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Posts about Briggs Chaney


Watch poverty suburbanize in Montgomery County

As Montgomery County has become more diverse, it also faces new challenges with poverty. A new mapping tool shows just how much the county's changed over the past 30 years.

Where poverty is in Montgomery County. Each dot represents 20 low-income people. Blue dots are whites, yellow dots are blacks, green dots are Hispanics, and red dots are Asians. Original image from the Urban Institute.

The Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank that looks at social and economic issues, made this awesome mapping tool that shows where very low-income people lived between 1980 to 2010. The Atlantic Cities notes that the maps show dramatic demographic shifts across the country, notably the suburbanization of poverty.

That's especially evident here in Montgomery County. 30 years ago, the county's only significant concentration of poverty was around close-in Langley Park and Long Branch, which had established themselves as immigrant gateways by the late 1970s.

But today, you can also find clusters of poverty throughout East County and the Upcounty, in Wheaton and Aspen Hill, in White Oak and Briggs Chaney, and even along I-270 in Gaithersburg and Germantown. Many of them have only emerged within the past decade.

Meanwhile, communities that have historically been affluent, like Bethesda or Olney, appear to have stayed the same. The area along Rockville Pike between Rockville Town Center and White Flint, where a considerable amount of new, high-end development is happening, seems to have actually become less poor.

We know that people increasingly desire urban neighborhoods, whether that's places like Columbia Heights in DC or downtown Silver Spring. But the flip side of that revitalization is that the poor often move or are pushed out into suburban areas. While these communities offer more space or better public services, they aren't always well-equipped to help low-income people.

Groups like IMPACT Silver Spring, which helps low-income people and immigrants connect with community groups and social services, began working in and around downtown Silver Spring in the 1990s. Today, IMPACT does outreach at garden apartment complexes in Gaithersburg and Briggs Chaney. Unlike close-in Silver Spring or Long Branch, these areas don't have easy access to shopping, jobs, public services or transit.

Here, fears of crime mean parents won't let their kids play outside. Even walking to the bus stop can be dangerous due to roads designed for speeding cars.

A family tries to cross busy Columbia Pike in White Oak. Photo by the author.

Instead of working to combat the problem, more affluent neighbors fight any attempts at change or build fences in a lame attempt at keeping "undesirables" out. Meanwhile, kids growing up in these neighborhoods are often blocked from the high-quality public schools Montgomery County is known for.

The challenges that suburban poor face aren't necessarily different than those of their inner-city counterparts. But they're compounded by the built form of suburbia, which was designed under the assumption that everyone would have money and a car and does little to accommodate those who lack both.

Initiatives like the county's BRT plan or the White Oak Science Gateway will help bring transit, jobs and other amenities to these neighborhoods and improve residents' quality of life. But it'll be important to ensure that they aren't pushed out again into even more remote areas.


Montgomery police blame victims for pedestrian deaths

After three pedestrians died in three weeks in Montgomery Countyone walking on the sidewalk, and the other two in crosswalks where they had the legal right of waycounty police could only blame the victims.

Truck ignores pedestrian in a Montgomery County crosswalk. Photo by the author.

"The only thing that I see that could be newsworthy is advice to pedestrians to make sure that they have or wear reflective clothing or items when they walk at night to increase their visibility," Captain Thomas Didone told the Patch. Didone is director of the county police department's traffic division.

As far as can be determined, all three victims were obeying the rules of the road when they died. Georgina Afful-Assare was hit while walking on the sidewalk near Briggs Chaney Road. The other two were killed while crossing major highways at intersections where unmarked (but legal) crosswalks connect bus stops to apartment complexes. Neither had any other reasonable way to get across the road.

Frank Sedwick was crossing Georgia Avenue at Heathfield Drive in Aspen Hill. The nearest traffic signal is 1,500 feet away at Connecticut Avenue, and there is no marked crosswalk or signal on the high-speed turn ramp that pedestrians must cross to reach it. According to a blog commenter, Mr. Sedwick had a prosthetic leg.

Charles Aboagye was crossing US 29 at Oak Leaf Drive. He was standing in the median and tripped. Here, the marked crosswalk is 785 feet away. To reach that crosswalk, one must walk within inches of cars and trucks speeding along what drivers perceive as a limited-access highway. The risk of tripping and falling during a long trudge down the sidewalk is far greater than in the median, where the law (universally ignored) indeed requires drivers to stop and let you pass.

