Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Ben Ross

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

Chevy Chase grasps at straws in the Purple Line fight

The Town of Chevy Chase has run out of coherent arguments in its fight to keep the Purple Line away from its borders.


The Purple Line in Maryland. Rendering by MTA.

With a Republican administration arriving in Annapolis, endangered shrimp-like creatures are no longer in fashion. So in a series of blog posts this week, former Chevy Chase mayor David Lublin focuses instead on the project's finances. He makes two main points in his criticism of the Maryland Transit Administration's plans for the Purple Line: that the state will turn to private partners to help fund it, and that the state expects it to carry more passengers than other light rail lines around the country.

But these are strengths, not weaknesses.

Lublin's claim that the project is weak because it uses a public-private partnership (P3) has things backwards. The project's merit is why the state chose it as the vehicle for P3 funding. Maryland could afford to build the Purple Line with current revenues, but it needs money for other transportation projects.

The total of the road and transit projects around the state is more than what the state can finance within its debt limit. Under Maryland law, P3 financing doesn't count against the limit because it is not paid back out of taxes. (In this case, fare revenue will repay the investors.) The state selected the Purple Line as a vehicle for P3 financing rather than some other facility because it judged that it would be unusually attractive to private investors. This judgment has proved correct, demonstrating the project's financial soundness.

Compared to other transportation projects, the Purple Line is the best investment Maryland can make

Maryland faces serious budget pressures, but that does not mean it can or should stop building transportation infrastructure. Over the next six years, the state plans to spend $7.2 billion on capital projects through the State Highway Administration, and $6.2 billion on transit through MTA and WMATA.

The state relies heavily on county governments to prioritize transportation investments. In 2013, following the increase in the gas tax, MDOT announced funds for replacing the Nice Bridge, a project that will cost $1 billion to serve an estimated 37,000 cars per day, because that's what Calvert Charles County prioritized. MDOT also funded design for the Thomas Johnson Bridge, estimated to cost over $800 million, because that's what Calvert and St. Mary's Counties wanted.

In Montgomery and Prince George's alone, there are dozens of road widening and interchange projects in the pipeline that collectively cost billions. In Montgomery, there are at least eight interchanges, including the Georgia Avenue/Norbeck Road interchange ($142 million), the US-29/Fairland Road interchange ($148 million), a new interchange at I-270/Newcut Road ($138 million), and four more interchanges on US-29 that will cost an additional $500 million. In Prince George's, officials have plans for an interchange at MD-4/Suitland Parkway for $150 million, and for seven interchanges on Indian Head Highway totaling $606 million.

Ten interchanges cost as much as the state's share of the Purple Line. Which of these will create more access to jobs and stimulate more economic development? Prince George's and Montgomery know the answer, and for many years their leaders have identified the Purple Line as their transportation priority.

Lublin claims the Purple Line's projected ridership is inflated, but that's not true

Lublin's second claim is that Purple Line proponents have overestimated its ridership. For this argument, he relies on a blog post by the well-known light rail critic Randal O'Toole, who asserts the Maryland line won't carry any more riders than others around the country.

O'Toole doesn't look at the specifics of the state's ridership forecastwhich, as I showed recently, is probably too low rather than too highbut instead relies on general observations about the route. These range from very dubious ("no major job centers" in Montgomery County) to irrelevant (the average density of the built-up sections of the county, including Germantown and Olney) to just plain false (he says many University of Maryland classrooms are not within walking distance of a future station).

Even worse, O'Toole gets the numbers completely wrong. He says the final Environmental Impact Statement forecasts 46,000 riders a day in 2030; actually, it says there will be 69,300 in 2030 and 74,160 in 2040. Similarly, he misquotes the draft EIS36,000 rather than around 65,000 (the route the state later chose is a hybrid of alternatives with forecasted ridership of 62,600 and 68,100).

Based on O'Toole's analysis, Lublin infers that fare revenues will fall short of estimates. He then throws in a complete red herring, asserting that Baltimore bus fares will pay to run the Purple Line. It would have the same degree of truth, and be just as misleading, to say that car registration fees paid in Garrett County finance the free courtesy van at Martin Airport east of Baltimore. Maryland collects revenue from air, water, and ground transportation throughout the state into a single trust fund. All regions contribute, and all benefit.

