Monday, August 28, 2017

after 31 years, the purple line finally breaks ground

It's official: after three decades of debate and several brushes with death, the Purple Line broke ground this morning in New Carrollton.
Governor Hogan signs the Purple Line's federal funding agreement as US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao looks on. All photos by Aimee Custis.

"We've made it!" exclaimed Pete Rahn, Maryland's secretary of transportation, throwing his arms in the air. "It's been a long road, but we finally made it today."

In front of hundreds of local officials and well-wishers, Governor Larry Hogan and US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao signed a federal grant agreement for $900 million, before the governor boarded a bulldozer and tore into a building that will make way for a future rail yard.
Governor Hogan, riding a bulldozer, tears down a building to make way for the Purple Line.

"The Purple Line will be a transformative asset for our state," Hogan said. "We will continue to find the most cost-effective ways to invest in and improve our transportation systems."

The 16-mile long light rail line will run between Bethesda and New Carrollton and have 21 stations, including transfers at four Metro stations. The $2 billion project will include a mix of federal, state, and county funding. There have been no shortage of setbacks for the project since it was first proposed in 1986, but the project was largely a go by 2014, when Governor Hogan took office.

Shortly after, he put the project on hold for nearly a year to find cost-cutting measures, and asked Montgomery and Prince George's counties to pay a higher share of the cost. (At the same time, Hogan cancelled the Baltimore Red Line, which had been up for federal funding as well.)
Another year was lost after a judge voided the project's approval last summer in a lawsuit from a group of residents in Chevy Chase. The project was close to losing its federal funding when an appeals court restored the approval last month.

Local officials use purple shovels in a ceremonial groundbreaking.

It's also notable as the nation's largest transit project built through a public-private partnership. Purple Line Transit Partners, a consortium of private companies, will build and operate the project in exchange for payments from the state for the next 35 years. It's something the Republican administration wants to encourage, and Secretary Chao said it could be a model for other projects around the nation.

"P3s are used throughout the world to fund transit projects, and can be used to invest in infrastructure around the country," she said. "We do not have the money to fund every project in this country,"  praising Montgomery and Prince George's counties for "having some skin in the game" and each contributing several hundred million dollars towards the Purple Line.

The Purple Line is projected to have 56,000 daily riders by 2030 and create 52,000 jobs, both directly through its construction and indirectly from investment along the corridor. Those who spoke at the groundbreaking this morning, including Senator Chris Van Hollen, Congressman Anthony Brown, and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, cited the project's benefits to the state of Maryland as whole.

"This will not only help people off the roads and protect the environment, but create jobs all over the state. This is a project for all Marylanders," said Rushern Baker, Prince George's County Executive.
Purple Line supporters celebrate today's victory.

Multiple officials gave a shout out to Harry Sanders, who advocated for the project with his wife Barbara and son Greg for decades, before he passed away in 2010. "That persistence over a period of decades is what has helped us bring here today," says Senator Chris Van Hollen.

Construction will literally start today. On the way home from the event, we passed a group of people in construction gear on University Boulevard in Langley Park, carrying what appeared to be blueprints for the Purple Line. If everything goes as scheduled, the Purple Line will open in 2022.

as the purple line breaks ground, let's take a look back

I started this blog 11 years ago to, among other things, talk about the Purple Line. And after a long fight that will one day make a great book, the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton finally breaks ground this morning.

purple line in bethesda
A 2010 rendering of the Purple Line in downtown Bethesda from the Maryland Transit Administration.
I'm on my way to cover the groundbreaking (check back this afternoon for a recap). But in the meantime, let's look back at how JUTP has written about this project. Of the 1735 posts published here, about 281 have included the words "Purple Line." Here's an (incomplete) list of the highlights.
  1. This project has been in the works since 1986! Here's how the Purple Line got its start.
  2. These maps show how the Purple Line will dramatically improve mobility around the DC area, particularly for folks in eastern Montgomery County and Prince George's County.
  3. I took a walk with some East Silver Spring neighbors along a potential route in 2006. The following year, I walked the Capital Crescent Trail, part of which will be the Purple Line's route, with both supporters and opponents.
  4. More than a few politicians have taken the bus as a campaign stunt to promote the Purple Line. We rode the J2 with Steve Silverman in 2006, and again with Al Wynn in 2007.
  5. Did you know there's a musical about the Purple Line? In 2008, we interviewed Paul Stregevsky, writer of "Tracks."
  6. In 2008, I convinced my then-roommate Chris to take transit from College Park to Rockville to illustrate how much we need the Purple Line. It was quite a day.
  7. The new Silver Spring Library actually has its own Purple Line stop! Here's a look at the design process from 2010.
  8. The Purple Line will pass through several Montgomery County neighborhoods, and could bring some major changes. Here's what community members in Long Branch, Lyttonsville, and Chevy Chase Lake had to say about it.
  9. The town of Chevy Chase has been a vocal opponent of the Purple Line for decades, but many town residents weren't having it anymore
  10. Supporters and opponents squared off at a 2013 event where Governor O'Malley first announced state funding for the project.
  11. President Obama announced federal funding for the Purple Line in 2014, and it looked like full speed ahead.
  12. After his election in 2014, Governor Larry Hogan put the Purple Line on hold, but decided to move forward with a few cost-saving changes, like fewer trains and redesigned stations.
Today, many many people who helped make the Purple Line a reality will be celebrating. But one person won't be here: Harry Sanders, who passed away in 2010. We wouldn't be here today without the decades of hard work and quiet persistence Harry poured into this project, along with his wife Barbara and son Greg, who's currently the president of Purple Line NOW!

