Posts from February 2012
Last weekend, Piratz Tavern, a pirate-themed bar in downtown Silver Spring, received a makeover from the TV show Bar Rescue and re-opened as a more conventional hangout dubbed Corporate Bar & Grill. While host Jon Taffer and many customers say it failed because of bad food and poor service, there are other factors that sunk this ship.
For starters, Montgomery County makes it hard to open a bar. Every place that serves alcohol in the county has to buy it from the Department of Liquor Control, whose markups and bureaucratic delays result in higher prices for booze than in surrounding areas.
The county also requires that food make up half of all sales at establishments selling alcohol. And until a few years ago, there was a limit on how many liquor licenses a single owner could hold.
These restrictions make it difficult and expensive to run a bar, which encourages owners to locate in areas where there's already a bar scene with a guaranteed customer base. Hence, there are lots of bars in Bethesda and relatively few elsewhere. Yelp counts 25 bars in downtown Bethesda and just 9 bars in downtown Silver Spring, including Babe's Sports Bar, which closed earlier this month. And both pale in comparison to Clarendon, which with 44 bars has the highest number of any neighborhood outside the District.
This hurts bars in other parts of Montgomery County, who lose customers just by not being where all of the other bars are. It's especially hard for bars like Piratz Tavern. Though I've enjoyed myself thoroughly each time I went there, I can safely assume that not everyone wants to go to a bar and drink grog and sing sea shanties.
Piratz was a niche business, like a Korean restaurant or a record store, reliant on a small portion of the general public for their customer base. Niche businesses need a lot of people coming to the area to ensure that enough of them want what you're selling. That requires a high population density, like in the Akibahara "geek ghetto" in Tokyo, or a concentration of businesses serving a niche population, like Annandale, whose 900 businesses catering to Koreans make it a destination for Greater Washington's Korean community.
When you have a lot of people coming to your area, niche businesses can thrive. But in Silver Spring, where the bar scene and thus the pool of potential customers is very small, anything too unusual will get squeezed out.
Successful nightlife districts offer visitors lots of choices for dinner, drinks, and entertainment options. That's why Joe Englert purposely opened several unique venues at once along H Street NE in the District. He provided lots of reasons for lots of different kinds of people to come there, drumming up a substantial bar scene in a short period of time and helping to revitalize the neighborhood, which in turn produced more bars and restaurants.
Silver Spring could do the same if Montgomery County made it easier to open a bar here. Making the area a bigger nightlife destination could draw business to existing bars while encouraging new bars to open. It could also provide enough customers for niche bars like Piratz Tavern. Not only that, but it could also make the area safer, getting people on the streets at night when the sidewalks are normally empty.
Piratz Tavern didn't just fail because it was a pirate-themed bar. It failed because there aren't enough bars, pirate-themed or otherwise, to create a critical mass of bargoers in Silver Spring. Unless things change, the new Corporate Bar & Grill will struggle as well.
The DC Council was supposed to codify the new Advisory Neighborhood Commission and Single Member District boundaries right after the first of the year. We are days away from March, and the council has not adopted these changes. Meanwhile, the boundaries continue shifting based on discussions behind closed doors.
In Ward 5, for example, 3 blocks have shifted from one SMD to another, and the only apparent reason is that it keeps a local political family together.
That change tossed one block out of SMDs with its own neighborhood and forced it into an SMD with a separate neighborhood across a major road.
We discussed the redistricting process in Ward 5 at length in a series of posts at the end of 2011.
At the end of a public hearing on November 29, 2011, at the end of that hearing, Councilmember Jack Evans, co-chair of the council's subcommittee on redistricting, stated that he and his co-chairs, Michael Brown and Phil Mendelson, "will now sit down, take stock of where we are, and then move forward in anticipation of finishing this all up in a timely fashion by the end of the year."
Michael Brown added that the record would remain open until December 9, 2011, to allow for further comments from the public. They would mark up a bill (PDF) codifying the boundaries during the week of December 12, take a first vote on December 20, and the second and final vote "sometime in January."
Brown noted that ward boundaries had to be set by the end of the year, but the ANC and SMD boundaries did not have to be finalized until "the first part of the year."
But January has come and gone with no action. Months have passed, and these boundaries continue to change.
