Saturday, December 31, 2011

happy new year! (but first, a look back)

It's been a busy year for East County. A lot of good, or at least generally positive, things happened:

- Results from the 2010 Census showed that Montgomery County is now majority-minority, with whites making up just 49% of the population. Though we aren't a fully-integrated community, our diversity is something to be proud of.

- After decades of controversy, we finally saw the opening of the InterCounty Connector, which is already leaving its mark on the east side.

- The revitalization of downtown Wheaton came a step closer to reality now that developer B.F. Saul's been chosen to redevelop several county-owned properties in the area, though questions remain about how it'll work.

- The Fillmore finally opened and seems to have made downtown Silver Spring a more happening place, nevermind what the cool kids at the City Paper say. I was amazed to see a line of people going down Colesville Road and around the corner waiting to get in to see The Roots play earlier this week.

- And in Burtonsville, the beleaguered village center is starting to see small improvements, though it's anybody's guess if things will improve anytime soon.

However, there have been some disappointing moments:

- An attempt to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland stalled at the last minute due to the cowardice of a few elected officials, notably State Del. Tiffany Alston, who took campaign money to pay for her own wedding.

- County Executive Leggett spent five months trying to pass a teen curfew, willfully ignoring the lack of evidence supporting their effectiveness and despite a substantial drop in crime following the incident due to a greater police presence in the area. Thankfully, the County Council chose to table the measure, though judging from this page on the county goverment's website, Leggett isn't ready to back down.

- And near downtown Silver Spring, neighbors continue to fight a proposed townhouse development on the site of the former Chelsea School. Though their concerns about traffic and noise have some merit, there's a lot of demand for new housing in Silver Spring, which explains why rents in some downtown apartment buildings have more than doubled in recent years. Even though I may not be in the market for a $600,000 townhouse like the ones proposed at Chelsea Court, restricting the supply of new housing drives up prices for everyone.

Overall, I think 2011 was a good year, though certainly the mood in East County is influenced by things will beyond our control, whether it's Wall Street, the Iowa caucuses or turmoil in the European Union. I wish everyone a happy new year, and I'll see you in 2012.

(There's a 95% chance I'll be returning to the D.C. area after graduation this May, so hopefully I'll see y'all even more very soon.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

the suburban bicyclist: an endangered species

I've been home in Silver Spring for a week now, most of which has been spent Christmas shopping and doing a lot of driving. While I expected a lot of car traffic, I've been pleasantly surprised to see bicyclists everywhere I go, even on big, fast suburban highways.

I've biked regularly for a year and a half now, happily pedaling around Philadelphia and the District, but I haven't enjoyed my forays outside the city. Arlington, for all of its bike lanes, is quite hilly and has some really confusing intersections. The Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda is pretty, but frequented by super-serious, capital-B Bicyclists who thought nothing of shoving me or my 12-year-old brother out of their way when we biked it last summer. Nor have I had a pleasant time biking in downtown Silver Spring, where the bike network is so lacking that a route on Cedar Street was once declared the "Stupidest Bike Lane in America."

Yet these inside-the-Beltway locales, with their relatively narrow streets and short distances between things, are a bicyclists' paradise compared to farther suburban areas whose planners and designers assumed that everyone would have a car. These are places I would never think to bike, which is why I have nothing but respect for these hardy individuals I found over the past week:

Bicyclist Heroes, Route 50 & Pickett Road, Fairfax, Va.
A couple in matching coats tries to cross Route 50 at Pickett Road in Fairfax City. It took me three light cycles to make a left turn here, but they had to wait much longer for a right-turning driver who'd stop for them.

Bicyclist Hero, Dobbin Road & Route 175, Columbia, Md.
A bicyclist waits between trucks and SUVs to cross Route 175 at Dobbin Road in Columbia, a massive intersection bordered by the even bigger Columbia Crossing shopping center. This is probably the most inconvenient bicycling environment you could create: fast roads, no sidewalks, and nearly every building is on a hill and facing away from the street, making each trip a long, time-consuming and tiresome trek.

