Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Dan Reed

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed 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. 

Roads


Montgomery's most congested intersections aren't in its downtowns

Where do you think the most congested intersections are in Montgomery County? Maybe right by the Bethesda Metro? In downtown Silver Spring? University, Georgia, and Veirs Mill in Wheaton? Actually, no. A review of Montgomery County's 50 most congested intersections found only one inside one of the county's urban centers.


There are busy intersections in the more car-oriented neighborhoods around downtown Silver Spring, but not in the core. Map by the author.

County planners ranked the 50 busiest junctions for the Mobility Assessment Report, a regular review of Montgomery's transportation needs. Notably, the report found that the amount of driving in the county has stayed the same since 2002 even while 100,000 new people came in.

The busiest intersection is Rockville Pike at West Cedar Lane in Bethesda, next to NIH and Walter Reed, which had a critical lane volume of 1,957 cars during morning rush hour. In other words, that means that nearly 2,000 cars pass through a single lane of that intersection each morning. In second place is Rockville Pike and Nicholson Lane in White Flint, which is slowly evolving into a new downtown.

Other than that, the top 50 didn't contain a single intersection in the downtowns of Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Wheaton, in Friendship Heights, or Rockville Town Center. For decades, Montgomery County has had a policy of directing growth to walkable, urban neighborhoods near transit stations with an aim of reducing car traffic.

RankIntersectionCommunityAM CLVPM CLV
1Rockville Pike at West Cedar Ln.Bethesda1,9571,612
2Rockville Pike at Nicholson Ln.White Flint1,2341,929
3Old Georgetown Rd. at Democracy Blvd.North Bethesda1,4231,923
4Darnestown Rd. at Riffle Ford Rd.North Potomac1,0611,898
5Shady Grove Rd. at Choke Cherry Ln.Rockville1,3631,853
6Connecticut Ave. at East-West Hwy.Chevy Chase1,6841,848
7Georgia Ave. at 16th St.Silver Spring1,1221,816
8Great Seneca Highway at Muddy Branch Rd.Gaithersburg1,4641,800
9Frederick Rd. at Montgomery Village Ave.Gaithersburg1,5361,795
10Rockville Pike at 1st St./Wootton Pkwy.Rockville1,7681,610
11East Gude Dr. at Crabbs Branch Rd.Derwood1,7421,211
12Veirs Mill Rd. at Twinbrook Pkwy.Rockville1,4261,721
131st St. at Baltimore Rd.Rockville1,4221,718
14Connecticut Ave. at Plyers Mill Rd.Kensington1,3491,710
15Shady Grove Rd. at Epsilon Dr./Tupelo Dr.Derwood1,7041,403
16University Blvd. at Piney Branch Rd.Silver Spring1,5791,703
17East Gude Dr. at Southlawn Ln.Rockville1,6921,450
18Randolph Rd. at Veirs Mill Rd.Wheaton1,6831,679
19Piney Branch Rd. at Philadelphia Ave.Takoma Park1,2281,680
20Columbia Pike at Fairland Rd.Fairland1,4161,678
21Connecticut Ave. at Jones Bridge Rd.Chevy Chase1,4901,672
22Montrose Rd. at Tower Oaks Blvd.Rockville1,6631,232
23Bradley Blvd. at Wilson Ln.Bethesda1,6601,603
24Falls Rd. at Maryland Ave./Potomac Valley Rd.Rockville1,3841,658
25Georgia Ave. at Norbeck Rd.Aspen Hill1,6561,592
26Frederick Rd. at Shady Grove Rd.Shady Grove1,6471,486
27Colesville Rd. at Dale Dr.Silver Spring1,6041,645
28Shady Grove Rd. at Midcounty Hwy.Derwood1,6441,323
29Clopper Rd. at Waring Station Rd.Germantown1,6361,589
30Montgomery Village Ave. at Stedwick Ln.Montgomery Village1,6331,170
31Connecticut Ave. at Bradley Ln.Chevy Chase1,4151,628
32Georgia Ave. at Forest Glen Rd.Silver Spring1,3181,626
33Colesville Rd. at Sligo Creek Pkwy.Silver Spring1,5081,624
34Georgia Ave. at Columbia Blvd./Seminary Ln.Silver Spring1,5201,624
35Veirs Mill Rd. at 1st St.Rockville1,6101,475
36Aspen Hill Rd. at Arctic Ave.Aspen Hill1,6091,467
37Norbeck Rd. at Muncaster Mill Rd.Aspen Hill1,6091,238
38Columbia Pike at Greencastle Rd.Fairland1,6071,575
39Old Georgetown Rd. at Tuckerman Ln.North Bethesda1,6041,261
40Great Seneca Highway at Quince Orchard Rd.Gaithersburg1,6021,547
41Randolph Rd. at Parklawn Dr.North Bethesda1,6011,165
42Democracy Blvd. at Falls Rd./South Glen Rd.Potomac1,5941,167
43River Rd. at Holton-Arms SchoolBethesda1,5911,358
44Norbeck Rd. at Bauer Dr.Aspen Hill1,5861,329
45Randolph Rd. at New Hampshire Ave.Colesville1,4401,580
46Layhill Rd. at Ednor Rd./Norwood Rd.Olney1,5791,425
47River Rd. at I-495Bethesda1,579957
48River Rd. at Willard Ln./Greenway Dr.Bethesda1,5791,530
49East-West Hwy. at Jones Mill Rd./Beach Dr.Chevy Chase1,0871,574
50Colesville Rd. at Franklin Ave.Silver Spring1,4131,571
Data from the Montgomery County Mobility Assessment Report. CLV = Critical Lane Volume. Click on a column header to sort.

