Greater Greater Washington

Montgomery struggles to compete as both suburb and city

Montgomery County stands at a crossroads. Once-pristine suburban neighborhoods are starting to look worn out and suffer from disinvestment. Meanwhile, other areas are turning into urban enclaves, but they don't provide all of the amenities that traditional city neighborhoods offer. It's no longer the perfect suburb, but it's not yet the ideal city either.


Is Howard County a better deal than Montgomery for those seeking the ultimate suburban experience?

In the past year and a half, three of my friends from high school have gotten married. Both couples (two friends married each other) represent a demo­graphic any place would kill for: twenty-­something, educated, high-earning couples, eager to find a place where they can put down roots, at least for a few years.

Both couples like going out, seeing new places, and trying new things. And though we all grew up a few miles apart, both couples are moving out of Montgomery County, which no longer provides the lifestyle they want. One is moving to Howard County, the other to Alexandria.

The first couple just married in March and are already expecting a child. She works in Baltimore; he works at Fort Meade. Currently, they're living with her parents in Calverton, but they're looking for a house in Howard County. Why? It's closer to their jobs, closer to shopping in Columbia, closer to Korean BBQ in Ellicott City.

Housing isn't necessarily cheaper. After all, Howard is the fifth-wealthiest county in the United States. But though the house in our old neighborhood might cost the same as similar house in Columbia, the schools are likely better, the massive Columbia Association maintains the common areas, and Route 32 isn't as congested as 29 or the Beltway (at least, not yet).

In short, Howard County has out-suburb'd Montgomery.

The other couple married last winter. He's a graduate student at the University of Maryland; she works for an IT company in Old Town Alexandria. For the past two years, they lived in an apartment in Hillandale. Neither of them are keen on driving, so living in the shadow of the Beltway made it hard to get around. Much as they enjoyed hanging out in downtown Silver Spring, they were attracted to the wider array of bars, restaurants and shops in Alexandria, not to mention the ability to travel exclusively by foot, bike and transit.

Last month, they moved to an apartment in Carlyle, a new neighborhood being built around the Eisenhower Avenue Metro. They can literally see the trains from their window. A block away is a complex of shops, restaurants and a movie theater. One stop on the Yellow Line takes them to a really good Thai place on King Street, and one more stop brings them to their favorite taqueria in Del Ray.


Alexandria's Carlyle neighborhood provides a stronger urban experience than anywhere in Montgomery County currently offers. Photo by faceless b on Flickr.

In this case, Alexandria has out-city'd Montgomery. You'd expect this, because Alexandria's been a center of commerce for 262 years. But would you expect Montgomery to lose its much-treasured status as the "perfect suburbia" to Howard County?

Though my friends' decisions on where to live was also influenced by proximity to work, a major consideration for anyone, the kinds of places they chose to live in say a lot about Montgomery County's ability to compete for new and current residents.

Montgomery's older suburban neighborhoods are losing out to newer communities on the fringe, which have more money to invest in schools and infrastructure and less to spend on maintenance and social issues. Meanwhile, urban centers like downtown Silver Spring and downtown Bethesda can't always compete with their counterparts in Arlington, Alexandria and the District, which offer more activity, more housing choices, and more transportation options. Montgomery County will compete with both of these places for residents, businesses and tax dollars, and it has to compete with both if it's going to survive.

It's easy to demand the status quo. But let's look at where the next generation is going. Are we creating a place where young professionals and new families want to live? And can we actually offer a compelling alternative to new suburbs and old cities alike? If we can find the answer, I've still got plenty of single friends looking for a place to live.

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. 

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This article perceptively identifies one thing that should scare every Montgomery County policymaker: competition from surrounding areas.

Maryland generally risks losing jobs and development to Virginia. Montgomery County in particular risks losing its population, jobs, and competitiveness to DC, Fairfax, and especially Arlington. This should truly worry Montgomery elected officials.

by WRD on Jun 16, 2011 10:55 am • linkreport

I find a few statements in this article a bit naive if not downright false. Perhaps most egregious is the statement
You'd expect this, because Alexandria's been a center of commerce for over a quarter-century.
Um, I think Alexandria has been a center of commerce for FOUR centuries, not one quarter.

by MDE on Jun 16, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

Great article about the failings of MoCo. As a resident of Silver Spring, I keep looking to move to Capitol Hill because I only sleep in Silver Spring, I live in the city. And that's been the case for the 11 years I've lived here.

by Redline SOS on Jun 16, 2011 11:03 am • linkreport

Its not only about making urban parts more urban and keeping suburban parts suburban but about making all parts of the transect better. Suburbs in and of themselves are fine if their form is fine. Its not about just making the county more urban but making the urban form the county is taking better. Beyond that it doesn't help to identify a county thats hundreds of square miles and has farms and very tall buildings and subways as suburban. It helps to look at each area/neighborhood in context of both what it is,what the direction is, and where we should want to see it.

