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

Posts by Dan Reed

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

Bicycling


Upcoming events: Happy hour with Rushern Baker, bike theft, transportation tech, and more!

Our next happy hour is coming up on Tuesday, August 23, featuring special guest Rushern Baker, the Prince George's County Executive. Also, here are some more upcoming ways for you to extend your urbanist learning and activism to the physical world.


Photo by Joe Loong on Flickr.

County Executive Baker has been a champion for smart growth and transit in a county that has been patiently waiting for both. It's also your chance to visit Mount Rainier, an awesome town on the DC/Maryland line home to the burgeoning Gateway Arts District. RSVP here.

We'll be there from 6 to 8 pm at Bird Kitchen + Cocktails, located at 3801 34th Street, Mount Rainier. Our original announcement has a list of Metro rail and bus options for getting there.

If you'd like to bike, Ned Russell and Matt Johnson are organizing a bicycle group to go to the happy hour from The Bike Rack, 716 Monroe Street NE by the Brookland Metro station. They'll depart promptly at 5:45 pm. Here's a map of the route.

This happy hour is sponsored by the Anacostia Heritage Trails Association (also known as Maryland Milestones), which promotes local history in the area.

Besides the happy hour, there are some other great events coming up:

Today, August 14: Worried about bike theft? Come discuss your concerns with safety and enforcement at the Bicycle Advisory Council meeting at 6 pm at Busboys and Poets (1025 5th St) with special guest Phil Koopman of BicycleSPACE.

Thursday, August 18: Learn about the latest tech that's helping people share the road at the next Transportation Techies meetup, where individual coders and tech companies from around the region show off their work. This month's theme is "Playing with Traffic," and it's at 6 pm at the WeWork in Crystal City (2221 South Clark Street).

Next Thursday, August 24: Netwalking is an organization that gets people out in the community, walking for fitness, and learning about important issues. The next Netwalk will focus on the U Street neighborhood and will teach people about strategies for effective community engagement. It starts at 6pm; Meet at the corner of Vermont St and 10th Street, NW.

Coming to the happy hour? Let us know here:

Places


The dilemma for young people in Montgomery County

You're a Millennial working in Montgomery County. You want to be close to work, but you also want to be close to the action. Can you find both here? Sort of.


If you're a Millennial in Montgomery County, you might want to live in North Bethesda. Photo by the author.

That's something county leaders have been working on. Three years ago, Montgomery County began its Night Time Economy Initiative to bring in businesses by attracting the Millennial (or young adults born between 1982 and 2000) they wish to employ. Noting studies saying Millennials want to live in urban (or urban-lite) settings, the county has been redeveloping its town centers, building bike lanes, and revising liquor laws.

While the nation's largest generation isn't a monolith, there's some truth to the narrative. The county's young professionals tend to live near its job centers, transit lines, and favored hangouts. That generally means Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville.

That said, for those who want the urban experience, the county has serious competition from other parts of the region, especially the District and Arlington. And if you work in Montgomery County, particularly outside the Beltway, you're forced to choose living in an urban neighborhood far from work or a more suburban area with a shorter commute.

I was thinking about that reading this recent email from Sky, a young teacher moving to Montgomery County and wondering where a Millennial should live.


Hello Dan (or Co.),
I recently read an article about millennials in Moco and am wondering if you would give me some advice about where to live.

I will probably be moving to the area to teach [in Gaithersburg] and would love to know where young singles live around the area.

Like your article said, I certainly want to be close to work, but I also want to have a thriving personal life.

If you have any suggestions, the would be much appreciated.

Thank you!

Awesome blog btw!

