Friday, September 28, 2012

roundtable on civic engagement discusses social media, changing demographics

20120506_1165 Kefa Cafe
Kefa Café on Bonifant Street. (Space 7:10 is the room on the left.)

About a dozen people came out to "Unusual Suspects: Seeking Inclusive Civic Engagement in Silver Spring," a community roundtable last Friday evening hosted by myself and Amy Kincaid, who graciously offered us the use of Space 7:10 at Kefa Café on Bonifant Street. That may not sound like much, but in a space this small, that's a full house.

Inspired by a blog post by Takoma Park City Councilmember Seth Grimes, the event provided a lively discussion on how to get often-underrepresented groups, like young people and immigrants, involved in local affairs. Our featured guests were David Moon, a political strategist who writes the blog Maryland Juice, and Abigail Burman, co-founder of Stand Up to the Montgomery County Curfew, which successfully defeated a proposed youth curfew last year.

We also enjoyed the company of residents and local community leaders, including Jarrett Smith, the City of Takoma Park's first black councilmember only current black councilmember; Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the Silver Spring Regional Services Center; Bernice North, who sits on the Silver Spring Citizens' Advisory Board; and Bahia Akerele, who owns On the Purple Couch, a recently-opened consignment store on Bonifant Street.

In 2009, Moon engineered the successful campaign of County Councilmember Nancy Navarro, the first Latina woman elected to the council. He spoke about the major demographic shift occurring in Montgomery County, which became majority-minority in the 2010 Census. The groundswell of support for the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants who attended high school in Maryland to pay in-state tuition at public colleges, represents the "coming out" of minority and immigrant communities, he said.

The presence of people from different ethnicities or backgrounds affects the political discourse, Moon argued. "You have issues being discussed on the County Council just because there's a Latino member," he said.

Youth Curfew Petition, July 30
Burman (third from right) and fellow campaigners collected signatures in opposition to the curfew proposal last summer in downtown Silver Spring. 

Burman, who will be attending Oxford University in England this fall, noted the challenge of reaching out to young people, who can't vote and are often disengaged in local politics. "Constituencies that are underrepresented . . . don't think they're going to be listened to," she said. Nonetheless, she found the anti-curfew campaign shared common ground with unexpected allies, like a local chapter of the Tea Party, which saw the curfew proposal as an example of government overreach.

The best way to change the conversation in their favor, Burman realized, was "just showing up." Being a presence at public hearings and committee meetings was a way to "flip expectations" of how involved young people could be, she said.

Of course, not everyone has the time, the means or the wherewithal to go to Rockville and sit through lots of meetings, effectively barring them from participating in local government. Many in attendance suggested that officials use social media, like Facebook, Twitter and blogs, to reach out. After all, many constituents and office-holders alike already use those platforms to voice opinions or talk about current issues.

One suggestion was that online comments be made part of the public record. To do that at the County Council now, for instance, you can write a letter, write an e-mail (which gets printed out), or testify at a hearing and submit fifteen hard copies of your testimony. This ensures that there's a written record of public input, with addresses and identifying information that may not always be identifiable in a Facebook comment. But if the Library of Congress can archive Tweets for research, can't the County Council use them to register public concerns on higher tax rates?

Online or off, participants stressed the importance of bringing people together so they can be heard. Both Moon and Burman said they'd found success in "maintaining a constant coalition of representation" for disenfranchised groups, which not only gets their issues heard but allows "best practices" in organizing or campaigning to be passed down from one generation to another.

While the meeting didn't result in any breakthroughs, it was a great opportunity to brainstorm ideas and get interesting people to meet with and talk to each other. It's also just one of many events hosted by Space 7:10, which range from art exhibitions to live performances to a salon series. Check out their website for information on what's happening there in the future. (Hopefully, if Amy will have me again, I'll get to organize another roundtable. Fingers crossed!)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

it's time to dump the "city vs. suburbs" complaint

World Cup Fever On Ellsworth
Downtown Silver Spring, a symbol of white flight?
In a recent column for Salon, Will Doig laments the "invasion" of new, suburban downtowns that he calls a symbol of white flight. But "city" and "suburb" aren't as clear-cut as he makes it out to be, nor should suburban town centers be anything to worry about.