by Canaan on Jun 16, 2011 11:04 am • linkreport

@MDE: You're absolutely right. That was a typo and we'll fix it. I'm curious what you think is "naive" or false, though. Maybe you should expand more on that.

by dan reed! on Jun 16, 2011 11:10 am • linkreport

Montgomery County also has a very pourly designed master transportation plan. In comparision to Columbia the main roads in Moco are very conjested. It often takes 30 minutes to travel 10 miles, Columbia does not have this problem at the same level.

by Matt R on Jun 16, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

@canaan

I think that's what Dan is getting at. Montgomery County is trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people but it may not be doing each all that well. For example, I don't really think of downtown Bethesda being particularly vibrant. I think of the people who live there are mostly retired and didn't want to maintain their large suburban homes any longer but still wanted to be in close proximity to their friends, as well as Nordstrom's and Sunday brunch at the Capital Grille. While it may be nice, it's not a vision of a community that I find to be particularly appealing to a great many people no matter how urban the area.

by Adam L on Jun 16, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

I'm not sure I understand why (on the urban side of this issue) Alexandria is demonstrably better than Silver Spring or Bethesda.

by Steven Yates on Jun 16, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

@MDE and Dan

The dates are still wrong. Alexandria was founded in 1749. I think you meant to say "quarter millennia" in the original post.

by Adam L on Jun 16, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

Adam L: I've changed it to "262 years."

by David Alpert on Jun 16, 2011 11:33 am • linkreport

Adam L,
Good point, it's about making the experience better at each level (though I do fail to see how howard county provides a "better" suburb but I think thats a function of misplaced priorities like focusing on the ease of traffic)

by Canaan on Jun 16, 2011 11:38 am • linkreport

@Steven Yates

Totally agree about their being no difference. There are some subtle differences of course, but not any that make it that different. Plus, Arlington should be thrown in to this discussion for the urban side of things. Those 4 communities represent the 4 large urban alternatives to living in the District. They offer metro, proximity to DC, nightlife, restaurants, shopping, and a walkable downtown area.

by Ryan on Jun 16, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

Dan, I admire the structure of your post, but I'm not convinced that a move to Howard County, by a couple that works at Fort Meade and in Baltimore, supports the argument that Howard County suburbs are better suburbs. Howard County suburbs would have to be much worse suburbs for this move closer to work not to make sense.

Also, please remember Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve. Over a quarter of the county's land area is neither suburban nor urban.

by Miriam on Jun 16, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

The county is way too large, and needs to be broken up. We used to break up counties all the time in this country as the population increased, but we've gotten out of the habit. One way would be cracking it into 5 counties, using the Board of Education districts:
http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov//content/gis/images/gallery/elections.pdf

by tom veil on Jun 16, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

@Canaan

I agree. Howard is certainly nice, but what if that couple he mentioned didn't work in Baltimore but in the DC area, which has a much larger employment base? I don't think having better traffic (for now) along Route 32 is going to help much in that scenario.

@Steven Yates

Though I live in D.C., I often go out to places with friends in Alexandria or Arlington. Those places have shops, restaurants, activities, etc. that appeal to us. I cannot remember the last time I went out to Bethesda or Silver Spring for anything. That's not to say that they're bad places but I agree with Redline SOS that they're missing some sort of "X" factor.

by Adam L on Jun 16, 2011 11:55 am • linkreport

As an Alexandria res., I find Carlyle a little puzzling, but I can see the appeal. Still not quite "there" as an urban center, but it will be eventually, and it sounds like your friends are the types needed to help make it happen. Walking distance to a Whole Foods is enough to swing the decision for a lot of people. Its adjacent to many modes of transp (WMATA, Amtrak, VRE, DASH bus, beltway) although none is optimal. In many parts of Alex., biking is the best non-auto mode to use. If somebody has a stable job in Alex., and wants a newish space, for rent that is probably less than Arlington, and can be happy with a little less buzz right outside your door, then sure, Carlyle just might be the right spot.

I think another point is that if your friends decide to stay in Alexandria, there is a mix of housing types they can upgrade to while still staying in the community. Condos, small old TH's, big new TH's, SFH's, bungalows, hi-rises, mansions, urbanish or even suburbia- whatever floats your boat. None of it cheap, but they could find ANY of those types of neighborhoods within a mile or less of Carlyle. I'm hard on Alexandria (I hate the fanatic dog owners, kids, and the political dominance of geriatric Old Towners), but its really got a lot to offer.

by spookiness on Jun 16, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

I will also agree that the first couple moving to Howard County for proximity to their jobs says nothing about Montgomery County. In terms of traffic, I would guess that the population is lower in Howard County and there are fewer jobs there (like a commenter previously stated) which is why there is less traffic.

I love going to Bethesda. I love going to Alexandria, Arlington, and DC. Living in MoCo, there is the option of going to all of these places. It's called the "Metro." Using this "Metro," you can enjoy the city life without the hassles of living in the city. Fewer cars and your kids can run around.

