Posts in category Smart Growth
Remember DC's zoning update? The source of massive public debate last year, and public hearings way back in 2008? It's still slowly grinding along, but the long delays even on less controversial provisions are making life difficult for actual homeowners today.
A friend and her husband recently bought a DC row house for them and their two children. The row house has 2 stories plus a basement. In the rear is a 2-story carriage house, which a previous owner renovated into a separate apartment. However, it doesn't have the permits to be a legal unit.
This friend would like to rent out the carriage house. Nothing would change on the outside of the building. The adjacent houses also have garages or carriage houses on this alley, and the only windows face the alley or face the main property.
Unfortunately, DC's zoning laws make this difficult.
This house is in an R-4 zone, which encompasses many of the moderate density row house neighborhoods like Shaw, Bloomingdale, Petworth, Capitol Hill, and Trinidad. (It's the purple in the large map about halfway down this post). In an R-4, it's totally legal to make a house into 2 units, as long as both are inside the main building. But to use an existing accessory building like a garage requires a variance.
As we discussed in the context of theaters in residential zones on Friday, a variance is actually very difficult to get. There has to be some "exceptional" condition of the property. Sometimes DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment stretches pretty far to find exceptional conditions when neighbors don't object, but they can't always; in one case, a property owner wanted to build a garage on the alley to match the garages for every other property on the same alley. Nobody objected, but the board couldn't find an "exceptional" condition because that lot was exactly the same as every other lot (only without a garage).
This friend can try to get a variance, which would mean hiring zoning lawyers and a process lasting the better part of a year. Or, she and her husband can substantially renovate the house to make the basement a separate unit instead, at great expense. They might be able to maneuver around the zoning laws by somehow connecting the carriage house to the main house with a walkway, so it no longer counts as a separate building.
Or, instead of any of these undesirable and expensive approaches, DC could just pass its zoning update already. One of the proposals for row house areas would allow the legal 2nd unit to go in an accessory building, like a garage. The Zoning Commission, the federal-local hybrid board that decides the zoning in DC, decided on this and other recommendations on June 8, 2009, so we've just passed the 4-year anniversary of when they actually ruled on these proposals.
At the time, the plan was for the Office of Planning (OP) to go and write detailed text based on the Zoning Commission's guidance. The head of the project, Travis Parker, then got a job running a planning department in Colorado, and the team lost another member, Michael Guilioni, slowing the whole process. Opponents of the more controversial pieces of the update then asked for more delays, more public meetings, more task force meetings, and more process.
It's time to move forward on the zoning update. OP deputy director Jennifer Steingasser told the Dupont Circle ANC that they've recently shown the latest set of drafts to their task force, a group of residents from stakeholder groups and various wards. After that, it's time to bring the drafts to the Zoning Commission for the final phase: a formal "setdown" and formal hearings where residents can make their case for or against the proposals.
Even small tweaks that will fix pervasive problems with the zoning code have been stuck in limbo for over 5 years because this process is taking so long. It's time to bring the best draft to the Zoning Commission, have hearings, and approve the zoning update so that homeowners like these, and many others around the city, don't have to keep waiting to better enjoy and afford their properties.
Development at Fort Totten has been slow despite access to 3 Metro lines, its close proximity to both downtown DC and Silver Spring, its access to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, its green space and its affordability. But as demand increases for housing in the District, this previously-overlooked neighborhood could become a hot spot.
Last Saturday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth concluded their spring walking tour series with "Fort Totten: More than a Transfer Point," a look at future residential, retail and commercial development near the Fort Totten Metro station. Residents and visitors joined representatives from WMATA, DDOT and the Office of Planning on a tour of the area bounded by South Dakota Avenue, Riggs Road, and First Place NE.
Today, vacant properties and industrial sites surround the station and form a barrier between it and the surrounding area. Redeveloping them could improve connections to the Metro and make Fort Totten a more vibrant community.
There is a significant amount of new residential, retail and commercial development planned within walking distance of the Metro station. But Saturday's tour began with the only completed project, The Aventine at Fort Totten. Built by Clark Realty Group in 2007, the 3-building, garden-style apartment complex consists of over 300 rental units as well as ground-floor retail space.
