Posts about Montgomery
Last month, downtown Wheaton got a new Safeway, complete with 17 floors of apartments on top. While the new building gives Wheaton a skyline, it also has a lot of above-ground parking and blank walls, making the surrounding streets less inviting to pedestrians.
The Exchange, a new apartment building with a ground-level Safeway, towers over downtown Wheaton. All photos by the author.
Downtown Wheaton is having a residential boom, with 900 apartments in various stages of construction. Over half of them are in the Exchange, which is located across from the Metro station at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive and has a Safeway on its ground floor.
It's one of several residential projects with supermarkets being built around the region. Representatives from developer Patriot Realty says they were inspired by the Safeway with housing above at CityVista in Mount Vernon Square. There's also a Safeway with apartments above being built in Petworth, and a Giant with housing recently opened at the old O Street Market in Shaw.
Wheaton is one of the highest points in Montgomery County, and placing an 17-story building on top means it can be seen for miles in each direction. The county's plan for Wheaton calls for many more buildings like the Exchange, but for now it towers over the downtown's one- and two-story strip malls. And it fills most of a city block, meaning it faces not one, but three streets.
Seen from Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the Exchange (left) looks like three smaller towers. The Computer Building is on the right.
Baltimore-based architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht tried to visually reduce the building's mass by making each wing look like a separate "tower." From many points in downtown Wheaton, it actually does resemble a cluster of small, thin towers.
It works well with the other buildings on Georgia Avenue that are being built or were built a few years ago. The Exchange's "towers" pair nicely with the Computer Building, an office building one block away that's being converted into a 14-story apartment tower. Together, they create an interesting rhythm with the two other mid-rise buildings on the same block, which were built in the mid-2000's, and the six-story Solaire Wheaton across the street, which will open later this month.
Of course, the Exchange also has ground-floor retail, unlike all of those other buildings. The Safeway and an attached Starbucks have lots of big windows facing Georgia Avenue and even an outdoor patio with seating, which will likely attract people and make the sidewalks active when it's warm out.
But the building's structured parking garages threaten to undermine all of the good design features it has. The "towers" sit atop a podium containing several stories of parking for residents. The Safeway sits below that, at street level, and below it is another parking garage for grocery shoppers. Together, the parking garage and Safeway are about as tall as the mid-rise MetroPointe apartments next door.
Montgomery County's zoning code requires lots of parking in new apartment buildings, even when they're literally across the street from a Metro station. Underground parking can be really expensive to build and the foundation could have impacted the Metro station, even though it's one of the world's deepest. So the developer chose to put some of it above ground, and some below.
That means if you stand in front of the Safeway and look up, you see several floors of dark "windows" meant to make the parking garage blend with the apartments above. Around the corner on Reedie Drive, people leaving the Metro pass blank walls. The building's on a steep hill, so you're walking next to the parking garage, not the Safeway. If there wasn't so much parking, there could have been some small shops here instead.
Turn the corner again to Fern Street and there's basically six stories of blank wall facing Veterans Park: loading docks and shopper parking at the street level (it's set into the hill, so you can't see it from Georgia); the double-height windows of the Safeway, all of which are papered over; and three stories of resident parking.
Urban parks should have buildings with entrances and windows and storefronts facing them, which give people a reason to visit the park and provide "eyes on the street" that make it safer. There's already a public parking garage on one side of the park, and it's disappointing that the designers and developers didn't take the opportunity to do something different, or that Montgomery County didn't make them.
It's likely that many residents won't bring cars to the Exchange given its proximity to Metro and location in a walkable neighborhood. If the developer had been able to build less parking, there may have been more opportunities to shape the building's mass to make it feel even less bulky. And there may not have been as many blank walls. There could actually be apartments and shops looking out onto Veterans Park.
Montgomery County's working on a new zoning code that would demand less parking near transit, but it's too late for this building. It's unfortunate, because the Exchange sits on a really prominent site in downtown Wheaton. It's also the first high-rise to be built there, meaning it will set the tone for decades of future development.
In some ways, the Exchange is a good precedent for the projects to come. But it may also be a cautionary tale, showing developers what not to do.