I'd also like to point out that Howard County does not have a subway system connecting it to DC.

by Chickie on Jun 16, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

Alexandria has a historical hook, Arlington has size, Silver Spring has the Pirate Bar and fantastic Burmese, and Bethesda has... something.

I think it's not just MoCo's form, although that can always use improving, but also the distance from downtown. Arlington is extremely close to downtown, and Alexandria has a historical hook that compensates. Silver Spring and Bethesda are nice, but I just don't see them having anything the rest of the region doesn't have already, so I don't ever feel a strong desire to overcome the inconvenience and go.

by OctaviusIII on Jun 16, 2011 12:12 pm • linkreport

@Miriam
I agree with your point and the others who posted similarly. It's tenuous to say that Howard County has some how created better suburbs then Montgomery because one couple has chosen to move there because of job proximity. They may very well have moved to Montgomery if their jobs had been located in Silver Spring or Bethesda or Rockville.

@Matt R
To be fair Montgomery County has almost 4 times as many residence and 2 times the density as Howard County. So a traffic comparison isnt completely fair.

by Martin on Jun 16, 2011 12:22 pm • linkreport

I know planners love to think that people's primary motivation for where they buy a home is how the area is planned but that's not the case. Most people are primarily driven (or should be driven) by proximity to jobs best suited for their background (and secondarily by schools if they have kids). Proximity to relevant jobs is most important for people in their 20s who are likely to change jobs a couple times in the 7 years on average it takes to break even on a home purchase.

The best evidence of jobs as a driver is NoVa. The planning is terrible, the streetscape ugly, and the traffic downright intolerable (not to mention roads that seem designed to intentionally confuse) but people keep moving here because that's where the jobs are if you're in IT, government contracting, military, or several other professions/industries. You can buy a home and not worry about limiting your prospects if you want to change jobs.

So, to my hometown of MoCo, I say concentrate first and foremost on building and nurturing job clusters like the life sciences one on the western red line and the desirable dual-income-no-kid households will follow.

by Falls Church on Jun 16, 2011 12:28 pm • linkreport

I think that for all the controversy over increased density, there's ample evidence that these are the types of neighborhoods in which the generation after Gen X wants to live. So the communities which offer that sort of housing will capture the new wave of wealthy taxpayers, and those that don't will see their residents age in place, and attract more and more of the region's poor and lower-class who've been priced out of more desirable areas.

by oboe on Jun 16, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

"...if Montgomery County is going to survive."

Hyperbole much? Last time I checked, Montgomery County grew by over 11% during the last decade and outranks both Arlington and Alexandria in population growth and household income. Methinks Montgomery County is doing just fine.

But hey, if we're going to base our findings off of three anecdotal examples, may I posit three friends of ours--a couple who live in Gaithersburg, a couple who live in North Bethesda, and one who lives in Rockville--who are quite happy where they are and have no intention of leaving?

by Joel on Jun 16, 2011 12:40 pm • linkreport

I think the issue is just employers.

Look at the top employers in Mont. County:

United States Department of Health and Human Services 39,979
2 Montgomery County Public Schools 20,953
3 United States Department of Defense 14,709
4 United States Department of Commerce 8,749
5 Montgomery County 8,525
6 Lockheed Martin 7,000
7 Adventist HealthCare 6,911
8 Marriott International 3,957
9 Giant 3,816
10 Holy Cross Hospital 3,200

Vs the ones in Fairfax:

Fairfax C ounty Public Schools
Federal Government
Fairfax County Government
Inova Health System
Booz Allen Hamilton
Northrop Grumman
Science Applications International
Lockheed Martin
Federal Home Loan Mortgage
General Dynamics

I know 1 or 2 people who work at Marriott. I know tons of people who work in Tysons or the Dulles Corridor.

by charlie on Jun 16, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

"Dan, I admire the structure of your post, but I'm not convinced that a move to Howard County, by a couple that works at Fort Meade and in Baltimore, supports the argument that Howard County suburbs are better suburbs. Howard County suburbs would have to be much worse suburbs for this move closer to work not to make sense."

Agree. Similarly, it's a stretch to say that the second couple chose Alexandria because it "out-citied" Montgomery County. If they truly were interested in urban living, there's this big chunk of urban area right in between College Park and Old Town where they could have moved.

by dcd on Jun 16, 2011 12:52 pm • linkreport

I've lived and/or worked in Alexandria for a long time, and love the place. But your description of the city's transit options is a bit off. If your friends live in Carlyle, which lies between the King Street and Eisenhower Avenue Metros, taking the Metro to King Street to go to Old Town seems downright bizarre -- it would probably be much faster to walk. And the taqueria in Del Ray is a good mile and a half walk from Braddock Road Metro. Transit is not really one of Alexandria's stronger suits, unless you happen to live near one of the rather poorly located Metro stops. Buses fill in somewhat but except for the 10A/10B Metrobuses the service is pretty spotty. DASH is a nice system but outside of rush hours the service is thin to nonexistent.

