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. 

An entire student neighborhood bites the dust in College Park

New investment is pouring into College Park, seeking to turn this town known for undergrads and traffic into an urban hub for all ages. As part of that transformation, the famous Knox Boxes student neighborhood is transforming from the ground up.

College Park's Knox Boxes are just a memory. All photos by the author unless noted.

For decades, the Knox Boxes epitomized the University of Maryland's image as a party school. The cluster of 25 low-rise 1950s-era brick apartment buildings was just south of the campus, behind the seedy bars and pizza joints on Route 1.

The same intersection (Guilford Drive and Hartwick Road) in 2006.

For many undergrads, a Knox Box apartment was their first taste of living on their own, and the small backyards and proximity to other neighbors made for comfortable college living.

But they were also cheaply built and poorly maintained. During my freshman year at Maryland, two students died in separate Knox Box fires.

As Maryland became known more for academics than basketball riots, the university and the City of College Park started looking at ways to redevelop the Knox Boxes.

Getting multiple landlords to sell was difficult, but by 2013, a single owner had purchased most of the Knox Boxes. That year, the city approved a plan from developer Toll Brothers, usually known for suburban McMansions, to replace the Knox Boxes with Knox Village, a luxury student apartment complex for over 1,500 students.

The future Knox Village (as seen from Guilford and Hartwick). Image from WDG Architecture.

Like most of the new student housing going up in College Park, Knox Village's apartments and townhomes will have gourmet kitchens and amenities like a pool, gym, and covered parking garage. The complex will have a series of courtyards with a grand staircase (which Toll Brothers compares to the Spanish Steps in Rome...), and two spaces for shops and restaurants.

Mayor Andy Fellows called the vote a "landmark occasion." Construction began last summer, though a few of the Knox Boxes whose owners didn't sell remain.

Change in College Park goes well beyond the Knox Boxes

Knox Village is just one piece of a bigger plan to recast College Park as more of a college town, hoping to attract post-graduates or even families. The university and the city recently opened a charter school to keep more faculty in the area. In a reversal from 10 years ago, when the administration opposed the Purple Line running through campus, president Wallace Loh has been a strong supporter.

More high-end student apartments are going up on Route 1, and last week Target announced plans to open one of the nation's first Target Express stores inside one of them. The university itself has been buying up properties in downtown College Park, and they're partnering with developer U3 Advisors to buy a former bar and turn it into a branch of Milkboy, a Philadelphia music and art venue. Even Ratsie's Pizza, a longtime favorite of the drunk and hungry, will become a Nando's Peri-Peri.

Even as new development comes to College Park, bits of the old remain.

Not even six years since I graduated from Maryland, much of College Park is unrecognizable. Having lived on Knox Road as an upperclassman, I admit I'm a little nostalgic about losing the Knox Boxes. It's also worrisome that so much of the new student housing is very expensive and might make the already high cost of attending college even higher. On the other hand, thousands of new student apartments are coming in, and as the supply increases, rents are likely to fall.

When I lived there, College Park could be frustrating if you weren't into the party scene. There wasn't even a grocery store within walking distance of campus. It's exciting to see College Park develop into more of a college town. That's not only great for students and faculty, but also for neighbors who aren't even affiliated with the university.

Check out these photos of the Knox Boxes in 2006 and today.

Expand a highway to get a sidewalk? How about just build the sidewalk.

Maryland highway planners say four new interchanges on Route 29 in eastern Montgomery County will cut congestion, improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, and make it easier to build bus rapid transit. But the designs they've proposed would actually make all three of those things worse.

One of four proposed interchanges along Route 29 in Montgomery County, with north on the right side. Image from the Maryland State Highway Administration.

For decades, Maryland highway planners have been trying to turn Route 29 between New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County and I-70 in Howard County into a freeway. They recently unveiled new designs for a $128 million interchange at Route 29 and Fairland and Musgrove roads, just south of the Intercounty Connector. Today, both roads intersect Route 29, also known as Columbia Pike, at separate stoplights.

Under the state's proposal, Musgrove Road would become a dead end street on the west side of Route 29, while on-ramps and off-ramps would connect the east side of 29 to its northbound lanes. Fairland Road would go from four lanes to six and only have access to 29 going south.