The Aventine at Fort Totten, the newest apartment complex in Fort Totten. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Visitors were ambivalent about the success of the Aventine due to its small amount of retail space and lack of connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods. While residents noted that it created more options to live close to Metro, representatives of the Lamond Riggs and North Michigan Park civic associations agreed the development differed from the original vision for the project.
They called it an example of the need to continually engage real estate developers and local government agencies to ensure that new development is of a high quality and responsive to the local context. Throughout the tour, residents said that future development proposals should adhere to DC's urban design guidelines, improve pedestrian access and have a plan to mitigate parking concerns.
Between South Dakota Avenue and the Metro station, the Cafritz Foundation will redevelop the old Riggs Plaza apartments to build ArtPlace at Fort Totten. When finished, the 16-acre project will contain 305,000 square feet of retail, 929 apartments, and 217,000 square feet of cultural and art spaces, including a children's museum. Deborah Crain, neighborhood planning coordinator for Ward 5, noted that ArtPlace will include rental units set aside for seniors and displaced Riggs Plaza residents.
As one of the largest landowners near the Fort Totten Station, WMATA has a huge stake in future development around the station. They own approximately 3 acres of land immediately west of the station along First Place NE that is currently used as surface parking lot for commuters. Stan Wall, Director of Real Estate at WMATA, discussed the great potential for development on the current parking lot mentioned that the agency will solicit proposals for development of the area in the near future.
Anna Chamberlain, a DDOT transportation planner, talked about how streetscape improvements could calm traffic, making streets around the Metro station more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. DDOT is also working to improve connections to the Metro, as some areas lack clearly defined walking paths. The agency will begin designing a path connecting the Metro to the Metropolitan Branch Trail within the next few months.
The final stop on the tour was Fort Totten Square, a joint effort by the JBG Companies and Lowe Enterprises to build 350 apartments above a Walmart and structured parking at South Dakota Avenue and Riggs Road. DDOT has completely rebuilt the adjacent intersection to make it safer for pedestrians and more suitable for an urban environment, replacing freeway-style ramps with sidewalks, benches, crosswalks and improved lighting.
Jaimie Weinbaum, development manager at JBG, says they're committed to working with the city and residents to make Fort Totten Square an asset to the community. They've promised to place Capital Bikeshare stations there and would like to have dedicated space for Car2go as well.
With help from the private sector and public agencies like DDOT and WMATA, Fort Totten could become a model for transit-oriented development, but much of the new construction won't happen for a long time. Until then, residents eagerly await the changes and continue to work with other stakeholders toward creating a vision that will benefit everyone.
Smaller theaters that don't own buildings of their own are having trouble finding places to rent. Can DC's zoning update help fix this?
Nelson Pressley writes in the Post about numerous theater troupes which have outgrown their existing spaces, or are losing their spaces. With heavy demand for office and residential space in DC, there aren't a lot of affordable places to rent that can fit the performing arts.
It would make perfect sense for the arts to expand east of the Anacostia River and to other underserved parts of DC where space is cheaper. An arts space, the Anacostia Playhouse, is even working to open in Anacostia, though it's faced delays including some from parking minimums.
Pressley talks about a few groups which found unconventional spaces, like Spooky Action Theater, which uses a church basement on 16th Street in Dupont. But Spooky Action had to seek a zoning variance to keep performing in the church basement, which is very difficult to get; DC's Office of Planning could change this to an easier "special exception" to foster more performing arts.
Arts performances are not a by-right use in a residential area or in a religious building in a residential area. A variance, however, sets high hurdles for anyone seeking one; you have to prove that not getting the variance presents "exceptional practical difficulties or exceptional and undue hardship" on the property owner.
Neighbors had some concerns about where audience members would congregate before shows and during intermission, but ultimately the theater did get its variance with support from the Dupont Circle ANC. The theater and church agreed not to allow any audience members to use the rear alley entrance of the church, so that any noise would be on 16th Street rather than near the rear neighbors' houses.
In its report, the DC Office of Planning said that it couldn't conclude that the need for a theater rose to the level of "exceptional practical difficulties or exceptional and undue hardship," but the Board of Zoning Adjustment ultimately decided that since the church is having financial struggles, its need to rent out its basement is exceptional enough.
