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.|
A chalkboard wall in Alexandria that recently got national attention for asking people to finish the thought "I wish I had the courage to ..." is coming down. For me, the Courage Wall represented a moment when I took a courageous jump of my own.
Resident and leadership coach Nancy Belmont set up the wall outside her friend's business in the Del Ray neighborhood last month. Inspired by artist Candy Change's "Before I Die" project in New Orleans, the Courage Wall is an interactive piece of public art, constantly changing as people add their thoughts to it.
Over the following weeks, thousands of people wrote their wishes: "Ask her out." "Start my own business." "Be in the present." The wall appeared everywhere from the Washington Post to ABC News. Even First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted about it. Last week, Belmont took the wall down but promises to return it to another location in Northern Virginia.
The Courage Wall's site, a vacant lot at Mount Vernon and East Del Ray avenues in Del Ray, is a particularly significant location for me. Seven years ago, I had a studio project here while in architecture school at the University of Maryland. Our professor, Mark Ramirez, told us to design something here, but unlike every other project I'd done before, he didn't say what it should be.
I was shocked: how would we know what to build? My classmates and I started researching the neighborhood for clues. We interviewed residents and shop owners and explored the local history. We hung out in shops and restaurants and watched people go about their lives. I started digging into Census data, eager to learn about the demographics of the people living in the area.
That's when I came onto something: despite having a diverse and very young population, Del Ray and surrounding neighborhoods lacked a central gathering space, especially one for teenagers. I ended up proposing a public space on the vacant lot, with structures around it that were small enough for intimate gatherings, but big enough for performances. The building (which in real life is a web design firm) became a retail incubator on the ground floor, and a teen center above.
What I didn't realize at the time is that I'd basically conducted a planning exercise: using input from the community, I'd analyzed its needs and developed a plan. But I did know I was inspired in a way I'd never been before, so I started to get involved more with the neighborhood.
Later that fall, I drove down to Northern Virginia Community College one rainy Friday night to participate in "We Are More Than What You See," a city-run campaign where local artists worked with teenagers to make posters decrying prejudice. Our work was shown in a gallery in Del Ray, then appeared in shop windows at businesses around Alexandria, including one across the street from the vacant lot.
My entire life I had dreamed of being an architect and had built an identity around it. But I struggled with math and physics, and I felt disconnected from the people and communities I was supposed to design for. My time in Del Ray taught me something new about myself, and it gave me the courage to take the leap and try a different path. Seven years later, I'm a urban planner.
But I find myself dealing with even bigger challenges. I've always been a really optimistic and driven person, hopeful that I could overcome any obstacle. Yet the past three years after I graduated planning school seemed to be one setback after another: a struggle to find full-time work, hospital bills from a foot injury, two car accidents, a stressful living situation, a five-year relationship that ended. I became overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety, unsure of myself and afraid that this time, I wasn't going to make it through.
Over the past few months, I've been able to pull myself out, slowly but surely. A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the Courage Wall, watching people walk up, admire it, and add something of their own.
This is a place where I'd shown myself courage once. Chalk in hand, I felt hopeful I could do it again. I added my words and I went on my way.
After nearly 60 years in production, the Gazette, a chain of weekly local newspapers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, will shut down in August. That means an area of over two million people won't have a local newspaper.
Post Community Media LLC, which owns the Gazette, announced the closure this morning at the Montgomery County edition's offices in Gaithersburg. Washington Post reporter Bill Turque tweeted the news shortly after.
Fourteen 69 people will lose their jobs.
The free, weekly paper's closure is a huge blow to the region's local news scene. While there are many more ways to get your news now than there might have been when the Gazette opened in 1959, it's unclear whether any of those media can fill the void.
During the 20th century, the Gazette expanded from a single paper in Gaithersburg to a chain stretching across Montgomery, Prince George's, and Frederick counties. In 1992, the Washington Post Company bought the Gazette.
