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Term limits are a terrible idea for Montgomery County

Here's a plan that is sure to improve the quality of your local hospital: Fire all the doctors and nurses with nine to 12 years of experience. Just kick them all out. Or why don't we fire every Apple software engineer who has been at the company that long? That'll surely yield better iPhones. Or fire every Post reporter with a decade under his or her belt.

No? Sound crazy? I agree. Those are terrible ideas.

For some reason, though, a lot of folks who would never suggest this do seriously entertain term limits for legislators, which Montgomery County will vote on this November as Question B. It's a bad idea, and voters should say no.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post.


Marriott is moving its headquarters to downtown Bethesda so it can be in a denser place that's closer to transit

Marriott International, a major local employer and national hotelier, is making an "in-town" move, relocating its headquarters from North Bethesda to downtown Bethesda. That sends an important message: walkable urban places and proximity to transit, specifically Metro but also the coming Purple Line, are economically crucial.

Photo by José Carlos Cortizo Pérez on Flickr.

Marriott International announced in March of 2015 that it would not be renewing the lease on its current Fernwood Road headquarters, inside the I-270 spur at the Beltway. According to Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, it was "essential that we be accessible to Metro."

Today, Marriott International announced that it's moving to downtown Bethesda.

"It'll be great to have a more convenient option for public transportation," said a current Marriott employee who asked to remain anonymous. "Proximity to restaurants and shops is a great plus as well. Now we're next door to a mall, but it's good to have different options."

Younger workers want travel and lifestyle options, and Marriott's relocation is about competing for this workforce talent. It's worth noting that Marriott competitor Choice Hotels (think Comfort Inn) is also headquartered in Montgomery County, in an office building across the street from Rockville Metro.

Marriott International's current headquarters in a North Bethesda office park. Image from Google Maps.

Back when Marriott announced its coming move, Maryland, DC, and Virginia instantly went into battle mode over the $17 billion corporation, which the Washington Business Journal called "the hottest corporate relocation prospect currently in the market" because of its 2,000+ employees and its need for hundreds of thousands of square feet of premium office space.

With sequestration and base closures tightening the office market, developers were ready to fight for a big client. Regional elected leaders vowed to compete as well (though more voices are speaking up for regional cooperation, instead of a race to the bottom).

Marriott isn't the first company to want a move like this

In looking to relocate near Metro, the hotel giant is in step with a bigger trend. Suburban office parks all over our region are losing tenants to walkable urban places. Prior to Marriott's announcement, the company's current neighborhood office market in North Bethesda already had a vacancy rate of 19%.

The Marriott relocation will happen when the company's current lease ends in 2022. If that date sounds familiar, it's because it's the year Purple Line service is planned to begin! That powerful vibration you just felt is the synergy between economic development, land use, and transportation aligning in downtown Bethesda.

The exact site is still a mystery. The planned redevelopment of the Apex Building to make way for the Purple Line station only includes about half of the office space square footage that Marriott is looking for—and Marriott also wants to build a 200+ room hotel. We'll have to stay tuned for exactly where Marriott will go and how they'll find all that space in an already-dense urban place.

Virginia and Prince George's County probably never had a chance, given that Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson lives in Somerset—and CEO commute distance is a noted predictor of firm location. In that regard, today is not the big win for greater regional cooperation and jobs/housing balance that some hoped for.


Montgomery County's second protected bikeway just opened, and more are on the way

On Monday, Montgomery County's second protected bikeway opened, doubling the number of lane-miles in the county where there's a physical barrier between space for bikes and general traffic. It's part of what will one day be an expansive network that will make bike commuting in Montgomery safer and more practical.

Nebel Street. Photo from MCDOT.

Actually comprised of two one-way lanes on either side of the road, the new infrastructure is on Nebel Street, a commercial and industrial street in White Flint that sees a lot of use. The lanes will eventually be part of a bike corridor that runs from downtown Bethesda to Twinbrook, in Rockville.

Protected bikeways are the wave of the future for Montgomery County, which has plans for a network of them in White Flint, the Life Sciences Center, and Silver Spring. In 2014, the county opened the protected bikeway on Woodglen Drive, which was one of the first of its kind in the nation for a place outside of a major city's limits (and, different from this one, has two lanes that run in opposite directions but sit side by side).

