Friday, May 31, 2013

MoCo's new parking regs are looser, but still not enough

Hiding Out
Should we require more space for cars, or allow more space for people?
Montgomery County's new zoning code will allow less parking in new developments in order to use land more efficiently and encourage alternatives to driving. However, the regulations still require parking in ways that will hinder the walkable urban places the county wants to build.

For 4 years, the Planning Department has been revising its complicated, unwieldy code, which sets rules for how buildings and neighborhoods are laid out. First written in 1928, the code hasn't been updated since 1977, when the county was still mostly suburban. The new code will go before the County Council in a public hearing June 11.

Under the current code, buildings must have lots of parking, even near transit or in areas where most people don't drive. The new parking regulations are simpler and allow developers to build fewer parking spaces, though they do require other amenities, like bike racks, changing facilities and spaces for car sharing or carpools.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

white oak residents endorse science gateway plan

Quad, LifeSci Village

For years, the White Oak area north of downtown Silver Spring has struggled with disinvestment. Last week, residents, community leaders and major landowners endorsed a vision to bring jobs and people back.

Montgomery County planners recently finished a draft of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, a proposal to turn the 1960's-era suburb that inspired The Wonder Years into an urban hub for scientific research. The centerpiece would be LifeSci Village, a partnership between developer Percontee and Montgomery County to turn a 300-acre brownfield into a mixed-use community.

During last Thursday's public hearing before the Planning Board in Silver Spring, all but a handful of the 35 speakers spoke in favor of it, highlighting the need to bring more investment to East County, which has lagged behind the rest of Montgomery County for decades. Many White Oak residents travel to Bethesda or the I-270 corridor for jobs or shopping, while some neighborhoods in the area grapple with crime and blight.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

science gateway proposes an urban approach for white oak

Quad, LifeSci Village
LifeSci Village, a proposed bioscience research campus that's part of a new plan for White Oak.
50 years ago, White Oak was a prosperous suburb that inspired The Wonder Years, but today the community north of downtown Silver Spring struggles with disinvestment. Montgomery County planners say an urban approach to redevelopment can bring new life to the area.

While White Oak has several historically affluent neighborhoods, today it has no majority racial or ethnic group, and renters make up over a third of the population. There are abandoned office buildings and a reputation for crime, whether real or perceived. Residents have to go long distances to Bethesda, the I-270 corridor or DC for work, shopping or other amenities.

Planners found that residents are frustrated with the status quo. "There is great interest in seeing 'things happen'," they write in a draft of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, a proposal to transform White Oak's strip malls and office parks into a "vibrant, mixed-use, transit-served" research and technology center.

Monday, May 20, 2013

BRT supporters turn out for public hearing, but skeptics remain

Orange Line Platform, North Hollywood

Over 50 speakers packed the Planning Board auditorium in Silver Spring last night to offer comments on Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit network. During a hearing that lasted over 3 hours, residents debated the merits of the 10-route, 79-mile system county planners envision.

A slight majority of speakers spoke in favor of the plan, saying BRT could give people a real alternative to driving and support projected population and employment growth. Many speakers highlighted the importance of transit in attracting new residents, particularly young adults who already flock to the county's walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods.

Skeptics of the plan had concerns about taking away space from cars on Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase and Route 29 in Four Corners to give buses dedicated lanes, arguably BRT's most important feature. These corridors already have the county's highest transit ridership and are projected to carry the BRT network's most-used routes.

The Planning Board will discuss the plan and potentially make changes to it during a series of worksessions over the next several weeks. After that, they'll vote on whether to approve it. If it passes, the plan will then go to the County Council later this year for additional public hearings and worksessions and a final vote.

WTOP and BethesdaNow have additional coverage. Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, who live-tweeted the event with myself and Ted Van Houten from the Action Committee for Transit, compiled this summary of the hearing on Storify. Below that, you'll find my testimony.

My name is Dan Reed. I'm an urban planner, a board member of the Action Committee for Transit, and I live on Route 29 in East County. I'd like to testify in support of Bus Rapid Transit on my street and elsewhere in Montgomery County.

7 years ago, I had a lousy bus commute to an internship in Bethesda. It regularly took over an hour and a half, most of which was spent going down Route 29 to downtown Silver Spring, where I’d switch buses. The experience inspired me to start writing a blog, Just Up The Pike, about ways to make the Route 29 corridor a better place to live and get around.