As a result, while these areas do have higher-than-average rates of foot and bike traffic and high rates of transit use, they're not as congested as more suburban parts of the county. Just 16 of the top 50 intersections were inside the Beltway.

Not surprisingly, some of the busiest junctions are along major commuter routes like Rockville Pike, Connecticut Avenue, and Georgia Avenue. But many are on small, two-lane roads in suburban or rural communities like #4, Darnestown Road and Riffle Ford Road in North Potomac, or #46, Layhill Road, Ednor Road, and Norwood Road near Sandy Spring. These places are spread-out and far from transit, jobs, and other amenities, meaning residents have to drive a lot.


Layhill Road and Norwood Road. Image from Google Street View.

This report shows that if you build places on the assumption that people will drive everywhere, you'll get a lot of traffic, while if you give people options, you'll get less. Not everyone may want to live downtown, but those who choose to do so are keeping the roads clear for everyone else.

Transit


Montgomery County added 100,000 residents since 2002, but driving didn't increase

Montgomery County has 100,000 more residents than 10 years ago, but the amount of driving in the county has actually stayed the same, says a new study on how people get around. Meanwhile, more people are walking and biking inside the Beltway, and bus ridership is growing well outside it.


Montgomery County's population has grown, but the amount of driving miles hasn't.
Graph from the Planning Department.

Drivers traveled about 7.3 million miles on state roads in the county in 2012. It's a slight decrease from 2011, but about the same as in 2002, when the county had just over 900,000 residents, compared to 1.005 million residents today. It's in line with both regional and national trends, and suggests that people didn't stop driving simply because of the Great Recession.

The results come from the Mobility Assessment Report, which the Planning Department conducts every few years to identify Montgomery County's biggest transportation needs. County planners measured pedestrian, bicycle, and car traffic throughout the area, in addition to looking at transit ridership.

Silver Spring has more foot traffic, Bethesda has more cyclists

Planners counted the number of pedestrians at 171 locations and the number of cyclists at 25 locations across the county, and plan to do more detailed studies in the future. Not surprisingly, the most walkers and bikers can be found in the county's urban centers, including Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton, as well as White Flint.


9,500 people use the intersection of Georgia and Colesville each day. All photos by the author unless noted.

The county's busiest pedestrian intersection is Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring, with 9,500 pedestrians each day. (By comparison, the intersection of 7th and H streets NW in the District sees 29,764 pedestrians daily.) All of the county's busiest intersections for cyclists were in Bethesda; number 1 is Woodmont Avenue and Montgomery Lane, with 163 bikes during the morning and evening rush hours.