The new bikeway runs from Marinelli Road to Randolph Road. At the southern end, they will connect to bike lanes planned for Marinelli Road, which will connect to Metro and eventually to the Woodglen Drive bikeway.

Nebel Street. Photo from MCDOT.

The new bikeway on Nebel Street brings the county's total mileage of protected bike lanes to 0.8 miles, roughly the same number as Arlington County. The District has around six miles of protected bikeways.

Other projects to add to Montgomery's total are underway now, and more are in planning. A separated contraflow bike lane on Glenbrook Road in Bethesda will be completed within weeks, and the county hopes to begin construction on downtown Silver Spring's first protected bikeway along Spring Street in November, weather permitting.

Glenbrook Road nearing completion. Photo by MCDOT.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett reaffirmed the county's commitment to building a low-stress network of bikeways at the ribbon cutting Monday. The county has a long way to go, but is working quickly to build better bike facilities.


Ten little cities near DC with awesome urbanism

Central cities are booming all over the US as Americans rediscover the benefits of walkable urbanism. But the boom isn't confined to only big cities. Smaller cities are also enjoying a renaissance of their own.

Here are ten little cities near DC with genuinely great urbanism.

Frederick photo by Gray Lensman QX! on Flickr.

Frederick, MD: With stately historic buildings, fancy restaurants, rowhouse neighborhoods, and the best riverwalk in the region, Frederick is a bona fide quality city.

Hagerstown photo by J Brew on Flickr.

Hagerstown, MD: Less fancy and more blue-collar compared to Frederick, Hagerstown's solid core of 19th Century streets is more like Baltimore than DC.

Cumberland photo by Dave Olsen on Flickr.

Cumberland, MD: If Frederick is a mini DC and Hagerstown a mini Baltimore, Cumberland with its sharply rising hills and narrow valleys is a mini Pittsburgh.

Annapolis photo by Charlie Stinchcomb on Flickr.

Annapolis, MD: With its baroque street grid, 18th Century state house, and as the home of the Naval Academy, Annapolis was an impressive town years before DC existed.

Winchester Handley Library photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Winchester, VA: Winchester has a successful pedestrian mall, and the most gorgeous library in Virginia.

Charlottsville photo by Ben G on Flickr.

Charlottesville, VA: Charlottesville's pedestrian mall is even more successful than Winchester's, while the University of Virginia contributes The Corner, an interesting student ghetto neighborhood, and Thomas Jefferson's famous Lawn.

Staunton photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Staunton, VA: 19th Century warehouse town sister to nearby Charlottesville's academic village.

Fredericksburg photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Fredericksburg, VA: Similar in size and scale to Old Town Alexandria, if it were 50 miles from DC instead of right across the river.

York photo by Joseph on Flickr.

York, PA: Probably the most substantial city on this list, York is a veritable museum of 18th, 19th, and early 20th Century buildings. And its surrounding Amish countryside offers an object lesson in sharing the road.

Gettysburg photo by Tom Hart on Flickr.

Gettysburg, PA: The battlefield is justifiably more famous, but downtown Gettysburg is a charming little place, often overlooked.

Not enough? Don't miss Ellicott City, Manassas, Leesburg, Martinsburg, Warrenton, Front Royal, Culpeper, Harrisonburg, Brunswick, Harper's Ferry, and many more.

To qualify for this list, I excluded cities large enough to have tall buildings downtown (sorry Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg, and Wilmington) and any city close enough to DC be accessible via Metro (Alexandria, Silver Spring, Kensington, etc). Otherwise the list is essentially subjective.

We first ran this post about two years ago, but we wanted to share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces

The difference between Maryland and Virginia in one photo

If you've ever flown out of National Airport, you might try to pick out the geographic landmarks you recognize: the Washington Monument, Rock Creek Park, or the Potomac River. Next time you're heading west, keep an eye on the river as it passes through Maryland and Virginia, and you'll notice one big difference between each state.

Virginia sprawl on the left, Maryland farms on the right. Photos by the author.

This is a photo I took Sunday morning when I flew to San Francisco. On the Virginia side, in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, there are all the typical signs of suburban sprawl: subdivisions, freeways, and shopping centers. On the Maryland side, in Montgomery County, there's...not very much.

