Greater Greater Washington

Growth policy must talk about building community, not formulas

This is a new house for sale.

It has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a one-car garage, and a small but flat yard. It's located in an established community with well-kept homes and top-rated schools that look like something out of a movie.

It is affluent, but middle-class by D.C. standards, and it's not very different from other D.C. suburbs with detached houses and lots of cars.

Yet this neighborhood has all the conveniences of a small city. There are two supermarkets within ten blocks. Six blocks to the Metro, bus routes, and a proposed light-rail line. Five blocks to Barnes & Noble, along with two movie theatres, three ice-cream shops, and dozens of restaurants. Four blocks to the high school. Two blocks to a trail leading to the Potomac River and Rock Creek Park.

When you have to drive, the car trips can be short. There are two shopping malls, a major university, premier research facilities, and even national parks within fifteen minutes. The traffic can be bad, but it's not always an issue because everything is so convenient.

Brookville Road, Martin's Additions
Current laws make it nearly impossible for small-scale retail to locate in residential
neighborhoods, like this block of shops in Martin's Additions.

The best part is that you have choices. In this community, some people will travel by car, others by foot or bike, and still others by bus or train. Some will live in a detached house or a townhouse or an apartment. Some will shop at chain stores or independently-owned stores. Some will become involved in the community, while others will seek privacy. Some will choose not to live here at all.

But these choices are only available to those who can afford to live in a community like this. It could be North Woodside in Silver Spring, Del Ray in Alexandria, or Clarendon in Arlington. This house happens to be in the Town of Chevy Chase; over the summer, it was selling for two million dollars. There's so little supply of places like this, and so much demand, that they've become a luxury available only to those who can afford it.

But this lifestyle could be more affordable if it was available to more people within Chevy Chase or in White Flint, Wheaton, Langley Park, Gaithersburg or even in Calverton, where I live. We should be talking about the kind of community we want to live inits built form, character, and lifestyleand let those things determine how wide the roads are, the number of people or jobs, or the need for schools. Yet much if not all of the discussion I've witnessed on growth and development in Montgomery County over the past four years has done it the other way around.

Urbanism is not a numbers game. It's the collective result of individual choices made over a period of time. The kind of places we cherish in Montgomery County have largely happened by accident. The county's oldest neighborhoods - Takoma Park, Woodside, Kensington, and Chevy Chasewere created by individuals with ideas about how a place should be.

Bethesda Lane Bad Panorama
Do we prevent good development from happening by trying to legislate away bad development?

They weren't too different from a new planned community in Clarksburg or redeveloped neighborhood like Bethesda Row. But over time these communities could accommodate changes by other individuals with other ideas, giving them a unique, but unanticipated character.

You can't make that happen with formulas, figures and covenants. Nor can you preserve a great community in amber, as some of our civic leaders have tried. It's no surprise that we can't build Chevy Chase again. But it's disappointing that many people think we can by restricting the number of cars on a road, the number of kids in a school, or even the income of people who live there.

That's not to say that we should ignore the condition of our infrastructure. New development may not always cover the cost of new schools and roads, while existing neighborhoods may need public facilities but can't pay for them. Finding new ways to get the amenities we need while allowing our communities to grow and changeas they inevitably willis the only way for us to move forward.

It doesn't always cost two million dollars to live in a safe, walkable neighborhood with good schools, convenient shopping and excellent transportation. But these kind of communities are often out of reach for many people in this area. If we can stop relying on numbers and let our communities evolve as they must in order to stay alive, they won't have to be.

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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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I entirely support your vision but I think the price tag is the clearest evidence that we are "talking about the kind of community we want to live in". It's the government's job to facilitate these kinds of communities through zoning and yes, some numbers. There are so many existing communities that used to have all the ammenities you describe, but for one reason or another they have lost them. Again, it's the government's job to balance the narrow profit driven interests of individuals into a coherant and sustainable civitas.

by Thayer-D on Dec 29, 2009 12:40 pm • linkreport

Thayer, I don't disagree with what you say - but it's also worth noting that today's profit-driven interests are tomorrow's civitas. Look at Kent Boese's then and now pictures, noting the work of developers in creating the older core neighborhoods that many of us now inhabit.