If the project gets funding, construction could get underway in 2018.

Maryland has already built interchanges along Route 29 in Howard County and in Montgomery County at Cherry Hill Road, Briggs Chaney Road, and Route 198. In 2002, plans to build four more interchanges at Fairland and Musgrove roads, Stewart Lane, Tech Road, and Greencastle Road were put on hold and the focus shifted to the Intercounty Connector. In 2013, then-Governor Martin O'Malley revived the projects.

Better for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit?

Proponents of the Route 29 plan tout its benefits for people walking and riding bikes. They note that the plan includes a shared-use path along 29, new bike lanes on Fairland Road, and filled in sidewalk gaps on Musgrove Road.

Meanwhile, acting Montgomery County DOT head Al Roshdieh says building the interchanges planned for the 29 corridor are necessary for the bus rapid transit line the county wants to put in there.

But accommodating people on foot, bikes, and transit shouldn't be an excuse to build more highway interchanges that simply dump more cars on Maryland's roads. In fact, dumping more cars on the roads will only make traffic worse in the long term.

More roads mean more car traffic

The amount of driving on all of Montgomery County's state highways has remained steady for over 10 years even as the population has grown by 100,000 people. But even though Route 29 is one of those highways, its traffic has increased 10% since 2006.

A family tries to cross Route 29 in White Oak. Photo by the author.

Part of that is because of new development further north in Howard County, whose residents drive on 29 to jobs in Montgomery and DC. But it's also because of the three other interchanges that Route 29 gained over the last decade.

Research shows that building more roads in an effort to cut congestion is actually counterproductive. The roads eventually just fill with more cars as drivers use the new road space to drive more or longer distances than they used to.

Meanwhile, the interchange will create more congestion by taking away local connections. Today, drivers on Musgrove and Fairland can directly turn onto Route 29 to go either north or south. But with an interchange, everyone will have to go to Musgrove to go north on Route 29, or go to Fairland to head south, putting more traffic on both roads. Making Musgrove a dead-end on the west side of 29 also pushes more east-west trips onto Fairland or Cherry Hill Road.

Another interchange will simply make it easier to speed down Route 29 from points north. But there isn't any room to widen Route 29 or build more interchanges further south, meaning drivers will end up at the same existing bottlenecks in Four Corners, downtown Silver Spring, and in the District. Speeding people through the area also undermines Montgomery County's efforts to create town centers in White Oak and Burtonsville.

What should we do instead?

The bottom line is that if you want to reduce congestion on Route 29, you've got to get people out of their cars and on to something else. The current plan doesn't do that. So what's the alternative?

In Montgomery County's annual transportation priorities letter to state officials, county councilmembers ranked a bus rapid transit line on Route 29 as a higher priority than the interchanges on Route 29. This is a reversal from previous years.

County planners estimate that a BRT line on 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville would cost just $351 million, compared to $472 million for the four new interchanges proposed on Route 29.

BRT can be cheaper and way less disruptive than more interchanges. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Not only is transit cheaper than turning Route 29 into a highway, it is easier to build and ultimately more effective. We can fit bus lanes in the median of Route 29 north of New Hampshire Avenue without building any more interchanges or widening cross streets.

Transit gives drivers an alternative, meaning that car traffic along the corridor may grow much more slowly than it would otherwise. It allows both existing downtowns like Silver Spring and future town centers like White Oak to grow without putting as much pressure on already congested areas.

We don't need interchanges to make it safer for pedestrians or bicyclists either. Filling in sidewalk and bike lane gaps, creating more crosswalks at stoplights, and reducing the speed limit along Route 29 can improve safety without spending nearly as much money.

Route 29 doesn't need to become a freeway

Maryland completed its environmental study for Route 29 in 1995. Since then, the communities along Route 29, and Montgomery County as a whole, have changed.

County residents and companies alike want transit and walkable neighborhoods. Route 29 is now one of the region's busiest bus corridors. Meanwhile, East County neighborhoods are grappling with disinvestment as growth moves out to Howard County.

