Greater Greater Washington

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. 

Making room for transit can make better streets for everyone

Many proposed transit projects in our region, from streetcars to bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, involve vehicles running in the street. Giving transit a place on our busy streets can be a hard sell, especially when it means displacing cars. But a recent trip to Minneapolis shows how it can create better places for everyone, including drivers.


The new Green Line runs through the University of Minnesota. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

Minneapolis finds a compromise on the Green Line

While presenting at Rail~Volution last month in Minneapolis, I had a chance to ride the Green Line, a new light-rail between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. The 11-mile line bears a striking similarity to the proposed Purple Line here in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Like the Purple Line, the Green Line faced resistance from a Republican governor and concerns about gentrification and neighborhood disruption from nearby large immigrant communities.

But it's how the Green Line interacts with the University of Minnesota, and how community leaders came together to make it a success, that might be the biggest lesson for our area. Like the Purple Line, which would pass through the University of Maryland, the Green Line travels on Washington Avenue, the main street at the University of Minnesota.


Washington Avenue before and after. Photos from Google Street View.

The University of Minnesota, also known as the U, opposed banning cars from Washington Avenue, a busy commuter route into downtown Minneapolis, and turning it into a transit mall. Scientists in the over 80 labs along the street worried that vibrations from light rail trains would disturb their research.

Officials preferred a more circuitous route that went north of the campus, which would inconvenience fewer drivers but also reduce transit access to campus. The U sued to block the project, but after negotiating with the regional Metropolitan Council, officials eventually came to an agreement. The council would pay to reduce vibrations and electromagnetic interference, while the U would move some labs away from the line.

A busy road becomes a place

Since then, the U has worked to make the Green Line as successful as possible. It distributed over 6,700 special passes to students, faculty, and staff that allow them to ride between the three on-campus stations for free, and rerouted campus buses to divert more traffic away from Washington Avenue.


A plaza runs down the middle of Washington Avenue, with light rail and bus/bike lanes on the sides. Photo by the author.

The U's cooperation with the Metropolitan Council meant that the Green Line could transform Washington Avenue from a traffic sewer to a gathering place. Today, the street feels like a natural extension of the campus. Trains run down the middle of the street, and there are shared bus and bike lanes on either side. The sidewalks are wider, and the crosswalks have special paving materials to make them more visible.

There's also more green space than there was before. Since the Green Line stations are in the center of the street, there's a space between the tracks. It would have been easy to just make it a grassy median, or find a way to squeeze in a car lane. Instead, it's a plaza with tables, chairs, and lush landscaping.


Bikes, buses, and transit share the reconfigured Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota. Photo by the author.

A significant amount of development is happening around the Green Line as a result. Over 2,500 apartments have been built around the U's three Green Line stations, with another 2,000 in the pipeline. New shops and restaurants have opened along the tracks to cater to the influx of students.

When I visited, Washington Avenue was bustling with students walking to class, cyclists headed downtown, and light rail trains gliding down the street. It was a nice place to be, but it was still a transportation corridor. In fact, the transition was so seamless that it wasn't until I flew home and I looked at a map that I even realized cars were banned from part of the street.

Better streets make better transit

The development around the Green Line, coupled with the dramatically improved walking and bicycling environment, supports and reinforces the use of transit, making the Green Line more successful. Even before the line opened, 20% of faculty and staff and 40% of students used transit. But since the Green Line opened, it already has over 40,000 riders each day, higher than the projected ridership in 2030. The three University of Minnesota stations are the line's busiest.


Passengers wait for a train on Washington Avenue. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

And diverting drivers away from campus hasn't created the traffic congestion that some people feared. In 2011, there was an average of 18,800 cars on Washington Avenue through campus each day. According to the state's traffic counts, some of those cars have shifted over to nearby University Avenue, which had an increase over 8,000 cars since then.

But on other nearby streets, traffic increased by a very small amount, or even decreased. It's likely because some drivers chose to take the Green Line instead, opening up street space for others.