Doig cites a recent report from George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger on the growth of "walkable urban places," or "WalkUPs," in the DC area. The study identifies 43 WalkUPs in the region, more than half of which aren't in the District. To Doig, this is bad news:
Fact: People want to live in walkable urban places. Problem: Walkable urban places sometimes have attributes (bad schools, high costs, crime) that people don't like. Solution: Build new walkable urban places out in the suburbs. Result: A whole new type of place that offers the city experience without the actual city.
Doig falls prey to the same mistake a lot of writers make on urban issues. For starters, he presents "city" and "suburb" as mutually exclusive entities with no middle ground. A place can either be like Doig's former neighborhood, Columbia Heights in the District, or Reston Town Center in Northern Virginia. One represents "urban authenticity" where "scrappy entrepreneuralism and creativity" can occur, the other's a "jury-rigged" "urban simulacra" that's just a "marketing tool."

The Heights & Target reston-town-center-fixed
Columbia Heights: "Urban authenticity"? Photo by the author.Reston Town Center: "Urban simulacra"? Photo by jsprague2020 on Flickr.
This false dichotomy doesn't allow a middle ground. It says that a place like Alexandria, which predates the District, is "a suburb" because it's outside the city limits. The reality is that development patterns usually don't conform to municipal boundaries, rendering terms like "city" and "suburb" meaningless.

Just look at Eastern Avenue, which forms part of the border between the District and Montgomery County. On the District side are single-family homes with leafy yards, while across the street in Maryland in "suburban" Silver Spring are high-rise apartment towers. Take a few more steps into Maryland and you'll find the punk houses, dive bars and ethnic restaurants that Doig would call emblems of urban grit and authenticity.

Doig's other mistake is to conflate "suburb" with "wealthy and white." Greater Washington may be home to 7 of the nation's wealthiest counties, but we're also one of the country's most diverse regions. Our suburban downtowns don't represent white flight; in fact, whites are moving into the city.

Bombay & Quarry House
The Quarry House Tavern (shown in 2006), a dive bar below an Indian restaurant in "contrived" downtown Silver Spring.  Photo by katmere on Flickr.
Meanwhile, 4 of the suburban counties are now majority minority, with others to soon follow. Take a walk in the downtowns of communities like Germantown, Wheaton or Annandale, and you're as likely, if not more, to see Indians, Salvadorans or Koreans as you are whites. And we're not alone: integrated, diverse suburbs are are now common across the country.

It's these changes, not white flight, that will drive the creation of more suburban downtowns in the future. A study from University of Maryland professor Dr. Shenglin Chang found that many Asian and Latino immigrants are drawn to these places, which combine the idyllic suburban lifestyle America is known for around the world with the conveniences and community life they were accustomed to at home.

That said, suburban downtowns aren't perfect. Doig rightly points out that many have serious issues with urban design, can be difficult to reach without a car, and often cater to the affluent. These issues can and should be corrected.

However, writing these places off as "inauthentic" is not only unfair but lazy. As Scott Doyon on the Placemakers blog notes, this suggests that the only "authentic" suburban places are the strip malls and cul-de-sacs that fit our mental stereotypes. Not only is that a disservice to the people who might actually enjoy places like Reston Town Center, but it ignores power these places have to make better communities.

Moonlight Trail Drive
An "authentic" suburban street, lined with two-car garages and trim lawns. Photo by the author.
Suburban downtowns, however flawed they may be, serve as a public realm for gathering and even protesting, even when they're privately owned. They also can be what I call "Green Day urbanism," a sort of introduction to urbanism. Visiting a place like downtown Silver Spring isn't just about buying shoes, but taking a walk instead of getting in the car, being exposed to different kinds of people, and participating in a larger community.

These places won't be new and pristine forever. With time, they'll mature and evolve. In the 1930's, a developer in Princeton, New Jersey basically built a downtown from scratch in the 1930's, but today it's a beloved part of the city.

As Dan Malouff (who was quoted extensively in the article) points out, the demand for "walkable urban" places far outstrips the supply of existing walkable urban places, necessitating the creation of more of them. The DC area and America as a whole continues to grow, and many of them will choose to live in the suburbs for a variety of reasons. Our country may be undergoing an "urban renaissance," but much of it will happen beyond the city line.

The "city versus suburbs" slant is tired and inaccurate. It's time we got rid of it and instead focused on whether we're creating good places, no matter what side of Eastern Avenue or the Potomac River they're on.

