Friday, June 29, 2012

lack of connections, visibility hurt ICC trail

Looking Back at ICC Interchange

Less than a year old, the InterCounty Connector Trail offers a new way to get across Montgomery County by bike. However, a circuitous route, a lack of connections to surrounding areas and sections with poor visibility all hurt its potential.

The ICC was originally planned to have a bike trail running parallel to it, but in 2004, the State Highway Administration got rid of it, claiming it would reduce the toll road's construction costs and environmental impacts. Instead, they gave the ICC Trail a more circuitous and indirect route, running parts of it along the highway and the rest along local roads like Columbia Pike and Briggs Chaney Road.

Not surprisingly, area bicyclists were unhappy with the decision. "Why do designers think cyclists should have to go the long way, but cars need a direct route?" asks the WashCycle blog.

Part of the trail runs parallel to Columbia Pike between Fairland Road and Briggs Chaney Road in East County. Like the Forest Glen pedestrian bridge that crosses the Beltway, it runs under a highway. The trail is also lightly used and has already been vandalized.

This is unfortunate, because the trail could tie neighborhoods on both sides of the ICC together and is a crucial part of a "commuter bikeway" along Columbia Pike first envisioned in master plans 15 years ago. But this part of the ICC Trail won't get any busier or safer without better foot and bike connections to get people to it.

Let's take a look at the trail:

More Bike Trail

Here we are on the trail, just north of Fairland Road. That's the exit sign for the InterCounty Connector up ahead.

Little Seating Area

First we pass this small seating area. People do use it, judging from the abandoned pair of shoes. I enjoy the dry stacked stones and wooden bench, which give the trail a woodsy, rustic feel despite its surroundings. Behind the seating area is the recently-built Fairland View subdivision. It's separated by a grass berm and has no connection to the trail, despite being yards away. (The view, of course, is of the InterCounty Connector.) I assume these nearby chalk drawings came from kids living there.

Into the Tunnel

Now we're heading under the interchange between Columbia Pike and the ICC. This part of the trail is almost invisible from either road and the surrounding houses, and I passed a group of young men smoking right before I took this picture.

Sharpie Graffiti

There is Sharpie graffiti in the tunnel, though it's not much worse than anything I saw or did myself in high school. The tunnel appears to have been repainted a few times since it opened; in fact, since I took this photo, the scribbles have already been painted over. It's good to see that the state is maintaining the trail, though I wonder how regularly they patrol it.

Trail Just North of the ICC

After the tunnel, we go under a couple of overpasses. The roar of traffic is pretty intense, and I noticed some broken glass on the path where lights have been knocked out.

Heading Towards Briggs Chaney Road

We're now between Columbia Pike on the left, and the Montgomery Auto Park on the right. Turn around and you get a great view of the interchange. There are maybe waist-high concrete walls on either side of the trail and a chain-link fence separating it from the Auto Park. The wall might keep bicyclists safe from car traffic, but I wonder if it's also there to protect the car dealerships from bicyclists.

Around the Auto Park

And then we hit a wall. This is the interchange of Columbia Pike and Briggs Chaney Road, which was completed about four years ago; the trail takes a hard right to get around it and then joins Briggs Chaney Road.

Trail Ends at Briggs Chaney Road

Across the street is the Briggs Chaney Plaza shopping center; there's a stoplight and intersection in front of us, but no pedestrian signal or even a crosswalk. From here, we can continue down Briggs Chaney, which has a nice, wide shared path for about a mile and a half before connecting to a portion of the trail that's actually on the ICC.

Residents of Tanglewood, a subdivision on the south side of the ICC, complained that a trail would invite "criminals" from the apartment complexes along Briggs Chaney Road. While I still think that accusation was unfair, residents' predictions that there would be vandalism on the trail turned out to be true.

But as WashCycle points out, the best way to make a safe trail is to make it busy. In the handful of times I've used this one-mile portion of the ICC Trail, I've seen maybe a dozen people there. The trail is new enough that some people haven't heard of it, but it's also obscured by a highway interchange and sound berms.

It would've been ideal if the State Highway Administration had laid out the trail first and then worked around it, rather than the other way around. The trail would be more direct, and possibly more visible, while having little or no effect on the ability of drivers to pass through.

Since that opportunity no longer exists, the best thing we can do is to improve foot and bike connections to nearby destinations like Briggs Chaney Plaza and neighborhoods like Castle Boulevard, which recently got new sidewalks and medians. The easier it is to walk or bike in the area, the more likely people are to use the ICC Trail, and the less destructive behavior will occur.

Check out this slideshow of my bike ride along the ICC Trail and other roads in East County.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

building accessory apartments in MoCo can be easier, more predictable

Accessory apartment over garage in Seattle. Photo by studio-d on Flickr.
Citing increased housing costs, Montgomery County planners want to make it easier for homeowners to add accessory apartments or "granny flats" to their property and rent them out. While the new policy is a step in the right direction, balancing neighbors' concerns with the need to provide more housing in high-demand areas will be a challenge.

Last week, the Planning Board approved recommended changes to the current policy, which the County Council will review this fall. Today, homeowners who want to build an accessory dwelling have to get a special exception from the county's Board of Appeals, which requires a public hearing.

The new policy would allow accessory units on most of the county's single-family zones by default. Homeowners wouldn't need a hearing, but they'd still need to get approval to build an apartment, register their units with the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, apply for a rental license, and renew the license each year.

