The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Cavan Wilk

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 


DC studying streetcar to Takoma or Silver Spring

DC will start a one-year study of a north-south transit corridor from Southwest DC to Takoma or Silver Spring. While it's too early to tell what officials will decide, it's clear that Silver Spring's jobs, amenities, and other transit connections make it the most logical terminus.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

This new corridor, which could operate as BRT but more likely a streetcar, will be one of the largest transit expansions in the District. This study, which is the first step in a longer planning process, will analyze alignments and modes through the entire study corridor to produce no more than three alternatives.

Historically, streetcars ran up 11th Street, 14th Street, and 7th Street/Georgia Avenue, spurring the development of commercial nodes along the way. You can see the vestiges of those lines today at their former termini: the Trolley Turnaround Park at 11th & Monroe Street NW, the streetcar terminal at Colorado Avenue, and downtown Silver Spring, just beyond the Georgia Avenue line's end at Eastern Avenue.

According to project manager Jamie Henson, DDOT has not committed to any exact alignment, but the study will consider corridors from 16th Street NW to as far as a quarter-mile east of 7th Street or Georgia Avenue. The original 2010 plan for the 37-mile network depicted a line running from Buzzard Point through downtown on 7th Street SW/NW and F Street NW, then along 14th Street NW, U Street NW, and finally on Georgia Avenue NW to Takoma. The plan described Silver Spring as a future extension along Georgia Avenue.

Image by the author, based on a DDOT map.

Though DDOT will study BRT and a wider range of alignments, the original alignment is still a possibility. The agency just announced that its preferred alternative for the Union Station-Georgetown transit line is a streetcar on H Street NE/NW, New Jersey Avenue NW and K Street NW, mirroring the original mode and alignment in the 2010 streetcar plan.

DDOT will compare streetcars to BRT, but not entirely

This phase of the study will consider modes such as BRT and streetcars, assessing the travel time, reliability, level of service, access to jobs, and types of trips served. The study will consider the trade-offs and desirability of running the line in dedicated lanes versus mixed traffic. DDOT will also contemplate whether the new service should prioritize speed and install fewer stops, or increase the number of stops to reduce walking.

Henson said the study will consider construction and operating costs of BRT versus streetcar, but Henson dismissed the differences in real estate development each mode sparks, saying development along the north-south corridor will happen regardless of mode. The Office of Planning's 2012 Streetcar Land Use Study, however, clearly favors streetcars' development potential for the District:

Although well-designed BRT systems attract some development, their impacts are typically much less than those for rail—and the BRT systems that have generated the strongest development response operate on exclusive rights of way at all times and not in mixed traffic, as the District streetcar would. In cities without the potential to attract much development investment, implementation costs and other factors give buses a clear advantage. In the District, however, streetcar service appears very likely to attract significant real estate investment.
Weighing the costs of construction and operation without accounting for land value appreciation misses an important part of financing the eventual project. DDOT recently announced that the District government will finance the streetcar, while contracting to a private firm to design, build, operate, and maintain the system.

The District has not decided whether it will finance the full streetcar network through TIFs, general tax revenue, or special bond programs, but one thing is clear: bonds will have to be paid off through some stream of tax revenue, either a special account or the general fund. It's essential to compare the new tax revenue each mode generates, but this will likely wait for a later phase.

Extending the corridor to Silver Spring is in DC's interest

While keeping the north-south streetcar entirely in DC would be politically easier, there are many compelling reasons why terminating it at the Silver Spring Metro station would benefit the District and the region as a whole.

One of the main lessons our region learned from constructing the Metro is that all parts of the region thrive when everyone cooperates on transportation planning. The streetcars provide a valuable opportunity to further knit together the region's many vibrant walkable urban places both socially and economically.

When connected with urban-oriented transit infrastructure, urban places make each other more desirable because people in one location enjoy the benefits of all the other urban places. Even though it's on the other side of Eastern Avenue, District residents will more easily enjoy all that Silver Spring has to offer with more robust transit access via the north-south streetcar.

Silver Spring is a regional jobs center with 40,000 jobs and more to come. DC's northernmost neighborhoods would have an easy, quick reverse commute just across Eastern Avenue to a major regional jobs center. And unlike the Takoma Metro Station, Silver Spring is a major transit hub connecting not just the Red Line, but also MARC, the future Purple Line, and numerous bus lines to places throughout DC and Maryland.