The paper's decline has been obvious for years through rounds of layoffs and cutbacks. What was once the "Silver Spring Gazette" later became the "Silver Spring/Takoma Park/Wheaton/Burtonsville Gazette" as the local editions either closed or merged with each other. In 2013, the paper ended its coverage of Frederick County and statewide politics.
The Gazette's parent company still owns local newspapers in Southern Maryland and the Fairfax County Times, which appear to be safe for now.
The Gazette helped me become an activist
I remember the first time I ever saw the Gazette: it was 1995, and the cover story was about a megamall they wanted to build in downtown Silver Spring. I sat in the backseat of our family's car staring at the pretty rendering, dreaming of what could be. I was inspired; after all, there was going to be a waterslide three blocks from my house! My very first act of civic advocacy was to circulate a petition supporting the mall into Ms. Furtado's third-grade class at Woodlin Elementary School.
My petition wasn't successful, but over the past twenty years, the Gazette helped me get involved in my community. A Gazette photographer captured me meeting then-
Lately, the Gazette has used me as a resource too: I've been quoted there eight times in the past two years, on everything from the Silver Spring Transit Center to my Wheaton Plaza shirts to MoCo's nascent rap scene.
So where will we get our news now?
Without the Gazette, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the over two million people who live there will no longer have a weekly print newspaper. (There's still The Sentinel, but it's a much smaller paper and not free.)
Admittedly, I don't really get my news from newspapers at all, and I imagine a lot of people are the same way. I hear about things from neighborhood blogs, community listservs, from Facebook and Twitter, and from friends and family. AOL's Patch network provided incredibly fine-grained local coverage for a few years before it failed. More recently, the merger of local news sites BethesdaNow and Bethesda Beat led to expanded news coverage not just in Bethesda, but across much of Montgomery County.
But there are still some pretty big gaps. None of these publications really cover county or state politics, or do in-depth investigative reporting. They also don't give readers news, sports, arts, and business coverage in a single package. Not to mention that local newspapers are a valuable training ground for young journalists. I got to know a number of former Gazette reporters over the past nine years, like Aaron Kraut (now at Bethesda Beat), Aline Barros (now at Montgomery Community Media) and Elahe Izadi (now at the Washington Post), and it's been cool to watch their careers develop.
We need a new model for local news
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post Company (the Gazette's parent company's parent company) two years ago might have been a sign of the end for the Gazette. He's expressed a desire to shift from from local coverage and focus more on national news, and a chain of local newspapers doesn't really serve that goal.
So whose goals do align with running a local newspaper, or at least a news source with the same level of depth and authority as a newspaper? That's a question news organizations and communities around the country are grappling with. A newspaper tells the story of a community. But come August 11, Montgomery and Prince George's counties will have lost a storyteller.
Next week is Infrastructure Week, and what better way to celebrate than with a happy hour? We're teaming up with the American Planning Association for the next installment in our regular-ish happy hour series, next Thursday, May 14 in Chinatown.
Join APA and GGW from 6 to 7:30 pm at RFD, located at 810 7th Street NW. Mingle with planners (new and seasoned) and lovers of transportation to discuss why transportation matters to you. You might find yourself discussing why Congress should act now to pass a long-term transportation bill, or maybe going in-depth about our region's delayed streetcar plans.
During the happy hour, we encourage attendees to post on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to tell why you love transit. Be sure to include #RebuildRenew in your posts!
Let us know you're coming by registering online. And if you have questions about the event, contact Emily Pasi at epasi at planning dot org.
RFD is one block from the Gallery Place-Chinatown station (Red, Green, and Yellow lines), and a few blocks from Metro Center (Red, Blue, Orange, and Silver lines). If you're coming by bus, Metrobus 70/79 stops on 7th and 9th streets, while the X2/X9 stops on H Street NW. There's also a Capital Bikeshare station at 8th and H streets NW.
On the way, you can take a stroll through the Barnes Dance intersection at 7th and H.
