Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Silver Spring is a more complete place thanks to its new library

Downtown Silver Spring's library opened just over a week ago, and it's more than just a building full of books. The new library is full of things that are there to help the community, like meeting spaces and a coffee shop and, in the future, a transit stop.


Residents at the new library's grand opening. Images by the author unless otherwise noted.

Downtowns and town centers are reemerging as increasingly important parts of their communities, and libraries are a big part of that. Parents, for example, can bring their kids during the day before hosting a book club meeting later that evening, and community leaders can use the space to host their meetings.


Meeting space at the library.

Libraries are also not strictly quiet places like they once were. Vibrancy and social connections are a big part of the library experience. You can meet friends, or have kids' play dates—here, you'd do that in the new "Early Literacy Center" on the 5th floor. If you do want the traditional solitude, you can go to a designated "quiet" room, where you can join students quietly typing on their laptops or visitors reading the newspaper.

The library's design puts community first

Why has Silver Spring's library become such a community focal point for residents? After the closure of Border's Books and the rather large Mayorga coffee shop, downtown Silver Spring was left few community gathering areas. Back in 2008, when it came time for the community to give input on the library, people knew they wanted an urban, community-friendly structure.

Among the items included a bulky pedestrian bridge that would connect the library to Silver Spring's main parking garage. Although the bridge concept was cancelled, the library's final plan actually included even more add-ons and amenities. For example, when residents learned that the new plan would include a coffee shop within the building, they raised over $53k to support the opening of a "second location" of the popular local Kefa Café, right inside the library's main entrance.


Kefa Cafe at the library.

In addition to a coffee bar, the library also features other unusual features such as the "Genius Bar" like reception desk, where patrons can check out an E-Reader or a laptop as well as get traditional research expertise from librarians.

Finally, the soon-to-open "Bonifant - Library Residences" will feature 149 mixed-income condos focusing on seniors that will also include 10,000 square feet of additional retail space directly next to the library.


Bonifant Library Residences image from Montgomery County.

This isn't the first time Silver Spring residents have come together to shape their community. Back in 1992, when Mall of America wanted to build the "American Dream" mega-mall in downtown Silver Spring, the residents rose up to fight the behemoth structure. What they wanted instead was community-focused development that truly represented the neighborhood. Today, the Silver Spring Library represents a legacy of this kind of community engagement and is a model for downtown libraries all over the nation.


A rendering of the Purple Line in front of the Silver Spring library. Image from Montgomery County.

The library will have its own Purple Line stop

The new Silver Spring Library has a host of features that aren't traditional for libraries.

For starters, a Purple Line stop is going to run through it, setting it up to become one of the first in the nation to include a built-in train station that will connect it to major regional transportation lines.


Purple Line route map from the Maryland Transportation Authority.

In the future, library patrons will be able to take the Purple Line directly to University of Maryland's campus for further research or take a quick ride to the Silver Spring Transit Center to connect to Metro lines.

Why positive storytelling matters to transportation

Better streets, transit lines, and bike lanes are wonderful things. But for communities hoping to kick the car habit, good marketing and public relations matter just as much as the infrastructure itself.

At StreetsCamp on Saturday, Mobility Lab's Paul Mackie taught us why marketing is crucial, and how to do it right.

Once upon a time, we walked

Once upon a time, there was an easy, cheap, and effective way to travel around cities. It was called walking. And then about 100 years ago one of the most effective public-relations campaigns in the history of mankind convinced everyone that streets belong to cars, and walking is dangerous.

Perception became reality, and a century later we're still dealing with the consequences:


Implied message: You're better off if you just drive. Image from MWCOG.

Does that ad make you want to walk safely? No. It makes you want to drive. Chalk one up for unintended consequences.

Here's another example:

It doesn't have to be that way. Here's Mackie's straightforward rule for doing it right:

What kind of "positive, personal stories?" How about Arlington's Car-Free Diet campaign:


Image from Arlington.

You can even be positive while talking about safety, like in Arlington's Be a PAL campaign.


Image from Arlington.