But why should this be necessary? If another church, perhaps one in strong financial shape, wants to rent out a basement to the performing arts, and if they can ensure it doesn't unduly harm neighbors, isn't this a win-win for everyone? Unfortunately, the zoning rules make such a beneficial arrangement extremely difficult.
The DC Office of Planning could solve this problem by simply switching performing arts to a "special exception" standard, which is much lower. Under a special exception, the zoning board simply must determine that a use doesn't harm the public good, but there need not be some "exceptional" circumstance. For example, you can locate a home daycare in a residential zone, but have to get a special exception. The same could apply to a theater.
I live in a residential zone, and there happens to be a theater on my own block. It's a great asset, not a detriment. Theaters won't be able to afford to rent spaces in busy commercial zones when they're competing with restaurants and furniture stores. We can let them use other spaces nearby, spaces not open to retailers, and help the arts while enriching our neighborhoods with fun and culture.
(And go see a show at Spooky Action, or my neighbor the Keegan, or the Studio, Woolly Mammoth, or any of the other great theater groups in DC that put on interesting plays that are new and/or low-cost. There's a lot more to arts besides the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare!)
Outside of Tysons Corner, Vienna MetroWest is Fairfax County's greatest experiment yet in transit-oriented development. But now it appears developers have scaled back, and may build car-oriented retail instead.
With construction of the residential sections underway, the town center seemed close to finally, finally happening. But now that it's time to actually start leasing spaces, the town center development plan looks a lot different.
Instead of dense, walkable midrises, the are single-story retail buildings surrounded by surface parking lots. Instead of an urban town center, it's a glorified strip mall.
What happened? One can speculate. A recession hit, competing developments at nearby Dunn Loring Metro opened first, and the market changed.
Developers do often build single-story retail as a "temporary" placeholder until they're ready for more intense uses. That was the idea behind the Kentlands town center in Gaithersburg, which is now redeveloping parcel by parcel. But "temporary" in this case can mean 20 years.
For people who bought homes at MetroWest based on the promise of a strong town center nearby, the potential of something better years in the future is little consolation.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
White Flint's future as an urban place depends on a street network that welcomes people on foot and bike, not just in cars, and roads that are pleasant to spend time in, not just move through. But county transportation officials may not make getting there easy.
On Monday, representatives of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) gave a presentation to the White Flint Implementation Advisory Committee about the Western Workaround, a planned network of new streets on the west side of Rockville Pike.
"We want to provide an environment that's pedestrian and bicyclist friendly and will encourage people to get out of their vehicles," said Bruce Johnston, MCDOT transportation engineering chief, citing the county's Road Code, which describes how to make streets in urban areas. But the streets he presented continue to prioritize moving cars over pedestrians and bicyclists or creating enjoyable urban spaces.
Old Georgetown Road will get wider, not more pleasant for people
The White Flint Sector Plan calls for Old Georgetown Road to have 4 car lanes, a median where pedestrians can wait while crossing the street, a "shared use path" for bikes and pedestrians, and one of the few actual bike lanes proposed for the area.
Instead, MCDOT proposes keeping the 6 existing lanes and adding 2 more at intersections for right and left turns. The bike lanes are gone, and the wide sidewalks have been reduced. The speed limit would remain at 40 miles an hour, which is totally inappropriate in an urban environment. Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, pointed out that the speed limit on Old Georgetown in downtown Bethesda, which has 4 lanes and a turn lane, is just 30 miles per hour.
Johnston blamed the Maryland State Highway Administration, which controls state roads like Old Georgetown and has resisted attempts by MCDOT to lower speed limits or reduce the number of lanes.
"The state has the authority to say 'I know that's in the sector plan, but traffic volumes are what they are,'" he said, adding that if White Flint residents and landowners want bike lanes and safer, pedestrian-friendly streets, they can "go over their heads" and speak with Governor O'Malley.
Cars, not people drive design choices
But even streets that are entirely under MCDOT's jurisdiction, like an extension of Executive Boulevard, have been designed for cars first. Johnston described it as a business street with tall buildings up against the sidewalk, which might make you think of Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, one of the best urban streets not just in the county, but in the region.