In the past few months, we've held events at Metro-accessible bars in Shaw, U Street, Eastern Market, and Silver Spring. This summer, we hope to head back to Northern Virginia, and we're always looking for locations in Prince George's County. Where would you like us to go next?
Some members of a Silver Spring civic association recently tried to keep their new neighbors from joining. While residents rejected the measure, the fact that the issue got consideration at all illustrates how people disagree on who "belongs" in urbanizing communities.
The new townhouses rise behind single-family homes in Seven Oaks-Evanswood. All photos by the author.
The Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (SOECA) sits in the shadow of downtown Silver Spring, just a few blocks from the Metro station. Nearly all of its 220 households live in single-family homes, though the association recently lost a years-long battle to stop Chelsea Heights, a development of 63 townhomes on the site of a former private school on Ellsworth Drive.
Last week, the SOECA board proposed an amendment to the civic association's bylaws that would limit membership to "residents of the R-60 zoned areas," or people living in single-family homes. The amendment would effectively bar the new townhouse residents from joining. The association already keeps out people living in a handful of small apartment buildings within the neighborhood's borders, which are drawn to exclude nearby high-rise apartment buildings.
The proposal unleashed a fiery conversation in the normally sleepy neighborhood, both online and at a community meeting last night that 50 people attended. But after a vote, neighbors voted 32-17 against the change.
Neighbors worried townhouse residents would "out-vote" them
Why propose barring the future residents of Chelsea Heights from the neighborhood association? On the community listserv, some residents worried that the Chelsea Heights residents could join the civic association and "out-vote" existing residents on neighborhood issues, such as whether to restrict cut-through traffic.
"Will their interests as members of a higher-density tract development coincide with, complement or be in conflict with those of a neighborhood association composed of residents in single-family homes?" asked one resident.
SOECA president Jean Cavanaugh noted that Chelsea Heights will have its own homeowners' association, and says that her organization would be willing to cooperate with it. "There are other civic associations that work side-by-side with large townhouse developments that have their own association," she told me.
She added that this had nothing to do with the fight to stop the development. "We have no issue with the people buying property in Chelsea Heights. Our issue's with the Planning Board, the county, and [Chelsea Heights developer] EYA," she told me. "We can distinguish between who we had our battle with and the innocents who are gonna move in to Chelsea Heights."
Other area neighborhoods welcome all comers
It's not unusual for neighborhood groups anywhere to fight development. But in Silver Spring, a community that's generally progressive and tolerant and where many neighborhoods have a mix of housing types, it's unusual for associations to deliberately exclude people based on what kind of home they live in.
Next door to SOECA, the Woodside Park Civic Association has a long history of opposing townhouses from being built there, but remains totally open to anyone who wants to join. And the East Silver Spring Civic Association is open not only to townhouse dwellers, but apartment and condominium residents as well.
"The fact that I live in an apartment does not mean I am any less impacted by a nearby development or the loss of a local park, than say a homeowner would be," says ESSCA president Megan Moriarty. "Furthermore, I think we can come up with better solutions if all voices are considered in the debate."
Liz Brent, a real estate agent and Seven Oaks-Evanswood resident for 20 years, says that the disagreement reflects a disconnect between how long-time residents and newer residents see the neighborhood.
"There are people who come [to Silver Spring] for the transportation, come here for the walkability, come here for the diversity," she says. "I'm not saying the people who came here 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago don't want the diversity. But people who are coming here now...that's critical. It's a sea change for people who have been here for 30 and 40 and 50 years."
Keeping people out weakens community
Civic associations have a lot of sway in Montgomery County politics, largely because they're so organized. They provide a voice to thousands of residents, and they have done a lot of good in the county, from organizing community events to fighting highway extensions that would have cut across Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
But civic groups also disenfranchise many people, whether by restricting membership to certain residents or by becoming adversarial towards people who disagree. That's one reason why participation in civic associations across Montgomery County is in decline.
