Friday, June 5, 2020

montgomery county could loosen up single-family zoning in silver spring, sort of

Downtown Silver Spring is one of the region’s youngest and most diverse neighborhoods, but rising home prices could make that a thing of the past. To address that, Montgomery County will look at ways to loosen up single-family zoning in the area.

fourplexes on nolte avenue
Fourplexes in Silver Spring. Montgomery County could allow more of this to be built. Image by the author.
After a public hearing Thursday, the Planning Board voted 4-0 to expand the boundaries of the Silver Spring Downtown Plan, a 20-year vision for the area that will cover everything from parks to streets to zoning. It'll allow planners to legalize “missing middle” homes, like duplexes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings, in areas where only single-family homes are allowed now.

"We have unrest in this country because we have people who are excluded from opportunities," said commissioner Partap Verma. "I grew up in missing middle housing, and if it wasn't for the opportunities that my immigrant parents had then, I wouldn't be here before you."

Downtown is back, but a victim of its own success

Montgomery County currently defines downtown Silver Spring as an area bounded by 16th, Spring, Cedar, and Fenton streets, and Eastern Avenue. After decades of decline and disinvestment, downtown has bounced back in a big way, attracting new residents and businesses. It’s become a hub for the region’s Ethiopian community, as well as a destination for beer lovers. Silver Spring is also one of the few places in the United States where black and white boys do equally well as adults.

Silver Spring has historically been an affordable area, but we have a regional housing shortage, and there's a growing demand for close-in neighborhoods with transit. Thousands of new apartments, including apartments set aside for low-income households, have been built in recent years, but it's not enough. In the 20910 zip code, which contains downtown and surrounding areas, home values are now higher than they were before the Great Recession.

Cross the downtown Silver Spring borders and you'll go from high-rise buildings to single-family homes on large lots. On many blocks, smaller homes are being torn down and replaced by new mansions that sell for over $1 million dollars.

ritchie avenue mcmansion
Million-dollar houses like this one on Ritchie Avenue are an increasingly common sight around Silver Spring. Image by the author.

At a March meeting, Planning Board commissioners agreed that the Silver Spring Downtown Plan should expand to capture areas within walking distance of, the future Purple Line, and Flash bus rapid transit line. “I think we’re hypocrites,” said Vice Chair Natali Fani-Gonzalez. “We’re saying that we need more housing and more density near the Metro, but we’re not going to do the work. I’m not going to be the hypocrite.”

Where the new boundaries could go, and what could go in them

Thursday, Montgomery County planners presented three options for expanding the Silver Spring Downtown Plan area. A fourth would basically leave everything alone and have the Planning Department look at expanding housing options countywide, but did not require them to do anything. All four board members present - chair Casey Anderson, Fani-Gonzalez, Verma, and Gerald Cichy - voted in favor of "Option D," which would push the boundaries out a few blocks near the future Purple Line and Flash BRT. A fifth board member, Tina Patterson, left before voting.

The current boundaries of downtown Silver Spring (solid black line) and new boundaries as of Thursday (dotted orange line). Click here for a larger version. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

This change doesn't guarantee that anything would happen. But it does allow the county to allow duplexes, townhomes, or apartments on blocks where only single-family homes are legal today. This year, both Maryland and Virginia discussed bills that would do this statewide, though neither passed.

silver spring avenue triplex
One neighbor called triplexes like this home on Silver Spring Avenue "conceptual and aspirational." Image by the author.

You'll find a few missing middle homes around Silver Spring now, but they're rare because of mid-20th-century zoning laws designed to keep neighborhoods white and exclusive. Many are hidden in plain sight because they're designed to look like single-family homes that just happen to have an extra front door. A few were built in the 1980s and later. These homes tend to be more affordable than other housing types: they take up less land, reducing costs; they use cheaper wood-frame construction instead of steel or concrete; and some are simply old.

People are big mad

For decades, some Silver Spring neighbors have treated the downtown boundary like a wall, holding back the world from their suburban-ish streets. In the 1960s, that meant stopping a proposed highway, but today they fight plans to build anything from townhomes to affordable housing for senior citizens, arguing that they all belonged on the other side of Spring Street.

house being demolished on silver spring avenue
A home in East Silver Spring being demolished so it can be replaced by a mansion. Image by the author.
In letters to the Planning Board, some Silver Spring neighbors claimed that shifting a line on a map would “destabilize” their community. “The changes that you are considering would increase this traffic, ruin the park like atmosphere of our beautiful oasis of a neighborhood and decrease property values,” wrote Chris Shlemon of Woodside Park.

Bethesda residents chimed in, fearing that their community was next. “This process if approved will set a precedent for potential annexation of large sections of nearby residential neighborhoods into master/sector plan areas,” wrote Melanie Rose White, chair of the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights. “This action regarding Silver Spring is of major concern to us.”

At Thursday's public hearing, residents invoked Rachel Carson, who helped start the environmental movement here in Silver Spring, as a reason to not build homes near public transit. Others echoed County Executive Marc Elrich, and said the Planning Board shouldn't make decisions until the Covid-19 pandemic is over. Some white neighbors listed the races and nationalities of their neighbors as a reason why their neighborhood didn't need more affordable homes.

A lot of people support this too

Many residents wrote or spoke in support of the changes. (This is partially my fault, I encouraged my friends and neighbors to write in.) Seventeen Woodside Park residents signed a letter saying they don't agree with their neighbors who wrote in against it. Others talked about their struggles finding an affordable home here.

“We are incredibly fortunate to live, work, and raise our children in Silver Spring,” wrote Jennifer Lancaster of East Silver Spring, “but living here shouldn’t have to be a matter of luck, or an opportunity reserved for those who can afford $600k townhomes and $1.3 million dollar mansions.”

Several people talked about friends and loved ones who got priced out of Silver Spring. “MoCo residents worry about whether they could ever afford a house in our area, will they be able to afford their rising rent, will they have to move to Prince George’s or Howard County and sacrifice their best life in Silver Spring for an affordable home elsewhere?” wrote Tino Fragale, a community organizer who lives in Four Corners. “With this expansion, we can give so many folks the opportunity to live in the best city on earth.”

Now more than ever, we need an inclusive Silver Spring

Work on the Silver Spring Downtown Plan will continue over the next two years. In the meantime, last week’s killing of George Floyd has caused people to pay attention to issues of racial inequality in our country, and many are taking to the streets in protest.

Housing policy is a big part of that: it doesn’t just decide who lives where, but who can access education, health care, or economic opportunities. In Montgomery County, decisions about housing have intentionally excluded people, from 1930s redlining maps and 1950s racial covenants that kept black families from buying homes in white neighborhoods, to 1970s zoning that blocked low-income housing from certain areas.

We have a chance to fix these mistakes in Silver Spring. Not everyone will agree with that, particularly those who’ve historically benefitted from them. But the Planning Board is taking some steps in the right direction.

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