by Alex B. on Dec 29, 2009 12:57 pm • linkreport

2 million dollars is middle class housing per DC standards? More like $400,000 for me and my acquaintances of various ages in the DC area which I still think is high compared to around the USA. I don't know anyone who lives in a house even close to 2 million. Single family houses aren't really being built anymore close to retail and transit, mostly just condos and townhomes, so it's unlikely there will be more homes like this around DC.

by dunfarall on Dec 29, 2009 12:57 pm • linkreport

Jeepers... even the townhouses around Navy Yard start at 600k!

by Michael on Dec 29, 2009 1:14 pm • linkreport

@ dunfarall

I guess that depends on your idea of "middle class." A married couple of 29-30 year old 4th year associates at big downtown lawfirms could afford that. If twenty-something mid-level employees can afford something does it make it "middle class"?

by Local on Dec 29, 2009 1:26 pm • linkreport

I recently purchased my first home. It meets nearly all of the criteria you mentioned in your post, at a 8% the cost. It's a two story brick colonial home in an established and safe neighborhood within walking distance of 2 metros (PG Plaza ~ 20 minutes and West Hyattsville ~ 12 minutes), 15 minute drive or metro ride from a major university (U. of MD), five minute drive/15 min bike ride from major shopping(PG Plaza), one block from the Sligo Creek Parkway/Anacostia Tributary Trail System bike trail (connecting to all of the major bicycle commuter routes in the DC-metro area), one block from a 1/2 mile long park (Sligo Creek), and includes several chain and local restaurants within 10 minutes.

The major difference between the Chevy Chase home and my home, mine is in PG County. The lack of development (it may be coming, but it's taking its time) and investment in area infrastructure and neighborhoods have taken their tolls on home prices. I guess my point is that neighborhoods and homes meeting your criteria are certainly available for a fraction of the cost, but other well-known and well-documented factors stand in their way of being equitable comparisons. The thoroughly discussed lack of planning over the previous decades have left this county behind when compared to Montgomery Co. and neighboring VA & DC.

by Scott on Dec 29, 2009 1:33 pm • linkreport

@Michael,

Those Navy Yard townhomes aren't exactly the best example - they do indeed start at 600k in the Capitol Quarter, but remember that that's part of a HOPE VI development with a substantial below-market rate component as well. It's also just one particular project, and it's new construction.

Basically, it's a really small sample size. Hard to draw too many broad conclusions from that.

by Alex B. on Dec 29, 2009 1:34 pm • linkreport

While I don't disagree with your central point, had you used a house in North Woodside rather than Chevy Chase as your example, the cost of the home would be quite a lot lower, no? And still lower in my neighborhood, which is directly adjacent to North Woodside and so enjoys many of the same amenities and qualities, while also being part of the same school system (BCC Cluster) as the Chevy Chase home you identified. I walk to the (Silver Spring) metro every day, have lots of stores, restaurants, parks within walking distance (albeit not as close as that house is to downtown Bethesda), rock creek park and trail, CCT, etc., BCC school cluster, and our house was less than $500k. I'm not sure that's middle class, but it's a lot closer to it than $2 million. While I agree with your central point, when you buy a house in the Town of Chevy Chase, most of what you are paying for is having a house in Chevy Chase, moreso than walkability. Walkability definitely commands a premium, a premium based on the fact that people would like to have it but there simply isn't the supply, but it's not a $2 million premium.

by hugo on Dec 29, 2009 1:54 pm • linkreport

I guess that depends on your idea of "middle class." A married couple of 29-30 year old 4th year associates at big downtown lawfirms could afford that.

Ummmm.... no, two wealthy lawyers in the top 2% US income bracket absolutely do not count as middle class! "Middle class" to me means within shouting distance of the median household income, which in DC is around $50,000.

It's always a bit disturbing to me when big firm lawyers, who wield at least some influence on social policy in DC, talk about and perceive themselves as "middle class." No. You're not. You live in a ridiculously isolated, affluent social bubble - and you have a civic duty to try to keep some sense of perspective.

by Erica on Dec 29, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

It wasn't an accident. It's urban design from a very specific period of time, which had a very specific method for creating spatial design and connections. The communities built during the period of the Walking City and the Streetcar or Transit City--and most of the neighborhoods you mention were built during the streetcar city era (1890-1920)--had a very particular kind of setup, focused on a grid, walkability, connection to transit, and "mixed use" (retail and civic uses) at the center of the community, within walking distance.