by jimble on Jun 16, 2011 1:00 pm • linkreport

Lets be honest Arlington's Rosslyn Ballston corridor blows anything MoCo has to offer out of the water. The only present comparable area MoCo has now is Bethesda, Silver Spring, & Chevy Chase and young professionals are not flocking to those area, meanwhile Arlington is one the hottest markets in country for young professionals. MoCo needs to stop listening to these old retired nimbies and start listening to recent college grads if it wants to compete on a even playing field

by mike on Jun 16, 2011 1:29 pm • linkreport

Another factor hurting Montgomery county for young people is the half-century antagonism towards nightlife and alcohol. It's not a huge deal, but when you're looking to settle somewhere in your 20's you look for these things. Bethesda and SS are ok, because of their proximity to DC, but NoVA is an order of magnitude farther along in supporting neighborhood "night life".

by ahk on Jun 16, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

Agree with Jimble. Folks in Carlyle aren't going to bother crossing Eisenhower to hop on the Yellow Line for 1 stop when their destination is closer to the waterfront than it is to King St Metro.

Earlier, spookiness mentioned the "political dominance of geriatric Old Towners". Not so much in City Council in my experience...but *VERY* true when it comes to the citizen groups.

by Froggie on Jun 16, 2011 1:48 pm • linkreport

All these posts seem to take for granted that the most desirable residents are young, childless 20-somethings. Even though I fall in that demographic and live in Silver Spring, I see the appeal of Arlington and DC over MoCo, namely proximity to entertainment and jobs. MoCo has plenty of both, but is just a bit further away, so I think it is dismissed by many new area residents that don't have an association to Maryland, usually either through family or UMD, the latter of which is how I came to settle here.

But, it seems to me that many of these young residents are transitory, and while many will settle here, many will move to other parts of the country in a few years as their careers take them elsewhere. While the demand to live in Arlington by this transitory population doesn't seem likely to end anytime soon, MoCo seems to have done a better job of creating a an area that appeals to a wider array of ages so that residents are more likely to stay and raise families here. Yes, I would imagine that because of this Montgomery County has more school children per capita and therefore has more costs associated with that, but these residents also have higher income, produce fewer negative externalities, and are more likely to be residents of the area after their children are done with school, when their income will be even higher and they will demand fewer county resources.

So as much as we'd like to believe that we are the population the local governments care about most, there are plenty of other populations to cater to out there.

by Ted on Jun 16, 2011 2:01 pm • linkreport

@Ted

It depends on how you define 'desirable,' but from a tax perspective, there really isn't a question. Those young, childless 20-somethings pay far more in taxes than they take out. No kids means no drain on schools, they also spend much of their disposable income at local establishments (boosting sales taxes) and otherwise demand little in terms of city services beyond the basics.

Your family might have a higher income, but the kids and the cost of schooling wipes that out. I'm not sure what you mean by negative externalities - a suburban house occupies more space and is more inefficient to provide services for.

by Alex B. on Jun 16, 2011 2:10 pm • linkreport

Alex,

Yes, the short-term tax revenue is better, but with families the county gains a consistent, predictable tax base whereas there is a lot of turnover and less long-term ties with the younger crowd that has to make them at least somewhat less desirable.

As far as negative externalities, I was thinking more quality of life issues than tax and spending issues. Loud parties, public intoxication, and even the occasional vomit puddle. There are a lot of people who don't want to live near 20-somethings because of this. Hence why College Park has such a difficult time attracting residents.

Obviously this is a group that has a lot of appeal, but they also aren't the be all and end all.

by Ted on Jun 16, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

So, to my hometown of MoCo, I say concentrate first and foremost on building and nurturing job clusters like the life sciences one on the western red line and the desirable dual-income-no-kid households will follow.

Housing choice...

http://realestate.yahoo.com/promo/no-mcmansions-for-millennials.html

...is starting to drive the location of job centers:

http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20110528/ISSUE01/305289984/crains-special-report-corporate-campuses-in-twilight

It's all connected, maaan!

by oboe on Jun 16, 2011 2:28 pm • linkreport

@Ted

Don't conflate the individual with the population. An individual 20-something might be more transient than an individual family, but that has nothing to do with the broad patterns of those two population groups.

Also, I don't know where to start with the college thing - surely you're not conflating a 21 year old college student with, say, a 28 year old professional, are you?

by Alex B. on Jun 16, 2011 2:30 pm • linkreport

@Ted:

Yes, the short-term tax revenue is better, but with families the county gains a consistent, predictable tax base whereas there is a lot of turnover and less long-term ties with the younger crowd that has to make them at least somewhat less desirable.