More bus riders in the Upcounty

Montgomery's busiest Metro stations are inside the Beltway, including Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Friendship Heights, as well as Shady Grove, a major park-and-ride station. The most-used Metrobus routes are also closer in, like the C2/C4, which serves Langley Park, Wheaton, and Twinbrook and serves over 11,000 people each day, and the J line, which serves Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Surprisingly, the county's busiest Ride On routes are now in the Upcounty: the 55, which runs along Route 355 between Rockville and Germantown, and the 59, which serves Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Montgomery Village. These routes all carry between 3,000 and 4,000 riders each day; the 55 is one of the county's most frequent bus routes, running every 10 minutes during most of the day.


A Ride On bus in Germantown.

That said, transit use in the county has fluctuated in recent years. After decreasing during the recession, daily Metrorail ridership has remained stable since 2009 and fell slightly from 28,504 riders between July 2012 and July 2013 to 27,360 during the following year. About 57,000 people rode Metrobus each day over the past year, a decrease of 6,000 from the previous year.

Most transit riders in the county take Ride On, which carried 88,370 people between July 2012 and July 2013. While it's a slight increase from the year before, it's still 7,000 fewer riders than in 2008, when the county made significant service cuts that were never restored.

More people are using the ICC, but fewer than expected

Meanwhile, more people are using the Intercounty Connector, the highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel north of the Beltway that opened in 2012 and will finish construction this year. An average of 30,000 vehicles used the toll road each weekday in 2012, while traffic rates have increased about 3% each month.

But traffic on the ICC is still much lower than state officials' estimates, raising the question if it was worth the $2.4 billion cost. It does appear to have taken cars off of parallel roads, like Route 108, Route 198, and Norbeck Road, where traffic has fallen by up to 16.9% since the highway opened.

Some roads are always busy

Planners noted several roads that have consistently high congestion, like Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, Veirs Mill Road, and Colesville Road. It's no coincidence that these are four of the corridors where both the county and the State of Maryland are studying the potential for Bus Rapid Transit.

There isn't a lot of room to widen these roads or build more interchanges, meaning we have to find new ways to add capacity. Trends suggest that Montgomery County residents are driving less and using transit more, at least when it's frequent and reliable. And as the county continues to grow, we'll have to provide more alternatives to driving if we want to offer a way out of traffic.

Transit


Three ways to build in Forest Glen without creating more traffic

As new homes, offices, and shops sprout around the region's Metro stations, Forest Glen has remained a holdout due to neighborhood resistance to new construction. But that may change as WMATA seeks someone to build there.


Metro wants to redevelop this parking lot. All photos by the author.

Last month, the agency put out a call for development proposals at Forest Glen, in addition to West Hyattsville and Largo Town Center in Prince George's County and Braddock Road in Alexandria. WMATA owns 8 acres at Forest Glen, most of which is a parking lot, and developers have already expressed interest in building there.

Forest Glen should be a prime development site. While it's on the busy Red Line, it's one of Metro's least-used stations. It's adjacent to the Capital Beltway and one stop in each direction from Silver Spring's and Wheaton's booming downtowns. Holy Cross Hospital, one of Montgomery County's largest employers with over 2,900 workers, is a few blocks away. But since Forest Glen opened in 1990, not much has happened.

On one side of the Metro station is a townhouse development that's about 10 years old, while across the street are 7 new single-family homes. The land the parking lot sits on is valuable, and it's likely that WMATA will get proposals to build apartments there because the land is so valuable. But zoning only allows single-family homes there, the result of a 1996 plan from Montgomery County that recommends preserving the area's "single-family character," due to neighbor concerns about traffic.


Townhouses next to the Forest Glen parking lot.

As a result, whoever tries to build at Forest Glen will have to get a rezoning, which neighbors will certainly fight. It's true that there's a lot of traffic in Forest Glen: the Beltway is one block away, while the adjacent intersection of Georgia Avenue and Forest Glen Road is one of Montgomery County's busiest. While traffic is always likely to be bad in Forest Glen, though by taking advantage of the Metro station, there are ways to bring more people and amenities to the area without putting more cars on the road.

