Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.
In DC's budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.
If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.
When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman's office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn't in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.
At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There's plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor's budget. But committee chairs don't publicly circulate a draft of the changes they're thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh's plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee's vote.
Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.
But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that's more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.
This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson's surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies' ability to execute programs that already exist. We'll talk about some of those next week.
If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.
Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can't think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that's not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven't heard, or Mendelson's staff hasn't heard. Even if it's the right choice, it's dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.
There's a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman's final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.
And even a day or two still isn't the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.
New residents of the District are sometimes discouraged from taking part in local politics. However, it's in everyone's interest for more people to get involved, even if they're only here for a short time.
I've had the pleasure of living in DC over the past four years as a student at Georgetown, and I enjoy being involved in the civic life of this great city. Nevertheless, in my work organizing college students through DC Students Speak, I've found that new residents are often marginalized as carpetbaggers who do not understand the issues facing the city.
At a DC Council candidate forum hosted by GGW in 2011, many candidates boasted about being "native Washingtonians," making them more qualified than others for higher office. I can't tell you how many times local political figures told me that college students don't have a right to be involved because we are relatively transient and have not lived in the District long enough.
These arguments bolster the credentials of long-term residents and question the legitimacy of newcomers' opinions. That's a problem considering how many people move to the District each year.
After decades of population loss, the District is adding new residents again. Today, it has about 630,000 people. It's foreseeable that it could go back to its 1950's-era peak of 800,000 residents as more people move here. It's essential that these new Washingtonians are encouraged to get involved in local politics.
The city benefits when relatively transient residents are involved in local politics. As a student organizer, I found time and time again that politicians ignored students' concerns. They didn't know what students wanted because my peers weren't engaged, so they couldn't help them. Moreover, residents from other places can make DC even more dynamic by helping to infuse the city with new and cutting-edge ideas.
Some residents don't have plans to stay here for a long time, like students or young professionals. We shouldn't hold it against them; rather, we should also encourage them to get involved while they're in town. I only got to live here for four years, but during that time I took part in my community through everything from DC Students Speak to tutoring in Petworth.
The only way that DC can truly become a great city is through engaging all members of the community, so they're interested and willing to care about where they live and give back to them in return. In the end, it's in the best interests of all District of Columbia residents to have a more involved citizenry.
We need to move beyond the tired rhetoric of who is or is not a "real Washingtonian." The way to build an even more dynamic District of Columbia by embracing everyone and encouraging them to join our community. After all, if they feel welcome, they might stick around.
The city routinely bids public land out to private companies. Instead of money, the city demands amenities like affordable housing, workforce development, or a library. Sometimes, these deals work well. Sometimes, they're just a bad deal, or developers renege on promises.
WAMU reporters Patrick Madden and Julie Patel have been delving into this issue in a series this week. Their Tuesday and Wednesday installments look at the ways public land deals and subsidies can go wrong.
Their week-long series frames the issue around the inappropriate influence of money in politics. If campaign donors get a leg up in the competition for deals, that is a serious problem, and good for Madden and Patel for giving it attention. However, campaign cash is only one of several possible reasons these deals can turn out bad. At the same time, they can also bring valuable benefits as well.
Land deals aren't just a giveaway
The Tuesday headline was "Million-Dollar Properties, $1 Deals." The lede talks about 5 projects that went to Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Construction. "The appraised value of all this public land, according to city records: $17.5 million. The price paid by the developers to the city, a little more than a parking ticket: $88."
Sounds like a massive handout! Where can I get a few acres for a buck? But later, Madden explains that it's not quite so simple. The deals come with big strings. In particular, they often have to build affordable housing.
Certainly there's some profit in these deals, and if that profit goes to the biggest donors, that's a big problem. However, Donatelli's profit isn't anywhere close to the $17,499,912 that the intro might lead people to believe.