David Lublin is not a stupid person, and he is familiar with the Purple Line ridership forecasts. While he served on its council, Chevy Chase paid consultants a lot of money to critique the state's numbers. If the arguments in his recent blog posts are the best he's got, that speaks volumes about the weakness of the case against the Purple Line.

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New Maryland toll lanes will lose money

New toll lanes that opened Saturday on I-95 promise to be a financial debacle for Maryland. In all probability, the tolls won't bring in enough money to pay the extra cost of building toll lanes rather than widening the highway without tolls.


I-95 express toll lanes cross the Baltimore Beltway. MdTA rendering.

Over the next six years, the state expects tolls to bring in about $5 million a year after subtracting the costs of toll collection. The official forecast is that traffic on I-95 will grow 1% per year and that much of the added traffic will wind up on the toll lanes, resulting in net toll revenues will reach nearly $10 million in 2025.

But since 2006, traffic volumes on I-95, like elsewhere in Maryland and around the country, have been flat. The revenue growth predicted for the 2020s is hardly something to bank on.

Dividing a highway into parallel toll and free lanes is expensive. Ramps, dividers, medians, and toll collection equipment all run the bill up. In 2003, when Governor Robert Ehrlich decided on the widening project, construction cost estimates came in at $370 million for free lanes and $645 million for toll lanes, a difference of $275 million. Planners eliminated some ramps to save money, but the project's total price tag still soared to $1.08 billion. No one recalculated the extra cost of building pay lanes, but it surely wound up well north of $200 million.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the state's toll roads, pays interest rates of 4% and up on long-term bonds. That means $5 million a year in revenue will pay back less than $125 million of capital costs. Even if the hoped-for traffic growth materializes and revenue grows to $10 million a year after 2025, it won't cover the extra costs of tolling.

This dismal financial picture comes as no surprise. It came up all the way back in 2006, and Greater Greater Washington examined it in more detail last year.

Why did Maryland ever undertake such a project? Since the tolls won't cover the extra construction costs that they require, tolls are clearly not a way to raise money. What toll lanes do accomplish is to push most drivers off the pay lanes and onto the crowded free lanes. That might be acceptable if the toll lanes paid for themselves, but in this case it's the majority that's getting stuck with the bill, subsidizing an affluent minority.

The difference between the project's tiny revenues and vast cost will be made up from tolls on facilities like the Harbor Tunnel and Bay Bridge, where everyone has to pay. These are Lexus lanes where Corolla drivers make the car payments.

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Montgomery throws more money at unneeded parking

Montgomery County is about to spend tens of millions of dollars on a 395-space parking garage in Wheaton, even though more than 500 parking spaces sit empty in a Metro garage a block away.


Bethesda's $80,000-per-space garage under construction. Photo by author.

The new garage would sit northwest of the Metro station, beneath a mixed-use development that will house several county agencies along with retail stores and 200 apartments. The county will own the garage and office building, while the apartments will belong to the developers, StonebridgeCarras and Bozzuto.

County Executive Ike Leggett announced the complex financing arrangement for this multi-phase project last month. The developers will build a 12-story office building, the garage, and a public plaza for the county.

In exchange, they'll get $102 million in cash as well the land in Silver Spring where the Planning Board currently sits and the rights to use county property in Wheaton for the 200 apartments. They'll build 360 apartments on the Silver Spring parcel, and in both locations, they must include more affordable dwellings than ordinarily required.

When I asked, a spokesperson for the county transportation department did not provide a dollar value for the Silver Spring land or Wheaton building rights. The county spokesperson also would not break out the cost of the garage, but at a typical underground parking cost of $50,000 or more per space, it's likely that Montgomery County is spending at least $20 million on the garage.

The garage will have 383 public parking spaces plus 12 reserved spaces for Planning Board higher-ups. The county has not estimated revenue from the garage, as decisions about hourly rates and the number of long- and short-term parking spaces have yet to be made.

Unused parking spaces are nearby

Meanwhile, a Metro parking garage with more than 500 empty spaces sits close by. In fact, the 977-car Wheaton garage is actually closer to the development site than it is to the Metro station. Under a court order issued when the transit agency condemned land for the garage, it is open to non-Metro riders as well as riders.