Planners say allowing accessory apartments will help financially strapped homeowners cover their mortgages while providing additional housing choices for renters, particularly young adults, who are priced out of many MoCo neighborhoods. Accessory dwellings are already allowed "by right" in a variety of communities, from cities like Portland to suburban Lexington, Massachusetts to rural Fauquier County, Virginia.

Opponents fear "devastation"

Super-Addition, Nora Drive
Neighbors fear loosening restrictions will lead to more oversized additions like this one in White Oak.

However, not everyone's on board. WeAreMoCo, a newly-created citizens' group, argues that not requiring a public hearing is undemocratic, while angry residents packed a meeting about the proposed change in May, claiming that it would threaten the character of single-family neighborhoods. In an e-mail to the Planning Board, Silver Spring resident Alice Gilson wrote that accessory apartments would "devastate our area" and eventually "lead to middle class flight."

Some opponents argue that allowing accessory units is a bad idea because the county already can't stop every illegal unit that exists. Many property owners do indeed choose to ignore the application process and rent out apartments without permission, and unknown to the county. Often, these units are poorly built or overcrowded, putting tenants in danger.

Others exist in a sort of legal limbo: the owner may get approval to build an addition with a bathroom but not a full kitchen, exempting them from the permitting process for apartments even as they rent the space out as one. Even legal units can earn the ire of neighbors for being oversized or unattractive, like this this 1,500 square foot "addition" to a house in White Oak.

On the other hand, how could you blame someone for building an illegal unit? The current system forces homeowners to defend their financial or household situation to wary neighbors, reducing the incentive to take the legal route. Residents may not want accessory apartments in their neighborhoods, but they probably prefer legal, vetted units to illegal ones with no regulation at all.

How can we ensure the creation of safe, context-sensitive accessory apartments? We need to streamline the approval process, making it less intimidating to property owners. But we also need to make the guidelines for what they can and cannot build clear and easy to follow, letting neighbors know what to expect when one gets built on their block.

What county planners propose
Kent Square at Selby, Kentlands
This accessory apartment in Kentlands (over the garage) is located on a 4,300 square foot lot, smaller than would be allowed elsewhere in Montgomery County under the new regulations.

The proposed policy reduces the legal process required to build an accessory apartment, but it's somewhat more restrictive than the current regulations regarding the size, number, and location of units throughout the county.

Today, homeowners can apply to build a unit as large as 2500 square feet, but the new proposal caps unit size at either 50% of the main house, 800 square feet or 1200 square feet, depending on the size of the house or the lot. The new rules also specify that a house with an accessory apartment has to be at least 300 to 500 feet away from another house with one in order to prevent the "overconcentration" of units. There's also a limit of 3 residents per accessory unit, which didn't exist before.

So-called "backyard cottages," accessory dwellings in a separate structure from the main house, were only allowed on lots larger than 2 acres today. Planners were going to allow them on most lots in an earlier draft of the new rules, but they now suggest allowing backyard cottages only in rural zones with lots larger than one acre. They also aren't considering giving amnesty to existing illegal apartments. Those who have them would have to apply for a permit just like everyone else.

The new rules won't result in a flood of new apartments, as they would include a cap of 2000 accessory dwellings countywide. Today, there are just 380 legal accessory apartments and 548 "registered living units," built for relatives or household employees who live there rent-free. Planners estimate that 0.2 to 0.5 new accessory dwellings per 1000 homes will be added annually. With 163,000 owner-occupied single-family homes in the county, that comes out to between 30 and 80 new units each year, compared to 10 today.

A cap on accessory apartments might assuage the fears of residents who oppose changing the policy. But for those who could benefit from this new source of housing, the new policy doesn't do enough.

How could the rules be improved?
location of accessory apartments
Most existing accessory apartments are located in the Downcounty. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The proposed regulations make it difficult to build accessory dwellings in the areas where they'll have the most impact, which hurts homeowners and renters. However, they should also offer more guidance as to how units are designed, addressing neighbors' concerns about privacy, crowding and aesthetics.

Potential accessory apartment dwellers may want to locate in desirable downcounty communities like Bethesda, Silver Spring and Takoma Park, where housing is often more expensive but close to jobs, shopping and public transit. Not surprisingly, most of the county's existing accessory dwellings are in these places. Encouraging more of them here would put these areas within reach of more homeowners and renters and ideally give them shorter commutes, reducing traffic congestion.

However, the proposed policy limits the number of units that can be created in these areas, by allowing only 2000 units in the entire county and requiring that they're at least 300 feet apart. And because there aren't any one-acre lots in these neighborhoods, the new policy won't allow backyard cottages there, either.

Why should it be easier to build an accessory apartment on an acre in Potomac, far from jobs or transit, than in a neighborhood like Woodside Park in Silver Spring, where homes sit on generous 1/3-acre lots less than a mile from the Metro? They already exist on much smaller lots in neighborhoods like Kentlands in Gaithersburg, which isn't under the jurisdiction of the county's planning department.
Privacy in backyard cottages
Seattle's Backyard Cottages Guide shows homeowners how to site an accessory dwelling on their property.

