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Facebook, live comments diametrically opposed on skybridge

The Montgomery County Council has again rejected a skybridge for the Silver Spring library, but the hearing revealed some fascinating facts about the ways people debate in person and on social media.

Early library concept sketch from Montgomery County.

On Tuesday, at-large councilmember Hans Riemer asked his Facebook followers what they thought about a long-running controversy: whether to build a skybridge over Fenton Street Wayne Avenue between the new Silver Spring library and the adjacent parking garage.

We've explained why this is a bad idea many times. Taking pedestrians off the street leads to an expectation that pedestrians won't cross the street, leading to engineers designing it for high-speed traffic movement, making the area less safe to walk around.

County Executive Ike Leggett and the eternally lousy Montgomery DOT want it, but the Silver Spring CBD Urban Renewal Plan prohibits it, meaning it can't be built unless the Council specifically authorizes it.

The Council has rejected the bridge before, but it keeps coming back up. The latest iteration arose because Council President Valerie Ervin, whose district includes the library, recently revived the idea.

Before the Council's hearing on the matter, Riemer asked for input. His Facebook followers came out strongly opposed. Here are a few of the comments:

  • Cavan Wilk I'm against it. It's a waste of money. Plus it would have the negative impact of removing pedestrians from Wayne Avenue, telling motorists to speed up. The presence of pedestrians tells motorists they're in a town environment and they need to watch for pedestrians.
  • Jill Curry Robbins *Another* one? When will this misguided idea die?

    The money would be better spent improving the intersection at Wayne and Fenton to improve safety for all pedestrians—handicapped and otherwise. This would benefit the entire neighborhood, and it would keep more traffic at street level, where it would benefit retail. This will be especially important with the ground-floor retail going in across Fenton from the library when the Baptist church's planned development is built.

    Someone has convinced countless business owners in Fenton Village that the bridge will benefit them, but I can't see how. As I understand things, it's in no way a true "bridge" across Wayne, but a connector from the parking garage directly into the library. Nobody's going to wander into an interesting Fenton Village shop, or be drawn into a restaurant by the smell of coffee or injera or roasting chicken, when they can zip straight from their car to the library and back again. ...

  • Seth Grimes I oppose the bridge based on cost and especially because it will discourage library visitors from patronizing local businesses before/after library visits. Please vote against!
  • Richard Potter Oh, please....People can't cross at the crosswalk? Fenton is not a six lane highway!
  • Robert Padgette Bad idea. Allow on street disabled parking in front of the library instead.
  • Andy Sullivan Anti-urban. Waste of money. Will turn the intersection into a freeway cloverleaf.

Fellow at-large Councilmember George Leventhal chimed in during the hearing:

  • George Leventhal Comments so far at the County Council's public hearing: 100 percent in favor of the bridge. Comments in response to Hans' facebook query: 100 percent against the bridge. What's going on?

A fascinating debate about the role of social media versus attending hearings in person then ensued:

  • George Leventhal

    Here's a blog post from urging people to attend the public hearing tonight but Thayeravenue himself didn't even attend the public hearing!

    How are elected officials supposed to know what the public thinks if the public doesn't show up at public hearings?

  • Robert Padgette George, we're at home watching the kids hoping those we elected to office do the right thing. We all know that those who show up at public hearings do not represent general public views. Social media offers an opportunity to hear from a broader audience. Kudos to Hans for embracing this medium.
  • Hans Riemer This is a very important conversation and I appreciate everyone's thoughts. I want to say that I don't think this is about people who testify versus people who don't, blog people versus real people, and so forth, and whose opinion really counts. Everyone's view is important, at least to me. George Leventhal has a point that the official process is for public record and it is important for people to participate on record. At the same time, I believe that my job as a council member is to seek out the views of people who are affected as best I can, and not just rely on hearing from people who come to me. Its a balancing act and there are always differing views in the community about this or any issue. And in the end, as elected representative, I have to do what I think is right after considering all of the information that I have received.
  • Andy Sullivan Public meetings are generally held at a time when it's all hands on deck in the Sullivan household, getting dinner on the table and tykes in the bed. I'm glad Hans is using all available forums to solicit input.
  • George Leventhal Yes, all input is good and I enjoy getting feedback over social media but we shouldn't discount the importance of actually participating in the process, which unfortunately sometimes requires going to City Hall (or in our case the County Council Office Building). But we take written testimony which is entered into the public record from those who aren't able to testify in person, too. Twitter and facebook, etc are informal; a hearing record is more of a formal document. Our decisions are informed by both and both are useful and important.
  • Hans Riemer Well, I do think that commenting on Facebook is participating, as is sending email to the council, making phone calls to council members, sending post cards, and everything else. I hope everyone will do everything that they can do to make their voice heard.
  • George Leventhal This exchange would be fascinating material for a PhD dissertation on the new media. I would point out that Hosni Mubarak was brought down when people who were communicating with each other on facebook actually left their homes and cafes and congregated in Tahrir Square. While I acknowledge the connection between social media and political action, I think there is more to political action than simply typing notes on the computer. There is the idea, there is the sharing of the idea, and then there is the carrying out of the idea. From concept to execution takes multiple steps. Sending each other messages is only one part of the spectrum.