Just 20% of eligible households in Seven Oaks-Evanswood are members of SOECA. I've spoken to SOECA residents who supported Chelsea Heights and say they stopped participating because of the group's eagerness to vilify anyone who supported the development. "I couldn't think of a decision that had been made that I agree with," Brent said as to why she left.
While neighbors who fight new development say they're doing it to "preserve" or "strengthen" their neighborhood, they ultimately weaken community organizations when they push out people who might otherwise want to get involved too. Change is a fact of life, but so is difference and disagreement. Community organizations do themselves a disservice by trying to squelch both.
Besides, I bet that people buying houses in Chelsea Heights, or the renters who are already excluded from participating in SOECA, probably moved there because they like and enjoy the neighborhood. I bet they have a lot more in common with their single-family dwelling neighbors than some would like to admit. And now, we'll get to find out.
To make streets that are safe and comfortable for everyone rather than just speeding drivers, we need to measure them differently. In Montgomery County, one councilmember has a few suggestions on how to do that.
Like many places around the country, Montgomery County uses two tests of congestion: Level of Service (LOS), which measures how many cars can go through an intersection, and Critical Lane Volume (CLV), which measures how many cars travel through a single lane of road. But both tests assume that cars are the only way to move people, which results in wider and faster roads and undermines attempts to create safe, pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly streets.
Councilmember Roger Berliner, who represents both urban communities like Bethesda and urbanizing areas like White Flint, wants to change that. Last week he released a letter with some examples of alternative ways to measure congestion.
While the county's policy is to encourage compact development in places like White Flint, where people can get around by foot, bike, or transit, the traffic tests it uses assume that everyone's still going to drive a lot. Not only is that counter to actual driving trends in the county, but it also results in fast, dangerous streets that conflict with the county's own goals.
Berliner says he first started thinking about ways to measure congestion at an "Infrastructure Forum" he organized last month to discuss area traffic and school issues.
"One of the 'ah-ha' moments for me during our Infrastructure Forum was the notion that what you 'test' leads inexorably to the solutions that you focus on," he writes in the letter, addressed to county Planning Board chair Casey Anderson.
Thinking differently about transportation metrics is nothing new
In the letter, Councilmember Berliner outlines some alternatives to LOS and CLV for measuring how effective our transportation network is. California stopped using LOS in favor of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), which instead measures how much a project will cause people to drive. This allows planners to see whether a transportation project will support efforts to encourage walking, bicycling, transit use, or infill development.
Another measure Berliner suggests is Person Hours of Travel (PHT), which measures how long it takes travelers to get somewhere regardless of what mode they're using. This is especially useful for urban areas where there may not be ways to cut delays for drivers, but there are opportunities to shorten travel time for transit riders, such as providing bus lanes.
"Reducing commute time is vital for the quality of life of all of our residents, but is particularly crucial for opening up access to opportunity for our low-income residents," Berliner writes.
Streets designed for moving lots of cars undermine attempts to create pedestrian- and bike-focused development in places like White Flint.
A third tool is "Accessibility," which considers how many jobs or homes are within a certain travel time of a new development. This measure rewards development in existing communities that are already close to homes, jobs, and other things, making it easier for potential residents or workers to get there without a car or by driving a shorter distance.
Berliner hopes that these alternative tests will focus development around transit hubs and existing activity centers. Doing so has been the county's policy for over 50 years. He argues that these tests will promote economic development in the county, help the environment, and ultimately reduce traffic by giving people alternatives to driving long distances.
"The bottom line," writes Berliner, "appears to be that if we measure the right things we will move towards true multimodal solutions that give residents and businesses the traffic relief they need and a quality of life that we aspire to."
New investment is pouring into College Park, seeking to turn this town known for undergrads and traffic into an urban hub for all ages. As part of that transformation, the famous Knox Boxes student neighborhood is transforming from the ground up.
For decades, the Knox Boxes epitomized the University of Maryland's image as a party school. The cluster of 25 low-rise 1950s-era brick apartment buildings was just south of the campus, behind the seedy bars and pizza joints on Route 1.