Opponents of the new policy might say that accessory dwellings will harm neighborhoods like Woodside Park, but clear, properly enforced guidelines can ensure that new units respect the existing context. Many places that allow accessory apartments offer clear directions on what homeowners can or cannot do. Vancouver, Canada has a "Laneway Housing How-to Guide," which provides examples of accessory units that have already been built. Seattle has a 54-page guide to building backyard cottages, including sample layouts and directions on how to provide parking or maximize privacy. And Portland walks homeowners through the approval process, ensuring that their unit meets all regulations before they apply.

These guidelines should be made with public input so neighbors can help set the rules, rather than fight them in a public hearing. As a result, homeowners get a template they can follow, saving them time and hassle; neighbors know what kinds of additions to expect in their community; and tenants get safe, functional, and attractive places to live.

Accessory apartments give residents freedom

Opponents say that accessory apartments will hurt their single-family neighborhoods. But as Post columnist Roger K. Lewis points out, many of Montgomery County's single-family homes were built for large families. But as households shrink, many of these homes hold just one or two people today. A retired couple living in a four-bedroom house and carving out an apartment for their grandkids or an unrelated tenant isn't "changing" the neighborhood, but bringing it back to the occupancy level it was built for.

Let's face it: Montgomery County is an expensive place to live, and many households are struggling to make ends meet. Making it easier to build accessory dwelling units gives both homeowners and renters the freedom to live where they want and within their means. The county's current policy doesn't prevent accessory apartments from being built, but it does ensure that the creation of more illegal, unsafe, and unattractive apartments. That's a status quo our residents and our neighborhoods can't afford to keep.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

six years (dedicated to kevin keegan, magician & journalism teacher)

Blake Beat 2011
On June 26, 2006, my bus to work didn't show up and I was inspired to write a blog about it. And six years, 1467 comments, nearly 6000 comments and some 800,000 views later, it's still going. If that's a surprise to you, it's definitely a surprise to me.

Just Up The Pike has given me the opportunity to meet dozens, if not hundreds, of awesome people making a difference in our community. I hope I've made a few friends as well. However, there's one person without whom this blog may have never happened.

Kevin Keegan approached me during my junior year at Blake High School about writing for the Blake Beat, the student paper. I was skeptical at first. I already had Ceramics as my elective and was looking forward to honing my skills on the throwing wheel. However, Mr. Keegan suggested that my talents were better spent behind a keyboard, so I enrolled in his class mid-year.

I learned about picas and column inches, interviewing sources and fact-checking, and how to tell a story in 400 words. I absorbed the Blake Beat stylebook and read columns by John Kelly, now a columnist for the Post, from his days in Mr. Keegan's class at Rockville High School in the 1980's.

In the fall of my senior year, I was appointed Opinions Editor and got a regular column. Not only could I write about things that mattered to me, but people actually read and responded to what I wrote, which I still find exhilarating today.

Mr. Keegan sought out the brightest kids at Blake for his staff, and he took us seriously. We enjoyed a lot of control over how the paper was run, but also had the responsibility of producing a superior product each month. From spending evenings in paste-up assembling the next issue to having long, spirited arguments about the proper use of a semicolon, work at the Blake Beat was challenging but always fun.

As a result, the Beat has been named one of the best student newspapers in Maryland and the country for over ten years.

Rumors of Mr. Keegan's retirement have been swirling for just as long, it seemed. But every time I returned to Blake, he was always in his office and willing to shoot the breeze. On my last visit this spring, Mr. Keegan told me he was finally retiring after 34 years and moving to Massachusetts.

I already said it then, but I'll say it again: Thank you, Mr. Keegan. I never learned how to make a bowl, but you taught me how to work on a team, how to think critically, and how to ask questions. I'm not sure JUTP would've happened had I not been part of the Blake Beat. Or, at least, it would've been a lot worse.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

postcard from a well-designed hotel room in north carolina

Hyatt Place Chicago/Itasca (DuPage County, IL)
Suite at a Hyatt Place hotel in Itasca, Illinois. Photo by DiscoverDuPage on Flickr.

When I went to Raleigh last weekend to visit a sick relative in the hospital, I wasn't expecting to find innovations in small apartment design. Then I spent three days in a Hyatt Place hotel by the airport. Though the hotel is geared towards weary business travelers, its cleverly-designed suites might make good permanent homes as well.

Most of the hotel rooms I've stayed in work like this: you walk through a narrow vestibule with a closet on one side and a bathroom on the other. Then, you enter a room with a bed, a television atop a dresser, and a window with a view of the parking lot.

Meanwhile, my family's room at the Hyatt Place, designed by national architecture firm CI Design, felt more like a little apartment. You enter into a sort of "living room," with a large, L-shaped couch, a kitchenette, and a desk with a large lamp. Beyond a small partition is the "bedroom," with one or two beds, a vanity, and a small bathroom. (The view of the parking lot remains, unfortunately.) Straddling the two spaces is a flat-screen television on a pivoting base, so you can watch it from the bed or the couch.

The partition is what makes this space work. It's just long enough to create two discrete spaces, allowing my mother and brother to watch TV on one side while my dad sleeps on the other. But it's also open enough to let natural light from the window into the entire space, preventing it from feeling claustrophobic. I may be exaggerating, but I feel like the partition and the mix of public and private activities it accommodates has really helped our family stay sane during this difficult time.

Floorplan of a typical Hyatt Place suite. Image from Hyatt's website.