Bicyclist Hero, Rhode Island Ave & Route 1, Beltsville, Md.
I found this bicyclist at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and Route 1 in Beltsville. Unlike the last two examples, the streets here aren't that large. But since it's a mile north of the Beltway, this intersection can get very congested, making it a difficult place to bike. Rhode Island Avenue also doesn't have sidewalks for much of its length, meaning bicyclists don't have a choice but to "share the road."

When the District can't build its planned bike lanes, it's hard to believe that surrounding suburban communities will do much better. While I'm excited that Montgomery County, Alexandria, College Park and even Columbia are trying to join Capital Bikeshare are start bikesharing programs of their own, they're not always hospitable places to ride a bike, which will discourage people from using them.

Despite unsympathetic drivers, spread-out communities and a lack of infrastructure, there are a few people in the D.C. suburbs who get around by bike. If we want to get anyone else on two wheels, however, we need to make the suburban bicycling experience safer and a lot more enjoyable.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

sorry about that . . .

For the past two weeks, I've been in the basement of Penn's Fine Arts Library, working on my final project for my Urban Design Studio, eating takeout food two meals a day and sleeping an average of five hours a night. For the past two days, I've been scooting around Greater Washington hastily completing my Christmas shopping, eagerly cutting off drivers from Rockville Pike to Tysons Corner in search of gifts.

You can imagine why I haven't posted in a while. I'm working on a couple of posts I'm really excited about and I look forward to getting them out to you by next Monday.

In the meantime: where are you doing your Christmas shopping? I notice that Wheaton Plaza doesn't have as it seemed to two years ago, but it still wasn't that busy. A number of stores at Rockville Town Square have closed since I was last there in the summer, which surprises me. But Tysons Corner Center is as strong as ever.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

lifesci village still far from being a reality

Quad, LifeSci Village
A new rendering of LifeSci Village.

Last week, Montgomery County selected local developer Percontee to turn Site 2, a former sludge treatment plant in White Oak, into LifeSci Village, a $3 billion mini-city designed to compliment the Food and Drug Administration's new campus and a new Washington Adventist Hospital. Despite a series of sexy new project renderings released by Percontee, East County's answer to Cambridge isn't a guarantee yet.

LifeSci Village, which we first wrote about in 2009, would occupy 290 acres on Cherry Hill Road east of Route 29. In addition to the sludge plant, which closed in 1999, the site would include a concrete recycling plant owned by Percontee. Genn has previously said that the project would include roughly two million square feet of offices and research labs, two million additional square feet of shops, hotels and possibly a conference center, and between three and four thousand apartments and townhomes.

LifeSci Village Site Plan
2009 site plan of LifeSci Village.

Genn has been talking to the county about LifeSci Village and Site 2 since 2004, so it's not surprising that they picked Percontee over two out-of-area developers less familiar with the project. But in 2009, he told me that a groundbreaking was "not anytime soon." The Post, meanwhile, says that construction could start within the next two years.

What's changed? Last year, the MoCo Planning Department started work on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, which will reinforce LifeSci Village's goal of creating a research hub around the FDA. In addition, the county is studying a Bus Rapid Transit network which could have several lines serving the development.

MoCo BRT Plan, White Oak
BRT lines under study in and around White Oak.

Though LifeSci Village has the blessing of both the county and local residents, the White Oak Science Gateway concept has its critics. A study from economic consultants hired by the MoCo Planning Department says that it won't work unless it can get a major research institution, though Genn says he's talked to "very prominent" D.C.-area universities about locating there. Even then, the consultants say, biotech companies might just continue going to the county's other research and development district, the Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, which Percontee helped develop in the 1980's and where Johns Hopkins University plans their own, similarly-minded "Science City" project.

As exciting as the LifeSci Village proposal is, there remain a lot of questions. Who will provide $3 billion in financing for a research campus without a research institution? Is it practical to build 4 million square feet of commercial space and 4,000 homes in an area with no fixed-rail transit? And will Montgomery County be able to lure biotech companies away from the vaunted "Technology Corridor" along I-270?

