the Seven Oaks neighborhood less than a block from downtown Silver Spring. To do so, they need the County Council to change the property's zoning, which right now only allows single-family homes.

There's a group of neighbors who say they'd prefer detached houses, while county planners and blogger Silver Spring, Singular, who also lives in the neighborhood, point out that there's already high-rise buildings in the area.

Neighbors will always complain that a development is "too dense" on the basis of overcrowded schools or congested roads, though that isn't really an issue with two-bedroom townhouses within walking distance of a large urban center. So let's talk about the other issue: is it a foregone conclusion that you can't have single-family homes, townhomes and apartments in the same neighborhood? Not at all, especially if they're designed to get along with each other.

View Larger Map

This is the corner of 47th Street and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, about three blocks from my house here. The specific neighborhood is called Garden Court, and it was built in the 1920's as a "streetcar suburb" for middle- and upper-middle-class families. Even as much of West Philadelphia fell into disinvestment and poverty, this neighborhood has been relatively stable. Today, it's home to many students and faculty at Penn, Drexel and other universities in the area. Even a rowhouse here will easily run above $500,000, a bargain by D.C.-area standards but expensive for here.

Take a look at this intersection. On three corners are large, single-family homes. Next to them are duplexes, maybe a little smaller but still more than enough room for a family. Go west on Osage about a hundred feet, or east one block, and you'll find rowhouses. See that big building poking through the trees? That's a high-rise condominium, just a block north.

Garden Court, Philadelphia

Different types of houses mix well in my West Philadelphia neighborhood, so why can't they in Silver Spring?

This neighborhood's not a bad comparison to, say, Woodside Park or Seven Oaks, neighborhoods adjacent to downtown Silver Spring. Woodside Park and Seven Oaks were built around the same time. Though those neighborhoods have bigger lots and lack sidewalks, they were intended for the same, well-heeled clientele. And both have a mix of different house types, sizes and heights. 

Nonetheless, Garden Court has the benefit of being built all at once, so the high-rise building has similar details and materials as the single-family houses. In the neighborhoods around downtown Silver Spring, you might have single-family homes built before World War II, apartment buildings built in the 1960's, and townhouses built more recently.

Certainly, living next to a genteel 1920's apartment house might be nicer than living next to a 1960's Modernist apartment tower. It's not surprising that some people living in neighborhoods like Seven Oaks are uncomfortable with new development when they have to contend with buildings that aren't so sensitive to their context.

View Larger Map
Townhomes in Chelsea Court will look at Colesville Towers, a 1960's-era apartment tower.

Yet my example shows that single-family houses and townhouses and apartments can play together if done right. Like the different housing types in my West Philadelphia neighborhood, the proposed Chelsea Court houses use similar materials and detailing as existing homes nearby, while providing a opportunity for families who can't afford or don't want a detached house to live there. What makes Silver Spring a great place to live is that it attracts a mix of people, and that comes from having a mix of housing styles, types and prices. And like I wrote last week, those qualities are threatened when we try to push out anyone or anything that seems "different" than what's already there.

Like any development in an existing neighborhood, Chelsea Court needs to fit in with its context. But that doesn't have anything to do with how dense it is. In fact, an urban center like Silver Spring needs new residents within walking distance of its shops, restaurants, and extensive public transit. What we can do is ensure that these new townhouses are designed to complement their single-family neighbors. It's been done before, and we can do it again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

MoCo may be diverse, but it's not integrated yet

Last year, Montgomery County became majority-minority for the first time. But our neighborhoods aren't as integrated as they could be, threatening the county's ability to grow and prosper.