For many undergrads, a Knox Box apartment was their first taste of living on their own, and the small backyards and proximity to other neighbors made for comfortable college living.
But they were also cheaply built and poorly maintained. During my freshman year at Maryland, two students died in separate Knox Box fires.
As Maryland became known more for academics than basketball riots, the university and the City of College Park started looking at ways to redevelop the Knox Boxes.
Getting multiple landlords to sell was difficult, but by 2013, a single owner had purchased most of the Knox Boxes. That year, the city approved a plan from developer Toll Brothers, usually known for suburban McMansions, to replace the Knox Boxes with Knox Village, a luxury student apartment complex for over 1,500 students.
Like most of the new student housing going up in College Park, Knox Village's apartments and townhomes will have gourmet kitchens and amenities like a pool, gym, and covered parking garage. The complex will have a series of courtyards with a grand staircase (which Toll Brothers compares to the Spanish Steps in Rome...), and two spaces for shops and restaurants.
Mayor Andy Fellows called the vote a "landmark occasion." Construction began last summer, though a few of the Knox Boxes whose owners didn't sell remain.
Change in College Park goes well beyond the Knox Boxes
Knox Village is just one piece of a bigger plan to recast College Park as more of a college town, hoping to attract post-graduates or even families. The university and the city recently opened a charter school to keep more faculty in the area. In a reversal from 10 years ago, when the administration opposed the Purple Line running through campus, president Wallace Loh has been a strong supporter.
More high-end student apartments are going up on Route 1, and last week Target announced plans to open one of the nation's first Target Express stores inside one of them. The university itself has been buying up properties in downtown College Park, and they're partnering with developer U3 Advisors to buy a former bar and turn it into a branch of Milkboy, a Philadelphia music and art venue. Even Ratsie's Pizza, a longtime favorite of the drunk and hungry, will become a Nando's Peri-Peri.
Not even six years since I graduated from Maryland, much of College Park is unrecognizable. Having lived on Knox Road as an upperclassman, I admit I'm a little nostalgic about losing the Knox Boxes. It's also worrisome that so much of the new student housing is very expensive and might make the already high cost of attending college even higher. On the other hand, thousands of new student apartments are coming in, and as the supply increases, rents are likely to fall.
When I lived there, College Park could be frustrating if you weren't into the party scene. There wasn't even a grocery store within walking distance of campus. It's exciting to see College Park develop into more of a college town. That's not only great for students and faculty, but also for neighbors who aren't even affiliated with the university.
Check out these photos of the Knox Boxes in 2006 and today.
Maryland highway planners say four new interchanges on Route 29 in eastern Montgomery County will cut congestion, improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, and make it easier to build bus rapid transit. But the designs they've proposed would actually make all three of those things worse.
One of four proposed interchanges along Route 29 in Montgomery County, with north on the right side. Image from the Maryland State Highway Administration.
For decades, Maryland highway planners have been trying to turn Route 29 between New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County and I-70 in Howard County into a freeway. They recently unveiled new designs for a $128 million interchange at Route 29 and Fairland and Musgrove roads, just south of the Intercounty Connector. Today, both roads intersect Route 29, also known as Columbia Pike, at separate stoplights.
Under the state's proposal, Musgrove Road would become a dead end street on the west side of Route 29, while on-ramps and off-ramps would connect the east side of 29 to its northbound lanes. Fairland Road would go from four lanes to six and only have access to 29 going south.
If the project gets funding, construction could get underway in 2018.
Maryland has already built interchanges along Route 29 in Howard County and in Montgomery County at Cherry Hill Road, Briggs Chaney Road, and Route 198. In 2002, plans to build four more interchanges at Fairland and Musgrove roads, Stewart Lane, Tech Road, and Greencastle Road were put on hold and the focus shifted to the Intercounty Connector. In 2013, then-Governor Martin O'Malley revived the projects.
Better for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit?