Here's how I responded:
Thanks for writing me and for the kind words! You've presented an interesting challenge: you work in Gaithersburg, but you want to be near the action. Those two things are (mostly) mutually exclusive, as much of the region's nightlife is in DC, 20 miles away. That said, this isn't an impossible situation. Of the 20- and 30-somethings I know who work in Montgomery County, they generally do one of three things:

  • Live in DC, and do the reverse commute. You'll have your pick of hoppin neighborhoods with lots of things to do and people to meet, and you won't have to drive home after the bar. You will, however, have to drive to work, though you'll mostly be going against traffic on your way out of the city. Consider neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan, which are both filled with young people and things to do, but also near major roads like 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue that you can use to get out of the city. This might be the most expensive option, since you'd be paying higher DC rents and paying for the cost of transportation.
  • Live in Gaithersburg. You'll be really close to school, and while Gaithersburg is a lot quieter than DC, there are a couple of areas with restaurants and bars. Kentlands is a nationally-famous neighborhood where you can walk to shops and restaurants. Old Town Gaithersburg has a growing number of Latino and African restaurants that are pretty great. And Rio/Washingtonian Center has a lakefront that's great for hanging out on weekends. The rents are generally cheaper than DC, though transit service is limited (there's no Metro station) so you will be driving a fair amount.
  • Live somewhere in the middle. The Red Line connects Montgomery County to DC and the rest of the region, and stops in several walkable neighborhoods in Montgomery County with lots of things to do and a large number of young people. You'll still get that reverse commute, though you'll pay a premium to live next to a Metro station. Three areas you might want to consider: Bethesda's more expensive, but has lots of places to hang out; Silver Spring (where I live) is more affordable, way younger, also has lots going on, and is closest to DC; Rockville is also more affordable and closer to Gaithersburg, but has less nightlife.
A few weeks ago, Sky let me know that she's moving to Rockville, which offers the best of both worlds: it's close to work, but also has a real downtown and access to the Metro.

For years, Montgomery County has encouraged the creation of more downtowns and town centers in places like White Flint, Germantown, and White Oak, while promoting the ongoing development of urban places like Silver Spring or Bethesda. That's great for people moving to the area like Sky, because it gives her more, and more affordable, choices for where to live. However, we still have lots of work to do in making these places attractive to new, younger residents, from creating more walkable and bikeable streets to streamlining our liquor laws to make it easier for restaurants and bars to open here.

We'll have to follow up with Sky once she gets settled in. But in the meantime: What would you tell a young person interested in moving to the county?

Arts


This suburban house is big, cheap, and ripe for innovation

Suburban building types like McMansions and strip malls are often derided for being cheap and disposable. But those things also make them great place for innovating in food, music, or even technology.


A not-so-unlikely place for innovation. Photo from Google Street View.

Last year, the federal government hired a secret startup called Marketplace Lite to rebuild Healthcare.gov, the failing website where Americans could buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. As they were working under a tight deadline, the team of young programmers needed a cheap place to work and, ideally, sleep.

They found it in this rented house on a cul-de-sac in Ellicott City, in Howard County, which the Atlantic wrote about last summer. The story shrugs off the vinyl-sided Colonial house as "forgettable," but you could argue it was actually tailor-made for a project like this.

Why? For starters, the house was close to the Centers for Medicaid and Medical Services, the government agency responsible for Healthcare.gov. Like many big government agencies in the Baltimore-Washington area, CMMS has a big, secure suburban office campus.

The house itself lent itself to the effort too. Most newish suburban builder homes have an open floorplan with few interior walls, which makes a good space for several people to work and collaborate. Designed for large families, the house also has several bedrooms and bathrooms, meaning it could sleep several people comfortably.

A quick search on Craiglist shows that similar houses in Ellicott City rent for about $2800 a month, suggesting that it was also much cheaper than the alternative: renting a block of hotel rooms.

There's no shortage of media saying that young people are moving to urban environments. And not long ago, people seeking cheap, functional space to make websites or music or art or anything else might seek out an old warehouse, a loft, or even a rowhouse in a down-and-out inner-city neighborhood.

That's no longer really an option in the DC area, with its high prices and lack of old industrial buildings. Ironically, the things that people deride about suburban buildings (cheaply built, cookie-cutter, excessive space) also make them great, affordable incubators to do or make things.

Take Rainbow Mansion, the group home for tech workers in Silicon Valley. Or the DC area's many strip malls filled with immigrant businesses, from Falls Church to Langley Park.