The issue now of course is that for other reasons including the cost of construction, cost of land, and general demand, it is very difficult to build communities like that in a manner that is affordable. It's why for the most part, new communities can be constructed like this only with multiunit housing, or very expensive single family (or 2 over 2) housing. Generally, the land becomes available far from the center city (i.e., Clarksburg), where the distance from the center city cancels out the kind of network benefits typical of the neighborhoods you mention.

by Richard Layman on Dec 29, 2009 3:29 pm • linkreport

We can build it now. We just need the right economic incentives. Many people who live in such places actively lobby against approving incentives for building new such places.

by Cavan on Dec 29, 2009 4:06 pm • linkreport

Median Household Income (2008)

DC = $50,695
MD = $67,364
VA = $59,126
US = $51,283

by Census Joe on Dec 29, 2009 4:51 pm • linkreport

The "middle class" DINK lawyer couple is one of the most ridiculous examples i've ever heard. To cover that mortgage and pay property taxes, you'd need around $12k/month. Considering income taxes and rent set at 40% of income, that would require a dual income of around $600k, meaning $300k each. By the way, $300k is not normal. It is 6x the mean!

by Geori on Dec 29, 2009 5:15 pm • linkreport

Census Joe -- Is that for the entire state of VA and MD? Because I'll bet the median is a lot higher for Fairfax/Loudon and Montgomery counties. But, yes, the general point still stands.

by ah on Dec 29, 2009 5:51 pm • linkreport

Geori wrote:
"The "middle class" DINK lawyer couple is one of the most ridiculous examples i've ever heard. To cover that mortgage and pay property taxes, you'd need around $12k/month. Considering income taxes and rent set at 40% of income, that would require a dual income of around $600k, meaning $300k each. By the way, $300k is not normal. It is 6x the mean!"

Presumably the couple buying a house like this isn't a property virgin. They've worked their way up the property ladder and are reinvesting equity they made on their previous homes rather than taking out a gigantic mortgage on the whole thing.

People seem to think that the best homes in the best neighborhoods should be affordable to the middle class. With the scarcity of quality inside the beltway real estate here it is not going to happen. If you don't make much money and/or haven't built up equity then you shouldn't expect a large house in the most in-demand location. As neighborhoods gentrify the people priced out should look to rivereast, NE or PGC.

by Paul on Dec 29, 2009 6:42 pm • linkreport

I don't think the various advantages of living in downtown Bethesda are a good model for the kinds of communities you're talking about creating.

First, the Bethesda urban district makes economic sense because it serves a huge 'non-local' residential population in the surrounding suburban areas and a large local daytime commercial population. Second, the concentration of amenities in Bethesda is a result of the one thing the MoCo planners got right-- keeping the urban district within a fixed boundary. This forced dense development within the urban district and deflected critics of dense development who live outside the downtown area. But these are unusual conditions that you can't rely on.

It's easy to look backwards and come to the conclusion that success in Bethesda was inevitable. But twenty years ago, Bethesda was a place to go to buy rugs, and that was about it. There were several attempts over the years to spark development in the downtown area, and most of them failed. The dead zone near the metro station was the result of years of planning.

I think it would be great to create walkable, livable local from the suburban, car-dependent mess we have now. But Bethesda isn't going to be the model.

by MattF on Dec 29, 2009 7:12 pm • linkreport

i'm tickled that anyone thinks chevy chase elementary school looks like something out of a movie. the original BCC building (which was identical to the original Blair building) does... but rosemary? naah....

by AJ on Dec 29, 2009 8:08 pm • linkreport

Dan Reed wrote:

"Growth policy must talk about building community, not formulas."

That is the smartest thing I have seen on any of these board in months and months.

I should point out that the house in question was built as an intentional suburbia, as was Takoma Park. Indeed, you will discover, as you research, that the Connecticut Avenue Bridge over Rock Creek Park was built as a railroad bridge; at the time, the general limit of downtown development was Florida Avenue, NW. See also, to contrast and compare, the history of Meridian Hill Park (a.k.a. Malcolm X Shabazz Park) and the overlooking square, particularly referencing the 1400 block of Belmont Street NW. Anyone mentioning the Pitts Motor Lodge will be resoundingly ignored unless they're cracking on it harsh-like.