Friday, September 21, 2012

introducing the flower theatre project

The Flower Theatre in 1962. Photo from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

For years, the Flower Theatre in Long Branch has sat empty. How can we bring it back to life? I'd like to introduce the Flower Theatre Project, which seeks to find a socially and economically sustainable way to restore the Flower Theatre as an anchor for the Long Branch community and a catalyst for investment and revitalization.

In August, a group of residents, businesspeople, community organizers, planners, architects and real estate professionals came together at Fenton Street Market for a charrette, or idea-generating workshop, to brainstorm ways it could be brought back to life. We got a lot of great ideas and a clear message from the community that this space can't sit idle anymore.

Since then, we've done a thorough demographic analysis of the neighborhood, and looked at past and ongoing planning efforts in Long Branch to see what others have learned. We've explored the feasibility of each of the concepts proposed at the charrette, looking at everything from parking requirements to local competition to the difficulty of adapting a 60-year-old Art Deco movie theatre. The results of our research can be found in this 17-page report titled "Back in Bloom: Starting a Conversation about Revitalizing the Flower Theatre."

The Flower Theatre Project is still in its infancy. Our next step is to reach out to local groups and organizations, like the Long Branch Business League, to build community support for our goals. We also seek to begin a conversation with the owner, Harvey Property Management of Bethesda, in the hopes of finding a use for this space that benefits them as well as the neighborhood.

Bringing the Flower Theatre back to life is one way we can make Long Branch a stronger, safer, more prosperous community. I hope you'll join us. If you're interested in helping out or have any questions, shoot an email to Dan Reed at justupthepike at gmail dot com.

DOWNLOAD "Back in Bloom," our report on the Flower Theatre

Flower Theatre written up in the Takoma Park Newsletter

JUTP article on the history of the Flower Theatre and introducing the charrette

Monday, September 17, 2012

consensus to "save burtonsville," disagreement over how and where

Open Land North of Burtonsville Village Center
MoCo planners want to keep this land rural, but its owners want to build houses there.
Six years after a bypass carried traffic out of town, Burtonsville's once-thriving village center is now 70% vacant. Everyone agrees that it needs more people to survive, but where new development should occur to house those people is up for debate.

"The problem with Burtonsville," says Tom Norris in a lengthy phone interview, is that "there's no residential core. There's no people there. There's zero apartments, zero townhouses, zero highrises. That's what it needs to be a town."

Norris owns 11 acres of land along Old Columbia Pike behind the Burtonsville Crossing Shopping Center, which has been losing tenants for years and is now mostly empty. Pepino's Italian Kitchen, one of the few who stayed behind, has a big banner reading "We're Still Here."

The way to get business back to the area, Norris says, is more people. Norris and adjacent property owners have formed a group called the Committee to Save Burtonsville. They say that pooling their land, which totals 40 acres, and building as many as 230 homes on it could be "the solution" for Burtonsville's ailing village center.

Meanwhile, county planners have their own ideas. Next week, they're submitting a plan to the County Council called the Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan, which would allow property owners in the village center to build housing and offices alongside their shops.
'We're Still Here'
Pepino's tries to lure customers back to Burtonsville Crossing, now mostly empty.

Burtonsville Crossing could be redeveloped as a new, mixed-use neighborhood. Planner Kristin O'Connor told Colesville Patch last month that owner Edens, which is building a large mixed-use development in Fairfax County called the Mosaic District, is open to the idea. The plan could generate as many as 600 new homes in the area, but many properties including Norris's would remain under Rural Cluster zoning, which allows just one house per 5 acres.

Norris isn't convinced that new homes will get built at Burtonsville Crossing anytime soon. He accuses the county for perpetuating a "false representation" of his land. "It's obvious to the most uneducated person . . . that this 40 acres is no longer in the rural area," he says. "It's surrounded by two highways and shopping centers and four-story office buildings."

A petition supporting the concept has 52 signatures and shopkeepers at Burtonsville Crossing are on board, says Norris. "We want Burtonsville to be developed and look nice. We want Burtonsville to look like Maple Lawn!" he says, referring to the New Urbanist planned community being built a few miles north in Howard County.
Proposed Townhouse Development in Burtonsville Village Center
One of two proposals for how the land could be developed. Image from the Committee to Save Burtonsville.

Nonetheless, previous attempts to have the land rezoned for condominiums and senior housing on his property have been met with substantial opposition from the community. To Norris, they're holding Burtonsville back. "These planners and anti-growth zealots have ruined the town," he says. "They're making it seem like everybody wants a big field next to the big shopping center."