East County needs a project like this. But it's not yet clear if LifeSci Village will ever go from being a pretty picture to a reality.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

county council kills teen curfew proposal

From David Moon at Maryland Juice:

After nearly six months of debate, County Executive Ike Leggett's controversial youth curfew proposal appears to have died. Today, the County Council voted 6-3 to table the proposal, and immediately voted to table an alternative loitering proposal as well . . .

There was a little bit of procedural drama prior to the votes, however. Councilmember Hans Riemer had motioned to table the curfew proposal, but Councilmember Craig Rice challenged the motion, stating that "tabling" motions are intended to be temporary. (A minority of Councilmembers wanted to simply vote on some of the amendments).

Finally! There isn't much more to say, other than to congratulate Abigail Burman and Leah Muskin-Pierret, who worked tirelessly to stop the curfew since it was first proposed in July. They've been to community meetings, spoke to Councilmembers, and became the public face of youth in Montgomery County when County Executive Leggett sought to portray teenagers as criminals-in-training - all while juggling the demands of high school. Fortunately, their efforts paid off.

Not that this solves the issue (real or perceived) of crime in downtown Silver Spring. We still have to ensure it remains a safe and desirable place to live, work, and hang out. And I deeply hope this curfew fiasco at least gets people willing to have a serious conversation about how to do so.

Thanks again, Abigail and Leah. We should be proud to have kids like them who are willing to stand up for themselves and for their community.

offices aren't enough to turn downtown wheaton around

Wheaton Lot 13
Moving Park and Planning here won't help Wheaton much.

County Executive Ike Leggett says the best way to kick-start the revitalization of downtown Wheaton is by moving the Park and Planning Commission there. Will government offices be enough to get the ball rolling? Past experience says it's unlikely.

In October, the Commission received a $200,000 grant to study moving its offices. Its 400 employees work at three offices in and around downtown Silver Spring, including their headquarters (we call it "the Fortress of Planning") at 8787 Georgia Avenue, which dates to the 1950's and is both cramped and obsolete. Eight years ago, the department proposed building a new headquarters on the site called SilverPlace, but it stalled due to a lack of funding.

Enter developer B.F. Saul, which wants to redevelop six county-owned properties in downtown Wheaton totaling eleven acres. They propose building a 120-room hotel, 40,000 square feet of retail space, between 250 apartments, in addition to 900,000 square feet of office space. B.F. Saul and the county are reaching out to government tenants, like the Park and Planning Commission, to fill those offices.

Not everyone's convinced a market for offices in Wheaton even exists. Downtown Wheaton's not too close to established job centers, and its 10,000 current workers pale in comparison to other places throughout the county, such as Bethesda-Chevy Chase (87,000 jobs), Rockville (74,000 jobs), and even Silver Spring (38,000 jobs). Previous visions have instead focused on entertainment or housing in the downtown, while strip mall developer Leonard Greenberg complained Wheaton couldn't support offices back at the height of the real estate boom in 2006.

Even if you could build and rent high-end offices in Wheaton, they won't do much for the local economy. As Richard Layman has pointed out, office workers don't spend much and don't go to a variety of stores.

A rule of thumb is that one worker needs about 250 square feet, so with 900,000 square feet of office space, we can assume that 3,600 people will work there. Retail consultant Robert Gibbs says one worker can support 2 square feet of retail, meaning they'll only be able to support a space of 7,200 square feet, about half the size of a CVS. Gibbs says they can also support 5 square feet of restaurant space, which would equal 18,000 square feet. By comparison, a typical "quick-service restaurant" like Noodles & Company or Chipotle needs about 2,000 square feet, and a sit-down place needs about 6,000 square feet.

It would take 3,600 office workers to keep a Red Lobster, a few Chipotle-like restaurants and half a CVS in business. So how are 400 Park and Planning workers supposed to revitalize Wheaton?

Leasing Sign, Triangle Park
Empty stores on Ennalls Avenue in downtown Wheaton.

We've seen the folly of relying on office tenants, especially government offices, to "fix" an area. In 1986, the Reeves Center was supposed to revitalize U Street with an influx of D.C. government workers, but it really took lots of new residents to turn the neighborhood around. At University Town Center in Hyattsville, the presence of federal agencies wasn't enough to prevent shops and restaurants from closing. Though Alexandria hoped the Patent and Trademark Office would bring Barnes & Noble to town, instead they got fast-food places. (So many, in fact, that my friend who lives there calls it the "Sandwich District.")