Madden gives a table of the top 5 land deals:
|Project||Payment to DC||Value of land||Contributions|
by dev. team
|Hine Jr. HS||$21,800,000.00||$44,700,000.00||$194,045.00|
|West End (Library & Fire Station)||$18,000,000.00||$30,018,000.00||$127,295.00|
|Capital Fire Station||$15,000,000.00||$40,300,000.00||$123,646.00|
|Minnesota-Benning (Phase 2)||$10.00||$13,176,000.00||$122,076.00
This table isn't really, complete, however, without factoring in what the development teams have to spend on the public amenities that go into the buildings.
|Project||Pmt. to DC||Value of land||Public amenities|
|Hine Jr. HS||$21,800,000.00||$44,700,000.00||20% affordable housing|
C Street & plaza
|West End||$18,000,000.00||$30,018,000.00||New library, fire station|
|The Wharf||$1.00||$95,000,000.00||15% affordable housing|
|Capital Fire Station||$15,000,000.00||$40,300,000.00||(can't find this)|
|Minnesota-Benning||$10.00||$13,176,000.00||100% affordable housing|
What makes a good deal?
Figuring out how much those public amenities are worth, however, is the tricky part, and whether the government is getting a good deal. People often disagree about how much affordable housing is fair. In the West End, DC is giving Eastbanc two parcels, which now contain a library and fire station. Eastbanc can build housing, but has to also build a new library and fire station.
Eastbanc is also building 52 units of affordable housing with an additional $7 million subsidy from the city. DC's zoning commission then let Eastbanc out of the Inclusionary Zoning affordable housing requirement on one of the two parcels, after the developer and officials argued that the value the city is getting from the new library and fire station uses up all the value of the property.
Cheryl Cort thinks that despite the IZ exception, this is probably the best deal we can get. A library advocacy group Ralph Nader founded, the DC Library Renaissance Project is suing to stop the project, arguing that DC should have held out for more affordable housing. Many neighbors want the library, already and think the Nader group is going too far. There's no definitive way to know who's right.
Under the current leadership of DMPED's Victor Hoskins, the city has been seeking less affordable housing from its public land deals, and more direct revenues.
Sometimes public officials don't push for important amenities
DC economic development officials are often quite eager to get a deal done, even at the cost of important amenities. At Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, a DDOT plan for the area recommended a new road connection to expand the grid around Minnesota Avenue Metro and a highly congested intersection.
One of the two bidders included the connection, while the winner, Donatelli, did not. Representatives of Mayor Fenty's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) then joined Donatelli in lobbying against the concept or even reserving the right of way for a future street. Maybe it was too expensive or difficult, or maybe it was an important amenity that officials just didn't bother to push for.
Madden and Patel discusses some other problems with public land development deals like this. A law requires the developers to hire small and minority-owned businesses. Sometimes they don't. (Other times, those companies are just shells that give a payout to owners while a larger firm actually does the work.)
A WAMU investigation of 110 D.C. developments that received $1.7 billion in subsidies found:The series has an overarching thesis that much of this comes about because the developers are dishing out campaign cash. That certainly may be part of it, but it's not the only reason. Plus, Aaron Wiener plotted donations against the size of deals and found only a weak correlation.
- Flaws with benefits pledged for about half
- A third missed requirements on hiring local businesses, or the city didn't have paperwork for them
- Another 15 percent downsized or delayed benefits, costing the city millions in lost revenue and others arguably didn't need the subsidy in the first place
- Less than 5 percent of the subsidies approved were for the city's poorest areas, wards 7 and 8.
Cash probably does have an effect. So do other factors. Sometimes economic development officials or politicians just want to get the deal done because a ribbon-cutting is appealing while a project sitting unfinished is a hassle.
Public land deals, though often bungled, are still necessary
Madden says, "Activists and even some council members have asked why the city just doesn't hold a public auction for these properties and award them to the highest bidder." That's an option, but then there would be no amenities. Where would the new library go? Making it part of a larger mixed-use project is probably the best way to use the land, since a library doesn't need to take up an entire building. Wouldn't we be better off with a broader mix of uses that maximize the value of this site?
DC could just rent space in an office building for a library, perhaps, but is that space going to be well-suited for a library and in the right location? Plus, that would mean library rent goes up as neighborhoods become more desirable, creating a risk that future budget cuts imperil libraries entirely instead of just shortening their hours. Meanwhile, there's definitely no spec building out there that can fit a fire station.
Others, like Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, feel that public land should never go to private uses. She'd like DC to keep all of the publicly-owned land for schools, libraries, and so on. Many other activists also view any public-private partnership deals with suspicion, and don't want a private company building a library.
