Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"fake" cul-de-sacs don't solve MoCo's traffic woes

"No Access to Business District," Ellsworth & Dale
Sign on Ellsworth Drive outside of downtown Silver Spring.
Concerned about through traffic, many downcounty neighborhoods have closed off their once-connected streets. But the costs of a quiet street might outweigh the benefits.

Montgomery County neighborhoods, like many in North America, generally fall into two categories: those with cul-de-sacs and those without. Before World War II, and for a little while afterwards, neighborhoods in MoCo were built with streets in a grid or at least a connected network. Yet as cars became more popular, these streets often became noisy and congested, and planners came up with an alternative.

With support from the Federal Housing Administration and prevailing planning and design trends that turned its back on traditional urban street patterns, builders nationwide switched to cul-de-sacs. As a result, most MoCo neighborhoods built since then have them. Just look at a map of the county and you can pick out older, gridded communities like Bethesda from newer ones with loopy, disconnected streets, like Germantown.

Disconnected cul-de-sacs in Germantown force everyone to use collector roads.Gridded streets in King Farm disperse traffic throughout the neighborhood. Photos by Evan Glass.
Of course, cul-de-sacs weren't the traffic panacea 20th-century planners thought they were, and there's since been a growing backlash to them. In some newer neighborhoods like Poplar Run in Glenmont, they're few and far between; in others, like Kentlands in Gaithersburg or King Farm in Rockville, they've been all but banished.

We've returned to appreciating a connected street network, which can diffuse congestion and make walking, biking and even driving safer and easier. They're also cheaper to maintain and easier for emergency vehicles to navigate, which are two of the reasons why Virginia banned cul-de-sacs in 2009.

Yet in many of MoCo's oldest neighborhoods, which were built with grids to begin with, the cul-de-sac mindset remains. Prodded by residents sick of speeding drivers on their neighborhood streets, the county's Department of Transportation have found ways to keep through traffic at bay through a kind of "fake" cul-de-sac.

Sometimes, they'll restrict turns from arterial streets or ban cars from entering certain streets at rush hour. Occasionally, they'll take more drastic measures and cut off a through-street entirely, like Ellsworth Drive near downtown Silver Spring.

If you live on a street like Ellsworth, you're probably not complaining. You get all of the benefits of living next to one of the region's biggest jobs, shopping and entertainment districts while enjoying quiet, peaceful streets undisturbed by people from outside the neighborhood.

Less amused, however, are your neighbors on adjacent streets, like Colesville Road, Wayne Avenue or Georgia Avenue that have to pick up the slack. Breaking up the street grid means more local trips end up on what through streets remain, making them more congested. Studies show that residents living on busy streets are not only exposed to higher pollution levels, but they have fewer friends and a weakened sense of community.

Georgia And Spring From GT Sundeck
Cutting off through-streets in Silver Spring forces all traffic onto streets like Georgia Avenue, making them a barrier between neighborhoods. 
Sometimes, access restrictions displace car traffic to another neighborhood entirely. In 2010, the Sligo Park Hills community in Silver Spring asked the county to restrict rush-hour commuters from using several streets there.

Neighbors in adjacent Takoma Park worried it would just send the cars their way. "We will be impacted by moving your traffic over to us, and your neighborhood is no more important, your kids are no important and your convenience is no more important [than our own]," said Takoma Park resident Ellen Zavian.

However, one Sligo Park Hills resident was so tired of drivers using his street that he threatened violence against them. "If you guys drive through my neighborhood in the early morning hours and I perceive you to be a threat, I'm going to start walking around with a rock in my hand," Sean Gibbons told the Gazette.

As a result, the City of Takoma Park implemented their own traffic restrictions later that year. Mayor Bruce Williams said if they didn't, they would "be essentially saying ‘okay take all that traffic and send it through Mississippi Avenue and Ritchie Avenue."

We can't fault people for wanting to live on a safe, quiet street, but the streets in neighborhoods like Sligo Park Hills are owned by the county, meaning that all county residents pay taxes to maintain them and have a right to use them. Besides, telling drivers they can't use your street does nothing to solve the larger traffic problem in Montgomery County.

Berkeley Bike Boulevard
Bike Boulevard in Berkeley, California. Photo by Artbandito on Flickr.
If we're trying to discourage folks from driving through certain neighborhoods, we might as well finish the job and make it easier for them and the people living in these neighborhoods to get around without a car.