That's because for over fifty years, Montgomery County has aggressively tried to protect its open space. In 1964, the county's General Plan said that growth should cluster along major highway and rail corridors leading from the District, and that the spaces in between should be preserved.

In 1980, the county made it official with the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, which covers one-third of the county will remain farmland and nature forever. (Combine that with the county's 34,000-acre park system, and nearly half of the county is open space.)

That decision has lasting effects today. Montgomery County residents benefit from an abundance of open space for recreation, enjoying nature, and of course, keeping our air and water clean.

In order to preserve this open space, we have to accommodate growth elsewhere in the county, particularly in our town centers like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville. People who try to stop development in their close-in communities may not feel they benefit from open space 30 miles away. But the urban and suburban parts of our region benefit from the Ag Reserve too.

Allowing inside-the-Beltway communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring to grow lets us preserve open space.

Maryland has an abundance of green space thanks to dense urban development

By focusing growth and investment in existing communities, we get thriving downtowns that support local businesses and local culture, and less traffic as people who live closer in can drive less or not at all. We also spend less money building public infrastructure, like roads and utility lines, to far-flung areas, while generating tax revenue to support the infrastructure we do need. (And obviously, those places can and will have open space.)

This is the path Maryland, and Montgomery County, chose over 50 years ago. So far, it's working pretty well. And you don't have to get in a plane to see it.


Whether you're traveling from Virginia or Maryland, Capital Bikeshare isn't just for short trips

People often rely on Capital Bikeshare for short, local trips. But not always; lots of times, they use the system to travel a little farther. These graphs show how often people use Capital Bikeshare to go between different groups of stations in the region and where exactly they travel to and from.

A Capital Bikeshare station in Montgomery County. Photo by author.

When Capital Bikeshare first came to our region, the vast majority of stations were in DC and a few were in Arlington. As the system has expanded, so have options for traveling between places.

I wanted to analyze bikeshare trips between counties, cities, and the District, as well as trips within different parts of the same county but still outside of DC. To do this, I divided Montgomery County and Arlington County into what I'm calling geographic clusters: Rockville, Silver Spring/Takoma Park, and Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights for Montgomery County, and North and South Arlington County, with Arlington Boulevard being the dividing line. Then I looked at CaBi trips from between September 2013 and May 2016.

This graph shows how many trips from each of those clusters ended in another one:

All graphs by the author. Click for a larger version.

As you can see, the places closest to DC are the ones from which people take the most trips between clusters; about 36% of trips in North Arlington and 35% of trips in Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights end somewhere else, while only 1% of trips in Rockville end outside of Rockville. Among all the clusters outside of DC, approximately 30% of trips go from one to another.

A closer look shows that most of the trips from one cluster to another are trips to DC, but not all. For instance, 9% of the trips that begin in South Arlington are between clusters but do not end in DC.

Click for a larger version.

This graph shows where, exactly, most bikeshare users go from various clusters:

Click for a larger version.

Further examination of South Arlington shows that approximately 71% of the trips there are local, 20% end in DC, 4.5% end in Alexandria, and 4.5% end in North Arlington. Also notice that nearly 8% of trips starting in Alexandria and 4% of trips in North Arlington end in South Arlington. As an area that is adjacent to clusters that use bicycle share, South Arlington sees more bikeshare activity.

Similar to the dense bikeshare system in DC, bikeshare outside of DC serves mostly local trips. But that doesn't mean bikeshare doesn't have a regional value, as nearly a third of trips system-wide are between clusters. As bikeshare continues to expand in the region, municipalities, especially those near other places with bikeshare, like Mount Rainier, Hyattsville, or Langley Park, would see an increase in ridership if bikeshare users could access the regional system.

This data only shows individual trips and doesn't show the length of time of trips or whether the user has a causal or annual membership. Exploring this information, as well as specific bikeshare travel patterns in more suburban areas, would tell us more about how bikeshare fits in both the local and regional transportation system.


Montgomery's new bus rapid transit system will make the county more equitable

By 2020, Montgomery County will have a working bus rapid transit system. The $67 million system should help clear up traffic congestion, but more importantly, it will promote promote social mobility, connect workers to jobs, and allow families to save hundreds on transportation.