These public-private deals, imperfect as they are, seem to be a compromise between these two views. The public gets something for its land, but the land can also accommodate housing and offices when the public doesn't need every square foot for public use.
Still, it's important that public officials push to get the best deal for the city, and ensure that winning bidders keep the promises that helped them win bids in the first place. When officials don't, sometimes it's because of campaign cash, but there can be many other reasons as well, which are just as important to combat.
Besides having a useful mode of travel, Capital Bikeshare members report getting more exercise after joining, a survey found. But governments can do more to help low-income communities, where obesity is often greatest, take advantage of Capital Bikeshare.
Graduate students at George Washington University conducted the survey in partnership with Capital Bikeshare officials from DC and Arlington. Officials released it and another general survey of CaBi members this morning. The GWU survey collected responses from 2,830 members and asked about their exercise before and after joining Capital Bikeshare.
Between the before and after time periods, members are more likely to exercise at least 3 hours a week. 53% said they got at least 3 hours a week of exercise before, which rose to 60% after. Also, more members (66%) report having very good or excellent health, compared to 59% at the time they joined.
Also, the report says, "Over 30 percent of respondents indicated they had lost weight since joining, 60 percent reported no change, and 6 percent reported weight gain."
However, most members are not particularly joining for health reasons, but for transportation reasons. The report says that 71% said "get around more easily, faster, shorter time" as a "very important" main reason for joining, versus only 27% saying the same for "exercise, fitness."
How can health benefits go to those who need them most?
Many communities with the greatest health challenges are not taking strong advantage of Capital Bikeshare. Almost 97% of respondents in the survey have a bachelor's degree or higher. Members are predominantly younger, less likely to be poor, and slightly more male than the general population.
Most significantly, only about 3% of respondents were African-American, versus about half of DC and a quarter of the region. Wards 7 and 8, which face obstacles of greater poverty, larger hills, and poor bicycle connections to the rest of the city, have only 0.8% and 0.4% of Capital Bikeshare members, respectively.
This is far from a new issue. Darren Buck wrote a graduate paper about how other North American bike sharing systems are reaching out to underrepresented groups. Today's GWU report suggests Capital Bikeshare pursue sponsorships from health insurance companies and state and local health agencies to fund outreach programs, do further studies on why some communities don't join Capital Bikeshare, and other research.
It would also be interesting to find out more about how the lower usage by lower-income and minority residents corresponds to factors, like geography, which nobody can control. In areas that already enjoy mixed-use growth, like Columbia Heights, are residents from underrepresented groups more likely to join Capital Bikeshare than elsewhere in the city? If so, that could point to ways to make the most impact on health in a shorter period of time and with fewer resources.
Arlington Memorial Bridge opened in 1932, amidst the very depths of the Great Depression. It was a major event in Washington, which drew President Herbert Hoover, the first lady, and the vice president.
This vintage newsreel illustrates the excitement. The newsman is particularly enthusiastic that the bridge is wide enough for "4 cars to pass abreast."
By the way, did you know the bridge doesn't actually go to Arlington? Both sides are totally within the District of Columbia.
It's a common misconception that the boundary between DC and Virginia is the middle of the Potomac. But in fact, the entire river is part of the District. If you are standing on the Virginia shore and step one foot into the river, you have technically crossed into DC.
The Memorial Bridge technically connects mainland DC and Columbia Island. The island is best known for the traffic circle on the far side of the bridge, often-confusing ramps on and off the George Washington Parkway, unsafe pedestrian/bicycle crossings, and Park Police who yell at drivers when they stop for pedestrians.
Since Columbia Island is fully within DC, so is the Memorial Bridge. The actual Virginia boundary is along the much-shorter Esplanade Bridge, between Columbia Island and the Virginia mainland. This also means the GW Parkway and Mount Vernon Trail are partially within DC, since they run through Columbia Island.
Periodic protest organizer Adam Kokesh might benefit from consulting this map. He's trying to lead a July 4th march with guns on DC, but since DC prohibits carrying guns around, including loaded ones, he's now planning to march on the Memorial Bridge up to the District line and meet police there. He might have a hard time, since the District line doesn't cross the Memorial Bridge.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Prince George's County has diverged from its smart growth goals, says the county Planning Board in a searing assessment. The board says residents have a choice: push for more transit-oriented development and walkable communities, or "be resigned to business as usual."