While MoCo's older communities were built with interconnected streets, they didn't have sidewalks, and many residents want to keep it that way. However, the best way to reduce car traffic, at least for shorter trips, is to make it easier and safer to bike or walk. Many of the neighborhoods that currently have traffic restrictions are already within a short walk or bike ride of major shopping areas, job centers and public transit. If more people are out biking and walking on local streets, it'll be a cue that drivers should slow down.

Sidewalks are a start, though Montgomery County planners have also explored striping a "pedestrian lane" on streets where sidewalks are either impractical or too costly. While we're at it, we could stripe some more bike lanes as well.

Or we could turn streets like Ellsworth Drive into "neighborhood greenways," also known as "bike boulevards," designed to give people on foot or bike priority over drivers. That's sort of what currently exists on Second Avenue between 16th and Spring streets in Silver Spring, which allows bikes and buses during rush hour but not cars. And if we're going to turn a street into a dead-end, we should at least make it passable for pedestrians and bicyclists, like on Middleton Lane near downtown Bethesda.

A well-connected street network has many potential benefits: better access to local amenities, diffused traffic congestion, and even stronger social ties. The best way to reduce congestion on little streets and big streets alike is to give people choices, whether it's multiple routes for driving, the option of taking transit, or the ability to safely get around by foot or bike.

While residents shouldn't have to worry about speeding drivers or heavy traffic on small neighborhood streets, closing off public streets isn't a real solution.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

great potential, great challenges for flower theatre restoration (updated)

The Flower Theatre today. Photo from Google Street View.
UPDATE: Sligo at Silver Spring, Singular kindly reminded me of this detailed post he wrote on the Flower Theatre's history last year. Check it out!

Next month, Fenton Street Market will host a charrette or idea-generating workshop on ways to reuse the Flower Theatre in Long Branch, which has sat empty for years. How did it get that way, and why hasn't it been filled yet? Let's take a look at the theatre's history.

Located on Flower Avenue just north of Piney Branch Road, the Flower Theatre opened in February 1950 and was built by the K-B Organization, a regional chain of movie houses. It was designed by architects John Jacob Zink and Frederick L.W. Moehle, also responsible for a number of well-loved local theatres, like the Uptown in Washington and the Senator in Baltimore.

The first film shown at the 800-seat theatre was "Great Lover" starring Bob Hope, and audiences could enter to win a new Plymouth. Later that year, the Flower appeared on the cover of Boxoffice magazine in an issue on "The Modern Theatre."

Inside the Flower Theatre in 1950. Photo from Boxoffice Magazine
The surrounding Long Branch neighborhood was changing, however. By the 1970's, it had become Montgomery County's "melting pot," home to immigrants from around the world. However, blight and disinvestment afflicted the neighborhood, affecting the Flower Theatre's fortunes.

K-B closed the Flower and sold it in 1979, the same year that Flower Avenue was described by residents as "quite seedy" and "the trashiest neighborhood in Montgomery County" in a Washington Post article. Throughout the 1980's, the theatre changed hands twice as new operators divided the single auditorium into two screens, added two more screens, and converted it to a discount movie house.

After closing again in 1996, a local entrepreneur bought the Flower and tried to turn it into a cultural arts center before his plans fell through. More recently, a Spanish-language church occupied the building before moving out in 2008. The theatre has been vacant ever since.

During that time, people have been dreaming of what they'd do with the Flower Theatre. Last month, friend of JUTP and Long Branch resident Amanda Hurley reached out to her neighbors, who had lots of ideas for the space. Suggestions included turning it into a venue for "fun exercise activities," a community meeting hall, or an indoor flea market.

One of my favorite proposals was repurposing the Flower as a café and bookstore, like the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, also a former theatre. Not surprisingly, many folks recommended returning it to a movie theatre showing second-run or foreign-language films, in a nod to the area's Spanish-speaking population.

However, any reuse of the Flower Theatre could be very expensive. "If someone wanted to come and use it now for retail, for theatre, or anything else . . . it would need a complete gut renovation to bring it up to code," says Greg Fernebok of Harvey Property Management Company, who owns the Flower and the adjacent shopping center along Flower Avenue.

Fernebok estimates it would take over $600,000 to make the space usable again, which includes installing fire alarms and sprinklers, building ADA-complaint restrooms, and replacing the roof, among other improvements. And if the building is historically designated by the county, there may be strict requirements for how it's restored.