BRT in Virginia. Photo by Dan Malouff

Background on Montgomery's BRT Plans

In 2013 the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed plans for an 82 Mile bus rapid transit network, and this March, County Executive Leggett committed to having Route 29 be the first BRT route in the county.

The idea is to create a new rapid transit system that would help alleviate congestion and increase economic development. The first phase of BRT will be along MD-355, US-29 and Veirs Mill Roadd corridors that intersect with key master plans or connect important transit hubs. MD-355 will be the site of some of the largest job expansion in the county (White Flint), while Veirs Mill Road connects the Rockville and Wheaton Metro stations (which sit on opposite ends of the system). Route 29 will also see large job expansion in White Oak.

Leggett plans to have the system in operation by 2020, and his choice of Route 29 as the first BRT corridor presents Montgomery the opportunity to bring real transit options to a part of the county that has none and to help diminish the county's east-west economic divide.

A draft of what the Route 29 BRT route will look like. Image from Montgomery County.

Here's why building this system will create a more equitable Montgomery:

BRT on Route 29 will help increase social mobility

Access to transportation has emerged as the single greatest indicator of someone's odds of escaping poverty—greater than the number of two parent households or the amount of crime in a community. Further studies have found that as sprawl increases social mobility decreases. This is particularly important on Route 29, where over 12% of households have no access to a vehicle. Digging deeper we see that many folks who live on the Route 29 corridor are also those who can least afford sprawl. 50% of renters on Route 29 earn under 50% of the area median income and a total of 30% of corridor households earn under 50% of AMI.

Further compounding the need for better transit access is Montgomery's uneven recovery from the recession. The Route 29 Corridor in particular was hit hard, median income fell 12% between 2009 and 2014, compare this to 1% in the Bethesda area.

Consider this stat: in 2000, none of the county's census tracts had more than an 18% poverty rate, now there are 12 census tracts exceeding that standard. Much of this new "suburbanization of poverty" is affecting communities in the east far more than those in the west—the Route 29 BRT could help equalize odds in a part of Montgomery that has not seen major transit investments.

BRT will help offset high rent costs

Perhaps nothing illustrates the need for affordable transportation on the Route 29 corridor than the number of residents who are rent-burdened, which means they spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent. Looking at data from the US Census we see that 43% of the corridor are renters, 60% of whom are rent burdened.

When you combine housing and transportation costs you see the heavy price of living in a car dependent area. Certain census tracts in Burtonsville show that the average household is spending 71% of their income on rent+housing. That leaves little left over for groceries, healthcare, or savings. The trend continues when looking at other communities along Route 29. In White Oak we see households spending 50% of their income on rent+housing costs, this compares with averages in transit accessible Downtown Silver Spring of 30%-35%. Providing a brt system on Route 29 will allow families to spend more money on essentials like food, and housing.

BRT will bring economic benefits

According to county research by 2040 the Route 29 BRT system will save 33,489 Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) per weekday and an average annual savings of 9,711,752 VMT. Once in operation BRT will help contribute to $6.5 million in statewide annual income. It is also projected that the full build-out of phase one of BRT—MD-355, Veirs Mill Rd, Route 29—would bring in $871 million in net fiscal revenue to Montgomery County by 2040. The Route 29 BRT system will connect 16 shopping centers, nine federal offices, and 61,000 jobs lifting job opportunity scores which are as low as 25. Job growth in White Oak and Silver Spring alone is also projected to grow 80% by 2040. The Route 29 BRT system can help ensure this growth is equitable.

Building BRT along Route 29 is a chance for Montgomery to fulfill its progressive legacy

For decades Montgomery County has been a nationwide progressive leader on important policy issues, from inclusionary zoning program to environmental protection. Once again the county must be a bold progressive leader and build the Route 29 BRT system.

The burden of this past recession has fallen most heavily on the poor, and we have seen the high cost of poverty: forcing those who make the least to spend the most on simply living. During the recession, Montgomery County had the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region; from 2002-2016, poverty rose 59%.