Or punk houses. In many cities, but especially the DC area, the punk scene is really a suburban scene, centering on affordable, modest houses in untrendy locations where people can make loud music and be left alone. The recent book (and blog) Hardcore Architecture sought out the houses where 1980s punk and metal bands operated, and found them in split-level houses in places like Rockville and Annandale.


Old suburban houses like this one in Colesville are a draw for artists and punks. Photo by Andrew Benson on Flickr.

As urban real estate becomes more expensive and the tide of suburban sprawl moves out, the people who want to make things get pushed out too. In the 1990s, local punk institution Teen-Beat Records set up in this Ballston bungalow, but it's since been razed and replaced with a bigger, $900,000 house. Today, you'll find punks and artists in places like Colesville, a community in eastern Montgomery County known for sprawling lots and big, 1960s-era houses that have become relatively affordable as they've aged.

Of course, these places weren't intended for punk houses and Internet startups. Creative types may face major barriers, like restrictions on running a home business, or difficulty getting permits to use a building for something it wasn't designed for. (Naturally, many people just go and do it anyway.) Of course, these farther-out suburban places can be hard to reach without a car.

Most suburban counties tend to focus on attracting big businesses, like Marriott. But they may also want to look at the start-ups, immigrant businesses, musicians, and makers who have already set up there. They're already contributing to the local economy, but they also help create local culture and a sense of place.

Politics


You can help shape Silver Spring's urban future

Silver Spring isn't a city, but it faces the challenges of one. Its Citizens Advisory Board, which advises the Montgomery County Council, has eight empty seats. If you want to help shape Silver Spring, from how it grows to how people get around, joining the board is the best way.


The Silver Spring Civic Building, where the advisory board meets each month. Photo by the author.

After decades of decline, Silver Spring is booming. Thousands of new homes have been built in the past few years, and more are still coming. We're home to well-regarded local brewers, butchers, and ice cream makers. A new civic building, town square, and library have given this community places to gather and celebrate.

Yet this rebirth is fragile. Rising home prices have led to worries about displacement and gentrification. Years of Purple Line construction could disrupt local businesses. There are ongoing concerns about crime and homelessness. And there's a tension between the reality of an urban, diverse, and inclusive place and some neighbors who want it to be suburban and exclusive.

Silver Spring looks like and functions as a city, but like most communities in the DC area, it's unincorporated, meaning all local government takes place at the county level. We have a County Councilmember, Tom Hucker, who represents all of eastern Montgomery County. But downtown Silver Spring and adjacent neighborhoods don't have a mayor or city council to speak for them exclusively.

However, there are Montgomery County's five Citizens Advisory Boards, each of which are appointed by the County Council to be that community's voice to the county government. They're similar to the District's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in that they don't make laws, but they have some influence on issues you might care about if you read this blog, including transportation, economic development, housing, young people, and the environment.

However, unlike the ANCs, they're not elected, and they represent a much bigger area, sometimes as many as 200,000 people. Each board member serves a three-year term. They don't get paid, but they can get reimbursed for travel costs.


Montgomery County's 5 Regional Services Centers.

There are five Citizens Advisory Boards in Montgomery County: Silver Spring (which includes Silver Spring inside the Beltway, Four Corners, and Takoma Park), Bethesda-Chevy Chase (which includes Potomac and Rockville), Mid-County (Wheaton, Aspen Hill, and Olney), East County (White Oak, Colesville, and Burtonsville), and Upcounty (Gaithersburg, Germantown, and beyond).

The Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board has eighteen seats for people who live or work in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. Right now, there are eight empty seats. If you want to see this community continue to grow, attract new businesses, retain its diversity, and be a better place to get around, the board is an excellent way to get involved.

If you'd like to be on the Citizens Advisory Board, go here to learn more or send your application. You've got until August 1 to apply.

Once applications are in, Montgomery County executive Ike Leggett will appoint board members, and the county council will approve them.

