Posts by Dan Reed
|Dan Reed is Greater Greater Washington’s Associate Editor. A planner and architect by training, Dan also 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.|
Yesterday, the Purple Line took a big step forward when the federal government recommended giving it a $100 million grant for next year and providing additional funding in the coming years. Now, all it needs is approval from Congress.
President Obama included the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in his 2015 budget. It's one of 7 transit projects the Federal Transit Administration recommended for a "New Starts" grant, including the Baltimore Red Line, an extension of LA's Purple Line, Boston's Green Line extension, the Columbia River Crossing in Portland, and commuter rail in Orlando and Fort Worth.
The agency also recommended Congress give the Purple Line a "full funding grant agreement" committing it to help pay for construction. Maryland hopes the federal government will provide $900 million, though it's unclear what the final amount will be.
The state has already agreed to put in up to $900 million for the project. Montgomery and Prince George's counties will give $220 million total, while the state is looking for a private partner to build and operate the line and pitch in additional funds.
The Purple Line has been discussed in some form since 1986. If everything goes right, it could start construction in 2015 and open in 2020. But getting here hasn't been easy.
From the beginning, it faced vehement opposition from the exclusive Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, because the line would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight rail line that bisected its golf course. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland didn't want it passing through the heart of campus, and even hired former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (now running for a fourth term) to oppose it.
Maryland was able to find a workable solution for both parties, and the Purple Line now enjoys the support of both county executives, elected officials in both counties, and hundreds of civic, environmental, business, and advocacy groups.
But there are still a few challenges remaining. One is that Congress actually has to approve President Obama's budget and decide how much the "full funding grant agreement" for the Purple Line would be. The other is the Town of Chevy Chase, which continues to oppose the project because of its impacts on the trail. The town recently hired a lobbyist who happens to be the brother of the House transportation committee chair to make the case against the line.
Meanwhile, other residents may sue the government because they feel not enough research has been done about the Purple Line's impacts on a small, shrimp-like creature that's listed as an endangered species but is found several miles away. These things may add additional delay to the Purple Line, but it's unclear whether they're enough to actually halt the project.
In any case, yesterday was a great day for the Purple Line. When I attended my first Purple Line meeting in 2003, as a junior in high school, I assumed that I'd be riding it by now. Hopefully, 28 years after the project was first announced, we won't have to wait much longer.
There's no shortage of blogs in the DC area that talk about specific neighborhoods. In fact, for 8 years, I've written one myself. But Greater Greater Washington tells a unique story about our region as a whole.
I don't remember when I started reading GGW, but I was struck by the slogan "the Washington, DC area is great. But it could be greater." Our region is undergoing a massive period of growth, resurgence, and evolution. In doing so, the traditional lines between "city" and "suburb" are blurring, both in terms of demographics and the built environment.
To understand what's happening in our communities, sometimes we have to look at the big picture. From the start, GGW has looked at the opportunities and challenges facing places from Georgetown to Germantown and everywhere in between, and how they're all connected.
Greater Greater Washington is a place where smart, passionate people, including residents, advocates, community leaders, elected officials, designers, and planners, can come together and talk about where we're going as a region. It's given me the chance to share the stories of my community, Silver Spring, and to read the stories of places throughout the District, Maryland, and Virginia, that other media don't report.
This blog is an invaluable resource for those who care about making stronger, more sustainable communities, and has become the envy of places around the nation. Over the past year, I've been proud to serve Greater Greater Washington as its associate editor, and while I won't be in that position much longer, I'm eager to remain a part of this amazing community.
Moreover, I'm excited to see where GGW will go next, and what stories we'll get to tell in the future. But we can only do that with your help. If you care about having an online community that's able to look at the big picture of Greater Washington, I hope you'll support us with a donation.
50 years ago, the Wheaton Youth Center brought local teens together around rock-and-roll and symbolized the idealism of the young, fast-growing suburb. As pressure grows to replace it with a new recreation center, can this building adapt to become a part of Wheaton's future?