This dynamic comes up in many areas where there are opportunities to participate in government but which require a substantial time investment. At many hearings, people can travel some distance and wait for hours just to speak for two minutes. To testify at the Virginia or Maryland state legislatures also can involve a long trip just to get to Richmond or Annapolis.

That burden means that those more committed will have louder voices. Sometimes that's a good thing, but it also tends to favor those who have fewer demands on their time. Retirees, for example, can more easily spend the time than parents of young children.

As a result, many boards tend to be comprised of individuals who either have a professional interest in the issue, or who have more than the average amount of free time. That means that for important boards like DC's HPRB or Zoning Commission, it's difficult to find candidates to represent different points of view. Even the WMATA Riders' Advisory Council is vastly skewed away from parents.

Social media can give people an opportunity to participate without having to take time off work or hire babysitters, but also favors those who have Internet-enabled mobile devices or jobs with computers. Clearly, there's no simple answer.

As for the bridge itself, the Council turned it down again. Leventhal introduced a motion to authorize the bridge, but his four fellow committee members, Craig Rice (district 2), Nancy Navarro (district 4), Marc Elrich (at-large), and Nancy Floreen (at-large), all declined to second the motion.

Thayer Avenue, which has now made some signs to oppose the bridge, also reports that Ervin could bring up the matter without a committee recommendation. But with four having already cast their lot against the bridge last week, opposition from Riemer himself or either of the other two, Roger Berliner and Phil Andrews, would keep it from moving forward.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Really is an interesting issue w/ democracy. I do think it comes down to how well a representative has his or her finger on their constituent's pulse (and the reps' understanding that that's their role). Council meetings are hardly the best way to get an honest representation of the peoples' needs/wants for reasons already outlined. Social media, coffeehouse-like meetings within the communities, etc. are a much better way to get a feel for that community pulse.

Councilmember Ervin very much needs to find that community pulse and learn that it's more important than her own faulty opinion.

by jag on Mar 15, 2011 10:48 am • linkreport

Yes! Exactly what Jag says. Said Quadiffi would agree 110% Council meets are tools of the bourgeois statist types. Abolish them and have small meetings over coffee to decide matters. Much better!

oh wait...

by charlie on Mar 15, 2011 11:10 am • linkreport

Just a note: the bridge would be over Wayne Avenue not Fenton. The council is only voting on the exception to the urban plan to allow the bridge to be build over Wayne at some point in the future NOT on cost. It's not like if they voted for the bridge construction would have started.

by Elena on Mar 15, 2011 11:15 am • linkreport

Elena: I've corrected the bridge location. Thanks.

by David Alpert on Mar 15, 2011 11:25 am • linkreport

Another issue is who is more organized. When K Street was being redesigned - and a question that some thought pitted bus riders against cyclists, DDOT got hundreds of messages from cyclists and none from bus riders. And DDOT had to consider that there is a Washington Area Bicyclist Association but no Washington Area Bus Rider Association and discount input accordingly. Not that I agree with their decision, but their point that bus riders are not organized is well taken.

by David C on Mar 15, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

One thing I noticed while working at the Council is that the most well-attended public hearings seemed to be for issues where the people affected lived close to Rockville, like the White Flint and Gaithersburg West/Great Seneca Science Corridor plans. For people living in Takoma Park, Burtonsville or Clarksburg - each easily a 15-mile drive to the Council Office Building - it can be very difficult to participate in meetings there, even if they're held in the evening after many have finished work.