The same Planning Department that Ike Leggett wants to move to downtown Wheaton also produced the recently-approved Wheaton Sector Plan, which recognizes that the area can't draw and won't support  a lot of office development. As a result, the plan allows for just 3,000 additional jobs, not just in office buildings but in all fields of employment.

Meanwhile, it calls for 6,600 new homes in downtown Wheaton. Housing would do a lot more to turn Wheaton around, because unlike office workers who are only obliged to be there 40 hours a week, residents are there almost all the time, meaning they can spend a lot more money.

New apartment buildings like the Exchange, currently being built at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive, could help downtown Wheaton more than offices.

Another boost might come from the new campus of Ana G. Mendez University, a Puerto Rico-based institution that will start offering classes at Westfield Wheaton Wheaton Plaza this winter. The school offers associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees to working adults and classes offered in both English and Spanish. Though its projected enrollment of 600 students within five years means it won't have a big impact on local businesses, the school's evening and weekend classes will bring people to the area at times when most office buildings are dark.

Promoting office development in Wheaton is a good thing. I've written before that it might be a good location for companies with back-of-house operations that don't need a fancy Bethesda address. At the same time, it's not a justification for moving the Park and Planning Commission out of Silver Spring especially when its departure will just leave a vacant lot with no prospects for reuse.

Offices are just part of a strong, vibrant community, and it'll take a lot more to turn Wheaton around. I hope the County Executive is patient enough to embrace all forms of development there, rather than going after a perceived "quick fix."

Monday, December 5, 2011

forgotten village of norwood makes comeback with ICC sign (updated)

UPDATE: Our friend Matt Johnson from GGW explains what control cities actually are and how the names of certain places end up on highway signs.

Where Is Norwood

Before the InterCounty Connector opened two weeks ago, I've wondered what the exits along the new highway would be called, since much of its route through East County goes through places that are called "Silver Spring". Over Thanksgiving weekend, I got to drive the full length of the road for the first time, and I found my answer.

There is a "Silver Spring" exit, at Route 29. The Georgia Avenue exits are signed "Olney" and "Wheaton," which makes sense, as do the exits for "Ashton" and "White Oak" at New Hampshire Avenue. Things get weird at Layhill Road. There, you can go south for "Glenmont" or north for "Norwood."

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), which sets guidelines for highway design throughout the United States, has rules for listing "control cities" on highway signs. I've never read them, but I'm of the understanding that control cities usually have to be of a certain size to appear on a sign. Also, I imagine that people have to acknowledge them as actual places that, you know, exist.

Glenmont generally makes sense, because it has a Metro station and is generally recognized as a place, though I've never heard anyone say they "live in" Glenmont rather than Silver Spring or Wheaton.

But Norwood? I'm less convinced. There's Norwood Road, which connects to Layhill Road, but I've never heard of a "Norwood, Maryland," and when I entered it into Google Maps, they sent me to Norwood, Massachusetts. OpenStreetMap, the user-generated map, took me to the intersection of Norwood Road and Layhill Road, just north of the ICC.

So I looked at that junction and was even more confused. Google Maps calls it "Colesville". Go west on Norwood Road and you'll find the Sandy Spring Friends School, which not surprisingly gives its address as "Sandy Spring," but go east and there's Blake High School, which says it's in "Silver Spring."

Red Door Store (Norwood Side)
The Red Door Store today.

Then there's the Red Door Store, a beer, wine and deli in a 150-year-old building right at the corner of Norwood and Layhill that closed in 2007. According to the Sandy Spring Museum, the Red Door Store was once a post office for a village called Norwood. Stanley Stabler, who grew up in the area nearly a century ago (and whose family name appears on a street nearby), recalls what the area was like:

Norwood at the time was known as Holland's Corner. Where the Red Door Country Store trades today, James Holland opened a store about 1860 and in 1889 became the first postmaster. Nearby was a scales and a smithy run by Lawrence Budd. All around stood fine homes: Snowden Manor of the Quaker Hollands, Llewellyn Fields, Plainfield, Woodlawn, and the home called Norwood.