To some, the 1960s-era building at Georgia and Arcola avenues is a local landmark with a storied musical history, but to others, it's an eyesore and an exercise in nostalgia. They can't even agree on what to call it: preservation supporters use its original name, the Youth Center, while opponents call it the Rec Center.
Whatever the name, county officials have been planning to demolish it and the adjacent library and put them in one new, $36 million building on the site of the library. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board both recommended the building become a historic landmark, but it doesn't seem to have many friends on the County Council, which will make the final decision.
"Where rock-and-roll was invented"
When the Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963, it won awards for its Japanese-style architecture. But it was better known for hosting famous musical acts, like Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart, and Led Zeppelin, who may have played their first US show there in 1969.
Eileen McGuckian of Montgomery Preservation, Inc. and the guys who hung out at the Youth Center as teens.
Local musicians played the youth center's stage as well, including a 13-year-old Tori Amos, then living in Rockville, who gave her first public performance there at a talent show in 1977. In December, the kids who once hung out at the Wheaton Youth Center came back to celebrate the building's 50th birthday with cake and a screening of filmmaker Jeff Krulik's documentary "Led Zeppelin Played Here."
Krulik, who lives in Silver Spring, says the building helped nurture a music scene in Wheaton. "Places like this are where the rock-and-roll concert industry was virtually invented," he says. "The building speaks to me. The walls talk."
"This was the cool place to be," says Olney resident Rick, who grew up in Wheaton and hung out at the Youth Center every weekend. "It kept us off the streets, gave us focus...all the things that young people should learn." Rick only recently learned about the building's architectural history, but says "that alone" makes it worth saving.
Is preservation a "fanciful plan"?
To current users, however, the recreation center is too small and falling apart. December's party happened in a crowded hallway between the gym with the leaky roof and the computer lab with four machines.
The county didn't have to consider preserving the building because it wasn't on its survey of historic buildings, a prerequisite for historic designation. The last survey was done in 1976 and doesn't include any buildings from the 20th century, because nobody thought they were historic yet. Planner are working on a new survey to identify which buildings deserve further study, says historic preservation planner Clare Lise Kelly.
Naturally, residents anxious for a new recreation center fear that designation will add unnecessary delay and cost. Outside the party, opponents planted little yellow signs reading "NO DELAY" all around the building. Last fall, the Planning Board recommended keeping the old recreation center since the new one would be built next to it anyway, which wasn't received well.
How the new recreation center and library (right) could fit in with the old one. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.
"If the Planning Board wanted to add another element to their fanciful plan, they might as well have added a zoo for unicorns," wrote Olney resident and library board member Art Brodsky in a letter to the Gazette.
Both sides disagree how much it would cost to rehabilitate the building, which has never been renovated. Architects Grimm + Parker, which is designing the new facility, estimates it could cost nearly $7.8 million to bring the building up to code and move in the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, currently housed in the library. Advocacy group Montgomery Preservation, Inc. hired a structural engineer to assess the building, who says it would cost just $1.3 million for more basic improvements.
Community leaders say neither price is worth it. Before a public hearing last night, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who represents Wheaton, sent an email blast to her constituents asking them to testify against preservation. "We can - and should - find ways to honor the history of this facility in the new design, but not through historic designation," she wrote.
Could the Youth Center represent the future again?
The Wheaton Youth Center is young enough that people don't consider it truly historic, but old enough to be unfashionable and in disrepair. But for a community that grew up in the 1950s and 60s, buildings like the Youth Center are as much a part of Wheaton's heritage and Montgomery County's heritage as Victorian rowhouses are in DC, setting it apart as a product of its time.
Eileen McGuckian, president of Montgomery Preservation, Inc., was a student at Blair High School in Silver Spring when the youth center opened. "It's the period of hopes and dreams, of things happening...it was exciting," she said.
But Wheaton has changed a lot over the past 50 years, from a largely homogeneous, middle-class place to one that's much more socioeconomically and racially diverse. At the party, Rick said that many of his friends growing up have moved out to Olney or Damascus, taking their memories with them.