It's also a regional shopping and entertainment hub, home to the Fillmore music hall, the American Film Institute Silver Theater, a public outdoor ice rink as well as free concerts at Veterans' Plaza, a farmers' market, and some regionally notable bars and restaurants. Not surprisingly, the 70/79 Metrobus, which serves the 7th Street/Georgia Avenue corridor between Southwest DC and Silver Spring today, is one of the most popular bus lines in the system.

Even though Silver Spring is just outside DDOT's jurisdiction, it would obviously win out over Takoma if transit projects followed economic, not jurisdictional, boundaries. Furthermore, two Montgomery County Councilmembers have asked DC Mayor Vincent Gray to consider Silver Spring as a terminal.

Share your views with DDOT next week

The District is hosting four meetings to kick off the study next week. In this first round, the agency is interested in learning your views on the eventual plan's features. Do you prefer faster travel times to frequent stops? Do you think the new line should run in its own dedicated lane at all or only in certain places? What impacts on street parking would you consider unacceptable? Do you prefer Takoma or Silver Spring as a northern terminus?

  • Buzzard Point to Downtown: Monday, November 4 from 6:30 to 8:30pm, St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, 600 M Street SW.
  • Downtown to Petworth: Tuesday, November 5 from 6:30 to 8:30pm, Reeves Center, 2000 14th Street NW.
  • Businesses (entire study area): Wednesday, November 6 from 2pm to 4pm, Reeves Center, 2000 14th Street NW.
  • Petworth to Silver Spring: Thursday, November 7 from 6:30 to 8:30pm, Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.
All project studies involve trade-offs of some sort and the agency is interested in hearing what the public's priorities are. Everyone is welcome to attend any meeting, regardless of residence. For more information, visit the study website.


Maryland considers boulevard design for Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue between 16th Street and Forest Glen Road in Silver Spring's Montgomery Hills neighborhood is currently a dangerous mess of a suburban arterial. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is looking at ways to transform it into an urban boulevard.

Image from Maryland SHA.

At a meeting last week at Woodlin Elementary School, SHA planners presented 7 alternatives to improve pedestrian, bike and transit access on Georgia Avenue. This stretch of road has the most vehicle collisions of any state highway in Maryland, as the reversible lanes make drivers confused. There's no median and the lanes are all at least 12 feet wide, making Georgia incredibly dangerous to cross on foot.

But this stretch of Georgia Avenue also has a number of notable small businesses in early 20th-century buildings close to the street. The popular Y and Q route Metrobuses stop here, and it's also within walking distance of the Forest Glen Metro, though few make that walk due to safety concerns. This area is ripe to convert to an urban boulevard.

SHA has produced 7 alternatives for this portion of Georgia Avenue, including not doing anything at all or using Transportation Systems Management, basically reworking the traffic lights but not actually building anything.

Alternative 3. All images from SHA unless otherwise noted.

Alternative 3 is based on the North and West Silver Spring Master Plan. It includes 13.5 foot wide sidewalks but no specific bike facilities. A 16 foot grass median would replace the existing reversible lane. SHA also proposes narrowing each intersection to make it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross the street.

Alternative 4.

Alternative 5.

Alternatives 4 and 5 build on the Master Plan option by including a 14 to 16 foot curb lane that could accommodate a striped bicycle lane. It would also close the off-ramp from southbound Georgia Avenue to southbound 16th Street, which encourages motorists to drive as if they were on an interstate highway. It has no place in a dense residential area that's in walking distance of two Metro stations.

Alternative 6.

Alternative 6 would place 2 Bus Rapid Transit lanes in the median and room for a station at Seminary Road. The Planning Board is currently considering a countywide BRT network which would include a route on Georgia Avenue.

Alternative 7.

Alternative 7 would build a tunnel underneath Georgia Avenue between the Beltway and 16th Street. Not only would it be the most expensive choice, but it would move Montgomery Hills in the wrong direction in the Whirlpool of Induced Demand.

All 5 of the alternatives that involve building things would require widening the road, meaning that businesses may lose some property or even their entire building. Everyone I talked to at the meeting preferred Alternatives 4 and 5, with its median and bike lanes.

Most agreed that Alternative 7 was not a good choice. Not only would make the pedestrian experience even worse, it would cause more driver collisions due to its confusing nature. Where the tunnel ended at the Beltway, drivers would have to merge across three lanes to get to the on-ramps.