I'm probably missing something here, but why is it that low-turnover is preferable to high-turnover given a similar demographic profile? Heck, one could argue that high-turnover is better, given that the county/state captures taxes on things like real-estate transactions. :)

by oboe on Jun 16, 2011 2:33 pm • linkreport

@ahk, another excellent point. MoCo's night life options are practically nonexistent something young professionals take into considering when choosing where to live. When you compare it to D.C neighborhoods and Arlington then its pretty easy to tell which one is more attractive to a young professionals moving to the region

by Mikem on Jun 16, 2011 2:38 pm • linkreport

Alex and Oboe,
I do understand both of your arguments and I appreciate them, but I'm not confusing anything. My point is that its not that difficult to imagine a situation where a transient population stops coming to an area that is then left without tax revenue. I'm not talking about a Detroit situation, but I'd imagine that even a cutback in interns or other entry-level positions due to federal budget cuts is going to affect Arlington more negatively than MoCo.

As far as the college thing, of course there's a difference between a 21 year-old and a 28 year-old, but I know plenty of 28 year-olds that still act like college students. Ever been through a neighborhood on its kickball night? En masse, 28 year-olds are not the most desirable neighbors, although certainly better than actual college kids.

All I'm saying is that a county shouldn't remake itself to appeal to a specific demographic at the expense of others.

by Ted on Jun 16, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

The disadvantage of a transient population is that they are less interested in local affairs and contribute less time to the community. They are less involved with decisions on transportation projects, less involved with schools, less involved with churches and synagogues, less involved with the 4th of July parade, etc. As a result decisions and planning are not as well thought out and government is less accountable.

by goldfish on Jun 16, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

@Ted

Ack! Kickball! People using a park! How dare they? Don't they know that sports fields are reserved for AARP softball games?!?!

by Adam L on Jun 16, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

@Ted

Montgomery County's not trying to remake itself for twentysomething professionals, not should it. But there are parts of the county where that's appropriate and should be encouraged, for all of the reasons stated by other commenters above.

For the past few decades, the story's been that young people move into the city for a few years then move to the suburbs to have kids due to perceptions of safety and better schools. How long will that model hold when places like Arlington and (to an extent) Alexandria and D.C. can promise a safe, urban experience with good schools? And how many people who'd otherwise default to suburbia would consider the urban lifestyle under those conditions? Urbanism isn't just for twentysomethings but for families, too. MoCo should think about that demographic as well.

by dan reed! on Jun 16, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

Montgomery County needs to follow the example set by Arlington and develop high density around its Metro stations. Stop listening to Nimbys and get these projects moving. The White Development is a great sign for the area. Additionally, I believe the current society we live in does not lend to living in a suburban setting. All things being equal, people want to live near their work and to have entertainment options within walking distance. The suburban sprawl-automobile reliant model is dead. Many just don't yet realize it.

by Mark on Jun 16, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport

*White Flint development (edit to my post above)

by Mark on Jun 16, 2011 3:59 pm • linkreport

I agree with the post above that the author is making a big leap in extrapolating the anadotal evidence of the choices of two couples into some kind of judgement on the planning decisions of MoCo.

by Hattie McDaniel on Jun 16, 2011 4:51 pm • linkreport

Howard Co is also beating MoCo in school performance, which is not only very important in itself, but also as a predictor for future home values. MoCo has rested on its laurels.

by SJE on Jun 16, 2011 5:43 pm • linkreport

The disadvantage of a transient population is that they are less interested in local affairs and contribute less time to the community. They are less involved with decisions on transportation projects, less involved with schools, less involved with churches and synagogues, less involved with the 4th of July parade, etc. As a result decisions and planning are not as well thought out and government is less accountable.

Do you have any evidence this is the case?

I'm not trying to disagree with you (it sounds right). But it also could be one of those easy to believe but wrong urban legends.

by WRD on Jun 16, 2011 5:51 pm • linkreport

This post sufffers from sample size. I'm squarely in Gen X, and MoCo is THE destination in my circle of educated/affluent professionals looking for top public schools. Way more than Fairfax, which may have some higher performing schools than Bethesda. Few want to deal with the disconnectedness beyond DC (upper NW more precisely) and the close-in burbs (Arlington, Fairfax, Alexandria, MoCo)

That's my small sample size ;-)

by anon on Jun 16, 2011 5:53 pm • linkreport

@ anon: The same goes for people in Fairfax. DC is far away for them. Just as anything beyond Tysons is off the map for many Washingtonians. And then I'm not even talking about people in Ashburn, Manassas, Woodbridge, Gaithersburg, Waldorf and Columbia. Let alone Leesburg, Fredericksburg, Frederick, Baltimore and Annapolis. Oh, BTW Front Royal and Winchester are Northern Virginia too.

Referring to the bridge issue from another post, the Potomac really does cut this region into two parts. Many people rarely cross the bridge, and of they do, it's not for more than a mile or so.

by Jasper on Jun 16, 2011 7:18 pm • linkreport

Mark wrote:

Montgomery County needs to follow the example set by Arlington and develop high density around its Metro stations. Stop listening to Nimbys and get these projects moving.