Residents say that big field helps protect the nearby Patuxent River, whose Rocky Gorge Reservoir provides drinking water for 650,000 people in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. "People came here for the woods, the land," says Don Chamberlin, who lives on Dustin Road. "They have very stringent building requirements and they accept that to protect the water supply."

Chamberlin and his neighbor Jim Putman are driving me down the narrow, twisty roads that serve the fewer than 100 homes located north of the village center. They're part of the Patuxent Watershed Protective Association, formed by residents living near the reservoir. The group has opposed other developments that they fear could hurt the water supply, and they feel the same about Norris's plan.

They worry the development could cause runoff and increase the potential for a sewer failure polluting the river, which would be compounded by 230 new homes connecting to the sewer system. Last summer, a ruptured pipe in Baltimore County dumped millions of gallons of sewage into the Patapsco River.

"You gotta have a lot of driveways and rooftops" in a development like the one Norris proposes, notes Putman. "Just think of the auto pollutants."
Flooding Caused by New 29 Construction, Amina Drive
Local streams have been overwhelmed with runoff from construction of the Burtonsville Bypass.

The land drops over 200 feet before reaching the Patuxent, meaning that any refuse or pollutants would roll right into the river. The construction of the Burtonsville Bypass, Chamberlin notes, has already overwhelmed local streams with runoff. And once the river is fouled, he says, it's hard to undo.

"You cannot unpollute a reservoir," says Chamberlin. "They move very slowly. The easiest way to solve this damn problem is not to create it."

Besides, they argue, Norris's plan won't provide enough customers to turn around a 70% vacancy rate in Burtonsville. "The primary cause of business going away was the [bypass]," says Chamberlin. "You are no longer a pass-through. You must have something to make people come."

Chamberlin and Putman are satisfied with the results of the Burtonsville Crossroads plan, having been involved throughout the planning process. ""There were times I got impatient 'cause it went so slow," says Chamberlin. "But they did a professional job, and they were persuaded by the same science I used."

Norris isn't convinced, saying the PWPA is anti-development. "They would link up with Stuart Rochester's group," he says, referring to the local civic activist who passed away in 2009, "and just block any development, any housing, everything was no, no, no. This group is just hanging in there and they'd come in and say 'You have to protect the reservoir.'"

"People need jobs, merchants need customers, communities need tax revenue," he adds. "If a town doesn't have a residential core, it's not a town."
Down Midtown Road
Many Burtonsville residents point to Maple Lawn, being built a few miles north, as what they'd like their town to become.

Nonetheless, Chamberlin insists that Burtonsville can redevelop without encroaching on the reservoir. "We all want to see Burtonsville succeed. But there's an environmental price we cannot pay," he says. "To propose that the only solution for Burtonsville is to harm the water supply makes no sense to me."

The County Council will hold a public hearing on the Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan next Thursday, September 20 at 7:30pm. After that, the council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee will meet throughout October to study the plan in further detail.

Friday, September 14, 2012

community roundtable on civic engagement next week

20120506_1165 Kefa Cafe
Kefa Café, where we're hosting our Community Roundtable. (Space 7:10 is under the "Gelato!" sign.)
Back in July, I wrote a post on the challenges of engaging often underrepresented groups, like young people and immigrants, in local affairs. We can get them involved with the right issue, like last year's curfew debate, but as Takoma Park City Councilmember Seth Grimes points out, many folks just don't have the the time, the money or the wherewithal to participate in a citizens' advisory board or a public hearing.

How can we do better? I'm joining up with Amy Kincaid, the curator of Space 7:10 at Kefa Café in downtown Silver Spring, to talk it out. Next Friday from 6:30 to 8:30pm, we're hosting a community roundtable called "Unusual Suspects: Seeking Inclusive Civic Engagement in Silver Spring."

It's an intimate discussion; as those who've been to Space 7:10 know, it's the size of a large kitchen cabinet. Nonetheless, we've invited some local community leaders and activists, like Abigail Burman from Stand Up to the MoCo Curfew and David Moon from Maryland Juice to talk about their successes and how we can make a more inclusive decision-making process.

Come out and enjoy Kefa's awesome coffee and treats. We look forward to seeing you there! For more information, visit Space 7:10's website or email me at justupthepike at gmail dot com.

