Greater Greater Washington

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Transit


Montgomery County says it can't build BRT, but there's money for new roads

Earlier this month, Montgomery County leaders released plans to fund transportation over the next two years. There's $300 million for building new roads, but not enough money to keep BRT moving forward or to increase current bus service.


BRT in Crystal City. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In 2013, Montgomery County approved a plan for an 81-mile bus rapid transit network. The idea was to alleviate congestion and keep Montgomery economically competitive. The first phase of BRT along Veirs Mill Rd, MD 355, and US 29 would intersect with key master plans like those for White Flint and White Oak while also providing rapid transit along a major east-west connector (Veirs Mill).

By 2040, Montgomery will have 70% more congestion, 40% more jobs and 20% more residents. Better transit, which BRT would achieve, is a way to address this coming challenge.

But recent attempts to actually fund it have met resistance. Many supporters of the system are worried about stalled progress. Now, BRT funding from the state is set to run out, and BRT's future in Montgomery could be in doubt.

Money that could bring BRT to Montgomery is currently set aside for roads

Every two years the County Executive submits a plan for capital improvements in what's called the Capital Improvement Plan. The CIP is a budget that encompasses 6 fiscal years and is amended every two. While council staff notes road funding has been down in recent years, it acknowledges that it still dwarfs that of other jurisdictions in the region.

One road in particular stands out as particularly expensive: Montrose Parkway East. With a price tag close to $140 million, Montrose Parkway East is 20 million dollars more expensive than it was two years ago. The project is in the Pike District, an area the county wants to encourage walkability, but building the road would only invite more people to drive.

Montrose Parkway East is an even more questionable use of public funds, considering the county has transit modeshare goals. Development of White Flint is literally dependent on transit, so why are we building a $140 Million road there?

There's still hope for funding BRT in Montgomery

There are ways to move BRT forward without moving money away from road projects: Council staff has suggested implementing special taxing districts, others have suggested working through existing systems and creating a pilot corridor, while County Executive Ike Leggett proposed creating an independent transit authority to fund it.

But transit advocates can push legislators to stop spending money on road projects, and instead invest that money in things like BRT. It takes a vote of at five council members to approve or modify a proposed improvement plan in the CIP, and six votes to amend a previously approved capital program.

If Montgomery officials are serious about a transit oriented future, they must reallocate funds from projects like Montrose Parkway East and put them toward making BRT a reality.

Montgomery County residents can testify at a public hearing on Feb 11 and contact their lawmakers via the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

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Snow


How would you grade the region's snow response?

The Kojo Nnamdi Show is asking how you would rate your government's response to the snowtorm, your neighbors', and your own. At 12:40, I'll be on the show to discuss this, and I asked our contributors for their ratings.


Photo by Clif Burns on Flickr.

Joe Fox gave a succinct set of ratings:

  • PEPCO/Dominion/BGE: A+. Don't forget what a disaster the last few real storms have been. Teaming up w/ plow trains & tree trimming crews meant that what problems that did pop up were fixed, and fast.
  • WMATA communication: A. They were ahead of the needs, and explained what they were doing and why.
  • MNCPPC [Montgomery and Prince George's parks agency]: A. Many of the county park roads were cleared, with bonus points for sanctioning sledding hills this year.
  • DC Government: B. Execution was good, but farther from downtown was rough. Bowser had some head scratcher remarks on cars vs. peds, as well as why no travel ban that were a bit hard to comprehend.
  • WMATA execution: C. Is it still a surprise that when OPM gives a three hour delay, that rush hour will happen three hours later, and to set up service accordingly? Even with trains every 8+ minutes, still no 8 car trains...
  • Citizens: C. These storms bring out the crazies, I noticed a lot more anger this time than in 2010. But sidewalks on private property were cleared faster than before.
  • Montgomery, Prince George's, and VDOT (handling VA counties): D+. They did what they could, but were woefully overmatched. Clumsy declarations of victory and broken data trackers brought up comparisons with PEPCO of days gone by.
  • National Park Service: F. [See below.]
Contributors' views varied, but overall, there was a good amount of consensus. Here are some key points and ratings, broken down by agency.