In an ideal world, you'd hold major meetings for issues in the communities that'll be affected by them, but it's difficult and expensive to do that. So social media presents a compelling alternative for community outreach. But how do you incorporate Facebook messages into the public record? How do you guarantee that, as the old New Yorker cartoon says, an Internet commenter isn't really a dog?

by dan reed! on Mar 15, 2011 12:46 pm • linkreport

This brings up one of my personal pet peeves. Most people who attend political meetings are...old. This is the internet, no need to cushion the blow. When you're retired, you have more time to participate. I work 9-6, and will never be able to attend a Council meeting during working hours. However, my 78 year old neighbors love attending these meetings. Elderly residents vote more frequently, too. Thus, they get correspondingly more influence.

I attend public meetings when I can, and I'm usually the youngest person in the room by at least 10 or 15 years (I'm in my early 20s). Plenty of my friends would like to come, but they're tired after 10 hour days at work and cynical that anyone would listen to what they have to say anyway.

One particularly interesting result was an elderly resident insisted--insisted!--that district 16 MD state representatives should use Facebook and Twitter to track down drug dealers and tax them.

This is bad policy. The result is too much weight given to NIMBYism and too much weight given to elderly voters.

Perhaps a solution would be to start "GGWPAC" or an affiliated 501(c)(4). Hire a lobbyist and seek to influence policy that way. I know I would donate.

by WRD on Mar 15, 2011 1:32 pm • linkreport

The people who attend public meetings are a highly nonrandom sample and the people who comment on Facebook are also a highly nonrandom sample. Remember when internet users voted that the most important economic question for Barack Obama to address was whether legalizing marijuana and taxing it would be a good idea for the economy?

I think public comment should get zero weight except for people who can actually introduce data or evidence or expertise. A parade of people coming up to say, "I'm for this," or, "I'm against this," just has no information content at all.

by David desJardins on Mar 15, 2011 1:41 pm • linkreport

A parade of people coming up to say, "I'm for this," or, "I'm against this," just has no information content at all.

It does for whomever in the room is running for re-election next.

by Kolohe on Mar 15, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

@Kolohe: It does for whomever in the room is running for re-election next.

I guess I don't understand your point. The total number of votes from those people in the room is not significant. And if they aren't representative of the public at large, then how do their opinions tell you anything about the next election?

The only theory that seems at least superficially plausible is that movements that have the capacity to organize their members to turn up at public hearings also have the capacity to influence elections. Is that a good general rule? I'm not sure.

by David desJardins on Mar 15, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

I also think a lot of it has to do with the Internet being textual. People are more likely to email, tweet, or post messages that are critical than they are to get up in front of a room and verbally talk.

I think this is a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, it is good because people will be able to petition the government in a method that they are comfortable with. On the other hand, I think it is somewhat cowardly.

by Sam on Mar 15, 2011 4:01 pm • linkreport

"Taking pedestrians off the street leads to an expectation that pedestrians won’t cross the street, leading to engineers designing it for high-speed traffic movement, making the area less safe to walk around."

A perfectly accurate assessment.

by ceefer66 on Mar 15, 2011 4:57 pm • linkreport

@David desJardins I think public comment should get zero weight except for people who can actually introduce data or evidence or expertise. This reminded me a of an old joke: "In God we trust. All others bring data."

by Tina on Mar 15, 2011 6:12 pm • linkreport

What new urbanists oppose Yale's skybridges atop their new
virtual freeway with traffic lights flanking new devlopment atop public right of way given away to developers for $1 who were too cheap to allow the freeway to remain below, and its pedestrian unfriendly left hand ramps, rather then the friendlier center loader ramps like the one planned for the new development just south of Massachusetts Ave in DC?

That design leaves both sides of the street for low speed traffic- a concern ignored by those involved with this new urbainist/Yale Waterloo.

by Douglas Willinger on Mar 15, 2011 6:58 pm • linkreport

@Douglas Willinger: What new urbanists oppose Yale's skybridges atop their new virtual freeway with traffic lights flanking new devlopment atop public right of way given away to developers for $1 who were too cheap to allow the freeway to remain below, and its pedestrian unfriendly left hand ramps, rather then the friendlier center loader ramps like the one planned for the new development just south of Massachusetts Ave in DC?

