Wednesday, January 30, 2013

yglesias on monday's post: "very good"/happy hour recap

I was pleasantly surprised by the positive response to Monday's post analyzing rental housing trends in and around downtown Silver Spring. There were lively comment threads both here and on GGW and was picked up by UrbanTurf and Patch.

The post was also tweeted and retweeted many times on Twitter and even got a mention of sorts from Matt Yglesias of Slate magazine. After some gentle prodding by Silver Spring resident/Towson University economics professor Seth Gitter, the well-known writer had this to say:

As someone who doesn't have a background in economics, I'm honored to hear that from a writer whose work and opinions I deeply respect. (It would've been nice if he included a link to the post, but why nitpick?) Update: He did! Hopefully my next attempt to analyze local housing trends will be as well received.

ALSO: Friend of JUTP/fellow Bengal alum Aaron Kraut of Bethesda Now came to our happy hour sponsored by Friends of White Flint and the Coalition for Smarter Growth last night and offered this great recap.

Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Roger Berliner were in attendance and had great things to say about the future of both White Flint and Montgomery County as a whole:

“I really think that we are on the verge of a golden age in Montgomery County and it’s projects like this that are bringing that life,” Riemer told the gathering. “The region that we are in is a dynamic, growing, exciting region, one of the best destinations in the whole world, economically, culturally, socially. But we have to and we are positioning ourselves in that region to capture that future growth" . . .

[Berliner said] the county is depending on the change of thinking signaled by what’s going on in White Flint.

“I want you to know when I first used [the word hip] in talking about Montgomery County, people said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not part of our lexicon,’” Berliner said. “I do want you to know that Montgomery County’s future in my judgement does in large part depend on being able to attract this kind of crowd, a young, energetic crowd.”

Monday, January 28, 2013

can silver spring build enough housing to stay affordable?

Blair East, 1200 East-West and Argent
Old and new apartments in South Silver Spring, shown in 2009. All images by the author.

Economists say one of the best ways to provide more affordable housing is through filtering, a theory that as expensive new homes age and decline in value, they'll become low-cost homes tomorrow. But this requires building enough housing to keep up with demand. Is that possible?

600 new apartments and condominiums were built in downtown Silver Spring last year, while another 1,300 apartments are under construction as we speak. Almost all of them are high-end, luxury rentals.

While there are more affordable alternatives to be found, the area as a whole has become more expensive in the past ten years. Persistently low vacancy rates suggest there's a lot of demand for housing as well, further pushing up rents.

I looked at 32 market-rate (as opposed to entirely subsidized) apartment complexes within a mile of the Silver Spring Metro station, which includes downtown Silver Spring, South Silver Spring and East Silver Spring. I found their advertised monthly rents and unit sizes on the landlords' websites and sites like, and, and used everything from Historic Silver Spring to aerial photos from the 1950's to find out when each building was built.

Average Rents by Building
Click image to see a larger version.

Rents varied dramatically across the 32 complexes, and as predicted, age appeared to be a factor. Apartments at the Solaire on Ripley Street, which opened last year, rent for an average of $2.87 per square foot, more than twice the $1.36 rent per square foot at Hillbrook Towers on Thayer Avenue, built in 1961. Typical 2-bedroom units at both buildings rent for $3,023 and $1,250 a month, respectively.

It's said your annual income should be 40 times the monthly rent for an apartment to be truly affordable. Thus, you'd have to make $120,000 a year to live at the Solaire, or $50,000 to live at Hillbrook Towers.

Rents by Building Age
Click image to see a larger version.

Next, I plotted each building's age and its average rent per square foot and found a trendline. As it turned out, each year since a building was built takes off about 1.19 cents in monthly rent per square foot, or $11.90 for a 1,000-square-foot 2-bedroom apartment. That may not seem like much, but over time, it adds up to a $595 difference between a unit built this year and one built in the 1960's.