Instead, Executive Extended will be 5 lanes wide, including a turn lane. Landowners who have willingly agreed to give up land for the new street have asked MCDOT for on-street parking, which would not only serve future businesses but give pedestrians a nice buffer from traffic. Instead, on-street parking will only be available during rush hour.
Meanwhile, pedestrians and bicyclists would get a 10-foot "shared use path" on either side of the street and a 6-foot buffer. To compare, the sidewalks on Woodmont Avenue are about 20 feet wide, and there's also a separate, 6-foot wide bike lane.
When asked why there's so little room for pedestrians and cyclists, Johnston said they need all 5 lanes "because of the anticipated traffic volume of the road."
But as Fred Kent from the Project for Public Spaces likes to say, "If you design for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you design for people and places, you get people and places." It's not a given that Executive Boulevard needs 5 lanes, especially if there are legitimate alternatives to driving. But MCDOT officials seem unwilling to entertain that possibility.
Mary Ward, a White Flint resident and regular cyclist, was disappointed by the new street designs. "This kind of needs to be rethought," she said. "The Complete Streets vision is that it's all levels of cycling, not just experienced cyclists."
Better street network means baby steps
Thankfully, MCDOT's street designs are only 35% complete, meaning there's still room for improvement. Evan Goldman, vice president of development at Federal Realty, which is building Pike + Rose, says the plans are flawed, but are better than what MCDOT has presented before. For instance, lanes on many streets including Old Georgetown would be 10 or 11 feet wide, compared to 11 or 12 feet today. That means slower traffic speeds and extra space for sidewalks.
"There are a lot of good things happening here," Goldman said, though he admitted that he will go to the governor to ask for "appropriate" street designs on Old Georgetown Road.
Until then, the only bike lane White Flint's getting anytime soon will be on Woodglen Drive between Executive Boulevard and the Bethesda Trolley Trail, a distance of less than 1/3 mile. MCDOT will remove 6 parking spaces in front of Whole Foods to make room for a northbound bike lane. They'll also paint sharrows, or lane markings that tell drivers to watch out for bikes, in the southbound traffic lane, which will become 5 feet wider.
"There's a lot of competing uses among our roadways," said Pat Shepherd, MCDOT bikeways coordinator. "We need to reallocate this space."
Shepherd has it exactly right. The White Flint Sector Plan calls for the creation of a new downtown where people have real alternatives to driving. To make that happen, we need streets that prioritize and celebrate pedestrians and bicyclists, rather than treating them as an afterthought. And we need transportation planners, both at the state and county level, who are willing to fight for them. We shouldn't have to go to the governor to ask for bike lanes because MCDOT won't stand up for us.
Crossposted on the Friends of White Flint.
At a recent public hearing, neighbors of McMillan Sand Filtration Site renewed calls to make it a park. But the only way that can happen is by developing part of it as a neighborhood, and it's up to the DC Council to make it happen.
Residents filled a June 6 public hearing held by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to oppose plans to sell the derelict 25-acre site to Vision McMillan Partners, who will build homes, shops, offices and a park there. But others, including Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth say it's the best way to bring McMillan back to life.
It would be prohibitively expensive just to make McMillan a park. Since the underground cells are made of unreinforced concrete, they would have to be demolished and rebuilt just to make them safe to enter. Allowing some private development will give the neighborhood new amenities while paying to keep the best of what's already there.
Plan preserves historic structures while creating new park
VMP's plan preserves all 24 of the plant's above-ground structures, including the vine-covered sand silos visible from North Capitol Street, along with 2 of the below-ground filtration cells. 2/3 of the site will remain open space, while the southern third will become an 8-acre public park with a pool, recreation center, and a community center with meeting rooms and an art gallery. VMP promises that this will be "one of the largest and best-designed public park spaces in the District."
The historic buildings will become part of a new neighborhood with
about 800 585 apartments and townhouses, half 10% of which will be set aside for families making between 50 and 80% of the area's median income. There will also be street-level, neighborhood-serving retail anchored by a 50,000-square-foot, full-service grocery store. Along Michigan Avenue, there will be taller office buildings with a medical focus, taking advantage of proximity to Washington Hospital Center across the street.
