Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Ask GGW: So you're looking for a planning job in the DC area?

Are you looking to get into the planning field in the Washington region? In this week's AskGGW, our contributors suggest three ways to make it happen: meet as many people in the field as possible and do lots of networking, look for internships or volunteer opportunities (like writing for GGW!) that let you delve into a topic of interest and gets your name out into the world, and get a master's degree.


Photo by Paul B. (Halifax) on Flickr.

Reader Colin Brown asked,

How can recent graduates find foot-in-the-door opportunities in this field? Are there best practices for young people looking to find that first work opportunity in the area?
Dan Malouff gives advice based on his personal experience:

The hardest part of any new career path is getting your foot in the door. You've got to know people in the industry, and you've got to have produced work somewhere that people can look at, to get a sense of what kind of work you'll do for them.
The traditional way for new people to accomplish that is via an internship, often unpaid. And yeah, that works. Do that if you can.

But anything you can do that both gets your name out there and produces planning-related work is good for your job-seeking cause. And there's no easier way to do both those things simultaneously than to blog. And there's no better way to make sure a lot of people in the DC planning field see your blogging than to get it published on GGW.

This is no mere theory. It's exactly the path that several of us on the GGW team have taken. At least three or four of us, and maybe more.

Adam Lind shares his story:
I had no background in planning before going to grad school at Virginia Tech in 2010. I went to planning school after a personal interest in sustainability started to grow at the end of my undergrad business school life in 2008. From there, I went into transportation planning as I figured that was the best way to make an impact on sustainability and improving the environment by promoting alternative transportation.

I got an internship the summer after I graduated with my masters and ended up getting a job offer in Chapel Hill, but wanted to live in a "real" city. I just kept applying and got an interview with Fairfax County for a Planning Tech II job.

I thought I was overqualified but figured it was a good career move to get into the area, and eventually an opening above me in the bike planning department opened up and now I'm doing my dream job. Sometimes it's better to just be in the right place at the right time.

Aimee Custis, who constantly screens job applications at work, suggests the following three steps:
1. Have the necessary technical credentials. That's a prerequisite. So all that stuff about "get a planning degree" and "suck it up and take an internship" are true. And a bare minimum. Until you have done these things, full stop: nothing else I have to say will get you past this step.

2. Get to know EVERYONE you possibly can in the field, and demonstrate to them how amazing you are. Most job openings I hear about come by word-of-mouth, so making sure people think of you when they hear about a job opening is key. Call and email people, tell them you're interested in a planning/transportation career, and ask if you can pick their brain over coffee.

Come prepared with a thoughtful list of questions to ask them, and be sure to have your pitch about who you are and what you're looking for polished. Ask those people to introduce or refer you to other people. Leave them with an awesome impression of you. Rinse and repeat.

3. When a job opening does come your way, apply promptly, completely, and put your best foot forward. If writing isn't your strong point, have someone help you with your cover letter and resume. For Pete's sake, CUSTOMIZE your cover letter (and preferably your resume) to the position you're applying for. If you don't have the attention to detail and thoughtfulness to do that well, what would make me as a prospective employer think you'd do your job thoughtfully?

Whether in your cover letter or in your interview, be ready with a polished, well-considered answer about what you bring to the position that makes you a better candidate than the dozens of similar candidates who are applying?

Oh, and last thing: remember those people who you got to know in step 2? Reach out to them. Tell them you're applying, and thank them for their good advice. If you can, gently drop that if they know anyone at the employer, you'd love if they'd put in a good word for you.

Associate Editor Jonathan Neeley heartily seconds Aimee's recommendation to "ask to pick their brain over coffee," adding "If someone is in a position you're in, you should ask them if you can have a conversation with them, and then you should ask them all about what they do and the path they took to get there. If someone loves their job, they'll also love to talk about it."

And Abigail Zenner adds:

I would add that it is important to follow up with your contacts. Don't just send one email, but check in again to see if the person saw it. People get a lot of email and sometimes they intend to write back but it gets lost in the shuffle. Don't read too much into that. Don't be shy and don't be afraid to contact people who are agency department heads or other "important people."