And it was hard not to notice the contrast between the older white guys standing on the stage, reminiscing about their days playing in rock-and-roll bands decades ago, and the young, mostly black and Hispanic kids playing pickup basketball on the floor. For kids growing up in Wheaton today, this building belongs to a past they can't relate to and people who don't live there anymore.
Preservationists have to prove that a building that reflected Wheaton's future in 1963 can still be a beacon today. One option is leasing it to a nonprofit group who would fix the building themselves, like the the Writer's Center, housed in the Bethesda Youth Center.
Kelly sent me a list of 13 organizations willing to take over the building, including arts groups, theatre companies, and the Ethiopian Cultural Center, which serves the region's quarter-million Ethiopian immigrants. These groups represent where Wheaton is today, and they might help this building become a valued part of the community again.
In any case, it might be too late for the Wheaton Youth Center. But I hope we'll give Montgomery County's other notable modern buildings a second chance. If you think this building deserves historic designation, you can email the County Council at mailto:email@example.com.
This month, the Greater Greater Washington happy hour comes to Alexandria with cosponsor CNU DC, the local chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism. Join us Thursday, February 27 from 6 to 8 pm at the Light Horse on King Street.
Earlier this week, the Express interviewed Matt Johnson about our awesome commenters, including a plug for our monthly meetup. It's a great chance to join contributors, editors, and readers for "very wonky and very geeky" conversation without "a single raised voice." (Other than yelling over the usual bar noise, of course.)
This month, we'll be at the Light Horse, located at 715 King Street between Columbus and Washington streets in Alexandria. The Light Horse is known for its excellent beer list but also has a respectable dinner menu if you're interested in something more substantial. But the big attraction for Greater Greater readers might be all the ways you can get there.
If you're coming from DC or points north, you've got a variety of bus options for getting there as well. From the King Street Metro station, you can take the King Street Trolley, the AT2 or AT5 to King and Columbus. Or there's the Metrobus 9A from Pentagon and the Metrobus 10A/B from Braddock Road, both of which stop at King and Washington. There are also an ample number of parking garages in the area.
Our happy hour moves to a different part of the region each month. In recent months, we've been to downtown DC, Arlington, and Silver Spring. Next month, we'll be back in the District. Let us know in the comments where you'd like us to go!
The Silver Spring Transit Center isn't finished yet, but there's already support for turning vacant land next to it into a big park. However, this really isn't a good place for a park. There are also lots of small, underused parks nearby, and with some alterations, they could help quench the demand for open space.
County Councilmember Hans Riemer recently proposed building a two-acre park next to the Transit Center instead of an originally planned hotel. On his blog, he talks about the many "green urban parks" in downtown DC, like Dupont Circle. "Silver Spring deserves one too," he writes.
What makes a great urban park like Dupont Circle, or Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, or Union Square in New York? They all have grassy areas and trees, and are nice places to enjoy the outdoors. But they don't exist in isolation. What happens on the edges of great urban parks is what makes them successful.
Great urban parks need people and buildings, too
Parks like Dupont and Rittenhouse sit in the middle of very dense, busy neighborhoods with thousands of people living and working nearby. The surrounding buildings also create a frame around the space, making it an outdoor room. Most of the buildings that face Dupont Circle have a store or restaurant on the ground floor. On Rittenhouse Square, there are apartment building entrances and restaurants with dining terraces opening to the square.
What happens on the edges of Rittenhouse Square make it a great park. Photo from Google Street View.
Together, these things make a space that people are constantly using throughout the day, eating lunch, playing chess, making music, holding demonstrations, getting exercise, or just passing through.
Compare that to the Transit Center. Most of the surrounding buildings don't face the space Hans Riemer would like to be a park. At the street level, all you'll find are fast-food places, lots of blank walls, and loading docks, none of which do much to generate life on the sidewalk. Putting a park here wouldn't change that context.
