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The dilemma for young people in Montgomery County

You're a Millennial working in Montgomery County. You want to be close to work, but you also want to be close to the action. Can you find both here? Sort of.


If you're a Millennial in Montgomery County, you might want to live in North Bethesda. Photo by the author.

That's something county leaders have been working on. Three years ago, Montgomery County began its Night Time Economy Initiative to bring in businesses by attracting the Millennial (or young adults born between 1982 and 2000) they wish to employ. Noting studies saying Millennials want to live in urban (or urban-lite) settings, the county has been redeveloping its town centers, building bike lanes, and revising liquor laws.

While the nation's largest generation isn't a monolith, there's some truth to the narrative. The county's young professionals tend to live near its job centers, transit lines, and favored hangouts. That generally means Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville.

That said, for those who want the urban experience, the county has serious competition from other parts of the region, especially the District and Arlington. And if you work in Montgomery County, particularly outside the Beltway, you're forced to choose living in an urban neighborhood far from work or a more suburban area with a shorter commute.

I was thinking about that reading this recent email from Sky, a young teacher moving to Montgomery County and wondering where a Millennial should live.


Hello Dan (or Co.),
I recently read an article about millennials in Moco and am wondering if you would give me some advice about where to live.

I will probably be moving to the area to teach [in Gaithersburg] and would love to know where young singles live around the area.

Like your article said, I certainly want to be close to work, but I also want to have a thriving personal life.

If you have any suggestions, the would be much appreciated.

Thank you!

Awesome blog btw!

Here's how I responded:
Thanks for writing me and for the kind words! You've presented an interesting challenge: you work in Gaithersburg, but you want to be near the action. Those two things are (mostly) mutually exclusive, as much of the region's nightlife is in DC, 20 miles away. That said, this isn't an impossible situation. Of the 20- and 30-somethings I know who work in Montgomery County, they generally do one of three things:

  • Live in DC, and do the reverse commute. You'll have your pick of hoppin neighborhoods with lots of things to do and people to meet, and you won't have to drive home after the bar. You will, however, have to drive to work, though you'll mostly be going against traffic on your way out of the city. Consider neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan, which are both filled with young people and things to do, but also near major roads like 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue that you can use to get out of the city. This might be the most expensive option, since you'd be paying higher DC rents and paying for the cost of transportation.
  • Live in Gaithersburg. You'll be really close to school, and while Gaithersburg is a lot quieter than DC, there are a couple of areas with restaurants and bars. Kentlands is a nationally-famous neighborhood where you can walk to shops and restaurants. Old Town Gaithersburg has a growing number of Latino and African restaurants that are pretty great. And Rio/Washingtonian Center has a lakefront that's great for hanging out on weekends. The rents are generally cheaper than DC, though transit service is limited (there's no Metro station) so you will be driving a fair amount.
  • Live somewhere in the middle. The Red Line connects Montgomery County to DC and the rest of the region, and stops in several walkable neighborhoods in Montgomery County with lots of things to do and a large number of young people. You'll still get that reverse commute, though you'll pay a premium to live next to a Metro station. Three areas you might want to consider: Bethesda's more expensive, but has lots of places to hang out; Silver Spring (where I live) is more affordable, way younger, also has lots going on, and is closest to DC; Rockville is also more affordable and closer to Gaithersburg, but has less nightlife.
A few weeks ago, Sky let me know that she's moving to Rockville, which offers the best of both worlds: it's close to work, but also has a real downtown and access to the Metro.

For years, Montgomery County has encouraged the creation of more downtowns and town centers in places like White Flint, Germantown, and White Oak, while promoting the ongoing development of urban places like Silver Spring or Bethesda. That's great for people moving to the area like Sky, because it gives her more, and more affordable, choices for where to live. However, we still have lots of work to do in making these places attractive to new, younger residents, from creating more walkable and bikeable streets to streamlining our liquor laws to make it easier for restaurants and bars to open here.

We'll have to follow up with Sky once she gets settled in. But in the meantime: What would you tell a young person interested in moving to the county?

Development


The peculiar fight over density at the Bethesda Metro

Clark Enterprises, a company that formerly owned the biggest road construction contractor in Montgomery County, is fighting against a new building planned atop the Bethesda Metro station.


The plaza above the Bethesda Metro station. The former food court is behind the fountain. Photo by the author.

Brookfield Properties owns a failed food court on a platform above the station's bus waiting area, which it wants to replace with a high-rise containing homes or offices. Brookfield would also bring more light and air into the bus bays by cutting into an underused plaza that occupies the remainder of the platform.