The board released a policy paper called How and Where We Grow as part of an update of the county's 20-year plan for growth and development. It offers aggressive proposals to tame sprawling, scattered development and focus public resources at Metro stations and priority urban centers.
While official plans and rhetoric say transit-oriented development is important, land use trends show a different story on the ground. The county must recommit to managing its growth in a sustainable way by preserving open space and focusing development around Metro stations, says the board. Otherwise, the county will remain a place known for bedroom communities, underutilized Metro stations, and weak job growth.
Members of the public can offer their input on the county's future at a day-long town meeting next month.
Prince George's is at a crossroads
"Prince George's County is at a crossroads," the Planning Board states. "Will we choose bold action or business as usual?"
The document recounts how the 2002 General Plan vision for growth and land use fell short of its original goals over the years. Without commitment to a new direction, the county can expect more spread out development, continued failure to capitalize on the promise of transit-oriented development, and lagging investment to spark revitalization of communities inside the Beltway.
Between 2002 and 2010, residential growth in the county departed from the General Plan by spreading out into over 6,400 acres of the "Developing Tier," a rapidly suburbanizing area outside the Beltway. The lion's share of the county's development occurred there, including 73% of residential and 60% of commercial growth.
In the "Developed Tier," inside the Beltway, growth lagged. It fell short of goals by capturing 25% rather the hoped-for 33% goal. However, what was built there consumed just 5% of the county's land area.
Development in the pipeline, which has been approved but not yet built, promises more of the same. More than 79% of residential units in the development pipeline are single-family detached houses in the Developing Tier. Yet according to the Planning Board, demand forecasts show that more than 60% of the new housing units to be built should be multifamily units located in walkable communities at transit-accessible locations.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
How and Where We Grow points to the costs of these growth patterns: spread-out development at densities that are difficult to support with quality transit or retail services, long commutes, and a future as a bedroom community to the region. Over the past 40 years, a third of the county's open space, agricultural, and forested land were converted to low-density residential development. The loss of open space has fragmented natural areas and undermined the agricultural economy.
Furthermore, the board notes that the county has attracted the fewest number of new residents of an area jurisdiction from 2000 to 2010. "Without recalibration of county priorities and policies that promote TOD [transit-oriented development] and high-quality, mixed-use development," the paper says, "it is likely that the county will be at a continued disadvantage to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide."
The county needs a unified vision
The board notes that the structure of county government undermines unity and fosters internal competition through the lack of at-large council members on the county council. "While the County Executive can focus and coordinate resources, the nine different Council members, oftentimes with nine different priorities, it is difficult to agree upon a single vision for the county," says the paper. "In practice this means that public dollars get spread across the county, instead of being concentrated in a few places to make a truly significant impact."
A "clear mismatch in stated goals and actual infrastructure investment" emerges when assessing the county's transportation spending priorities, the board finds. There's also far more commercial and mixed-use zoning than the market can support. The paper notes that the county's weak commercial tax base makes it a challenge to compete for employers or have the financial resources to address community needs, like crime and poor schools.
Given these tough observations, the planners put forth a realistic agenda for the future with this set of specific recommendations aimed at leveraging existing infrastructure:
- Define density targets and growth goals for the tiers to shift the focus of development to the centers and the Developed Tier.
- Make a stronger commitment by targeting new growth to the Developed Tier and increase the growth objectives for the tier.
- Locate the new hospital center and key government functions at a transit-oriented development location.
- Reduce the backlog pipeline development (which can linger for decades). Prioritize and phase development by requiring bonding for infrastructure improvements. Also use the water and sewer process to more aggressively discourage greenfield development.
- Prioritize and fast track building permits in targeted areas (County Council is currently advancing a bill to do this).
- Revise surcharge fees for schools and public safety, encourage development in the Centers and Developed Tier by reducing fees, and phase growth in the Developing Tier through fee increases.
- Adopt new zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations. Ensure they are supportive of the General Plan goals, including encouraging transit-oriented development.