Unable to find a tenant willing to pay for those improvements, Fernebok has basically left the building alone. "It makes more sense to leave it in the condition it's in and keep it safe," he says.

That said, it's unclear what the theatre's condition is, as very few people have been inside since it closed. Judging from this 2008 photo of the lobby, the space looks habitable, though most of the original décor is gone.

The Flower Theatre in 1962. Photo from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
There remains a lot of potential for the Flower, however. The shopping center surrounding it is completely leased and hasn't had a vacancy in 20 years, suggesting that there's demand for more retail space in the area.

Meanwhile, the area is becoming more affluent. Households within one mile of the Flower Theatre have a median income of $73,000 a year, while those living within five miles have a median income of $93,000. Eventually, the Purple Line could stop around the corner from the theatre, drawing additional visitors and investment to the neighborhood.

Though bringing the Flower back to life will be challenging, all the changes in store for Long Branch make now a great time to start exploring how to do it. The goal of our charrette is to create an "inventory" of community wants and needs and explore how the Flower Theatre could be repurposed to meet them, whether in the short term or in the future. We've also invited local architects, planners and community leaders to offer their thoughts and expertise.

Like in previous charrettes at Fenton Street Market, we'll have a big tent with tables, chairs and lots of markers. You'll be able to stop in throughout the day to offer your perspective and suggestions. Hopefully, this will be the first of several charrettes throughout the summer and fall tackling different disused spaces around Silver Spring.

If you'd like to participate, come out to Fenton Street Market on Saturday, August 4 from 10am to 1pm. The market is located in Veterans Plaza at the corner of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring. For more information, you can email me at justupthepike at gmail dot com.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ripley district slowly becoming a neighborhood

The Solaire, which opened to tenants in May.
A few years ago, the Ripley District was home to auto body shops and warehouses. But with the completion of a new apartment building and work starting on another, this handful of blocks between the Red Line and Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring is on its way to becoming a neighborhood.

In May, residents started moving into the Solaire, located at 1150 Ripley Street. I previously wrote about the building's nine live-work units, which allow residents to operate businesses out of their apartments. Montgomery County officials were so nervous about kickstarting the redevelopment of the Ripley District that they gave developer Washington Property Company $5 million in public money to help cover the costs of the 17-story high-rise, but today it's 25 percent leased.

Across the street is Eleven55 Ripley, a mixed-use complex containing apartments, rowhouses, and retail space. Construction began in December and the building should open in late 2013, according to its developer, Home Properties.

Together, the two buildings will deliver over 600 apartments, several new shops and businesses, and a pair of pocket parks to the Ripley District. And to support them, the county has extended two streets, which will eventually connect the neighborhood to the rest of downtown Silver Spring.

Last month, I stopped by the Ripley District to check out its progress. So far, things are looking good.

Ripley Street Looking Towards Georgia
The newly rebuilt Ripley Street. Eleven55 Ripley is on the left, while the Solaire is on the right.
As part of both projects, Ripley Street was widened and given curbs and sidewalks. It's remarkable how much the street has changed from a few years ago, when the street had no curbs or sidewalks and the asphalt was cracked and broken. Ripley has also been extended, curving north to connect with Bonifant Street and the Silver Spring Transit Center, which should open later this year.

Construction of Dixon Avenue Extension
The new segment of Dixon Avenue, which currently dead-ends at a parking garage.
Dixon Avenue, which runs parallel to Georgia Avenue between Wayne Avenue and Bonifant, will also be extended one block south towards Ripley Street. Next week, this public parking garage will close so that Montgomery County can run the street through it. Eventually, Dixon will continue another block south to Silver Spring Avenue.

The new street will run through the Eleven55 Ripley project, with apartments and rowhouses on the left side and a a mid-rise apartment building with ground-floor shops on the right. While it's nice to see more retail in this neighborhood, it will be largely invisible from Georgia Avenue and partially hidden by the parking garage, which will make drawing customers a challenge.

Ripley Street Streetscape
Sidewalk in front of the Solaire.
The streetscape in front of the Solaire is basically finished, and it looks pretty good, with lots of trees and benches. The sidewalk is pretty wide, and it might seem like too much considering how desolate this area is now. It will probably be a lot busier once the transit center opens.