Another important piece is to try your best to figure out what it is you want to do. Do you want to be a planner? An advocate? A policy analyst? Do you want to work in communications or politics? What policy area would you like to focus on? Take the time to find yourself so you know what kinds of jobs you are looking for. That self searching will also help inform a decision about graduate school.

Payton Chung, who has also reviewed thousands of resumes, says "it's amazing how many boring candidates are out there." He has the following advice:
Your portfolio should describe and show off achievements, not tasks, in a way that's relevant to the challenges and concerns that people are hiring for. Your cover letter should be grouped around your skills, not chronology. Your interactions with potential employers should be about them and their needs, not yours; everyone loves talking about themselves. When you do get a chance to talk, personal convictions and interests always make for more fascinating (and memorable!) conversations than shop talk. Share your opinions, and be prepared to back them up.

And that brings me to another point: whenever I've hired people, I've always looked for people whose own initiatives demonstrate a genuine fascination with, and understanding of, the cities and communities they'll be serving. For someone at the entry level, that's not always paid. But it can be illustrated through volunteer or academic or travel experience. Choose interesting and timely topics for your class papersor for posts you submit to GGW!

Especially in the DC market, you will need an MA pretty soon. In many other cities, 30% of people have college degrees; here, 30% of people have graduate degrees. Most of the local programs are available part-time, and they're a great way to get some self-directed experience in the topic.

Claire Jaffe asked a follow-up question about what to look for in a master's program, and Adam Lind responded:
From my point of view, from being a recent master's graduate and doing the job search, you're going to need a master's degree at some point, so the sooner the better. The bigger question in my opinion is to do it full time, or do it while working. If you can get a planning job and do grad school at the same time, that would be my recommendation.

If you can find an arrangement where you get a job, conditioned on taking classes, then yes, go for that too. I just know when I was looking to get in the field almost every job ad said master's degree required or highly recommended, and if you have no experience and no master's degree, you're starting way behind the rest of the field. The past few years there have been A LOT of planners looking for a few jobs. I know job ads that regularly receive 100+ candidates, many of whom are well overqualified.

Tracy Loh comments on the specific dynamics of the planning profession:
Within the planning sector, I think it's important to distinguish between agencies and nonprofits. Understand the different roles each play and think about which is a better fit for your personality and perspective.

In the DC area especially, I think many agencies have a strongly technocratic bent, where it's about skills, experience, jargon fluency, etc, and Payton's advice about being expert enough to have opinions and back them up is right on the money. I would perhaps rephrase it as "being able to express opinions without making them sound like opinions."

I want to second another thing Payton said, about volunteering. I work at a nonprofit. I see job applications from people all the time where they swear up and down in their cover letter that they love our mission and are personally committed to it... and then there is no volunteer experience on the resume. I'm not even talking about working for free, like with internships; that is a privilege that not all people have. But planning is all about being engaged with a communitywhen I was in grad school, I waited tables some nights and went to community meetings other nights. I learned a lot about how the development process works and I showed my seriousness about the issues. You need to engage, even if it's just when you're done making rent.

A lot of planning is really about people, even when superficially we are talking about transit, or stormwater management, or whatever. What are your people skills and how do you want to put them to work? What kinds of situations energize you, and what drains you (or would you rather avoid)? Seek out positions that are a good fit and make the case for that fit in your cover lettershow that you really understand what the role requires.

This is hard only inasmuch as many organizations (whatever the sector!) do not know what they actually need when they are hiring. You're not going to find a dream job, but you might be able to make one. Look for openings and opportunities to do so and see the cover letter and interview as your chance to make a pitch about what you would turn the job into.