The planning board's honest, stern assessment of the county's challenges and practical list of reforms offer the chance for Prince George's County to change its ways. County leadership has shown some appetite for meaningful reforms. At the request of the county council and executive, the state delegation enabled the county to reduce fees for developments around Metro stations during the last Maryland legislative session.
The County Council is also advancing a bill to expedite development review for projects close to Metro stations. Meanwhile, the debate over where to locate the proposed Regional Medical Center has shifted away from expansive open sites to parcels around the Largo Town Center Metro station.
However, the county's spending priorities still reflect business as usual, with a focus on building costly intersections for new communities like National Harbor and Konterra instead of investments to enhance access to transit stations or improve bus service. Expensive sprawl-supporting highway projects remain high on the county's wish list for state funding, such as roads to support the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia development located outside the Capital Beltway and miles from the nearest Metro station.
Despite the mixed and sometimes contradictory priorities pursued by the county, the Planning Board and staff are making waves by pointing out the costs of continuing old ways that will allow the county to fall further behind.
Prince George's County's parks department plans to triple the amount of paved trails in the next 25 years. But it's unclear whether the trails will take people where they need to go.
"I read the County's draft Formula 2040 plan for 200 more miles of paved trails," said a senior official of the Maryland Department of Transportation, whose staff makes decisions about which trails get federal and state transportation funding. "Nowhere does the plan seem to mention transportation."
Prince George's County has great parks, largely because they are managed by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). Although the county government has limited funds for infrastructure, the Commission has the authority to levy a 0.23% property tax for parks and recreation. The trails, however, leave much to be desired.
The county lacks a trail network
Major trails lead out of the District of Columbia in almost every direction: The Mount Vernon Trail to the south, the Custis/W&OD Trail to the west, Capital Crescent to the northwest, and Rock Creek to the north. But there's nothing going east.
I created this map for WABA's oral testimony at M-NCPPC's Fiscal Year 2013 budget hearing to help the commissioners visualize the county's lack of major trails into Washington and how they might cure the problem.
In Prince George's County, most trails are very short. The few longer trails generally lack connections to transit, and they stop just before their destinations. The WB&A Trail starts 2.5 miles from the New Carrollton Metro station and stops at the Patuxent River. The Henson Creek Trail stops across the Beltway from the Branch Avenue Metro Station.
Neither trail has an interim on-road bike route. You just have to turn around. For several years, the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) has urged M-NCPPC to extend the WB&A Trail west to the New Carrollton Metro station, but to no avail.
One exception is the Anacostia Tributary Trail System, which runs from College Park to Bladensburg and west to Langley Park. Soon, it will extend south to the Anacostia Trail along the east side of the Anacostia River in DC.
No agency is trying to create a trail network
M-NCPPC's transportation planners have created a master plan for what the ultimate network should be by the year 2100. But no entity is responsible for actually creating it. Certain segments are simply built when convenient.
Several government offices are responsible for some aspect of the bicycle infrastructure in Prince George's. M-NCPPC's Parks Department builds trails in parks. Its Planning Department often requires developers to build trails through new neighborhoods, if a trail appears on the county's master plan. Transportation planners at M-NCPPC occasionally conduct feasibility and preliminary design studies of trails useful for transportation.
The State Highway Administration sometimes builds sidepaths along state highways. Although the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) has not built trails, it is responsible for most of the bicycle network that actually exists: the county roads.
No one coordinates these disparate activities. So rather than a network, the county has a set of standalone trails: Short, disconnected segments through new developments and a few reasonably long trails.
Residents ask for more trails, Parks Department responds
M-NCPPC is revising its master plan for parks and recreation for the first time since 1982, and trails have become a big part of it. In a poll that asked residents which park amenities they use, more residents listed trails than any other M-NCPPC facility.
In response, the Parks Department proposed adding 200 miles of paved trails, along with almost 100 miles in unpaved trails. About 20 percent of its capital budget would be dedicated to trails, according to Chuck Montrie, the park planning supervisor.
The plan emphasizes trails that "connect urban centers and neighborhoods with existing trails facilities; employment centers; Metro stations; historic, environmental, and cultural resources," along with "neighborhood anchors including schools, libraries, and parks."