Places


Join us and Rushern Baker for happy hour in Mount Rainier

It's about time we had a Greater Greater happy hour in Prince George's County! Join us Tuesday, August 23 in Mount Rainier at Bird Kitchen + Cocktails with special guest Rushern Baker.


Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr.

Tuesday, August 23 from 6 to 8pm, come up to Bird Kitchen + Cocktails, located at 3801 34th Street. The last time we had a Greater Greater happy hour in Prince George's County was in 2010, and after six years away, we're excited to come back for some drinks and conversation.

We're also excited to hang out with County Executive Rushern Baker. Now in his second term, Baker has gotten serious about bringing urbanism and transit to a county that has sorely lacked both. He's spearheaded the revitalization of old urban places like Hyattsville and College Park and has worked to create new urban places at Prince George's Plaza, New Carrollton, and Greenbelt, which could soon be home to the FBI.

Bird Kitchen + Cocktails isn't near a Metro station, but it's directly across from the Mount Rainier Bus Terminal, located at 34th Street and Rhode Island Avenue. To get to the bus terminal, you can take Metrobus 81, 82, 83, 86, T14, or T18, all of which leave from the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station (Red Line) about every five minutes during rush hour. It's a 15-minute ride.

From the Green Line, go to West Hyattsville and take The Bus 12 towards Mount Rainier, or Metrobus F1 and F2 towards Cheverly and get off at Mount Rainier. From the Orange Line, go to Cheverly and take Metrobus F1 and F2 towards Takoma and get off at Mount Rainier.

Capital Bikeshare doesn't go to Mount Rainier, but it's easy to bike there, and we're thinking of organizing a meet up, starting in maybe Brookland or at Rhode Island Avenue Metro, for those of us planning to head out on two wheels. Would you join us if we did?

This year, we've held happy hours in Edgewood, Silver Spring, and 14th Street. Next up, we're headed to Arlington. Where should we go next?

Development


In praise of the stacked townhouse

A cross between apartments and townhouses, the "stacked townhouse" is becoming a popular house type among DC-area homebuilders and buyers. While they're great for urban neighborhoods, a quirk in zoning means they're most common in far-flung suburbs.


This townhouse in Arlington is actually two houses (note the two house numbers). All photos by the author unless noted.

Also called a two-over-two or maisonette, the stacked townhouse is basically a rowhouse divided into two two-story units, one over the other. Both units have doors on the street, usually in a little alcove, making it look like it's one big house. The garages are tucked in back, on an alley.

This house type is what some architects call the "missing middle," not quite a house, not quite an apartment, but a good alternative housing choice in places where the only options are a detached house or a high-rise.

Historically, lots of cities have rowhouses divided into multiple apartments: Boston's triple-deckers, Chicago's two- and three-flats, Montreal's plexes. In those cases, each building generally has a single owner who rents out the other unit. They don't seem to have been common in DC.


Two-flats in Chicago. Photo by Samuel A. Love on Flickr.

Today's stacked townhouses are either sold individually as condos, or rented out as apartments in a larger complex. They've become popular in the DC area within the past 20 years for a couple of reasons.

Builders like stacked townhouses because they take up the same amount of space as one townhouse, which saves on land and infrastructure costs. Unlike traditional apartment or condo buildings, these homes don't have lots of common hallways and lobbies that can be expensive to build and maintain.

Stacked townhouses are also great because they provide the same amount of space and privacy as a townhouse at a lower price, which might enable buyers to live closer in than they could otherwise afford. For instance, a stacked townhouse at Greenbelt Station in Prince George's County is currently selling for about $330,000, while a similarly-sized townhouse in the same development is selling for $70,000 more.

Neighbors might like this house type because they look like big houses, allowing them to blend in with other residential buildings, including apartments, conventional townhomes, or even single-family homes.


"Stacked townhouses" in Greenbelt. All photos by the author.

Well, most of the time. These stacked townhomes at Greenbelt Station in Greenbelt have plain, flat exteriors which only emphasize their size, making them look bigger than they really are. But this is an aesthetic choice, and can be avoided.


Stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Photo by the author.

These stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg use different materials, colors, and bumpouts to break up what would otherwise be a big, four-story wall. It helps make the building feel smaller than it really is, while the individual doors for each unit add a bit of human scale.

You'll find that stacked townhouses are pretty common in further-out suburban communities, from Frederick or Chantilly or Loudoun or Prince William counties. Whatever benefits stacked townhouses provide go away when they're in a car-bound place where residents have to drive everywhere.

This happens because zoning in most communities outside the District (even close-in ones like Arlington) considers them apartments, meaning they can only get built in areas zoned for apartments. Where land values are really high, developers are more likely to just build a high-rise apartment building instead.


Arlington Square, an apartment complex in Arlington with stacked townhomes.

New townhouses in closer-in, transit-accessible places like Arlington or Silver Spring can easily cost over $800,000. If stacked townhouses were allowed in townhouse zones, builders would be able to provide a more affordable alternative that still blends in with existing neighborhoods.


Stacked townhouses at Jackson Place in Brookland. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

That's basically how zoning works in the District. Areas zoned for rowhouses usually allow apartments too (with some exceptions). As a result, you can find stacked townhouses at Jackson Place, a new development in Brookland, and at another project under construction on Georgia Avenue in Takoma. Both locations are zoned for rowhouses.

We need big apartment buildings, and we need single-family houses. But we also need meaningful alternative for any household that doesn't want an apartment or a detached house, especially in inside-the-Beltway, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Stacked townhouses could be one of them, if they were simply easier to build.

Events


Join us for happy hour on 14th Street

It's time for the next Greater Greater happy hour! This month, join us on 14th Street at Trade.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Tuesday, July 19 from 6 to 8 pm, join contributors and readers for drinks and conversation at Trade, located at 1410 14th Street NW (between P and Rhode Island). Dubbed "DC's best new gay bar" by the City Paper, Trade's known for its "huge happy hour" specials (drinks are the same price, but come in a huge glass.)

Why go to a gay bar? Though many LGBTQ+ people no longer have to live in the closet, gay bars are still valuable places to gather and celebrate LGBTQ+ identity and culture. Gay bars help make the DC area great, and we'd like to celebrate them.

Trade is a ten-minute walk from several Metro stations, including McPherson Square (Blue, Orange, and Silver lines), U Street (Green and Yellow), and Dupont Circle (Red). If you're coming by bus, the Metrobus 50 buses stop out front, the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan Circulator stops at 14th and Rhode Island Avenue, and the Metrobus S buses stop two blocks away on 16th Street. There are also Capital Bikeshare stations at 14th and R and 14th and Rhode Island.

This year, we've held happy hours in Adams Morgan, H Street, Edgewood, and Silver Spring. Later this summer, we're heading to Mount Rainier (our first Prince George's County happy hour in six years!) and Arlington. Where should we go next?

Public Safety


Today

In the last 72 hours, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Minneapolis a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, and then a sniper killed five police officers in Dallas. These tragic deaths, on the heels of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando last month, have left us reeling.


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At its core, Greater Greater Washington is about creating more livable communities and cities. Normally, we do this by discussing transportation, housing, development, public spaces, and other elements that make our cities better places to live.

Today, though we wanted to take a moment to pause and acknowledge that a basic prerequisite before we can even begin to talk about "livable cities" is to preserve human lives, and our society did not succeed for the victims of these events.

We invite you to take a moment, too. We don't want violence like this to go unmarked in our personal lives or in the communities we want to help make better.

Public Spaces


Silver Spring could get a big, new, temporary park

Downtown Silver Spring could get a big new park as part of a massive redevelopment of the Blairs, an apartment complex across the street from the Metro. The park will be temporary, but eventually several larger parks will take its place.


Plan of the new park from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

First built in the 1950s, the Blairs are a complex of apartments, offices, and a strip mall across from the Silver Spring Metro station. Owner Tower Companies will redevelop the 27-acre superblock over the coming years, replacing a massive parking lot with 1400 new apartments (there are 1400 there now), new retail, and four acres of new parks.