This is hardly the first time the Montgomery County Department of Transportation has shown a ravenous appetite for expensive parking garages. Two years ago, in Silver Spring, the county opened a 152-space underground garage around the corner from a public garage that's mostly empty. In downtown Bethesda, where the existing parking is only 72% occupied, the county paid more than $80,000 per parking space for a soon-to-open 900-space garage. And at the White Flint conference center, the county plans to spend $21 million for a garage it will hand over to a private operator who charges $15 a day.

Opaque finances and money wasted on unneeded parking are a blot on projects that do a lot of good for Montgomery County's urbanizing downtowns. With the county suddenly short of money, now is not the time to repeat in Wheaton the expensive mistakes made in Bethesda and Silver Spring.

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The Purple Line will likely beat ridership forecasts

Tucson's new streetcar and the light rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul are beating ridership forecasts. It's a good bet that the Purple Line, which will break ground next year, will do the same. What do they have in common? All run through the heart of major state universities.


A Green Line train passing through the University of Minnesota. Image from Wikipedia.

Planners predicted that Tucson's new streetcar would carry 3,600 passengers a day. Just three months after it opened, the figure is 4,700. The light rail between Minneapolis and St Paul that started running in June foresaw 33,000 daily riders in 2015; the count has already passed 37,000.

The forecasts in Minnesota and Arizona did not fall short for lack of effort. A lot of work goes into ridership estimates, and the Federal Transit Administration carefully vets them. Indeed, that vetting may be the cause of the lowball predictions.

Since the federal agency has the job of choosing the best among many projects seeking funding, it can't let local governments puff up their numbers. So it insists that forecasters begin with computer models approved by regional planning agencies and lets them deviate only when hard evidence justifies it. The models are slanted against transitthey ignore the ongoing return to the city and assume a future of more sprawl and more driving.

On top of that, they treat universities like any other workplace. That's a good enough approximation if you're trying to predict rush-hour highway traffic, the models' original purpose, but it undercounts potential transit riders.

For many reasons, transit gets more use at universities than elsewhere:

  • Students tend to have less income than their neighbors.
  • Cultural change is turning younger adults, especially the college-educated, away from driving.
  • Few students have children, so they have less need of cars for errands.
  • College campuses are more walkable than elsewhere, especially in suburban areas.
  • Parking at universities is often scarce and is usually a long walk from classrooms and offices.
The FTA recognizes the limitations of its models, and it allows plans for new rail lines to take the behavior of students into account. But it's not easy to put numbers on diffuse social trends, and walkability is hard to measure.

The Tucson streetcar project tried to count its students, but it had trouble backing up its estimates and left them out of its official forecast. Minnesota rail planners treated students as a separate category of commuter, willing to put up with more delay on a bus or train than someone going to work. In both cities ridership beat forecasts even before school started, showing that the university effect is not just about students.

There's every reason to think the same thing will happen when the Purple Line runs through College Park. Its forecasts don't include the new riders who will be attracted by vastly improved transit service from the campus to Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The model predicts 550 daily boardings in 2030 by university employees at the stop in front of the Student Union. But shuttle buses from there to the College Park and Silver Spring Metro stations already carry 600 employee round trips a day.


Rendering of the Purple Line station at the University of Maryland. Image from the Maryland MTA.

Purple Line forecasters did add an estimate of student riders to the computer calculation of employees. Here, again, the numbers look to be low. They predicted only 25% more students on light rail than the number now riding the two shuttles and parallel bus routes. That is merely the increase in bus ridership that will come from enrollment growth and tighter restrictions on parking. It's more reasonable to expect the Purple Line to far outperform the current buses, which run infrequently to Silver Spring and only in rush hour to Bethesda.

The success of transit lines depends on more than measurable quantities of jobs and homes. Walkability and culture matter too. The Purple Line, anchored in the three urbanizing centers of College Park, Bethesda, and Silver Spring, is poised to join the list of outperformers.

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Many Silver Line riders make a long trek from Metro's eastern branches

Fifteen percent of commuters who take Metro's Silver Line to Tysons Corner or Wiehle Avenue come from east of the Anacostia River in DC or Prince George's County. These long commutes result from a growth pattern that puts jobs in far-flung western suburbs and affordable housing in the east. They're part of the price our region pays for sprawl.