Ward 5 boundaries keep shifting
For Ward 5, we proposed a rational map in lieu of the flawed map from the office of former councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. Shortly after the November hearing, our map was, for the most part, adopted.
In early February, the Office of Planning posted updated maps on a Google page which lists version numbers for each posted document. Strangely, instead of listing a new version number for the maps of wards 3, 5, and 6, the page still labels each one v.1, even though the time stamp is February 9 for these 3 wards, and December 16 for the others.
The earlier versions of these maps are no longer available to the public, though a copy of the Ward 5 map from December 16 is still available via this Greater Greater Washington post.
The maps above shows the changes to Ward 5 boundaries in red. 3 blocks in the Carver-Langston and Trinidad neighborhoods, as well as one in Brentwood, have been shifted into different SMDs. One of these shifts appears to have been made to ensure that a local political family remains in one SMD.
Kathy Henderson, currently a candidate for the Ward 5 council seat and a former ANC commissioner, lives on the south side of L Street NE, while her daughter, India Henderson, lives across the street and is the current commissioner. The SMD boundary proposed on December 16 would have put them in separate SMDs, but the line has been shifted one block north to Lang Place NE. This necessitated shifting 2 other nearby blocks to keep the size of any Carver-Langston SMDs from falling below 1900 residents.
What is curious is that India Henderson lists her residence with the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions at 1807 L Street NE, Kathy Henderson's house, while she is registered to vote at 1812 L Street NE, a house India Henderson herself owns.
Which SMDs the Hendersons are or are not located in is of little concern to me personally, but this move also took a block of Trinidad out of one of the 3 SMDs for the neighborhood. The homes on the east side of the 1200 block of 16th Street NE are now separated from the rest of a compact, cohesive neighborhood, instead to be represented along with a different neighborhood on the other side of a major arterial road, Bladensburg Road.
It would be interesting to hear from the councilmembers on the redistricting subcommittee both why they haven't moved the bill for so long and why they deemed these changes necessary. Is it over something as silly as placating a local politico, or is there a solid, defensible reason for undoing prior work to make logical sense of the boundaries at the neighborhood level? Why has this process festered for so long without reaching its ultimate conclusion, and how much longer will we wait?
It'd be very expensive to keep the Capital Crescent Trail and the Purple Line in the same tunnel in Bethesda. The Maryland Transit Administration analyzed some options, but there is no silver bullet. The Montgomery County Council will have to make a tough choice between spending a lot of money or taking the trail out of the tunnel.
The Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) runs in a former railroad tunnel under 2 buildings and Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda. Plans call for building the Purple Line in this tunnel, with a station under the Apex Building and elevators connecting to the Metro.
Officials have long promised to keep the CCT in the tunnel with the Purple Line, but the cost turned out to be much higher than expected.
The MTA looked at a number of alternative approaches:
The original plan: This design, the "locally preferred alternative," calls for lowering the floor of the tunnel to make room for an elevated CCT above the Purple Line. The Purple Line station would sit under the Apex Building, adjacent to the planned elevator connection to the Red Line.
Don't keep the trail in the tunnel: Another option would be to create a new trail alignment through Elm Street Park and along Bethesda Avenue. The tunnel would not have to be lowered, and the Purple Line would run alone in the tunnel. The station would be located in the same spot as in the original plan.
Don't put the Purple Line in the tunnel: The Purple Line could terminate east of the eastern end of the tunnel, letting the trail to remain in the tunnel. Passengers transferring to the Red Line would have to walk approximately ¼ mile to get to the new southern entrance to the Bethesda Metro.
Tear down and rebuild the Air Rights Building: Tearing down the Air Rights Building, above the tunnel, would make it possible to create a wider tunnel and fit the trail and train station side-by-side. It would require a slightly longer walk for transferring passengers than the original plan. It would also cost a lot of money to purchase and demolish the Air Rights Building on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue.
Have a narrower Purple Line through the tunnel: Several alternatives looked at using single track or gauntlet track in the tunnel. Station locations included placement in the original location or farther west in the Woodmont Plaza.
The County Council's Transportation and Environment Committee will discuss this issue on March 1.
The findings are disappointing to those of us hoped to escape making a very hard decision. All of the new alternatives for keeping the trail in the tunnel would either seriously degrade the level of service and operational capabilities of the Purple Line, or have an unreasonable cost.