Of course, an American family of four can only last so long in 400 square feet, but one person might be pretty happy here. "I'm surprised they don't make apartments for single people like this," my dad mused.

In fact, they do. Apartments the size of our hotel room, dubbed "micro-lofts," are increasingly popular with single adults seeking relatively affordable accommodations in expensive, in-town neighborhoods. Like a traditional warehouse loft, these units consist of one open space, albeit a small one. To make the space more efficient or flexible, designers use a variety of solutions, like loft beds or Murphy beds that free up room for other activities during the day. Like our hotel room, some micro-lofts have some version of a partition that allows the space to work as one large room or several smaller ones.

Micro-lofts have been built or proposed in cities from Providence to Vancouver and Seattle (PDF). Locally, I've heard rumblings that a developer wants to build some in downtown Silver Spring as well.

"Loft" Apartment, MetroPointe at Wheaton
Above: floorplan of a "one-bedroom" apartment at Mosaic at Metro from the complex's website. Below: a "bedroom" enclosed by partial walls at MetroPointe.

The designers of some newer apartment complexes in the D.C. area, like MetroPointe in Wheaton or Mosaic at Metro in Hyattsville, use partitions with their studio and one-bedroom units. Like our hotel room, the dividers define separate spaces, but they also allow some flexibility in how those spaces are used.

While the plan above denotes "living," "dining" and "sleeping" area, I might want to set my bed up by the big window in the "dining" area, place a dining table by the kitchen in the "living" area, and take advantage of the partition to place a TV in the "sleeping" area. That's far more difficult to do in most conventional one-bedroom layouts with walled-off rooms.

Apartments like this certainly aren't for everyone, but they're an interesting way to provide much-desired housing in areas where space is limited and housing costs are high. Small apartments force creative design solutions. But if done well, they can make a great place to stay, whether for a few nights in Raleigh or as a permanent home.

Friday, June 15, 2012

historic top of the park neighborhood shows density done right

Some people may consider "density" a dirty word, but if designed well, a dense community can feel both spacious and private. Take Top of the Park, a 1940's-era condominium in Long Branch. While none of the townhouses have their own yards, they share a backyard that anyone would be envious of.

Typical Rowhouse
Typical townhouses in Top of the Park.

Top of the Park was built in 1942 as apartments and converted to condominiums in the 1970's. It's a product of the Garden City movement, which took hold at the turn of the 20th century as an attempt to synthesize the best features of the city and country, giving residents access to urban amenities in a more natural setting. Garden City ideas were very popular in the design of European neighborhoods, but they appeared in American communities as well, like Radburn, New Jersey and nearby Greenbelt.

Though it was built on what was once the suburban edge, Top of the Park can arguably be called an urban neighborhood now, surrounded by taller buildings and within a short walk of the Long Branch shopping district. One day, it will be a few blocks from two Purple Line stations.

Parking Area
Parking is organized along a few dead-end streets.

Nonetheless, the community still retains a country feel. In keeping with the Garden City ideal of separating car and pedestrian traffic, Top of the Park is organized around a few dead-end streets where residents park their cars, then walk through shared courtyards to their homes, which face common footpaths.

A built-in bench along a walkway.

The walk from the car to the house can be a little long, but it might be worth it. The paths are lined with beautiful flowers and bushes, and everywhere you look are views of mature trees. Little touches like these built-in benches make the walkways a place for spending time in, not just passing through.

The original designers also took advantage of the site's hilly terrain. The two rows of houses pictured above can't be more than 50 feet apart, but placing one of them at a higher elevation ensures that they don't look directly into each other, giving residents more privacy.

Rowhouse With Porch
Townhouse with a porch.

Since it's a condominium, Top of the Park residents own their homes, but not the land they sit on. However, they are allowed to make some alterations to the front and back of their units, like this porch. This policy gives residents the ability to individualize their homes, but at a lower cost than if they bought a conventional townhouse or detached house with a private yard.

Shared Courtyard
One of the courtyards.

Besides, residents get to enjoy these shared courtyards, filled with trees, flowers and some outdoor furniture. When I visited a few months ago, I heard birds singing as neighbors tended their gardens and kids ran around. I imagine it would be very difficult, or at least very expensive, to find a private yard this nice this close to downtown Silver Spring.

Picnic Table
Picnic table and benches in a courtyard.

These terraces seem to lend themselves well to neighborly gatherings, like a picnic or cookout. I noticed that in addition to providing shade, the trees screen views of the surrounding houses, giving them privacy.

Walkway With Tall Trees
A walkway lined with tall trees and landscaping.

With 166 homes on 15 acres, Top of the Park wouldn't be mistaken for Manhattan, but it's part of one of Montgomery County's densest neighborhoods. It's also about as dense as some recently-built or proposed townhouse developments around Silver Spring. Unlike those neighborhoods, however, Top of the Park has had decades to let its trees grow to the point where you can barely see the houses between them in an aerial photo. Hopefully, the same thing will happen in newer projects.

Top of the Park may be 70 years old, but it shows that we can still offer privacy, ample open space and opportunities for personal expression to families who may not want or can't afford a large, detached house. It's a useful example for Montgomery County as it tries to accommodate a growing population in an increasingly limited space.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

county council votes for townhouses at former chelsea school (updated)

Clarendon Park Townhomes
Townhomes similar to these EYA built in Arlington could be coming to Silver Spring.