Turning Route 29 into a freeway might have made sense 20 years ago, but now it's time to reconsider. There are better, cheaper, less disruptive ways to get people where they're going.

Build the Purple Line, but make people wait longer for trains? Maryland officials might do that

Maryland's new transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, is looking at ways to build the Purple Line more cheaply. While changing the route or swapping out light rail for buses aren't on the table, Rahn says that less frequent service is one possibility.

Rendering from the Maryland Transit Administration.

Formerly the transportation secretary in Missouri and New Mexico, Rahn recently told the Washington Post he wants to take a "practical design" approach to the proposed light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. The $2.4 billion project already has federal and local funding, and Governor Larry Hogan has set aside some money in the state budget.

Hogan has asked Rahn to find ways to reduce costs. One way to do that, Rahn says, is to make the service less frequent. This might save money now, but it might make the Purple Line less effective while increasing costs in the future.

Under the current plan, the Purple Line would run every six minutes during rush hour and every 10 to 20 15 minutes during the rest of the time, from 5am to midnight on weekdays and from 7am to 3am midnight on weekends. That's comparable to Metro service today.

Running trains less frequently means buying fewer trains and hiring fewer workers, which can save on operating costs. But it also makes the service less reliable if riders have wait longer for a train or to transfer, and that could hurt Purple Line ridership.

It also complicates the state's public-private partnership with a company who would build and operate the Purple Line. If Maryland writes the contract for, say, 15-minute headways, then that company will design and build the line to that standard; changing the frequency would require an amendment.

Adding more frequent service later could also require buying more trains, which will be more expensive than just doing so now. And it might require the state to renegotiate its contract with the private partner, which would likely have the upper hand.

One solution could be to tie frequency to ridership benchmarks: as more people ride the Purple Line, the state could require the partner to provide more frequent service. That could help reduce costs in the beginning, while avoiding the potential for higher costs or contract renegotiation in the future.

Removing the superintendent won't fix the broken culture at Montgomery's public schools

Montgomery County school superintendent Josh Starr resigned this week. Many community members are wondering what went wrong. While Starr had a lot of supporters, his role in a MCPS culture that didn't take criticism well may have been his undoing.

Starr at the March to Close the Achievement Gap. Photo by the author.

A week ago, Bethesda Magazine reported that four of the eight school board members didn't support renewing Starr's contract. Last weekend, Starr and the Board of Education quietly met to discuss his departure February 16, four months before his contract ends.

Some elected officials, along with parents and students were confused about what he'd done wrong, pointing to increased test scores since Starr arrived in 2011. Others felt that Starr didn't have a clear direction for the school system, and wouldn't listen to people he didn't agree with. Ultimately, that may have led to his dismissal. But the frustration with Starr reflects a larger issue with how MCPS deals with a rapidly changing school system.

Starr made promises, but didn't always follow through

Despite its reputation as a high-performing school system, MCPS also struggles with the suburbanization of poverty, which has made the achievement gap among minority and low-income students more evident. Starr championed the issue, boasting of his commitment to social justice and even appearing at a student-organized March to Close the Achievement Gap last spring.

But if community members or public officials tried to question him on this or other issues, Starr could be arrogant or dismissive. When the county's Office of Legislative Oversight found that growing segregation in the schools is exacerbating the achievement gap, Starr shrugged it off, saying the school system was already working hard to fix the problem.

In practice, that didn't always seem to be the case. MCPS spends less on its low-income students than other area school systems. There's been little talk about Starr's "innovation schools" program, which pledged additional resources and supports for 10 high-poverty schools, after a big announcement two years ago. And last year, Starr threatened to remove programs that could help close the gap from the budget if the County Council didn't give MCPS more money.

A reflection of the broader system

Meanwhile, the school system has struggled with other controversies over the past year, including widespread math exam failures, improper credit card use, and a sexual abuse scandal. Starr wasn't directly responsible for any of these things, but frustration grew with his aloof nature and unclear agenda for MCPS.

"Four years went by and people were still waiting to hear what the new direction was all about, where are we going," said Nancy Navarro, a councilmember and former school board member, to the Washington Post. "That was never really articulated."