It's surprising how different SHA's work in Montgomery Hills is compared to what the Montgomery County Department of Transportation's proposed redesign of Old Georgetown Road in White Flint, which encourages speeding and has few accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists. While Montgomery County transportation planners have chosen to ignore the county's vision to turn White Flint into an urban area, SHA planners have embraced an urban future for Montgomery Hills.

SHA's urban boulevard alternatives for Georgia Avenue are a step in the right direction. Hopefully, they'll find a solution that can make this street a place worth spending time in, not just a traffic sewer.


Soccer land swap could solve problems for DC and United

DC United has been trying to build a new stadium using its own funds for years. A proposed land swap for a parcel at Buzzard Point could help them get one while the District grows its tax base, increases its housing supply, and improves city services at little cost to taxpayers.

Buzzard Point today. Photo by Stephen Whiting.

City officials are currently talking with DC United and developer Akridge about swapping some empty parcels of land at Buzzard Point for government-owned properties around the city, like the Reeves Center near 14th & U streets. In return, Akridge would build a new public safety campus elsewhere in the city and DC United would get the land at Buzzard Point for a stadium.

While other uses have been considered for Buzzard Point in the past, putting a new DC United stadium there would be the best use of that land, while opening up other properties around the city that are better suited for housing or commercial activities.

The current Metropolitan Police Department headquarters at Judiciary Square is outdated and needs to be replaced. It's in such poor shape that MPD employees would have to move somewhere else if the building were renovated.

Meanwhile, the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services and the Department of Corrections are temporarily moving from their obsolete facilities on Vermont Avenue to the Reeves Center. All three government agencies are in need of new permanent headquarters, but the catch is that there are currently no funds allocated to building them.

Slate business and economics correspondent Matt Yglesias recently argued that this site should be used for affordable housing instead. While he's right that DC needs more housing, the Buzzard Point site doesn't make sense for housing under current market conditions. Akridge bought the land that currently sits idle as a parking lot in 2005. They hoped to build an office building but the GSA refused to lease space there, saying the 15-minute walk from the Navy Yard Metro was too far.

There was a residential construction boom when Akridge bought the land in 2005, and there's one happening now due to limited supply and high rents. If they thought that they could sell or rent new homes there, they would have already done so. The Buzzard Point site is a vacant parking lot because there simply isn't enough economic incentive to build there.

If DC United moved to Buzzard Point, the land would become more valuable, much like the Capitol Riverfront after Nationals Park opened. The District could gain tax revenue from surrounding vacant properties as they were developed. Now in private hands, the highly valuable properties at Judiciary Square and 14th and U could also raise tax revenue for the city.

This gives DC more funds that could be used for affordable housing programs. Meanwhile, the market rate housing supply would increase due to new residential buildings at 14th and U and Buzzard Point. (The Judiciary Square site would presumably be used for commercial uses.)

The increase in housing supply would help stabilize rents. Individual buildings may not do much to stabilize rising rents, since they are only a small part of the new supply needed to meet demand. However, every little bit counts.

While the District of Columbia needs more market rate and affordable housing, it can accomplish those goals without throwing around money to induce development where there's no demand for it. Perhaps that was the only option available to our forebears in the second half of the 20th century, but the present situation is different with a growing, desirable city and private investors like Akridge and DC United falling all over themselves to invest in the District of Columbia.

It appears that the District government understands the present circumstances and is negotiating to indirectly use this private investment to improve city services, increase its tax base, and increase its housing supply without having to issue debt that would affect its bond rating. That's exactly how a growing city should operate.

Disclosure: I'm a member of the Barra Brava, an iconic independent DC United supporters' group.


Costco still hopes for mega-gas station

After the Montgomery County Council passed a law that was intended to prevent Costco from opening a mega gas station adjacent to its new Wheaton store, the Planning Board recommended against the gas station.

Cars line up to get gas at a Costco station in Sacramento. Photo by multimediaimpre on flickr

The next step is a set of 6 hearings before the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.

In a comments on Wheaton Patch, "ED" says:

I'm happy the hearings are postponed until after the [April 10] Costco opening. I think the residents of Wheaton will be up for a rude awakening when they see the traffic for Costco.

If the Costco will bring in 4,000-5,000 customers per day (per Westfield's estimates a couple of years ago), how many more cars will they bring in if a mega-gas station is offered? I can only hope that someone has a camera when Costco opens and takes the pictures to the hearings.