All of that being said, Chevy Chase, the intentional suburbia, was built as a retreat for the very rich, people who would in later generations say "I'm Chevy Chase, and You're Not". A fascinating community and I've been privileged to know a few folks from there, and it is indeed true that it was built as a community, more or less, and while many have moved in, and many have just "arrived", a lot of the families there have been movers and shakers across the generations since before it was built, but probably never moreso than since it was built.

If you wanted to compare houses built in comparable timeframe and with comparable intentions, the best comparisons for contrast would probably be Old Town Rockville and Old Town Kensington.

Part of the "community" of Chevy Chase, or Kensington for that matter, is the fact that generations have matured, had careers, and raised children and seen grandchildren raise in the same house on the same street.

Contrast and compare that "steadfastly in place on the land" with the comings and goings of most of Montgomery County, which I seem to recall lives here for an average of just under 8 years.

But Dan's excellent title throws common sense into a recent discussion, if in a different thread. This house, and indeed all of Chevy Chase, has a "FAR" (floor-area-ratio", or "stacking factor") far too low for academics to consider it "walkable". Indeed, according to some, the very low FAR tells us that even the home closest to Western Avenue NW's bus-station, 10-minute walk to Friendship Heights Metrorail station, and the immense line of stores which are clearly just-another Rockville-Pikeish strip mall... well, with the very low FAR it can't possibly legitimately be labeled "walkable". Seriously, look at it with googlemap! There's no Density there. Can't be walkable.

But if I had $2-million to blow on housing, I'd sure love to live there, and I'd probably walk or transit everywhere. As if I would want to transit to anywhere, hey, it's Chevy Chase. Anyplace else you might go is somehow, well, I dunno... lesser.

by Thomas Hardman on Dec 29, 2009 8:11 pm • linkreport

@Matt F - I don't disagree that creating a Bethesda is easier said then done. Still, with better zoning we could have more modest sized commercial nodes like Barracks Row.

by Paul on Dec 29, 2009 8:17 pm • linkreport

Chevy Chase 30 yrs ago was not the exclusive community it is today. It was mostly federal employees that owned the houses. I dont think your average federal employee can afford anything in lower Montgomery today. Woodside today was Chevy Chase yesterday. Same with portions of Takoma Park and Rockville's West End. Takoma Park (AKA the Peoples Republic of Takoma Park) is slowly losing its liberal and homosexual mainstay population base, mostly moving to Hyattsville. Turns out the hippies can no longer afford those those million dollar houses overlooking Sligo Creek, at least not until capitalism finally fails. The lawyers and doctors replacing them may vote Democrat, but will squak when you raise taxes to pay for social programs. Communities naturally evolve one way or the other. Wheaton was mostly white a couple decades ago. Now non-Hispanic whites are a minority group in Jerry Weast's Red Zone. The black population in Montgomery, never comparable to its neighbor across the border, is actually projected to slightly decline over the next decade, in actual numbers not just percentage. Who knows what the next decade has in store for us? If Downtown Wheaton is redeveloped, the surrounding neighborhoods are next in line to be the next Woodside. And then Woodside will become the next Chevy Chase. Wheaton's demographics may shift just as quickly as Takoma Park's. Government should and must invest in its communties, many people are willing to pay the higher taxes if government promises to use that money for great schools, parks, and municipal services. Its so simple but government always complicates things. Hence, Montgomery Village 30 years ago. A quaint white collar suburb in the growing I-270 corridor. Surrounded by stunning walking paths and a golf course, a Village Center complete with an indoor pool and mall. But unlike in Reston and Columbia, DC other two famous planned communities, Montgomery County and the HOC decided to buy up thousands of townhouses in the village in order to take advatage of federal grants that preserved affordable housing. Today the single-family attached portion of the Village is in shambles. Mostly renter occupied, low income, uneducated and some past criminal history. [HOC denies that they have been concentrating public housing in the Village (an other select communities) but refuses to publicly list its single family properties. Nor do they admit to having occupants with past criminal histories occupy their properties] Fed up with declining Montgomery Village, most of the original owners moved to the west side of I-270, where they congregate in exclusive developments like Kentlands designed by nationally recognized architects and the fuzzy area called "North Potomac" that will likely never fall into HOC's hands. So don't screw it up Montgomery County!