This site, in the center of Bethesda directly above the Red Line entrance and bus terminal, is ideally situated for transit- and pedestrian-oriented development. No new parking will be built. The downtown master plan now under review by the Planning Board recognizes the value of this location by allowing building up to 290 feet high.

Clark has opposed building here before

In 2008, Clark helped defeat a plan to build on the Metro station platform, and it has been fighting Bookfield's proposal since it emerged two years ago. A new structure would interfere with the view from the building where Clark's executive offices are located. As one of the building's tenants wrote, the new building would "obstruct views from our existing space." A second tenant acknowledged the same objection.

The construction firm, a relentless promoter of highway widenings elsewhere, has renewed its efforts over the last month with two mailings each sent to thousands of Bethesda residents. They call on the public to "protect open space" and suggest that the plaza could be expanded by demolishing the food court and turned into an attractive park.


Clark's first mailer.

The mailers' attractive photographs of grassy parks surrounded by trees have little in common with any possible upgrade of the plaza—tree roots can't grow on the platform—and even less with the dingy bus bays below. Indeed, Clark's proposal could make the bus bays even worse than now.

In their second mailing, the builders argue that the plaza should be made "street facing." What currently separates the plaza from the street is the one opening that penetrates the deck above the bus bays. Decking over that opening would further deprive transit riders of light and fresh air.


Top: The image from Clark's mailing opposing the new building. Bottom: The Bethesda Metro entrance. Lower photo by the author.

It's easy to laugh at a situation some have described as "builder turned NIMBY," and one might think Clark has little chance of success. But plans to build on this ideally located site have already been derailed once. Montgomery County's decision on the Bethesda Metro plaza will test its commitment to development near transit.

Correction: The initial version of this post referred to Clark Construction as the company opposing the building. Clark Enterprises, the parent company, sold Clark Construction to its executives in January 2016. However, as of this article's initial publication, the Clark website still listed Clark Construction as a subsidiary (but it was subsequently updated after this article ran).

Bicycling


Green means go (for bike lanes)

Washington is one of many cities going green, literally: green paint is becoming a go-to way to make bike lanes stand out so that using the street is safer for everyone.


The bike lanes along 14th Street NW, between V and U Streets, just turned green. Photo by Rodney Hunter.

The latest green lanes in DC were just painted on 14th Street NW between V and U streets. But that's just the latest in what has been regularly happening in DC for the past few years. Why has the city gone green for bike lanes all of a sudden?

It wasn't always green

According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an early 1990's test in Portland used blue paint to see whether or not painted lanes made cyclists safer and more visible. The overall test results found that the treatment was generally popular and both drivers and cyclists felt that it helped reduce confusion and conflict.

But cities gradually started switching to green paint because blue pavement markings because blue is often the color used to mark handicapped-accessible spaces. Meanwhile, other colors like red and yellow are used to warn people or signal that something is prohibited. Before it became the color for bike lanes, it was rare to see green paint on the street.


Green Paint on First Street. Image from Google Maps.

In DC, green lanes are found in a few places. The entire First Street NE protected bikeway, which runs from Union Station through NoMa, is painted bright green. The L and M street bikeways also have green sections where there are turn lanes for cars, to make sure that bikes going straight have a path around turning vehicles.


Green Paint on L Street. Image from Google Maps.

Places where bike lanes cross turning lanes or tricky intersections are also spots where you're likely to find green paint in DC. That's the case at R Street and Rhode Island Avenue where the diagonal avenue makes for an awkwardly long intersection. And at Eye Street SW, numerous entrances have green paint so drivers know to check for cyclists and to merge carefully rather than just turning (check out this shot of I before it got green paint and a bike lane, and this one after).


Green paint along R Street across Rhode Island Avenue. The paint helps keep bikes and cars straight across a long intersection.

Other places around the region are getting in on the act as well. Arlington has painted portions of the bike lane along Clarendon Boulevard green at some of the tricky intersections and along Hayes Street near Pentagon City as well.


Green Lanes in Rosslyn. Image from from Google Maps.

Green paint has also shown up in Montgomery County, first appearing on Woodglen Drive in Bethesda.


Green Paint in Bethesda. Image from Google Maps.

Other places get the point, but they use different colors

Other countries seem to be fond of different colors, as standards in those countries have developed differently over time. Red is a popular color for bike lanes in the Netherlands and Copenhagen while painted bike lanes in the UK are probably going to be blue.

No matter the color, the intent is that a bike lane should stick out so that people know to watch out.


Blue bike lanes in London. Image from Google Maps.

At least one town in the Netherlands decided that all of those colors were too boring and decided to install LEDs that mimic the whorling patterns found in the famous Van Gogh painting Starry Night.