Engineering fixes are needed for safer crossings at Heathfield and Oak Leaf Drives. Road design policies must change, and even then rebuilding will take time. In the meantime, the roads we have now must be made safer to walk on. That will only happen when the police stop blaming the victims and insist that drivers stop at all crosswalks, both marked and unmarked.

Other cities are teaching this. Minneapolis suburbs have launched campaigns to ticket drivers who fail to yield.

In California's Ventura County, an area more suburban than Montgomery, police gave drivers this reminder after a car that stopped for a pedestrian was rear-ended: "Pay attention while driving near crosswalks and actively look for pedestrians crossing the street. Additionally, pay attention for other cars on the roadway that might be slowing or stopping for pedestrians."

Telling those on foot to dress like hunters in the woods will not make streets more walkable. Nor will it prevent the deaths of people who are walking on the sidewalk or standing in a median strip. Lives will be saved when drivers obey the law by stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks. Montgomery County police must change their attitudes and issue tickets to those who fail to yield.


A fence won't keep crime out of Burtonsville neighborhood

To discourage crime and loitering, residents of Greencastle Lakes in Burtonsville want to build a mile-long fence around their subdivision. However, neighboring communities say it'll cut them off from public transit, and the fence may not really make the area any safer.

A sign announcing the proposed fence was vandalized. Photo by the author.

Located in the Briggs Chaney area east of Columbia Pike and north of the Intercounty Connector, Greencastle Lakes was built in the early 1980's on the former Silver Spring Golf & Country Club. The sprawling planned community has many private amenities, including a network of trails, a clubhouse and a pool.

It's shaped like a horseshoe, and in the middle is Castle Boulevard, a nearly mile-long cul-de-sac lined with older apartment and townhouse complexes that's gained a reputation for crime.

The two communities are divided by Ballinger Drive, a public street where the popular Metrobus Z line runs, and a roughly 60-foot-wide strip of land owned by the Greencastle Lakes Homeowners Association.

Two years ago, the HOA began building a tall iron security fence on that strip of land, but construction stopped after a Montgomery County code inspector found they didn't have the proper permits. They're now seeking approval from the Planning Board, which will review the matter on September 13. This report assembled by Planning Department staff includes letters from over a hundred residents from Greencastle Lakes and Ventura, a townhouse community immediately across Ballinger.

Proposed Greencastle Lakes Fence
Map of the proposed fence (in red) and gate (in yellow) from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Greencastle Lakes residents say they're just trying to replace and extend an existing chain-link fence that dates to the neighborhood's country club days, but also hope it will keep people out. They wrote of cars being broken into, "condoms, cigarette butts and drug paraphernalia" littering the streets, and teenagers smoking pot and having sex in the common areas. Many neighbors blamed Castle Boulevard.

"We have become victim to the crime from outside the community," wrote Marvin Kerdeman of Aldora Circle. "We pay a high homeowners fee to have the parking lot and trails available for our use, not for neighboring communities to trespass upon," wrote Julie and Ken Mackel, who added, "To access the metro [bus] stop, they still need to cross private land. Just because it is a convenient short-cut, it is still trespassing and should not be allowed to continue."

Ventura residents, meanwhile, say the fence would deny them access to the bus stops and Edgewood Park, a county park. The only other way to reach Ballinger Drive without crossing private property, they say, is a nearly 2-mile walk. "These facilities are public goods which we also contributed to and maintained with our paid taxes," wrote Dinah Teinor, also of Castle Terrace.

Some say it's just another sign of the discord between the two neighborhoods. "This has been an ongoing issue between both of our developments for several years. Something like the McCoy's and Hatfield's," wrote Ventura resident Sabrina Christmas.

Fence Posts Along Ballinger Drive
Construction on the fence began in 2010 and stopped due to a lack of permits.

In response, county planners have proposed that Greencastle Lakes build a gate and a sidewalk so Ventura residents could walk to a bus stop on Ballinger Drive. "The construction of a continuous fence without a pedestrian access does not support the existing walkable and sustainable character of the neighborhood, and will have a negative impact on the surrounding communities," the report says.

A fence may make some residents feel better, but if they really want to be safer, they should reach out to their neighbors on the Boulevard. Looking all of the letters, it's clear that safety is a big concern for everyone. After all, the fear of crime in Briggs Chaney is so strong that kids aren't allowed to play outside.

However, a safe space is a well-used space. Ventura residents may be "trespassing" on Greencastle Lakes' property to catch the bus or walk to the park, but their presence alone is a natural crime deterrent. Providing more foot connections between neighborhoods will build on the county's recent pedestrian safety improvements along Castle Boulevard and get more people walking, providing more "eyes on the street."