Proponents of the Route 29 plan tout its benefits for people walking and riding bikes. They note that the plan includes a shared-use path along 29, new bike lanes on Fairland Road, and filled in sidewalk gaps on Musgrove Road.
Meanwhile, acting Montgomery County DOT head Al Roshdieh says building the interchanges planned for the 29 corridor are necessary for the bus rapid transit line the county wants to put in there.
But accommodating people on foot, bikes, and transit shouldn't be an excuse to build more highway interchanges that simply dump more cars on Maryland's roads. In fact, dumping more cars on the roads will only make traffic worse in the long term.
More roads mean more car traffic
The amount of driving on all of Montgomery County's state highways has remained steady for over 10 years even as the population has grown by 100,000 people. But even though Route 29 is one of those highways, its traffic has increased 10% since 2006.
Part of that is because of new development further north in Howard County, whose residents drive on 29 to jobs in Montgomery and DC. But it's also because of the three other interchanges that Route 29 gained over the last decade.
Research shows that building more roads in an effort to cut congestion is actually counterproductive. The roads eventually just fill with more cars as drivers use the new road space to drive more or longer distances than they used to.
Meanwhile, the interchange will create more congestion by taking away local connections. Today, drivers on Musgrove and Fairland can directly turn onto Route 29 to go either north or south. But with an interchange, everyone will have to go to Musgrove to go north on Route 29, or go to Fairland to head south, putting more traffic on both roads. Making Musgrove a dead-end on the west side of 29 also pushes more east-west trips onto Fairland or Cherry Hill Road.
Another interchange will simply make it easier to speed down Route 29 from points north. But there isn't any room to widen Route 29 or build more interchanges further south, meaning drivers will end up at the same existing bottlenecks in Four Corners, downtown Silver Spring, and in the District. Speeding people through the area also undermines Montgomery County's efforts to create town centers in White Oak and Burtonsville.
What should we do instead?
The bottom line is that if you want to reduce congestion on Route 29, you've got to get people out of their cars and on to something else. The current plan doesn't do that. So what's the alternative?
In Montgomery County's annual transportation priorities letter to state officials, county councilmembers ranked a bus rapid transit line on Route 29 as a higher priority than the interchanges on Route 29. This is a reversal from previous years.
County planners estimate that a BRT line on 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville would cost just $351 million, compared to $472 million for the four new interchanges proposed on Route 29.
Not only is transit cheaper than turning Route 29 into a highway, it is easier to build and ultimately more effective. We can fit bus lanes in the median of Route 29 north of New Hampshire Avenue without building any more interchanges or widening cross streets.
Transit gives drivers an alternative, meaning that car traffic along the corridor may grow much more slowly than it would otherwise. It allows both existing downtowns like Silver Spring and future town centers like White Oak to grow without putting as much pressure on already congested areas.
We don't need interchanges to make it safer for pedestrians or bicyclists either. Filling in sidewalk and bike lane gaps, creating more crosswalks at stoplights, and reducing the speed limit along Route 29 can improve safety without spending nearly as much money.
Route 29 doesn't need to become a freeway
Maryland completed its environmental study for Route 29 in 1995. Since then, the communities along Route 29, and Montgomery County as a whole, have changed.
County residents and companies alike want transit and walkable neighborhoods. Route 29 is now one of the region's busiest bus corridors. Meanwhile, East County neighborhoods are grappling with disinvestment as growth moves out to Howard County.
Turning Route 29 into a freeway might have made sense 20 years ago, but now it's time to reconsider. There are better, cheaper, less disruptive ways to get people where they're going.
Maryland's new transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, is looking at ways to build the Purple Line more cheaply. While changing the route or swapping out light rail for buses aren't on the table, Rahn says that less frequent service is one possibility.
Formerly the transportation secretary in Missouri and New Mexico, Rahn recently told the Washington Post he wants to take a "practical design" approach to the proposed light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. The $2.4 billion project already has federal and local funding, and Governor Larry Hogan has set aside some money in the state budget.