Mark, the precedent was set in Montgomery County many years ago when the County Council caved-in a concerted NIMBY effort by residents along the Maryland side of Western Avenue, which preventing GEICO from significantly expanding operations there (even though the GEICO site is two blocks from a Metrorail stop). What did GEICO do when its expansion efforts were thwarted in Montgomery County? Move most of those jobs to a brand-new (then) building on U.S. 17 in Stafford County, Va. just west of I-95 (not exactly Smart Growth country). But development in counties further-out (and frequently in Virginia) has been spurred in part by Montgomery's land use policies.

That has discredited (in my opinion) much of Montgomery's talk when it comes to development around Metro stations.

by C. P. Zilliacus on Jun 16, 2011 8:07 pm • linkreport

Repeating what Mark wrote (with emphasis added):

Montgomery County needs to follow the example set by Arlington and develop high density around its Metro stations.

I must respectfully disagree with the above, not because I object to density increases around some of the Montgomery County's Red Line stations, because I don't.

But - Arlington County is entirely inside the 10-mile square. Exactly none of Montgomery County is.

Arlington County has many of the amenities of the District of Columbia without being in the District of Columbia. From most of Arlington County, it's a short drive or Metro ride to downtown D.C. Not true from anyplace in Montgomery County.

Arlington County is connected to D.C. by the Blue, Orange and Yellow Lines. And soon the Silver Line. Montgomery County is connected by the Red Line. Only.

Arlington County is home to the Pentagon. Montgomery County is not.

Arlington County has one of the region's three major airports in National, and thanks to I-66 and the Dulles Access Road, has good ground access to Dulles. Montgomery County does not.

Arlington County has the G.W. Memorial Parkway providing connections to the northwest and to the south. Montgomery County does not.

Arlington County has I-395 (Shirley Highway), which provides good highway connections to D.C., and to the south to Alexandria and Fairfax County. Montgomery County does not.

by C. P. Zilliacus on Jun 16, 2011 8:21 pm • linkreport

Is Dan trying to imply Columbia is the "Perfect" suburb, tucked away in the boondocks, inconvienient to public transportation and job centers (the county is the 3rd largest employer, the 10th largest employs just 815)?

Or that Arlington, with its drunks, gangs, traffic, and sky high real estate costs, is a perfect urban area?

And I'm not sure why he thinks "the schools are likely better", the MoCo schools are very good and have some very interesting programs, like robotics. Yes, some of NoVa's schools are equal or better (NOT Alexandria, sorry mystery couple); but Howard? Give me a break.

And your "example" couple, working in Baltimore & Fort Meade, how are they a typical DC couple? Surprisingly few people from Montana choose to live in MoCo too. And since when is a 4 bedroom townhose equivalent to a 3 bedroom one? How can you reasonably compare traffic between a DC suburb and a Baltimore suburb in a county with half the population density and think its somehow related to government (esp. compared to how often this blog rails against improving roadways).

Your other couple invested in a apartment near work. His "job" as a graduate student is very temporary and affords him a far more flexible schedule; they only compelling reason to avoid Alexandria is a bad school system (young renters tend not to care, further damaging Alexandria's school system) and high costs (I used to live there, I had to drive outside the beltway for decent grocery shopping).

I just moved to Silver Spring a few years ago after searching in vain for an acceptable place in NoVa; while I'm not as young as I used to be, I'm still not "geriactric". I can walk to the Metro, and read the paper while I commute to Rosslyn for work. I can afford a single family home in a nice neighborhood I couldn't get until well outside te Beltway in NoVa. Good schools, great restaurants in Wheaton, decent shopping options, and great public transportation all make MoCo compelling and competitive. Of course, being close to bars and the late night noise, public urination, fights, and vandalism wasn't a draw for me.

Is it perfect? No, I'm near one of the worst intersections in MoCo (better than 7 Corners or Rt 1 in Old town though!). We really need another Potomac River crossing (I dream about the ICC connecting to 7100 or rt 28). Pepco drives me crazy with flaky power delivery. But its the best fit for me & my wife, and the family we intend to raise here. I don't expect it to be the best for everyone, either, and I don't expect it to be Old Town, or GeorgeTown, or Leesburg, or Seattle for that matter.

by MoCo Guy on Jun 16, 2011 10:08 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure Columbia MD is part of this equation. As for MoCo vs. NoVa, there are great things to say for a variety of neighborhoods in both areas. If you are a romantic, not much beats the lovely 18th century streets of Old Town or the deliciously eclectic back streets of Takoma Park. If you like a strong central public space, Silver Spring is a great option. Bethesda's night life isn't that different from Arlington's great strip either. And it's clear from this informal survey that te schools are comparable.