Make it easier to reach Metro without a car

Today, two-thirds of the drivers who park at Forest Glen come from less than two miles away, suggesting that people don't feel safe walking or biking in the area. There's a pedestrian bridge over the Beltway that connects to the Montgomery Hills shopping area, a half-mile away, but residents have also fought for a tunnel under Georgia Avenue so they won't have to cross the 6-lane state highway.

Montgomery County transportation officials have explored building a tunnel beneath Georgia, which is estimated to cost up to $17.9 million. But county planners note that a tunnel may not be worth it because there aren't a lot of people to use it.

And crossing Georgia Avenue is only a small part of the experience of walking in the larger neighborhood. Today, the sidewalks on Forest Glen Road and Georgia Avenue are narrow and right next to the road, which is both unpleasant and unsafe. WMATA has asked developers applying to build at Forest Glen to propose ways to improve pedestrian access as well, and they may want to start with wider sidewalks with a landscaping buffer to make walking much more attractive. Investing in bike lanes would also be a good idea.

Provide things to walk to

Another way to reduce car trips is by providing daily needs within a short walk or bike ride. The Montgomery Hills shopping district, with a grocery store, pharmacy, and other useful shops, is a half-mile away from the Metro. But it may also make sense to put some small-scale retail at the station itself, like a dry cleaner, coffeeshop or convenience store, which will mainly draw people from the Metro station and areas within walking or biking distance. Some people will drive, but not as many as there would be with larger stores.

Putting shops at the Metro might also encourage workers at Holy Cross to take transit instead of driving, since they'll be able to run errands on their way to and from work. Encouraging this crowd to take transit is important, since hospitals are busy all day and all week, meaning they generate a lot of demand for transit, making it practical to run more buses and trains, which is great for everyone else.

Provide less parking

Whatever gets built at the Metro will have to include parking, not only for commuters, but for residents as well. While Montgomery County's new zoning code requires fewer parking spaces, each apartment still has to have at least one parking space. Even small shops will have to have their own parking. The more parking there is, the more likely residents are to bring cars, which of course means more traffic.

Thus, the key is to give future residents and customers incentives to not drive. The new zoning code does allow developers to "unbundle" parking spaces from apartments and sell or rent them separately. Those who choose not to bring cars will then get to pay less for housing. The code also requires carsharing spaces in new apartment buildings, so residents will still have access to a car even if they don't have their own. If Montgomery County ever decides to expand Capital Bikeshare, the developer could pay for a station here.

And the developer could offer some sort of discount or incentive for Holy Cross employees to live there, allowing hospital workers to live a short walk from their jobs.

No matter the approach, there are a lot of ways to build in Forest Glen without creating additional traffic. A creative approach can do wonders for the area's profile and elevate the quality of life for residents there.

Transit


Behold how the Purple Line corridor is changing

When built, the Purple Line could dramatically improve transit commutes in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. To explore that and other changes the line will bring, researchers created a series of maps including this one of the "commute shed" of each Purple Line station, or how far you can get on transit before and after it's built.


All images from the Purple Line Corridor Coalition.

Two weeks ago, the Purple Line Corridor Coalition organized a workshop called "Beyond the Tracks: Community Development in the Purple Line Corridor" to bring different stakeholders together and talk about ways to prepare for changes along the future light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which awaits federal funding and could open in 2020.

The coalition is a product of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, which hosted the workshop. Members of the group include nonprofit organizations, developers, and local governments in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. At the workshop, they looked at examples from cities like Minneapolis and Denver, which recently built light-rail lines.

The 16-mile corridor contains some of the region's richest and poorest communities, in addition to major job centers and Maryland's flagship state university. When it opens in 2020, the Purple Line will help create the walkable, urban places people increasingly want. However, rising property values could potentially displace small businesses and low-income households. To illustrate and explore these issues, the Center for Smart Growth produced a series of awesome maps.