The County Council is now reviewing the plan. At a hearing last month, WABA enthusiastically endorsed the increased emphasis on trails. WABA also recommends an interim goal of 40 miles by 2020, and connecting trails to designated transit-oriented districts, such as New Carrollton. (I spoke on behalf of WABA.)
Will M-NCPPC take the lead?
The draft plan prioritizes connecting trails to other trails and Metro, but M-NCPPC doesn't always own the land necessary for those connections. So what will have the higher priority: a difficult crossing over the Beltway to a Metro station, or connecting two trails on park property in a low-density area?
Is M-NCPPC proposing to take the lead on creating a trail network designed for both transportation and recreation? Or is it merely saying that if two possible trails on park property are equally challenging, it will build the one that goes somewhere? The plan does not say.
Montrie has indicated that M-NCPPC may be ready to move beyond park boundaries. "Stream valley trails can only take us so far," he recently told a meeting of local advocates. "We are going to have to build other types of trails."
M-NCPPC planners think that this plan might get agencies to start taking responsibility for bicycle transportation. I recently suggested to Fred Shaffer, a transportation planner who also chairs the county bicycle advisory group, that the county seems unwilling to even consider cycle tracks on county roads. "That may change," Shaffer responded. "Parks and DPW&T may soon start working together to achieve the 200-mile goal."
Is M-NCPPC ready?
Every June, the Maryland Bikeways Program solicits proposals from local governments for bike lanes and trails that are useful for transportation. Proposals have the greatest chance for funding if they connect existing trails to rail transit stations or other population centers.
With the new plan's emphasis on trails to Metro, one might expect that M-NCPPC would propose to connect the Henson Creek or WB&A trail across the Beltway to the planned transit districts, which County Executive Rushern Baker hopes can help jump-start the county's economy. But no: The Parks Department intends to seek funds to connect the Henson Creek trail to a recreation center. And its focus is not extending the WB&A trail west to New Carrollton and on to the Anacostia Trail, but east into Anne Arundel County.
Last week the Planning Department started to think about how to extend the WB&A trail west accross the Beltway. But lately its transportation planners have had their hands full with the Purple Line and a new policy requiring developers to build more sidewalks.
Creating functionally useful trails will probably take more staff, and a change in how park planners view their mission.
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, and more.
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.
Plan calls for three urban nodes, new parkland
Planners envision creating three new "activity centers" clustered around the Food and Drug Administration, whose 9,000 employees began moving here in 2009, and Washington Adventist Hospital, which wants to move here from Takoma Park.
The largest would be LifeSci Village, a partnership between local developer Percontee and Montgomery County to build a planned community for bioscience research and technology behind the FDA campus. Today, it's a 300-acre brownfield site containing a shuttered sludge treatment plant and a concrete recycling facility.
"We have to create a compelling reason for people to come here," says Jonathan Genn, executive vice president at Percontee. Bioscience workers "tend not to [have] your normal 9-to-5 week," he adds. "They're working nights and weekends. They want that vitality."
Designed by New Urbanist architecture firm Torti Gallas and Partners, the $3.2 billion project would contain a research campus with several "world-renowned" academic institutions, along with offices and labs, a hotel and conference center. There would be a commercial district with shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, and up to 5,300 new homes, including apartments, townhomes and some single-family homes.
Another "activity center" would be at 40-acre White Oak Shopping Center at New Hampshire and Route 29 would give way to apartments, offices and shops in buildings up to 200 feet tall surrounding an "urban plaza" and a "neighborhood green" for community gatherings. The plan encourages redeveloping the 1960's-era garden apartments behind the shopping center, but only if the new buildings set aside at least 15% of their units for affordable housing.
The third would be in Hillandale, where both Georgetown University and Montgomery College have expressed interest in buying the former National Labor College campus at New Hampshire Avenue and the Beltway.
Meanwhile, residents would get a larger open space network, including neighborhood parks, a recreational park and a proposed, 130-acre expansion of Paint Branch Park into the FDA property, the vast majority of which is unused.
Planners seek new approach to congestion
The Science Gateway plan is a 180-degree turn from previous plans for White Oak and East County, which sought to keep the status quo. Planners say that old solutions won't fix White Oak's real issues, and that improving transit and bringing amenities closer to where people live is the best way to handle traffic.