Solaire Storefront
A "live-work" apartment.
Here's one of the nine "live-work" units on the ground floor of the Solaire. As I wrote before, these apartments have a separate "work space" that can be sectioned off from the rest of the unit, along with their own entrance from the street and their own address. The walkway in front of them leaves a lot to be desired, however. Given how wide the sidewalk is, having an additional path isn't necessary. This space might be better utilized as small patios or "front yards" for each unit similar to those at the Silverton, a building on nearby East-West Highway.

Eleven55's rowhouses.
Likewise, Eleven55 will have several three-story rowhouses at the street level, which will also have their own private entrances. Shalom Baranes Associates, the firm that designed the building, did something similar a few years ago at the Odyssey, a condominium in Arlington.

Together, Eleven55 and the Solaire should create a pretty nice street; though the buildings are among downtown Silver Spring's tallest, both will have front doors and stoops on both sides, giving the block a more residential, human-scaled feel. They'll also provide more "eyes on the street," making the area livelier and safer.

1155 Ripley Façade Mockup
A preview of what Eleven55 will look like when completed.
Previous renderings of Eleven55 made it hard to see what the building's exterior would look like. That's why I was glad to find this mockup of a portion of Eleven55's façade, which allows the builders to test out the architect's design - what materials to use, how the windows will work, and so on - before applying it to the building as a whole.

Now we know the upper floors of the building will have a sort of sandy-colored brick veneer, while the lower floors will probably use a darker-colored brick. The stripe pattern appears to be arbitrary and I'm not sure what purpose it serves, but it won't be noticeable from the street anyway.

Red Line Train Passing 1150 Ripley Pocket Park
A Red Line train passes the pocket park.
Like most new developments in downtown Silver Spring, both buildings on Ripley Street are required to have some sort of public open space on site. Here's the Solaire's pocket park, wedged between the building and the Red Line. The concrete pylons, whose wood accents and machine wheels recall the industrial buildings that used to line the train tracks. They also have inlaid metal panels with the Solaire's address on them, also playing off of the industrial theme. It's unclear whether the translucent canopies are meant for shade, because they're not very large and don't line up with the benches.

A bigger issue, however, is how well-used the space will be. Many pocket parks in downtown Silver Spring are so badly designed they're useless, but this park, along with another one being built at Eleven55 Ripley, appear to be both attractive and functional. It will also be adjacent to the Capital Crescent Trail when it's eventually extended to Silver Spring, so bikers and joggers might one day stop here to rest.

Open space is important in an urban district, but perhaps it would've been better if property owners could contribute land or funding to create one big park rather than a bunch of little ones. Pocket parks are great for sitting and eating your lunch, but they don't lend themselves to much else. There are some bigger parks with playgrounds and playing fields in the neighborhoods around downtown Silver Spring, but there are probably enough apartments being built downtown over the next few years to demand a park of their own.

Overall, the two new apartment buildings going up on Ripley Street should be a great addition to downtown Silver Spring. As I've written before, Silver Spring has been held back by buildings that are either unattractive or hostile to the pedestrian experience. Hopefully, the Ripley District will set the bar high for future development.

Check out this slideshow of the Ripley District under construction.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

wheaton will redevelop with or without b.f. saul

2004 vision of a redeveloped downtown Wheaton.
Unhappy with getting a smaller slice of downtown Wheaton than they originally hoped for, developer B.F. Saul has pulled out of the county's redevelopment scheme for the area. Residents impatient for new investment will be frustrated, but Wheaton's revival is already underway, and it'll continue with or without B.F. Saul.

Two years ago, County Executive Ike Leggett made an agreement with the Bethesda-based firm to redevelop several county-owned parcels in Wheaton's languishing downtown with apartments, shops, government offices and a hotel, along with a town square. The project would have over a million square feet of new development and be paid for with a mix of public and private funds.

Leggett and B.F. Saul hoped the project would give Wheaton a shot in the arm, bolstering local businesses while attracting additional development to the area. Though the project had a lot of community were supportive, the County Council balked at its size and cost.
Draft plan for downtown Wheaton, Winter 2011
B.F. Saul's plan for downtown Wheaton.
Most controversial was the $39.5 million price of building a platform over the Wheaton Metro station so B.F. Saul could build offices and a hotel on top. Noting that this was probably the most valuable site in the downtown, council economic analyst Jacob Sesker wondered why county should pay for it instead of the developer.

"Unlike a school or a train, a platform does not teach any child to read and does not take anyone to work," Sesker wrote in this report.