Wiehle Avenue station. Photo by Matt Johnson.

Data released last week from Metro shows that 150 of the 983 morning rush hour riders arriving daily at Wiehle Avenue come from the system's easternmost stations. With 126 out of 827 passengers coming from the same area, the new Tysons station has similar numbers. The percentage is even higher at Spring Hill station.

These numbers are particularly noteworthy because only 20% of Metro's morning riders come from east of the Anacostia or Prince George's in the first place.

Silver Line stationAM peak riders
from EOTR/PG
Total AM
peak riders
Percentage
McLean383879%
Tysons Corner12682715%
Spring Hill8440620%
Greensboro343848%
Wiehle Ave15098315%
Total432298714%
Click on a column header to sort.

Some of those arriving at Wiehle Avenue are no doubt well-off homeowners who chose long commutes in order to live near Chesapeake Bay. After years of long car treks around the crowded Beltway, they might well prefer to park at New Carrollton or Largo and take a train trip of 70 minutes or more.

But the most common motivation for Silver Line riders from the east side is surely economic necessity, as most board at stations that draw riders from less affluent neighborhoods nearby.

Going from New Carrollton or Addison Road to Reston is a tough commute no matter how one travels, and if you have to wait for the bus at one or both ends, it's brutal. These ridership figures are a reminder of how painful it is when low wages meet land use policies that separate jobs from affordable housing.

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Dead ends: How zoning embalmed cities

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. In this one, he explains the history of zoning.

Since the last years of the nineteenth century, covenants had been widely used to exclude undesirable people, buildings, and activities from new subdivisions. But these private contracts worked only imperfectly and incompletely.


Sign for an early Kansas City suburb. Image from the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Older neighborhoods still lacked their protection. In principle, landowners could establish restrictions at any time, but in practice covenants had to be imposed in advance by the subdivider because a large group of homeowners could never agree on the details of the rules. And even when in place, covenants were hard to enforce. ...

Homeowners and real estate developers desired more comprehensive and more effective controls. This was something only the power of government could achieve.

The call for action was not unanimous. What covenants and zoning offered homebuyers was permanenceassurance that in future years they would be surrounded by people and buildings of the same quality as when they moved in. Stopping change was not in everyone's interest.

The subdividers of large tracts, who maximized the value of the initial sale with promises of permanence, benefited most. They spearheaded the push for government regulation as they had for deed covenants. Small-scale speculators, who dealt in property already subdivided and hoped to profit from new and denser uses, led the opposition.

Los Angeles took a first step toward the systematic separation of land uses in 1908. The Los Angeles Realty Board, dominated by developers of upscale restricted neighborhoods, urged zoning on the city with the support of affluent homeowners. A pair of ordinances created seven industrial districts and defined nearly all of the city's remaining territory as residential districts. There businesses were allowed only when the City Council granted an exception.

Other cities soon followed this example. In 1913 Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York authorized cities, when property owners so requested, to establish districts where nonresidential uses were banned. The Illinois legislature passed a similar law that died when the governor, on being advised that it was unconstitutional, used his veto.

Early zoning laws often proscribed unwanted races along with unwanted land uses. In 1910 a Baltimore ordinance kept blacks from any block where more than half the residents were white. Birmingham, Atlanta, Richmond, St. Louis, and other municipalities soon enacted racial zoning as well.

Blacks could of course sleep in white neighborhoods when they were household help living on their employers' propertyand the Atlanta ordinance also permitted black homeowners to house white servants. This bow to constitutional doctrine showed how hollow was the promise of "separate but equal." A black man who presumed, in that time and place, to hire whites as domestic help would be lucky to see another sunrise.

Such maneuvers were too transparent even for the conservative judges of the day. In a 1917 case that gave the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People its first legal victory, a unanimous Supreme Court struck down racial zoning. Louisville's zoning ordinance, the court held, violated the white landowner's constitutional right to sell property to blacks. Racial segregation would have to rely on private contracts.

Zoning codes could no longer divide races, but they could still separate uses, and soon the nation's largest city had one. The skyscrapers that would dominate New York's skyline had just appeared, and many feared these giant buildings would shut off light and air and congest traffic.