The National Park Service

The Park Service controls a lot of downtown parks and major trails around the region, but does very little on snow clearance. Contributors unanimously agreed it flunked the storm.

  • David Cranor: "The Park Service deserves a very low grade. The Mount Vernon Trail is one of the only ones that was not plowed (thought I don't know about the Rock Creek Park Trail). Sidewalks along NPS property were untouched. I realize they're budget limited, but something needs to be done."
  • Neil Flanagan wrote back on Monday: "On my walk to work, through downtown to Georgetown, most government sidewalks were walkable (if not clear), with the exception of NPS."

Photo by Bill Couch on Flickr.

WMATA

  • Kristy Cartier: WMATA gets an "A" for communication.
  • Abigail Zenner: I agree with Kristy about WMATA. Our ANC has battled with WMATA about better explanation on bus route changes. I was irritated they went to severe snow routes Friday morning, hours before the storm was due. BUT, they were very clear about when and where service would be restored and it was exactly as they said, at least in Glover Park.
  • Dan Malouff: WMATA I think was OK but a bit too gun-shy on closing everything early, and hasn't clearly communicated some stuff about reopening. For example, it's understandable that some buses have to go on detour, but Metro seems to have no system in place to let riders know if their bus is detouring or not.
  • Mathew Friedman: I rode the G2 to work Thursday morning for the first time since last Wednesday. It doesn't run from the "moderate" snow plan on up. Neither does the G8, which is a major route running down Rhode Island Avenue. From my neck of the woods, those are the only 2 bus lines that run downtown and for a full week, neither was running. I can at least walk 5 blocks to Shaw Metro if I need to, but for folks further out, that's not an option. I would think that taking so long to bring these bus routes and many others back online must leave a lot of people stranded.

    Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.
    • Steven Yates: WMATA's response was...mixed. Trying to shelter the trains was maybe a good theory, but the execution was obviously not great. Would it have been better to run the trains underground on Saturday instead? I'm inclined to say no, just because you probably don't want to be encouraging people to be out and about. The running of trains for free on Monday was certainly a nice gesture.
    • Travis Maiers: Metro is still operating at reduced service levels. They are apparently still short railcars due to the blizzard. I give them high marks for communicating their storm plan and being realistic on when service could be resumed, but I feel by now, 5 days later, they should be back at full service. Their plan to shut down the system for safety and to store railcars underground was prudent, but I'm not sure it was executed as well as it could have been.
    • Svet Neov: I think WMATA did pretty well, since almost everything was running on Tuesday. At my stop (Grosvenor) they did a great job cleaning the sidewalks—those were done wayyy before the parking lot was.
    DC
    • Abigail Zenner: I thought they did a great job all things considered. Even northern cities have trouble with storms of this size. I grade them a B+ or A-. The poor rhetoric notwithstanding, DC did well.

      I thought that many District agencies did a good job communicating on social media and through emails to ANCs. My ANC colleagues would then send information to our lists.

      [The Department of General Services] promised to clear areas around DCPS schools by midnight Monday and Tuesday morning, the sidewalks all the way around Stoddert Elementary was cleared including curb cuts and bus stops. I have never seen these walks cleared so fast. I did also tweet at DCPS, Stoddert, DPR, and DGS.


    Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.
    • Steve Seelig: From a cycling perspective in DC, it was great. I rode from Friendship to downtown on both Monday and Tuesday, and because only part of the roadways were plowed, there was plenty of room in the curb lanes to ride where a car could not fit.

      As for biking infrastucture plowing: an A+ for the Capital Crescent Trail -plowed from Bethesda to Georgetown. An F for NPS on any of its trails. DDOT gets a C+ for just getting to the L Street, M Street and 15th Street bike lanes.