It would be different if we could build a park with shops and restaurants directly facing it, and lots of people in very, very close proximity to use it and pass through it all the time. In fact, that's what the Transit Center plans already call for: a smaller park, less than an acre in size but with some green areas, directly adjacent to an apartment building, an office building, and a hotel.
Unfortunately, those plans are on hold due to a breakdown in negotiations between developer Foulger-Pratt, which also built the Transit Center, and Metro, which owns the land. But that doesn't mean we should throw them away.
Silver Spring has lots of open space, but we don't use it
People complain that Silver Spring doesn't have enough parks, but we might actually have too many. In downtown Silver Spring, there are literally dozens of small pocket parks, the result of a requirement that new development include an open space that's accessible to the public.
Many of those spaces are poorly designed and go unused. County planners and residents have already been working to fix this problem.
In 2008, the Planning Board recommended eliminating the pocket park requirement and build big parks instead. Two such projects have already been approved. The redevelopment of the Blairs will include a big park, while the Studio Plaza development on Fenton Street will have one as well.
And last year, the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board suggested looking at ways to repurpose existing parks and county-owned properties. Evan Glass, chair of the board and a candidate for County Council, has proposed reusing the current Silver Spring Library as a recreation center and park space once the new library is built.
There's a big, grassy park a block from the Transit Center, but it goes unused. Photo by the author.
Some of downtown's pocket parks could be repurposed as well. There's already a big, grassy park exists a block from the Transit Center at the Discovery Channel headquarters. But it isn't really used and was closed for months after a gunman attacked the building in 2010. Across from the Transit Center, Montgomery County will turn a bus turnaround into another small park with trees and landscaping.
These spaces aren't perfect. But they exist, and if any community member or elected official is serious about improving open space in downtown Silver Spring, they should start here.
There's a better use for the Transit Center site
It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes, creating great parks in urban areas means more buildings. Silver Spring needs a critical mass of people and stuff to generate the activity needed to give our streets and parks life. Meanwhile, too many bad parks have instead created big, gaping holes in our downtown, sucking out activity and life.
The Transit Center is a bad place for a big park. But it's a good place for buildings.
Montgomery County and Maryland taxpayers have already spent upwards of $120 million on the Transit Center, on top of money spent decades ago to build the Metro station, and money we will soon spend to build the Purple Line. Where they converge will be one of the most valuable development sites in the region, and a significant opportunity to encourage transit use and generate tax revenue.
Not taking advantage of this would be a colossal waste. So would ignoring all of the open spaces Silver Spring already has, as well as the opportunities we do have to create new and better ones.
After two storms in one day, the DC area is finally beginning to dig out. But some are clearing their sidewalks faster than others and, in some cases, making the sidewalks harder to use.
In Mount Pleasant, reader Leslie McGorman writes in about a church under renovation whose sidewalks are completely covered in snow and ice. "Despite the fact that there is construction/renovation occurring, people still use this building," she notes. "As such, they should get their asses outside with a shovel."
While taking his daughter for a walk today, David Alpert found the uncleared sidewalks near his house especially difficult to manage with a stroller:
Most houses on my block had shoveled, with just a couple of exceptions. Some of the large apartment/condo buildings at the corners had a layer of ice and some didn't; I think though that the ones facing south seemed more clear, probably because the sun has warmed it enough to easily get the ice up.
The worst part was at the corners, where they were all thick slush. Plows had evidently cleared the roads but left a large area, like 5 feet, for pedestrians to cross. A few businesses seem to have cleared their corners, but not most.And in Silver Spring, Kathy Jentz took a video of a mini-digger outside her home on Fenton Street near Montgomery College piling snow on the sidewalk:
The sidewalk in front of Stead Park was a sheet of ice. It looks like it had been shoveled after the first big snow but then not after the 2nd, and then people walking on P Street flattened it into ice. It's too bad that one of the worst spots to walk with a child was past the park!
Bobcat earth movers are piling huge mounds of snow onto my sidewalk and my immediate neighbors. Who is going to clear this for the thousands if commuters and college students who use that public sidewalk daily? I am so angry!!!!!