The Green Line required leaders to accept that, in order for transit to be successful on Washington Avenue, it had to be seen as a place for people, not just for cars. This is standard operating procedure in other countries, where transit usually gets top priority, but here it requires some persuasion. Hopefully, the success of projects like the Green Line can be a guide for leaders in the DC area as they try to build transit that not only moves people, but creates stronger places.

Sharrows tell drivers to share the road with cyclists, except when that road is a state highway

Sharrows are great for streets where there isn't room for a traditional bike lane. But sometimes, they're used as a way to avoid putting in a bike lane, which is bad for bicyclists and drivers alike.


New sharrows on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. Photo by Paul Meyer.

Last week, sharrows appeared on Georgia Avenue between Wayne Avenue and East-West Highway in downtown Silver Spring. It's one of eighteen state highways in Maryland where cyclists are allowed to take the full lane, and the sharrows let drivers know to look out for them.

Reader Paul Meyer tweeted this photo of the lane markings and wrote, "Sharrows on Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring?!? A start."

Sharrows are a start for Montgomery County, which has embraced bicycling without always committing to the infrastructure needed to support it, like bike lanes. The county has had Capital Bikeshare for just over a year, including in downtown Silver Spring, but due to a lack of safe places to bike, it's gotten off to a slow start.

Georgia Avenue is a big, wide street, with six lanes of traffic, turn lanes, and parking lanes. Though the signed speed limit is 30 mph, the lanes are wide, which encourages speeding. This is the kind of street that only the hardiest cyclists would ride on, and sharrows won't change that. Cyclists will continue riding on the sidewalks where they feel safer, but they're already barely wide enough to accommodate pedestrians in some areas.

Sharrows are ideal for streets that are too narrow for a bike lane. Because of the amount and speed of traffic on Georgia, cyclists need their own space. This street would be a good candidate for bike lanes with a buffer or even cycletracks, where a physical buffer would give cyclists additional separation from vehicle traffic, which benefits drivers too.

Obviously, that would require taking lanes from cars, and in the case of cycle tracks, redesigning or even removing parking spaces. County and state transportation officials have traditionally been reluctant to do that, most recently with Old Georgetown Road in White Flint. And so sharrows are sometimes used as a substitute for a bike lane where the political will to build one isn't there.


Sharrows are great for narrow, slow streets like Illinois Avenue in Petworth, but not for big, fast streets. Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

But if there's any community that should have the will to give cyclists a place on its streets, it should be downtown Silver Spring, where a majority of residents walk, bike, or take transit to work. Nearly a third of all households don't even have cars, and 40% of its public parking spaces are usually vacant.

The new sharrows on Georgia Avenue tell drivers to pay attention to cyclists. But as long as Georgia remains a big, fast street that prioritizes driving over everything else, drivers won't have many cyclists to watch for.

This dying strip mall could be the next Mosaic District

Over the past few years, retail developer Edens has transformed a gritty wholesale market and a suburban multiplex into trendy retail destinations. Their next redevelopment project, a dying strip mall in Burtonsville, might be a little more challenging.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Burtonsville Crossing, on Route 29 in eastern Montgomery County, has been hemorrhaging tenants since a highway bypass was built behind it in 2006 and is now 70% vacant.

This week, Edens, which has owned the strip mall since 2003, signed an agreement with the county to explore ways to redevelop it and a six-acre park-and-ride lot behind it.

Montgomery County seems to expect big things from the developer. Their press release states that Edens is "known locally for the popular epicurean mecca Union Market" in Northeast DC, and describes "conceptual plans" for restaurants, retail, housing, and a movie theatre, which sounds like the Mosaic District, the mixed-use development Edens is building next to the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station in Fairfax County.

Burtonsville, a mashup of farms, subdivisions, and apartment complexes next to the Patuxent River, has been economically struggling for years. Office buildings built during the 2000s still sit empty, while a new shopping center across from Burtonsville Crossing continues to have vacancies. While some neighborhoods remain relatively affluent, local schools are experiencing white and middle-class flight, and some areas now have poverty rates exceeding 20%.