On narrow sidewalks, there's often a tension between different users and activities. But sidewalks in an urban place need to make room for people to do more than just walk through.
On Black Friday, I went to the Apple Store in Bethesda Row to get my computer checked out. Though the area is a really popular destination for shopping and dining, the sidewalks are surprisingly narrow, and seemingly designed to make walking difficult and unpleasant.
Here's the sidewalk two doors down from the Apple Store on Bethesda Avenue. Next to the curb, there's a row of big, mature street trees in large, fenced-off planters. Where the buildings step back, there's also a little seating area with some benches.
The level of the street falls about a foot here, meaning the seating area is actually below the sidewalk. So there's a brick wall around the benches, just in case anyone falls.
That leaves about four feet for the actual sidewalk, which becomes a narrow channel between the storefronts and the brick wall. Since it's also on an incline, there's a railing to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, blocking off about a foot of sidewalk between the railing and the storefronts.
On a busy day, or frankly on any day when people are outside, you can watch folks struggle to pass each other through this slalom course: shoppers with bags, parents with strollers, or groups of friends chatting. They look down to avoid eye contact, form a single-file line, or swivel their bodies to squeeze through. The sidewalk discourages strolling or lingering here, which is part of the attraction of Bethesda Row.
Given, this is right across from Bethesda Lane, a pedestrian-only street. And Bethesda Avenue itself is a pretty narrow and slow-moving street, which is much nicer to walk along than Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, where the sidewalks are similarly pedestrian-hostile but there's far more car traffic.
But it still shows what happens when designers and engineers don't really think about the experience of walking through a place. Bethesda Row has most of the pieces to be a great place to hang out and gather, and most of the time it works really well. But poorly-designed sidewalks make it hard to enjoy being here.
After 5 years of study, Montgomery County approved a plan for a 10-route, 81-mile Bus Rapid Transit network this morning. If built, it could be the nation's largest BRT network.
The County Council unanimously voted for a plan to set aside road space for BRT on several major roads, including Route 355, Route 29, Georgia Avenue, and Veirs Mill Road, all of which already have high rates of transit use. It proposes dedicated bus lanes in 78% of the network, whether by repurposing existing lanes or widening roads to add new ones.
Supporters say the plan will give travelers an alternative to sitting in traffic while supporting future sustainable growth in places like White Flint and White Oak. "There's no real way forward in this county without transit," says Councilmember Marc Elrich, who first proposed a BRT network in 2008.
Now that the plan's approved, the county can begin detailed work on specific routes. Department of Transportation director Art Holmes wants to look at Route 355, Route 29, and Randolph Road first, while the Maryland State Highway Administration is already studying BRT on Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road.
The approved BRT network. Red are corridors with at least one dedicated lane, blue are mixed-traffic, and purple are sections to be determined.
The plan has been controversial. While many civic, environmental, activist, and business groups endorsed BRT, a vocal minority in neighborhoods like Four Corners and Chevy Chase West fought the plan based on claims that it would take their property or endanger their children.
In response, councilmembers added language to the plan that would create more opportunities for public input. Each BRT corridor will have its own Citizens Advisory Committee of local stakeholders. And the council approved an amendment from Councilmember Valerie Ervin to not allow funding for BRT projects unless there's a public hearing first.
"We've taken almost unprecedented steps in this plan to make sure our communities are engaged," said Councilmember Roger Berliner, chair of the council's transportation committee.
Though all nine councilmembers voted for the plan, not all of them were satisfied with it. Echoing many skeptics of BRT, Councilmember Nancy Floreen noted that most Montgomery County residents drive, and that the BRT may not deliver as promised. "Montgomery County is largely suburban, and I think it's going to stay that way," she said.
It's true that this plan won't solve all of the county's transportation issues, as skeptics and opponents frequently point out. But the alternatives, whether it's improving existing bus service, building more highways, or extending Metro, are either too small, too destructive, or too expensive to really make a difference. And in a county with a growing number of car-free residents, increasing transit use, and an eagerness to attract young people, finding cost-effective ways to expand our transit network can do a lot of good.