Once you've got a story to tell, how do you get it out there? Mackie has a guide for that too:

Following that guide is part of Mobility Lab's formula for success. And yes, it works. It really works: It takes 40,900 cars off Arlington's roads every day.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Will Georgetown's campus plan collapse the area's rental market?

In 2012, the Zoning Commission approved Georgetown's latest campus plan. A central part of the plan is that the school committed to providing 385 new on-campus beds by the fall of 2015, with the long term goal of housing 90% of its undergrads on campus by 2025. With that first deadline rapidly approaching, is the rental market already feeling the pinch of reduced demand? A lot of residents I've talked to have concluded as much, and some anecdata supports that.


Image from Rob Pongsajapan on Flickr.

Recently, people have noticed homes still available for rent that would usually be already rented for the fall. And one particularly prominent house that has been rented for years (and is awfully shabby for it) is not only vacant but now for sale. It's the home at 3348 Prospect. This large home can be yours for $3 million.

One argument I've made to those trying to force Georgetown to house more students on campus is that the rental housing would simply be filled by non-students, primarily 20-somethings, who can be just as loud and annoying as college students (I certainly was). But the Prospect Street house may point to a flaw in that argument. According to the listing, the house rents out nine "units" for a total rent of $18,000 a month. That wasn't a typo.


Georgetown's Prospect House. Image by James Emery on Flickr.

It's unclear how many bedrooms the house has (the listing could be read to mean nine, but also up to twelve), but it's very unlikely that anyone other than a Georgetown student would be willing to pay that much to share that building with so many people. And with so many new condos all over the city much closer to more popular neighborhoods, maybe there really aren't that many 20-somethings that want to move to Georgetown period, let alone at the usurious rates that undergrads pay.

And it seems that a collapse in demand is about the only thing that would explain why someone would want to sell a property producing $155,000 a year net profit. The listing claims the $3 million price was arrived at to achieve a 5% capitalization rate. This would be a decent cap rate, but only if it's actually true. And maybe the fact the owner is selling suggests that he or she doesn't think it is.

A version of this post originally ran on The Georgetown Metropolitan.

When dreaming of Olympics or anything else, beware of "planning down"

A team of architects and business leaders met in secret for many months to devise a big proposal for the Olympics in DC. Some parts of it have merit (and some don't), and ideas should always be welcome. But some things about the way they talk about the need to "transform" DC feel wrong.


Hand drawing city photo from Shutterstock.

It's terrific that some wealthy business leaders want to help the District. A generation ago, people in the suburbs were turning their backs on DC. Even now, as Jonathan O'Connell notes in his article on the Olympic bid, too often DC, Maryland, and Virginia compete to out-subsidize large businesses just so they'll move a few miles across a border.

The Olympic bid group didn't have that attitude. Russ Ramsey, who led the effort, lives in Great Falls, Virginia, but he wanted the Olympics to revive the area around the Anacostia River. The Anacostia can certainly benefit from having more friends, and areas around it more investment.

However, there's something a little disquieting about a group of business leaders and architects formulating this plan in secret, drawing pictures of stadiums on all manner of public land and arguing it would have lasting benefits for the city without really speaking to the public about what they'd like to be left with after an Olympics.

Let's call this "planning down"

There was a lot of discussion recently about "punching down" as a concept in comedy (see: criticisms of Trevor Noah, or criticisms by Garry Trudeau). Basically, it's when comedians make fun of groups of people who are less powerful in society than themselves. This secret planning feels like something similar; let's call it, "planning down."

"Planning down" would be what happens when one group of people decide they know what's best for another area whose populace is less powerful. Many residents felt this way when they heard about the machinations for the Olympics. Those of us who did should hold on to the feeling, as residents in poorer neighborhoods feel the same far more often.

John Muller, for example, has often written about communities in Historic Anacostia, Barry Farm, and elsewhere where residents feel government officials come in for "public meetings" seemingly already having decided what they want. (The same thing often happens in more politically powerful neighborhoods, but residents have more success forcing their views into the debate.)