Luckily, today's warm temperatures mean that much of the snow will melt, though we may get even more late tonight. Many parts of our region received over a foot of snow this week, but that's no excuse not to clear your sidewalks. It's required by law within eight hours of a storm in the District. Alexandria, Arlington, and Montgomery County will give you 24 hours, while Prince George's County requires it within 48 hours.
How are the sidewalks where you are?
One thing was clear at last night's public hearing on plans to create a transit-oriented town center and biotech hub in White Oak: almost everyone wants more jobs and amenities in White Oak, even those who aren't comfortable with new development in their backyards.
This month, the Montgomery County Council took up the White Oak Science Gateway plan, which seeks to draw companies who want to be near the Food and Drug Administration's campus near Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue. It proposes over 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs in several urban neighborhoods, which would sit on three of the county's proposed Bus Rapid Transit lines.
Support for the plan was high, with 20 of 34 speakers in favor. As in a previous hearing at the Planning Board in May, residents were eager for new investment after decades of waiting. Even those who were skeptical of the plan's emphasis on transit and feared it would create a "tsunami of traffic" on Route 29 said East County needed the investment.
The County Council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee will discuss the plan in a series of worksessions later this month before the entire council reviews it. No vote has been scheduled, but it's likely to happen within the next several weeks.
I live-tweeted last night's hearing and compiled the highlights in this Storify:
For decades, eastern Montgomery County has lacked the jobs and amenities the more affluent west side has long enjoyed. But plans to finally deliver those things, along with the transit to support them, could get hung up on concerns about car traffic.
The White Oak Science Gateway plan would transform sprawling office parks and strip malls around the Food & Drug Administration campus near Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue into a town center and biotech hub. County officials say they've already heard from international pharmaceutical companies who want to be nearby.
With 8,500 new homes and over 40,000 new jobs, the plan would double what's on the ground today, and many are concerned about the traffic it might bring. County planners say that not doing anything won't get rid of White Oak's congestion, and that the real solution is to improve transit and bring people's daily needs closer to home. The County Council will hold a public hearing on the plan tomorrow night.
Traffic concerns stop development in East County
Once the inspiration for the idyllic family sitcom The Wonder Years, White Oak has long suffered from disinvestment, lagging the rest of the county in everything from shopping options to public school quality.
A promised rapid transit line on Route 29 was never built, and for decades, the area was under a development moratorium because of traffic on 29. Instead, growth and investment simply went further out to Howard County or west to Rockville and the I-270 corridor, meaning that people simply had to drive farther to get what they needed.
Anxious for change, residents have generally expressed support for the plan. County Executive Ike Leggett has made a proposed research park called LifeSci Village, to be built in partnership with local developer Percontee, a priority for his administration, and is already shopping the project around to Chinese business executives who want to be near the FDA.
However, the County Council rejected an earlier draft of the plan last fall because it didn't meet the county's "subdivision staging policy," which requires local roads to meet a certain congestion level, usually by widening them or building new ones, before development can go forward.
Planners say there's really no way to fix congestion in the area. There isn't room for new highways and much of the traffic on major roads like Route 29 comes from Prince George's and Howard counties, which Montgomery County has no control over.
The Planning Board decided that reducing the density wasn't an option, because it would take away the incentive for the development people want while forcing people to travel long distances for work or shopping. Instead, it proposed creating a new standard for measuring traffic, midway between that of suburban areas that are totally reliant on cars and urban downtowns like Bethesda where there is Metro service.
Plan relies on transit, but will it get funded?
The Board also tried to encourage the creation of more alternatives to driving. They also propose creating a Transportation Management District, which would help residents and workers find ways to get around without a car. There's a similar one in existence in North Bethesda. The goal is to have 25 to 30% of all trips made without a car by 2040, which is a little higher than the rate today.
To do so, the Science Gateway plan already proposes a new grid of streets with sidewalks and bike lanes. It also requires a more compact, urban form of development, with a mix of housing and commercial uses.