by Cyrus on Dec 30, 2009 3:31 am • linkreport

I would have to agree with Cyrus on Chevy Chase of yester-year. Having grown up there in the 70's and 80's only Chevy Chase Village (@ Circle on Conn.) and surrounding blocks was upper-class. Some pockets right up against downtown Bethesda could have almost have qualified for working class. As the population grew, rich areas grew along with all areas. Either for convenience, beauty, or natural growth, Bethesda-Potomac-Chevy Chase are now one big wealthy area, and that was inevitable. For it's relative educational and economic (government) assets, the DC area was waiting to become the Walkable area (relative to Houston)it is today except that crack, Marion Barry, and bearly tolerableable commutes held back the onslought.

As for rebuilding Chevy Chase, it can easily be rebuilt. Kentlands is an example that time is finally giving a semblance of grace Chavy Chase has due to architectural variety (by-product of it's development history), and the maturation of it's street trees. Unfortunatley, Kentlands had to be built on the latest farm to go for sale rather than in coordination with some proposed transit link. If they stopped dithering and just went headlong into reviving the trolley spines and simplifying the Mixed use zoning laws you would see a lot more "walkable" communities (revived). The idea that single family homes can't be park of walkable communities is total bunk. That's all we used to have! As for building communities, maybe a silver lining of this recession is that people stay in their houses/commuities and not feel compelled to "trade up" all the time.

by Thayer-D on Dec 30, 2009 5:17 am • linkreport

aka “Common Sense Overlay Zone”--this is such a fabulous article—this blog just gets better and better all the time.

The art of land planning and “neighborhood” (not subdivision) structure and common sense (in regards to settlement patterns) is all but lost in this country in my opinion. Why? Because of antiquated/Euclidean codes and bureaucratic systems designed to preclude creativity in our built environment.

I was interested to hear of a discussion recently about an RFP that a municipality was issuing to attract bids from developers that were interested in developing a piece of property that the municipality owned. The contents of the RFP included a section regarding “housing mix” and it stated the number of 1-bedroom units, 2-bedroom units, 3-bedroom units, x-square feet of office, x-square feet of retail, and x-square feet of lodging was critical to the “success” of the project. Please define success municipality.

That’s to say that when I walk down Bay Street or Prince Street in Beaufort or King Street or Anson Street in Charleston, I say to myself “my what a fabulous building, thank God they have the magic mix of 1 one bedroom unit and 1 three bedroom unit”--quite the contrary, it is about the form and the shaping of our public realm and what I like to call “happy accidents” in our built environment. Bedroom mix does not make a great building or a great public realm---form does. Plain and simple.

In a recent talk about the “changing face of Charleston,” I dissected the title of the forum focusing on the words “change” and “face.” Change, I believe, relates to the built environment or moreover the evolution of the public realm. Change is the basic building block of public discourse. Most humans are resistant to change especially to that of their physical surroundings. However, an interesting phenomenon associated with change and humans occurs once it is embraced. The greatest human fallacy kicks into fifth gear—that being instant gratification. I will never forget a streetscape project in which I worked with a neighborhood for eight months to gain public approval. The first three streetlights were installed and suddenly there was a deluge of residents calling and exclaiming, “Josh we love the streetscape project, will it be finished by the end of this week (mind you it was a six month installation)?” Humans are interesting creatures.

Revisiting the title of the symposium, “face” is a direct reflection of Charleston’s people. Buildings are truly one dimensional in the presence of humans. People represent yet another dimension of place. Charleston is unique in its diversity of incomes, age, race, and beliefs of its people. Our people should be diverse as our uses—that inevitably creates a great place.

I am reminded of a quote from a popular critic of the development review process, “It is literally against the law almost everywhere in the United States to build the kind of places that Americans themselves consider authentic and traditional. It’s against the law to build places that human beings can feel good in, or afford to live in. It is against the law to build places that are worth caring about.” I cannot agree more with this statement and experience an astounding level of frustration while begging the question, “why is this?” Why is it now against the law to rebuild such a place as Peninsular Charleston? Should this be a crime? How can we embody the ideals of preservation of place when our own laws and codes do not embody the historic precedent of the built environment of our home? All in all, I cannot help but wonder, “Are we truly regulating ourselves in a counterproductive manner?” The challenge becomes how we can create, communicate, and implement regulations that are appropriate to specific conditions in our legal, political, and bureaucratic systems?