"Unusual Suspects: Seeking Inclusive Civic Engagement in Silver Spring"
Friday, September 21
6:30 to 8:30pm
Space 7:10 at Kefa Café
963 Bonifant Street (at Georgia Avenue)
Downtown Silver Spring

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

my testimony from last night's hearing on accessory apartments

Kent Square at Selby, Kentlands
An accessory apartment over a garage in Kentlands.
You might notice that the blog looks a little different today. I'm temporarily switching back from Blogger's Dynamic Views because even though it looked pretty, many readers said it was hard to use on certain platforms and difficult to comment on. It also allows me to embed the Storify thing below! Let me know what you think.

Last night, Montgomery County residents spoke out on a proposal that would make it easier for homeowners to add "accessory apartments" to their homes. I've written before that this would help homeowners and renters alike find housing they could afford. I live-tweeted the hearing along with the Action Committee for Transit and WeAreMoCo, Below are a selection of our tweets (and reactions) below, followed by my testimony:

My name is Dan Reed. I’m twenty-four, I recently earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and I live with my parents in Silver Spring. I’d like to testify in support of ZTA 12-11, Accessory Apartments.

When this proposal came before the Planning Board a few months ago, some said accessory apartments would “devastate” single-family neighborhoods and “lead to middle class flight.” And they’re right. If we ignore our housing needs to appease folks who want to pretend that all households here still look like Leave It To Beaver, our middle class won’t be able to afford to live here.

Montgomery County is growing, it’s a regional job center, but the median home value is nearly $500,000. Accessory apartments can bring homeowners extra income to help cover the mortgage and give renters a wider choice of housing options at prices they can afford. As homes get bigger while households get smaller, they allow us to house new residents almost invisibly. A childless couple in a four-bedroom house who carves out an apartment for an unrelated tenant isn’t “changing” a neighborhood – it’s bringing it back to the occupancy it was built for.

Given, there are legitimate concerns about illegal accessory units, which can be dangerous for tenants, blight on neighborhoods, and a burden for county service providers. But the current system forces homeowners to defend their financial or household situation to often-hostile neighbors. If I were a homeowner living next to people who were convinced that my basement apartment would turn our neighborhood into a ghetto, I’d take the illegal route too.

The solution isn’t to make it harder to add accessory units, but to create a streamlined approval process that incentivizes doing the right thing – building units that are safe, livable and attractive – through clear design guidelines, examples of which can be found in cities like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. I’d even make it easier to build these units in or near transit stations like at Silver Spring or even Chevy Chase, where housing is already in demand. Accessory apartments in these places, as opposed to elsewhere, could allow tenants to drive less or not have a car at all, reducing their impact on traffic.

I honestly wonder what “devastation” opponents of this bill are expecting. I can’t vouch for all future tenants, but I bet many will look like me: twenty-four years old, with a degree and a career, with plenty of good references, who doesn’t throw wild parties and keeps a tidy home. So, for those of you who oppose this bill, I ask you: Wouldn’t you want me living in your neighborhood?

I urge the Council to pass ZTA 12-11. It’s time we give homeowners and renters alike the freedom to live where they want and within their means.

Monday, September 10, 2012

what's up the pike: four on the floor

Sarbanes Transit Center Under Construction, May 2012
The Transit Center looks almost done . . . or is it?
Is your calendar looking empty? Are you seeking more planning-related activities in your life? These four upcoming events might be right up your alley:

TONIGHT: After years of delays, the Silver Spring Transit Center may or may not be finished soon. The county's even two months behind in announcing when it'll be done. That may change tonight when David Dise, director of the county's Department of General Services, speaks at this month's Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board meeting. Get your questions answered at 7pm in the Civic Building.

TOMORROW: The County Council holds a public hearing on a proposed bill that would make it easier to build "accessory apartments" or "granny flats" in single-family homes. I've written before that accessory apartments could be a boon for MoCo, giving homeowners a new source of income, helping to house folks just starting out, and even responding to new housing trends. The hearing's at 7:30pm at the Council Office Building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. If you'd like to add your two cents, call 240/777-7803 to sign up or check out this page for more information.

NEXT WEEK: The County Council holds another public hearing to collect feedback on the Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan, the latest attempt by county planners to revitalize Burtonsville's village center. There are plenty of things to like about the plan, though there's a brewing controversy about one part of it that we'll talk about more tomorrow. This public hearing's at 7:30pm next Thursday, September 20. To sign up to speak, call the number listed above.