The MTA draft report could do a bit more to persuade everyone by giving more details about why they rejected some alternatives. For example, the report says that operational models showed that the reduced transitway width alternatives didn't work, especially since the Bethesda station will be the end of the line.
But the report gives no information on the method and assumptions behind the simulations. It would be easier to accept the conclusions if they made those available for review. In any case, the MTA is likely right about this. I can find no examples of successful single-track operations for a terminal station with a short headway.
As much as I wish it were otherwise, we are back to the hard choice: either spend a now-estimated $50.9 million and take considerable construction risk to keep the trail in the tunnel in an overhead structure, or develop the alternative surface route across Wisconsin Avenue.
The right choice is to develop the surface route to the fullest extent possible. $50.9 million is simply too much money to spend to avoid one at-grade crossing for the trail. That cost will double the total cost of rebuilding the CCT, putting the whole trail project at much higher risk of being abandoned in these very difficult budget times.
Also, the elevated trail will involve a narrow switchback to climb above the tracks, and then run in a cage above the tracks. This will not be attractive to most trail riders, and certainly not inviting enough to justify spending $50.9 million.
There is also too much risk that digging under the APEX building will destabilize the entire building. The Silver Spring transit center turned into a fiasco because engineers underestimated the risk of a construction method. Nobody wants another mess like that along the future CCT in Bethesda.
Most likely, the council will decide against taking on the cost and risk that comes with keeping the CCT in the Bethesda tunnel. The political blowback from this decision will be intense; some of that has already started in the comments to the Washington Post's story about this report.
"Save the Trail" advocate Pam Browning and others are advocating for a third option: kill the Purple Line. But they have the tunnel vision that comes with thinking that CCT means "Chevy Chase's Trail." They care little about whether the CCT is ever completed into downtown Silver Spring, and would have us obsess about one trail crossing at Wisconsin Avenue while overlooking the many other at-grade crossings east of Bethesda that will be eliminated as a part of the Purple Line project.
A version of this article originally ran at Silver Spring Trails.
DC's 5¢ bag fee is now 2 years old, and it has unquestionably achieved its goals. Shoppers have overwhelmingly switched to using reusable bags to carry their purchases, and fewer plastic bags are polluting the Anacostia River. But we all live downstream of somewhere, and bags and other trash continue to come in from Maryland and tarnish DC's waters.
Montgomery County enacted its own bag fee last year, and Prince George's County wants to follow suit but needs state permission. Many in both counties recognize that disposable bags are outdated and need to be phased out to help our communities combat litter.
However, trash doesn't know political boundaries. It is now time for Maryland to step up and pass a statewide bag fee. The General Assembly has considered the proposal twice before without success, but many good bills take a few tries before they pass.
While the political climate remains challenging, the tide is turning. Chestertown, on the Eastern Shore, banned plastic bags outright. Howard County and Baltimore City have also expressed interest in a bag fee.
As these ordinances vary from county to county, stores with multiple locations will have more difficulty complying with all the laws, and consumers will need to remember which jurisdiction they are shopping in. A consistent statewide approach will do the most to reduce litter and be better for both retailers and shoppers.
The Community Cleanup and Greening Act, sponsored this year by Senator Brian Frosh (District 16-Montgomery County) and Delegate Mary Washington (District 43-Baltimore City), will copy the Montgomery County law and enact a 5¢ fee on plastic and paper checkout bags at all stores throughout the state.
Retailers will keep 1¢ of the fee. The Department of Human Resources will use fee funds to purchase and distribute free reusable bags to all low-income residents via community service centers and faith and social service institutions. The state will split the remaining proceeds between the counties, to pay for water quality improvement projects, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which will give out grants to restore the environment.
Baltimore, in particular, will benefit from a serious approach to litter reduction. As with the Anacostia River, the EPA has declared the Baltimore Harbor "impaired" by trash under the Clean Water Act, and the city faces steep fines for violations. The city currently spends upwards of $10 million every year to clean up litter; taxpayers are already paying a lot, and that burden will only continue to increase.
"Litter brings down the quality of life for residents," said Halle Van der Gaag, Executive Director of Blue Water Baltimore. "It is not only visually ugly but contaminates our waterways. Preventing it in the first place is more sustainable in the long-term."
The Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee is holding a public hearing on SB511 on Tuesday at 1 pm; the House's Economic Matters Committee will hear HB1247 on Wednesday, March 14.
To show your support for the measure, send an email or find your representatives' phone numbers through the Surfrider Foundation. You can also participate in a Lobby Night next Monday, March 5, to go to Annapolis and meet with your legislators in person. RSVP by visiting www.mdlobbynight.com.
For more information about bag fees and the campaign supporting this legislation, visit the Trash Free Maryland Alliance.
Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.
Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of Washington? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!
Charter schools and traditional schools should have to give the same preference in admissions to neighborhood children. This would level the playing field between the types of schools. At the same time, charters need better access to facilities, also to level the playing field.
Charter schools don't have to give priority to children who live nearby, while neighborhood schools do. But neighborhood schools have the massive resources of DCPS to help them find and outfit good facilities, while charters do not.
A major argument for charter schools is that they provide an opportunity to innovate. Schools can try and innovative curriculum or teaching method, and see if it teaches kids better than traditional methods. Then, DCPS can replicate successful innovations systemwide.
But the only way we can really know if charters better educate their children is if they operate on a level playing field, without major tilts toward or away from them.
Neighborhood preference would strengthen all schools
Some DC officials have suggested requiring charter schools to give the same preference in admissions to neighborhood children as traditional schools do. Currently, neighborhood schools must accept all students living in their boundary, and fill remaining seats with an out-of-boundary lottery. By contrast, all charter school seats are filled through a city-wide lottery, with no priority given to neighborhood children.
Earlier this week, fellow contributor Steven Glazerman, a deeply knowledgeable education researcher, criticized the proposal, saying that the policy would interfere with schools' educational mission for non-education reasons. But there are several educational objectives that this proposal could advance.
Charter school critics often question whether the apparent success of top charter schools just comes from selection bias, the idea that only more dedicated students and families apply to charter schools. Glazerman partly validated this skepticism by saying that "charters need families who are committed to the program, rather than just attending for the short commute."
Traditional schools don't have the luxury of distinguishing between students who are committed to their program and students who are attending for the short commute. Until charters are unable to make these kinds of distinctions, their educational outcomes won't be taken as seriously.
Charter schools aren't alone in preferring students from a city-wide lottery. According to a high level education administrator who served in the Fenty administration, many big-city school systems find that principals try to fill their buildings with out-of-boundary students.
Out-of-boundary students who are admitted through a city-wide lottery, the administrator explained, are more likely to be committed to their program, and less likely to get into trouble around the building because the building is outside of their neighborhood. The kids and their parents are more likely to be grateful for the opportunity to attend the school and less likely to complain about minor issues.
If charters had to give priority in admissions to students from their neighborhood, they would have to face many of the same educational challenges that traditional schools have dealt with for years.
It's important to level this playing field to better bring charter innovations to a real cross-section of the population, and to ensure that we judge their success or failure evenly against neighborhood schools.
Why not bring charter innovation to bear on the most challenging populations? If charters were competing with traditional schools to produce better outcomes for children who are "just attending for the short commute," it's possible they would discover valuable innovations through their entrepreneurial approach.
Until charters do face the same challenges as traditional schools, traditional schools are unlikely to study and adopt successful charter innovations. For example, many top charter schools have found success with an extended school day. But DCPS appears to be doing little if anything to study extended school days or any other charter innovation.
It's safer for kids to get to nearby schools
Furthermore, charters should give priority to neighborhood children in order to help children get to school safely. Lots of kids die or are injured as a result of car commuting to school.
Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of kids. 30 children under the age of 16 died in car crashes from 2000-2009 in DC (though not specifically while commuting to school).
And increasing driving to school also increases fatalities of kids who walk to school. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 50% of children hit near schools are hit by parents of other students driving the cars.
Level the playing field on facilities
Glazerman makes the excellent point in a comment to his post that charters don't face a level playing field with traditional schools when it comes to facilities.
Charters often have to move multiple times in their first years. Once charters do become successful, requiring neighborhood preference could have some perverse consequences, as Glazerman explains.
If neighborhood preferences are passed, charters find themselves locked into an even tighter real estate market or must risk the downward spiral of a move and starting over with a new student population. Or they will be more constrained about where they initially locate. Or they will simply bid up the surrounding property values and become elite schools, attended by those who can afford to buy into the neighborhood.Glazerman is right, but the solution to one problem isn't to not solve another problem. That's why the DC Council should step in and level the playing field between charter and traditional schools' facilities.