According to the 2007-2011 American Community Survey, 25% of the apartments in and around downtown Silver Spring were built during the 1960's, and another 33% before that. This period was the first big apartment boom in Silver Spring, with even more units constructed than during the 2000's. Shouldn't this mean that there are lots of cheap apartments like at Hillbrook Towers? Not quite.

When Rentals Were Built In + Around Downtown Silver Spring
Click image to see a larger version.

Low vacancy rates in and around downtown suggests that the market is absorbing any new apartments that get built. According to the 2000 Census, just 2.5% of the then-8200 apartments in the area were vacant. In 2009, that rate had doubled as several new buildings opened. By 2011, with 9100 apartments in the area, the vacancy rate fell back to 3.35%. In Census Tract 7025, which contains several recently-built apartment buildings in downtown and South Silver Spring, just 1.67% of all apartments were vacant in 2011.

For filtering to work, there have to be enough new apartments to soak up the demand for new housing. Without it, landlords will upgrade their older buildings to draw those potential tenants.

That's what happened at the Blairs, the massive 1960's-era apartment complex across from the Silver Spring Metro station, whose owners recently completed a major LEED-certified renovation. While it's made the complex more environmentally sustainable, it's also resulted in higher rents. A renovated 2-bedroom apartment was recently advertised on their website with rent of $3060 a month, comparable to new construction.

A combination of new, high-end buildings and old buildings that are essentially being made new means that rents overall continue to rise. In fact, rents in and around downtown Silver Spring have increased by 75% since 2000, 3 times faster than inflation.

Vacancy Rates In + Around Downtown Silver Spring
Click image to see a larger version.

In 2000, the median rent for all apartments in the area was $808 a month, which would be $1042 today. In 2011, it was $1410 a month, which suggests that apartments like the one at Hillbrook Towers are the exception, not the rule.

It's true that downtown Silver Spring has grown a lot in recent years, so much so that some residents say they've had enough. But the area isn't even growing as fast as did a half-century ago, and even after a global economic recession, the demand to live here remains strong.

Silver Spring prides itself on its diversity, but that's threatened by rising rents. Filtering isn't the only tool we have to protect affordable housing, but it's one we should take advantage of.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

see the future of suburbia at white flint happy hour

View From 14th Floor Balcony, Gallery at White Flint
White Flint today. Photo by the author.

As many of you know, I'm working part-time for the Friends of White Flint who with the Coalition for Smarter Growth is hosting a happy hour on how to "make the suburbs hip." While that might conjure images of trying to jury-rig H Street on Rockville Pike, the transformation of suburban communities like White Flint or Silver Spring goes much further than that. The redevelopment of strip malls and parking lots into real urban places has real social, economic and environmental benefits.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Patrick Doherty argues that the United States must reorient itself and its built environment to meet the challenges of the 21st century and remain prosperous. This starts in places like White Flint.

Today's White Flint was built around the social, economic and environmental conditions of the 20th century, among them a homogeneous society, cheap land and cheap energy. Tomorrow's White Flint will need to accommodate very different circumstances: an increasingly diverse population, land constraints, climate change, and an eventual shift away from fossil fuels.

If done well, the future White Flint will encourage a greater sense of community through a strong public realm where people can gather, hang out and even protest. It will help meet the demand for housing, particularly the desire for smaller living spaces and urban amenities, while providing a base of customers and employees for local businesses. And it will allow us to accommodate a growing population while using less energy, fewer materials, and conserving precious agricultural and undisturbed land.

The challenges are great, but the potential is enormous. I look forward to seeing White Flint become not only a "hip" place to live, but an example for how the rest of the nation can improve their communities and prepare for the future.

I hope you'll come out to our happy hour next Tuesday, January 29 at 5:30pm at Seasons 52, located at 11414 Rockville Pike, a short walk from the White Flint Metro station. Montgomery County Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Roger Berliner will be on hand to talk about the transformation of White Flint and it means for our community. You can click here to RSVP.