Through the blog, I met so many people in my community for whom transit is a lifeline, whether because they can’t drive, can’t afford to drive, or like me, want to drive less. They’re hungry for an alternative to traffic.

After riding the Orange Line BRT in Los Angeles last fall, I was convinced that it’d be a good solution for my street and the other 10 proposed BRT corridors in Montgomery County. I’m confident BRT will help get us where we’re going today and support future development, like White Flint on Rockville Pike.

However, BRT won’t be as effective if buses don’t have their own dedicated lanes, particularly in major chokepoints where it’s geometrically impossible to move everybody in a car. Places like Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, or Four Corners here in East County. It may sound counterintuitive to repurpose a lane for transit, but it guarantees a fast, reliable alternative to sitting in traffic. Without that, people who can option to drive will continue to do so.

Luckily, this plan proposes giving buses a dedicated right-of-way in many parts of the county, but in other areas, it shies away from making a firm recommendation, whether because of logistical difficulties or vocal resistance from a few neighbors. We can’t afford to be wishy-washy about this. People will continue to come here, and that’s a good thing. Basically forcing them to bring their cars as well isn’t.

Growing up in Montgomery County, I was taught that our community values diversity in all its forms. That must include a diversity of transportation options. This plan isn’t about taking away something from drivers, but putting those who ride transit on equal footing with them. I urge you to support this plan and to stand firm for dedicated lanes.

Thank you for your time.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

montgomery housing partnership makes long branch stronger

One of many interactive art pieces made by UMD art and architecture students at the Long Branch Super Block Party, organized by Montgomery Housing Partnership. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

The Long Branch neighborhood of Silver Spring has suffered from disinvestment for decades but is now turning the corner. However, one of the organizations that's helped bring it back to life could lose their financial support.

Located two miles east of the Silver Spring Metro, Long Branch developed shortly after World War II. An influx of immigrants in the 1970's made it Montgomery County's "melting pot," but blight and disinvestment took hold in the neighborhood. Young professionals priced out of downtown Silver Spring and Takoma Park are now moving to Long Branch, while the Purple Line will stop here when it opens in 2020.

Today, there are concerns about gentrification and displacement. One of the organizations promoting a more equitable revitalization of Long Branch is Montgomery Housing Partnership, a non-profit developer of affordable housing that also does community organizing work.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

city place mall will get new name, open up to the street

Ellsworth Place
Are you ready for the new Ellsworth Place? All images courtesy of Petrie Ross.

Standing inside City Place Mall, it's as if the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring never happened. After multiple attempts to revive the half-empty mall, the answer could be opening it to the street.

Representatives from Annapolis developer Petrie Ross Ventures presented their plans for the 21-year-old mall at the corner of Colesville Road and Fenton Street last night at the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board's monthly meeting. They want to create several new entrances to the street while reorganizing the mall's interior to draw larger, upscale retailers. Construction could begin this year and the mall could reopen in 2015.

The mall will also get a new name: Ellsworth Place, building on the success of the revitalized Ellsworth Drive next door. "We think it's time for the name to change and the branding to change to send a signal that things aren't the same as they were for 25 years," said partner Walt Petrie.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

goodbye, wordbones (1955-2012)

Dennis Lane's last post on Tales of Two Cities, a blog about Howard County.

Until Friday, I didn't know who Dennis Lane was. For at least 6 years, I knew him only as Wordbones, the author of Tales of Two Cities, a blog he wrote about Ellicott City and Columbia.

I knew Wordbones grew up in Columbia and became a fixture not just among Howard County's robust blogging community, but offline as well. I knew he co-hosted a regular podcast in the middle of Columbia Mall, had a long career in commercial real estate, and lately was grumbling about his new office. I knew he was a fan of Busboys and Poets and growlers.

I got the feeling that, were Wordbones and I ever to meet, we'd have a lot to talk about. I knew he truly loved Howard County and was excited about the potential of his community, even as some people fought to keep things the same. In his latest, and sadly last column for the Business Monthly, Lane wrote about how he grew up admiring Columbia founder Jim Rouse, but acknowledged that Rouse's creation wasn't perfect and needed to grow and change. He had strong opinions, but was always polite and respectful to those he disagreed with.