JLM

by Josh Martin on Dec 30, 2009 10:42 am • linkreport

While all the talk about form is nice, and it's always fun to bash codes and formulas an whatnot - the fact remains that those codes and formulas are the legal basis for land development, and will remain so in the foreseeable future.

The real challenge is to create communities within these frameworks; change the frameworks where needed; communicate the need for these changes in a complex political environment.

That's a BIG task.

by Alex B. on Dec 30, 2009 11:24 am • linkreport

New urbanist design and traditional neighborhood development are about 30 years old now and draw on well established principles you can find in Roman Town planning texts from the first century AD.

I live in such a development near Charleton, SC and authored the community walking trail guides for the neighborhood. We get visitors from all over the world who walk, measure and study our new neighborhood, along with Old Charleston, which it resembles and the nearby old village area of Mt. Pleasant.

Feel free to take a look at the walking trail guides
http://www.wjhamilton.com/villagewalk/

The ultimate reality is that the landscape is Cars or People. You can pick the balance between the extremes wherever you like but the car will take as much out of any neighborhood as it can. It's the corrosive enemy of community, a thief who never gives quarter.

by William Hamilton on Dec 30, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

Legal codes are, thankfully, amenable to change. Of course, before we go changing codes which doubtless were put in place as a response to conditions either extant or expected, and with no doubt the support of both academia and industry, we need to see if those codes actually dealt well with the reasons for their enactment. Then we need to weigh any such successes with the costs of unintended consequences.

There are, of course, costs to failure to enforce the existing codes, or for having codes which are easily skirted, or which are skirted only by circuitous means which then become well-known and widespread... and with a sedentary inertia looming in either code-enforcement or code-revision, the unintended consequences can far overwhelm the initial well-meant intentions.

The example I like to use most is that of 3815 Palmira Lane in Aspen Hill. This property is zoned R-90, or 90 housing units per square mile if I understand it correctly. It is not intended to be rooming houses, batchelor pads, or worker barracks; it is meant to be single-family detached residential homes serving the so-called "nuclear family" of two mature adults and up to 5 children (at most).

That's the zoning and that's the code. However, a well-known exploitable weakness in the permitting system, as well as a politically-exploited weakness in the code, allowed "3815" to happen.

First the footprint was doubled. That's all well-and-good under the code. What wasn't so great was the conversion of a family home to a worker barracks. Then the owners applied for a permit for "single family home", and the county was not required, nor did it bother, to check to see if there was already a single family home there. The new single family home was built atop the existing one, with the doubled footprint now supporting a second story.

Endless and bitter complaints from a variety of neighbors, as well as the activist with whom they share their complaints to Code Enforcement by "bcc:", have resulted in exactly no action except for the most egregious offenses such as front-yard trash piles and wrecked-vehicle storage. Despite clear and convincing evidence that at least 10 adults live there, the County's code is such that they need merely claim to be "related" with no granularity as to the degree of relatedness, nor mechanism to demand substantiation of the claim.

Elsewhere on this board, I recently claimed that such density means that Aspen Hill's CBD (central business district) should thus be considered "walkable", but now for the sake of consistency I must contradict myself by arguing to the specific case rather than the generality of the Harmony Hills neighborhood. Harmony Hills backs up against the rear of one end of the Aspen Hill Shopping Center and has excellent pedestrian-only access to all sorts of shopping and restaurants. Another pedestrian-only access through St Mary Magdalene church allows an easy (if often dangerous) crossing of Aspen Hill Road to access the Aspen Hill Shopping Center. And this house, at least on its own property, has really nice "FAR" as it pretty much occupied the entire lot and has both basement and second-story and presumably at least one habitable room in the attic. Yet this house is not at all "walkable" despite proximity to Diverse uses (shopping, dining, professional offices, church, school, and park/rec facilities both attached to and separate from the school). Why is this house not walkable? Because as near as anyone can tell, all residents are Construction workers and park at least 8 vehicles all over the yard and streets. One unverified complaint alleges that on "party weekends" no less than 15 cars park there overnight. Many comparable properties exist in Harmony Hills.