After two years of controversy, the County Council voted to rezone the former Chelsea School site just outside downtown Silver Spring on Tuesday, opening the door for a proposed townhouse development.

Seven councilmembers voted in favor of rezoning the private school's five-acre property at Pershing Drive and Springvale Road from the R-60 zone, which allows single-family homes, to the RT-12.5 zone. This allows Bethesda-based developer EYA to move ahead with their proposal to replace the school with 63 townhomes and restore a historic single-family home in a development called Chelsea Court

In this report, the council asserted that EYA's revised design would be an appropriate transition between downtown Silver Spring and the adjacent Seven Oaks-Evanswood neighborhood while providing adequate buffers from surrounding houses and attempting to reduce cut-through traffic.

At-large Councilmember Marc Elrich voted against the rezoning, while District 5 Councilmember Valerie Ervin, who represents the neighborhood where the project would be built, chose to abstain was absent due to illness. The council also voted not to allow additional oral arguments on the zoning change.

EYA first proposed rezoning the property to allow 76 townhomes two years ago when the school announced it was moving. While many residents and county planners supported the proposal, not everyone was convinced.

In the summer of 2010, a group of residents in Seven Oaks-Evanswood formed the Chelsea School Task Force to oppose the project, citing concerns about the project's density and the perceived loss of open space.

The County Council agreed and rejected EYA's proposal last fall. However, they asked the developer to revisit their design and have it reviewed by the county's Hearing Examiner before coming back for another council vote.

EYA returned with a new proposal, containing just 64 homes and additional open space, that was approved by the Hearing Examiner last month.

With the rezoning approved, EYA will now be able to submit a site plan to the Planning Board for approval. According to an e-mail sent out to community members, they will also hold an open house this summer to "talk with neighbors about what they would like to see in such details as architecture and landscaping."

The County Council won't make everyone happy with their choice to allow townhouses at the Chelsea School, but they made the right one. We can't fault residents for liking their neighborhood the way it is; after all, it's a very nice place to live. Nor can we pull up the bridge and deny other people the opportunity to enjoy it as well.

Monday, June 11, 2012

roy rogers could ride again in burtonsville (updated)

UPDATE: Here's the Planning Department staff report for the proposed Roy Rogers, which would be located next to Capital One Bank.

Where can you find Roy Rogers chicken? One day, you might find it in Burtonsville.

Next week, the Planning Board will review an application by Frederick-based hospitality company Plamondon Enterprises, Inc. to allow a drive-through restaurant at the Burtonsville Town Square shopping center on Route 198. Plamondon Enterprises, run by brothers Jim and Peter Plamondon, Jr, own the trademark and franchise system for Roy Rogers.

The Plamondon brothers' father, Peter Plamondon, Sr., helped develop the Roy Rogers concept while head of restaurants at Marriott in the 1960's. From one branch in Falls Church, the chain grew steadily throughout the 1970's and 80's, amassing 648 locations in the Mid-Atlantic and 200 in Greater Washington alone. Hardee's bought Roy Rogers in 1990 and converted some locations to their brand. They sold off the rest to Boston Market, Wendy's and McDonald's.

A few locations hung on before the Plamondon brothers bought the brand in 2002 and resumed adding new branches. Though the chain is much smaller than it used to be, there are currently 45 locations throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, 18 of which are operated by Plamondon. However, hungry East County residents must travel all the way to Gaithersburg, where the nearest Roy Rogers is located.

I've said before that Burtonsville's future is tied to its well-regarded restaurants, like Cuba de Ayer, Old Hickory Grille, and Soretti's. Roy Rogers may be a fast-food joint, but it enjoys a substantial following here in the D.C. area. Fast-food expert Sherry Daye Scott told the Washington Post in 2005 that chains with a regional following, like In-N-Out Burger in California, are often the most successful. And that bodes well for Burtonsville.

Lake George 144
A Roy Rogers in Lake George, New York. Photo by axelsrose on Flickr.

This isn't a done deal, however. Burtonsville Town Square was originally approved with sit-down restaurants only, which is why Plamondon Enterprises will have to ask the Planning Board for a special exception. Though if they don't receive one, they could also build a restaurant without a drive-through like the Chick-Fil-A on Tech Road.

A Roy Rogers in Burtonsville may not have the same impact as some of the other improvements proposed for Burtonsville's ailing village center, but it's good news nonetheless. I try not to eat a lot of fast food, but I look forward to having Roy's burgers and fried chicken in my backyard once again.

Post-script: Growing up in downtown Silver Spring, I would beg my mother to take me to the Roy Rogers at Georgia Avenue and Blair Road, which is now a KFC. I also remember ones at New Hampshire Avenue and Lockwood Drive in White Oak and at Briggs Chaney Plaza, which are now both McDonald's. Who remembers any other Roy Rogers locations?

Friday, June 8, 2012

better streets & buildings boost walking in briggs chaney

Located 9 miles north of downtown Silver Spring, Briggs Chaney is one of the densest neighborhoods in Montgomery County, but walking can feel unpleasant or even dangerous. However, some new public and private improvements may change that.

Woodlake THs and Bump-Outs
Street improvements and better-designed housing can make walking in Briggs Chaney safer and more enjoyable.