Midpoint Path
Encouraging more people to use the walking paths in Greencastle Lakes could be a crime deterrent. Photo by Caps Fan 4 Life on Flickr.

County planners decided where to put a gate in the proposed fence based on an existing desire path made by people walking to the bus stop. There are other desire paths in the neighborhood and in Briggs Chaney as a whole, and it may be worth seeing which ones could be formalized.

Residents should also be encouraged to use their common areas. Like other neighborhoods in Briggs Chaney, Greencastle Lakes also has lots of awkward, unused common areas, which look great but can invite crime if they aren't well-programmed. The homeowners' association took out benches in one common area to discourage loitering, but it also prevents residents from using them for legitimate purposes, which in turn encourages more loitering. It's time to put those benches back, and maybe even some tot lots.

Finally, Greencastle Lakes and Ventura should work together to fight the causes of crime in their community. For instance, they could organize a joint neighborhood watch or volunteer in the local schools. These may require more time and effort than simply erecting a fence, but they'll do far more to create a safer community.

This isn't the first time that a Montgomery County neighborhood has used a fence to seal themselves off from perceived "undesirables," but it should be the last. Good fences may make good neighbors, but real crime prevention also requires that neighbors work together.


Lack of connections, visibility hurt ICC Trail

Less than a year old, the Intercounty Connector Trail offers a new way to get across Montgomery County by bike. However, a circuitous route, a lack of connections to surrounding areas, and sections with poor visibility all hurt its potential.

ICC trail. Photo by the author.

The ICC was originally planned to have a bike trail running parallel to it, but in 2004, the State Highway Administration got rid of it, claiming it would reduce the toll road's construction costs and environmental impacts. Instead, they gave the ICC Trail a more circuitous and indirect route, running parts of it along the highway and the rest along local roads like Columbia Pike and Briggs Chaney Road.

Not surprisingly, area bicyclists were unhappy with the decision. "Why do designers think cyclists should have to go the long way, but cars need a direct route?" asked WashCycle.

Part of the trail runs parallel to Columbia Pike between Fairland Road and Briggs Chaney Road in East County. Like the Forest Glen pedestrian bridge that crosses the Beltway, it runs under a highway. As a result, the trail is also lightly used and has already been vandalized.

This is unfortunate, because the trail could tie neighborhoods on both sides of the ICC together and is a crucial part of a "commuter bikeway" along Columbia Pike first envisioned in master plans 15 years ago. But this part of the ICC Trail won't get any busier or safer without better foot and bike connections to get people to it.

Let's take a look at the trail:

More Bike Trail

Here we are on the trail, just north of Fairland Road. That's the exit sign for the InterCounty Connector up ahead.

Little Seating Area

First we pass this small seating area. People do use it, judging from the abandoned pair of shoes. I enjoy the dry stacked stones and wooden bench, which give the trail a woodsy, rustic feel despite its surroundings. Behind the seating area is the recently-built Fairland View subdivision.

The development is separated by a grass berm and has no connection to the trail, despite being yards away. (The view, of course, is of the InterCounty Connector.) I assume these nearby chalk drawings came from kids living there.

Into the Tunnel

Now we're heading under the interchange between Columbia Pike and the ICC. This part of the trail is almost invisible from either road and the surrounding houses, and I passed a group of young men smoking right before I took this picture.

Sharpie Graffiti

There is Sharpie graffiti in the tunnel, though it's not much worse than anything I saw or did myself in high school. The tunnel appears to have been repainted a few times since it opened; in fact, since I took this photo, the scribbles have already been painted over. It's good to see that the state is maintaining the trail, though I wonder how regularly they patrol it.

Trail Just North of the ICC

After the tunnel, we go under a couple of overpasses. The roar of traffic is pretty intense, and I noticed some broken glass on the path where lights have been knocked out.

Heading Towards Briggs Chaney Road

We're now between Columbia Pike on the left, and the Montgomery Auto Park on the right. Turn around and you get a great view of the interchange. There are maybe waist-high concrete walls on either side of the trail and a chain-link fence separating it from the Auto Park. The wall might keep bicyclists safe from car traffic, but I wonder if it's also there to protect the car dealerships from bicyclists.

Around the Auto Park

And then we hit a wall. This is the interchange of Columbia Pike and Briggs Chaney Road, which was completed about four years ago; the trail takes a hard right to get around it and then joins Briggs Chaney Road.