County leaders see the park-and-ride lot as key to the area's resurgence. A 2012 master plan for the area identifies it as the location of a mixed-use neighborhood, with up to 600 homes alongside shops and offices.

But Giant, which used to be at Burtonsville Crossing before moving across the street, still owns their former store and is allowed to block new tenants who could compete with them, effectively blocking redevelopment. Building on the park-and-ride allows Edens to go around Giant and bring in an anchor store who could attract other businesses.


The Mosaic District. Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

While the details are still sketchy, this project could give this aging suburban community a new center, much in the same way that Edens has done for the Mosaic District. Ten years ago, Mosaic was a multiplex in a sea of parking. Today's it's becoming a walkable neighborhood, with an art-house movie theatre, a Target, and locally-owned shops and restaurants surrounding a public plaza. New townhouses there sell for upward of $700,000, while thousands of apartments are popping up nearby.

The circumstances in Burtonsville are a little different. For starters, it's a relatively spread-out, low-density community that doesn't seem to have the critical mass to support the retail that already exists.

Unlike Union Market, which is in an area with little retail, a 2007 market study found lots of retail competition for Burtonsville, like Maple Lawn, a walkable retail district three miles north in Howard County, and the new Towne Centre at Laurel lifestyle center a few miles east. Unlike Mosaic District, there's no Metro station nearby, though there are plans for a Bus Rapid Transit line between Burtonsville and Silver Spring.

But after years of bad news about Burtonsville, the county's press release suggests a hint of confidence about what could happen there. County officials will start negotiations with Edens shortly, meaning we'll probably see more details in the months to come.

Join us for happy hour in Silver Spring

With summer coming to a close, it's time to resume our regular happy hour series. Join us at Denizens Brewing Company in Silver Spring next Wednesday, September 10 from 6 to 8 pm.


Photo by Thomas Cizauskas on Flickr.

This month, we're headed to Denizens Brewing Company, the new brewery and beergarden in South Silver Spring, for drinks, food, and conversation on an outdoor patio within sight of the Red Line. You'll find Denizens at 1115 East-West Highway, one block west of Georgia Avenue.

One of the region's newest breweries, Denizens is the result of a new state law that allows microbreweries to sell to the public in Montgomery County without going through the county's Department of Liquor Control. They offer a couple of their own brews alongside a number of local favorites from breweries like Port City in Alexandria and Brewer's Art in Baltimore. BBQ Bus, the DC-based food truck, provides a selection of tasty picnic-style dishes.

Denizens is a short walk from the Silver Spring Metro station (Red Line). If you're coming by bus, it's a few blocks from the 70/79 stop at Georgia and Eastern avenues, or the S2/S4/S9 stop at Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road. There's also a Capital Bikeshare station one block away, at 1200 East-West Highway, and if you're driving, there's metered street parking and the Kennett Street Garage one block away.

In the past few months, we've met up at Metro-accessible bars Bethesda, Ward 3, and Tysons Corner. Where would you like us to go next? We're especially interested in suggestions for a future happy hour in Prince George's County.

How did Silver Spring get its boundaries? And how would you define them?

You could ask five residents what Silver Spring's boundaries are and receive five different answers, ranging from a neighborhood near the DC line to a city the size of the District of Columbia itself. But how did it end up this way to begin with? The answer involves a railroad, zip codes, and possibly Marion Barry.


Silver Spring, as the Census Bureau sees it. Image from Wikipedia.

Unlike northeastern states where every square inch of land sits inside a municipality, or western states where cities compete for territory to access natural resources or tax revenue, much of Maryland and Virginia are unincorporated. Part of the reason is that counties in these states can perform functions like zoning and schools, reducing the incentive for communities to become a town or city.

Silver Spring is one those places. As a result, most definitions of Silver Spring fall into two camps: one I call "Little Silver Spring," or areas near its historical center, or "Big Silver Spring," which comprises most of eastern Montgomery County. To find out which one is more dominant, local organization Silver Spring Inc. will have residents draw their own boundaries in an interactive event at Fenton Street Market this Saturday.