NEXT MONTH: It's safe to assume that if you read this blog, you're at least a little interested in planning issues. Do you want to learn more? Then come out to Planning Smarter, an open house hosted by the Montgomery County Planning Department. You'll get to tour the Fortress of Planning, see the "latest cool projects" (their words, not mine) county planners are working on, and even meet a real-life planner! While you're plumbing the depths of local government, the kids can build a city of their own using cardboard boxes. (No word yet on whether the Box City will be subject to the county's zoning update.)

That open house will be from 10am to 1pm on Saturday, October 6 at the aforementioned Fortress of Planning, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring.

study celebrates silver spring for redeveloping without gentrification

World Cup Fever On Ellsworth
Downtown Silver Spring has managed to stay diverse despite substantial new development.
After decades of disinvestment and suburban flight, the D.C. area's urban neighborhoods are now driving the local economy, says a study from George Washington University professor Chris Leinberger. Though many have trouble being economically successful and diverse, it calls Silver Spring an example of how to do both.

The report, titled DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call, builds on Leinberger's previous research drawing a connection between "walkable urban places" and economic success. It vindicates smart growth policies which have made so-called WalkUPs the preferred choice for many residents, shoppers and businesses. "What was perceived as a niche market is becoming the market," Leinberger says.

Leinberger identifies include 43 WalkUPs in the region, specifically "regionally significant" places with a lot of jobs, that either already have urban characteristics or the "intention" to create them in the future. These places are distinct from "drivable suburban" places, which as their name suggests are built around the car. Leinberger then ranks each of the WalkUPs using indicators of economic activity and social equity.
Leinberger identifies 43 "walkable urban places," or "WalkUPs," in Greater Washington.
However, the study doesn't automatically equate "urban" with "center city," as most of the WalkUPs are outside of the District. The WalkUPs fall into six categories, ranging from "downtown" and "urban commercial" neighborhoods in the District to "suburban town centers" and "greenfield" communities outside of the city. "Suburban" WalkUPs include historic towns, like Alexandria and Frederick, that later became suburbs, and newer communities like Tysons Corner that are being "retrofitted" with more urban features.

Jonathan O'Connell's recent column in the Post questioned whether you can "export" city life to the suburbs, with some calling them "plastic" or "artificial." But as Leinberger points out, there's a growing consensus that the recession and demographic shifts will change the way we arrange our lives and our communities. As a result, the demand for urban living has surfaced outside of center city neighborhoods. If done well, and with the proper support, suburban town centers can become cherished, authentic places and integral parts of Greater Washington's urban ecosystem.

WalkUPs by economic and social rank. Image by David Alpert.
To determine a WalkUP's success, Leinberger uses economic and social indicators to rank each one as "Copper," "Silver", "Gold" and "Platinum." The study notes a strong correlation between a community's economic performance and its walkscore, job density and education levels. Though they take up less than 1% of the land in Greater Washington, WalkUPs already have a third of the region's jobs. They contain nearly half of the region's "income properties," or offices, apartments, hotels and retail space, up from just a quarter in 1992. Office rents and home values in WalkUPs are each over 70% higher than elsewhere in the region. Not surprisingly, WalkUPs tend to contribute more in tax revenues than the amount of land they consume.

Meanwhile, social equity performance was measured based on housing and transportation costs, unemployment levels, racial diversity, and transit accessibility. Over three-quarters of the WalkUPs are close to Metro stations, reducing transportation costs, but housing is often far more expensive. The study found that many economically successful WalkUPs, like Georgetown, often failed to create or sustain a diverse population. Almost all of the WalkUPs are located within Greater Washington's affluent "favored quarter," generally to the northwest of the city. They're far from much of the region's working class, many of whom lack cars and must endure long transit rides to job centers.

WalkUPs are appearing outside of the "favored quarter," bringing jobs and other amenities closer to low-income households. While some are successful, others like University Town Center and Wheaton have struggled to develop. Leinberger highlights Silver Spring for seeking economic and social parity. It "walks the tightrope in attempting to achieve higher economic returns without gentrifying and detracting from its unique and diverse character," he notes.
Downtown Bethesda is one of 43 "walkable urban places" in Greater Washington. Photo by eddie_welker on Flickr.
To ensure the future economic success and social cohesion of the WalkUPs, Leinberger calls for public policies that direct more development to them through zoning and investment in infrastructure, like more pedestrian-friendly streets. In addition, he says more must be done to provide affordable and workforce housing in WalkUPs, both through subsidies and simply building more housing to meet the demand. He also stresses the importance of building neighborhood support for walkable urban development, which happened in White Flint.