What tips the scales for me is traffic. While it generally sucks everywhere, the bottle necking of Virginia at the Potomac can feel claustrophobic, while in MD, you can always navigate the grid, as much as there is one. Also, while Arlington hit it out the park with their metro development, where is the future? The purple line and BRT's if they happen, will only increase the livability of the area. Arlington has similar plans, but with the more conservative State of Virginia, I'd put my money on progressive MD. Politics aside though, I still scratch my head as to why we're not all blazing a trail towards a sustainable public transportation network. It's clear we're all striving for a Greater Greater Washington;)

by Thayer-D on Jun 17, 2011 7:46 am • linkreport

My wife and I recently bought house in DC after shopping around a bit. Montgomery County generally didn't compare well at all: other than Takoma Park and a [very few] places in Silver Spring, the housing options within a reasonable commute time were generally very large - but rarely making good use of the space - and lackluster quality given the price range. Most importantly, almost everything was extremely car-centric requiring a substantial walk to get to the nearest bus stop, much less an actual destination. As someone who grew up in Southern California suburbs, I was also quite surprised to see how rare sidewalks are in otherwise nice-looking neighborhoods.

Ultimately, we chose to live 5 blocks from a metro station and can walk to a supermarket, a number of stores & restaurants, etc. Our purchase price and is lower and we'll continue to rarely use a car.

by Chris Adams on Jun 17, 2011 8:24 am • linkreport

Congratulations. You'll love your (couple of years) in DC. As soon as the kids come along, you'll be right back in Mo Co.

by BS_dawg on Jun 17, 2011 10:48 am • linkreport

@BS_dawg:

Congratulations. You'll love your (couple of years) in DC. As soon as the kids come along, you'll be right back in Mo Co.

The early-90s called and they want their conception of the city back.

by oboe on Jun 17, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

Well, reality called, and he said that dude is outta there once the kids are ready for middle school.

by BS_dawg on Jun 17, 2011 1:10 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I see a lot of yupiie couples pushing strolles around Logan and Capitol Hill. But ask me how many yuppie couples with nine- and ten-year olds I see? None.

It's private schools or the suburbs for these peeps, sorry to say.

by Joel on Jun 17, 2011 1:32 pm • linkreport

@Joel & BS_dawg: Sorry to say, but you are entirely wrong -- the schools in DC have gotten better, and the "yuppies" have recognized it. I see lots of "yuppie" 9, 10 year olds living in DC, everyday when I drop mine off at school. And they will be going to middle school here.

by goldfish on Jun 17, 2011 1:48 pm • linkreport

@Joel,

You're right, I don't see a whole lot of folks pushing their nine- and ten-year-olds around in strollers on Capitol Hill or Logan. I see quite a few kids under ten though. Even older kids.

Anyway, I'm not sure how the fact that parents currently tend to move to other neighborhoods a decade after their children are born supports your position that "as soon as the kids come along, you'll be right back in Mo Co."

I suppose it's not quite as authoritative to say, "you may move to Montgomery County a decade from now when your potential children are ready for junior high school." Who knows, the way things are going, the pregnant couple currently moving out to MoCo "for the kids" could very well find themselves wishing they could move into the city in a decade to improve their middle-school options.

The demographic profile of the city is changing--and that of the suburbs is changing--and that change is accelerating.

by oboe on Jun 17, 2011 1:51 pm • linkreport

goldfish and oboe, you and I must be hanging out in different neighborhoods, because the Logan Circle I live in has hardly *any* children from yuppie families above elementary school age--and most children I see are younger than that. Perhaps you're mistaking the suburban moms and dads bringing their kids into the city on a weekend for people who actually live here? I know that we all want to believe that all of these young couples are moving into DC and raising their kids here through middle and high school, but there's scant evidence to back up that belief. DC secondary school enrollment remains overwhelmingly comprised of children of working class or economically disadvantaged families--the yuppies are either putting their kids into private school, or hightailing it out of the District. DC schools may be improving, but the District's middle and high schools still can't approach many of the schools in MoCo, Fairfax, Howard, Loudon, etc.

I don't question that the demographic profile of the District is changing, but show me factual evidence that supports your assertion that all of these families are enrolling their kids in District middle and high schools. Because they may not all be headed to MoCo, but they sure aren't staying in DC.

by Joel on Jun 17, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

@jimble
Absolutely right. I was wondering why someone would take the Metro from Carlyle to King Street. There isn't much in the Carlyle area either, so I wouldn't hold that up as a good example of a vibrant urban scene. Old Town as a whole does have a lot to offer (more than Bethesda and Silver Spring, in my opinion), so I can see why someone would want to move there. As for the ease of transit to Del Ray, nothing could be further from the truth unless you're taking a bus. And if you walk from Braddock Road to Del Ray for a taqueria (I can only guess that Taqueria Poblano is the one in question), you've expended a lot of effort for bad food.

