Gaithersbungle, part 4: Why emulate Tysons' existing road network?
In the first three parts of this series (1, 2, 3), we discussed the folly of spending $4 billion to widen I-270 instead of focusing development in denser areas and beefing up MARC to better serve the 270 corridor with existing infrastructure.
Much of the pressure to widen 270 comes from planned development in Gaithersburg West, an area of unincorporated former farmland just outside the City of Rockville and the City of Gaithersburg that developers are eagerly turning into suburban office parks. The Planning Board has devised a Master Plan that makes all of the right noises toward building walkable, transit-oriented places, but then creates the infrastructure of sprawl. At the time when Tysons is trying to evolve away from a model of big superblocks and huge interchanges, Montgomery planners are designing something that looks much more like the Tysons of yesterday than the Tysons of tomorrow.
The plan notes that the area "looks and functions like a conventional office park with single-purpose clusters separated by wide highways and surrounded by parking lots. This model ensured auto-dependence while discouraging walking. There is so little variety of uses in the LSC today that employees often drive to lunch spots." To improve the area, planners call for concentrating development around the planned Corridor Cities Transitway stations with mixed-use zoning, and adding a local grid of streets. The sections without CCT stations won't get any additional density. They suggest a bikeway network and pedestrian treatments on many roads.
That sounds good. But upon closer examination, it appears that rather than turning low-density office parks into walkable mixed-use areas, it would turn them into slightly less low density, still mostly auto-dependent areas. The plan would perpetuate the land use of clusters (though not quite as single-purpose) surrounded by wide highways that discourage walking. Planning staff may be trying to make the best of a bad situation, but they then created a plan that only reinforces many of the problems.
Except in a few small areas, the additional streets still won't create the small blocks necessary for walkable development. The three sections with proposed development, Belward, LSC West, and LSC Central will only have 64 street intersections across almost a square mile of land. LEED-ND requires 150 intersections per square mile for any certified development, and requires 400 intersections per square mile for the highest scores.
Nor are the intersections concentrated into a few small, walkable areas. The LSC West area, the smallest in land areas, would get a dense street grid, but the other areas spread their streets out fairly evenly, creating huge superblocks which will force people to walk long distances or, more likely, drive.
Despite the plan's repeated references to building places not dependent on cars, it also recommends significant road widenings and new interchanges that will divide the area with traffic sewers hostile to pedestrians. The plan includes five new grade-separated interchanges and would widen Key West Avenue into ten lanes plus a "wide landscaped median," including "eight through travel lanes ... and a separate curb lane that can serve as a through lane for transit vehicles and a right turn lane for other vehicles during peak periods." This is wider than many freeways, and if we let cars use the transit lane to turn, transit vehicles won't even get to move particularly fast. While the County is trying to convert Rockville Pike into a walkable boulevard down at White Flint, this plan pushes the area's boulevards in the opposite direction.
Tysons Corner is trying to transform itself into a walkable urban area, but is hampered by its preexisting auto infrastructure. Many planners wish VDOT weren't so insistent on widening Route 7 to move even more automobiles, and the huge existing interchanges where Route 123 meets Route 7 and the Beltway create insurmountable barriers to truly integrating the walkable places together. Tysons is stuck with these, at least until VDOT changes its outlook substantially. But Gaithersburg West doesn't have them today, and yet Montgomery planners recommend instituting just what Fairfax planners wish they could remove.
Over the last decade, Smart Growth advocates have been very successful in many ways. Many people, including most leaders, now agree that multimodal transportation is good, as is transit-oriented development. Pedestrians and bicycles are important. However, often the rhetoric exceeds the reality. Leaders talk the talk of Smart Growth, but then design the same bad plans we've seen for 50 years.
The Gaithersburg West Master Plan looks like a bad 1950s vision of the future sprinkled with some Smart Growth verbiage. It'll separate traffic out to a small number of wide expressways with grade-separated interchanges. It designs a few roads near the centers of activity for pedestrians, but forces them to walk long distances around huge blocks. It claims to prioritize transit-oriented development, yet designs infrastructure for enormous increases in single-passenger vehicle use.
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