Friday, April 26, 2013

planning board approval ends 3-year fight over chelsea court

Rendering, Chelsea Court Rowhouses
This will actually get built.

Yesterday, Montgomery County Planning Board unanimously voted to approve the controversial Chelsea Court townhouse development near downtown Silver Spring. The vote ends a 3-year fight between local builder EYA and a group of neighbors who said the project was too dense and would harm the environment.

The vote allows EYA to build 63 townhouses, including 8 moderately priced dwelling units for low-income households, and restore a historic house on the site of the Chelsea School, located on Pershing Drive one block north of downtown Silver Spring. The private, special-needs school first announced their plans to close and sell their 5-acre campus in May 2010. Most of the private, special-needs school's students live in the District or Prince George's County, and administrators want to focus on teaching them at public schools closer to home.

History of neighborhood opposition

Site Plan, Chelsea Court
Current site plan of Chelsea Court.

Neighbors in the surrounding Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association, or SOECA, have strongly opposed Chelsea Court from the beginning. They worried about traffic and density and said that townhouses didn't belong in a "single-family neighborhood", especially when the property was only zoned for single-family homes.

The Planning Board approved a rezoning for townhouses in 2011, but it was rejected by the County Council, who said EYA's proposal for 77 homes was too dense. The Council eventually granted the rezoning for a reduced number of houses last year. Neighbor Thomas DeCaro filed a suit against the county saying they acted illegally, but the case was dismissed.

More recently, SOECA argued that Chelsea Court violates state and county environmental laws. A consultant hired by the neighborhood says EYA ignored Environmental Site Design requirements to preserve natural features. Opponents say cutting down the property's mature trees and removing its steep slopes will cause runoff into a stream buried below Ellsworth Drive.

In a letter to County Councilmember Valerie Ervin, SOECA president Jean Cavanaugh urged her to "take all steps necessary" to ensure that Chelsea Court incorporated ESD "without regard to the possible loss of development intensity."

However, officials from the county's Department of Permitting Services say the site's natural slope was already removed to create sports fields for the school decades ago. "I understand that you may not agree and that you have expressed significant opposition to the project," replied DPS director Diane Schwartz-Jones. "In our opinion, the applicant has complied with the standards spelled out in the Montgomery County Code and with [Maryland Department of the Environment] standards."

EYA willingly makes changes

Rendering, Chelsea Court End Houses
Townhouses at Chelsea Court will be designed to resemble adjacent single-family homes.

According to this planning staff report, EYA's latest design includes several changes in response to neighbor concerns. They've agreed to provide more parking than required, move a private road serving the new houses and restrict turns to or from it to discourage through traffic in a neighborhood where most streets are already blocked off.

In keeping with existing houses in the neighborhood, EYA's townhomes will be only 2 or 3 stories tall, as opposed to the 4-story homes they normally build elsewhere. Townhouses facing Springvale Road will be designed to look like single-family homes in order to blend in with existing homes across the street, while a double row of trees will shield them from sight.

Meanwhile, 51% of the property will be preserved as open space, including small courtyards between the rows of houses and two pocket parks. This figure also includes the private yard of the 150-year-old Riggs-Thompson House, which is currently being used by the school and will be turned back into a single-family house. Planners say this counts because the house's yard contributes to "a general appearance of openness."

At yesterday's meeting, 18 residents gave testimony about the project, including several supporters who noted EYA's responsiveness to their suggestions. "I'm pleased to see what EYA has crafted and look forward to the development coming to fruition," said Robert Bacon, who lives a few blocks away.

More density in Silver Spring is environmentally and economically sustainable

Bicyclist Outside Silver Spring Civic Building
Allowing more people to live near downtown Silver Spring is the "green" solution.

It's not surprising that neighbors don't want to see trees cut down to build Chelsea Court, but this property isn't a virgin forest. It's a school campus that's already been cleared and built on. Building here is the environmentally responsible thing to do because it reduces the pressure to build in actual environmentally sensitive areas.

Chelsea Court is also located in an urban area a short walk from one of the region's biggest jobs, shopping and transit hubs. 60% of downtown Silver Spring residents already get to work without a car. Meanwhile, an independent study of EYA developments, including ones in Silver Spring, found that their residents walk more and drive less. Building more homes here means more people get to do the same, reducing their energy use.

But for all of the environmental benefits of being here, Silver Spring is an increasingly expensive place to live, due to the high cost of land and the expense of a 3-year-long permitting process. At an Urban Land Institute talk last summer, EYA partner AJ Jackson said that the time and money they've spent trying to get Chelsea Court built could add $50,000 to the price of each home.