As an alternative, the council suggested spending $55 million for B.F. Saul to build a new headquarters for the Park and Planning Commission, a new town square and an underground parking garage on Parking Lot 13, located at Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue and considered to be the "heart" of downtown Wheaton. In April, they voted to approve a "compromise" proposal, which also included funds to study building over the Metro station in the future.

Not surprisingly, supporters of B.F. Saul's plan were upset. Blogger Wheaton Calling accused the council of "throwing a wrench" into the redevelopment process, while resident Henriot St. Gerard called the council's vote a "show of disrespect" to the community. It's likely that they're even more frustrated now that B.F. Saul walked away because they wanted a "larger parcel" for development.

However, the fact remains that Wheaton doesn't have a market for offices, at least not right now. Not only is Leggett and B.F. Saul's emphasis on office development risky, but premature. The downtowns of Silver Spring and Bethesda were retail destinations and population centers before they became office hubs, and it's safe to assume that Wheaton will follow suit.
New Wheaton Safeway Rendering
Projects like the Exchange, a new building across from the Wheaton Metro station, are being built without public assistance.
Besides, it's not like Wheaton isn't already attracting private investment. It just happens to be housing and shops. There are several residential and retail projects being built in or near downtown Wheaton right now without public funds. And in nearby Glenmont, arguably a more troubled area than Wheaton, developer JBG plans to build a massive mixed-use development without any subsidies.

The Metro station is the most valuable site in downtown Wheaton and thus has the most potential for profit, but it's also the most complicated part of the entire redevelopment. We could use public funds to help B.F. Saul build unwanted office space there today. Or we can wait and instead focus on other, less complex development sites in downtown Wheaton, such as the county's five surface parking lots.

Through a mix of policy incentives and limited subsidies, we can encourage the development of other uses on those properties, like government offices, housing, shops and restaurants, and even entertainment venues, as has been proposed before. This will generate tax revenue and build up Wheaton's reputation while creating demand for office space. And eventually, Wheaton will become such a desirable area that developers will want to build on top of the Metro station without government help.

The loss of B.F. Saul is a blow to the revitalization of downtown Wheaton, but it says more about them than it does about Wheaton. Investment is happening here, and in the coming years, we'll see a flood of new residents and new businesses in the area. While Montgomery County can and should encourage more development here, they should be judicious about how and where public funds are used.

Monday, July 9, 2012

teens, yuppies and immigrants: can we get them involved?

Young people are often underrepresented in local affairs, and they may not get involved unless something directly affects them. That's why Silver Spring teens Abigail Burman and Leah Muskin-Pierret have started a group called Next Generation Maryland, devoted to "mobilizing the youth vote in Maryland and helping progessive groups and teens connect with each other."

If those names sound familiar to you, it's because they successfully killed a proposal for a youth curfew last year after organizing opposition to it.

Next Generation Maryland's initial goals are to re-elect President Obama and to retain both the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students in Maryland to attend college, and the legalization of same-sex marriage, both of which will be put to a referendum this November.

Check out their website, where you can learn about the issues and pledge your support. You can also visit Next Generation Maryland on Tumblr and Facebook.

Storefronts & People, Carroll Avenue, Takoma Park
Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park, being laid to waste by young families with kids.
But what happens after the election? In a post on his blog, Takoma Park Councilmember Seth Grimes responds to a recent Gazette story on the lack of minority representation on the City Council. He argues that if Takoma Park wants diverse leadership, it needs to get more people involved in neighborhood associations and committees - the "farm teams" for elected positions, if you will.

"After all, engaged neighbors enrich the community, and they become community leaders and then council candidates, as local experience shows," he writes.

This is also a countywide issue, of course. Go to any open house or civic association meeting here and you'll often see a small group of faces over and over again. They have a right to be heard, but they don't always represent the views of all county residents, including but not limited to minority and immigrant communities.

How do we get them involved? Grimes suggests offering a stipend for sitting on city boards or running neighborhood associations to encourage folks with limited means to participate. He also notes that citizens need to be better informed about what's going on locally, but many aren't because the Gazette doesn't deliver to some Takoma Park's majority-minority neighborhoods.

Speaking of which: The Post finally realizes that the People's Republic may have lost its granola as young, affluent families move in. It'll be interesting to see if they get involved in local affairs, which would certainly add to the diversity of community groups.