In the 1980's, Briggs Chaney was zoned for high-density residential development in anticipation of a light rail line that was never built. The neighborhood was built as planned, composed mainly of garden apartments and townhomes with a few single-family homes. Instead of light rail, it's served by a handful of infrequent bus routes including the Metrobus Z line, which happens to be one of the most well-used routes in suburban Maryland. However, 78% of Briggs Chaney's employed residents drive to work, while just 14% take transit and 2% walk.

This isn't surprising, since Briggs Chaney is far from the county's major employment centers, meaning driving may be the most practical way to commute for many residents. However, even though light rail may not ever be built here, the neighborhood will be served by Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit system. And people who may use it in the future, along with current residents who don't drive, must deal with a neighborhood that was designed and built for cars.

Dirt Path Leading To Windsor Apartments (cropped)
Dirt path leading to an apartment complex parking lot.

Briggs Chaney is chopped up into self-contained, fenced-off developments whose streets don't connect, making it really difficult to walk from one part of the neighborhood to another. The few connector streets that exist, like Robey Road, are wide and straight, making it easy to speed and putting pedestrians in danger.

There are also lots of awkward, unused public spaces behind apartment buildings or between complexes that invite loitering and crime, creating an atmosphere where residents don't feel safe. Though much of the neighborhood is within walking distance of Greencastle Elementary School, it doesn't participate in International Walk to School Day and students have to play inside.

How can we fix this? First, the streets must be redesigned to discourage speeding. Last fall, Montgomery County installed bumpouts, medians and crosswalks along Castle Boulevard, one of the neighborhood's main arteries. According to a study by the county Department of Transportation, 21 percent of drivers on this road drive over 40 miles per hour even though it's signed for 30.

Bus Stop and Bump-Outs, Castle Boulevard
Bumpouts and medians make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street or wait for the bus.

The bumpouts and medians will make the road narrower, slowing motorists and hopefully making them more aware of what's going on around them. They'll also give pedestrians a safe place to wait for a bus or to cross the street.

This may not change residents' perception of the street, however. For much of its length, Castle Boulevard is lined by fences, parking lots, and the backs of apartment buildings. These are the awkward, unused spaces that invite disinvestment and crime; in turn, they make the street susceptible to disinvestment and crime as well.

To change that, we have to orient buildings to the street. Castle Boulevard would be a livelier, and thus much safer, place if it was lined by front yards or other semi-public spaces. It's a lot easier to commit illegal activities if you're not directly in front of somebody's front door.

Left: new townhouses at Woodlake have front yards along Castle Boulevard. Right: townhouses across the street hide behind driveways and a tall fence.

And that's exactly what local builder Craftstar Homes is doing at Woodlake, a new townhouse development being built around an existing garden apartment complex of the same name. This project provides more owner-occupied housing in a neighborhood where almost two-thirds of the households are renters, giving it more stability. It also treats Castle Boulevard with respect, placing front yards and shared courtyards along the street.

Unlike most townhouses being built in East County, these homes have rear garages on alleys. The front of these houses is actually the front, where you'll see people, not just cars. That creates "eyes on the street," further discouraging destructive behavior. It also means there's actually a front yard with grass or landscaping, which is generally more attractive than a line of driveways or a tall fence like those at another recently-built townhouse development across the street.

Of course, there aren't a lot of opportunities for new construction in Briggs Chaney, and it's unlikely that the neighborhood will get redeveloped any time soon. But many garden apartment buildings have entrances on both sides or patios facing the street, making it easy to for residents to "claim" those spaces as yards as well.

Together, these road improvements and new homes are a step forward for Briggs Chaney. Not only do they make it easier and safer to walk there, but they will help knit together many disparate parts into one coherent neighborhood. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

plan proposes housing, new streets, parks for burtonsville

Burtonsville's had a hard time over the past few years. A highway bypass hurt local businesses, the beloved Dutch Country Farmers Market skipped town, and nearly a third of the village center is vacant. But that could soon change if a redevelopment plan is adopted.

Burtonsville Crossing
The half-empty Burtonsville Crossing shopping center.

Montgomery County planners say they know how to stop the bleeding. Their Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan, which will be discussed at a public hearing on Thursday, would revitalize Burtonsville's village center with new investment, new street connections, and new open spaces.

While the plan has many great suggestions, questions remain about how it introduces housing into the commercial district.

This isn't the first time planners have looked at Burtonsville. In 2007, the county studied local retail (PDF), concluding that Burtonsville couldn't compete with larger shopping areas and needed to differentiate itself. A charrette in 2008 resulted in recommendations for mostly aesthetic improvements, like new landscaping on Route 198 and facade improvements for local businesses. Many businesses along Route 198 received new storefronts from that proposal, which was carried out with grants from the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Route 198 Shopping Center Sign
Stores along Route 198 received new façades with county funding.

Nonetheless, challenges remain, such as a lack of sidewalks, visual clutter, and a lack of community organizations. The Burtonsville Bypass, completed in 2006, deprived many businesses of customers. As a result, 30% of the area's retail space is now empty. Many shops have moved to Maple Lawn, a planned community a few miles north in Howard County, or just across the street to the newly built Burtonsville Town Square shopping center.

The area does have some strengths, however. A strip of well-reviewed sit-down and ethnic restaurants has emerged along Route 198, earning it the name "Restaurant Row." Five bus routes now serve the Burtonsville park and ride lot, including the Z Metrobus, one of the most popular lines in the region.