As for comparing Howard County to Montgomery County, they seem to be completely different animals. I grew up in Howard and now live in Montgomery. Howard was and is a very boring place to live, with very little going on. And Columbia? When downtown is basically a mall, you know something's wrong. There are very few transit options in Howard County and it's far from the amenities of DC. Montgomery County on the other hand had better transit and although Rockville (which is not where I live, but has the much unrealized potential) sorely needs redevelopment, there is great potential for scaled-down urban areas that offer amenities without being in a city. And there are many parts of MoCo close to DC. Howard County will not be able to match that for a long time.

by The Heights on Jun 17, 2011 4:19 pm • linkreport

goldfish and oboe, you and I must be hanging out in different neighborhoods, because the Logan Circle I live in...

Sounds like it, I'm over on Capitol Hill.

DC schools may be improving, but the District's middle and high schools still can't approach many of the schools in MoCo, Fairfax, Howard, Loudon, etc.

Sounds like the goalposts are being moved again. The original assertion was that "as soon as you have kids you'll high-tail it to MoCo." Obviously that's not the case.

Wilson, Ellington, Bannaeker, and School Without Walls are all the equal or better than options in the suburbs you've mentioned.

As far as enrollment:

I don't question that the demographic profile of the District is changing, but show me factual evidence that supports your assertion that all of these families are enrolling their kids in District middle and high schools.

That's a bit disingenous--obviously I'm not going to show you evidence that *all* of DC's newest middle-class families are enrolling their kids in DCPS middle and high schools. Of course, that's not what we're arguing. In fact, I think you guys are arguing for the sake of argument, since the direction your line of debate is headed seems to indicate you know you're wrong: first, a positive pregnancy test is the sign all parents must leave for MoCo; next, it's when the kids hit school-age; finally, middle-school and high-school.

obviously, public middle-school is an issue in DCPS currently, but there's no compelling case that that situation won't get better, at least no more compelling than that any given suburban district's schools will get worse over the coming decade.

Some folks always fight the "last war", and moving to Gaithersburg when your kids are born in anticipation of middle-school is the equivalent of erecting the Maginot Line.

by oboe on Jun 17, 2011 4:34 pm • linkreport

Joel: check these pix of Stuart-Hobson. Relevant statistic: 51% of the students receive free or reduced price lunch (see reference here), meaning 49% of the students are from middle-class families. You see a lot of late-model BMWs unloading kids there in the morning. The school has been making steady progress at improving DC CAS scores.

Eastern High has been gutted and remade in every sense. There was a reason CM Wells fought to keep it in his district. Likewise, friends tell me that Elliot-Hine middle school has fully turned around. This kind of insight you get by walking inside the school, and is a couple of years before you will see appreciable improvement in the test scores.

by goldfish on Jun 17, 2011 4:46 pm • linkreport

In addition to the difficulties of predicting the state of schools 10 years from now, I feel compelled to note that the higher prices and property taxes in MoCo, not to mention a car commute, are rather close to what a good private school costs.

I'm also deeply skeptical of the blanket assumptions that suburban schools deserve most of the credit for academic differences, which understates the role of parents, and while safer in some aspects there are still gangs, drugs, etc. to complicate any blanket comparisons.

by Chris Adams on Jun 18, 2011 5:12 pm • linkreport

It really isn't fair to compare MoCo to Arlington OR Alexandria. Though Arlington may be a county, it is only by virtue of some arcane law. It is/should always be considered a city. It is a county with no towns/villages/cities within. Arlington as a city also has 11 metro stops, which ties the 11 in MoCo, but it still just isn't the same.
MoCo is huge, and has a much wider array of everything, as a County should. Yes there are some more suburb feeling places within Arlington, but it's still a city.
Same to Alexandria. Alex is TINY by comparison to anything mentioned above in the blog entry. It is also a proper city, again with its own suburb areas, but mainly it's a city.

When someone mentioned MoCo, there are only 2 areas that feel like a city to me, and apparently to many others demonstrated by the comments so far, Bethesda and Silver Spring. Rockville is urban-suburban.

I like all areas, but mainly hang out in DC or Arlington.

by wat on Jun 20, 2011 9:40 am • linkreport

After living in Arlington and Alexandria my partner and I purchased our first house in Silver Spring. Both Arlington and Alexandria were great when we were younger but with two dogs and with our plan to have kids, we outgrew our apartment in Alexandria.
In Silver Spring, we were able to get a small house on a good size lot that is 1.5 miles to the Metro and Downtown Silver Spring. In Alexandria we would easily have paid $50-$100k more for a similar neighborhood with horrible schools. In Arlington, we would have only found a condo that wasn't much better than our rental. Plus, while living near Old Town was great there was an overabundance of new american and seafood restaurants with little ethnic choices.

In Silver Spring, we have two great movie theaters, a good mix of ethnic, chains and higher end restaurants, and much more diverse and integrated population than anything in Silver Spring. So yes, Arlington and Alexandria may offer more for young professionals, but eventually young professionals move on.

by Melvox on Jun 21, 2011 10:40 pm • linkreport

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