Montgomery County has a million residents and 500,000 workers, 60% of whom live and work here. Cities half our size wouldn't think twice about investing in better transit. While the fight may not be over, we just made a pragmatic step in the right direction.
It may be a few years until the Purple Line arrives in Silver Spring, but this past Saturday the Action Committee for Transit offered a fun preview by dressing up as a light-rail train in the Montgomery County Thanksgiving Parade.
ACT members and supporters marched in the 16th annual parade wearing Purple Line train costumes and blowing train whistles. Barbara Ditzler of Silver Spring designed a six-person Purple Line train costume, complete with Styrofoam plate wheels. And a fifth-grader at Clearspring Elementary School in Damascus made a train costume for her and her family out of painted cardboard boxes.
The group already has big plans for next year's parade, including even more train costumes and possibly a dance routine. If you have a costume or song in mind, feel free to visit ACT's website and get in touch with us. We have only 12 months to prepare for the 2014 parade!
The sidewalk on the east side of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring just got a makeover, with new brick pavers and street trees. But will it have enough room for everyone who wants to use it?
Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) managed the $650,000 project, which began this summer and lasted about five months. The agency's main goal was to level and lower the sidewalk to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It replaced the existing concrete sidewalk, built in the 1980s, with sturdier and more attractive brick pavers, and created large new bumpouts at some intersections.
The new sidewalk is very attractive and will hopefully encourage visitors and shoppers to stray from the Ellsworth Drive strip and check out the businesses on Georgia. But it also reveals the tension between different users on Silver Spring's often-cramped sidewalks.
DHCA also removed all of the mature Zelkova trees along Georgia, arguing that the sidewalk reconstruction would disturb the trees and kill them. The new trees are Princeton or Lacebark Elm trees, which will apparently improve the visibility of shops and restaurants from the street.
The old sidewalks had trees in tree grates, allowing room that businesses could put out tables and chairs and leave enough sidewalk for people to walk past comfortably. But the new trees now sit in long, wide planter boxes with little gaps in between for street lights or people getting out of parked cars.
This isn't the only place in downtown Silver Spring with new planters. The county's Department of Transportation (MCDOT) also installed the same planters along Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, except with three-foot-high hedges. Some planters, like one on Fenton Street, extend for most of a city block to discourage jaywalking.
In 2009, when planning on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk project started, county-hired arborist Steve Castrogiovanni recommended doing the same thing with the new trees to "strike a [balance] between the trees' needs and the needs of pedestrians." But officials endorsed the bigger planters, saying it would give the trees more soil and help them live longer.
Street trees have a lot of health and environmental benefits. They can provide a feeling of enclosure on a street or sidewalk, calming traffic on busy streets like Georgia Avenue, and making pedestrians feel safer.
However, these planter boxes seem to provide the wrong kind of enclosure. Crowded sidewalks can be a good thing, creating a feeling of excitement and vitality on a city street. But when you push pedestrians and outdoor dining tables into too small a space, it can feel uncomfortable, and people won't want to stick around and spend money.
That's why restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum, who owns Jackie's, Sidebar, and Quarry House Tavern, all on Georgia Avenue, didn't want trees planted on the narrow sidewalk outside her businesses. "THIS WILL ELIMINATE MUCH OF MY PATIO SEATING!" she wrote in a 2010 email to DHCA. "This is NOT an improvement and is unnecessary, even undesirable." In the end, DHCA agreed not to plant any there.
Having healthy street trees and vibrant sidewalks aren't mutually exclusive. DHCA could have still created a bigger soil pit for the trees, giving them room to grow, while putting tree grates or permeable pavers on top, ensuring that there's still enough sidewalk space.
Wider sidewalks mean ample room for walking, for dining, and for nature. Photo by Jim Malone on Flickr.
And if county officials really wanted planters, they could have at least used a more attractive design, like these low, stone planters in NoMa that provide space for trees and plants while staying out of the way. Or they could have looked at a bioswale that cleans and filters stormwater in addition to looking pretty.
The real issue isn't the planters, but that the sidewalks on Georgia Avenue aren't appreciably wider. DHCA's project was simply to make the sidewalks meet ADA regulations.