Dan Reed offers a reminder that those looking for planning jobs should brush up on skills that are useful in any sector:
Whether you're in the public or private sector, good planners generally know how to:
  • Express ideas clearly and succinctly through writing.
  • Speak to particular audiences (whether it's an agency, a community group, businesses, etc.).
  • Craft a narrative (about a community's past, present, and future).
  • Work with many different people (often across different agencies, companies, and also the general public).
  • See things for what they can be, not just what they are (have a vision!).
  • There are other more specific disciplines, like graphic design or engineering or public policy, that relate to planning and often come up in a planner's work. But I think they all go back to those general ideas.
    The final thought comes from a contributor who asked to remain anonymous:
    I'll give anecdotal evidence as to the power of contributing to GGW. I had an interview a few weeks ago for a planning position. I don't have GGW listed in my resume, but it was literally the first thing that the interviewer brought up, either because he reads GGW or because my GGW bio is the first thing that pops up if you Google me. Either way, it was definitely seen as valuable experience. I'm still waiting to hear back, but fingers crossed.
    If you do want to write for Greater Greater Washington, check out our contributor guidelines for information on what to think about and how to get started.

    Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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    SNL and Parks and Rec take on urbanism

    Modern urban planning issues have had a good recent stretch in TV comedy. Below, check out clips of both Saturday Night Live and Parks and Rec talking about how cities and our attitudes about them have changed.

    In the above skit from this week's SNL, host Kevin Hart and cast members Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah portray residents of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Their characters embrace both the old and new stereotypes on display in many changing urban neighborhoods.

    It's a smart skit that talks about how gentrification is a nuanced two-way street. All residents benefit from a neighborhood's positives whether they're old or new, and the same goes for a neighborhood's challenges.

    Parks and Rec

    On Tuesday, Parks and Recreation a show whose plotline has always included urban planning, pitted two of its characters on opposite sides of a debate over development.

    Leslie and Ron used to be friends and colleagues in the Parks Department but have since fallen out; they've moved on to new jobs as well. In a flashback, viewers learn that a root of the ongoing conflict between the two is a decision Ron made to build a mixed-use apartment building next to a park that Leslie helped establish.

    Leslie doesn't like the idea of an apartment building because it would both replace low-density housing (including a home that was personally important to her) and obstruct views. She calls the building a "monstrosity" and mocks its name, calling it pretentious. Ron counters that there is demand for more housing in that area and that more people living near the park will mean more people using it.

    In Ron's office, we see renderings of a building that wouldn't look out of place in many DC area neighborhoods. That's a reminder that we have seen this basic argument, where some think that there is too much development going on and others think there isn't enough, play out all over the DC region, including in the comments of GGW posts.

    Since the scene is a flashback, we don't actually find out if the apartment building went up or not. Down the road, perhaps we'll read about the ongoing debate on Greater Greater Pawnee.

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    Harriet Tregoning opposes DC's row house downzoning plan

    Mere months after she stepped down as head of DC's Office of Planning, Harriet Tregoning's former agency came out with a proposal to limit the height and numbers of units that can go in many row houses. Tregoning has now sent a letter to the DC Zoning Commission opposing this plan.


    Photo by Thomas Le Ngo on Flickr.

    She writes,

    I am afraid conclusions about development pipeline outcomes and impacts on single family housing costs (and subsequent recommendations for down zoning and other zoning changes) are being drawn from too narrow and recent a time period. Yet the consequences of Zoning Commission action may affect the city for decades to come.
    In other words, OP is hastily acting based on limited data, but could hamstring the city for a long time.

    Tregoning headed OP from 2007 to 2014, when she left for a position in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. She wrote the letter entirely in her personal capacity as a resident of Columbia Heights, a neighborhood largely in the zoning category (R-4) that this proposal would affect.

    The change came out of public concern about "pop-up" additions to row houses. OP suggests limiting the height in R-4 row house zones to 35 feet, which is still enough to build a third story. That means that it won't stop all pop-ups.

    As Tregoning points out, the real public hatred comes from ugly pop-ups (which people can still build under OP's plan). She writes,

    There have indeed been some awful additions built in R-4 and R-5 neighborhoods. However, I don't believe that the builders of the additions aspire to horrify the neighbors and potentially devalue their own property; I think they are terribly uninformed about what makes for a compatible addition. ... Much of the outcry about "pop-ups" has been over compatibility. However, many additions to rowhouses are so compatible that they are utterly unremarkable in terms of changes to the neighborhood.
    Tregoning suggests "an advisory ANC panel of citizen architects or designers to advise builders" on how to make an addition attractive and compatible. It could start out voluntary but become less so if necessary.