I imagine that the remaining "activists" who call Silver Spring "commercial" were horrified when one of the families in the Post article said they couldn't tell it apart from Takoma Park. Most of them probably live in Mount Rainier now anyway. (A post on City-Data.com refers to "the hippie belt of suburbs just NE of DC" containing both Takoma Park and Mount Rainier. This is a good term, and I intend to use it all the time now.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

studio plaza meeting tomorrow/notes from the JUTP inbox

central green rendering
Rendering of proposed open space in Studio Plaza.
Tomorrow, come out to the Silver Spring Civic Building at 7pm for an informational meeting on Studio Plaza, a substantial development proposed for Fenton Village.

Located on Thayer Avenue between Fenton Street and Mayor Lane, Studio Plaza will eventually include over 600,000 square feet of housing, offices, shops and restaurants, a hotel and a 1/3-acre public park. Monday's meeting will discuss the project's first phase, which includes 415 apartments, 10,000 square feet of retail, and an underground garage to replace the parking lot currently on the site today.

Could this happen in Silver Spring? Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.
Studio Plaza was first proposed in 2006 as a much smaller project along Thayer Avenue; in 2009, developer Bill Hillerson approached the county about redeveloping the adjacent Public Parking Lot 3. By combining the properties, Hillerson could not only create a larger project but build two new through-streets and a public park. The current iteration of Studio Plaza, now covering five acres, was approved by the Planning Board in 2009. A one-story building on Thayer were demolished in 2010 and the site has been empty ever since.

I've written before that the project will continue the revival of downtown Silver Spring, injecting Fenton Village with new residents, businesses and open space. I'm particularly excited by the new streets, one of which will be for pedestrians only. They're narrow and will be lined with shops, giving Studio Plaza the chance to create an intimate urban space similar to Bethesda Lane in downtown Bethesda.

Check out the full meeting announcement with more details about the project. The meeting's at 7pm at the Civic Building, located at Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street.

Also, here are a few updates from around East County I found in the JUTP inbox:
Gingold at last year's Flower Avenue Holiday Market.

- If you're tired of your current yarn, Sarah Gingold has a solution for you.

The proprietor of Think Outside the Store, a "wearable art studio" located in downtown Silver Spring, will host a Yarn Swap July 21 from 12 to 3pm at the studio, located at 816 Thayer Ave. Think Outside the Store currently holds workshops on sewing and jewelry making, but they're expanding into what Gingold calls the "yarn arts," like knitting and crocheting.

For $5 (or free with a donation of knitting needles or other tools),  you'll be able to donate or pick up as much yarn as you like, while yarn artist Amina Ahmad will be there to show all the cool things you can do with leftover yarn.

For more info, check out this Facebook page.

- Finally: Do you need friends? So did Peng Wu, a busy lawyer living just across the D.C. line who wanted to meet people outside of work. That's why he started Hang Out DC, a social network for those who want to "make friends without benefits."

"DC is such a transitory city," writes Peng in an e-mail to JUTP. I hope that a platform that helps people connect face-to-face and make friends . . . would be well-received."

Hang Out DC already has 200 members and is set to launch this summer. Check out their website (linked above) or you can visit them on Twitter.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

MoCo's McMansions may need to find a new purpose

McMansion, Meadowsweet Lane, Sandy Spring
The future of this Sandy Spring McMansion is in question.

Skeptics of Montgomery County's proposal to allow homeowners to build accessory apartments more easily claim it will change or harm single-family neighborhoods. But recent trends in housing suggest that those neighborhoods will change anyway.

Slightly less than half of Montgomery County households live in single-family homes today, and pretty soon they may no longer be the most common type of house in the county. According to the 2010 American Community Survey, a sort of yearly census, just 49.9% of the county's 353,000 households live in single-family homes. Another 31% live in apartments or condominiums, while the remaining 19% live in townhomes or duplexes.

Demand for big suburban houses or "McMansions" has waned in recent years, due to their high cost and shrinking households. Young adults aren't interested in them, either. Even those who prefer single-family homes would take a smaller house or a townhouse to be closer to jobs and amenities.

As a result, newly built homes are more likely to be apartments or townhomes. Data from the MoCo Planning Department shows that of 29,000 homes approved for construction here in the coming years, just 7,900 or 27% of them will be single-family homes. Those houses are likely to be smaller as well.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of McMansions in Montgomery County: the 2010 ACS says that one-fourth of MoCo homes have nine or more rooms. What will happen to them? These houses will have to adapt to living arrangements they were't built for, and the single-family neighborhood as we know it may have to change as well.