To make this happen, however, the DC Council must decide this fall whether to declare the land as surplus and "dispose" of it. They can do this either by selling it to VMP or granting it as-is to VMP under existing zoning, which wouldn't allow major redevelopment to occur. They could also divide the property and sell off the parts to different owners and under different zoning. They can do all of this in a single set of hearings and votes, and they should to ensure that this process happens as quickly and fairly as possible.
Throughout the summer and fall, the council will hold separate public hearings on whether to surplus McMillan and the details of VMP's plan. Meanwhile, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board is reviewing VMP's plan to redevelop the site with housing, shops, offices and an 8-acre park and will hold hearings about it this month and in September. They've already offered comments about the proposal and will make their recommendations before the end of the year.
Plan will improve stormwater collection, traffic
Groups like Friends of McMillan Park and the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club argued that McMillan is already a public space and should become a public park. However, one DMPED official I spoke to after the hearing said that the city can't afford to do the work necessary to make the site safe for public occupancy. If the District retains ownership, the site would most likely remain decrepit and fenced off indefinitely.
Opponents maintain that the site's underground cells are needed to retain stormwater, mitigating the effects of frequent floods in Bloomingdale, which is downstream from McMillan. But DC Water already plans to replace two of the cells with water storage tanks, which will remain after redevelopment. Meanwhile, VMP has also promised to incorporate stormwater retention and buffers into the buildings and landscaping on the site, reducing stormwater runoff.
Another top complaint was traffic. Residents feel that the neighborhood's roads are already quite congested, especially at rush hour, and could not handle the extra trips generated by a major office, retail and residential center on the McMillan site. There is no question that the Washington Hospital Center, the city's largest non-government employer, needs better public transportation service, as it is not located near a Metro station.
VMP plans to build a bus turnaround for shuttles between McMillan and the Brookland Metrorail station, which would operate until a planned streetcar line along Michigan Avenue is built. Moreover, North Capitol Street has been designated a Bus Priority Corridor, meaning that the city intends to make changes to the street design and traffic flows to permit faster and more frequent bus service. The development would also open new through streets across the McMillan site, improving traffic flow and connections within the larger neighborhood.
Ward 5 needs parks, but it needs housing too
Some opponents say that new development should happen elsewhere in Ward 5, like on vacant and abandoned lots along North Capitol Street or Rhode Island Avenue. While not enough resources have been dedicated to encouraging more infill development, there's no reason why that can't happen in combination with the redevelopment of McMillan.
It is true that Ward 5 needs more and higher-quality parks, recreation facilities, and community centers. But the surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole are growing and are need more affordable housing, as well as more diverse shopping and entertainment opportunities within walking or biking distance or a short transit ride.
VMP's current plan reflects the input of community members gathered over the course of several design charrettes that were open to the public. It satisfies the need for several types of amenities in this part of the city in a balanced way. It combines buildings that are in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods with a large park, and preserves some of the historic filtration cells and all of the silos and brick regulator houses.
We have an opportunity to transform a decrepit former public works site that has been fenced off for over 70 years into a citywide destination: a vibrant and attractive new place to live, work, shop and play that serves many of the needs of residents in this part of DC while incorporating many reminders of its unique history. The Council shouldn't waste any time taking advantage of it, as an opportunity like this won't come again soon.
If you'd like to tell DMPED and the Council to surplus McMillan and allow VMP's plan to happen, you can contact them here. Comments must be received by June 20.
Prince George's County wants to encourage growth in the right places by speeding up the approval process for transit-oriented development. The county council unanimously passed a bill last week that just might do it.
Developers have often said they don't want to do business in Prince George's because of its lengthy and unpredictable development review process. Bill CB 20 creates a fast-track development review process for projects within ½ mile of the county's 15 Metro stations and the Bowie MARC station.
Projects are eligible for the speedier process if the Planning Board finds they meet best practices for urban design, like mixing housing with retail and making engaging streetscapes.
The bill aims to increase transit ridership, reduce auto dependency, and encourage walking for more trips. It's one of several recommendations county planners say could draw more investment to the county's Metro station areas.
Concerned about attracting unwanted commercial uses, the bill contains a long list of uses that are not eligible for the expedited review, including adult entertainment, liquor stores, pawn shops, strip malls, and drive-throughs.