Planners also added language about the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, which would serve White Oak with lines on Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and on Route 29, calling it "essential to achieve the vision of this Master Plan." They propose that any impact taxes or fees the county collects from developers to go straight to BRT to ensure it gets built.
But the board also removed a requirement that the full amount of development not go forward if the BRT lines aren't funded or under construction. It's likely due to pressure from Leggett's administration, who are worried that the high cost of building transit and delays in development approvals could discourage investment.
Economic development shouldn't mean lower standards
White Oak's suburban built form, coupled with decades of leapfrog development to more distant communities, force its residents to travel long distances by car or transit. The area has become less desirable than other parts of Montgomery County, and without easy access to jobs, shopping, or other amenities, that will only get worse.
Traffic tests that tie new development to new highways won't work for White Oak, but residents still need some promise that there will be adequate infrastructure to support the growth they want to happen. Instead of eliminating staging requirements, county officials need to ensure that there's enough funding for transit.
Planners estimate that a BRT line on Route 29 would cost about $350 million, the same as three highway interchanges on the same corridor. While the interchanges would simply make it easier to drive to Howard County, transit would better support the creation of the town center everyone wants.
White Oak has waited decades to catch up with the rest of Montgomery County. While folks may be impatient for economic development, it's important we get this right.
The first phase of Pike + Rose, the massive strip mall redevelopment on Rockville Pike, is scheduled to open this fall. Recently, I got to tour the construction site as it slowly transforms into a neighborhood.
When it's finished several years from now, Pike + Rose will contain 9 city blocks with 3.5 million square feet of apartments, offices, shops, and restaurants, as well as a movie theatre and music venue. I'll be five times the size of Bethesda Row, which developer Federal Realty also built.
After about 18 months of construction, Pike + Rose is beginning to look like a place. Cladding is beginning to cover the buildings' frames, and windows are starting to go in. Grand Park Avenue, envisioned as a bustling street lined with storefronts and dining patios, is still a mud pit, though it now has curbs.
Around the corner is Muse Alley, the first of several public spaces in the development. Evan Goldman, Federal Realty's vice president of development and my tour guide, explained that the lower level would be a deck with movable tables and chairs and surrounded by a "forest" of birch trees. Overlooking it will be a beer garden.
There are three buildings in the first phase. Two are apartment buildings: Pallas, an 18-story building that's still being framed, and PerSei, a mid-rise building that will open this spring. Aaron Kraut at BethesdaNow got to take a look inside PerSei last week.
Like many new apartment buildings, it's been designed to look like several smaller buildings in an attempt to break down its block-long size. Goldman said that the developer wanted to draw from the area's history. One section is designed to look like a repurposed warehouse building, while the cream-colored section pictured above will get a mural inspired by a bakery that was once located nearby.
The third building, 11800 Grand Park Avenue, contains several floors of offices atop a health club, a high-end movie theatre, and a four-star restaurant. Federal Realty worked with Strathmore, whose music hall is a mile away, to create a jazz club as well. It was originally supposed to be an open-air space, but instead will have sliding glass walls, allowing it to double as a corporate meeting space during the week.
Having this many entertainment venues next to each other, and all opening at once, could create a critical mass of activity in White Flint almost instantly. It's similar to the way that restaurateur Joe Englert sought to make H Street NE a nightlife destination by opening several bars and restaurants at once. "This will be the entertainment center of the county," Goldman says. "We hope this is that place everyone goes on the weekends."
This building includes a number of outdoor spaces; the restaurant, health club, and jazz venue all have roof decks. Today the views are of parking lots and strip malls, but over time, it'll fill in as White Flint grows a skyline.
Back on the street, 75% of the retail spaces have been leased, including several restaurants. Many of them are chains, but there are places that only have a few other locations nationwide, meaning they'll be the only ones in the DC area.
Some of these restaurants will face Old Georgetown Road, a busy state highway. This fits in with the county's vision to make it a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly street, though both Montgomery County and Maryland transportation officials have been reluctant to do so. Hopefully, creating activity on Old Georgetown now will push them to redesign it as an urban street.