We need to have discussions about the futures of such communities that truly engage residents in thinking about what they want for their communities. (Some government agencies have indeed done this.) There are certainly constraints—there are specific economic criteria a neighborhood needs to support a grocery store, for instance. But I think people can understand these constraints and work with them if given the chance.

The planning profession, in fact, enshrined principles around public participation in its ethical codes after the era of urban renewal which demolished many working-class neighborhoods to build "towers in the park," like in DC's Southwest Waterfront and parts of many other US cities. (You're more likely to encounter dismissive non-listening from certain transportation engineers.)

However, public engagement isn't the same as "letting the neighborhood decide." Sometimes, deferring to neighbors means letting a more-powerful group use zoning, preservation, or other tools to exclude others. For a non-Washington example, look at Toronto's "density creep" controversy, where a group of people in million-dollar homes worried about new half-million-dollar homes hurting their property values. You could say those doing the excluding are "zoning down"; it's not planning down to criticize the practice.

Some decision-makers fear taking any action unless every community stakeholder is in agreement. That's not the way to avoid planning down. It's possible to involve people in a conversation, then move ahead with some decision recognizing that no choice, whether to act or not act, will be universally popular. The key is to listen first (and hopefully make the right choice).


Superhero businessman photo from Shutterstock.

DC doesn't need to be "saved"

O'Connell concludes his article on the Olympic bid by asking, "The question is, who will be the private-sector leader for the future of Washington?" It would be most welcome to have private-sector individuals wanting to do more for DC, or the region, or their specific communities. We just need them to lead more from behind, facilitating conversations rather than deciding unilaterally what the future should be.

Many of us in the Greater Greater Washington community are somewhat more privileged than many DC residents as well. We should keep these same lessons in mind just as much when we talk about neighborhoods east of the Anacostia or elsewhere, especially if we don't know many people in those areas.

We can't just say we know what's right for other, less privileged areas; we need to understand the circumstances and hopes of the people who live there. We can't do that entirely on a blog that's easiest to read if you work in an office with a computer, either.

We can all do more to strengthen the public dialogue around planning, to encourage planning up instead of planning down. And we should. Greater Greater Washington is going to be working on building these bridges and elevating voices from diverse communities much more in the future. Stay tuned.

Think the rent's too high? Try your hand at managing a landlord's budget

The rents in the brand-new apartment buildings all around town have caused some serious sticker shock. If you've wondered just how the rent got to be so damn high, you might find a few minutes with a new online game to be instructive.


Image from the author. And yes, he lost on his first try at the game.

"Inside the Rent," created by New York City's Citizens Housing & Planning Council, lets you examine the construction and operating budget for a new-build apartment building—and translates those up-front costs into average monthly rents.

Players get to choose between various factors like location, construction type, and how much to pay construction crews and maintenance staff. Then they watch the costs add up. In the likely scenario that the costs exceed the player's "market price," the player can also apply for various government subsidies, like tax breaks or free land.

Although construction costs and land prices in the Washington region aren't quite at New York City levels, many factors apply nationwide. For instance, federal law requires that subsidized housing pay "prevailing wages" to construction workers, which raises costs.

One quirk that I noticed in the game: the game shows that construction of high-rise buildings costs 25% more than mid-rise buildings. (Here in DC, the same 25% cost differential exists between mid-rise and low-rise buildings.) However, the game doesn't acknowledge that high-rise buildings can fit more units onto the same piece of land, and thus reduce the land cost per unit. Another cost that isn't part of CHPC's game, but which can very substantially raise rents, is the high cost of building parking.

Interestingly, one of the few "costs" that is fixed in all game scenarios is the developer's minimum profit, which is 5% in all cases. That might seem generous at a time of near-zero interest rates, but consider that for investors, a whole lot more can go wrong with a construction project than with with long-term bonds, which are often considered a comparable (but less risky) asset. Indeed, as the prices to buy or build apartments have risen, the profit margins that investors make on operating those apartments have fallen to new lows.

If you're the type of geek who prefers to examine Excel spreadsheets rather than constantly reload your phone's browser, CHPC has also made the spreadsheet underlying the game available.

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