The first new apartment tower, called the Pearl, is under construction, but much of the new stuff won't arrive for a decade. In the meantime, Tower wants to create a park over one acre in size on the site of a future apartment building.


The Pearl under construction. The temporary park would go in front of it. Photo by the author.

Located near the corner of Eastern Avenue and Blair Mill Road, the new park would have a big lawn and a wood stage for performances. A playground and adult-sized fitness equipment would let people of all sizes work out, while a "fitness trail" would loop around the entire site. The park would also include a community garden and a temporary building that might house a leasing center.

While the park is set to go on private property, it would be open to both Blairs residents and the surrounding neighborhood. The park would be a welcome addition for neighbors who have clamored for more open space in the past. Silver Spring doesn't lack for parks, but many of them are either too small or designed to be unusable.


One of several new parks that will eventually come to the Blairs. Image from Tower Companies.

This wouldn't be the first temporary park in downtown Silver Spring. Over a decade ago, residents and visitors alike fell in love with "the Turf," an artificial grass lawn on Ellsworth Drive, and protested when it was removed to build Veterans Plaza. Possibly hoping to avoid the same result, Tower Companies will place signs at "visible locations" around their temporary park "informing both residents and visitors that the temporary green is the future location of a residential building, and that it is not permanent."

Development


Nobody wants these school buses in their backyard. But moving them is worth it.

Montgomery County wants to move a school bus lot away from the Shady Grove Metro station to make room for new houses there, but residents of other neighborhoods don't want the buses in their backyards. But the move is worth it if it means more people can live walking distance to the train.


The Shady Grove bus depot across from new townhouses being built. All photos by the author.

This week, the Montgomery County Council could vote not to sell off a school bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville, next to the Shady Grove station. Montgomery County Public Schools has outgrown the lot, and the county wants to move it to make room for a new neighborhood around the Metro station that would have 700 new homes, parks, a school, and a library.

The move is part of a decade-long effort that County Executive Ike Leggett calls the Smart Growth Initiative. Until recently, the Shady Grove Metro station was surrounded by government warehouses and depots storing everything from Ride On buses to school cafeteria food. The county's been able to move nearly all of the facilities, many of them to a new site in Montgomery Village. In their place, construction has already begun on an adjacent, 1500-home neighborhood, called Westside at Shady Grove.

The school bus depot needs to stay near Rockville, since its 400 buses serve schools in that area. But neighbors fought attempts to move the buses to a nearby school, an empty parking lot at the school system headquarters, and a gravel lot in a historically-black, working-class neighborhood. At each location, neighbors have raised concerns about traffic, pollution, or reduced property values.

Naturally, councilmembers are nervous about proposing to move the buses anywhere else. Councilmember Marc Elrich has suggested that the best option may be to keep the buses where they are.

But even if the depot stays, the county still has to find more space to store buses. And in an urbanizing county, those buses are likely to go in somebody's backyard.

Councilmember Craig Rice notes that there are already school bus depots next to houses in Glenmont and Clarksburg, and those residents haven't had any problems with them.

Jamison Adcock, one of the bus lot opponents, told me on Twitter that existing communities' needs should come first. But what about people who want to live here but can't afford to because there aren't enough homes to meet the demand, driving up house prices? Or what about people who either can't or don't drive and would like to live near a Metro station? The county is responsible for their needs too.

Moving the bus depot has serious benefits for the county and the people who could live on that land. There are only thirteen Metro stations in or next to Montgomery County, and they represent some of the most valuable land around. We know that lots of people want to live near a Metro station, and that people who already do are way more likely to use transit and have lower transportation costs.

It's increasingly expensive to live near Metro because the demand outstrips the supply of homes near Metro stations. So if the county's going to build new homes, we should prioritize putting them there.


This is a better use of land next to a Metro station than a bus lot.

Meanwhile, there are roads all over the county, and the trucks that carry things to and from the county's warehouses can go pretty much anywhere there's a road. That's why ten years ago, county leaders decided that it made more sense to put homes near the Metro, and warehouses and bus depots somewhere else.

That won't make everybody happy, but it's the right thing to do.

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