Harry was a model for citizen activism, and I continue to learn from his example. I can't say it enough: thank you, Harry, for everything.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

lakeforest mall could be a big opportunity for gaithersburg

This week, Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg sold at a foreclosure auction for a fraction of its former value, suggesting it’s in serious trouble. It could be a huge opportunity for Gaithersburg, but will city officials take advantage?

An event at Lakeforest Mall. Photo by MDGovPics on Flickr.
Built in 1978, the two-story, 1 million-square-foot mall off Route 355 was one of Montgomery County’s premier shopping centers for decades, and anchored the adjacent planned community of Montgomery Village. Its developer, Alfred Taubman, was a pioneer in retail design who built dozens of similar-looking malls around the nation (including Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie and Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax). Everything at Lakeforest, from the locations of individual stores, to the selection of floor materials, to the slope of the parking lot, was designed to draw and retain shoppers for as long as possible.

In recent years, however, the mall has struggled to compete with newer, more distant shopping centers like Milestone in Germantown, and the Clarksburg Premium Outlets, which opened last fall. Another challenge comes from increasingly popular town center-style developments like Downtown Crown, which sits a few miles away from Lakeforest.

Consumers are also less likely to shop at malls, instead preferring to buy goods online. The suburbanization of poverty has affected neighborhoods around the mall, and some high-profile crimes have created a perception that the mall is unsafe, deterring even more shoppers.

Monday, August 21, 2017

this new suburban place has some lessons for older suburban places

30 miles north of DC, Montgomery County is trying to build a new kind of suburb in Clarksburg, one that looks more like a small town and where residents don't have to drive everywhere. It hasn't totally worked. But Clarksburg might actually have something to teach closer-in communities about how to grow sustainably.

Urbanism! All photos by the author unless noted.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve made it a tradition to go to Clarksburg at least once a year and tour some model houses. I remember visiting one model house there on a cold, gray day in December 2007. The sales agent, Dorothy, took me on a tour of the whole house, ending at a little balcony overlooking the backyard. As far as we could see there were other houses with beige siding and grey roofs. I asked her, what do you think of this view? And she said, “I try to think about it like I’m looking out over the rooftops of Paris.”

Maybe that’s a little rich. I will say that Clarksburg is somewhat different than what we traditionally conceive of as a suburban community: big houses, big lawns, and lots of driving. As Montgomery County's older suburbs try to create the walkable, transit-oriented places that people increasingly want, Clarksburg might offer a few lessons.

Friday, August 18, 2017

thanks to everyone who came out on tuesday!

Thanks to everyone who came to our happy hour on Tuesday celebrating the 11th anniversary of Just Up The Pike and our friends at Greater Greater Washington!

I address the crowd at Tuesday's event. Photo by Aaron Landry.
Over a hundred people packed the rooftop at Kaldi's Social House in downtown Silver Spring for a special joint happy hour. On top of that, I received a proclamation from the Montgomery County Council for my work. At-large County Councilmembers George Leventhal and Roger Berliner, and District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker were there to present it. (Councilmember Hans Riemer first proposed the proclamation, but he was on vacation and couldn’t attend.)

All three talked about something I’ve tried to do since I started Just Up The Pike in 2006: to help craft a vision for Silver Spring and East County in a way that is both positive and constructive.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

since the great recession, east county's real estate market has diverged

Nearly a decade ago, the Great Recession wiped out house values across the region. Today, booming close-in, urban areas have basically recovered. But many further-out, suburban communities are still struggling. Here’s one example from eastern Montgomery County.

McMansion, Meadowsweet Lane, Sandy Spring
A 2000s-era subdivision in East County. Many of these homes lost value during the Great Recession and have yet to recover. All images by the author.
I grew up in downtown Silver Spring at a time when people were still moving away from urban centers. Twenty years ago, my neighborhood consisted of abandoned buildings and boarded-up stores, and in 1998, my parents started looking for houses outside the Beltway in places like Olney and Burtonsville, which seemed ascendant at the time. Besides, we were already driving to shop there. My parents found a little split-level house a mile from a new shopping center with a Target, Chipotle, and Starbucks.

