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Burtonsville keeps settling for decline

Burtonsville's been torn over whether or not to allow a controversial self-storage center to open up in its beleaguered village center. It's a struggle between those who say we could use whatever business we can get, and those who say it'll be a blight. "Is Burtonsville settling?" asked Eric Luedtke, East Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board member at a meeting earlier this month. Yes, Burtonsville is settling for the status quo, pushed by community activists who say they're trying to retain our "suburban" character. While they say self-storage isn't good enough for us, they've opposed any attempt to bring something better here.

Route 198 in Burtonsville. Photo by Dan Reed.

Thanks to their policies, I can't go to Burtonsville anymore for much other than gas and groceries. But I can head to Maple Lawn in Howard Countyand soon, Konterra in Prince George'sfor the high-end shops and well-paying jobs that Burtonsville's been clamoring for since before I was born. While our community leaders bicker about density and poor people, we're left with empty storefronts, vacant office buildings, and a line of cars heading north on Route 29.

Think the Burtonsville village center looks shabby? Tell that to folks who demanded "minimal changes" to the run-down Route 198 strip at a community charrette last summer. Burtonsville's shopkeepers said sidewalks in the village center weren't necessary and that a public green would "attract undesirables."

Meanwhile, local shops already ravaged by the Burtonsville Bypass lost the Amish Market, the only big draw it had. Civic activists complained that what would take its place was "massive" and "not particularly attractive." What we're getting instead is a strip mall called Burtonsville Town Square that won't even have a square and has already cannibalized the shopping center across the street.

Bethesda Lane Bad Panorama
Bethesda isn't just a bunch of expensive houses. It's a community that attracts and embraces economic investment rather than turning everyone away.

Meanwhile, our homeowners' associations fight a status quo war of their own, saying thatbuilding affordable housing will create open-air drug markets. They've lobbied to keep public buses from serving their subdivisions and said they don't want poor people walking through them, either.

And yet all this non-progress hasn't made traffic any better. Our neighbors who advised County officials on the 1997 Fairland Master Plan declared that transit-oriented development was "unworkable" here. Nevermind the success of TOD in places like Downtown Silver Spring or Rockville Town Square. In an already built-up area, no transit means no development, which means no amenities, which means more traffic as we drive to get the things we need.

"Burtonsville has had a chance to get some really nice stuff," fellow board member Tom Aylward said to Luedtke, "but it's been killed by the master plan and the ardent supporters of the master plan." East County's civic establishment has spent decades complaining that we're a "dumping ground" for poor people. They assume that if we just build enough expensive single-family houses we'll turn into Bethesda. But Bethesda has sidewalks, a clean, attractive downtown, and quite a few apartments as well, not to mention excellent bus and Metro service. I think we're missing something.

We should celebrate Burtonsville and try to hold on to the things we love. But as our NIMBY games slowly kill the business district, will we have anything left to save?

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. 


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What can I say, except exactly right.
Downtown Bethesda doesnt exist just because it has lots of $ in the neighborhood, but because it continues to attract new businesses and residents with its smart, high density development that are well served by Metro and yet also close to highways etc.

Silver Spring is perhaps a better example for Burtonsville to follow as the neighborhood is far less wealthy than Bethesda. Once SS attracted Discovery Communications, and set about truly fixing up the place, it has continued to thrive. More businesses, condos etc. They are in a vituous circle of rising property values and more businesses attracting yet more people and businesses.

by SJE on Oct 21, 2009 3:00 pm • linkreport

ugh, that second picture is an argument for undergrounding utilities.

by Michael Perkins on Oct 21, 2009 3:08 pm • linkreport

Can you put a picture up that is not obscured by skyview-inhibiting wires running across the street? Disgusting.

by Jasper on Oct 21, 2009 3:10 pm • linkreport

I feel sorry for the Burtonsville Civic Associations. They do not know what they are doing. They're just a bunch of dinosaurs who are trying to drag everyone else down into the tar pits as they go extinct.

All these NIMBY types keep whining about how they want to be like Silver Spring and Bethesda without acknowledging what makes those places the way they are. It's enough to make your head hurt.

by Cavan on Oct 21, 2009 3:38 pm • linkreport

By the way, Cuba de Ayer (whose sign in the picture) is AWESOME and deserves a better home. Talk about a business that would do that much better if it weren't in the worst place ever.

by Beltway Turkey on Oct 21, 2009 5:05 pm • linkreport

You might like to read Eric Luedtke's response to this post.

Cuba de Ayer should totally remain in Burtonsville because of course not everyone there is opposed to change or sidewalks and excellent ethnic food. And we are more than psyched to have not just one great restaurant, but a whole strip of them: Old Hickory Grille, Soretti's Ethiopian Cafe, Chapala (and Chapala Palenque, the bar) and even Seibel's (though that's more for the Old Burtonsville set).

Six restaurants do not a row make, but hopefully they'll attract more attention to Burtonsville. Rents are reasonably cheap and the area's easy to get to (but only by car, unfortunately), so hopefully there is a revival waiting in the wings. It helps that Post food critic Tom Sietsema listed Cuba de Ayer (and Kabob n Karahi in nearby Cloverly) on his 2009 Dining Guide.

by dan reed on Oct 21, 2009 5:27 pm • linkreport

Good article, I used to live of Briggs Cheney road and when I went looking for houses I looked very thoroughly for a house in the Burtonsville area. At the time I lived there I thought it was great because I was within 15 minutes of tons of places I visited a lot. However, later on I realized that I also had to travel at least 15 minutes to get anywhere I wanted to go so I eventually left.

Its a shame too, with the recent 29 improvements and the ICC stop just south of there Burtonsville really has some potential to become a great place to live. A place where people might drive to work, but can easily meet all their other needs in town.

by Matt R on Oct 21, 2009 5:44 pm • linkreport

I thought GGW had adopted a policy against using the term NIMBY. Set the wrong tone for debate or something like that...

by Scott on Oct 21, 2009 8:53 pm • linkreport

I have to agree: I was quite dismayed at that charrette last year -- you seemed to be the only one preferring not just good ideas, but *any* ideas at all.

And the mindset of the redeveloping shopping center seems to be too rooted in the way strip malls have been done for the past several decades... I could swear the Burtonsville Access Road once connected in at National Drive, but the reconfiguring of the building layout nixed that possibility. ...But wouldn't people "cutting through" a local access road be also referred to as "customers" ? It seemed that every master plan edit; every revision to the shopping center's layout... things just got worse.

I used to stop by Burtonsville almost 3 times a week for the Dutch Market, but the shining light at the end of the tunnel (for me) is that they're right across the street from me now :D ...For what it's worth: parking at the new Dutch Market is quite amusing to watch for 30-60 minutes.

by Bossi on Oct 21, 2009 9:21 pm • linkreport

there are just as many overhead wires in the first photo as the second. Just in the 1st they are somewhat obscured by billboards. I really feel Dans frustration and ultimately his sadness at watching a place he cares about be treated badly by ignorance and selfishness. I'm sorry Dan. I'm sorry you're watching the preventable demise of a place you care about because some people with power are idiots with no sense of history or foresight.

by Bianchi on Oct 22, 2009 8:24 am • linkreport

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