This sidewalk may not get rebuilt for another 30 years, meaning we've missed an opportunity to have a larger conversation about how Georgia Avenue works. Wider sidewalks mean we wouldn't have to decide between landscaping, walking space, and outdoor seating. They mean we could have added new features, like benches, or a "shared use trail" for cyclists similar to the Green Trail on Wayne Avenue.
Doing this would require taking space for cars, which today constitutes the vast majority of Georgia Avenue, and giving it back to people. While that would probably be bad for drivers passing through, it would ultimately be a good thing for downtown Silver Spring, whose historic main street would become a more attractive, pleasant, and safer place to walk and spend time.
M-83, also known as Midcounty Highway Extended, is an environmental calamity that will cost hundreds of millions. Yet Montgomery County continues to pursue its construction. Will county leaders consider a transit alternative to a new highway?
When Montgomery County planners put M-83 on the master plan of highways in the early 1960s, the county's population was 340,000. DC's streetcars had recently gone away. And highways were the future of transportation. Today, the county population is one million, DC is about to bring back the streetcar, and highway removal is common. But M-83, the county's zombie highway, is still around.
This Thursday, the Planning Board will review alternatives for the proposed highway between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg. But planning staff recommends that they ask the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) to study a transit alternative as well, and remove the alternative with the most property takings.
Highway laid out according to 1960s standards
Midcounty Highway was supposed to be an 8.7-mile, limited access, four to six lane highway east of Route 355, connecting the planned corridor cities of Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Clarksburg. The county has built the southern end, a 3-mile divided highway between Shady Grove Road and Montgomery Village Avenue in Gaithersburg. And developers recently built the northern end, called Snowden Farm Parkway, in Clarksburg.
The Planning Board last reviewed the remaining middle part of M-83 in 1992, but for over a decade, not much happened due to a lack of money. In 2003, MCDOT began to study building the rest of M-83 along the master plan route. But that route dates from before the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), when planners thought it was a good idea to put highways in stream valleys.
So the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) got involved. And MCDOT had to follow NEPA's requirement to identify alternatives and evaluate the environmental effects.
In May 2013, MCDOT issued its draft report on the environmental effects. The Army Corps of Engineers and MDE then held a public hearing in August about MCDOT's application for a permit to build M-83. They have yet to publish their findings.
Planning staff recommend studying a transit alternative
But this week, the Planning Board will nonetheless review the master plan route and its alternatives. In a report issued last week, planning staff say that MCDOT should evaluate a transit alternative, including the planned bus rapid transit (BRT) route along 355, and that MCDOT's transportation systems management/transportation demand management (TSM/TDM) alternative should also include BRT along 355.
Their analysis suggests that the area can meet its transportation needs through 2040 without M-83. They also note that the 355 BRT corridor would have the second-highest daily ridership of the 10 proposed transit corridors in the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan.
MCDOT says they didn't look at a transit alternative because Montgomery County has not adopted any plans for BRT. They also did not consider transit in their TSM/TDM alternative, even though TSM/TDM usually includes transit.
The staff report's recommendation will please M-83's opponents, including Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended (TAME) and the Action Committee for Transit, who have been calling for years for MCDOT to study a transit alternative.
County planners also recommend asking MCDOT to eliminate the alternative route through Goshen, which would involve widening existing two- and four-lane roads. The Planning Board already recommended eliminating the route in 1992. Some community groups have strongly opposed this alternative in favor of the master plan route so that M-83 wouldn't go through their neighborhoods. If the threat from this alternative route goes away, some of the support for M-83 along the master plan route will probably go away as well.
MCDOT's report underestimates environmental and property impacts
In addition, the staff report points out problems with MCDOT's evaluation of environmental effects. For example, MCDOT reports that if M-83 isn't built, 16 intersections will exceed traffic congestion standards. But the staff report notes that at least 6 of these intersections are south of M-83 and would also exceed the standard under all of the alternative routes, including the master plan route.
Similarly, MCDOT's traffic modeling estimates a 55% reduction in travel time for the master plan route and a 37% reduction for Alternative 5, compared to not doing anything at all. (Alternative 5 proposes widening Route 355 and adding service roads.) The staff report notes that the 37% reduction represents a trip that is 3 minutes shorter.