An earlier version of the bill would have eliminated most requirements for public meetings or site plan review. This could have potentially rushed low-quality projects to approval without giving the Planning Board and the public enough time to review proposed projects.
Not surprisingly, many people opposed it, and the County Council tabled the bill last year before putting together a roundtable to discuss ways to improve incentives for transit-oriented development. The current bill combines 2 overlapping versions councilmembers Eric Olson and Mel Franklin submitted earlier this year.
The bill's most important feature is streamlining the review process. It prevents the County Council from arbitrarily dragging out the process, a power they've abused in the past that creates uncertainty and discourages developers from working in the county. Developers say that the unpredictability of approvals in Prince George's County often makes it not worth the time and money spent there.
While the current bill shortens the review process, it still gives the Planning Board and members of the public enough time to offer feedback. If the Planning Board approves a proposal, the County Council has a few days to decide whether or not to review it as well. Project applicants or residents can also use this time to appeal the board's decision.
Bill CB 20 is just one of many actions Prince George's County has taken to encourage investment at Metro stations. Recently, county officials have also reduced the impact fees developers pay to support schools and public safety. Economic analysts say excessive fees discourage investment altogether, meaning the county won't even receive the fees it seeks to collect.
Another element of ensuring development goes at Prince George's Metro stations is having a good countywide plan. There is a town meeting this Saturday, 10 am-1 pm at the University of Maryland, to work on a plan for the county's growth over the next 20+ years. You can help push for a plan that works in concert with this legislation to encourage TOD at Metro station sites.
Arlington's Bluemont neighborhood fought plans to rebuild the local Safeway and add apartments. Now that the project's stalled, a new group called Bluemont Forward wants to change the debate over growth.
In April, the Bluemont Civic Association voted to oppose a proposal from Safeway and developer Silverwood Companies to replace the 1960's-era store on Wilson Boulevard just west of Ballston with a new supermarket and 160 apartments. They claimed that the building would harm the area's quality of life and left no room for compromise.
Now, neighborhood leaders say Silverwood has quietly backed out of the project. As a result, Safeway could continue to pursue plans for the site, or it could simply close the store and leave Bluemont without its only grocery store. Silverwood won't comment on the record, but it's possible that BCA's hard-line stance was a factor in the decision to pull out.
Bluemont Forward touts the benefits of progress
Residents formed Bluemont Forward around a common vision of remaking their stretch of Wilson Boulevard as a walkable, vibrant place. Their website invokes tradition and history, inviting people to "rediscover the benefits of rationally scaled, neighborhood-oriented, mixed-use commercial areas." The group's supporters include former BCA presidents from the past 20 years.
While recent BCA meetings suggest the neighborhood is a hotbed of hostility to change, Bluemont Forward demonstrates that neighbors holds a variety of views. Many welcome progress and are ready to embrace the benefits of new development. Group members push for a pragmatic, collaborative approach that would serve the neighborhood well in future discussions.
"Arlington County, the developers, the Safeway, can come together for the common good," says Bluemont Forward spokesperson Chitra Kumar. "The Safeway is really a centerpiece of the community. Right now it's mostly a parking lot, and the community would like to see it redeveloped. We have talked to our neighbors and we know there's a sense of wanting to see some change, especially in that site."
Kumar says a new Safeway could bring about many positive changes. "If you have more foot traffic in that area, potentially have street improvements, a lot of positive things could come," she says. "We want to see that happen in a reasonable way."
Opponents' fears are overblown
Research shows that we have what psychologists like Dan Gilbert call an "impact bias." In the context of neighborhood development, author Edward Glaeser explains it best: "people…significantly over-estimate the impact that a negative shock will have on their happiness. The enemies of a new high-rise may think that the tower will make them miserable, but in reality, they will quickly adapt to the new situation."
The existing store on Wilson Boulevard, seen from west (left) and east (right).
Photos by the author.
Roger Lewis, an architect and frequent guest on WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show, offered similar thoughts to radio listeners in February. On the subject of "people worrying about everything from parking to density and property values, et cetera," Mr. Lewis said, "I think a lot of the fears are unjustified. A lot of the anxieties at least that I've heard voiced…are bogus. I don't think they're justifiable."