On Sunday, the Post featured a cover story on newly-diverse suburban neighborhoods across the United States, focusing on the Hillandale neighborhood of Silver Spring:
From one end of McGovern Drive to the other, and on adjacent streets, a boundless diversity continues: immigrants, or their offspring, from Jamaica and Haiti, Egypt and Israel; African Americans who have lived there for 20 years; and whites who bought their homes when Lyndon Johnson was president.
Since 1999, my family's lived in Calverton, which like Hillandale a few miles away was until recently a predominantly-white community. In 1990, whites made up almost three-fourths of Calverton's roughly 11,000 residents. Though the neighborhood has grown by more than half since then, whites and blacks make up equal shares of its population, at about 39 percent each. The Asian population's been steady, but the Hispanic contingent has tripled to become one-tenth of the community. Check out this graph (it may not add up to 100% because Hispanics are counted as an ethnicity, not a race):

Demographic Shift in Calverton

Yet as Montgomery County becomes more polyglot, it's not necessarily integrated. Two years ago, my brother graduated from Galway Elementary School in Calverton. Its nearly 800 students are half black, a quarter Hispanic and just 4.3 percent white. In a neighborhood where the median household income is $76,000 a year and the average home sells for nearly $400,000, 60 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch. In addition, test scores are generally lower than they are at elementary schools elsewhere in the county.

Galway Elementary School Sign (In Spanish)
Signs at Galway Elementary are written in English and Spanish. Photo by Mark Doore, Calverton Citizens Association.

Where are Calverton's white and middle-class residents? Some of our neighbors have moved away to Rockville or Olney, which are generally more affluent and have higher-rated public schools. Those who remained chose to "opt out" of the system, putting their kids in private school. They also take part in other exclusive amenities, like the members-only Calverton Swim Club across the street from Galway. A quick look at the club's website reveals a mirror image of the school:
Calverton Swim Club
The membership of Calverton Swim Club remains predominantly white, though the neighborhood isn't. Photo by Mark Doore, Calverton Citizens Association. 

This isn't necessarily a problem for our family. My parents are very involved in my brother's education and are generally happy with his experience at Galway and now at Briggs Chaney Middle School, which is slightly more diverse. While my family aren't members of the Calverton Swim Club, we can go to the nicer and public Martin Luther King, Jr. Pool, which has water slides and a lazy river.

At the same time, it's generally recognized that the United States will cease to be a predominantly-white nation in about thirty years, and we're seeing the beginnings of that in Montgomery County. This actually puts us in the catbird seat: if we're going to compete in a global society, we must be able to understand and react to cultural differences. Your kids might be having birthday parties with Salvadorian, Iranian and Korean kids today, but they're preparing themselves to do business with people from those countries in the future.

Montgomery County has the ability to use its polyglot population as a strength, to create better, unified communities and draw investment and ideas from around the world. Yet it's frequently thwarted when more fortunate residents try to keep the less privileged out or, as in Calverton, "opt out" of the community altogether.

For years, the Columbia Country Club and the Town of Chevy Chase has fought to keep the Purple Line out of their community. A community group in Silver Spring tried to remove a soccer field in a local park because Hispanic teams from outside the neighborhood were using it. And neighbors in Bethesda had a vacant home demolished rather than letting a homeless family live there. These actions may benefit a small minority, but in the end, they hurt everyone.

This county's long had a reputation for progressive politics due to our affordable housing program and agricultural preserve. As a result, we tend to take diversity for granted, assuming that having Hispanic Heritage Month each October or occasionally eating ethnic food in Wheaton is enough. (Meanwhile, some are afraid to eat in Wheaton at all.) But this isn't enough. In order to fully take advantage of the county's diversity, and to ensure that everyone has a place here, we have to create truly integrated communities.  

World Cup Fever On Ellsworth
This might just look like a game, but it represents the future of Montgomery County.

How can we do this? We have to work even harder to create an equitable school system, ensuring students in affluent "Green Zone" schools and struggling "Red Zone" schools get the same level of education. Meanwhile, we have to continue investing in older communities like Silver Spring where "Red Zone" schools are located to give people the option of staying rather than moving further out and self-segregating.

We have to create neighborhoods that are accessible to a broad swath of the population, by providing a mix of housing styles and prices. In addition, we have to make it safer and easier to get around by foot, by bike and by public transit, which benefit all residents, not just those who can afford a car. And we have to make everyone feel welcome here, instead of scapegoating immigrants or teenagers

Most importantly, we have to have the political wherewithal to do these things, rather than capitulate to groups who fight to preserve the status quo.

It's been a long time since Montgomery County was the "perfect suburbia," and it's not always clear what we'll become. Nonetheless, we have the opportunity to become something even greater. It won't be easy, but if we want to ensure the county's continued prosperity, we don't have a choice.