The staff report also points out that MCDOT used a roadway width of less than 150 feet to estimate how many properties each alternative route would disturb or displace. However, 150 feet is the standard roadway width in the current county road code. In addition, MCDOT did not estimate how many properties stormwater management and noise abatement measures might affect. Thus, MCDOT's estimates of the number of affected properties are probably too low.
As for the cost of building M-83, MCDOT estimates for the build alternatives range from $41 million for the TSM/TDM alternative to $357 million for the master plan route. But these estimates are probably too low as well.
According to the staff report, MCDOT's estimates of environmental impacts do not account for stormwater management and the effects of retaining walls. For example, the master plan route would require a retaining wall 400 feet long along Great Seneca Creek, most of which would be in the flood plain within 20-30 feet of the stream channel.
Along Whetstone Run, the master plan route would have to be built on fill, with a retaining wall next to the stream channel. And while the smaller stream reaches may not have delineated flood plains, they have wetlands that function much like flood plains.
What's more, much of the master plan route goes through parkland, including Great Seneca Creek Park and the North Germantown Greenway Stream Valley Park. According to the staff report, the master plan route would have "calamitous" effects on 3 of the largest biodiversity areas in the county, far beyond the official limits of disturbance. And the staff report recommends mitigating impacts on parkland through a combination of trails, environmental projects, and replacement of parkland with land of equal or greater value.
So how much would it cost to build M-83, including parkland mitigation and the environmental requirements of building across streams and along stream valleys? Presumably more than MCDOT estimates.
For now, asking MCDOT to evaluate a transit alternative is a good idea, and so is repeating the Planning Board's 20-year-old request to remove the alternative route through Goshen. But ultimately, it's time for Montgomery County to say no at last to this environment-destroying, obsolete, expensive highway.
Perhaps in the early 1960s, transportation meant moving cars, and the environment was supposed to make way for progress. But it's 2013. Shouldn't we know better by now?
The Planning Board will review the alternatives for Midcounty Highway in Silver Spring on Thursday, November 21, beginning at 6 pm. If you want the Planning Board review to include your thoughts about this project, you can send written comments by e-mail through Wednesday.
It's been 5 years since Montgomery County first started talking about a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, but the County Council could vote on the proposed 81-mile system in two weeks. While the latest round of revisions are good, will councilmembers resist calls from a few residents to cut BRT routes in their neighborhoods?
The draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan designates future transit corridors and recommends how to allocate space on our major roads for them. While business, civic, activist, and environmental groups say planning for transit will reduce traffic and support future growth, some residents are fighting to block the plan.
Councilmember Roger Berliner, who sits on the council's Transportation and Energy committee, emphasized that it's only the beginning of a longer conversation. "This is a predicate for future action," he said. "Just like when we put the Purple Line in our master plan, we said, 'Hey, this might be a good idea.'"
Committee backs away from detailed recommendations
Committee members Berliner and Hans Riemer voted to keep all 10 lines in the system, but made several changes to a draft the Planning Board approved earlier this year. But third committee member Nancy Floreen, who says she's "not an advocate" of the plan, voted to shorten several or remove several lines, as recommended by council staff.
The latest recommendations for BRT. Red are corridors with at least one dedicated lane, blue are mixed-traffic, and purple are sections to be determined.
The committee voted to remove specific recommendations about how to give buses their own dedicated lanes, whether by widening roads or repurposing existing general traffic lanes. This is probably the most important feature about BRT because it makes the service faster, encouraging more people to use it. But it's also the least popular with neighbors, and some of the proposed configurations had issues.
Instead, the plan will say where buses should have their own lanes, but not how to do so. This is probably a good thing, because the county would really have to do more detailed engineering work that's beyond the scope of this plan before understanding the costs and benefits of different lane configurations. As before, about 70% of the network would run buses in some form of dedicated lanes.