This content was developed for the Friends of White Flint.

Monday, January 21, 2013

inauguration 2013: jammies edition

Waterfront Station, 4 PM
Waiting to get home after Inauguration 2009: Not doing that again.

If you're reading this, it means that like me, you have chosen to spend this Inauguration Day inside, near the heat and the television. And while the Post found folks from East County who chose to go downtown anyway, they found others to show that you and I are not alone in celebrating the democratic process in our jammies.

(Or, not celebrating. My almost-fourteen-year-old brother left the TV room in a huff, grumbling, "It's a black guy. I don't care. I don't have to care for four more years." Are kids really that nonchalant about having transcended the barrier of race? Is this a good thing?)

I'd briefly entertained the idea of going this year, but then I remembered the last one: the cold, the crowds, getting cussed out for asking two drunk men to quiet down so I could hear the president talk, and the five-hour trip home, which involved walking twenty-three blocks out of the way to find an open Metro station and then waiting out the cold and the long line in a Safeway in Southwest while people looted.

After all of that, I concluded that we can only elect the first black president once, and even though they're expecting a third as many people as in 2009, I decided that I could wait for the election of the first female president, or the first Hispanic president, or the first of anything else, before willingly enduring that again.

Friday, January 18, 2013

towson wants to compete with silver spring? not so fast.

York Road in downtown Towson. Photo by pauledely on Flickr.

Baltimore County wants to make Towson an "even better" destination than Bethesda or Silver Spring, but allowing single-story, suburban-style development in one of Maryland's largest and busiest downtowns won't make it happen.

Few places in Maryland outside of downtown Baltimore have as many destinations within walking distance as downtown Towson. Towson is home to two colleges, one of which is Maryland's second-largest public university, one of the state's biggest and nicest malls, the Baltimore County seat, and a small but thriving Main Street anchored by the Recher Theatre, a music venue where nationally touring acts play.

With that amount of activity comes a lot of potential, which is why I was disappointed by recent comments from Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz about a proposed retail complex that would be built in downtown Towson:

Officials announced on Tuesday a trio of new restaurants and a VIP section for the 15-screen movie theater planned for the Towson Square project — an $85 million development seen as a key element in attracting more shoppers and visitors to the county seat.

"We are going to make Towson a regional destination, even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a news conference Tuesday announcing the restaurants.

Towson is already a regional destination for all of the reasons I described above, but it's no Bethesda or Silver Spring, and projects like Towson Square won't make turn it into one. Even with some high-end chain restaurants, it's basically a single-story strip mall pushed up to the street. That wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't literally in the center of town.

What makes Bethesda and Silver Spring not just regional draws, but fun and vibrant places to be is their density and mix of uses. Downtown Towson has plenty of jobs: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' County Business Patterns, it has 43,000 workers, fewer than downtown Bethesda (50,000) but more than downtown Silver Spring (32,000).

However, it doesn't have as many people. According to the 2010 Census (accessed via the New York Times' Mapping America), the densest parts of downtown Towson has have about 8,900 people per square mile, compared to 17,000 people/square mile in downtown Bethesda and 30,000 in downtown Silver Spring, where over 1800 housing units have have opened or broken ground in the past year. The only housing being built in downtown Towson right now is a small townhouse development.

Sure, people come from across Greater Baltimore to work in Towson, and you have 20,000 college students in the area, but they don't make a neighborhood as active as people who live there after the offices close at 5pm and when school's out for summer and winter break. Towson Square would do far more to contribute to the area's vitality if there were apartments or condominiums on top of it.

Of course, if Towson were to have more housing, it would probably need more transit as well. If Kevin Kamenetz is really serious about creating a rival to Bethesda and Silver Spring, he might want to focus on getting the Baltimore Yellow Line built to Towson.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

to build support for MoCo BRT, start with the basics

Bus Approaching, Reseda Station
Montgomery County wants BRT like Los Angeles, but what will it take to get there?