Big Silver Spring

Francis Preston Blair founded Silver Spring in 1840 when he fell off his horse and discovered a mica-flecked spring. It became one of several towns that grew up around the Metropolitan Branch railroad, which starts in DC and heads northwest. Meanwhile, the rest of eastern Montgomery County remained largely undeveloped save for a few suburban developments and small villages with names like White Oak, Colesville, and Norwood.

Silver Spring became the reference point for the larger area, and "Big Silver Spring" was born. In the 1930s, home builder R.E. Latimer boasted that his new subdivision Burnt Mills Hills was three miles "beyond the Silver Spring traffic light" at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. Ken Lubel, owner of Tires of Silver Spring and a longtime resident, notes that Silver Spring addresses once appeared as far north as Columbia.


"Big Silver Spring," or the Postal Service's definition of Silver Spring. Image by Christy Batta.

The invention of zip codes in the 1960s made Big Silver Spring official right as suburbanization took hold. The first three digits of each five-digit zip code referred to a larger region.

Naturally, Silver Spring got its own prefix, "209," and with it the rest of eastern Montgomery County. (This may have been due to then-DC mayor Marion Barry demanding that Silver Spring and Takoma Park give up the DC zip codes they were originally assigned.) New residents thus identified with Silver Spring and participated in activities there, like these students at then-new Springbrook High School marching in the 1970 Silver Spring Thanksgiving parade.

The US Postal Service assigns Silver Spring addresses to all of zip codes 20901, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 10, and parts of 20912, which is mostly in the city of Takoma Park. This definition stretches from the District line to the Patuxent River to the north, and roughly from Rock Creek Park and Georgia Avenue to the west to Prince George's County to the east, and even dipping into Prince George's in a few places. At its widest point, Big Silver Spring is about 12 miles long.

Big Silver Spring has over 306,000 residents, comprising 30% of Montgomery County's population, and covers 62.4 square miles, almost as large as the District of Columbia. If it were an incorporated city, it would be larger than St. Paul, Minnesota or Buffalo, New York. The Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce likes to use a version of Big Silver Spring.

Little Silver Spring

"Little Silver Spring" usually refers to what's now downtown Silver Spring, where Blair fell off his horse, and other areas inside the Capital Beltway. The Census Bureau generally uses this definition, claiming the area from the Beltway to the north to the District line and Takoma Park to the south, and from Rock Creek Park in the west to Prince George's County in the east.

Little Silver Spring has about 71,000 residents in just under 8 square miles. (Incidentally, this definition includes an area between Grubb Road and Rock Creek Park that has a Chevy Chase address.)


Sean Emerson's map of the "Real Silver Spring."

Proponents include the Planning Department and the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, which also counts Four Corners as part of Silver Spring. Local bloggers Silver Spring, Singular and Sean Emerson of Around the Corners argue that a narrow definition of Silver Spring protects its identity while encouraging other communities to distinguish themselves as well.

And communities in Big Silver Spring are doing just that. Citizens associations in Colesville and Glenmont erected signs to set themselves apart. Montgomery County has worked hard to brand Wheaton as a distinct place from Silver Spring.

What do boundaries mean, anyway?

However, many people still identify with their mailing address. Landlords on Craigslist are more than willing to claim Big Silver Spring. And earlier this year, a concertgoer showed up at the Fillmore with a Silver Spring sleeve tattoo. All of the familiar landmarks were there, like the Lee Building and Chompie the shark, but so was the sign for Snowdens Mill, a subdivision 6 miles away in zip code 20904.

Jarrett Walker writes about the "emotive power" and "resonance" of a place name that often transcends boundaries. Silver Spring has historically been one of the DC area's biggest cultural and activity centers, and by drawing boundaries, you're commenting on how much that destination "resonates."

In other words, Silver Spring could be whatever "feels" like Silver Spring to you. I tend to believe in Big Silver Spring, if only because I went to Blake High School, a full 10 miles from downtown Silver Spring in a place once called Norwood. But we hung out in downtown, and its diverse student body looked way more like Silver Spring than it did Olney, which was much closer.