    Will more restrictions make housing more affordable for families?

    The Office of Planning also wants to restrict row houses in these zones to two units. The staff say that this will keep prices down, because developers hoping to subdivide them can't outbid families, and also ensure there is larger, family-sized housing. Tregoning argues this is false, or at least, unsupported by data at this time.

    I am somewhat puzzled by the proposition that we can increase affordability by decreasing the supply of potential housing units ...The compet1tion for [rowhouse] housing will be fierce, whether a buyer plans to live there herself, renovate the building as a single family unit for sale, or renovate it as two or more units for sale. Restricting the number of units just limits the housing supply in some of the most central and transit-and amenity-supplied neighborhoods of the city.
    Tregoning notes that DC still has more single-family housing stock than families:
    I am rather dismayed by the talk of family-sized housing needing to be in single-family dwellings. All over the world families live in what we call multi-family housing (an ironic term given the representation that these units must not be for families)apartments and condominiums.

    In DC we are enjoying a mini-baby boom, a product in part perhaps of the influx of young college graduates over the past 7 years and the incentive of free all-day daycare afforded by DC's universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4- year olds. But that just means that the City projects that we will have 23% of households with school-aged children in 2030 or so, up from our current level of around 21%. In other words, more than three-quarters of DC households will NOT have school-aged children at home.

    Yet roughly 1/3 of the housing supply is of the larger, often single fam1ly or semi-detached housing variety. We do have a mismatchour current housing stock is sized too large for our householdsthat is why so much housing being built and anticipated in the development pipeline are for small units.

    Let's not overreact to that pipeline. Recall that we were a shrinking city until roughly 2007, and then we were in a recession. This flurry of building is an attempt to be responsive to demand for smaller units.

    Today, almost 44% of all DC households are single-person households. As we attain a closer match between the household size and our building stock, I am confident we will see a broader range of unit sizes be produced.

    We already devote more than 54% of the total res1dent1ally zoned land to low density smgle-family detached and semi-detached housing in the R-1 thru R-3 zones. As we see the inevitable generational turnover of that housing stock, more of 1t wlll be avallable for households that want larger housing, including households with children.
    However, if we act to restnct housing in the R-4 now, do we really think we can easily reverse that decision once the mismatch of households and building stock has come closer to equilibrium?

    Tregoning also says that downzoning all R-4 neighborhoods is unfair to homeowners who purchased their properties with the expectation that they could add on and/or rent out parts of the home in ways that would become illegal. And she says that even San Francisco, a city with a perhaps even more acute housing crunch and a reputation for opposition to new housing, isn't contemplating downzoning residential land.

    She argues, as I did, that this proposal should come amid a larger plan for meeting housing demand instead of as a standalone idea. Such a plan might suggest more restrictions on R-4 houses and more new housing in other land types, or a totally different approach.

    At some point [the proposed] restrictions may even be appropriate but I do not believe we know that now. What we do know now is that the demand for housing is outpacing supply and that prices are rising such that affordability is threatened not just for moderate income households but for middle income ones as well.
    OP needs to create a broader strategy around housing supply and demand so residents can wrestle with the large-scale tradeoffs. Until that can happen, this knee-jerk plan to downzone some row houses is unwise.

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    DC may limit condos and building heights in some row house zones. Is this a good idea?

    The DC Office of Planning wants to further limit the height of houses in some row house neighborhoods and restrict the ability of property owners to split their houses into multiple units. The proposal, which first came out last June, will have a public hearing this Thursday night.


    Photo by rockcreek on Flickr.

    Planners say these proposals are responding to some neighborhoods' alarm about "pop-ups" and will preserve family-sized units in row houses which developers have been converting to buildings with more and smaller units.