Supporters of Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit network like to highlight its vast network of routes, compelling new technology and potential to spur economic development. However, it's important not to forget to focus on the fundamental goal: getting people where they want to go in a faster or more convenient fashion.

A countywide BRT system was first proposed 4 years ago. Since then, it's been studied by transportation consultants, a task force of county residents, and most recently county planners. Yet judging from open houses held during the fall, the general public appears to be either unconvinced of BRT's merits or hostile to it.

Why is that? For all of the discussion that's been had over BRT, we haven't spent enough time talking about it as a tool for moving people and for filling gaps in our transportation network. It's not enough to say why BRT is great, but rather why it's great for our specific problems in Montgomery County. That's the only way taxpayers can justify spending $1.8 billion to build and millions more to operate a new transit system.

There are two points that I feel could point the conversation over BRT in the right direction:

1) Bus Rapid Transit compliments rather than competes with existing service.

Both online and off, I've heard from residents who argue that BRT will compete with Metro or that it's only for long-distance commuters coming from Frederick or Howard counties.

These claims ignore the distinctions between different kinds of transit. Transit planner and blogger Jarrett Walker uses three categories to describe different services based on their stop spacing: local transit that makes lots of stops close together, rapid transit that makes stops that are about 1/2-mile to a mile apart but still evenly spaced, and express transit that makes very few stops, very far apart. For the DC area, I'd add a fourth category for the Metro, which has evenly-spaced stops like a "rapid" service, but they can be over 2 miles apart in Montgomery County and much of the region. Here are those four categories in a handy chart:

Types of Greater Washington Transit (by stop spacing)
The difference between "local," "rapid" and "express" transit.

Each service does different things for different people, and in a larger system they can complement each other. For instance, today the Route 29 corridor between Silver Spring and Burtonsville is served by local buses like the Metrobus Z6, which makes lots of stops along a windy, circuitous route, and express buses like the MTA 929 commuter bus, which makes just 3 stops before heading north to Howard County.

BRT would be the middle ground: it would be faster than local buses, but serve more neighborhoods and destinations than the express bus. Commuters going from Columbia to Silver Spring might find it too slow, but for folks coming from White Oak, which the 929 passes over, it would be a welcome alternative to the Z6.

2) BRT isn't a fixed menu, but a buffet.

Many transit services come as a complete package, like a prix fixe menu at a restaurant. For instance, a heavy rail system like the Metro has to have rails and has to be separated from cars and people. You can't have one without the other.

BRT, meanwhile, is comprised of many different features that can be used independently of one another. You can give buses priority at stoplights without having dedicated lanes, or you can have off-board fare collection without having special buses.

Another MetroExtra Bus Towards Silver Spring
MetroExtra, shown here in the District, can get us to BRT sooner rather than later.

Of course, you can get a faster, more efficient service if you include all of those things, and that's why the county's proposed BRT network would do just that. I've written before that BRT simply won't be successful without dedicated lanes in the county's most congested areas.

Nonetheless, transit ridership is higher in some parts of the county than others simply because of how they're laid out, and there are areas where doing everything on the "BRT menu" won't be effective. Given, this could lead to what Dan Malouff calls "BRT creep," when a service is slowly stripped down until it's just a regular bus. That's bad for commuters, but it's also bad for taxpayers who were sold a high-end service only to find out that we just painted the buses a different color.

However, it may still make sense to take a measured approach, and start experimenting with some aspects of BRT now rather than rushing to build out an entire system. The Action Committee for Transit, where I serve as Land Use Chair, has recommended rolling out Metro's Priority Corridor Initiative, which focuses on small fixes to speed up existing bus routes. The "rapid" MetroExtra bus routes, like the S9 on 16th Street and the new K9 on New Hampshire Avenue, are one result of this program. They improve transit riders' commutes today while showing how full-fledged BRT could be implemented in the future.