What does your Silver Spring look like? Join me and Silver Spring Inc. and draw your boundaries this Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm at Fenton Street Market, located at Veterans' Plaza in downtown Silver Spring.

This could have been the Silver Spring Transit Center

Though it remains unfinished, the Silver Spring Transit Center has been in planning since 1997. But 20 years before that, architecture students created this proposal for a giant box stretching across downtown Silver Spring.


A 1970s proposal for the Silver Spring Transit Center. All images courtesy of Neil Greene.

Silver Spring is one of the region's largest transportation hubs, bringing together Metro, commuter rail, local buses, intercity buses, and eventually the Purple Line and the Capital Crescent Trail. Fitting all of those pieces presents a pretty interesting design challenge, and naturally attracts architecture students. When I was in architecture school at the University of Maryland, I saw more than a few thesis projects reimagining the transit center.


A section drawing of the proposed transit center, which would have also contained stores, offices, a hotel, and apartments.

Recently, Action Committee for Transit's Neil Greene found this proposal for the Silver Spring Transit Center produced by a group of architecture students at Catholic University in the 1970s, right before the Metro station opened in 1978. Like the most recent plans for the transit center, which have since fallen through, they surrounded the transit center with buildings containing apartments, offices, a hotel, and shops. Except in this proposal, they'd all be in one giant superstructure surrounding the station platform.

In their design, Metro trains would pull into a giant, skylit atrium, surrounded by shops and restaurants, with apartments, offices, and hotel rooms above. That was a really popular idea at the time, pioneered by architect John Portman, though I don't know of any atria that included a train station.


Metro trains would have passed through a giant atrium.

Directly below the platform was the B&O Railroad, the precursor to today's MARC commuter rail. Below that were buses, taxis, and a kiss-and-ride, as well as an underground parking garage for commuters.

The entire structure would have stretched over multiple blocks from Colesville Road and East-West Highway, where the NOAA buildings are today, up to Wayne Avenue, where the current transit center is. Existing streets would go through the transit center in underpasses, while skybridges would allow visitors to travel through the rest of downtown Silver Spring without touching the street.


Skybridges would have connected the transit center to the rest of downtown Silver Spring.

Of course, this was just a student proposal, and was never carried out. But Montgomery County did propose skybridges in downtown Silver Spring as early as 1969 and, by the 1970s, had drawn out an entire network of them, most of which were never built.

This was in keeping with the prevailing wisdom of the time, that cars and pedestrians should be kept separate. But as we've seen in places where this actually happened, like Rosslyn or Crystal City, this doesn't work very well, and those communities are getting rid of their skybridges.

Of course, had we actually pursued a design like this, the Silver Spring Transit Center might have actually opened by now. Repair work on the current facility is currently underway and Montgomery County officials say that it could open next year, just seven years after groundbreaking.

How do you get people excited about Bus Rapid Transit? Bring a bus to the county fair

Bus Rapid Transit has become an increasingly popular concept for communities in the DC area, but to see it in action, you'd have to travel to Cleveland or Los Angeles. This week, you can get a glimpse of our possible future at the Montgomery County fair in Gaithersburg.


Photo by betterDCregion on Flickr.

Communities for Transit, a local nonprofit that promotes Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan, set up a brand-new bus to display outside the gates of the fair, which began last Saturday and runs through this Saturday, August 16. Visitors can learn about the county's concept for an 80-mile system of bus lanes on major streets like Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, and Columbia Pike, and tour the bus, which will eventually make its way to Denver.

At a press conference yesterday, county councilmembers and County Executive Ike Leggett said they hope to ride BRT here within four years. Getting there will require more detailed studies, which are currently underway, and securing a funding source.


Fairgoers check out the bus while CFT's Scott Williamson explains how it works. Photo by the author.

While the BRT plan faced intense opposition from wealthier neighborhoods like Chevy Chase West and Woodmoor, those at the fair were more receptive, asking Communities for Transit staff and volunteers when it was going to happen. Parents searched a route map to find the closest stop to their jobs, while their kids hopped into the bus driver's seat and pretended to drive.