The danger of blogging is that it can create a false sense of intimacy with someone you've never met and may not really know. Nonetheless, I'm still shocked from hearing that Dennis Lane was murdered this weekend for reasons still unknown. It's a tragic loss for his family and for the community he loved and served for so long.

Tales of Two Cities wasn't simply a great resource about what's happening in Howard County, especially for someone like me who didn't live there. Dennis Lane was a model for anyone, behind the keyboard or in front of it, who ever wanted to make their corner of the world a better place. And as the HowChow blog puts it, he was a wonderful guy. Just look at all of the comments on his last post.

I'm just sorry I never had the pleasure of finding out myself. You will be missed, Dennis - not just in Howard County, but down here in MoCo as well.

Friday, May 10, 2013

many questions about MoCo BRT, but the answer is yes

Orange Line Platform, North Hollywood

There are many questions surrounding Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit proposal, but there's just one the Planning Board will consider next Thursday: whether we should set aside room on our main streets for public transit. The answer is decidedly yes.

It's been 5 years since Councilmember Marc Elrich first proposed a countywide network of rapid bus routes. His idea has been reviewed, vetted and refined by transportation engineers, a task force of community and business leaders, the world's leading experts on BRT, and now county planners.

Today, the Planning Board is reviewing a draft of what's called the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which envisions a 79-mile network containing 10 BRT routes across the county. While it's much smaller than what previous studies have proposed, it offers a realistic answer for our county's current and future traffic congestion.

I worked with Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth to create a video about why we need BRT:

In some parts of the county, especially in the congested Downcounty, we don't have the room to move everyone in cars now, let alone in the future. Keep things the way they are and they'll get worse. Provide a dedicated lane for transit, as this plan proposes in many areas, and people will gain a fast, reliable alternative to sitting in traffic.

Don't get me wrong: I love driving, and I love my car. But I'd rather spend my time in the car having fun, not sitting in traffic because there's no better way to get around. Some will insist that transit doesn't work for them, and that's okay. However, there are places and times when transit is the best tool we have to get people moving, and we have to take advantage of it.

Expanding our transit network is really the only way that Montgomery County can continue to grow, and the county will grow, whether people want it to or not. This plan will provide improved transit service in areas where people already use it, like along Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville, where thousands of apartments were built in the 1970's and 1980's in anticipation of light-rail line that never materialized. And it will support future development in places like White Flint, where BRT along Rockville Pike will form the spine of a new urban center.

Of course, there have been a lot of questions raised about this proposal. Elected officials have asked how we'll pay for it. Residents are worried about impacts to their individual neighborhoods. And there's a larger, philosophical debate about Montgomery County's transition from being the "perfect suburbia" of 50 years ago to a slightly more urban place.

We're not going to answer these questions today, not do we have to. There are still a lot of details to consider, and there are smaller, incremental improvements we can make to our transit network sooner rather than later. What this plan can do, however, is begin a conversation about getting transit on equal footing with cars.

Growing up in Montgomery County, I was taught to value diversity. We may have different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different lifestyles, but we still come together to form one community. Building a transportation network that acknowledges that not everyone drives is a statement that we value all residents of Montgomery County, not just those who drive.

The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan this Thursday at 6pm at the Montgomery County Planning Department, 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To sign up to testify or send written comments, visit their website.

If you're interested in learning more about Montgomery County's BRT plan, the Action Committee for Transit is hosting a talk with Larry Cole, the county's head planner for BRT, at their monthly meeting this Tuesday at 7:30pm at the Silver Spring Civic Center, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

put rooftop bars on empty MoCo parking garages?

Looking Southeast From Bonifant-Dixon Garage
View from one of downtown Silver Spring's empty parking garage roofs.

Montgomery County has lots of empty parking garage roofs with great views, but they're closed to the public. We could take advantage of this wasted space by turning them into event spaces.

Last week, a map of rooftop bars in DC made by Petworth resident Tom Allison began circulating on social media. Produced with the help of contributors on Reddit, the map shows several lofty watering holes in the District and Arlington, but just one in Montgomery County, at the Doubletree Hotel in Bethesda.

There have been some rooftop parties in the county, like Sky At Five in Rockville Town Square and one hosted by the apartment building formerly known as Georgian Towers with a model-turned-sushi bar. But how can we do more? On Twitter, reader Joshua Gorman joked about having a speakeasy on the top floor of a parking garage in downtown Silver Spring.