Bus Rapid Transit isn't a panacea, but it has a lot of potential for Montgomery County. I'm glad that our county leaders are so excited about it, but we can't lose sight of why we make transportation improvements. After all, we can't grow our local economy if we can't get people to work now, let alone in thirty years.

Friday, January 11, 2013

"real doors" give human scale to big apartment buildings

Rowhouses at Base of Apartment Building, South Waterfront (cropped)
"Real doors" in Portland. All photos by the author unless noted.

NOTE: This content was developed for the Friends of White Flint blog, though you'll find examples of "real doors" around downtown Silver Spring, especially in the Ripley District currently under construction.

Houses have their perks: a yard, a private entrance, and a sense of individuality. Apartments have theirs as well: they're affordable, low-maintenance, and have lots of shared amenities. What if you could get best of both worlds? Several new apartment communities being built in White Flint do just that with something called "real doors."

What are "real doors"? Basically, it's when a multi-family building contains ground-floor apartments or rowhouses with private entrances opening directly to the street. Instead of walking by blank walls or loading docks, you'd pass doors, stoops, porches and more importantly, people.

This is by no means a new idea, but "real doors" have become especially relevant as a way to give large buildings human scale. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl notes that our field of view doesn't go far above eye level, so most pedestrians only pay attention to details at the street level. You might think you're walking by a block of rowhouses, but they could just be the base of a high-rise.

"Real doors" also make streets safer by providing more "eyes on the street." They give residents the privacy and individuality of a house with the communal amenities and low maintenance of an apartment. And they allow architects and developers to provide so-called "missing middle" house types that could accommodate families, like rowhouses, in areas where land values are so high that they're not economically feasible.

I got to see the benefits of "real doors" firsthand in Philadelphia, where for two years I lived on the ground floor of a 100-year-old house that had been turned into apartments decades ago. My roommate and I had affordable rent, just enough space and a doting landlord. We could also walk out from our living room to the front porch, out to the street, and around to the back yard, which made it feel like a house.

"Real doors" have become part of the design culture in places like Vancouver, where former planning director Brent Toderian jokes that they're great for trick-or-treating. Residential projects across Greater Washington have started including them as well. "Real doors" will become a common design feature in White Flint, as it supports the urban design goals of its Sector Plan. Two projects being built there, Pike + Rose and Archstone Old Georgetown Road, will include them.

However, not all "real doors" are created equal. Done poorly, they can look like an afterthought, feel anonymous and compromise privacy. Let's look at some examples from around the area and the country:


Ground-Floor Apartment, Halstead Square
Ground-floor apartment at Halstead Square in Merrifield.

These are "real doors" at Halstead Square, an apartment and retail complex being built in Merrifield. (Check out some more pictures.) These doors belong to single-story, one-bedroom apartments, and each one has a little stoop and an address number. The floor-to-ceiling windows are nice, but they're so close to the ground that people walking by can easily look in.

'Real Doors' at the Citron (cropped)
Tall stoops at Citron in Silver Spring.

At Citron, an apartment building under construction in downtown Silver Spring, "real doors" help it relate to the single-family homes across the street. The ground-floor units are high enough to be private, which would've been a nice opportunity to expand those stoops into porches.


Private Entrances To Market Common Apartments (cropped)
Ground-floor duplexes at the Market Common in Clarendon.

These ground-floor rowhouses at the Market Common in Clarendon each have different-colored doors, giving them their own identity. The building as a whole has similar materials and detailing as the actual rowhouses at the end of the block, helping it blend in.

'Real Doors,' The Silverton
"Real doors" with private yards at the Silverton. Image from Google Street View.

These "real doors" at the Silverton in South Silver Spring are set back from the street, which provides room for a semi-private, gated patio with enough room for a table and chairs. Though they have big, low windows like Halstead Square, the trees help give shade and privacy. I might have made the doors themselves more distinctive, perhaps with a different paint color or frosted glass panels.