Neighbors who voted against the change may have legitimate concerns, but in time they'll become accustomed to it. "We do think people will get used to seeing it, especially if they see the benefits they get out of it," says Kumar. "There can be a lot of them: a walkable, biking-friendly Wilson Boulevard village center that they can walk their families to."
However, the difference between the BCA and Bluemont Forward is about more than tone or attitude. BCA has taken a hard-line position against any development whether or not the existing Safeway is economically viable. They unequivocally oppose rezoning the Safeway site, saying they want no additional density there.
Meanwhile, Bluemont Forward's vision for the Safeway site is arguably moderate: not too restrictive but not too big, either. They worry that 160 apartments may be too dense, but are open to changing the current zoning. "To encourage a service-rich neighborhood center," says their website, "we agree that a redeveloped Safeway site that offers public amenities should be allowed a level of density greater than the currently allowed density, which is amenable primarily to one-story strip-mall type development."
No one actually wants to lose Safeway
Surveys of Bluemont residents show that everyone wants to have a grocery store in their neighborhood. But with the redevelopment plans in doubt, so is the future. The worst-case scenario is that Safeway may decide it's easier to sell the property than to maintain an outdated store. The new owner may then build a big car wash or another auto-oriented facility, which are allowed under current zoning.
Former BCA president and former Arlington Planning Commission member Gerry Procanick confirms the possibility that Bluemont could lose the Safeway: "The analysis we did a number of years ago showed that the current zoning would not support any viable by-right upgrade to the property," he says. "Without significant re-development the site will remain mostly asphalt, or default to some sort of townhouse project. For those of us who plan to stay and have seen what other neighborhoods have done with similar properties, there is no doubt that our neighborhood can do better."
Development opponents say that this argument plays on people's fears. But by warning that a new Safeway and housing could produce more traffic, parking problems, noises, smells, threats to safety, and school overcrowding, they're doing the same thing.
Bluemont certainly can do better than the current Safeway. If Bluemont Forward is any indication, the neighborhood can also do a better job of working with Safeway than its civic association has in recent months.
Greater Greater Washington staff editor Dan Reed appeared on Fox 5 to talk about Montgomery County's BRT plans along with opponent Paula Bienenfeld. Visually, even just the scene on set brings into sharp relief the changes the county is undergoing.
The segment, starting with the anchor's introduction, seems to frame the issue around what this means for drivers. Reed talks about how BRT will move more people, and even those who don't ride the bus will benefit.
Bienenfeld, meanwhile, reads out the standard playbook of opposition. "We're not opposed to public transit," she assures everyone, before casting everything associated with transit as bad, such as devoting any space to bus stops. She also claims that having to cross a bus lane is unsafe for children. Reed later points out that crossing the regular car roadways is far more dangerous.
Bienenfeld criticizes the plan for not including things like Google self-driving cars, signalization, and "personal electric vehicles." Montgomery County already times its signals to move the most cars, even at the expense of those children walking and crossing the street, and none of the other options could move more people in fixed space.
Primarily, though, her objection is that "there was no public input" into the plan, which was created through "secret behind-the-scenes deals that have been cut." This seems astounding, given that a task force worked for a long time to create a plan, then released that plan a full year ago. Since then, county officials have refined and, in many cases, scaled back the plan, each time in full view of the public.
As Reed pointed out in the segment, this is still only a draft plan, with many more hearings yet to come. Unfortunately, people argue that there hasn't been enough input or a good enough public process almost no matter how long or short the public process actually is. This creates a "boy who cried wolf" effect for those times when government agencies really do try to ram a plan through with minimal public comment. The BRT plan is, at least thus far, not one of those cases.
One other argument from Bienenfeld rings particularly hollow: she argues that the plans "cram all the bus routes downcounty into underserved areas and lower-income, avoiding the wealthier parts of the county." Yet the bus routes include Wisconsin Avenue, which passes through some of the county's most affluent communities; most of the opposition has come from the neighborhoods between Bethesda and Friendship Heights.
- Young kids try to assault me while biking
- Metro bag searches aren't always optional
- Focus transportation on downtown or neighborhoods?
- Endless zoning update delay hurts homeowners
- Redeveloping McMillan is the only way to save it
- DDOT agrees to repave 15th Street cycle track
- Vienna Metro town center won't have a town center