This impatience made Starr an easy scapegoat when things went wrong, as Councilmember Marc Elrich notes. Yet his behavior is really a reflection of MCPS as a whole.

MCPS gets its high-flying reputation from a handful of high-performing schools in the most affluent parts of the county, even as many schools are doing much worse. This perception is one reason why the teachers' union has such a strong influence on local politics.

As a result, people assume that all of MCPS is doing fine and are unwilling to challenge the school system. Meanwhile, officials are reluctant to admit anything's wrong. "The county's progressive image has created a fierce resistance to serious analysis of rapidly changing conditions," wrote Harvard researcher Gary Orfield in a 1994 study of segregation in MCPS, which is still relevant today.

To fix MCPS, recognize that it's broken

This culture is a big problem for MCPS, which is used to being the preferred school system for families with the means to choose where they live. Today, many of those families are moving farther out to Howard or Frederick counties, or taking a chance on the District's improving public schools. To keep MCPS competitive, the school system and its leadership have to acknowledge that it's no longer solely defined by its success, but its failures as well.

On the day he resigned, Starr retweeted a photo of a girl at White Oak Middle School, a high-poverty school in East County that I once attended in the 1990s, with the caption: "I want to be recognized for my work. I have been in the honor roll for a long time."

Like her, MCPS is used to being a well-regarded school system, and wants to be recognized. But the real test of its success is how it grapples with the great challenges facing it. Whoever replaces Starr will need to ensure that all the county's schools deserve the "honor roll" status that attaches to the more affluent ones on which the county has staked its reputation.

The neighborhood where everybody "jaywalks"

When I moved to East-West Highway in South Silver Spring last fall, I quickly noticed one thing: people cross the street without using crosswalks all the time. Even as the surrounding area becomes more urban and walkable, this street remains a relic of its industrial, car-oriented past.

Drivers stop to let a man and his dog cross East-West Highway. All photos by the author.

East-West Highway was built in the 1920s to connect Bethesda and Silver Spring and provide an alternative to Military Road in the District. (An extension to Prince George's County came later.) Industrial uses like bottling plants, commercial bakeries, and repair shops sprouted up along the road in Silver Spring. When the Blairs complex was built in the 1950s, the developers purposefully faced it away from East-West Highway because it was so unattractive.

When the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring took off about 10 years ago, those buildings gave way to apartments and condominiums. More recently, businesses including Denizens Brewing Company, Bump 'N Grind, a coffeeshop/record store, and Scion, a restaurant based in Dupont Circle, have flocked to the area.

South Silver Spring is now one of the region's youngest neighborhoods, with a large number of transit commuters. Even the owner of the Blairs is embarking on a redevelopment plan to face the street again.

Parents run across East-West Highway with their kid.

As Silver Spring redeveloped, it became more walkable. But East-West Highway never caught up.

Even though it's fairly narrow, it's still designed like a high-speed commuter route, even as more and more people are walking and bicycling in the area. In some places there are no sidewalks, and the two crosswalks between Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road are each a quarter-mile apart, at least a five-minute walk. Even when you get to a crosswalk, the signals are timed to move cars through, making pedestrians wait for up to two minutes to cross.

People line up to cross East-West Highway at one of the few stoplights.

So people choose to cross where it feels convenient, or safer. In four months of non-scientific observations, I noticed that everyone seemed to cross in a few specific places. I started crossing there as well, and realized that most drivers will stop for you. And when I drove out of my building's garage, I always waited before turning, knowing that someone might be crossing.

Where to cross East-West Highway. Stoplights are in red, popular informal crossings are in blue. Click for an interactive map.

But this isn't ideal. A century of training people not to walk in the middle of the street means that nobody, including drivers, expects this to happen. Thus, informal crossing points aren't as safe as formal, designated places to cross that pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers can all recognize. And the unpleasant experience of walking in South Silver Spring depresses foot traffic, which hurts both existing businesses and prevents new ones from opening.

Even if it wasn't built for walking, East-West Highway became a place with lots of walkers. It's time for this street to adapt. More crosswalks would be a good start, as would filling in the missing gaps of sidewalk. More stoplights, or pedestrian-only signals called HAWKs, would be even better, as would a median where people could wait while crossing.