Rainbow Mansion
Rainbow Mansion. Photo by dweekly on Flickr.

Some of these big houses might attract single adults, who find they can afford a nicer home if they share it with other people. Group houses aren't new to Montgomery County; in fact, they're legal if there's fewer than 5 unrelated adults in the same house. But they do present an opportunity to create small "intentional communities," where residents seek not only a common roof but a common purpose as well.

Take Rainbow Mansion, a 5,000-square-foot home in Silicon Valley home to a group of twentysomething tech workers. The home's founders describe themselves as "intentional community of driven, international, passionate, and socially conscious people trying to change the world":
It was more than just a luxury home full of brilliant young minds . . . The Rainbow Mansion was an experiment in a new type of cohabitation. The house began hosting hackathons and salons in its library, inviting Silicon Valley’s best and brightest to participate. “Right away it set itself in motion,” [co-founder Jessy Kate] Schingler says. “It had this sort of accidental mystique about it.”
A house that was probably built for a nuclear family has instead become the nucleus of a larger community. Of course, Montgomery County isn't Silicon Valley. But it's easy for me to imagine something like Rainbow Mansion appearing in a house near the Great Seneca Science Corridor one day. After all, there are over 500,000 jobs in MoCo, and young adults who seek the city life but work in Gaithersburg will probably live nearby rather than commute from the District.

Lennar NextGen Home Elevation
A NextGen home in South Carolina. Image from Lennar's website.

Other large homes may still draw families, but they'll be extended, multi-generational families, with grandparents, adult children, and other relatives and friends. They're living together to share expenses but may want some level of privacy and autonomy.

Today, MoCo's extended families can apply to build a "Registered Living Unit" in their home, basically an accessory apartment for a relative or home employee who lives there rent-free. There are only about 500 of these in the county today, but as multi-generational families become more common, we may see more of them.

Even home builders are picking up on the trend, adding apartments for extended family in new homes. Noting that nearly a third of American families have "doubled up" with relatives or friends, national builder Lennar Homes recently introduced a design called the "NextGen" home.

Lennar NextGen Home Plan
Floorplan of a NextGen home in South Carolina, with separate apartment highlighted in blue. Image from Lennar's website.

Called a "home within a home," the NextGen home looks like a typical single-family house on the outside, but inside is a separate apartment with its own private entrance, kitchen, and bathroom. Lennar hopes it'll be popular with immigrant families in which multiple generations live together.

While these homes are only being built in a handful of states like South Carolina and California, they have yet to make an appearance in the D.C. area. But Montgomery County's growing immigrant population suggests there may be a market for homes like this here.

For much of the 20th century, Montgomery County was known for big houses, great schools and affluent families. It's not surprising that civic groups call single-family neighborhoods the "backbone" of the county. While those neighborhoods may not be going away anytime soon, changing trends and changing demographics suggest they may look quite different in the future.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

lights out (and the sisyphean task of blogging)

I apologize for not posting already this week. Like many of you, we lost power and Internet at JUTP headquarters in Calverton for much of the weekend. And since the lights came back on here, I've been focusing on the ongoing job search and another project I'm working on in Long Branch. (Some of you might already know about that, but I'll have more details in the next few days.)

In the meantime, check out this Washington Post story about the challenges of blogging, including interviews with several great D.C. bloggers and myself:
With so many blogs out there, you’ve got to have a fresh angle to get readers to notice you, said Dan Reed, who writes the Silver Spring blog Just Up the Pike. “Bring them something they don’t already have,” he said. Reed includes commentary about urban planning to give his posts a special angle.
Not everyone was amused by the article, which I admit was a little hyperbolic. Neighborhood blogging isn't a "struggle," it's something that people do when they care about their community and have something to say about it. If you're lucky, people will read what you say or you might be able to make a little money from it.

I like the point Petworthies makes, which is that bloggers often pick up the slack from newspapers who reduce their local coverage to save money. Editorial or original news-gathering content, whether in a newspaper or a blog, is expensive to produce, requiring time, money, or both. So I don't think bloggers are "complaining" by highlighting the effort they put in, but rather calling attention to the fact that local news coverage is lacking, despite its benefits to a given community. 

Anyway: I've been posting updates about the derecho storm (with lots of help from You, The Reader) on JUTP's Facebook or Twitter pages. As always, check them both out for stuff that doesn't always make it to the blog.