While The WalkUp Wake-Up Call is encouraging to anyone who cares about creating great urban neighborhoods, many of the trends Leinberger highlights have taken hold only in the past few years. Some of the places in the study may be years or decades from becoming truly walkable or urban; meanwhile, a large portion of the region's development still takes places on the suburban fringe, where it's less sustainable. On top of that, the benefits of pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development have yet to reach the people who need it the most. The real "wake-up call" isn't about how far we've come, but how far we still have to go.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

most growth happening in "walkable urban" neighborhoods

Looking Back Towards Ellsworth
People want "walkable urban" places like this, and developers are responding.
In recent years, apartment and office towers have sprouted up around Greater Washington in inner-city neighborhoods and suburban town centers alike. According to a new report from LOCUS, a smart growth advocacy group, these "walkable urban" places are actually driving the region's growth.

The report won't be released until a conference on the future of D.C.-area real estate to be held next week, but the Wall Street Journal has a preview:
Since 2009, these walkable locations in the Washington area have seen 42% of new apartment development, up dramatically from 19% between 2000 and 2008, and 12% during the 1990s. A similar change was seen for offices, as 59% of the space delivered since 2009 was in these areas, up from 49% between 2000 and 2008 and 38% in the 1990s . . .

To Mr. Leinberger, a developer himself, the shift for apartments and offices is a function of the market: Developers are getting higher rents in denser areas, leading to rising values compared with typical suburban-style development. “That’s the market telling you, dramatically, build more of this stuff,” Mr. Leinberger said. “There’s pent-up demand for walkable urban.”
43 "regionally significant" neighborhoods where development is concentrated. Map from the Atlantic Cities.
The 43 "walkable urban" places Leinberger identifies include everything from Columbia Heights in the District to inner suburbs like downtown Silver Spring and even satellite cities like downtown Frederick. As the Atlantic Cities notes, these "walkable urban" places take up less than 1 percent of the land in Greater Washington but already have a third of the region's jobs.

Whether or not you personally want to live in an urban neighborhood, this report is good news. Increased demand to build in areas with existing infrastructure can reinvigorate struggling communities. It can also save local governments a tremendous amount of money compared to development on the fringe where roads, utility lines, and schools may not already exist.

We know that there's an unmet demand for housing in neighborhoods with public transit and other amenities within an easy walk, so those people could get the opportunity to live in the kind of communities they want. Meanwhile, those who prefer a suburban or rural lifestyle will be able to have that in communities that may see reduced development pressure in the coming years. And as Leinberger points out, the glut of large houses in suburban areas built in recent years means that they'll be more affordable as well.

The challenge, then, is ensuring that everyone who wants to live in a "walkable urban" place gets the opportunity to do so. These neighborhoods are likely to have housing costs, and though they're often offset by low transportation costs, we have to make sure that renters and homeowners alike aren't priced out, even when there's substantial neighborhood opposition to new housing.

Five Skater Boys, All Talking But Not To Each Other, On Chestertown Street
Kids hanging out in Kentlands, a "walkable urban" neighborhood in Gaithersburg.
It's also important to make sure that our urban neighborhoods are the best they can be. We need to make sure they get high-quality public spaces that make up for the lack of private space and allow people to come together. The region's towns, cities and counties would do well to follow the District's lead and get developers and police officers together to ensure that new neighborhoods are designed for safety.

We also have to ensure that people of all ages, not just young adults, are welcome in our urban neighborhoods. These places have lots of potential benefits for kids, but only if they have the right amenities to draw families who may otherwise look to suburban areas.

Greater Washington isn't the only region in North America that's moving towards a more urban future, but it's probably the furthest along in shifting growth to urban places instead of suburban ones. Hopefully, this report will serve as a wake-up call to both the potential our area has and the challenges it will face.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

a fence won't make greencastle lakes safer

Vandalized 'New Fence' Sign
A sign in Greencastle Lakes announcing the proposed fence was vandalized.
To discourage crime and loitering, residents of Greencastle Lakes in Burtonsville want to build a mile-long fence around their subdivision. However, neighboring communities say it'll cut them off from public transit, and the fence may not really make the area any safer.