Most people don't participate in traditional community meetings, meaning a vocal minority can dominate the conversation. That's why there's a bus parked outside the county fair: it brings people into the conversation who otherwise wouldn't get engaged, revealing that public support is actually greater than we thought. And the display vehicle, with its big windows, cushioned seats, and overpowering new smell, may have changed any negative impressions some visitors may have had about riding the bus.

Hopefully, Montgomery County officials will encourage people to ride the Metroway BRT line that will open in Arlington and Alexandria in two weeks. It'll be the region's first chance to actually ride BRT in person, and a prime opportunity to build support and allay some residents' concerns.

Until then, you can see the Bus Rapid Transit vehicle for yourself from 12 pm to 8 pm every day this week through this Saturday at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fairgrounds, located at 16 Chestnut Street in Gaithersburg.

Wheaton Plaza owners successfully block pedestrian path, saying it would "bring crime"

All over the region, malls are opening up to their surroundings, whether by redeveloping in a more urban format or simply creating more street connections. But in Wheaton, neighbors are fighting mall owners who want to close off a popular footpath.


Mall owner Westfield doesn't want this desire path to become a sidewalk. All photos by the author unless noted.

The neighbors call it Mt. McComas. Rising above McComas Avenue, it's a giant mound of backfill from the construction of Wheaton Plaza in 1959. Today, it's a meadow where deer roam and a well-worn dirt path delivers shoppers to Costco and Dick's Sporting Goods. Commuters use it as a shortcut to the Wheaton Metro station.

A new residential development on the property was originally going to include a paved sidewalk, but mall owners Westfield successfully blocked it due to concerns that it would bring crime into Kensington Heights, the neighborhood south and west of the mall.

Neighbors disagree. "Walking is a MUCH preferable way of getting there for the new home residents and everyone nearby," wrote neighbor Karen Cordry in a letter to the Planning Board. "Cutting off this access point is a big concern for us."

Current residents and builder embrace walkability

Neighbors originally fought the proposed development, but embraced the chance to get a new path, which saves people walking to downtown Wheaton and the Metro a lot of time. It's about a half-mile walk from McComas Avenue to the Metro using the path, compared to nearly a mile using the neighborhood's twisting, disconnected streets. There are a couple of other paths between the neighborhood and the mall, but they're not as direct.

That connection would presumably be an asset to 39UP, a new development of 40 townhomes and single-family homes on Mt. McComas and another property adjacent to the mall. The original plans, approved in 2009, included a new, dead-end street branching off of McComas Avenue, with a sidewalk connecting it to the mall.


Rendering of new homes at 39UP. Image from OPaL.

Local builder OPaL, which is building 39UP, emphasizes the neighborhood's urban, walkable character. In the development's other portion, on University Boulevard facing Wheaton Plaza, townhomes will face the mall's entrance road, with sidewalks running along it.

"There is a plethora of things going on in Wheaton that are incredibly promising," wrote owner Sean Ruppert in an email. "Our home owners can expect Wheaton to continue to become a more urban core with more and more things to do every year for the foreseeable future." He expects the homes to appeal to "empty nesters, young couples, and singles…all of whom are looking for a Metro-oriented location."

Mall owners say a path would bring crime to surrounding neighborhoods

But Westfield, the Australian company that owns the mall, doesn't want a sidewalk on Mt. McComas. "Westfield…remains opposed to any condition which encourages and in fact authorizes pedestrian from the general public to cross the Kensington Heights-McComas Avenue development and then enter the mall site," wrote vice president of development Clive MacKenzie, Sr., who appears to be based in New Zealand.

MacKenzie claimed that the path "might encourage [people] to enter the neighboring communities from the mall," causing "a substantial security concern." He added that drivers in the parking lot could hit people trying to walk to the mall.


Site plan showing 39UP (in color) and originally proposed connections to Wheaton Plaza (in brown). Image from OPaL.