Meanwhile, the spread of garment manufacturers into the upscale shopping district on Fifth Avenue was annoying retailers. Their customers were now forced to mix on sidewalks with immigrant workers. "Gentlemen, you are like cattle in a pasture, and the needle trades workers are the flies that follow you from one pasture to another," storeowners were told at a private luncheon.

Such rhetoric lacked mass appeal, so the merchants promoted zoning with other arguments. Their well-funded publicity campaign warned of a grab bag of evils from truck traffic to overcrowding to high rents.

The city's major real estate and commercial interests joined retailers and municipal reformers to seek the separation of land uses, and action came quickly. In 1914 the city gained authority to impose zoning, and two years later a detailed ordinance was in place.

Its underlying principle, as the framers conceded, was to freeze in place the existing land use. This entailed not a full spatial separation along the lines of upscale suburbs but a pattern similar to streetcar suburbsmidblock parcels were restricted to residential use, with commerce allowed on the avenues that carried through traffic.

The code also placed limits on tall buildings, imposing gradual setbacks of higher stories to allow light and air to enter. From this rule came the terraced skyscrapers that have long defined New York's skyline.

New York's adoption of a zoning code triggered a frenzy of activity in cities large and small. The landowning public clamored for separation of land uses, and developers of restricted communities joined in the call for government control.

Machine politicians joined municipal reformers in the embrace of zoningit was easy to see that variances, exceptions, and rezonings would open up a cornucopia of patronage and graft. By 1920 zoning ordinances were in place in 904 cities, including 82 of the 93 municipalities with populations over 100,000. Given further encouragement by a model ordinance issued by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1924, a wave of regulation rolled on through the decade.

The zoning movement quickly advanced beyond the isolation of residential uses to the exclusion of apartment houses from residential areas. The middle and upper classes did not like apartments. The most varied objections were raised. They were ugly; they gave off noise and smoke. They were simply not the way Americans should live.

But most of all, zoners objected to the people who lived in apartments. The flavor of the tenement seemed to attach to even the most luxurious buildings. Residents were prone to disease and immorality. Tenants were "a class of nomads," said Harvard University president Charles Eliot, "that have no stable footing in the town."

Many cities were already manipulating their fire and building codes to keep apartments out; with zoning they could reach the same end more directly. Berkeley, California, was first to take this path. Its zoning ordinance, adopted in 1917, enforced a rigid separation of uses that went far beyond contemporaries.

At a time when other cities were merely separating residential uses from commercial and industrial, Berkeley established a multitude of zonestwenty-seven in all. One-family, two-family, and apartment houses each had their own assigned districts, and homes were kept out of industrial areas as industry was from residential areas. Almost immediately, the exclusion of multifamily residences from single-family districts became a standard zoning rule. ...

The people who staffed the new planning bureaucracies had much useful work to do. Although they might, in practice, have little influence on the zoning of the areas already built up, subdivision control empowered them to shape the rapidly growing new suburbs.

Without question, unplanned suburbs had evils in need of correction: uncontrolled rainwater runoff, badly built streets, groundwater polluted for lack of sewers. Still, as a historian of planning has recognized, the overall effect was to "encourage cities to portray in long-range plans the conditions of the present rather than the changes required."

New subdivisions would avoid past mistakes, but the rigid zoning structure prevented future adjustment if their design was later found lacking. Planners might dream of molding the city of the future. They found themselves embalming the city of the present.

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Bethesda's planning survey loads the dice against urbanism

Planners drafting a master plan update for downtown Bethesda are running an online "visual preference" survey to get public input. But the choices they offerand, even more, the questions they choose not to asktilt against the urban style of development that Montgomery County's most successful downtown needs.


The choices in the survey contrast higher-density streets with one-way traffic (top) with lower-density buildings facing two-way streets (bottom).

The survey compares two patterns of development. One is low-density development with two-way streets; the other, mid-rise and high-rise buildings on one-way streets. But these aren't the only options. Two-way streets are much more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists, and there is no reason a dense area can't have them.

