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This suburban house is big, cheap, and ripe for innovation

Suburban building types like McMansions and strip malls are often derided for being cheap and disposable. But those things also make them great place for innovating in food, music, or even technology.


A not-so-unlikely place for innovation. Photo from Google Street View.

Last year, the federal government hired a secret startup called Marketplace Lite to rebuild Healthcare.gov, the failing website where Americans could buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. As they were working under a tight deadline, the team of young programmers needed a cheap place to work and, ideally, sleep.

They found it in this rented house on a cul-de-sac in Ellicott City, in Howard County, which the Atlantic wrote about last summer. The story shrugs off the vinyl-sided Colonial house as "forgettable," but you could argue it was actually tailor-made for a project like this.

Why? For starters, the house was close to the Centers for Medicaid and Medical Services, the government agency responsible for Healthcare.gov. Like many big government agencies in the Baltimore-Washington area, CMMS has a big, secure suburban office campus.

The house itself lent itself to the effort too. Most newish suburban builder homes have an open floorplan with few interior walls, which makes a good space for several people to work and collaborate. Designed for large families, the house also has several bedrooms and bathrooms, meaning it could sleep several people comfortably.

A quick search on Craiglist shows that similar houses in Ellicott City rent for about $2800 a month, suggesting that it was also much cheaper than the alternative: renting a block of hotel rooms.

There's no shortage of media saying that young people are moving to urban environments. And not long ago, people seeking cheap, functional space to make websites or music or art or anything else might seek out an old warehouse, a loft, or even a rowhouse in a down-and-out inner-city neighborhood.

That's no longer really an option in the DC area, with its high prices and lack of old industrial buildings. Ironically, the things that people deride about suburban buildings (cheaply built, cookie-cutter, excessive space) also make them great, affordable incubators to do or make things.

Take Rainbow Mansion, the group home for tech workers in Silicon Valley. Or the DC area's many strip malls filled with immigrant businesses, from Falls Church to Langley Park.

Or punk houses. In many cities, but especially the DC area, the punk scene is really a suburban scene, centering on affordable, modest houses in untrendy locations where people can make loud music and be left alone. The recent book (and blog) Hardcore Architecture sought out the houses where 1980s punk and metal bands operated, and found them in split-level houses in places like Rockville and Annandale.


Old suburban houses like this one in Colesville are a draw for artists and punks. Photo by Andrew Benson on Flickr.

As urban real estate becomes more expensive and the tide of suburban sprawl moves out, the people who want to make things get pushed out too. In the 1990s, local punk institution Teen-Beat Records set up in this Ballston bungalow, but it's since been razed and replaced with a bigger, $900,000 house. Today, you'll find punks and artists in places like Colesville, a community in eastern Montgomery County known for sprawling lots and big, 1960s-era houses that have become relatively affordable as they've aged.

Of course, these places weren't intended for punk houses and Internet startups. Creative types may face major barriers, like restrictions on running a home business, or difficulty getting permits to use a building for something it wasn't designed for. (Naturally, many people just go and do it anyway.) Of course, these farther-out suburban places can be hard to reach without a car.

Most suburban counties tend to focus on attracting big businesses, like Marriott. But they may also want to look at the start-ups, immigrant businesses, musicians, and makers who have already set up there. They're already contributing to the local economy, but they also help create local culture and a sense of place.

Public Spaces


Breakfast links: The morning after (the stimulus vote)

Counting our chickens: State and local officials have started discussing how to spend the stimulus money. Maryland's John Porcari says they'll prioritize repairs over new projects, which is the right choice; VDOT head Pierce Homer wants to pay for repairs and some of the delayed projects, meaning potentially more freeway widenings or new freeways. Most likely, according to COG transportation planner Ronald Kirby, the Purple Line won't get any of this money. Update: Or maybe it will. Nobody really knows yet.


Photo by J-Rod85 on Flickr.

Screw nature: $200 million to repair the Mall's grass and keep the Jefferson Memorial from sinking underwater got cut from the stimulus. MoCo is cutting port-a-potties from Rock Creek Park in winter. And auto manufacturers have confirmed they plan to use public bailout money to keep suing the public for imposing higher clean air standards (via Ryan Avent).

Wires have their high points: That Bombardier wireless streetcar technology looks pretty cool but, writes Manifest Density, it'll probably be quite energy inefficient, likely wasting 20% of the power it consumes.

Thanks for reading, Examiner: It looks like the Examiner noticed GGW's weekend links about the emergency DMV rule for federal judges. Reporter Bill Myers called the DMV, who said "the emergency order sprang from 'a situation' recently," but wouldn't elaborate.

Cut transit and people stop riding transit: Maryland Politics Watch's Marc Korman reluctantly stopped riding MARC after recent service cuts (and falling gas prices). No word yet on whether he's changing his name to I-95 Korman.

Lose the LOS: Streetsblog SF explains how Level Of Service (LOS) warps traffic engineers' thinking and blocked important improvements in San Francisco. city and state planners are trying to dethrone LOS as the primary driver of traffic decisions.

Midwest vs. DC smackdown: President Obama mocks the Washington region for its inability to handle some snow; City Desk's Andrew Beaujon says he'll take this over Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan anytime.

Stop hatin' on K Street: Yglesias points out, "'K Street' is a synedoche for the influence peddling business, but it's also an actual street," which is definitely not full of lobbyists over in the Mount Vernon Triangle. "You wouldn't want to actually crack down on K Street, leaving out all the bad people on other streets but hitting the new Busboys & Poets coffee shop."

And: A new Colesville Wendy's will site the building close to the sidewalk, but still will face a mostly blank wall to the street; Imagine, DC almost loses his wheels after meeting GGW contributors.

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