The DC Council could require that school buildings vacant for 3 years be transferred to the Public Charter School Board to rent at below market rates to charters. When the government stops uses other buildings, it could give priority to charters, just as federal excessed properties get first priority to serve as homeless shelters. There are many ways to improve charters' access to facilities.
The bottom line is that the playing field is tilted against traditional schools by the charter citywide lottery and against charters by DCPS' management of its empty schools. The DC Council should level the playing field in both areas at the same time.
Neighborhood preference for charters is an idea whose time has come, and that can garner broad support from charter school skeptics, from parents in neighborhoods with successful charters and from urbanists advocating safe routes to school.
Montgomery officials say there isn't enough money in the capital budget to pay for both a new Bethesda Metro entrance and redeveloping Wheaton. But there is plenty of money, if only the county deferred some of the new and wasteful highways that will only worsen sprawl and shift the county's growth away from the places that can best accommodate it.
Wheaton residents are eager for a redevelopment project which will bring new offices, residences, a hotel and a town square to the area around the Metro station. Meanwhile, to prepare for the Purple Line (and ease crowding today), the county needs to add a second entrance to the Bethesda Metro.
County Executive Ike Leggett's budget eliminated funding for the Bethesda entrance, and general services director David Dise told the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee that the county could probably not fund both the $40 million Wheaton plan and the $80 million Bethesda Metro south entrance.
Actually, it can, easily. And it can afford $12 million for the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which Leggett also cut from the current capital budget. All the county has to do is defer some of the $359 million in new highways in the 6-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP). That $359 million is all for new capacity, over and above the necessary cost of maintaining the county's existing roads and bridges.
The projects include widening Goshen Road, which costs $129 million, but the justification in the CIP suggests it's not needed until 2025. Building Montrose Parkway East, for $56 million, will further despoil Rock Creek Park, while the completed western portion has already created a "Berlin Wall" that will hamper a future walkable, mixed-use neighborhood growing north of White Flint.
Widening Snouffer School Road and Snouffer School Road North, 2 projects costing $45 million, would meet "demands of existing and future land uses" in an area which "is experiencing growth with plans for future residential and commercial development."
Why does the County Executive claim that it doesn't have enough money for the Bethesda Metro, a necessary step for the Purple Line in the part of the county that generates the most tax revenue, and Wheaton, a prime spot for new mixed-use growth and an already-thriving community right on top of another Metro station, but can spend money on new roads in car-dependent areas which may grow in the future?
These new road projects would increase traffic congestion through induced demand, offer no economic development, and destroy irreplaceable Chesapeake Bay watersheds. Montgomery County has already agreed, through long public debates, to make the Purple Line, the Metropolitan Branch Trail, and growth in Wheaton top priorities. But Leggett's budget does not reflect this.
This is an unfortunate pattern with this County Executive. The Leggett administration consistently cries poverty when it comes to smart growth-oriented projects like these, or making Rockville Pike a boulevard in White Flint. However, it seems that no sprawl-oriented road project is too expensive to fund.
Whether it's putting up roadblocks to BRT, pushing harmful skybridges and underpasses, or a bizarre focus on resurrecting bad "zombie road" proposals from the 1960s, the County Executive's decisions do not embody Montgomery County's and Maryland's stated smart growth policies.
Fortunately, it appears the County Council does not share the County Executive's misplaced priorities. A council committee has since voted to restore funding for the Bethesda Metro entrance, and the full council will consider it soon. The council should also restore funding for the Metropolitan Branch Trail.
Despite claims to the contrary, these worthy projects need not compete with each other. The council can simply choose the least valuable of the plan's many expensive road projects and use the money to ensure Wheaton, Metro riders at Bethesda, the future Purple Line, and a valuable bicycle connection from Silver Spring to DC get the attention they deserve. Our county, state and region cannot afford more delay.
- Cyclists are special and do have their own rules
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- M Street cycle track keeps improving, draws church anger
- Metro policy for refunds after delays falls short, riders say
- Long-term closures: A solution to single-tracking?
- O'Malley announces first projects using new gas tax money
- ICC losing bus service in classic bait and switch