As a result, developer Sterling Mehring of Kensington Heights, LLC asked the Planning Board for permission to swap the path for a public access easement, which would allow a path to be built some time in the future. The board approved the change, under the condition that they would revisit the path if Wheaton Plaza were ever redeveloped. In the meantime, Mehring worried that people would still be able to use the property as a shortcut.

"I want to be involved in walk able [sic] communities, its [sic] smart growth and it is smart marketing. The market wants that," wrote Mehring to the Planning Board. "The wording would make it the right of any citizen to ignore the established access and sidewalks, and to walk to the end of the public sidewalk easement in our community, cross our community property and walk up the hill to the mall creating a new volunteer path…and the new community would not be entitled to fence or restrict access on their property."

As malls open up to the neighborhood, Wheaton Plaza turns away

Montgomery County has given Westfield $10 million in subsidies over the past decade to build a parking garage and a Costco, which have drawn more customers to a mall that was struggling. Before that, the mall's previous owner received a grant for mall improvements that required them to improve and preserve pedestrian circulation.

But Westfield hasn't given much in return. Their new parking garage at the end of Reedie Drive blocked pedestrian connections to the mall from downtown Wheaton. And neighbors have been fighting a gas station Costco wants to build, on the basis that it would further weaken walkability.

"The least (and I do mean least!) they could do is to make this connection," wrote Donna Savage, land use chair for the Kensington Heights Civic Association, in a letter to the Planning Board.


The base of Mt. McComas.

Shopping malls aren't as popular as they used to be, and as a result, many area malls are taking on a more urban character. Ballston Common is opening up to the street to attract more foot traffic. Tysons Corner Center will get a new plaza connecting it to a new Metro station. And White Flint Mall, a few miles from Wheaton Plaza, will be torn down and rebuilt as an urban neighborhood. Those mall owners understand that encouraging pedestrian traffic, rather than increasing crime, would actually draw more customers, creating more business.

Unlike Tysons or White Flint, Wheaton Plaza is already part of a walkable and growing downtown. Yet rather than improving connections that could strengthen the mall and the surrounding community, Westfield is severing them.

In White Oak, the region's east-west divide becomes an urban-suburban one

The DC area has long faced an east-west divide, with more of the wealth going to the west side. Increasingly, investment is also heading to urban areas over suburban ones. For struggling suburban areas on the east side, the only answer is to take on more urban features.


All photos by the author unless noted.

One of those places is White Oak in eastern Montgomery County, where the County Council will vote tomorrow on a plan to create a new town center. Local residents are eager to have more jobs and amenities close to home, but civic and environmental groups want to limit the amount of density in White Oak because it's several miles from a Metro station and roads are already congested.

But the kind of compact, dense development proposed for White Oak could allow residents to access jobs, shops, or other amenities by walking, biking, or simply driving a shorter distance than they would otherwise. It would generate less traffic than the alternative: more of the sprawling, car-oriented development that's currently allowed in White Oak, plus additional sprawl farther out.

Residents say it's East County's turn

East County has experienced little of the prosperity that more affluent parts of Montgomery County take for granted. One reason is the county's traffic tests, which prohibit development when roads reach a certain level of congestion until more roads are built. This standard led to a 20-year development moratorium in East County that ended in 2004.

Development simply moved to the western, more affluent side of Montgomery County or farther out to Howard County while East County roads remained congested. Today, White Oak consists largely of aging strip malls, office parks, and industrial brownfields surrounding the Food and Drug Administration's new headquarters near New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29, which will eventually hold 9,000 workers.


LifeSci Village rendering courtesy of Percontee.

The White Oak Science Gateway plan, which councilmembers will vote on tomorrow, would allow them to transform into urban, mixed-use neighborhoods with up to 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs. Much of this development would occur at LifeSci Village, a concrete recycling plant that the county and developer Percontee want to turn into a research and technology center.

Local residents say it's their turn, speaking out in favor of the plan at two public hearings. At a public forum last fall, community members called the White Oak plan their highest priority for economic development.

Traffic tests won't solve traffic

But the Science Gateway plan would still fail the traffic tests. County Executive Ike Leggett and some councilmembers have recommended excluding Route 29 from traffic counts, arguing that it's a regional highway that would be congested no matter what.