    • Justin Lini: In DC's Ward 7, snow removal was a bit inconsistent. Parkside and a number of other communities saw plows nearly every day of the storm. In some cases, even blocks with public housing were cleared during the storm. However, some of my neighbors in other communities didn't see any attention at all until Monday.

      The Mayor's office also did daily briefings by teleconference with the ANCs. These were useful because they communicated DC government's plans so we could set expectations, but they also keyed us in on potential trouble. They also assigned us extra staff liaisons that could help resolve issues with trouble spots.

      We were able to get an important pedestrian bridge cleared by Monday evening. In the past this bridge was never consistently cleared even in routine snow events. I don't know if the other ANCs used their liaisons, but I found mine to be a good partner. I don't know if previous administrations employed this measure, but I thought it was very effective.

      Uncleared sidewalks are a huge problem in the ward. As of Tuesday many property owners, especially large apartment buildings and retail areas, did not clear sidewalks along some high volume corridors like Minnesota Ave NE. In some cases contractors had blocked sidewalks or intentionally used them to store piles of snow. Many crosswalks are also plowed over. The decision not to enforce sidewalk clearing laws on these properties until late was a big mistake that shouldn't be repeated.


    Mayfair Mansions, Ward 7, on Tuesday. Photo by Justin Lini.
    • Steven Yates: I can't really speak for other jurisdictions, but in my time here, I've been mostly impressed with how well DC handles large amounts of snow, given that these sorts of storms don't happen that often (oddly, smaller amounts of snow they seem to do less well with). This storm has been no exception. The street I live in (which is by no means a major street) was at least passable a few hours after the snow ended.
    Alexandria & Arlington

    • Ned Russell: Alexandria streets were far worse [than in DC] both for cars and pedestrians, not to mention the DASH bus service did not run even on a limited schedule to serve rush hour on Tuesday. Sidewalks across the station that peds need to use to access Braddock Road were not cleared until this morning.
    • Svet Neov: The only complaints, other than slow sidewalk cleanup, I've heard is dead end or small streets in Arlington which didn't get plowed until [Tuesday] night.

    King Street Metro. Photo by Justin Henry.

    Montgomery, Prince George's, and Fairfax

    • Ben Ross: "I grade MoCo an A- on street clearing but an F on sidewalks. Our businesses, at least in Bethesda, did very well on sidewalks, much better than in past big snowstorms. [But] 27 hours after it has finished opening the roads to cars, the county has announced, it will begin accepting complaints about unshoveled sidewalks.begin accepting complaints about unshoveled sidewalks 27 hours after it finishes opening roads to cars. Ike Leggett announced "common sense" enforcement of the snow shoveling law. In my mind, common sense means that if you have shoveled out your driveway, you should have shoveled the sidewalk.
    • Kristy Cartier: In Fairfax County, the roads had at least one lane Tuesday so I'd give them a B+ (only because there are disappearing lanes). For sidewalks, I would give a D. One person was walking on Rte. 50 near Rte. 28 and two people were standing on Reston Pkwy Wednesday morning waiting for the bus. I hope that the addition of the Silver Line stations improves Fairfax County's response to clearing at least some of the sidewalks.
    • Matt Johnson: I didn't have any trouble [Wednesday] morning. But [in the] afternoon, I had to go to an appointment in the city, and drove to Glenmont. On my way from Glenmont to the ICC, I discovered that the 3 northbound lanes are essentially functioning as 1. The curb lane never appeared, except for the dashes periodically peeking out from the edge of the snow. The center lane would run for a few blocks and then suddenly, without warning, disappear, forcing drivers to swerve into the left lane, the only one left.

      In addition, pedestrians were walking in the lane, since the sidewalks were impassible, and unaccessible from the buses that run on Georgia. On the day after the storm, this might be acceptable. But several days later, on one of the region's most important radial corridors, this is quite intolerable.