Yes, these things might cause additional delays for drivers. But as one of those drivers, I'd rather have a slower, safer street with more places to shop and hang out. As its surroundings become more urban, East-West Highway is a highway in name only.

Where Maryland's big three transit projects stand in Hogan's budget

Maryland governor Larry Hogan's proposed budget includes funding for the state's big three transit projects: the Purple Line, Baltimore Red Line, and Corridor Cities Transitway. But none of the projects appear to be out of the woods yet.

Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

Hogan's 2016 budget includes $312.8 million for the Purple Line, "pending review and reevaluation." Baltimore's Red Line is slated to receive $106.2 million, also pending review and reevaluation.

That's the full amount that MDOT needs for both rail projects in the upcoming fiscal year. The pending review is potentially troublesome, but this budget is adequate to keep these projects alive through at least the next step.

For the Purple Line, that will be assessing private sector bids to help with construction costs.

For the $2.4 billion Purple Line, the Maryland Transit Administration had requested between $350 and $750 million from the state, spread out over several years. The rest of the funding for the project will come from $220 million from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, a $900 million contribution from the federal government, and several hundred million dollars from the private sector.

The Red Line has an estimated cost of $2.9 billion. In addition to the proposed state money, there are also funding commitments from local governments, and $900 million from the federal government. It's not clear yet where the rest of the funding will come from.

Hogan's budget also includes $18.2 million for engineering work on the Corridor Cities Transitway bus rapid transit line in upper Montgomery County. That's less than the total of $100 million needed from the state, but it's possible that it may cover the most immediate costs.

The Corridor Cities Transitway hasn't been as much of a lightning rod as the two rail lines, so it would be more of a surprise if Hogan targeted it for cuts.

What happens next?

Hogan campaigned on a platform of reducing government spending and building roads instead of transit, so this news is a blessing for transit supporters. But the Purple and Red lines aren't done deals yet.

For the Purple Line, it's likely that Hogan is waiting to see the bids for a public-private partnership to build and run the project. Maryland wants the private partner to provide between $500 and $900 million, but if the bid is too low and the state has to provide more money than Hogan's budgeted, then the Purple Line may be in trouble. The bids are due March 12.

If Hogan does decide to pull the plug on the Purple Line (or the Red Line) before those projects get underway, the amount he's budgeted in FY 2016 would go unspent, and the MTA budget would likely be lower in future fiscal years as a result.

Hogan's actions could prompt the state legislature to allow Montgomery and Prince George's counties to tax themselves to help pay for the Purple Line. However, Montgomery County had already envisioned taxing districts as a way to pay for its proposed bus rapid transit network, and voters may be unwilling to accept a tax increase large enough to pay for two big transit projects at the same time.

The governor's budget also includes money for maintaining existing transit systems. WMATA would get $238.2 million for its capital improvements program, while the Maryland Transit Administration would receive $101 million for upgrades to Baltimore's transit system, including refurbished light rail cars, new buses, and a new bus facility.

BREAKING: Hogan gives the Purple and Baltimore Red lines a momentary reprieve

New Maryland governor Larry Hogan will include some funding for the Purple Line and Baltimore's Red Line in the state's budget, though the fate of both projects remains unclear.

Both the $2.4 billion Purple Line, a proposed light rail line between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George's County, and the $2.6 billion Red Line light rail, which would connect Woodlawn in Baltimore County and Bayview in Baltimore City, are ready to start construction this year.

The state would only have to provide a small portion of the total cost, roughly between $300 and $700 million for each line. Each project already has funding commitments from local jurisdictions and the federal government, while the Purple Line would also receive funding from a public-private partnership.

Until the formal budget release tomorrow, we won't know how much funding Hogan has set aside for either project. He could provide enough money for each project to move ahead as they are, or request additional study or cost-cutting. That could imperil the federal government's $1.8 billion commitment for both projects, which would be distributed to other projects in other states if Maryland doesn't take the money, as well as the private funding.