It sounds far out, but it might actually work. Montgomery County is blessed with a number of above-ground public parking garages in the downtowns of Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton. Their rooftop levels have great views, but outside of a few events each year, most of them are empty.

Our parking garages may not be as pretty as the Herzog and de Meuron-designed garage in Miami Beach which doubles as an event space. But since many of our garages are intended for commuters, they're usually next to Metro stations or bus stops, meaning you don't have to drink and drive.

No Trespassing, Bonifant-Dixon Garage
People and cars alike are forbidden from using the empty roofs of parking garages.

Unfortunately, most parking garage roofs in Montgomery County are blocked off with chains when they're not being used for parking. County police threaten to arrest anyone who tries to go up there.

In 2011, photographer/friend of JUTP Chip Py attempted to do a photo shoot of a popular go-go band atop a parking garage in downtown Wheaton. He'd been detained by police for taking pictures there before, so he decided to contact the Department of Transportation, which manages the garages.

"It was 13 people, lights and everything. And I didn't want to risk going in there and getting it shut down," Py said. But officials from the county said he'd get arrested for trespassing. "You can't do anything in there except park a car," he remembers being told.

Of course, people go anyway. One Saturday afternoon last year, I decided to visit the top floor of every parking garage in downtown Silver Spring. As with any forbidden-but-accessible place in the urban realm, I also found teenagers. On one garage roof, I walked into a stairwell to leave and stumbled on two kids sketching and listening to music on a little boombox. The smell of pot wafted through the air. I wanted to ask, "Why are you here?" but before I could, they packed up and left.

To me at least, the answer is obvious. I remember sneaking onto the roof of the Town Square Garage on Ellsworth Drive with my friends from high school before it opened in 2004. There's the thrill of breaking the rules, yeah, but there's also the great view and the feeling like you're in the middle of everything and completely alone at the same time.

Hiding Out
Two teenagers hang out atop a parking garage in downtown Silver Spring.

That's not too different from being in a great urban park or plaza. Public parking garages belong to the public, and we should think about them as part of the public realm. In other words, Montgomery County should take advantage of all this empty space they have, especially since it's not being used for parking. Of course, not all parking garages are engineered to actually hold people, like this one in Phoenix that violently shook when Arizona State University students held a dance party on top. We'd have to make sure that our garages were up to the task.

In recent months, there's been a lot of talk about growing the county's nightlife scene. However, it's primarily been about street-level drinking, or in the case of the Quarry House Tavern in downtown Silver Spring, subterranean drinking.

Not only would rooftop events on parking garages be a good use of wasted space, but they might be unusual enough to draw people here for a night out. The DC area may have a lot of rooftop bars, but definitely not one like this.

Check out this photoset of views from parking garages in downtown Silver Spring:

food, art, giant trike at long branch super block party!

Super Block Party Flyer
Flyer! Click to see it in English or Spanish.
Last August, I started the Flower Theatre Project in an attempt to revive the historic but vacant movie theatre in Long Branch. Since then, we've held a charrette to generate ideas and turned it into a report. We successfully convinced the theatre's owner, Harvey Companies, to turn the exterior lights on at night. We testified at the Planning Board in support of the Long Branch Sector Plan. We even got to ride a giant tricycle.

This weekend, however, we get to celebrate Long Branch as a community with our friends at the Long Branch Business League, along with Montgomery Housing Partnership, the University of Maryland and Montgomery County Public Libraries. They're hosting the first-ever Long Branch Super Block Party this Saturday from 2 to 5pm at the Long Branch Library, located at 8800 Garland Avenue in Silver Spring.

Highlights include live music from local bands, drums and dancing, and food (I heard there will be food trucks, but I'll have to get back to you.) For the kids, they'll have kite-making, face painting, and magic shows. The giant tricycle, made by Colesville sculptor Howard Connelly, will also make an appearance.

I'm most excited by the temporary exhibition of "interactive, site-specific design installations" made by art and architecture students at the University of Maryland. The 10 pieces have already been set up along Flower Avenue and will remain there through May 20. It looks like the neighborhood kids have already taken to them:

"Thirsty for Change," an installation made from recycled plastic bottles.

I hope to see you at the Super Block Party this weekend! Once again, that's 2 to 5pm this Saturday at the Long Branch Library, 8800 Garland Avenue. Check out these printable flyers I helped design for the event in English and Spanish.