Map of historic Norwood courtesy of the Sandy Spring Museum.

So, let's get this clear: Norwood was a house, then a post office. The village of Holland's Corner eventually became the village of Norwood around 1890. And today, it's either Colesville, Sandy Spring, or more likely Silver Spring.

Given that convoluted history, perhaps the real question is what Norwood will be. Before Francis Preston Blair discovered the Silver Spring, the area around Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road was called "Simpsonville." The Sandy Spring Museum's website lists all sorts of places in East County that have been lost to the sands of time, like Oakdale and Cincinnati. With Norwood's newfound status as a highway exit, it doesn't have to go the same way.

Who knows? In twenty years, people might say they live in Norwood rather than Sandy Spring, Silver Spring or anything else. Of course, it would help if the Red Door Store reopened. Norwood doesn't have much of a reason to exist without, you know, actual things to do there.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

MoCo public safety committee rejects youth curfew

Just now, the County Council's Public Safety Committee voted 2-1 to reject County Executive Leggett's proposed teen curfew. This isn't really a surprise, because two of the three councilmembers on the committee are Phil Andrews (D-Rockville) and soon-to-be Council President Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda), who both oppose it. The third, Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At Large), seems sympathetic at best.

From our friend David Moon at Maryland Juice:

[Berliner] complained that the curfew proposal sends the incorrect message that Montgomery County is unsafe, when crime statistics prove otherwise. He proceeded to note that other jurisdictions imposing a curfew likely did so under very different circumstances than the outlier crimes facing the County Executive. Mr. Berliner stated that "the curfew comes with high cost to the community's reputation" and that "we have enough data to say this is not who we are." He further added, "I regret that the County Executive feels so strongly about this and has invested so much personal time in this.... I think we need to just say we see it differently."

I especially appreciate Councilmember Berliner's statement that the curfew affects Montgomery County's reputation and its perception of "who we are." While the media (and County Executive Leggett) have been giddy to highlight youth crimes over the past few months, including last month's "flash robbery" in Silver Spring, to many, MoCo is still a county of overachiever kids and "Top Teens." And to them, proposing a curfew is at best stupid, and at worst an offense to good kids who haven't done anything wrong.

And as David says, if you'd like to put this stupid proposal bereft of community support out of its misery already, shoot an e-mail to, which will go to all nine County Councilmembers before December 6.

visiting the flower avenue holiday market

Dorje Bajra Tibet-Shop
One of the vendors at the Flower Avenue Holiday Market, running through December 24 in Long Branch.

I'm swamped with schoolwork this week, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my visit to the Flower Avenue Holiday Market last Saturday. As our guest blogger Amanda Kolson Hurley wrote last week, Silver Spring residents Christopher Lancette and Won-ok Kim started the Flower Avenue Holiday Market as an extension of their home-based antiques business, Orion's Attic. They'd already staged many successful "upscale yard sales" out of their previous home a few blocks away, but weren't sure if they were ready for a brick-and-mortar store.

Luckily, they were steered by Reemberto Rodriguez of the Silver Spring Regional Center to a parking lot at Flower Avenue and Arliss Street in Long Branch, whose owner Greg Fernebok was more than happy to lend them the space. The money Lancette and Kim would be paying in rent will go to IMPACT Silver Spring, a local nonprofit group that helped locate craftspeople in the area who were looking for a place to sell their wares.

Sarah Gingold, Think Outside the Store
Sarah Gingold from Think Outside the Store.

There were about a dozen vendors at the inaugural market last Saturday, offering a variety of goods from used books to knit hats. Some were offering knowledge as well. Sarah Gingold, a self-described "clothing artist" who runs a studio in downtown Silver Spring called Think Outside the Store, taught me how to repair a hole in old jeans.

There are plenty of holiday markets operating throughout the D.C. area this month, but if you're interested in supporting Silver Spring-area craftspeople, this is the one to hit up. The Flower Avenue Holiday Market, located at the corner of Flower Avenue and Arliss Street in Long Branch, will run Saturdays from 9am to 4pm through December 24.