Hogan has asked Rahn to find ways to reduce costs. One way to do that, Rahn says, is to make the service less frequent. This might save money now, but it might make the Purple Line less effective while increasing costs in the future.
Under the current plan, the Purple Line would run every six minutes during rush hour and every 10 to
20 15 minutes during the rest of the time, from 5am to midnight on weekdays and from 7am to 3am midnight on weekends. That's comparable to Metro service today.
Running trains less frequently means buying fewer trains and hiring fewer workers, which can save on operating costs. But it also makes the service less reliable if riders have wait longer for a train or to transfer, and that could hurt Purple Line ridership.
It also complicates the state's public-private partnership with a company who would build and operate the Purple Line. If Maryland writes the contract for, say, 15-minute headways, then that company will design and build the line to that standard; changing the frequency would require an amendment.
Adding more frequent service later could also require buying more trains, which will be more expensive than just doing so now. And it might require the state to renegotiate its contract with the private partner, which would likely have the upper hand.
One solution could be to tie frequency to ridership benchmarks: as more people ride the Purple Line, the state could require the partner to provide more frequent service. That could help reduce costs in the beginning, while avoiding the potential for higher costs or contract renegotiation in the future.
Montgomery County school superintendent Josh Starr resigned this week. Many community members are wondering what went wrong. While Starr had a lot of supporters, his role in a MCPS culture that didn't take criticism well may have been his undoing.
A week ago, Bethesda Magazine reported that four of the eight school board members didn't support renewing Starr's contract. Last weekend, Starr and the Board of Education quietly met to discuss his departure February 16, four months before his contract ends.
Some elected officials, along with parents and students were confused about what he'd done wrong, pointing to increased test scores since Starr arrived in 2011. Others felt that Starr didn't have a clear direction for the school system, and wouldn't listen to people he didn't agree with. Ultimately, that may have led to his dismissal. But the frustration with Starr reflects a larger issue with how MCPS deals with a rapidly changing school system.
Starr made promises, but didn't always follow through
Despite its reputation as a high-performing school system, MCPS also struggles with the suburbanization of poverty, which has made the achievement gap among minority and low-income students more evident. Starr championed the issue, boasting of his commitment to social justice and even appearing at a student-organized March to Close the Achievement Gap last spring.
But if community members or public officials tried to question him on this or other issues, Starr could be arrogant or dismissive. When the county's Office of Legislative Oversight found that growing segregation in the schools is exacerbating the achievement gap, Starr shrugged it off, saying the school system was already working hard to fix the problem.
In practice, that didn't always seem to be the case. MCPS spends less on its low-income students than other area school systems. There's been little talk about Starr's "innovation schools" program, which pledged additional resources and supports for 10 high-poverty schools, after a big announcement two years ago. And last year, Starr threatened to remove programs that could help close the gap from the budget if the County Council didn't give MCPS more money.
A reflection of the broader system
Meanwhile, the school system has struggled with other controversies over the past year, including widespread math exam failures, improper credit card use, and a sexual abuse scandal. Starr wasn't directly responsible for any of these things, but frustration grew with his aloof nature and unclear agenda for MCPS.
"Four years went by and people were still waiting to hear what the new direction was all about, where are we going," said Nancy Navarro, a councilmember and former school board member, to the Washington Post. "That was never really articulated."
This impatience made Starr an easy scapegoat when things went wrong, as Councilmember Marc Elrich notes. Yet his behavior is really a reflection of MCPS as a whole.
MCPS gets its high-flying reputation from a handful of high-performing schools in the most affluent parts of the county, even as many schools are doing much worse. This perception is one reason why the teachers' union has such a strong influence on local politics.
As a result, people assume that all of MCPS is doing fine and are unwilling to challenge the school system. Meanwhile, officials are reluctant to admit anything's wrong. "The county's progressive image has created a fierce resistance to serious analysis of rapidly changing conditions," wrote Harvard researcher Gary Orfield in a 1994 study of segregation in MCPS, which is still relevant today.