Hogan, a Republican who beat Democrat and former lieutenant governor Anthony Brown in an upset election last fall, vowed in his campaign to reduce government spending to close the state's budget shortfall. While he said he would not make a decision on either the Purple or Red lines before taking office, he previously expressed a preference for building roads over transit and focusing on the state's rural areas.

Also included in the governor's budget is $30 million for a new regional medical center in Prince George's County, at Largo Town Center Metro. Hogan also proposed cutting in half a formula that provides additional funding to school systems with a high cost of education, called GCEI, which would specifically affect Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

We'll provide more details as they come.

Watch the region get older as young people cluster around stuff to do

New maps from the Census Bureau show where young adults lived between 1980 and 2013. While the DC area as a whole is aging, urban neighborhoods both in the District and throughout the region are getting younger.

Darker areas have a higher concentration of young people. Map from the Census Bureau, animated by the author.

The District rebounds after decades of losing young people

The Census Bureau released the full set of maps, along with data a set of maps and data that looks at the habits of Millennials, or young adults roughly between 18 and 34. Overall, Greater Washington, which includes DC and parts of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, is getting older.

In 1980, young adults made up 32.2% of the DC area's population. By 2013, that share had fallen to 24.6%. Even though Millennials are flocking to the DC area, the population of older adults appears to be growing faster. That's probably because Baby Boomers, who make up the largest portion of the population after Millennials, are aging.

Where young adults choose to live within the region has shifted over time. The District's population of young adults fell from 34% in 1980 to 30% in 2000, before rebounding to 35% in 2013. While Millennials flock to Arlington, the share of young adults there actually fell from 38% to 36% during the same time period. Meanwhile, the percentage of young adults in the region's other jurisdictions has fallen even more.

Young people want stuff to do, whether or not it's in DC

This might prove the conventional wisdom is that Millennials are abandoning the suburbs for the city. But when you look at individual census tracts, it's clear that young adults are clustering around the region's activity centers: places with shopping, jobs, transit, and stuff to do, both inside and outside of the District.

Where young people live across the region. Map from the Census Bureau, animated by the author.

Not surprisingly, there's a huge concentration of young people in the core of DC, from Tenleytown and Columbia Heights south to Capitol Hill, and in Arlington along the Orange Line and around Crystal City and Pentagon City. And naturally, there are lots of young people around the region's universities, like Georgetown, and military bases like Bolling Air Force Base.

From there, "fingers" of youth reach out along I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road in Northern Virginia, I-270 in Montgomery County, and Route 1 in Prince George's County. These areas include both walkable downtowns like Silver Spring, as well as sprawling, car-oriented "edge cities" like Tysons Corner. What they have in common are lots of jobs and places to shop and hang out. These areas also track Metro's Silver, Orange, Red, and Green lines.

No matter where they are, activity centers have seen their young adult populations explode. Census Tract 35 in the District, which covers part of Columbia Heights, grew from 26% in 1980 to 65% in 2013. As Fairfax County seeks to make Tysons a more urban place, the percentage of young adults in one of its census tracts tripled from 17.6% in 1980 to 50.7% in 2013. Alexandria's Carlyle/Eisenhower area grew from 31% to 71% during the same time period, making it one of the region's youngest neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, suburban neighborhoods get older

As activity centers get younger, bedroom communities are getting older. Even as Millennials flock to central DC, the percentage of young adults in far northeast DC and east of the Anacostia is falling.

Meanwhile, the string of affluent communities along the Potomac River, from Upper Northwest DC to Great Falls in Virginia and Potomac in Maryland, have aged dramatically. But so have further-out suburban neighborhoods that once drew young families seeking affordable starter homes. In 1980, young adults made up over 48% of Census Tract 7014.04 in northeastern Montgomery County, which includes Burtonsville. Today, they're less than one-fourth of the population.

Jurisdictions compete for a smaller share of young adults

One of the reasons why DC and Arlington began chasing young adults, and why Montgomery and Fairfax are following suit, is because they pay more taxes than they require in services. With young people making up a smaller share of the region's population, the fight to attract them (and their tax revenue) will grow more intense.

Urban places contain a major share of the region's economic power. As long as young adults want urbanism, local jurisdictions will try to provide it.