Located on Greencastle Road east of Columbia Pike, Greencastle Lakes was built in the early 1980's on the former Silver Spring Golf & Country Club. The sprawling planned community has many private amenities, including a network of trails, a clubhouse and a pool. It's shaped like a horseshoe, and in the middle is Castle Boulevard, a nearly mile-long cul-de-sac lined with older apartment and townhouse complexes that's gained a reputation for crime. The two communities are divided by Ballinger Drive, a public street where the popular Metrobus Z line runs, and a roughly 60-foot-wide strip of land owned by the Greencastle Lakes Homeowners Association.

Two years ago, the HOA began building a tall iron security fence on that strip of land, but construction stopped after a Montgomery County code inspector found they didn't have the proper permits. They're now seeking approval from the Planning Board, which will review the matter on September 13. This report assembled by Planning Department staff includes letters from over a hundred residents from Greencastle Lakes and Ventura, a townhouse community immediately across Ballinger.
Proposed Greencastle Lakes Fence
Map of the proposed fence (in red) and gate (in yellow) from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
Greencastle Lakes residents say they're just trying to replace and extend an existing chain-link fence that dates to the neighborhood's country club days, but also hope it will keep people out. They wrote of cars being broken into, "condoms, cigarette butts and drug paraphernalia" littering the streets, and teenagers smoking pot and having sex in the common areas. Many neighbors blamed Castle Boulevard.

"We have become victim to the crime from outside the community," wrote Marvin Kerdeman of Aldora Circle. "We pay a high homeowners fee to have the parking lot and trails available for our use, not for neighboring communities to trespass upon," wrote Julie and Ken Mackel, who added, "To access the metro [bus] stop, they still need to cross private land. Just because it is a convenient short-cut, it is still trespassing and should not be allowed to continue."

Ventura residents, meanwhile, say the fence would deny them access to the bus stops and Edgewood Park, a county park. The only other way to reach Ballinger Drive without crossing private property, they say, is a nearly 2-mile walk. "These facilities are public goods which we also contributed to and maintained with our paid taxes," wrote Dinah Teinor, also of Castle Terrace.

Some say it's just another sign of the discord between the two neighborhoods. "This has been an ongoing issue between both of our developments for several years. Something like the McCoy's and Hatfield's," wrote Ventura resident Sabrina Christmas.
Fence Posts Along Ballinger Drive
Construction on the fence began in 2010 and stopped due to a lack of permits.
In response, county planners have proposed that Greencastle Lakes build a gate and a sidewalk so Ventura residents could walk to a bus stop on Ballinger Drive. "The construction of a continuous fence without a pedestrian access does not support the existing walkable and sustainable character of the neighborhood, and will have a negative impact on the surrounding communities," the report says.

A fence may make some residents feel better, but if they really want to be safer, they should reach out to their neighbors on the Boulevard. Looking all of the letters, it's clear that safety is a big concern for everyone. After all, the fear of crime in Briggs Chaney is so strong that kids aren't allowed to play outside.

However, a safe space is a well-used space. Ventura residents may be "trespassing" on Greencastle Lakes' property to catch the bus or walk to the park, but their presence alone is a natural crime deterrent. Providing more foot connections between neighborhoods will build on the county's recent pedestrian safety improvements along Castle Boulevard and get more people walking, providing more "eyes on the street."
Midpoint Path
Encouraging more people to use the walking paths in Greencastle Lakes could be a crime deterrent. Photo by Caps Fan 4 Life on Flickr.
County planners decided where to put a gate in the proposed fence based on an existing desire path made by people walking to the bus stop. There are other desire paths in the neighborhood and in Briggs Chaney as a whole, and it may be worth seeing which ones could be formalized.

Residents should also be encouraged to use their common areas. Like other neighborhoods in Briggs Chaney, Greencastle Lakes also has lots of awkward, unused common areas, which look great but can invite crime if they aren't well-programmed. The homeowners' association took out benches in one common area to discourage loitering, but it also prevents residents from using them for legitimate purposes, which in turn encourages more loitering. It's time to put those benches back, and maybe even some tot lots.

Finally, Greencastle Lakes and Ventura should work together to fight the causes of crime in their community. For instance, they could organize a joint neighborhood watch or volunteer in the local schools. These may require more time and effort than simply erecting a fence, but they'll do far more to create a safer community.

This isn't the first time that a Montgomery County neighborhood has used a fence to seal themselves off from perceived "undesirables," but it should be the last. Good fences may make good neighbors, but real crime prevention also requires that neighbors work together.