"Creating a really vibrant, mixed-use community ... is a mitigating factor," says Genn. "People can walk to work, bike to work, people can do other activities after work. All of those things mitigate traffic impact at rush hour."
In total, the Science Gateway plan allows up to 8,500 new homes and 13 million square feet of new commercial space containing up to 43,000 new jobs. That's more than double the amount of homes and commercial space here today, and nearly triple the amount of jobs.
Planners hope that new transit and improved local street connections will help reduce the Science Gateway's traffic impacts. Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit network would connect the three centers to each other and to the rest of the region with lines along Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue, and Randolph Road.
BRT lines currently under study (in blue) and an extension to LifeSci Village (in green). Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
The plan also calls for connecting dead-end streets where possible and building a new street grid at the White Oak Shopping Center and LifeSci Village. Planners recommend rebuilding a bridge that carries Old Columbia Pike over the Paint Branch, which was closed to cars 30 years ago, and creating a network of "green streets" with bike lanes.
By giving residents, workers and visitors alternatives to driving, the plan's goal is that 30% of all trips will be made without a car by 2040. That may seem unrealistic, but 25% of White Oak residents already commute to work by foot, bike or transit today. The Metrobus K and Z lines, which serve White Oak, are some of the most-used routes in suburban Maryland.
Strict staging requirements would ensure that new development wasn't occurring without the public infrastructure needed to support it. Under the plan, most of the development wouldn't occur until after the Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 29 and New Hampshire were funded and built. The Planning Department would have to submit reports every 2 years showing that infrastructure has caught up to development.
Science Gateway could improve jobs-housing imbalance
While the Science Gateway could help fix the region's jobs-housing imbalance by putting more jobs on the east side, closer to where the most affordable housing is, reducing the need to commute to the I-270 corridor or Northern Virginia for work.
There are no fewer than 5 plans each calling for a similar amount of development as in the White Oak plan along I-270, like the the Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, which both residents and smart growth advocates criticized for putting too much development in an isolated area.
Many of them suggested that White Oak was a better location for it, and East County residents agree. In 2009, the East County Citizens Advisory Board demanded more jobs and investment in the area, while visitors to a 2010 open house advocated for more density and transit.
Improving pedestrian, bike and transit connections could help traffic in White Oak. Photo by the author.
Nonetheless, most of the Science Gateway isn't allowed under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which discourages new development in congested areas based on the assumption that everyone will drive everywhere no matter what.
But "even if Montgomery County limited development," planners note, "regional and local traffic will continue to congest the highway network." To make White Oak eligible for new development, planners simply recommend not including regional highways like Route 29 and the Beltway in traffic counts, which would lower the area's traffic counts, making it eligible for new housing and job growth.
Not everyone's convinced, however. "This just means we're going to suffer from more traffic," said Alison Praisner Klumpp, Calverton resident and current member of the East County Citizens Advisory Board, said at a presentation on the plan earlier this month. Carole Ann Barth, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation and a resident of Four Corners, called the plan "shallow, simplistic and ultimately impractical" while claiming it would force people to live in apartments against their will.
Plan needs transit, some industry to succeed
As someone who currently lives and bikes in White Oak, I'm excited by the Science Gateway plan. Having more jobs, shopping and housing choices in East County will encourage hopefully make this area a destination of choice once again.
However, this plan can't happen without good transit, especially a direct connection to LifeSci Village. While the staging requirements require BRT to be funded and built before major development occurs, the county's current plans call for buses without dedicated lanes on much of New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29. Without fast, reliable transit, people will continue to drive, placing an undue burden on area roads.
In addition, planners may want to reconsider preserving some of the light industrial uses in the plan area, like at the Montgomery Industrial Park on Industrial Parkway. Just 1% of Montgomery County is zoned for industrial activity, and there aren't many other places where it can go. There may not be enough of a market to rezone all of it for mixed-use development, as the plan recommends.
Studies show that a majority of Americans across racial and generational lines want to be close to transit, jobs, shopping, dining and entertainment, and communities across Montgomery County and the region are responding. If White Oak wants to reclaim its former prosperity, it can and should follow suit.
The Montgomery County Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan this Thursday at 6:30pm at the Planning Department, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To sign up to testify or send written comments, visit their website.
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