Resisting calls to shrink the network
Councilmembers were split on whether to continue a BRT line along Route 355 between downtown Bethesda and Friendship Heights, which neighbors in Chevy Chase West and Somerset have vehemently fought. Councilmember Hans Riemer voted to keep it in, while Nancy Floreen voted to end the line farther north, at Grosvenor. Berliner, who represents the area, voted to study it further. Unless the full council decides otherwise, it won't be in the plan.
But the committee did vote to put dedicated lanes along portions of University Boulevard in Four Corners and Route 29 south of New Hampshire Avenue, resisting vocal opposition from neighbors. Route 29 is already one of the region's busiest bus corridors, with 40 buses per hour during rush hour, and would serve the proposed White Oak Science Gateway, a research and development center that's already attracting international attention.
On Georgia Avenue, the committee backed away from giving buses dedicated lanes between downtown Wheaton and 16th Street, citing "severe congestion consequences" if any of the 6 or 7 lanes were given over to transit. But councilmembers did keep the lanes south of 16th Street, in case DC decides to extend its proposed Georgia Avenue streetcar to Silver Spring.
In some areas, committee members recommended alternative or multiple routes for each line. In Germantown, they suggested detouring buses off of Route 355 to serve Montgomery College and the proposed Holy Cross Hospital. And in White Oak, they suggested keeping buses on Route 29 instead of turning onto Lockwood Drive to reach the White Oak Transit Center. Both options are in the plan, but each one is a tradeoff between a more direct route and one that serves the most people or destinations, but takes longer.
The committee also strengthened recommendations for Bicycle Pedestrian Priority Areas, which require additional pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure to make it easier for people to reach BRT stations and other destinations without a car. While the original plan simply named 26 areas where this should happen, the committee also called for lower speed limits and prohibiting right turns on red, among other suggestions.
This bus can't stop short
If the council votes to approve the plan November 26, detailed work can begin on specific corridors. Maryland is already working on the Corridor Cities Transitway and studying BRT on Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue. Montgomery County also wants to start working on BRT for Route 355, Route 29, and Randolph Road, says transportation director Art Holmes.
Many skeptical residents have questioned whether the multi-billion dollar cost of building out a BRT network is worth it and worried about how it might affect their neighborhoods or their individual commutes. The debate has often become bitter and vitriolic, and many opponents weren't always civil.
But as our region continues to grow, our neighbors are looking to BRT as a way to give people more transportation options at a lower cost than building rail. Alexandria will open its first BRT line next year. Prince George's and Fairfax counties are also studying BRT, and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has expressed interest in it as well.
A plan like this is uncharted territory for Montgomery County, and the debate we've had over the past 5 years shows it. But we've already made it this far, and hopefully councilmembers will make sure this bus doesn't stop prematurely.
A version of this post appeared on the Friends of White Flint.
Talk about upcoming elections in DC and Maryland, planning in Arlington, and find out how Vienna, Austria got its affordable housing at events around the region this week.
Transit reporters talk politics: How will Smart Growth issues affect the 2014 elections in DC and Maryland? Tonight (Tuesday), the Action Committee for Transit will host a panel discussion on transit and the election with the Washington Post's Robert Thomson, also known as "Dr. Gridlock," Ari Ashe from WTOP, and Josh Kurtz from the blog Center Maryland. Kyjta Weir, former Washington Examiner reporter and currently at the Center for Public Integrity, will moderate.
This free meeting will be from 7:30-9 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. For more information, visit ACT's website.
After the jump: Events in Arlington, Fairfax, Hyattsville, and of course, our next happy hour in Penn Quarter.
Hear Leinberger talk about Arlington: Arlington County's planning department kicks off its new speaker series tomorrow (Wednesday) with author and researcher Christopher Leinberger, who will give a talk called "The Urbanization of the Suburbs: Why Arlington is the National Model and Where Do We Go Next." This free event will include a Q&A session with the speaker as well as a networking reception.
The talk is Wednesday, November 13 from 6-7 pm at the Artisphere, located at 1101 Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn. To RSVP or for more information, visit the county's website.
Spend Virginia's transportation money: Virginia's newly-passed transportation funding bill means new money for projects in Fairfax County. How should the county spend it? Fairfax County is holding its final two meetings this week to learn what residents want and find the best ways to get them moving.