In May, work on Pike + Rose's second phase will start by demolishing the rest of the main strip mall, while a small retail building at the corner of Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road will get a facelift to help it blend in with the new buildings. Most of the remaining tenants have left; some have moved to other Federal Realty-owned shopping centers along Rockville Pike, while Chipotle, Starbucks, and La Madeleine will move to new spaces on-site.
The second phase should open within two years, but Federal Realty has no timeline for the rest of the site, including the building on the corner. Plans show that it could eventually become a high-rise office building, though that probably won't happen until there's funding for a new entrance to the White Flint Metro across the street, which would make that site much more valuable.
White Flint has been in planning for years, and it'll take decades for it to fully become a more urban place. The first phase of Pike + Rose offers us a glimpse of White Flint's future, but also suggests a path forward for other aging shopping centers around the region.
Check out this slideshow of Pike + Rose under construction.
Some people who live in single-family homes resist anything other than single-family homes being built around them. But as our region grows, there will be a growing demand for townhomes and apartments. What if we just built them in disguise?
Great Houses and "mansion apartments"
With its sweeping lanes and European-inspired houses, the Carrington neighborhood near Tysons Corner looks like any recently-built luxury home development. But there's something strange about the two houses at the end of the cul-de-sac. They look just like all of the others, except for one difference: each house has four mailboxes.
This is the Great House, a four-unit townhouse designed to look like a large, single-family home. Like DC and Montgomery County, Fairfax requires developers to build affordable units in new developments, but they often stick out like a sore thumb. When Carrington was being built in 2001, the county worked with builder Edgemoore Homes to help subsidized, $120,000 townhomes blend in with homes several times as expensive.
Each Great House is comparable in size to its neighbors and uses the same materials. But instead of one, 5,000 square-foot house, you have four, 1,200-square foot townhouses. Only one of the doors faces the street. A driveway runs around the back, where each townhouse has a two-car garage.
This isn't a new idea, nor one limited to subsidized housing. The "mansion apartment building" has been a recurring concept in housing design for decades.
Many of these buildings were built in the DC area around World War II, a period when there was a lot of demand for affordably-priced housing and very little supply. You can find them in a wide variety of places, from Chevy Chase to Damascus.
The ultimate compromise
The Great House could be a particularly useful housing type as the region grows. A recent study from George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis estimates that the DC area will need 548,000 new homes over the next 20 years. About half of those units will need to go in the District, Montgomery, and Fairfax counties. And 60% of them will need to be townhouses or apartments.
Many of those homes can go in redeveloping commercial areas, like White Flint or Tysons Corner. But those areas won't be able to satisfy all of the demand and, besides, some people may not want a high-rise apartment. The Great House or "mansion apartment" offers a useful alternative.
It also allows people who don't make six-figure incomes to live closer to transit or the region's job centers, meaning they're not driving on our congested roads. It opens up some of the region's most sought-after neighborhoods and the amenities they offer, like top-ranked schools. And it reduces the pressure to develop natural and agricultural land on the region's fringe.
Those things don't really matter to neighbors who spend lots of time and effort to "maintain the integrity" of their single-family neighborhoods. But seeding their neighborhood with a few Great Houses that provide housing diversity while blending in could be a compelling alternative to building traditional apartments or townhouses there instead. Of course, they aren't possible under most zoning laws, which only allow single-family homes in "single-family neighborhoods."
This housing type is also uniquely suited for large families. When my mother's family emigrated here from Guyana in the 1970s, her father (my grandfather) wanted a place that could fit his nine children, some of whom were grown and starting their own families.
Grandfather passed up a big house on 16th Street NW for this mansion apartment building in Petworth, which had four apartments, each with their own entrances and kitchens, perfect for his adult children. Today, it's still in our family, though we rent some of the units out to other people.
This type of housing is a sort of compromise between those who desperately need more housing options and those who don't want those housing options in their backyard. It's not the only solution to our housing needs, but it's definitely an important part of the toolbox.
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