Equally important is what's left out of the images entirely. A low-rise shopping district, like the one in the lower right of the picture, could never survive in Bethesda on customers who come by Metro from DC. It needs either dense housing and jobs nearby, or lots of parking.

The parking cannot be underground because single-story stores can't support the expense of underground garages. A realistic picture of low-density retail must include big parking lots or multistory above-ground garages.

Something else is missing from all of the images. Montgomery County zoning requires empty land (known by the Orwellian name of "public use space," although productive use of the space is banned) next to all mixed-use buildings.


Zoning forced the Lionsgate mixed-use high-rise to include this little-used plaza where busy sidewalk-facing storefronts once stood. Photo by the author.

This rule, fiercely defended by homeowner groups protective of the county's suburban image, gives us the empty plazas which blight Wisconsin Avenue and are spreading into the Woodmont Triangle. To be accurate, the survey should offer a choice between the attractive streetfront stores in its images and the bleak streetscapes that may emerge if the master plan preserves the status quo in this realm.

Missing entirely from the survey is the relationship between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Although most nearby single-family homeowners enjoy their proximity to downtown, neighbors opposed to urbanism often seek to wall themselves off. The connections that emerge from contentious development debates are of widely varying quality.



Three ways Bethesda connects (or doesn't) to adjoining neighborhoods: the Giant parking lot, the Whitney, and the Chevy Chase Bank building. Photos by the author.

The public should get to choose whether to border downtown with attractive buildings, walkways, and streets, or "buffers" made of walls and parking lots. This choice should not stay hidden, only to emerge later out of closed negotiations between individual builders and the opponents of their projects.

The last page of the survey reveals its authors' bias once again. There, it asks voters which category they belong to: resident, property owner, development professional, student, or special interest/activist. There are no categories for a regular shopper/diner or office worker.

Nearby homeowners are stakeholders, even if they hate the downtown and never go there. But if you work or shop in Bethesda, you're off the planners' radar screen. And never mind the rest of the region, all of which suffers from car traffic that's made worse by Bethesda's overly auto-oriented design.

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Dead ends: Tenant activists against housing

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book.

Ward 3 Vision is organizing a talk with Ross on Thursday, June 12, 7 pm at the Tenley-Friendship Library, 4450 Wisconsin Avenue NW. Then, have a drink with Ross, Ward 3 Vision members, and others at Public Tenley, where you can buy a signed copy.

In rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, ... tenant advocates often fall back on a purely defensive approach and oppose new construction in the neighborhood. This strategy rests on a seemingly straightforward logic.


Photo by eightprime on Flickr.

Real estate prices are always a matter of locationbuildings are expensive because they're near expensive buildingsso keeping out new buildings, which will always charge a higher rent than the older ones around them, helps keep housing affordable.

The means of stopping development is a political coalition of tenants and nimby homeowners. This alliance is surely an odd basis for left-wing politics, but a school of academic theory justifies it as such. The idea is that neighborhoods are defending themselves against an exploitative and nearly all-powerful "growth machine."

The fuel that drives the machine is profit, derived from the excess of the "exchange value" realized when land is redeveloped over the "use value" enjoyed by its current residents. This logic dovetails nicely with the greedy developer mantra of more conservative suburban homeowners.

Growth machine theory has the merit of focusing on the exercise of political power, something that is glossed over in much establishment writing about land use. It explains, moreover, why urban renewal and downtown expressways were so hard to stop in the 1950s and 1960s.

But the theory is less useful in current circumstances. For one thing, it exaggerates the power of the growth machine. Developers would surely, if allowed, build their high-rises in prestigious close-in neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, Grosse Pointe, and Georgetown. Condos would be easier to sell there than in the run-down areas where local governments now let them build.

For another, the concept of use value misconstrues the motivation for resistance to growth. Nimbys acquire higher status by means of conspicuous waste; what zoning protects is not the use of land, but its disuse.

A variant of this theory that emphasizes the role of lower-income neighborhoods as centers of resistance to capitalism is popular among neo-Marxist writers. Aiming to understand the global forces behind recent economic trends, they focus on the role of banks and real estate developers in urban change and downplay the role of individual gentrifiers. The single-family zoning of suburban homeowners has little relevance to their concerns and is often taken for granted.