Ground-Floor Rowhouses With Porches, SW 11th Ave + Madison (cropped)
These rowhouses at Eliot Tower in Portland have raised decks.

The best "real doors" I've found are on the West Coast. This is the Eliot Tower in downtown Portland, a tower with two-story rowhouses at its base. Each house has a front deck raised several steps above the street, and you can see how each deck has a tree or some leafy plants for privacy and visual impact.

Rowhouses With Yards + Porches, South Waterfront (cropped)
Rowhouses with yards at the Meriwether in Portland.

At the Meriwether, a tower in Portland's Southwest Waterfront, there are ground-floor rowhouses set behind little yards. Not only do they provide a buffer from the street, but they appear to be part of a bioswale that collects and filters runoff water before it heads to the Willamette River, a few hundred yards away. You can see each house has decks on multiple floors, giving it plenty of outdoor space. And residents have them their own, judging from these hot pink Adirondack chairs.


'Real Doors,' Lofts 24
Less-than-great "real doors" at Lofts 24 in Silver Spring. Image from Google Street View.

Believe it or not, this is the entrance to two ground-floor condominiums at Lofts 24, also in downtown Silver Spring. Other than the welcome mat outside the door on the right, there's no indication that people actually live here.

Rather than a house, this feels like the entrance to a storage unit. There are no street numbers, no individual open space, and no buffer from the street. The only landscaping are bushes that cover the windows.

Check out these examples of "real doors" from around the region and country.

While these examples aren't perfect, they show the opportunities and challenges of providing "real doors." The scale of development in many urban neighborhoods has gotten bigger, but humans generally remain the same size, so we still have to design to that scale.

Not only can "real doors" make otherwise big buildings feel more comfortable, but they can make safer and more visually attractive streets and offer people a desirable mix of house and apartment living. That is, if we do them right.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

what's up the pike: action committee for transit edition

It's been a busy week in East County, specifically for the Action Committee for Transit, Montgomery County's premier transit advocacy group. They voted in a new board, raised awareness about the ongoing Silver Spring Transit Center debacle, and got an exciting update about the Purple Line:

purple line at east-west highway

- Mike Madden, Purple Line manager for the Maryland Transit Adminisration, gave an update on the project to a packed crowd at ACT's monthly meeting, held Tuesday night in Silver Spring. The MTA is finishing preliminary engineering on the project and will soon begin design work, though they still need funding from the state and federal government for construction. If everything goes to schedule, we could see a groundbreaking in 2015 and be riding it by 2020.

Madden announced that the Purple Line, which would run between Bethesda and New Carrollton, is now estimated to carry over 69,000 passengers each day in 2030 and 74,000 in 2040. Not only is this higher than previous ridership estimates, but it's substantially greater than many other light-rail projects being built around the country. Phoenix's light rail, which opened 2 years ago, carries just 48,000 riders daily, while Seattle's light rail, which opened in 2009, carries 28,000 riders each weekday. It just shows how much Montgomery residents have taken to transit, especially in the downcounty where the Purple Line will run.

The most intriguing news, however, was that the Purple Line station in downtown Silver Spring will be 80 feet in the air. Madden showed pictures of a sort of clear tube that would sit over the current Red Line platform. This presents a really interesting design challenge for the project's engineers and eventually architects, and I'm curious to see how this will develop.

- Also at the meeting, ACT voted in its new board, which includes yours truly as Land Use Chair. I'm proud to be a part of ACT, which for almost thirty years has promoted a vision of "better communities and better transit" for Montgomery County, and I look forward to working with them supporting that vision in the future.

- However, no sooner had I joined ACT did I get drawn into its push for more answers about the future of the Silver Spring Transit Center, which has been discussed for 20 years, under construction since 2008 and stalled since the county discovered there may be structural issues.