    However, others worry that this is the latest in a recent string of zoning changes which would reduce DC's ability to add housing in areas close to jobs and transit. The planning office of late seems to make policy proposals on a very ad hoc basis that react to a political issue, and we need a comprehensive look at the city's housing need along with strategies to deal with it.

    What's in this proposal

    This change would apply to the zones designated R-4. This covers Columbia Heights, Shaw, Capitol Hill, and other areas in purple on the below map:


    Residential zones as of 2008. Image by David Alpert from DC Office of Zoning base map.

    Today, a property owner in these zones can have up to two units in one house. For larger-than-usual lots, there can be three or four. And some property owners have asked DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) for a variance to convert normal-sized ones into four or more apartments.

    The BZA has granted many of these requests, sometimes with the full support of immediate neighbors and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and sometimes in more controversial situations. OP's proposal would tighten these rules to completely forbid this practice. Another alternative, which OP added in response to criticism of its initial proposal, would still allow the extra units but require any beyond two to be Inclusionary Zoning units available to people making 60% or less of the Area Median Income.

    In addition, row houses in these zones could only rise to 35 feet as of right, with the ability to get a special exception to build to 40 feet. A small "mezzanine" floor would also count against the limit on the number of floors, which it doesn't today.

    Why planners say this is necessary

    According to OP's blog post and presentation, the change from 40 to 35 feet will still let homeowners add on to their houses, including adding a third story to a two-story building, but will limit some of the more incongruous additions and cut the economic motivation to add on as high as possible.

    It's worth noting that the infamous V Street pop-up isn't even in an R-4 and this proposal wouldn't affect it. But there have been projects adding on to a row house that tried to maximize the building envelope, both on top and in back, to put as many smaller units inside as could fit.

    As for converting a house into more than two units, they essentially seem to feel that the BZA is granting these variances too readily. The R-4 zone's stated purpose, according to the zoning regulations, is to be a place of only moderate density row houses with larger units; creating a lot of apartments isn't really in keeping with that spirit.

    They also argue that because of this ability to make a little apartment building out of a row house, developers can outbid individual families for the buildings, making it harder for families to afford places to live. New large apartment buildings in DC are generally made up of studios, one bedrooms, and two bedrooms, with relatively few three- and four-bedroom units, so, the proponents say, we should preserve some of the larger units that already exist.

    Why critics say this is a bad idea

    The original proposal came under some criticism from certain members of the Zoning Commission when OP planners presented it in July. Marcie Cohen, a housing affordability advocate, said, "The need that's brought before us in the BZA cases [is] adding housing. And no one seems to appreciate density, yet we have the infrastructure in certain neighborhoods for density and I guess I'm in favor of taking advantage to provide the needed housing that we have in the city."

    Rob Miller also spoke about the city's need to grow, while chairman Anthony Hood and Architect of the Capitol representative Michael Turnbull defended OP's ideas. Peter May, the National Park Service representative, was not at that meeting and will likely represent the swing vote.

    Blogger Payton Chung points out that the traditional family, married couples with children, make up less than 10% of DC households, while a third of the housing is family-sized. Plus, that minority of housing takes up most of DC's land (because much of it is lower density). Therefore, he concludes, while DC still needs to have family-sized housing, what it really needs to add right now is smaller units.

    While many families do want to live a short walk from restaurants, Chung also links to research showing that compared to other household types, this is less of a priority. And, he says, "most of North America's great "Main Street" urban neighborhoods are made of 2-4 unit low-risesa desirable, sustainable urban pattern that's almost criminalized by this change."

    We need plans for new housing

    This policy debate need not pit families against singles. We need enough housing for all types of households. But where?

    OP's own report on the height limit found that under current zoning and historic preservation laws, existing places to build new housing would max out in about 25 years, or sooner if DC experiences a high level of growth.


    Graph from the DC Office of Planning.

    Twenty-five years is not a lot of time to find opportunities for more housing. It has taken over seven years just to make a few minor tweaks in the zoning to add a small amount of new housing potential in existing carriage houses, and that came only amid enormous pushback. OP repeatedly scaled back these proposals along the way, to the point that the Zoning Commission actually told planners they had retreated too far.