Still, while green seems to be a popular color for more and more bike lanes, it isn't universally beloved. Recently, automobile advertisers found themselves in a lurch when a bright green bike lane was painted in LA along a street that is often used for filming car commercials.

Hollywood's troubles and all, it appears that green lanes in the US are sticking around and will soon be a regular part of the landscape. Where should the next splash of green go in the region?

Development


Montgomery County isn't really waging war against suburbia

Some Montgomery County residents are accusing county officials of waging a "war against suburbia." But the county isn't coming for your single-family house, no matter who tells you otherwise.


Bethesda residents protest the Westbard plan. Photo by Sonya Burke on Twitter.

Last week, about 70 protesters from Bethesda demonstrated outside the Council Office Building over the Westbard Sector Plan, which would redevelop a cluster of 1950s-era strip malls off of River Road into a small-scale town center with new shops, parks, and up to 1200 townhomes and apartments. The council is set to approve the plan tomorrow.

Holding signs saying "suburban not urban," the group shouted down Councilmember Roger Berliner when he tried to address them, calling him "corrupt." Berliner, who represents Bethesda, had successfully convinced the council to reduce the amount of allowable development in the plan, which effectively limits building heights to six stories.

The group, called Save Westbard, is led by Jeanne Allen, former Republican state delegate candidate and charter school advocate. In an email blast two weeks ago, she called the Westbard plan "Orwellian" and says Berliner's "visits to Cuba and China influenced" his support for developing the area.


One of the shopping centers in Westbard today. Photo by Todd Menhinick on Flickr.

She argues that the county wants to "destroy" wealthy suburban neighborhoods like hers, overcrowding the roads and schools, and possibly changing the culture of her community. "Suburbs breed generous people," she says. "They have community meetings and fundraisers in their homes (on streets where people can park)...take care of one another's kids (who can play in yards)...suburbs have a purpose."

Is the county really at war against the suburbs? Save Westbard released a document called the Westbard Papers containing emails between county planners and attorneys for Equity One, one of the major property owners in Westbard, though they don't reveal anything illegal. And Allen refers to three-year-old comments from Councilmember George Leventhal (though not about Westbard) in which he calls the suburbs "a mistake."

Except in reality, Leventhal is talking about the spread-out nature of some suburban places, which forces people to drive really far for work or shopping, resulting in lots of traffic and pollution. He's not making a value judgment about suburbs, but instead acknowledging that some kinds of suburban development have negative costs.

"We see the substantial separation of residential areas from commercial areas from industrial areas from retail areas as a mistake," he says. "Because the very thing that was so marvelous when Olney and Gaithersburg and Wheaton were laid out in the 1940s and 1950s is now killing our planet. We can't afford to drive as much as we do, we have to change our land use patterns, our transportation patterns...Our heirs will blame us for our failure to do that. It's one of the culprits in climate change."

It's possible to have suburban neighborhoods where you can have a big house with a yard and still be able to walk to things. You only have to go about two miles east of Westbard to Chevy Chase to see what that looks like. That's why Montgomery County wants to focus development in aging commercial areas like Westbard, or Chevy Chase Lake, or White Oak. The county is built out, and investing in these areas gives current residents access to more things without having to sit in traffic, while accommodating future population growth.


Rendering of the Westbard redevelopment from Equity One.

There are many current Westbard residents who agree with Leventhal and Berliner that having new shops and amenities within walking distance is a good thing. The Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights, which represents nineteen neighborhoods and condo buildings in the area, supports the Westbard plan, calling it a "compromise of different interests," including the developers and some residents who wanted less development.

Another petition circulated by Equity One includes signatures from 182 neighbors who support the plan. "Westbard is a highly affluent area of Montgomery County," reads the petition, "yet its streets are not pedestrian-friendly, its residents shop at an unsightly retail center surrounded by a sea of asphalt, it's service workers can't afford to live there, and its natural resources are among the county's worst."

And there are the people who have yet to live in this community. While looking for a job after graduate school, I worked out of the Westbard Giant giving out samples for a local bakery who sold cakes there. I got to know some of the people who worked there, and discovered that few of them lived in Montgomery County, let alone in the neighborhood. These are the people who have to drive long distances to work in Westbard, which is one of the most expensive parts of an already expensive county. The county's plan for the area would set aside 15% of new housing units for lower-income households, allowing some people who work here to live there as well.

Leigh Gallagher's recent book "The End of the Suburbs" might freak out any Westbard resident who likes the suburban aspects of their community, But Gallagher's argument is that suburbs aren't actually going anywhere, particularly affluent ones with good schools that are walkable. It bodes well for Westbard, but it doesn't mean that Westbard, or anywhere else, isn't totally immune to change.