To commemorate the one-year anniversary of that announcement, we held a press conference outside the unfinished transit center yesterday morning. ACT's goal is to get a public hearing where county officials can let the public know what's going on and provide some assurance that the Transit Center will actually be completed this fall, as they're currently saying.

The press conference was well-covered by local news, including WJLA/News Channel 8, WTOP, WPFW, the Post, the Examiner, Silver Spring Patch, and the Gazette. Reporters interviewed ACT's president, Tina Slater, and yours truly, who brought along this photo of myself from when the transit center was first conceived.

County officials say they'll release a report later this month with a structural and engineering analysis of the Transit Center, including what needs to be done to get it fixed. There's also the possibility they might sue Foulger-Pratt, the contractor hired to build the Transit Center, but that shouldn't delay the project.

Friday, January 4, 2013

protecting MoCo's tree canopy has health, economic benefits

Looking West Towards Bethesda (Summit Hills In Foreground)
Montgomery County has an extensive tree canopy, but it's under threat.

Trees are an important part of any urban environment, providing shade, oxygen, and even calming traffic. Of course, they're also great to look at. As a result, protecting and expanding Montgomery County's tree canopy has been a growing issue in recent months.

A study done by the University of Vermont for the Montgomery County Planning Department found that while half of the county is covered by trees, the county's urban areas have a much smaller tree canopy. Just 19% of White Flint is covered by trees, while downtown Silver Spring has a 14% tree canopy.

The smallest tree canopy was found in the Montgomery Hills business district south of Georgia Avenue and the Beltway, which has just 8% coverage. Urban areas should have at least a 25 percent tree canopy, planners say.

One of the best ways to expand our tree canopy in places like downtown Silver Spring or White Flint is by planting more street trees next to sidewalks and in medians. Trees can provide significant health benefits and can even be an economic windfall for places with more of them.

A 2001 survey of Wheaton residents found they overwhelmingly preferred streets with trees for downtown Wheaton. According to urban designer Dan Burden, spending between $250 and $600 to plant a tree can yield up to $90,000 in economic benefits for the surrounding area.

Georgia Avenue, Saturday Morning
Studies show that street trees have health and economic benefits.

For decades, transportation planners saw street trees as a safety hazard because they blocked drivers' vision. For that reason, County Executive Ike Leggett actually recommended removing street trees from busy roads in 2008. However, we know now that trees can "reduce the 'optical width'" of a street, slowing drivers down and making it safer for everybody.

Today, there are multiple efforts to add more street trees in Montgomery County. This fall, the Planning Department introduced a program called Shades of Green that provides free shade trees and two years of care to eligible property owners in downtown Silver Spring, downtown Wheaton and Montgomery Hills. 30 trees have already been planted under the program in those three areas.

Nonprofit group Conservation Montgomery has been organizing tree plantings of their own. Last month, they teamed up with Casey Trees, a forestry organization based in the District, to plant in Montgomery Hills. They've also received grant money in partnership with fellow nonprofits Safe Silver Spring and Uno Granito de Arena to plant trees in Long Branch.

Tree Trimming, East-West Highway (Gull)
Pepco workers cut down trees on East-West Highway in Silver Spring. Photo by Gull.

Unfortunately, these efforts are undermined by poor maintenance of our existing tree canopy. After heavy storms last year, Pepco began trimming trees in earnest before falling branches could take down power lines. According to their website, Pepco uses nationally-recognized standards and practices for tree trimming, but residents complain they're being too aggressive, mangling trees and trespassing on private property.

Downtown Silver Spring resident Gull sent us some photos of Pepco workers cutting down trees along 16th Street and Spring Street last month. In an email, he called it a "serious quality of life issue" for him and his neighbors.

"It's very easy to see into communities, houses and apartments that were once obscured from view," he wrote. "I see it as a big problem that instead of planting more trees in our urban areas, we're removing them and making above ground utilities the primary thing visible to us."