Neighbors might say that maximizing density means bigger profits for EYA, but in reality, it means EYA can spread the cost of land and permitting over more homes, making them less expensive. $50,000 may not seem like a lot, but it means fewer people can afford to live in Silver Spring.

While people deserve a say in what happens in their community, the bitter and vitriolic fight over Chelsea Court sets a bad example for future projects. Not only does it create bad blood, but it encourages destructive suburban sprawl and makes Silver Spring a less affordable place to live.

We have to find a way to have a constructive dialogue about development, because this community's going to grow and change whether we like it or not. In the meantime, Chelsea Court has been approved. Not everyone will be happy with the Planning Board's decision, but they made the right one. Now it's time to get this project built.

Monday, April 22, 2013

sierra club ride shows need for downcounty bike network

Meeting at Veterans Plaza
Bicyclists meet up in Veterans Plaza before the ride.

Capital Bikeshare could come to Montgomery County this year, along with an influx of new riders. It's time to look at how the county's bike network could be improved. To do so, a group of 20 bicyclists took to the streets of Silver Spring and Takoma Park last Saturday on a 5-mile ride organized by myself and the Montgomery County Sierra Club.

Last summer, I began working with Ethan Goffman, bicycle and Smart Growth coordinator for the Sierra Club, on a Bicycle Statement outlining six principles that policymakers, community leaders, planners and transportation engineers should follow to make bicycling safer, more efficient and more enjoyable for everyone. It echoes calls from other bike advocates to improve the county's cycling network, particularly in the Downcounty, where the 29 new bikeshare stations will be located.

The six principles are:

Make a complete network: Bicycle lanes and paths should connect to each other and to major destinations like schools, transit stations and job centers, making them a reliable way to get around.

Be context-appropriate: A network with different kinds of bicycle facilities will best be able to fit into different neighborhoods.

Provide comfort: Bicyclists will be more likely to use the network if it provides multiple route options, is easy to navigate, and has conveniences like secure parking.

Safety: Bicyclists will feel safe on facilities that are well maintained, well-lit, and have “eyes on the street” to watch over them.

Engage the public: Making community members part of the bicycle planning process will build public support for bicycling while showing that bicyclists are valued and respected by the county.

Education: All road users, whether they are cyclists, pedestrians or drivers, should understand their rights and responsibilities and the rights and responsibilities of others.

Keeping those in mind, I designed a route that takes riders on different kinds of bicycle routes, ranging from a trail through a park to bike lanes to riding in mixed traffic.

We had a pretty diverse crowd with a wide mix of ages and skill levels, ranging from kids just out of training wheels to experienced bicyclists. Most riders came from inside-the-Beltway Silver Spring, though one person came from Takoma Park and another from Capitol Hill. The ride was pretty smooth, though there were a few spills and some emergency repairs.

Sharing the Road on Mansfield
Sharing the road with pedestrians and drivers on Mansfield Road in Park Hills.

Along the way, we stopped to talk about each principle, along with things the county and local municipalities are doing well, like the extensive trail network in Sligo Creek Park. While none of the neighborhood streets have bike lanes, they're slow and quiet, making them a nice alternative to busy main roads when they're not closed to through traffic. In a few places, our group had its own cheering section of neighbors.

Riders pointed out places where the bike network needs improvement. Many off-street trails are poorly maintained, leading to ruts and standing water. The Metropolitan Branch Trail abruptly stops a half-mile short of the Silver Spring Metro station, held up by historical preservationists who don't want it passing by the historic, but empty B&O rail station.

On-street riding can be equally frustrating. We used the block-long Cedar Street bike lane in Silver Spring, which was once named "America's stupidest bike lane" before being redesigned by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, streets like Maple Avenue in Takoma Park are wide enough for bike lanes but were given sharrows instead, which means bicyclists have to share the road with drivers that are encouraged to speed because the street is so wide.

Fighting Traffic on Carroll Street
Biking past a construction site on Carroll Avenue NW in Takoma, DC.

Another issue was the need to educate everyone on how to share the road. On narrow Carroll Street NW in Takoma, drivers came too close to our group or sped into oncoming traffic to pass us, violating both DC's and Maryland's 3-foot passing laws. Meanwhile, on the Sligo Creek Park trail, a pair of joggers reminded us that we have to ride single-file so as not to block the whole path.