Just as I previously wrote about the topic, a mega-sized Costco gas station is incompatible with the Wheaton Sector Plan, passed January 2012, that calls for a more walkable urban Wheaton. There are few uses that would impede Wheaton's revitalization and redevelopment than a mega-sized Costco gas station.

Such a use would require extra road infrastructure that would create an unwalkable dead zone. A lot of land that would be better used for more walkable urban formatted amenities would be taken up with bigger multi-lane access roads that will have idling cars lined up at all hours of the day.

The Montgomery County DOT will be especially reluctant to design any roads for pedestrians instead of cars with massive numbers of vehicles constantly traveling to and from the gas station.

Here is an aerial view of a the Woodmore Costco store that has a gas station:

Images from Google Maps.

The Costco store in Gaithersburg does not have a gas station:

Finally, here is the Wheaton site. The Costco is scheduled to open April 10:

The Wheaton site is wholly unlike the Woodmore site, which is extremely car-oriented, and has no Metro station or legacy street grid. It is also much more urban and pedestrian-oriented than the Gaithersburg site. The Wheaton site is comparable to the Pentagon City Costco. Just like in Gaithersburg, that store has no gas pumps.

Costco is a nationally successful business that will clearly make a healthy profit at the Wheaton store. I don't think anyone would dispute that the store will be packed from the day it opens. Costco clearly does good business in neighboring Gaithersburg and Arlington without gas pumps.

The next round of hearings is part of the process for special zoning text amendments. The hearings have been rescheduled for April 26, May 1, May 6, May 14, May 17, May 20, May 23 and June 4. All hearings will be at 9:30 am in the Stella B. Werner Council Office Building, Second Floor Davidson Memorial Hearing Room, at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville.


Leggett tries again to defund Bethesda Metro entrance

In last year's county budget, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett proposed delaying funding for a new entrance to the Bethesda Metro station. The County Council restored funding in last year's final budget, but the Leggett administration resubmitted a similar misguided proposal for this fiscal year.

The new Bethesda Metro entrance would be an elevator bank that connects with the southern end of the platform. Photo by Gautam Rishi on flickr.

The Bethesda Metro station was originally designed to accommodate a southern entrance. A bank of high-speed elevators would transport passengers to street level, like in Friendship Heights. When built, the Purple Line will also use the new elevators as both an entrance to its station and as a convenient direct transfer to and from the Red Line.

The county has always planned to finance this new entrance on its own, because it will benefit Red Line riders on the day it opens, Purple Line or no.

In addition to offering an alternative when the existing escalators are out of service, it will bring the station up to modern safety standards by providing a second entrance for emergency personnel and a second evacuation route in the event of an emergency.

Sadly, Maryland does not yet have the funds lined up for its portion of the Purple Line costs, and Leggett is citing potential Purple Line delays as a reason to postpone the Metro entrance as well. From the Bethesda Patch:

"Due to the current lack of state construction funding for these projects, this reduction is not likely to cause a delay in the project," read the county release announcing the CIP amendments.
This statement is very puzzling because County Executive Leggett has been an excellent advocate for increasing transportation revenue at the state level, teaming with Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, both counties' state delegations, and other counties' delegations.

Governor O'Malley has made it clear that a significant piece of the increased transportation revenues would go towards constructing the Purple Line. One would think that the Leggett Administration would be more publicly optimistic about future state revenues, based on its own hard work.

Further, the Maryland MTA has already stated that construction on the entrance would have to begin by 2016 in order to meet a projected 2020 start of operations for the Purple Line. Last year's budget kept the project on schedule to break ground by 2016. Any delay would put the project too far behind schedule to be open when the Purple Line begins operation, if the Purple Line gets the funding it needs.

This proposal continues the pattern with this administration of trying to defund smart growth-oriented projects while proposing lavish spending on sprawl-oriented road projects.

When the County Council restored the Metro entrance funding during the 2012 budgeting process, it deferred some wasteful new road projects the Leggett administration has proposed. Those include building Montrose Parkway East, and widening Snouffer School Road and Goshen Road in Gaithersburg. It's unclear if the Gaithersburg area road widenings are linked to the M-83 "Zombie Road" proposal that MCDOT continues to study.

The County Executive's office now wants to defer the Metro funding, though for less time than in last year's proposal, and restore many of these same road projects.

Just like last year, the County Council can rein in the county Department of Transportation's least considered road-widening impulses. It's up to us to contact them and let them know that the electorate supports smart growth and economic development projects, such as the new Bethesda Metro entrance.