The focus on gentrification shifts the political base for affordable housing. Tenants themselves do not mobilize on the abstract issue of future land use as they do for the immediate protection of rent control. Meanwhile, support grows more intense among the gentrifiers themselvesfor some grass-roots advocates of affordable housing, opposition to gentrification begins with a desire to keep the neighborhood just the way it was when they moved in. Sympathy for low-income residents comes only afterwards.

At their worst, local struggles against gentrification have less to do with the poor than with protecting the brand image of poverty in a newly hip neighborhood. Local activists seize on neo-Marxist theory to denounce all change as the evil machinations of the multinational elite. Here there is an echo of pro-sprawl libertarians like Randal O'Toole and Joel Kotkin. One group hails nimbys as enemies of the urban cultural elite; the other welcomes them as partners in the struggle against global capital.

Either way, the rhetoric serves a similar purpose. It provides a rationale for alliances that would otherwise be hard to square with the locally fashionable political ideology.

Identifying gentrification as the underlying issue brings the issues of transportation and development to the fore. Other things in poor neighborhoods keep wealthy newcomers out toocrime and bad schools, for examplebut it is hard to argue for their preservation.

An activist may think, as one Chicagoan told an interviewer, that crime helps keep his neighborhood from becoming "too nice," but few long-time residents agree. Targeted instead are light rail lines and new buildings on vacant land. In themselves they displace no one, but as triggers of change they seem as threatening as condo conversions and they are much easier to stop.

For tenants, who certainly have a direct concern for affordability, coalitions with nimbys lead to a dead end. Changing city neighborhoods cannot be preserved as low-rent refuges unless the demand for urban living is soaked up somewhere else. New urban downtowns would have to be built in the wealthy areas where CEOs live and jobs cluster.

But the alliance with nimbys makes it impossible to challenge snob zoning within the same political jurisdiction. And by legitimating resistance to change, it reinforces the status quo elsewhere.

The wealthy inevitably play the exclusion game more effectively than the poor. Pent-up demand is funneled into the surviving remnants of an older urbanism. The price of the existing housing stock soars.

This dynamic of gentrification has gone furthest in San Francisco, where soaring housing costs accompany tight building limits. The best-paid jobs are in Silicon Valley office parks, so reverse commuters' cars crowd the streets of once-poor neighborhoods.

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A pro-sprawl movement surfaces in Montgomery County

Do urban living arrangements have no place in Montgomery County? Should the county favor automobile travel to the over other forms of transportation? An influential group of local activists say so.


Wrong for Montgomery County? Photo by dan reed on Flickr.

At a zoning hearing three years ago, former councilmember Rose Crenca declared, "When did we vote to change SUBURBAN to URBAN? For those who prefer an urban environment, please leave." She added that if there is a need for more housing than current zoning allows, it should be built in the county's agricultural reserve.

At the time, most listeners shrugged off those words as a relic of a disappearing past. But now a group of activists, centered in Chevy Chase but extending countywide, has emerged with a similar program. A close reading of the manifesto of the "Citizens Coalition for Responsible Growth," issued with the aim of influencing this year's election, shows that the group shares Crenca's desire to prevent the urban centers from emerging alongside the county's single-family subdivisions.

The group, whose leadership is so far anonymous, comprises residents who opposed the county's recent zoning updates. Those of changes made it easier to rent out part of a house as an apartment and reduced minimum parking requirements for new buildings near Metro.

The manifesto decries such measures, characterizing them as "using land use and development policies to spur behavioral and social changes, without regard to choices and investments already made by those in the County."

Wouldn't tenants, who perhaps have no investment in a Montgomery County house due to lack of funds, benefit from being able to rent an apartment in one? Their voice counts for little. "Our government," the manifesto argues, "has a responsibility to effectively support the interests of homeowners."

On high-speed roadways as in neighborhoods, change is suspect. Bicycle improvements are fine, but not if they come "at the expense of vehicular travel and parking lanes." After all, "very few Montgomery County residents bike to work." By this logic, you wouldn't build a bridge if too few people were swimming across the river.

Almost everyone recognizes, of course, that new buildings can't be stopped entirely. They can come, the coalition says, only when wider roads accompany them. The group would strictly tie development approvals to a measurement called "level of service," which California recently repudiated. This pseudoscientific concept measures how fast cars move rather than how quickly people get to their destinations, making road widenings the solution to almost any transportation problem.