Like the DC area as a whole, the Purple Line corridor is divided from west to east, with more jobs and affluence on the west side, and more low-income households on the east side. Many of the estimated 70,000 people who will ride the Purple Line each day in 2040 will come from communities in eastern Montgomery and Prince George's county to jobs in Bethesda and Silver Spring.

But today, getting between those areas can be difficult and time-consuming, whether by bus or by car. It's no surprise that many commuters along the eastern end of the Purple Line have one-way commutes over an hour.

These maps, and the map above, show the "commute shed" of three Purple Line stations, or how far you can get on transit in an hour. In all three cases, the Purple Line opens up huge swaths of Montgomery, Prince George's and DC to each community. While the Purple Line only travels through a small portion of our region, it adds another link to our existing Metro and bus network, meaning its benefits will go way beyond the neighborhoods it directly serves.

But better access comes with a price, namely rising property values. The revitalization of downtown Silver Spring has resulted in higher home prices in surrounding neighborhoods because of the increased demand to live there. But Silver Spring and Takoma Park still have substantial pockets of poverty, meaning that low-income residents may not be able to afford to stay in the area once the Purple Line opens.

There are two ways to ensure that neighborhoods near the Purple Line remain affordable for both current and future residents. One is to protect the existing supply of subsidized apartments. Many complexes near the Purple Line have price restrictions for low-income households, but they will expire before it's scheduled to open in 2020.

The other is to build more new housing near the Purple Line. New homes are usually expensive, but increasing the supply of housing to meet demand can result in lower or at least stabilized prices. We're starting to see this in downtown Silver Spring, where thousands of apartments have been built in recent years. But Montgomery officials reduced the number of new homes allowed in Chevy Chase Lake and Long Branch due to concerns about changing the character of each neighborhood.

There are a lot of great and interesting communities along the Purple Line. But many of them are dramatically different places than they were even 10 years ago. They'll be different in 10 more years, whether or not the Purple Line is built. We can't preserve these places in stone, but we should try to ensure that the people who enjoy and contribute to these places can stick around in the future.

Transit


With federal approval in hand, the pieces needed to build the Purple Line fall into place

The Federal Transit Administration has just issued a Record of Decision for the Purple Line, basically approving the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It's one of the last pieces needed to build the line, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2020.


This just got one stop closer to reality. Image from Montgomery County.

Maryland Transit Administration officials made the announcement this morning during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting about the Purple Line, which Purple Line NOW! and BethesdaNow subsequently tweeted.

The FTA will make a formal announcement next week. The agency's decision means Maryland can start purchasing right-of-way to build the $2.37 billion Purple Line, and makes it eligible for federal funding. President Obama recently included it in his 2015 budget, which Congress will have to approve later this year.

With state funding in place and an ongoing search for a private partner in the works, nearly all of the money needed has been secured. As a sign of how likely the Purple Line is to get built, the Planning Board is meeting today to make detailed recommendations about how it should interact with surrounding neighborhoods, like what materials to use for retaining walls.

Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney has a column today urging the affluent Town of Chevy Chase, which has been fighting the project for years and recently hired a congressman's brother to lobby on their behalf, to lay down their arms and use their money to make the project better instead.

"Some people have more money than good judgment," he wrote. "The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare."

Development


"Drive 'til you qualify" takes on an urban flair

There's far more demand for housing in the DC area than supply, especially in urban, walkable neighborhoods. When enough new homes aren't being built close in, the region sprawls farther out. In response, new developments on the fringes are adopting urban qualities.


All photos by the author.

In the Before & After Cafe on Apricot Street one recent Saturday, craft beer was on the menu and the sound­track included Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. Outside, light snow fell on a deck with brightly colored Adirondack chairs and an edible garden. Across the street were smart-looking rowhouses and craftsman-style houses with ample porches.

This could be a scene in a trendy inside-the-Beltway neighborhood like Brookland or Del Ray. Except the cafe's empty, the street dead-ends a few blocks away, and the blue water tower overlooking it all says "Stafford, Virginia." This is Embrey Mill, a new planned community being built 60 miles south of DC that promises "a comfortable place at the end of your commute focused on creating a simpler, better way to live."


Location of Embrey Mill. Image from Google Maps.