Costco tries end run around law for Wheaton gas station

The Montgomery County Council passed a law specifically to stop Costco from building a large gas station adjacent to a residential neighborhood in Wheaton. Now, Costco has made another proposal that would simply move it 300 feet to the east.

Photo by J.J. Smith on Flickr.

A gas station is not appropriate for the future Costco site at Westfield Wheaton. Underground gas tanks have a tendency to leak, and the proposed site is adjacent to people swimming at the Kenmont Swim and Tennis Club.

A gas station also contributes to making Wheaton more car-oriented and less walkable, moving it in the wrong direction in the Whirlpool of Induced Demand.

The recently approved Wheaton Sector Plan includes provisions to make Wheaton more walkable. As the surrounding area becomes more vibrant and economically successful, the large Westfield parking lots represent ideal opportunities for urban-formatted housing and amenities right near the Wheaton Metro.

But a new, jumbo-sized Costco gas station would create a large, unwalkable dead zone, add pollution, and bring constant traffic jams, all making redevelopment much more difficult. The Montgomery County DOT will be especially reluctant to design any roads for pedestrians instead of cars with massive numbers of vehicles constantly traveling to and from the gas station.

When the County Council rejected the previous gas station proposal, it passed a bill that bans large gas stations from being within 300 feet of schools or recreation centers. The original bill prohibited gas stations within 1,000 feet of schools or recreation centers, which originally seemed to have the votes to pass until intense lobbying from Costco changed several councilmembers' minds.

Costco's new gas station location proposal is 300 feet to the east of the rejected site.

Top: 2010 proposed Costco gas station location. Bottom: 2012 proposed Costco gas station location. Note that the new location is just to the east of the line that delineates 300 feet to the swimming pool. Diagrams are based on documents from the Kensington Heights Civic Association.

Altering a bad proposal so its location is a few feet to the east doesn't change that it's a bad idea. Costco has also already said that they will open the Wheaton location with or without the large gas station. Montgomery County has already given a $4 million subsidy to Costco. They should respect the spirit of the County Council's decision and drop the gas station rather than cynically trying to exploit a loophole.


Start Montgomery BRT today with priority corridors

Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit task force will soon release its completed report. Montgomery County can immediately start moving toward BRT by setting up limited-stop, express bus service along WMATA's bus priority corridors.

Picture from Montgomery County BRT task force.

The task force envisions building a BRT network in phases. Ultimately the county may build new dedicated busways, but it can start immediately and far more cheaply by dedicating some existing road capacity for buses. And though dedicated transit lanes will make the network far more useful, many shorter-term improvements are possible even without dedicated lanes.

WMATA's recommendations for Bus Priority Corridors include reducing the number of bus stops on a line, extending green lights to let buses through, and designating bus-only lanes on a few short sections of roadway.

The only way to create an effective, affordable rapid bus network is to use existing roadway lanes more efficiently by reserving them for bus-only traffic. Unfortunately, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) refuses to modify any existing roadways that would help buses move faster than cars.

Building a successful system in Montgomery County will present unique challenges. In DC, though progress has been slow, DDOT is working with WMATA to study how to best fit bus priority into its roadways. MCDOT needs to do the same.

If MCDOT started dedicating bus lanes on priority corridors now, engineers would be able to understand the challenges and issues that arise when redesigning one of Montgomery County's roadways. They would gain knowledge and experience that would speed up future phases of BRT, saving time and money.

Outside the Beltway, the BRT task force recommends putting high-speed bus lanes in the center of roadways. This will require limiting left turns and other changes in highway operations. Dedicated lanes on priority corridors now will let MCDOT try out some of the treatments that could ultimately become part of those BRT lines.

The path to making existing streets into a welcoming environment for transit riders and pedestrians will undoubtedly involve a learning curve. The sooner that MCDOT can begin to study and learn from real world experience, the better and more cost-effective the Montgomery County BRT system will be.


It's not Wheaton vs. Bethesda, but smart growth vs. bad

Montgomery officials say there isn't enough money in the capital budget to pay for both a new Bethesda Metro entrance and redeveloping Wheaton. But there is plenty of money, if only the county deferred some of the new and wasteful highways that will only worsen sprawl and shift the county's growth away from the places that can best accommodate it.

Downtown Wheaton. Image from Montgomery Planning.