The first is tonight, November 12 from 6:30-8:30 pm at the County Government Center at 12000 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax. The second is tomorrow, November 13 from 6:30-8:30pm at Forest Edge Elementary School, located at 1501 Becontree Lane in Reston. For more information, visit the Fairfax County website.
Learn about Bus Rapid Transit on Route 29: Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are holding an open house to talk about one of Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit lines, on Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville.
Speakers include Planning Board commissioner Casey Anderson, county planner Larry Cole, Chuck Lattuca from the Department of Transportation, and transit advocate Mark Winston. The meeting is from 6-9 pm at the White Oak Community Recreation Center, located at 1700 April Lane in Silver Spring.
Testify on DC's zoning rewrite: DC's Zoning Commission is considering the first update to the city's zoning code since 1958 in a series of public hearings over the next two weeks. There are three: hearings this week: Tuesday will cover car and bicycle parking, Wednesday mixed-use zones, and Thursday downtown, PDR (industrial), and special zones.
The hearings are at the Office of Zoning, 441 4th Street NW at Judiciary Square. Each hearing starts at 6 pm and continues until all the witnesses are heard or the Zoning Commission decides to recess.
Tuesday's parking and bike parking hearing is now full, but you can still sign up for the overflow hearing the next Tuesday, 11/19.
...and in Montgomery County: Montgomery planners have also rewritten their zoning code to modernize antiquated, redundant zoning regulations and create new tools to help achieve goals in community plans. The County Council will hold public hearings on its zoning code update tonight and Thursday at 7:30 pm at the Council Office Building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. It's too late to sign up for tonight, but you can register to testify on Thursday by calling 240-777-7803 until 5 pm on Wednesday.
...and Prince George's County, too (sort of): The County Council is holding a public hearing tonight on Plan Prince George's 2035, a vision for how the county should grow in the future. The hearing starts at 7pm at the County Administration Building, 14741 Governor Oden Bowie Drive in Upper Marlboro. To sign up to testify, you can register online.
Join us for happy hour: GGW's regular happy hour series rolls into Penn Quarter this month. Join contributors and readers for drinks and discussion next Thursday, November 21 from 6 to 9pm at Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, located at 639 Indiana Avenue NW, across from the Archives Metro station.
Let's talk affordable housing: Join the Housing Opportunities Commission, Montgomery Housing Partnership, and Coalition for Smarter Growth for a talk about Vienna, Austria's city-run housing program. Wolfgang Förster, Vienna's Chief of Housing Research, will discuss how to create more affordable housing in the DC region. This talk is today from 2 to 3:30pm at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, located at 5701 Marinelli Road in White Flint.
Let's talk buses on Rhode Island Avenue: Do you ride the G8, 81, 82, 83, 84, 86, or T18 on Rhode Island Avenue? If so, join Metro for one of two public meetings on proposed service changes to these routes. The first is tonight from 6 to 7:30pm at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library, located at Rhode Island Avenue & 7th Street NW in Shaw, followed by another one tomorrow from 6 to 7:30pm at Hyattsville City Hall, located at 4310 Gallatin Street in Hyattsville.
And even more: WMATA will hold a webinar on its Regional Transit System Plan tomorrow from 12 to 1pm; the University of the District of Columbia is hosting a conference on sustainability about Hamburg, Germany on Thursday and Friday.
Wheaton residents want a new recreation center, but historic preservationists say the current one, where Led Zeppelin allegedly played a show in 1969, should stay. On Thursday, the Montgomery County Planning Board will hold a public hearing about whether to make the Wheaton Youth Center a historic landmark.
County officials are already planning to demolish the Wheaton Youth Center and adjacent Wheaton Regional Library, both on Georgia Avenue a few blocks north of downtown, and replace them with a new, combined facility that would also hold the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, the county's welcome center for immigrants and new residents. The county has set aside $36 million to build the complex, which could open as early as 2016.
Everyone seems to agree that the library, a brown bunker built in 1960 and renovated in 1985, deserves to go. Some feel the same about the youth center, citing its leaky roof, moldy carpeting and broken kitchen appliances. But historic preservationists want to save the Japanese-inspired building, whose concerts with nationally touring bands are the subject of a new documentary. One county planner has proposed a way to build a new building while saving the old one.