How can we improve the cycling environment? One recurring theme in our discussion was that the Department of Transportation made bike improvements based on their idea of what bicyclists want or need, like the Cedar Street bike lane, but were surprised when bicyclists actually didn't use them.

Casey Anderson, Planning Board member and Silver Spring resident, and Jack Cochrane of MoBike stressed the need to for bicyclists to let county officials know what they need. County officials need to listen to bicyclists, but they can only do so if bicyclists make themselves heard.

Overall, this was a great bike ride. I was blown away by the turnout and the enthusiasm of all our participants. It's been about 20 years since the Montgomery County Sierra Club last held a group bike ride, but this is definitely a tradition that they should resume. Ethan and I are already talking about when our bike ride will be.

Thanks to everyone who came! This wouldn't have been a success without you. And if you were unable to make it, check out this slideshow of our ride.

Friday, April 19, 2013

a preview of our latest project

Sorry for the light posting this week. It's been a busy month for me on the job front, which I'll be able to go into more detail about in the future. I've also been working with the Coalition for Smarter Growth on a video about traffic along the Route 29 corridor, how it affects our daily lives, and how real improvements to our transit network can improve your commute and make East County a better place to live.

Posting will resume next week. In the meantime, here's a preview of the video, taken during rush hour Tuesday morning in Four Corners:

Friday, April 12, 2013

young families increasingly want urban living

Trees And People, Maryland Avenue
Mother and daughter in Rockville Town Center. Photo by the author.

More and more Millennials, or young adults in their 20's and early 30's, are choosing to live in urban areas. Unlike their parents, however, they don't want to leave when they have kids. While families seeking the urban lifestyle may face some challenges, there are huge opportunities for places that can convince them to stick around.

Three panelists from the real estate and education worlds discussed this issue with former DC planning director Ellen McCarthy at the ULI Real Estate Trends conference on Wednesday. AJ Jackson, partner at local builder EYA, noted that many young adults who spent their twenties in the District or Arlington are no longer moving to the suburbs when they have kids.

Revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods have made them safer and more attractive to young professionals. Meanwhile, rising congestion and farmland-consuming sprawl have removed much of the allure of suburban living. "They're not moving to the suburbs because ... the green oasis that our parents moved out to doesn't exist anymore," said Jackson.

Instead, young parents are looking at closer-in areas that offer a little more space without having to maintain a large yard or endure a long commute. EYA mostly builds rowhouses in walkable, inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods; as a result, 30% of their buyers are young families with kids, Jackson said.

However, this presents many unique challenges to young parents, as the Post's Jonathan O'Connell noted last year. Many parents worry about finding homes that meet their needs, unsure if they can comfortably live in a rowhouse or apartment. The quality of services in urban neighborhoods, like trash pickup, crime prevention and schools, is another issue.

Parents considering inner-city schools often ask, "am I going to be subjecting my children to inferior teaching and an inferior academic experience?" said Sharicca Boldon, vice-chairman of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.

Boldon finds that the best to combat these perceptions is by exposing parents to the benefits of city living. She holds non-education-related community events at schools so parents can get familiar with them before enrolling their kids. Boldon also organizes tours of rowhouses to show how families like her own can live in one comfortably.

"I find that housing configuration to be very efficient for a family. I can be on the third floor and my kids can be loud on the bottom," she said. "I think it changes family needs that I need to be in the suburbs with a driveway and a two-car garage."

Even as they become more attractive to young families, inner-city neighborhoods can't take them for granted. McCarthy said that the District's population growth comes mainly from out-of-area migration, and that the city continues to lose more residents to Maryland and Virginia then it gains. "There aren't a lot of things that tie [young families] here if the District doesn't gain a reputation for being family-friendly," she said.

Increasingly, urban living is no longer synonymous with being in DC or Baltimore. The growth of job centers outside both cities are drawing young families to places like White Flint and Silver Spring in Montgomery County and Merrifield in Fairfax County, which offer both walkable neighborhoods and transit access alongside larger homes and higher-quality public services. In Montgomery County, young families are clustering in areas where they don't have to drive as much.

Jackson pointed out that the Mosaic District in Merrifield, where EYA is building new homes in a neighborhood with shops, schools and Metro close by, has drawn the firm's youngest homebuyers. "It's the experience and the overall atmosphere more than the specific location," he said, adding that newer suburban neighborhoods may have trouble competing with their inner-city counterparts to provide the same feel or history.

It's unclear whether this trend is limited to young parents. While there are many highly-rated elementary schools in the District and Baltimore, issues remain with many middle and high schools, which may discourage parents from sticking around. Even in good school districts, families may simply want more space and leave their rowhouses for single-family homes.