Wheaton residents are eager for a redevelopment project which will bring new offices, residences, a hotel and a town square to the area around the Metro station. Meanwhile, to prepare for the Purple Line (and ease crowding today), the county needs to add a second entrance to the Bethesda Metro.

County Executive Ike Leggett's budget eliminated funding for the Bethesda entrance, and general services director David Dise told the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee that the county could probably not fund both the $40 million Wheaton plan and the $80 million Bethesda Metro south entrance.

Actually, it can, easily. And it can afford $12 million for the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which Leggett also cut from the current capital budget. All the county has to do is defer some of the $359 million in new highways in the 6-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP). That $359 million is all for new capacity, over and above the necessary cost of maintaining the county's existing roads and bridges.

The projects include widening Goshen Road, which costs $129 million, but the justification in the CIP suggests it's not needed until 2025. Building Montrose Parkway East, for $56 million, will further despoil Rock Creek Park, while the completed western portion has already created a "Berlin Wall" that will hamper a future walkable, mixed-use neighborhood growing north of White Flint.

Widening Snouffer School Road and Snouffer School Road North, 2 projects costing $45 million, would meet "demands of existing and future land uses" in an area which "is experiencing growth with plans for future residential and commercial development."

Why does the County Executive claim that it doesn't have enough money for the Bethesda Metro, a necessary step for the Purple Line in the part of the county that generates the most tax revenue, and Wheaton, a prime spot for new mixed-use growth and an already-thriving community right on top of another Metro station, but can spend money on new roads in car-dependent areas which may grow in the future?

These new road projects would increase traffic congestion through induced demand, offer no economic development, and destroy irreplaceable Chesapeake Bay watersheds. Montgomery County has already agreed, through long public debates, to make the Purple Line, the Metropolitan Branch Trail, and growth in Wheaton top priorities. But Leggett's budget does not reflect this.

This is an unfortunate pattern with this County Executive. The Leggett administration consistently cries poverty when it comes to smart growth-oriented projects like these, or making Rockville Pike a boulevard in White Flint. However, it seems that no sprawl-oriented road project is too expensive to fund.

Whether it's putting up roadblocks to BRT, pushing harmful skybridges and underpasses, or a bizarre focus on resurrecting bad "zombie road" proposals from the 1960s, the County Executive's decisions do not embody Montgomery County's and Maryland's stated smart growth policies.

Fortunately, it appears the County Council does not share the County Executive's misplaced priorities. A council committee has since voted to restore funding for the Bethesda Metro entrance, and the full council will consider it soon. The council should also restore funding for the Metropolitan Branch Trail.

Despite claims to the contrary, these worthy projects need not compete with each other. The council can simply choose the least valuable of the plan's many expensive road projects and use the money to ensure Wheaton, Metro riders at Bethesda, the future Purple Line, and a valuable bicycle connection from Silver Spring to DC get the attention they deserve. Our county, state and region cannot afford more delay.


Old buildings are the key to affordability

All other things being equal, old buildings are usually more affordable than new buildings. Without the latest amenities, old buildings have to charge less in order to attract tenants. A healthy supply of old buildings is therefore crucial to long term neighborhood affordability.

The Cameron, a new apartment building in downtown Silver Spring. Photo from Behringer Harvard Residential, LLC.

Local governments are to be commended for adopting inclusionary regulations that require new projects to contain a certain percentage of affordable housing units, but this process has never been able to provide enough affordable housing supply to meet the demand. The only way to stabilize affordable residential rents in the long term is to increase the supply of old buildings.

Luckily, creating more old buildings is easy. We just have to build a lot of new ones and then let them age. Our problem in the short term is that not enough new buildings were built in walkable areas in recent decades, resulting in a dearth of old buildings today.

A friend's recent housing search offers an interesting example of the phenomenon.

Up until a few months ago my friend lived in a brand new, and quite expensive, building in White Flint. When they announced a rent increase, she decided to look elsewhere. I suggested downtown Silver Spring, thinking that the increased supply of housing units there in recent years would result in lower rents. After doing some research, my friend determined that rents in Silver Spring were comparable to what she was seeing in White Flint.

New buildings, it turns out, are expensive even if there are lots of them. Of course, Silver Spring's desirability in general has also greatly increased recent years, which is why there are so many new buildings there in the first place.

There are more people who are interested in paying to live in Silver Spring than there were a decade ago. While there are now more residential units than before, there is simply far more demand than the new buildings can accommodate to keep rents stable.