Trail Ends at Briggs Chaney Road

Across the street is the Briggs Chaney Plaza shopping center; there's a stoplight and intersection in front of us, but no pedestrian signal or even a crosswalk. From here, we can continue down Briggs Chaney, which has a nice, wide shared path for about a mile and a half before connecting to a portion of the trail that's actually on the ICC.

Residents of Tanglewood, a subdivision on the south side of the ICC, complained that a trail would invite "criminals" from the apartment complexes along Briggs Chaney Road. While I still think that accusation was unfair, residents' predictions that there would be vandalism on the trail turned out to be true.

But as WashCycle points out, the best way to make a safe trail is to make it busy. In the handful of times I've used this one-mile portion of the ICC Trail, I've seen maybe a dozen people there. The trail is new enough that some people haven't heard of it, but it's also obscured by a highway interchange and sound berms.

It would've been ideal if the State Highway Administration had laid out the trail first and then worked around it, rather than the other way around. The trail would be more direct, and possibly more visible, while having little or no effect on the ability of drivers to pass through.

Since that opportunity no longer exists, the best thing we can do is to improve foot and bike connections to nearby destinations like Briggs Chaney Plaza and neighborhoods like Castle Boulevard, which recently got new sidewalks and medians. The easier it is to walk or bike in the area, the more likely people are to use the ICC Trail, and the less destructive behavior will occur.


Better streets & buildings boost walking in Briggs Chaney

Located 9 miles north of downtown Silver Spring, Briggs Chaney is one of the densest neighborhoods in Montgomery County, but walking can feel unpleasant or even dangerous. However, some new public and private improvements may change that.

New townhomes and traffic calming on Castle Boulevard. Photos by the author.

In the 1980's, Briggs Chaney was zoned for high-density residential development in anticipation of a light rail line that was never built. The neighborhood continued as planned, with mainly garden apartments and townhomes and a few single-family homes.

Instead of light rail, it's served by a handful of infrequent bus routes including the Metrobus Z line, which happens to be one of the most well-used routes in suburban Maryland. However, 78% of Briggs Chaney's employed residents drive to work, while just 14% take transit and 2% walk.

This isn't surprising, since Briggs Chaney is far from the county's major employment centers, meaning driving may be the most practical way to commute for many residents. However, even though light rail may not ever be built here, the neighborhood will be served by Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit system. And people who may use it in the future, along with current residents who don't drive, must deal with a neighborhood that was designed and built for cars.

Dirt Path Leading To Windsor Apartments (cropped)
Dirt path leading to an apartment complex parking lot.

Briggs Chaney is chopped up into self-contained, fenced-off developments whose streets don't connect, making it really difficult to walk from one part of the neighborhood to another. The few connector streets that exist, like Robey Road, are wide and straight, making it easy to speed and putting pedestrians in danger.

There are also lots of awkward, unused public spaces behind apartment buildings or between complexes that invite loitering and crime, creating an atmosphere where residents don't feel safe. Though much of the neighborhood is within walking distance of Greencastle Elementary School, it doesn't participate in International Walk to School Day and students have to play inside.

How can we fix this? First, the streets must be redesigned to discourage speeding.

Last fall, Montgomery County installed bumpouts, medians and crosswalks along Castle Boulevard, one of the neighborhood's main arteries. According to a study by the county Department of Transportation, 21 percent of drivers on this road drive over 40 miles per hour even though it's signed for 30.

Bus Stop and Bump-Outs, Castle Boulevard
Bumpouts and medians make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street or wait for the bus.

The bumpouts and medians will make the road narrower, slowing motorists and hopefully making them more aware of what's going on around them. They'll also give pedestrians a safe place to wait for a bus or to cross the street.

This may not change residents' perception of the street, however. For much of its length, Castle Boulevard is lined by fences, parking lots, and the backs of apartment buildings. These are the awkward, unused spaces that invite disinvestment and crime; in turn, they make the street susceptible to disinvestment and crime as well.

To change that, we have to orient buildings to the street. Castle Boulevard would be a livelier, and thus much safer, place if it was lined by front yards or other semi-public spaces. It's a lot easier to commit illegal activities if you're not directly in front of somebody's front door.

Left: new townhouses at Woodlake have front yards along Castle Boulevard.
Right: townhouses across the street hide behind driveways and a tall fence.