Though many residents were once skeptical of any new development, they're now anxious for the same jobs and shopping amenities other parts of the county enjoy. When Colesville Patch polled residents about what stores they'd like to see in Burtonsville, many asked for "nice restaurants" and "entertainment venues" while lamenting that they now have to drive to Silver Spring, Rockville or Columbia for them.

In response, county planners seek to make Burtonsville a destination, using its rural heritage to distinguish it from surrounding areas while allowing property owners to give residents the amenities they want.

Left: vision for the Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan. Right: A more detailed site plan. Images courtesy of the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Though the Burtonsville Bypass and recently-opened InterCounty Connector take potential shoppers out of Burtonsville, they also reduce the burden of car traffic on Burtonsville's two main streets, Route 29 and Route 198. Thus, the plan proposes converting Route 198 from a run-down highway into a "main street" serving primarily local traffic. The street would have new sidewalks and bike lanes, along with trees and a landscaped median. Left-turn lanes and curb cuts would be consolidated to calm traffic. And a new grid of smaller streets would tie the village center together, making it easier to walk or bike throughout the district.

The plan also bolsters the existing "Restaurant Row," proposing additional funds for façade improvements and the creation of a chamber of commerce for area businesses. It also replaces the current zoning, which basically only allows strip malls, with a new CR or Commercial-Residential Zone that allows property owners to add housing or other uses alongside existing shops.

Burtonsville Day 2009
A new public green would hold events like the yearly Burtonsville Day festival.

Property owners can also build up under the new plan. Building height limits would be raised to 75 feet at the Burtonsville Crossing shopping center and adjacent Burtonsville Office Park, which already has buildings about 50 feet tall. Planners hope this will encourage the redevelopment of the shopping center, which is more than half empty. Elsewhere in the village center, height limits would range from 45 to 65 feet.

There are also provisions for additional open space. A 3-acre lot in front of Burtonsville Elementary School would become a "Public Green," which was first proposed 15 years ago in another plan. The green could accommodate large gatherings, like the yearly Burtonsville Day festival and parade. Planners recommend that an adjacent 15-acre plot called the Athey Property become a public park with playing fields, which may be needed in the future (PDF).

North of the village center, the plan keeps the existing Rural Cluster zoning to preserve woods, farmland, and the Patuxent River, which provides drinking water to the area. It also proposes restoring the Burtonsville Forest Fire Lookout Tower, which was built in 1945 and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

In total, the plan could allow for as many as 600 new multi-family homes and between 150,000 and 670,000 square feet of new office and retail space, which could accommodate as many as 2,100 new jobs. If built out, the plan would effectively double the amount of commercial space and employment in the village center today.

Wyndcrest Park Looking North
Small-lot single-family homes and townhomes like those at Wyndcrest in Ashton may be the most realistic solution for the village center.

Nonetheless, there are some issues with the type of development the plan proposes. Although it calls for multi-family housing, there may not be any demand for apartments or condominiums in an area so far from established job centers, and neighborhood opposition to that type of development remains high. But with just 8 single-family homes, the village center could use additional residents to support existing businesses and provide a market for new ones to fill vacant spaces.

As a result, senior housing may be more feasible than conventional apartments. Senior housing has been proposed before for the village center, and could allow older residents to age in place near friends and family. Planners should also look at townhouses or small-lot single-family homes like those at Wyndcrest, a New Urbanist neighborhood in Ashton designed as an extension of a semi-rural village. Not only are homebuyers interested in that kind of housing, but they could provide a better transition to surrounding areas than apartments.

Turning the Athey Property into a small neighborhood like Wyndcrest is a better use for that land than a park, especially since it was already approved for houses in 2007. The "Public Green" in front of Burtonsville Elementary provides more than enough open space for events like Burtonsville Day. If there's a need for playing fields, they can go on some of the 170 acres purchased by the county and the state throughout Burtonsville for new parks.

The Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan takes stock of Burtonsville's potential and creates a compelling vision for its future. With some small changes, it can get the village center on the right track.

The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the plan at 7:30 pm on Thursday at the Planning Department headquarters, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To testify or for more information, visit their website.

new look!

JUTP will be six years old (!!!) at the end of the month, so I figured it was high time to do some remodeling. I spent most of yesterday afternoon toying around with Blogger's Dynamic View template, which gives You, The Reader, a more interacting, faster-loading blog to enjoy. I like it because it can fit five (!!!) posts on the home page without scrolling, raising the probability that visitors will see something they like upon first glance and then click around.

Naturally, things have been moved around. On the top of the screen is a new navigation bar with links to our Facebook, Twitter and Flickr pages, along with a few other features. Mouse over to the right-hand side and you'll find a series of tabs that'll take you to the archives and blogroll. And if you're looking for older posts, just scroll down! The page will automatically pull up older posts, so you could scroll all the way to 2006, if you'd like.

Let me know if you have any questions about the new template! My goal is to have a blog that's as reader-friendly as possible, and if something's not working right, I'd love to know. (If you're reading this on a smartphone and don't see anything different, that's because it's not! I urge you to get to your computer or tablet and check out the new site post-haste.)