Like many older neighborhoods, Embrey Mill's master plan envisions a mixed-use retail district, a county recreation center, and public schools within walking distance. The homes take off of traditional styles like you'd see in older neighborhoods; the garages are all in back on alleys, leaving room in front for sidewalks, porches, and a few pocket parks and greens. The streets are arranged in a grid, making it easy to walk around.

Studies show that homebuyers increasingly prefer walkable, urban places. So developers are trying to deliver some form of it wherever they can, whether at Embrey Mill or Brambleton in Loudoun County, the Villages of Urbana in Frederick County, and even Ladysmith Village in Caroline County, 75 miles from DC and 35 miles from Richmond.

The District has grown by 80,000 in the last decade, and the bulk of the region's new residents live there or in close-in areas like Arlington and Montgomery County. But the outer suburbs are still growing quickly as well. Fredericksburg is the DC area's fastest-growing community, while Stafford itself isn't far behind.


Left: Embrey House, the neighborhood's welcome center.
Right: Inside the Before and After Cafe.

For many homebuyers, living in places like Embrey Mill seems like an affordable alternative to closer-in neighborhoods. Prices for a three-story townhouse with a two-car garage start at just $289,000, half as much as a similar home at Crown, a New Urbanist community under construction in Gaithersburg.

While some Stafford County residents work in Stafford or Fredericksburg, thousands still commute to DC or Northern Virginia job centers like Arlington, Alexandria, and Tysons Corner. And the transportation costs of living so far from work often cancel out any savings on the house itself. And there are more affordably-priced neighborhoods inside the Beltway.

A similar townhouse at Arts District Hyattsville in Prince George's County sells for about $30,000 more than the homes at Embrey Mill, is much closer to DC and even Tysons, and is already a walkable, urban place with all of the amenities Embrey Mill promises to have in the future.


Brightly-colored chairs in a park at Embrey Mill.

Despite its revival in recent years, Hyattsville still struggles with a negative reputation, low-ranked public schools and issues, real or perceived, with crime. Embrey Mill can't beat Hyattsville on convenience, but it can promise new schools and at least the image of a safer neighborhood. So families are faced with a tradeoff.

There are neighborhoods with great schools, easy access to jobs and shopping, and low crime, but they're often prohibitively expensive, and neighbors work very hard to ensure nothing gets built there. Other neighborhoods might have one or two of those things, but require a compromise for the others. And this is just if you're middle class. If you're working class, you have even fewer options.

Our region faces a serious housing crunch in the coming years. According to researchers at George Mason University, the DC area will need 548,000 new homes between 2012 and 2032, or about 27,000 new homes each year. If we can't provide people the housing choices they need, they'll go somewhere else, even beyond the region's current fringe. And that means more traffic, more pollution, more destruction of natural and agricultural land, and more disinvestment in closer-in areas.

We need to create more opportunities for affordable housing in sought-after areas that already have jobs and quality amenities. And in areas that are already affordable, we need to make sure they have the amenities people want so they can draw new residents and investment.

If we push the demand for housing all the way to Stafford County and Fredericksburg, places like Embrey Mill are certainly an improvement over the status quo, since they at least try to offer some basic needs within an easy walk. But if there were more and more diverse housing options closer in, we wouldn't necessarily need Embrey Mill, because people could find the kind of housing and neighborhoods they want closer in.

Transit


The Purple Line gets a boost from President Obama's budget

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.


Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

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.

Meta


Why Greater Greater Washington is important to me

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.


The author at GGW's 5th birthday. Photo by Aimee Custis.

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.

Architecture


Wheaton's Youth Center represented the future in 1963. Could it do that again in 2014?

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?


All photos by the author.

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.


Inside the gym of the Wheaton Youth Center where bands used to play.

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:county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov.

Events


Join us for happy hour in Old Town Alexandria with CNU DC

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.


Photo by Thomas Cizauskas on Flickr.

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.

The bar is a 15-minute walk from the King Street Metro station (Blue and Yellow lines) and a 5-minute ride to the Capital Bikeshare station at King and Patrick streets, two blocks from the bar.

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!

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