In contrast, the coalition does not want to consider transit as a way to get people to and from new development. "Bus rapid transit, light rail, and other large-scale transit systems," it writes, "must not be used as mechanisms to allow increased development" in areas where traffic moves slowly.

The Citizens Coalition cannot be faulted for lacking vision. It dreams of a 1950s suburb, made up of strip malls and subdivisions. But half a century ago Montgomery County realized that such a future was undesirable and unworkable. The county chose a very different visiona diverse community where livable downtowns, quiet single-family neighborhoods, and farmland coexist. That broader vision has been only very partially achieved. Only by embracing change, and not rejecting it, can we do better.

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Dead ends: Euphemisms hide our true feelings about growth

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. Vicky Hallett also discusses the book in today's Express.

Ross is giving a book talk on Tuesday, April 22nd, 5:30 pm at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. Afterward, GGW is cosponsoring a happy hour at the Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW, at 6:30pm. Stop by for just the talk, just the happy hour, or both!

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee "that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they."


Photo by Michael Patrick on Flickr.

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don't want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise.

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

Land use disputes thus come before the public veiled in a thick fog of evasion, euphemism, and flat-out falsehood. From this miasma rises a plague of obscurity that infects the language itself. Terms devised to conceal reality become so familiar that they are uttered without thinking. Critics find themselves unable to question received dogmas for want of words to express their thoughts.

A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning.

Compatibility, in the enlarged sense, is often thought of as a sort of similarity. But if two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, while with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos.

The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean, "I don't like it and I'm not explaining why." The word is notably unpopular with New Urbanists. Faced with such an obvious case of incompatibility, in the literal sense, as a parking lot in a walkable downtown, they call it a "disruption of the urban fabric" or a "wasteful use of land."

Compatibility may be the most pervasive linguistic deformation, but it is hardly the only one. Homeowners will complain about the impact on their neighborhood when basement apartments are rented out or high-rises are built nearby. This word conflates purely psychological desires, among them the wish to keep away from people with lower incomes, with physical detriments like smell and shade. Its value lies in its vaguenessobjectors can make a case without saying concretely what their objection is. ...

Another slippery phrase is public use. Here the word use conveys almost the exact opposite of its common meaning. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a definition: public use space is "space devoted to uses for public enjoyment, such as gardens, plazas, or walks." A common example is the empty plaza that sits between an office building and the street, elevating the status of its surroundings through the display of conspicuous waste.

The operative word in the definition is not "use" but "enjoyment." In other words, no productive work can be done in the space. By this definitional sleight of hand, disuse becomes a kind of use, and indeed the only kind allowed. In one case in 2011, the planning board forbade the placement of a barbecue in a public use space when a neighbor complained that it would encourage the public to use the space. ...

Our linguistic tour would hardly be complete without a visit to the greedy developer. The key to decoding this phrase is that the word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avariceif anything, non-profit builders of low-income housing encounter more hostility than the truly greedy. The ostensible target is the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses. The real one is the people who will live in them.

The builder stands accused, often enough, of the sin of manhattanization. When first used in San Francisco in the late 1960s by opponents of downtown skyscrapers, this was a vivid and descriptive coinage. But just as the developer's first name lost its connection to avarice, manhattanization became unmoored from New York City. The term, in current usage, can refer to almost any structure that rises above its surroundings.

A campaign against manhattanizing Menlo Park, California, objects to two-, three-, and four-story buildings around the train station. The movement's leader explains her goals by asking "Are we going to remain a small town, with low-density development, or are we going to be more like Redwood City and Palo Alto?"

Manhattanize might seem an odd choice of word to convey the meaning of "make it look like Palo Alto," but stale metaphor, as George Orwell pointed out years ago, does a service. It releases the speaker from the need to explain, or even figure out herself, exactly what she means to say. The premise of the argument against density is left unstated and thus immune from challenge.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell warned in his famous essay Politics and the English Language. For a half-century and more, deformed language has made it hard to think clearly about the communities we live in. Our system of land use will be the easier to understand, the more we use words that say plainly what we mean.

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