Last spring, County Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich drafted a bill that would set higher environmental standards for tree trimming and require power companies to ask homeowners' permission before doing any work on their property. However, the bill was deemed unconstitutional and set aside after the derecho storm in July brought down power lines and knocked out power to thousands of residents.

'They're Raping The Trees'
A felled tree next to a house being built in Chevy Chase. New legislation aims to help protect or replace trees like this.

Since then, the council has introduced two new pieces of legislation aimed at protecting trees. Bill 35-12 would require property owners cutting trees down on smaller lots to pay into a fund dedicated to replacing those trees. The county's Forest Conservation Law already requires this on lots over an acre in size. Another, Bill 41-12, would require a permit to do work in a public street that might damage a tree. They've set a public hearing later this month to hear testimony about both bills.

The legislation has support from Conservation Montgomery and the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, but has gotten a lot of pushback from local home builders. Renewing Montgomery, a group of small home builders, argued that the original bill proposed last summer restricts the rights of property owners.

As our urban areas grow, there's an inevitable tension between the built environment and the natural environment. However, protecting our tree canopy has many benefits for people as well. Whether by planting new trees or preserving old ones, we can make our communities healthier, stronger and more prosperous.

The County Council will hold a public hearing on both bills Thursday, January 17 at 7:30pm at the Council Office Building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. For more information and to sign up to testify, visit their website. You can also sign Conservation Montgomery's petition supporting both bills. And if you'd like to learn more about the tree canopy in your neighborhood, check out the Planning Department's tree canopy explorer.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

in and out for MoCo: 2013 edition

Even More Like A Big City, 2012

Happy new year, East County! After a brief hiatus, JUTP is back with The List, our annual year-in-review for MoCo. And what a momentous year it was! In 2012, we saw the near-death and resurrection of two East County landmarks, Fenton Street Market and Piratz Tavern. We drove, walked and biked on the InterCounty Connector and talked about how we'll get around in the future.

We made awesome videos, started new businesses, opened a new medical museum, and were recognized for being a tolerant community and a pretty cool one too.

As the national debate raged over everything from taxes to gun control, we had our own local arguments about marriage equality, the DREAM Act, and whether new apartment residents would barbeque on their patios. And just to get it all over with, we voted early and got on with our lives.

Of course, we can't go without mentioning our inspiration, the Washington Post's In and Out List, going strong since 1987. Nor is this even the only one for Montgomery County this year - check out Patch's recap as well.

As always, thanks to everyone for reading, commenting, emailing and calling me out. Just Up The Pike wouldn't be possible without your support! I look forward to seeing what 2013 will bring and sharing it with you as well.

And now, The List:



Capitol Bikeshare Bike at Union Station
Giant Tricycle Outside El Golfo
Piratz Tavern
Piratz Tavern
Wondering when the Purple Line is going to be built
Wondering when BRT is going to be built
National Labor College
Georgetown University, Hillandale Campus
"America's 17th coolest city"
"America's 5th most Jewish city"
County bureaucracy
Fenton Street Market and local businesses
Doug Duncan
Everybody else
Blairs parking lot
Blairs Park
New AFI Marquee
Flower Theatre Lit Up, December 28 2012
Silver Theatre
Flower Theatre
North Bethesda
White Flint
"City vs. suburbs"
PacSun at Wheaton Plaza
H&M on Ellsworth
Apartment buildings with sushi girls
Apartment buildings that tweet in the first person
Fencing off your neighborhood
Connecting your neighborhood with sidewalks
The Point at Silver Spring
"The Building Formerly Known as Georgian Towers"
Five Guys
Roy Rogers
McMansion, Meadowsweet Lane, Sandy Spring
Microlofts and accessory apartments
South Silver Spring
Ripley District
Curfews and scapegoating
Equality and opportunity for all
"Save Burtonsville"
"Save Norwood"
Whole Foods
Dawson's Market
Lousy pocket parks
Better street trees
Chelsea Court
Boulevard at Newell
Petty bickering
Getting together and getting along