    These changes came in response to individual neighborhood complaints or requests. But these changes don't just affect one neighborhood: they affect the whole.

    It certainly could make sense for a neighborhood to collectively decide that one area is the best one for more housing while another is not, and agree to increase zoning in one area while decreasing it in another. DC could decide that the row houses are right to reserve for family-sized housing and add opportunities on other land in the neighborhoods for the one- and two-bedroom units we need.

    Unfortunately, that's not what's happening. Instead, people try to push new growth entirely out their own areas, often successfully. And OP planners' stated reasons for making a change, whether this one or its zoning update retreats, generally don't speak to the citywide effect on housing supply at all.

    We need housing forecasts

    I hear some folks in the government disagree that prices are rising because of zoning limits on housing. In that case, let's have a discussion about it.

    OP should publish its own analyses, with more detail than what's in the height report. This would be a great component for the forthcoming revision to the Comprehensive Plan, the overall planning document which is supposed to guide District policies and land use decisions.

    Let's really analyze what types of housing we need, in what sizes and areas, and how that compares to current supply. Then we can have a real conversation about different ways to meet the demand. We can't get there through a neighborhood-by-neighborhood process tweaking one rule at a time. There has to be a larger strategy.

    Maybe this particular proposal would be an element of that larger strategy. Maybe not. The Zoning Commission should delay any action on this specific set of changes until OP can put this proposal into a context of the city's overall housing need.

    Want to testify?

    The hearing is Thursday, January 14 15, starting at 6:30 pm at One Judiciary Square. If you want to testify for or against the proposals, email Donna Hanousek, donna.hanousek@dc.gov, to sign up. You will be limited to three minutes of speaking time. If you want to submit a written letter, follow these instructions and send it to zcsubmissions@dc.gov.

    Clarification: The original version of this post cited a statistic of 10% of housing being for couples with children. That statistic only counts married couples with children, not unmarried ones or other family types. The text has been updated.

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    White Flint's holiday gift: a safe Old Georgetown Road

    White Flint residents were frustrated to hear that Maryland transportation officials wanted to push a wide, eight-lane road through the new urban center they anticipated. But on Christmas Eve, they got an early holiday gift: Old Georgetown Road will get to be a boulevard after all.


    Old Georgetown Road and Pike + Rose. Photo by Dan Malouff.

    Montgomery County's award-winning master plan for White Flint, approved in 2010, would transform an aging commercial strip corridor into a new downtown. A new street grid, complete with bike and pedestrian infrastructure, was a central element in the plan, which specified the number of auto and bike lanes, target speeds and other details for new and redesigned roads.

    But community leaders, advocates, and the business community alike were distraught to learn that state transportation officials required that Old Georgetown Road be built wider than what the master plan dictated and without bicycle and pedestrian paths. They said the road needed to handle more car traffic from a redeveloped White Flint.

    So it was welcome news when County Executive Ike Leggett said in a December 24th press release that the county's department of transportation and Maryland State Highway Administration had agreed to reduce the number of lanes on Old Georgetown Road. Instead of eight lanes, the new street would have five, with two through-lanes in each direction and a shared left-turn lane at a new intersection with Hoya Street.


    Comparison of the two cross-sections. Rendering from of Friends of White Flint. Click for larger version showing more of the road.

    The decrease in lanes will significantly improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety by reducing crosswalk distances, and will also allow space for on-street bike lanes and an off-street shared use path between Hoya Street and Grand Park Avenue, as called for by the master plan.

    In the press release, Leggett said, "I want to thank our partners at the State Highway Administration for working with MCDOT and my office in approving a forward thinking solution that helps us reach our goal of creating a more walkable and bikable community in White Flint--right from the start."

    While advocates and community members are thrilled by this development, there's a feeling that this battle shouldn't need to be won street by street. Behind this success story lies the continuing tyranny of traffic models, which are notoriously wrong in their predictions but still used to prevent local jurisdictions from building the walkable places they want. Montgomery County, like most places around the country, has been witnessing a decline in driving, yet the models continue to predict otherwise.