Just up the Red Line in Wheaton the situation is a little different. Wheaton is still a few years away from revitalization on the scale of Silver Spring. It is a much less desirable location. Therefore, one would suppose that rents there would be less expensive.

Because Wheaton is a less desirable location, it has fewer new buildings than Silver Spring. But it does have a few. If one compares the rents for a new building in Wheaton to those of a similar new building in Silver Spring, the listed rents are comparably expensive.

Despite the location differences, they are both new buildings. And new buildings have high rents.

Older buildings compete with newer buildings by offering lower rents.

In the specific case of downtown Silver Spring, the older buildings can charge almost as much as the new buildings because the area is so desirable that there is a supply shortage. If there were enough supply to meet the demand, the older buildings would be the first to become more affordable.

Buildings in the same location compete with each other for tenants. New buildings offer amenities, and old buildings offer affordability. Previously new buildings eventually become comparatively old, and therefore eventually have to compete more strongly on price.

The key lesson is that we must produce enough new urban buildings today to meet tomorrow's affordable housing needs. Our current affordability problems are due in no small part to a failure in the late 20th Century to produce enough urban buildings that we would today consider "old". We must not repeat that mistake.


Retailers are embracing urbanism with zeal

As enclosed malls continue to decline and close, more and more retailers are opting to locate in pedestrian-friendly urban districts.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

3 years ago, I expressed sentiments that the car-oriented shopping mall was a business model with no future. The events since have offered further proof that retailers and customers now prefer an urban format, at least in our region.

Recent news that Bloomingdale's in White Flint and Macy's in Laurel will close has little to do with the sales performance of those stores, and everything to do with their host malls being unable to survive. Both have been visibly declining for years, and will soon be redeveloped into mixed-use walkable urban places.

The Laurel Macy's has managed to remain open for years despite much of its host mall being shuttered. That store would likely have closed years ago if it wasn't making money, especially in the wake of the Great Recession.

Similarly, if it had not been profitable the White Flint Bloomingdale's would have closed in 2007 when another location of the luxury retailer opened a mere 3 Metro stations away.

Within the Favored Quarter, the most economically competitive and healthy part of our region, only the largest and most dynamic enclosed malls are continuing to thrive. The rest are slowly dying.

In Maryland, Montgomery Mall is the most vibrant, while in Virginia the Tysons cluster reigns supreme.

When the White Flint redevelopment plan was approved in 2010, it provided the owners of White Flint Mall the opportunity to earn a healthier profit by giving the market more of what it wants: walkable urbanism.

Elsewhere in the region the malls are doing as bad or worse. Most have either closed or are in the process of being converted to walkable town centers.

Arlington has had success turning the area around its two enclosed malls into mixed-use towns, first at Ballston and now at Pentagon City, where the process is still under way.

In Fairfax, Springfield Mall is slated for redevelopment, and Fair Oaks Mall is actively considering a mixed-use future.

In Prince George's County, the area around the Mall at Prince George's (formerly Prince George's Plaza) has been undergoing a process similar to Pentagon City. At Bowie Town Center, County officials are looking at adding more entertainment and housing options.

Meanwhile, urban shopping areas that I mentioned three years ago have increased in prominence:

In the District of Columbia, there are four shopping districts that support clusters of national retail chains that are usually mall-based: Downtown (Old Downtown clustered around Metro Center), Connecticut Avenue between Farragut Square and Dupont Circle, Friendship Heights, and Georgetown. Columbia Heights is emerging and has a different mix of retailers.
Urban-format suburban shopping districts also continue to thrive and grow.

Silver Spring's retail is more vibrant than ever. The space vacated by Borders was quickly filled by Smart Toys. Bethesda and Clarendon are continually adding to their mixture of chains and smaller upscale retailers. Wheaton is a work in progress.

Even outside the Beltway, urbanism is catching on. Rockville Town Square and Gaithersburg's Washingtonian Center are growing, and National Harbor is setting the standard for Prince George's County. Two decades ago, all those developments likely would have been enclosed malls.

While purely car-dependent malls aren't going to go completely extinct, they are becoming far more rare. In the future, it is likely the only enclosed malls that remain will be the largest super-regional "winners" inside the Favored Quarter. Meanwhile, no new malls are planned.

As the 21st Century continues, both living and dead mall sites will be either be completely redeveloped or will evolve into mixed-use walkable urban places. Retailers will continue clustering at transit-oriented, walkable urban locations, both downtown and at new suburban "uptowns."

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