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, raised three kids in Adams Morgan and says it gave her teenagers a sense of freedom and independence. She wonders what would happen to DC if more parents chose to do the same. "It'll be interesting if they stick around as their kids age," she said.

As singles, Millennials have led the ongoing revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods and encouraged the creation of urban places in the suburbs. However, it's what they do as parents that could have a lasting effect on the urban realm.

Monday, April 8, 2013

sierra club hosts first-ever bike ride in call for better bike network

Bicyclist Outside Silver Spring Civic Building
The MoCo Sierra Club wants to go on a bike ride with you.

With Capital Bikeshare coming to Montgomery County this year, it's worth looking at whether our streets are ready for more bicyclists. I've been working with the Montgomery County Sierra Club to develop a vision for improving the county's bike infrastructure, and on April 20, we invite you to learn about it while taking a ride through Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

Some time this spring, Montgomery County will roll out 29 new bikeshare stations in Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Bethesda and Friendship Heights. Anticipating an influx of new riders, area bicycling advocates say the county should also improve its bicycling network by adding more paths and bike lanes.

In January, the Sierra Club released its own Bicycle Statement, which I wrote with their guidance. To look at Montgomery County's existing bike network and opportunities for improvement, we're hosting a 5-mile bike ride in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

We'll meet in front of Veterans Plaza, located at Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring, at 10am on Saturday, April 20, and return there a couple of hours later. You can click here to see the route. Here's more information from the Sierra Club:

The Montgomery Sierra Club presents a bike ride, with discussion, from Silver Spring to Takoma Park and back again. Hardier riders will continue on to Wheaton. Dan Reed, blogger for Greater Greater Washington, and Jack Cochrane of Montgomery Bicycle Advocates will take us on the Metropolitan Branch and Sligo Creek trails. We’ll also briefly ride on the city streets, exploring a variety of semi-urban biking landscapes.

Along the way we’ll discuss our new Bicycle Statement, filled with ideas to make biking a safe and common activity for teens through seniors. We’ll also show you points-of-interest related to the statement.

For more information and to let us know you're coming, email Ethan Goffman at ethan dot goffman at maryland dot sierraclub dot org. We'll see you on the 20th!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

on the bus mall (scrap the silver spring transit center)

Waiting For A Bus, Wayne at Dixon
Catching a bus on Wayne Avenue today. Photo by the author.

When construction of the Silver Spring Transit Center began in 2008, local bus stops were moved to nearby streets. Today, it's been declared unsafe and there's no fix in sight. What if we kept buses on the street permanently?

Located next to the Silver Spring Metro station, the transit center is supposed to be a hub for local, commuter and intercity buses, MARC trains, and the future Purple Line. Construction stopped over a year ago after workers discovered that the concrete was too thin, and a recent report says the $112 million building is unusable without major repairs. County Executive Ike Leggett has asked for $7.5 million just to figure out how to fix it.

However, resident James Mallos has found a silver lining. To him, the curbside bus stops that have temporarily replaced the Transit Center have made downtown Silver Spring a more urban-seeming place:

Silver Spring has been looking more like a city lately, even a little glamorous in a twilight rush hour. Part of the reason is the integration of bus riders with the fabric of the city. For five beautiful years, bus riders have been dropped off closer to Silver Spring's business center, and they have been waiting for buses in front of businesses and restaurants, just as they would in New York or Chicago.

Letting street corners serve as stations for changing buses (and that is what most bus riders arriving at Metro's stations are doing) is good for business, good for public safety and good for the perception of Silver Spring as a busy, urban place. Long may it be postponed.

Having lived in Philadelphia for two years, where buses stop on the curb even at big transit hubs like 30th Street Station, I can relate to what Mallos is talking about. It's not pretty, but it works, and having all of those people pass by restaurants and shop windows can't be bad for business.

Thus, I propose a thought experiment: what if the curbside bus stops in downtown Silver Spring became permanent? A series of small changes could improve the experience of using transit in Silver Spring and probably cost less than repairing the transit center.

We could turn the four streets were buses and taxis already wait, Wayne Avenue, Dixon Avenue, Bonifant Street and Ramsey Avenue, into a transit mall like in Portland or Denver, where transit vehicles and pedestrians have priority. Transit riders would be able to wait for buses and transfer as they do now, but we could make more substantial changes to accommodate the nearly 100,000 daily riders who are expected to pass through the area in 2020.

i love your new color coding : muni bus, church street,  san francisco (2013)
Painted bus lanes give transit priority in San Francisco. Photo by torbakhopper on Flickr.