    Even in White Flint, where a rare alliance of community leaders, elected officials, advocates, and the business community has rallied for years around a vision for a walkable community, Montgomery County was on the brink of building yet another dangerous eight-lane road through their showpiece redevelopment, against their wishes, due to the state's requirements to deal with likely incorrect traffic forecasts.

    Thankfully, Montgomery County's executive and councilmembers have been supportive of a new approach, and it appears that MCDOT's new acting director Al Roshdieh is on board as well.

    "We must continue to transform our transportation infrastructure to be even more transit-oriented, bikable and walkable," he said in a recent interview, adding that he "plan[s] to take a hard look at all of MCDOT's policies and procedures to ensure that they are consistent with our emphasis on smart growth principles."

    When people are clearly driving less and desiring to live in walkable places, it's well past time to remove the antiquated, auto-oriented barriers in place that continue to limit the creation of healthy, sustainable, inclusive places like White Flint.

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    Springfield Town Center might save enclosed malls

    Shopping malls are having a rough time as consumers increasingly shop elsewhere. While it's too early to say they're done for, successful malls have to take big steps to stay current. Springfield Town Center is experimenting with ways to do just that, including unique international stores and a central court laid out like an urban plaza.


    Inside the new Springfield Town Center. Photo by Ser Amantio di Nicolao.

    Last weekend, my boyfriend and I visited Springfield Town Center, a few minutes from his house in Annandale. Before it reopened in October, it was Springfield Mall, a 1970's-era regional shopping center that once hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana but had fallen so far that owner Vornado felt the only solution was to tear the entire thing down and start from scratch.

    This isn't the only mall in the region that's being replaced with something else. Laurel Mall is now Towne Centre at Laurel, an outdoor shopping center. Landmark Mall in Alexandria and White Flint Mall in North Bethesda will soon become mixed-use districts. And the former Landover Mall is a candidate for the FBI's new headquarters.

    What sets Springfield Town Center apart is that it's still an enclosed mall. Vornado kept the three anchor stores, Macy's, JCPenney, and Target, but demolished the old mall and built a new, reconfigured one in its place. Still, the new mall feels very different than enclosed malls you've seen before.


    The old Springfield Mall. Photo by Rev. Xanatos Satanicos... on Flickr.

    Malls still have a place

    The assumption among real estate folks is that shoppers would rather spend their money at big-box stores that offer one-stop shopping, or head to historic main streets or lifestyle centers where they can get out and walk around outside.

    But the mall isn't over yet, as some hope. Real estate analysts CoStar estimate that about 80% of the nation's existing malls are still healthy, though it's not clear what "healthy" means.

    Malls must adapt to survive

    As going to the mall becomes a once-in-a-while occasion, the malls that are thriving are super-regional malls like Tysons Corner Center, a 15-minute drive from Springfield. While it's smaller than Tysons, Springfield Town Center's bet is that shoppers will go to the mall if it offers something you can't find anywhere else.

    Vornado brought in several "fast-fashion" retailers who are both new to the DC area and generally not found in malls: Uniqlo from Japan, Spain's Suiteblanco, and Topshop and F&F, both from the UK. Inside, there are deliberate design choices that make the mall feel like a place to linger: high-quality materials, bright lighting, and a large room with tables, chairs, and a grand central staircase that calls to mind an old train station waiting room.

    It seems to be working, if only because of the curiosity factor surrounding a new mall. Two weeks after the holiday shopping season, Springfield Town Center was packed. The parking lots were full and the corridors were bustling with shoppers, especially teenagers, who are turning away from shopping malls. The mall's two sit-down restaurants, Maggiano's and Yard House, both had an hour-long wait.

    I'm curious to see if shoppers will choose Springfield Town Center over big-box stores and downtowns, or even bigger malls like Tysons. There are plans to eventually surround the mall with offices and apartments, similar to what's happening at Tysons Corner Center and the Mall in Columbia in Maryland. Ultimately, that might create the kind of environment, and support the diversity of retail, that will draw shoppers in the long run.

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