My high school, Blake, opened that same year, and most of my friends’ parents seemed to have made the same move from Silver Spring and Takoma Park. New subdivisions were popping up with big, luxurious houses, lush lawns, and names like Briarcliff Manor and Hampshire Greens. In the older neighborhoods, houses were sold for the land so big McMansions could rise in their places.
I remember going to a party at the end of high school where we sat in a circle bragging about how much our parents’ houses were worth. I was the odd one out because my parents’ house had appraised recently at a measly $500,000.

Abandoned House in Tanglewood
An abandoned house in an East County subdivision in 2014.
But it wouldn’t last; the Great Recession hit East County pretty hard. Burtonsville Crossing, the shopping center where we hung out in high school, is almost completely vacant. Some of my parents’ neighbors, unable to make ends meet, resorted to running illegal auto shops out of their homes, inviting relatives to move in, or renting out their basements.

Meanwhile, downtown Silver Spring had a comeback as more people sought urban living. A major redevelopment project along Ellsworth Drive brought restaurants, shops, movie theaters, and a Whole Foods. Montgomery County poured millions into new public facilities, including a library, the Civic Building, and Veterans Plaza. In response, private developers built thousands of new apartments and condominiums, including the building I live in now, a converted bottling plant that was still operating when I was a kid.

Here's how the real estate market in East County has changed

The real estate market shows how Silver Spring has bounced back from the recession while East County has struggled. Here’s a graph showing average home values in 2012 and 2017 as they compare to 2007 levels. It shows the two zip codes inside the Beltway, 20910 (Silver Spring) and 20912 (Takoma Park), and seven zip codes (mostly) outside the Beltway: 20901 (Four Corners), 20902 (Wheaton), 20903 (Hillandale) 20904 (Colesville, Fairland), 20905 (Cloverly), 20906 (Aspen Hill) and 20866 (Burtonsville).

How 2012 and 2017 home values in East County stack up to 2007 levels. Click on all of these graphs to enlarge them.

Home values all over East County fell during the Great Recession. In zip codes 20903 and 20906, home values fell by nearly half between 2007 and 2012. This year, average home values in the eight zip codes outside downtown Silver Spring are 71% to 85% of what they were a decade ago. But in zip code 20910, which contains downtown Silver Spring, values are actually a little higher than they were 10 years ago.

Home values inside the Beltway have recovered, but remain lower elsewhere. 

Homes inside the Beltway have been more valuable than those outside it for a while now. But the gap in home values has increased over the past 10 years. This graph shows the average home sale price per square foot, as a way to even out differences between houses of different sizes and styles. In the summer of 2007, the price per square foot in zip codes 20910 (Silver Spring) and 20866 (Burtonsville) were fairly close, at $363 per square foot and $304, respectively. Today, they’re $384 and $257; in other words, a difference of 50%.

Those who bought homes in East County before the housing boom, or at the bottom of the market, may have recovered their investments or even made a little extra. But those who bought at the top of the market saw their gains wiped away.
Homes in far-flung zip code 20905 linger on the market longer than homes closer in.

Another measure of demand is the number of days a house sits on the market. During the Great Recession, houses across East County languished for months due to a lack of buyers. In early 2008, the average house in zip code 20905 sat on the market for nearly six months. Demand returned, but not equally. In early 2017, homes in the 20910 zip code spent just 22 days for sale, compared to 59 days in 20905.

There's a huge opportunity in East County, but things need to change

Like many aging suburbs, East County is caught in the middle. The kids I grew up with have either moved to urban areas closer in, or moved farther out to newer suburbs in Olney or Howard County, aided by new highways like the InterCounty Connector that made it easier to commute longer distances. East County is a long drive from Montgomery County’s biggest job and shopping centers, which are all along Rockville Pike and I-270. And the local schools struggle with a negative reputation compared to their counterparts in more affluent areas.

Corner of Springvale Road and Ellsworth Heights Drive
New townhomes in downtown Silver Spring, where home values are higher than they were in 2007. 
Yet the fact that homes here are much more affordable than in other parts of the county could be a big opportunity. Nationwide, some three million Millennial homebuyers have been shut out of the housing market because of high prices and a lack of supply. Millennials are open to living in suburban areas, but want stuff they can walk or bike to.

Providing that lifestyle in East County is imperative to drawing people and investment to this area, just as it did in Silver Spring. Montgomery County’s plans to create a walkable town center and research park in White Oak and a new village center in Burtonsville will bring the amenities people want, while a new BRT line on Route 29 will provide faster, more reliable transit. Combined, the two will give East County access to jobs, shopping, and economic opportunities.

East County has waited decades for the kind of prosperity the rest of Montgomery County takes for granted, and at great cost. Hopefully residents won’t have to wait much longer.