The walk between buses and Metro or MARC would be longer than it would be with the transit center, but it would be shorter than it is walking all the way around the transit center today. And as Mallos points out, bus riders would be much closer to the shops, restaurants and offices along Georgia Avenue and Ellsworth Drive.

For starters, we could lay down red paint to designate bus lanes like in San Francisco. Drivers would be allowed into the transit mall to access the Bonifant-Dixon parking garage or drop people off, but through traffic would shift to Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue.

With most cars out of the way, we could widen the sidewalks on the south side of Wayne Avenue, which are often so crowded with people waiting for buses that it's hard to walk through. Then, we could replace the existing bus stops, which can't always hold everyone waiting for the bus, with larger "super stops" that can hold more people and have real-time displays to let riders know when the next bus is coming.

Bus shelter on Portland Transit Mall
Portland's transit mall has large bus stops and landscaping. Photo by Thomas Le Ngo on Flickr.

After that, we could add some landscaping, benches and tables, and even sidewalk vendors like coffee carts or food trucks, since these four streets have almost no retail on them. An area where today you just wait for the bus could become an actual part of the urban experience, where people shop and gather as well.

As for the transit center, it could be torn down and the land sold off for private development, adding to the apartments, offices and a hotel already planned to go around it. We'd keep the public plaza that was supposed to be there, and expand it into a series of pedestrian paths connecting the Metro to the transit mall. This makes room for more homes, jobs and shops close to transit.

Of course, Montgomery County didn't spend $112 million to build a transit center only to scrape it later. The best plan for now is to figure out how to salvage the complex and how to pay for it.

Until that happens, however, people will continue to catch buses on the street. And after 5 years, they deserve a safe, comfortable place to do so. Maybe we can't turn downtown Silver Spring into Portland's transit mall, but some wider sidewalks, more benches, and a food truck wouldn't hurt.

Monday, April 1, 2013

expedition returns from previously uncharted "land of mary"

hipsters in silver spring sepia
Amundsen (left) and friends walking up Georgia Avenue in the Land of Mary.
Word came over Instagram today that an expedition of H Street twentysomethings in search of a route to Columbia Heights without having to bike uphill have returned from what was previously thought to be uncharted land north of the District.

Friday night, a band of young adults led by 23-year-old social media producer Roald Amundsen set out from Little Miss Whiskey's on their fixed-gear bikes in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, which would allow them to reach Wonderland Ballroom without sweating as much.

"Our friends loudly and drunkenly told everyone that fixies are unusable in these regions and that their drink specials are rubbish," he said. "We shall see," he added. "We shall see."

However, the first sepia-toned images to surface on Amundsen's Twitter account appear to be of a settlement in the little-understood territory called the Land of Mary, located due north of the District. Until now, all that anyone knew about the Land of Mary is that it was home to a boring and cultureless race of people who piloted large, metal vehicles in an erratic fashion, ate crab cakes, and were the ancestral home of the rich kid in somebody's freshman year dorm at Oberlin.

Initially, Amundsen expressed dismay about the strange inhabitants of the new territory, which he and his crew dubbed New Columbia, after crossing Eastern Avenue, long considered to be the end of civilization.

"They seemed on the whole to me, to be a very uncool people," he wrote in a tumblr post. "They all go completely without scarves and mustaches, even the men, though I saw one guy who looked like he might be a DJ."

Amundsen's Instagram photo of his lunch. 
One day after landing in New Columbia, Amundsen claimed to have seen sidewalks, buildings far taller than any that exist in the District, and a "grody dive bar in a basement." Around lunchtime Saturday, he tweeted photos of an Ethiopian restaurant.

"Eating tibs & injera at hole-in-the-wall with amazing smells. Theres like 100 of them on 1 block here in #unchartedterritory," he wrote.

By Sunday, Amundsen and his crew found New Columbia's three record stores and began to wonder if the uncouth villagers could be civilized. "It appears to me that the people are ingenious . . . I am of opinion that they would like the new Yeasayer album," he wrote on his Facebook page. "If it's okay with my landlord, I intend to carry home six of them to crash at my place so we can listen to it on my record player."

While the savages of New Columbia, which Amundsen dubbed "Columbians," were flattered by the invitation to listen to records on the floor of Amundsen's English basement studio, they politely declined, citing job and family commitments.

Happy April Fool's Day! Check out our past April Fool's posts from 2009, 2011, the other one from 2011, and 2012.