To fix MCPS, recognize that it's broken
This culture is a big problem for MCPS, which is used to being the preferred school system for families with the means to choose where they live. Today, many of those families are moving farther out to Howard or Frederick counties, or taking a chance on the District's improving public schools. To keep MCPS competitive, the school system and its leadership have to acknowledge that it's no longer solely defined by its success, but its failures as well.
On the day he resigned, Starr retweeted a photo of a girl at White Oak Middle School, a high-poverty school in East County that I once attended in the 1990s, with the caption: "I want to be recognized for my work. I have been in the honor roll for a long time."
Like her, MCPS is used to being a well-regarded school system, and wants to be recognized. But the real test of its success is how it grapples with the great challenges facing it. Whoever replaces Starr will need to ensure that all the county's schools deserve the "honor roll" status that attaches to the more affluent ones on which the county has staked its reputation.
When I moved to East-West Highway in South Silver Spring last fall, I quickly noticed one thing: people cross the street without using crosswalks all the time. Even as the surrounding area becomes more urban and walkable, this street remains a relic of its industrial, car-oriented past.
East-West Highway was built in the 1920s to connect Bethesda and Silver Spring and provide an alternative to Military Road in the District. (An extension to Prince George's County came later.) Industrial uses like bottling plants, commercial bakeries, and repair shops sprouted up along the road in Silver Spring. When the Blairs complex was built in the 1950s, the developers purposefully faced it away from East-West Highway because it was so unattractive.
When the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring took off about 10 years ago, those buildings gave way to apartments and condominiums. More recently, businesses including Denizens Brewing Company, Bump 'N Grind, a coffeeshop/record store, and Scion, a restaurant based in Dupont Circle, have flocked to the area.
South Silver Spring is now one of the region's youngest neighborhoods, with a large number of transit commuters. Even the owner of the Blairs is embarking on a redevelopment plan to face the street again.
As Silver Spring redeveloped, it became more walkable. But East-West Highway never caught up.
Even though it's fairly narrow, it's still designed like a high-speed commuter route, even as more and more people are walking and bicycling in the area. In some places there are no sidewalks, and the two crosswalks between Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road are each a quarter-mile apart, at least a five-minute walk. Even when you get to a crosswalk, the signals are timed to move cars through, making pedestrians wait for up to two minutes to cross.
So people choose to cross where it feels convenient, or safer. In four months of non-scientific observations, I noticed that everyone seemed to cross in a few specific places. I started crossing there as well, and realized that most drivers will stop for you. And when I drove out of my building's garage, I always waited before turning, knowing that someone might be crossing.
Where to cross East-West Highway. Stoplights are in red, popular informal crossings are in blue. Click for an interactive map.
But this isn't ideal. A century of training people not to walk in the middle of the street means that nobody, including drivers, expects this to happen. Thus, informal crossing points aren't as safe as formal, designated places to cross that pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers can all recognize. And the unpleasant experience of walking in South Silver Spring depresses foot traffic, which hurts both existing businesses and prevents new ones from opening.
Even if it wasn't built for walking, East-West Highway became a place with lots of walkers. It's time for this street to adapt. More crosswalks would be a good start, as would filling in the missing gaps of sidewalk. More stoplights, or pedestrian-only signals called HAWKs, would be even better, as would a median where people could wait while crossing.
Yes, these things might cause additional delays for drivers. But as one of those drivers, I'd rather have a slower, safer street with more places to shop and hang out. As its surroundings become more urban, East-West Highway is a highway in name only.
- Metro floats cutting service for the Green, Yellow, Orange, and Silver Lines
- The five most frustrating things about Metro's problems
- By 2019 it will have taken 34 years to build the Silver Line
- Hogan will build the Purple Line, not the Red Line
- Residents push for stop signs, not a wider road, at one Petworth intersection
- Forest Glen residents and a state delegate want a MARC station in Forest Glen
- Silver Spring is a more complete place thanks to its new library