Yet the County won't change the Code, in part because the bitterness of the complaints over this well-contrived and egregious skirting of the Code is equally balanced by the near-desperation of families who wish to have the elderly "age in place" or to transition adult-children starting families into new housing on the same old property where their elders reside. Can we reconcile traditional "granny flats" with "worker barracks"? Surprisingly powerful political and cultural forces seemingly in total opposition have mostly had exactly one result: legislative paralysis. In the meantime, more homes are converted to worker-barracks but separate granny-flats are out of the question. In either case, population density per-home is on the increase.

And that, of course, is the 8-million person gorilla in the room that nobody wants to discuss, endless population growth and the need to design more compact housing that's more efficient in terms of both space and utilities.

Keep in mind that this efficiency is going to become far more important than most people may realize, especially as regards sanitation.

I used to think that all of this could be avoided with decent sex-education courses and ready access to all kinds of free contraception. I no longer believe that.

In case nobody noticed, Chacaltaya glacier in the Andes has vanished, . It's not the only such Andean glacier that is vanishing at an accelerated rate far exceeding expectations. It's not just Bolivia that will assuredly see extreme water-supply problems; the World Bank suggests that within 20 years the Andean glaciers will effectively cease to exist as sources of water for drinking, irrigation, and electrical power generation. Additionally, Lake Titicaca is showing rapid and extreme water-level decline with concomitant salination, and it is the regional life-blood, so to speak, for some 2.5 million people.

A looming hemispheric climate catastrophe will inevitably lead to massive popular migrations. The scale becomes more apparent when you bother to consider that the headwaters of even the mighty Amazon are Andean glaciers.

Comparably, the ongoing pollution and degradation of the Ogallala Aquifer in the US Midwest and the depletion of snowpacks feeding the Colorado River lakes all combine to give a certain foreknowledge: there are really fairly few places where the water supplies are likely to remain steady and of sufficient volume. The Mid-Atlantic is one of those places.

So, go ahead and build all of the high-density Mixed Use transit dependent facilities you can. Glaciologists studying the Andes melt-off believe that the problem could be dealt with by building enough reservoirs but most believe that the scale of such projects -- not to mention lack of funding -- means that long before such reservoirs and distribution systems could be completed, water-supply pressures will have led to a mass exodus. For instance, Quito Ecuador is 50-percent dependent on Andean glacier sources, La Paz Bolovia 30-percent, etc (sources, World Bank estimate cited above).

How will our housing codes adapt to the necessity of forced relocation of much of the population of southern California and the southern Midwest, much less how will our housing codes adapt to the necessity of forced relocation of 6 out of 10 of 10 million Bolivians, 20 million Peruvians, possibly a third of Venezuela and Colombia's population, and who knows how many along the basin of the Amazon when it hits the tipping point and turns to savannah or becomes desert?

I suspect that much of what the New Urbanist planning and design community thinks it knows may be about to change.

If you already had these considerations in mind, I humbly beg your pardon for belaboring the obvious, and for a rather abrupt seque off of the topic.

by Thomas Hardman on Dec 30, 2009 12:49 pm • linkreport

Finding the right balance between regulation and building the right bones for community and then letting the market fill it out is incredibly hard. In residential areas, we mostly got it right pre-automobile and mostly wrong since. Thanks for a very thoughtful and provocative post.

by Kaid @ NRDC on Dec 30, 2009 2:20 pm • linkreport

BTW, according to Wikipedia, the median household income for metropolitan Washington is $72,800.

by Kaid @ NRDC on Dec 30, 2009 2:23 pm • linkreport

"Current laws make it nearly impossible for small-scale retail to locate in residential neighborhoods"

What are these current laws?

by Zac on Dec 30, 2009 7:18 pm • linkreport

Zac, use-based, or euclidean, zoning laws strictly limit or forbid the existence of commercial uses in areas zoned residential. The laws vary from area to area, but DC, Maryland, and Virginia all have pretty strict and old-fashioned zoning rules. DC's date back to the 1950s, which was the high-water mark of autocentric planning and the separation of uses.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 30, 2009 9:10 pm • linkreport

Neil, perhaps given the contents of your last paragraph, you could explain the walk-up apartments above so very many storefronts in DC neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan.