Pedestrians


You don't have to push this button to cross the street

If you walk to a corner and see a button to activate the walk signal, you might need to push it. Or you might not. It might only be there to activate a chirping noise for people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.


Connecticut Avenue and N Street in DC. Photo by David Alpert.

Some intersections keep "don't walk" signals lit during both red and green phases of a traffic light unless someone pushes a "beg button"—technically an "actuated pedestrian push button"—before the light turns green.

The sign on the picture above clearly implies that that's what will happen when people wanting to cross the street push the button.

But the button actually has nothing to do with the walk signal. The walk signal comes on whether you press the button or not.

What the button does is turn on a loud chirping noise that speeds up when the walk signal begins. The misleading signs have appeared in large numbers in DC, Montgomery County, and elsewhere over the past year, on local roads and state highways.


Unless you can't see the sign, pushing this button won't help you cross Bethesda Avenue. Photo by the author.

Why is this?

Federal guidelines, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), authorize only certain standard signs for pedestrians. Among them are several variants for buttons that control the walk signal, but no sign for buttons that merely activate the audible signal for people with visual impairments.


Image from the Federal Highway Administration.

In downtown Bethesda, chirper buttons have appeared in large numbers over the last half year, all accompanied by the standard sign. Frequent passers-by soon recognized that the sign conveyed a falsehood, and now, few people push the button.

From my observation, it has become more common for people to simply cross streets wherever and whenever they feel safe. The streets seem no less safe.

Highway agencies take great care to ensure that signs meant for drivers are accurate and unambiguous—and doing so helps keep all who use the roads safe. Pedestrians, as these pushbutton signs illustrate, get very different treatment.

By taking such a nonchalant attitude toward those on foot, traffic engineers implicitly recognize something their profession refuses to officially admit: Drivers in the wrong place endanger others, but pedestrians do not.

Development


There's a new group opposing a more urban Bethesda

Montgomery County is working on a new master plan for downtown Bethesda that would promote continued development and might allow the population to increase from 7,210 today to over 18,000. But a group of people who oppose urbanization are gearing up to fight it.


Downtown Bethesda today. Image from Google Earth.

In an email to Bethesda civic leaders on Saturday, former Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Pat Burda revealed plans to form the Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents. Organizers say that they are "angry" at plans for increased density, with special ire toward the quantity of new housing.

While CBAR hopes to draw support from single-family neighborhoods on all sides of downtown Bethesda, the initiative comes from the Town of Chevy Chase, a 1,200-home enclave located southeast of the downtown commercial area. (The town is just one of the many neighborhoods that make up what is generally considered Chevy Chase.)

A report submitted to the town council earlier this month presents what CBAR is trying to accomplish. The central premise of the 13-page document, which is framed as a history of downtown Bethesda development, is the primacy of the single-family house and its owner. Apartments, stores, and offices are welcome only to the extent they serve the residents of nearby homes.

The document is clear in its opposition to development, skipping the usual pieties about planning and community participation. Land use decision-making, it explains, is an "inherently political process." If one county council can upzone, the winners of the next election can equally well downzone.

The document's author is Scott Fosler, who was among the early architects of the anti-development movement that has flourished in the Chevy Chase area since the 1970s. This movement, acting under a variety of organizational umbrellas, has had a strong influence on land use policy throughout Montgomery County. It was most recently in the news in 2012, when it tangled with county planning director Rollin Stanley after he referred to some of its leaders as "rich white women."

Fosler himself served two terms on the Montgomery County Council in the 1980s. He earlier chaired the town's zoning committee and then served on the town council.

While Fosler insists that homeowners have every right to change the zoning of adjoining properties, there is no reciprocity. He would find it unthinkable to rezone the Town of Chevy Chase to better serve the remainder of the county.

Fosler sees Bethesda's urban center, even when properly subservient, as an alien intrusion that is best kept at a distance. He outlines the strategy by which the Town of Chevy Chase and its allies have obtained the separation they desire. The downtown is encircled with a "comprehensive cordon" of land occupied by parking lots, parks, and house-sized structures. The function of this territory is simply to be as empty and little-used as possible. Property on Elm Street that was made a park would serve the purpose just as well if it were a parking lot.

In the past, the anti-development movement had great influence over land use in Bethesda and Chevy Chase. The 1976 Bethesda master plan imposed a five-fold reduction in the allowable square footage of the downtown. The 1998 plan for Friendship Heights limits buildings on some stretches of Wisconsin Avenue to three stories.

But public opinion is shifting as the demand for urban living grows. Divisions have emerged even within the Town of Chevy Chase. Whether CBAR can achieve the same political power as its predecessors remains to be seen.

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