Transportation determines who has access to what; there is no greater equalizer in creating opportunity than building transit. Increasing transit options in our suburbs is the next great civil rights battle, as inequality of mobility leads to inequality of opportunity. A BRT system will go a long way toward giving people chances to thrive in Montgomery County.


Some Silver Spring residents want a park instead of affordable housing

Montgomery County wants to turn the former Silver Spring library into affordable housing. Now neighbors are circulating a petition to make it a park instead, even though there's already a park next door.

The former Silver Spring Library. Photo from Google Street View.

Even before the Silver Spring Library moved to a new building last summer, Montgomery County has been trying to figure out what to do with its 1950's-era building and parking lot on Colesville Road.

In the past, Parks Department officials said they want to make it a recreation center. But that may not be necessary if the county goes with a proposal to build a bigger recreation center and aquatic center in a new apartment building a few blocks away.

This summer, county officials floated the idea of replacing the old library with affordable apartments for seniors and a childcare center. But some neighbors insist that the library become a recreation center and park, and are circulating a petition claiming that downtown Silver Spring has "no open space," that Silver Spring has enough housing, and that a park is the "green" solution.

Aerial of the former library site. Image from Google Maps altered by the author.

This isn't the first time some residents have raised these arguments, particularly when there's a proposal to build new homes. But Montgomery County has the right idea in using the old library for affordable housing.

You'd be surprised how much open space Silver Spring has

Would you believe me if I told you downtown Silver Spring had 38 acres of open space, or more than seven Dupont Circles? That's what the Montgomery County Planning Department found in a 2008 study of downtown green space.

Current and proposed "public use spaces" in downtown Silver Spring. Map from the Planning Department.

That number includes public parks, like the 14-acre Jesup Blair Park. But it also includes the open spaces Montgomery County requires developers to include in their projects, which has resulted in dozens of pocket parks and plazas, and even playgrounds around downtown.

Some of them are great, while others poorly designed and underused. But even the bad parks represent an opportunity to reclaim open space in downtown.

As a result of that 2008 study, county planners have encouraged developers to provide bigger parks, and now Silver Spring is poised to get them. A new, one-acre park will soon open at the Blairs as a placeholder for an even bigger set of parks. The Studio Plaza redevelopment off of Georgia Avenue will have a 13,000 square foot park.

There are also several public parks right next to downtown that are getting renovated or expanded, including Ellsworth Park and Woodside Park, or Fenton Street Park. Meanwhile, major regional parks like Rock Creek Park and Sligo Creek Park are two miles of downtown, giving urban dwellers easy access to nature.

Silver Spring still needs more new housing

Thousands of new homes have been built around downtown Silver Spring in recent years, and thousands more will come soon. That includes some buildings dedicated to affordable housing, including The Bonifant, which just opened this year.

But housing prices are already out of reach for many people and continue to rise. New two-bedroom apartments in Silver Spring can rent for upwards of $3,000 per month, while in the surrounding neighborhoods, some homes have quadrupled in value over the past 20 years.

Silver Spring has become an increasingly desirable area over the past 20 years. Even as new homes get built, they don't meet the demand from people who want to live here, so prices continue to go up. As a recent study from George Washington University notes, Silver Spring has remained diverse in spite of revitalization. That's partly because we do build new housing here, preventing the area from becoming even more unaffordable.

Building in downtown is the "green" solution

Today, the old Silver Spring Library is surrounded by a driveway and parking lots. Building here, on an already paved-over site, makes much more sense than paving over farms or forests. And building new homes here, in the middle of downtown Silver Spring, means that more people will be able to walk to shops and jobs and transit instead of driving long distances. Turning this site exclusively into green space means that existing green space somewhere else gets paved over.

New townhomes in downtown Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Silver Spring prides itself on its progressive politics and embrace of diversity. But fighting all new development is not progressive and ultimately makes our community less diverse. As President Obama said last week, communities that fight new housing become more expensive, less equal, and lose tremendous amounts of economic productivity.

That's not to say that the old library should become housing with no open space. The site is shaped like an "L," meaning that county officials could decide that part of it becomes housing and the rest becomes an extension of Ellsworth Park. That could meet some neighbors' concerns about open space, while meeting the very real demand for affordable housing.

If you agree, we have a petition of our own that we'll send to the Montgomery County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett, asking them to support housing on the former library site.

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