Thanks, clarity and citation would be useful to demonstrate accuracy of this assertion.

You would definitely have a point if you were talking about Montgomery County.

For the District, I'm not sure whether you're just misinformed or what.

by Thomas Hardman on Dec 30, 2009 11:08 pm • linkreport

Zoning typically allows residential uses in commercial zones, but not vice versa. That's the case in DC, for example. A commercially zoned property can have a ground floor storefront and apartments above, or offices above, etc. But in a residential zone, there cannot be commercial uses. DC law allows the homeowner to engage in certain home office commercial activity on their own, but not to rent out the ground floor for a store.

There are plenty of other examples of ways the law makes traditional urban forms illegal. Parking requirements are one: every building must have a substantial amount of parking around it on the same lot as the building, which forces buildings to be widely separated to contain the often high required parking.

Most suburban areas also have large minimum lot sizes of a quarter acre or more, which makes townhouses illegal, as do side yard requirements which force detached buildings. Many suburbs also force single family homes with zoning laws that prohibit multiple families from sharing a house and prohibit "accessory dwellings" like garage apartments from being rented out.

by David Alpert on Dec 30, 2009 11:17 pm • linkreport

Zac, County Code in places such as Montgomery generally restrict Storefront Businesses to operate in areas with the zoning designation of C or C1, "Commercial" or "Commercial/Office".

While it is legal -- within certain restrictions -- to operate a Home Office in Montgomery, the general rule is that if you will have customers visiting your business, you must operate in a C or C1 zoned area.

In Montgomery, this means "strip malls", "shopping plazas", or "office buildings".

Legal requirements exist that for any C or C1 zoned facility, you have to have a certain number of parking spaces, have to be located at or near certain classes of road types or intersections, etc.

Montgomery flatly prohibits, outside of historical precedent operations or special districts such as townships, Mixed Use Residental/Storefront.

Otherwise, so the rationale goes, you'd have a business at most ground-floor addresses, and an apartment upstairs and a residence out back.

Evidently they decided that it would be easier to impose restrictive zoning than to write a comprehensive Use-Tax code.

I cordially invite you and anyone else to read the Montgomery County Code sections on zoning and zone-based taxation and make any sense of it at all.

Regards, and by the way, all of Southeast Asia from the Indus to the Mekong is headwatered by vanishing Himalayan glaciers. 2.8-BILLIONS of people will have extremely undependable water supplies by no later than 2050 and they will all need to migrate to survive.

Further, Carthage must be destroyed.

by Thomas Hardman on Dec 30, 2009 11:18 pm • linkreport

Sr. Hardman, I don't exactly know how to respond.

1. Many of those areas are zoned commercial. 2. Uses are generally grandfathered in when buildings change. 3. The DC zoning codes were written in the 1950s and have not been updated substantially since then.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 30, 2009 11:55 pm • linkreport

Rather, " Uses are generally grandfathered in when zoning changes."

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 30, 2009 11:56 pm • linkreport

One reason that there aren't more one-storey, small-scale shopping areas like this amid residential neighborhoods is that developers and TOD supporters have succeeded in getting these turned into multi-storey (and yeah, that's how you spell it) behemoths.

Clarendon is an example of this. What was once a collection of small shopping centers with free parking is now a collection of towering developments that dominate everything around them.

Near where I live, there is a great little shopping center called Lee Heights. Everyone in the neighborhood loves it, because it's nearby and has free parking. (And for all you santimonious types who are going to say we should be walking there: Try that when it's icy, snowy, or brutally hot. When you've bought a cake at the pastry shop. No way.) I think such mini-strips are a wondeful happy medium between the ugly box-store spraw you see at Seven Corners and the Manhattanization--OK, Broolynization--you have in Clarendon.

Thankfully, Lee Heights is still one-storey with free parking--largely because transit is just slightly too far away.

I actually agree with some things in Dan's article. I like these kinds of retail areas being peppered throughout residential areas. But because of the ever-present threat that such mini-strips will be turned into an eight-storey condo unit, a lot of people will instinctively be suspicious of plans to build more.

by JB on Dec 31, 2009 4:33 pm • linkreport

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