An abandoned office building in White Oak.

As a result, some civic associations and environmental groups around the county have criticized the plan, arguing that urban development shouldn't be allowed away from a Metro station. They say Montgomery County should follow its own rules and stick to the traffic tests.

But the traffic tests can't really fix congestion if their required solution is always to build more roads, which is proven to cause more traffic. And East County residents know that they haven't solved congestion, since they have to travel longer distances for work, shopping, or other things they can't find closer to home.

That's not to say that White Oak doesn't need better transportation. Councilmember George Leventhal has asked Leggett to put together a financing plan for Bus Rapid Transit within two years, so the county can figure out how to fund and build it as development moves forward.

East County's future depends on having a town center

More development doesn't have to mean more driving. Montgomery County added 100,000 residents over the past decade, but the rate of driving actually stayed the same. That's because as the county grows around Metro stations, more people can get around without a car. But even in town centers away from Metro, like what's proposed at White Oak, people would have more transportation options than they do otherwise, whether that means walking, biking, taking the bus, or even driving a shorter distance.


It's possible to create urban places away from Metro stations, like Shirlington in Arlington County.

We know that people increasingly want to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. We've seen businesses gravitate to more urban locations in the region, like Choice Hotels, which moved from an office park near White Oak to Rockville Town Center.

For decades, there's been a growing divide between the east and west sides of Montgomery County. East County increasingly lags the rest of the county when it comes to new town centers like White Flint, Crown in Gaithersburg, and even Germantown. If we're going to close the east-west gap in Montgomery County, White Oak can't stay a land of office parks forever.

"Let's use this space!" say mysterious signs around Silver Spring's unfinished transit center

While repair work continues on the Silver Spring Transit Center, the entire block around it remains roped off. On Friday morning, big signs appeared asking to turn the space into a temporary park.


Photo by the author.

Six black-and-white posters hang from the fences around the transit center on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue, reading "Move the fence? Let's use this space." They sport photos of different activities that could happen there, like outdoor movie screenings, musical performances, and festivals. In the bottom-right corner is the hashtag #DTSS, meant for people to respond on social media.

Two Silver Spring residents placed the signs early Friday morning. They asked not to be identified to keep the focus on the message, not the act itself. "The Montgomery County election has just happened; people have gotten reelected," they said. "This is an issue a lot of people ran their campaigns on, but not a lot has happened."

They added, "We wanted to do this to bring back the bigger discussion…which is: what is the future of the transit center? What are the short-term uses of the site?"

Montgomery County broke ground on the transit center in 2008, which was supposed to tie together local and regional bus routes, the Red and future Purple lines, and MARC commuter rail. Work stopped in 2011 after workers discovered serious structural defects within the $120 million complex.

After some disagreement between the county and builder Foulger-Pratt about who was responsible and how to fix the building, repairs began in June. County officials say the transit center could open next year.


The transit center in 2012. Today, the space around it is covered in grass. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Recognizing that the fence is necessary because the transit center is still an active construction site, the sign-hangers say they hope WMATA, who owns the land, would be willing to move it away from the sidewalk. "We talk about Silver Spring being this urban, vibrant place, but our biggest asset, our front door, is horrible," they said. "What is a chain-link fence for us to be presenting to the region when we're trying to attract people to live here, to work here?"

Moving the fence even 20 feet away from the sidewalk, they argue, could still keep people out of danger while creating space for aesthetic improvements or other activities. "This can significantly improve the experience of people who use the transit center," they say. "You could add some trees and planter boxes, so you could move them easily."

This isn't the first time community members have discussed the land around the transit center. Earlier this year, Councilmember Hans Riemer and former Planning Board chair Gus Bauman proposed turning it into a park.

The sign-hangers say that's not their goal. "It's a prime development site, not a future long-term open space site," they say. "But we can enjoy it while it's here, and help inform what happens here in the future."

So far, the two signs immediately outside the Metro station have been taken down, but the other signs on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue remain.

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