Monday, December 7, 2020

MoCo is working on a plan to tackle racial equity, public health, and climate change

The Montgomery County we know today may exist because of a little-known document written over 50 years ago. As county planners work on a replacement, they’re tackling some big issues, like racial equity, public health, and a slow economy.

A glimpse of our possible future? Image by Montgomery County Planning Department.

When most people think of Montgomery County, they might think of a prosperous, affluent bedroom suburb. It is one of the nation's richest counties and the largest employment center in Maryland. But household incomes have been flat for 30 years, and home prices jumped 14% just this year. Schools and neighborhoods are segregated by class and race, and Black and Latinx residents are more likely to be unemployed or pay more of their income for housing. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of adults were overweight or obese.

Over the past year, Montgomery County planners have been trying to find solutions, and put them together in Thrive 2050, an ambitious document for how the county should grow and change over the next thirty years. Thrive wouldn't actually change laws or policies: Planning Board chairman Casey Anderson called it a “plan for other plans," helping leaders make laws or policies in the future. The plan's big themes include racial justice, affordable homes, and more transportation options.

"A plan for other plans"

This isn't the first big plan Montgomery County has made. In the 1960s, the Planning Department produced “On Wedges and Corridors”, when people were leaving cities for the suburbs. Back then, the county doubled in population every 10 years, growing as fast as cities like Los Angeles and Houston. At the time, new suburban developments were messy and disorganized, lacking schools, roads, or parks.

The original "Wedges and Corridors" concept for Montgomery County. Image by Montgomery County Planning Department.

To fix this, nationally-renowned planner Harland Bartholomew proposed putting most future growth in a “corridor” along I-270, where residential “wedges” would sit on either side, but mostly to the less-affluent east. Many of On Wedges and Corridors’ recommendations happened, like the county’s park system, the Agricultural Reserve, and the Red Line.

Other things didn’t pan out, like a “North Central Freeway” through Takoma Park and Silver Spring. The plan also didn’t anticipate the county’s massive job growth. Bartholomew also didn’t want any apartments in rich white neighborhoods like parts of Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Silver Spring. The county sort of ignored this with downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, but otherwise basically left those communities alone.

So what are we going to do?

200,000 new people are estimated to move here the next 20 years, and unlike in the 1960s, they can’t go in a field somewhere far away. So there’s a lot of stuff in the draft plan, which is 166 pages long: More urban farms. A fourth Montgomery College campus in East County. Having courses where the public can learn about planning.

But Thrive's big idea is to replace “Wedges and Corridors” with “Complete Communities,” where instead of traveling long distances for daily needs, people could reach most daily needs within a 15-minute walk, bike ride, or drive. Shops, offices, and other amenities would be closer to where people live. Opening up single-family zoning to allow "missing middle" homes, like duplexes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings, would give people more housing options that fit their budget and needs. Building out the Bus Rapid Transit network Montgomery County approved in 2013 would give people an option for longer trips.

Thrive envisions replacing aging suburban strips - like this Sears department store in White Oak - with walkable neighborhoods. Image by Montgomery County Planning Department.

Of course, this sounds a lot like downtown Silver Spring or downtown Bethesda. Thrive envisions more places like this along the Red Line and future Purple Line, and major roads like Veirs Mill Road, Connecticut Avenue, and Columbia Pike, where today there are strip malls and spread-out neighborhoods.

The plan explicity ties this to racial equity. Due to redlining, racial covenants, exclusionary zoning, and many other racist policies, people of color in Montgomery County could not choose where to live or shop or work for most of the county's history, the legacy of which still impacts us today. Thus, giving all county residents more choices in where to live and how to get around could go a long way to fixing that - and make it easier to help the environment and the economy.

A few people are mad

During a marathon public hearing earlier last month, 85 people testified, according to the Planning Department. About two-thirds of the people who testified supported the plan, citing the high cost of housing, or a desire to not drive everywhere. Some speakers cited the racist history of planning in the county, and research about how the neighborhood you grow up in can dramatically change your life’s path.

“Restrictive zoning has contributed to segregated communities where children grow up in areas with little opportunity to learn and grow with the amazing diversity we have in our county,” said former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse, adding that Thrive would “[break] down those barriers that isolate populations and [give] all our families the opportunities they deserve.”

A Black Lives Matter protest in Bethesda in June 2020. Residents cited Montgomery County's racist history in supporting Thrive. Image by the author.

Yet some people were uncomfortable with Thrive’s recommendations about equity, particularly in regards to changing single-family zoning. County Executive Marc Elrich questioned whether you could solve equity without changing “the single family neighborhoods.” “For Equity, are we better off with 15-minute living or investing in early childhood education and schools?” he wrote in a letter to the Planning Board.

Speakers from wealthy communities were upset that the plan called out communities that “have become highly adept at using public process to block new housing." The Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights called that line “confrontational.” (Their website has a helpful list of things they are using the public process to block.) The Montgomery Countryside Alliance called the plan and the Planning Department “unnecessarily adversarial.” And Elrich, who has tried to block new housing during his career, said it was “unfriendly to community participation.”

What happens next

Ben Ross notes that even people who don't like Thrive aren't trying to block it, but slow down the process. It'll still be a while before Thrive becomes official.

Throughout the winter and spring, the Planning Board will work on the draft, before voting to approve it in April. From there, it’ll head over to the County Executive for his comments, before going to the County Council, who will have another public hearing and their own chance to make changes before voting on it late next year.

If you want to give feedback on Thrive, the official public comment period ends Thursday, December 10, though you can still email the Planning Board after that at

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