Youth center gave Wheaton a music scene
During the 1950's, Montgomery County noticed that local teens were anxious for places to hang out but had nowhere to go. The Park and Planning Commission proposed building "youth centers" across the county where teens could gather and hired renowned local architecture firm Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon to design them, but only two were built, in Bethesda and Wheaton.
The Velours play at the Wheaton Youth Center in the 1960's. Photo from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
The Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963 and won an award from the American Institute of Architects for design excellence. Architect Arthur Keyes, who passed away in 2012, said Japanese architecture inspired the youth center, from the curved rooftop to rooms based on the proportions of 3-by-6 foot tatami mats. Fresh and exotic at the time, the design seemed to fit the idealism of its young clients.
And it worked: the Wheaton Youth Center quickly became a cornerstone of the youth scene, first hosting local teen bands, then later nationally-touring musicians like Rod Stewart, Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, and Led Zeppelin, which reportedly played their first US show there in 1969. Those who were around at the time say the youth center's Battle of the Band contests helped bridge the gaps between blue-collar Wheaton kids, who enjoyed R&B and soul music, and white-collar kids in Bethesda who preferred rock-and-roll.
The youth center eventually lost its hold on the music scene. The Recreation Department staff who supported the concerts moved on, and larger, dedicated spaces opened for touring bands to play at, like the Capital Centre in Landover, which opened in 1973.
But Wheaton remained a place where kids came to hear and make music. During the 1990's, the club Phantasmagoria a few blocks away hosted touring bands and anchored the regional ska scene before the county bought and turned it into the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity in 2001. The center moved to Wheaton Regional Library a few years later.
Can we remix the youth center?
It's clear the existing library, youth center and Gilchrist Center aren't meeting the community's needs. Residents are impatient for a new recreation center and library, and County Council President Nancy Navarro says she's worried that historic designation could get in the way.
And architects Grimm + Parker's early designs for a new facility are promising. It brings the building right up to Georgia Avenue, asserting its presence as a significant community institution and gathering place and making it easier for those coming by foot, on bike, or on transit to get there.
Planner John Carter's proposal for saving the youth center while building a new, smaller facility next door. Both images from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
But the current youth center is by no means beyond repair, and there could be a way to save it while giving Wheaton the new recreation center and library people want. In a memo to the Planning Board, county planner John Carter proposes restoring and reusing the youth center as the new Gilchrist Center, while building a new, smaller rec center and library next door.
The result is a sort of "campus" of public buildings with a play area and amphitheatre in the middle, as opposed to having it off to the side as originally proposed. The Gilchrist Center gets its own space instead of being on the second floor of a larger building. Wheaton gets a new rec center and library, while saving a unique part of its architectural and musical identity.
Buildings can be a part of music history
Some downplay the Wheaton Youth Center's significance to music history. The Gazette ran an editorial asking "since when has rock 'n' roll been about bricks and mortar?"
The answer's obvious to anyone who's been to CBGB in New York, which helped spawn punk and New Wave in the 1970's; 924 Gilman in Berkeley, the all-ages space where Green Day got its start; or even the Birchmere in Alexandria, which developed DC's bluegrass scene. Music doesn't happen in a vacuum: it happens in places, with people and scenes and, yes, physical buildings.
There's no shortage of buildings from the 1950's and 1960's in Montgomery County, many of which are past their useful life and were rightfully demolished and replaced, like the old Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, built in 1969. Other buildings, like the Flower Theatre in Long Branch, have lost much of their original features but still have some things worth saving. And a select few have not only the architectural but cultural significance to justify saving them, like the Wheaton Youth Center.
Montgomery County is fortunate enough to have the means to build new, state-of-the-art public buildings, whether with the Wheaton Youth Center in 1963 or its potential replacement today. The community needs a new recreation center and library, but that doesn't mean we should simply wipe the slate clean. Whether or not Led Zeppelin played at the Wheaton Youth Center, there's plenty of merit to save it.
Update: The Planning Board voted to recommend giving the Wheaton Youth Center historic designation.
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