Can you say that in English? I'm sure you are making an important point, I just can't make heads or tails of your syntax.

by David desJardins on Mar 15, 2011 7:14 pm • linkreport

New urbanists appear to oppose skybridges as a point of doctrine, except at Yale with its Rt 34 Freeway truncation, effectively placing the freway traffic all upon service roads, with no interest even in the design of the ramps.

by Douglas Willinger on Mar 15, 2011 7:22 pm • linkreport

I don't think anyone here knows anything about your Yale project, or understands what freeway truncation or ramp design have to do with skybridges. They seem totally unrelated to me.

by David desJardins on Mar 15, 2011 7:26 pm • linkreport

For many years, the city of New Haven has been trying to remediate the damage done to its fabric during the 1950s. Part of this is the removal of the the Oak Street Connector, an expressway that was blasted through New Haven but never completed, destroying a neighborhood and dumping traffic onto the side streets. It also separates the downtown from the poorer west side and separates the city from its train station. They are turning the route into a boulevard to better manage traffic and encourage development.

Yale-New Haven Hospital built a skybridge to connect a laboratory to a cancer hospital. Skybridges are completely appropriate in this case. The bridge connects two clean and climate-controlled facilities inside a security cordon. It's completely different than here.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 15, 2011 8:18 pm • linkreport

The skybridges represent the ONLY reconnection being brought about along the Rt 34 corridor; the surface street frontage roads have no street level retail, but for the Air Rights Garage cross street, and the project places ALL of the freeway traffic upon these frontage roads, (with the type of pedestrian unfriendly left hand loader ramps it has always had), instead of beneath the new development as planned with the Air Rights Garage.

At least the Silver Spring sky-bridge would be an alternative, rather then the sole desirable option, as the case with New Haven's horrifically misguided anti-urbanism.

by Douglas Willinger on Mar 15, 2011 8:27 pm • linkreport

Personally, I am distressed that so many selfish people would put the interests of the “urban vision” or that of Fenton Village businesses ahead of serving the disabled and mothers pushing a baby carriage in one hand and holding onto another child with the other. Now I strongly favor adding residential housing in downtown Silver Spring and doing everything we can to help businesses there. But the typical library user is not going to be going there to shop. They will be toting books. As for opposing the bridge as leverage to improve the pedestrian walkways there that will happen when we build the Purple Line and not before.

Personally, I have a wheel-chair bound friend. Every few months another friend and I take him out to lunch and to Borders. I wonder how many of these bridge opponents have ever actually pushed a wheelchair across cobblestones or sidewalk cracks. It’s not easy. As for the idea of building handicapped parking spaces next to the library, that’s fine until they get all used up, which has happened to me a couple of times when I take my friend and try to park in front of Strosnider’s.

by Woody Brosnan on Mar 16, 2011 5:20 pm • linkreport

As one of the Facebook commenters excerpted above, I agree with many of the points of this article. The local neighborhood group skews elderly and relentlessly opposes any new development. Even if I had the time to participate in that forum I don't think I'd want to -- I'd rather communicate directly with my elected representatives, like Hans Riemer.

As to Woody's point, I haven't pushed a wheelchair over that intersection but I've pushed a baby carriage and yes, lousy sidewalks make life difficult. That's why we need to make them better, not steer people away from them. Every dollar we spend on a skybridge is a dollar we don't spend on sidewalk upgrades (or library books, or teacher salaries, for that matter).

I'm also confused by Woody's assertion that "The typical library user won't be going there to shop." I certainly combine grocery and library trips when heading downtown now, and I don't understand why other won't either at the new location.

by Andy Sullivan on Mar 17, 2011 5:07 pm • linkreport

My response is to this: "While I acknowledge the connection between social media and political action, I think there is more to political action than simply typing notes on the computer."

Not if you're disabled, Mr. Leventhal. Communication barriers exist for deaf people, transportation barriers exist for mobility impaired people, etc. These barriers mean that it is much easier to express an opinion via email than at a public hearing.

by Meredith on Apr 4, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

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