And that's exactly what local builder Craftstar Homes is doing at Woodlake, a new townhouse development being built around an existing garden apartment complex of the same name. This project provides more owner-occupied housing in a neighborhood where almost two-thirds of the households are renters, giving it more stability. It also treats Castle Boulevard with respect, placing front yards and shared courtyards along the street.

Unlike most townhouses being built in East County, these homes have rear garages on alleys. The front of these houses is actually the front, where you'll see people, not just cars. That creates "eyes on the street," further discouraging destructive behavior. It also means there's actually a front yard with grass or landscaping, which is generally more attractive than a line of driveways or a tall fence like those at another recently-built townhouse development across the street.

Of course, there aren't a lot of opportunities for new construction in Briggs Chaney, and it's unlikely that the neighborhood will get redeveloped any time soon. But many garden apartment buildings have entrances on both sides or patios facing the street, making it easy to for residents to "claim" those spaces as yards as well.

Together, these road improvements and new homes are a step forward for Briggs Chaney. Not only do they make it easier and safer to walk there, but they will help knit together many disparate parts into one coherent neighborhood.

Public Safety

"Youth cafes" could provide social and learning spaces

Montgomery County's proposed curfew and ongoing concerns about crime in Silver Spring have resurrected the age-old debate over how to keep young people occupied.

Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

County Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-Colesville) and local non-profit IMPACT Silver Spring are trying out one solution, so-called "youth cafes" that provide an informal, supervised hangout for teens.

In April, the first of three planned youth cafes opened at the East County Recreation Center in Briggs Chaney, long one of the area's crime hot spots. There are snacks, video games, and music and art competitions, all organized by Recreation Department staff.

However, the cafe is only open afternoons one day a week, meaning some kids may not be able to go because of school or work commitments.

The youth cafe reminds me of an experiment at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia twelve years ago, in which teachers found a way to give students business skills while creating a cool after-class hangout, and filling a vacancy in an adjacent shopping center all at once. The school-run Wilde Times Cafe became a local institution, drawing teens from across Howard County. Though it didn't last long, it shows that we can give young people a place in East Montgomery County while teaching them to care for it as well.

Wilde Times Cafe occupied a space rent-free in the Wilde Lake Village Center, which had been struggling to fill vacancies for years and will soon be redeveloped. When it opened in 1999, the Washington Post noted that it filled an important role in the community in an article titled "Students Strive To Open Business; Wilde Times Cafe Takes Much Work":

The idea is to be Al's from "Happy Days," Central Perk from "Friends" and the Peach Pit from "Beverly Hills 90210." It's something that exists on screen but rarely in real life: the single cool, see-and-be-seen gathering place for all the kids in a community.

"Don't make fun of me, but I always see it as the school hangout on 'Saved by the Bell,'" said Shayna, 17. "But a 1990s version, not the 1985 one."

In suburbs like Columbia, there's a ton of stuff for teenagers to do, and at the same time nothing at all. There's bowling, movies, dinner, jaunts to Baltimore or the District, and getting chased from the Wawa off Hickory Ridge. "If we sit there and list them," said Kim, 17, "there's lots of things to do, but we've exhausted them." Been there, done that, need a new scene.

Wilde Times was open weekday afternoons and Friday evenings until 10pm; lacking a proper kitchen, they sold only prepackaged drinks and snacks. The cafe was staffed by Wilde Lake students who received class credit for their efforts. They served customers, selected what items to sell, and handled finances. An adult was always present to ensure that nothing got out of hand.

It was successful, drawing hungry students during the day and hosting concerts and open mike nights at night. Community leaders embraced the cafe, which was highlighted in Howard County's winning bid for All-American City in 2001.

Unfortunately, neighboring shopkeepers complained that the cafe's teenage patrons were running their customers away, and Wilde Times closed temporarily in March 2001 after a fight following a Friday night concert. It reopened with a sold-out battle of the bands a year later before closing permanently once Kimco, the shopping center's owner, found a paying tenant.

I'm curious how the Wilde Times Cafe model could be applied to Montgomery County's nascent youth cafes program. We may not be able to run restaurants out of community centers, but there's certainly no shortage of vacant retail space in East County that could be repurposed. It's also worth exploring how youth cafes could have programming at different times. Could they be open afternoons some days, and evenings on other days? With parents in Briggs Chaney afraid to let their kids outside due to fears of crime, having safe activities throughout the day is important.

Of course, youth programs at the rec center are only part of the solution, and the county certainly can't afford to entertain teenagers all the time. But I hope we can explore creative ways to engage young people, and teach them a few skills while they're at it, rather than just sending them home to sit in front of the TV.

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