Monday, June 4, 2012

wheaton plaza in 1971, and blair high school today

Two videos:

Friend of JUTP Mike, who writes the Bowie Living blog, sent me a link to this Mother's Day TV ad for Westfield Wheaton Wheaton Mall Wheaton Plaza from back in 1971, when it was a "whole new shopping scene" where you could find gifts for your "with-it mom."

At the time, Wheaton Plaza was a small, open-air shopping center. The roof was added in the 1980's, along with a new wing for Hecht's department store. That ended up killing their existing location in downtown Silver Spring which, of course, was later repurposed as City Place Mall.

This ad is well before my time, but I enjoy learning about the history of one of America's oldest shopping malls, which opened in 1959. It's no surprise that mall owners want to downplay a mall's age or history, but I was disappointed that Westfield didn't do anything for Wheaton Plaza's 50th anniversary in 2009 but, after all, mall owners want to keep their properties (and customers) perpetually young and trendy. Besides, they were probably too busy organizing fake flash mobs to sell shoes.

If you'd like more Wheaton Plaza nostalgia, check out this Facebook group.
In recent months, I've written a lot about Tolu Omokehinde, the amazing photographer from Blair High School who makes stunning timelapse videos of his school and downtown Silver Spring. He's graduating next week, but not without posting one last clip of Blair's hallways, which I'm told included some 23,000 photos.

Congratulations for finishing high school, Tolu! He's a great talent, and I look forward to seeing what he'll do next. (Thanks to Chip Py, also amazing photographer/friend of JUTP/Tolu's mentor, for the heads-up.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

university of maryland needs late-night purple line service

The University of Maryland's slogan is "Unstoppable Starts Here," emphasizing the school's rise as a major research university. If administrators have their way, "Unstoppable" will also refer to the Purple Line, which wouldn't serve the campus late at night.

purple line at stamp union
One of three proposed Purple Line stations at the University of Maryland. Image courtesy of the MTA.

College Park Patch reports that university officials worry the Purple Line will bring crime, so they would prefer that trains not stop after 10 pm at the three proposed stations on campus. If the Purple Line does serve the campus during late night hours, the university would like to set up checkpoints at each of the stops.

Marc Limansky, a spokesperson for the University of Maryland Police Department says they would ensure that transit riders "have business on campus." Though drivers entering the campus after 11 pm currently have to pass through one of three checkpoints, they don't apply to pedestrians, bicyclists, or anyone taking the Metrobus or UM Shuttle.

"The campus has porous borders," Carlo Colella, Vice President for Facilities Management, was quoted as saying. "If someone intended to gain access with the Purple Line, we now have that risk." 

The real risk, however, is suffocating university life. The University of Maryland's reputation is improving in no small part because of evening activities, and they should be making it as easy as possible for the university community and visitors alike to take part in them.

Ending Purple Line service at 10pm prevents students, faculty, staff and visitors from participating in everything the school has to offer. It would also serve as an informal curfew on resident students who want to leave the campus. Most importantly, it would make the entire Purple Line less useful.

Most of Maryland's 35,000 undergraduate and graduate students live off-campus, but they're often at school late at night. There are classes that end after 10 pm. If they're not in night classes, students might be working late in a science lab, in an art or architecture studio, or at one of the university's 8 libraries, all of which are open until 10 pm most nights.

Students might be attending an extracurricular activity held by one of the university's hundreds of student groups. When I was an undergrad, I was in an a cappella group that held rehearsals until 10 pm or later twice a week, and we had several members who commuted.

Some students living on campus could take the Purple Line to hang out in Silver Spring or Bethesda, or even head to D.C. via the Metro. (I'll admit that most of my friends at Maryland rarely ever left College Park, but I like to think it's because there wasn't a Purple Line yet.) Others may use it to commute to late-night jobs off-campus. When I worked at a store in Rockville during college, I regularly got off work after 10 pm.

The university's 11,000 faculty and staff are not strangers to working long hours either, whether it's conducting world-renowned research or keeping the university safe, clean and orderly.

Those not affilated with the university also have reasons to be on campus at night. Most of this season's performances at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center start at 7:30 or 8 pm, meaning they'll probably let out close to or after 10 pm. There are also evening athletic events, like football and basketball games, that end after 10 pm.

The Purple Line will support all of these activities at Maryland, if the administration doesn't get in the way. It will also help connect the university community to internship and job opportunities, to other universities, and to everything else that Greater Washington offers, making the University of Maryland stronger and more competitive.

Crime will be an issue at any school in a large metropolitan area, but it shouldn't be the tail wagging the dog. University officials must fully embrace the surrounding community and recognize that the school's students, faculty and staff, and visitors need to be able to easily enter and leave campus. Besides, College Park is already served by the Metro, which closes at 12 am during the week and 3 am on weekends. Twelve bus routes also serve the campus, some of which run after 10 pm. Shutting Purple Line stations early or requiring checkpoints would just be an inconvenience, not a crime deterrent.

Four decades ago, then-president Wilson Homer Elkins worried the College Park Metro station would bring "undesirable elements" to campus, resulting in its location a mile from the university. Until recently, the administration also tried to keep the Purple Line from running through campus as well. We can't make that mistake again.

If the University of Maryland wants to be taken seriously as a research institution, it should rely on facts, not fear. The administration should consider the needs of students, faculty, staff and visitors who come to campus at night, and put aside their unfounded concerns about the Purple Line bringing criminals to College Park.