Springfield Town Center might save enclosed malls

Shopping malls are having a rough time as consumers increasingly shop elsewhere. While it's too early to say they're done for, successful malls have to take big steps to stay current. Springfield Town Center is experimenting with ways to do just that, including unique international stores and a central court laid out like an urban plaza.

Inside the new Springfield Town Center. Photo by Ser Amantio di Nicolao.

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I visited Springfield Town Center, a few minutes from his house in Annandale. Before it reopened in October, it was Springfield Mall, a 1970's-era regional shopping center that once hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana but had fallen so far that owner Vornado felt the only solution was to tear the entire thing down and start from scratch.

This isn't the only mall in the region that's being replaced with something else. Laurel Mall is now Towne Centre at Laurel, an outdoor shopping center. Landmark Mall in Alexandria and White Flint Mall in North Bethesda will soon become mixed-use districts. And the former Landover Mall is a candidate for the FBI's new headquarters.

What sets Springfield Town Center apart is that it's still an enclosed mall. Vornado kept the three anchor stores, Macy's, JCPenney, and Target, but demolished the old mall and built a new, reconfigured one in its place. Still, the new mall feels very different than enclosed malls you've seen before.

The old Springfield Mall. Photo by Rev. Xanatos Satanicos... on Flickr.

Malls still have a place

The assumption among real estate folks is that shoppers would rather spend their money at big-box stores that offer one-stop shopping, or head to historic main streets or lifestyle centers where they can get out and walk around outside.

But the mall isn't over yet, as some hope. Real estate analysts CoStar estimate that about 80% of the nation's existing malls are still healthy, though it's not clear what "healthy" means.

Malls must adapt to survive

As going to the mall becomes a once-in-a-while occasion, the malls that are thriving are super-regional malls like Tysons Corner Center, a 15-minute drive from Springfield. While it's smaller than Tysons, Springfield Town Center's bet is that shoppers will go to the mall if it offers something you can't find anywhere else.

Vornado brought in several "fast-fashion" retailers who are both new to the DC area and generally not found in malls: Uniqlo from Japan, Spain's Suiteblanco, and Topshop and F&F, both from the UK. Inside, there are deliberate design choices that make the mall feel like a place to linger: high-quality materials, bright lighting, and a large room with tables, chairs, and a grand central staircase that calls to mind an old train station waiting room.

It seems to be working, if only because of the curiosity factor surrounding a new mall. Two weeks after the holiday shopping season, Springfield Town Center was packed. The parking lots were full and the corridors were bustling with shoppers, especially teenagers, who are turning away from shopping malls. The mall's two sit-down restaurants, Maggiano's and Yard House, both had an hour-long wait.

I'm curious to see if shoppers will choose Springfield Town Center over big-box stores and downtowns, or even bigger malls like Tysons. There are plans to eventually surround the mall with offices and apartments, similar to what's happening at Tysons Corner Center and the Mall in Columbia in Maryland. Ultimately, that might create the kind of environment, and support the diversity of retail, that will draw shoppers in the long run.

How can we reach out to more communities and people around the region?

Greater Greater Washington is a blog about places, but what makes it great are its people. I'm proud of the community of contributors we've built over the past seven years, but there are still many places and people we haven't reached yet. We need your help to do that.

Photo by Tom Raftery on Flickr.

Over 30 active contributors have become a part of Greater Greater Washington because they care about creating better communities. With their help, and with your contributions, we've become a regional resource for planning and transportation coverage.

Meanwhile, there are still many parts of the region we don't talk about very much, from East of the River to Fairfax County. Those communities' voices are an important part of the conversation we're having. Over the next year, we'd like to find new ways to incorporate them, whether through a speaker series, recruiting new contributors, or simply spending more time writing about those areas.

With your help, we were able to hire Jonathan Neeley as our new associate editor earlier this year. He hasn't been here for very long, but he's already become an invaluable part of our team. We'd love to keep him on board and make him full-time, giving us the capacity to reach out to new communities and recruit and train new contributors.

But we can't do it alone. With your support, we can preserve the high quality of GGW's writing and coverage, while bringing it to new parts of our region.

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