    • Joe Fox: I've noticed that roads maintained by both state agencies (MD SHA and VDOT) fared the worst, by far. I've posted several tweets about Colesville Road this morning, which, despite having the ability to reverse lanes, has gone from 3 lanes to one the last two days, wreaking havoc in the neighborhoods, and with a slew of bus lines.

      To me, the fact that county/local roads/sidewalks/paths seemed to fare a lot better brings to mind the argument that counties (Montgomery, Fairfax), should follow the lead of the independent cities in their respective states and take control over their transportation infrastructure (save for perhaps interstate highways and maybe toll roads) from the state agencies, who are simply not equipped to handle local issues like intersection design, traffic signals, and snow clearing.


    Photo by Aimee Custis.

    Overall

    • Svet Neov: Given the amount of snowfall I would give the region a B. I flew home on Monday morning after being stuck in Texas and used almost every mode of transportation in several places around the area. The airports were back up and running on Monday (as normal as possible). I flew into BWI which seemed to have no problems.
    • Ned Russell: After reading the discussion and thinking about all the things that go into snow response, I give the region a B-. But there are a lot of things that could have been done better.
    • Canaan Merchant: I'd give it a B-. For what we can expect of the region I think they did well. But to get an A they're going to have actually acknowledge that people like to use sidewalks, bike facilities and transit and work towards that as well.
    What grades would you give? Fill out the Kojo show's poll and post your thoughts in the comments. And listen in at 12:40 to hear me and Petula Dvorak discuss the issue.

    If you're reading this before 12:40, it's also worth tuning in to Kojo for a segment on whether high traffic fines change behavior (they don't), including Gabe Klein as one of the guests.

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  • Development


    There's a new group opposing a more urban Bethesda

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


    Downtown Bethesda today. Image from Google Earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Bicycling


    Silver Spring is getting a new protected bikeway

    Montgomery County has been stepping up its seriousness when it comes to building bike infrastructure. Next up? Silver Spring's first protected bikeway.


    Map of the proposed separated bike lanes. Screenschot by author. Image from Montgomery County.

    The county is considering protected lanes that would run for about a mile along Cedar and Spring Streets, between 2nd Avenue and Wayne Avenue. The route circles around the northern and eastern edges of downtown Silver Spring, close to many of its major destinations and connecting with bike routes along several cross streets.

    Another way to describe the lanes' location is to say they'll be right in the middle of Montgomery County's Bicycle and Pedestrian Priority Area for Silver Spring, which is where planners are looking to make biking and walking a safer, more appealing options.

    At the bikeway's western end (near Spring Street and Second Avenue), it will connect to the future Capital Crescent Trail, and at its eastern end (at Cedar Street and Wayne Avenue) it will connect to the future Silver Spring Green Trail; both trails are being built as part of the Purple Line.

    After Purple Line construction, the bikeway could extend to Sixteenth Street.

    Planners will unveil more specific designs at a public meeting on February 2nd. Those details would show what type of barriers will go up between the bikeway and traffic, and how the bikeway will cross intersections.

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    Parking


    NIH 2015: Growing without adding parking is "impossible." NIH 2016: Okay, it's possible.

    The National Institutes of Health won't add any new parking spaces to its campus after all. After saying "high-ranking scientists" were too important to take transit or carpool, NIH leaders have seen the error of their ways and modified the master plan to cap the parking.


    The NIH Master Plan.

    NIH last presented a draft master plan last April. The plan would add 3,000 employees to the Bethesda campus, and NIH wanted to build 1,000 new parking spaces for them.

    However, the National Capital Planning Commission rejected NIH's plan. NCPC has a policy that federal facilities outside DC but near Metro stations (like NIH) should have one space per three employees. NIH has 1 space per 2.3 employees, more than the NCPC standard.

    When NIH last updated its master plan, NCPC planners pushed NIH to work to reach the 1:3 level. But at the April meeting, NIH facilities director Ricardo Herring irritated NCPC commissioners by insisting that achieving that was "impossible" because "high-ranking scientists" just won't abide not being able to have their own free parking spaces.

    Apparently it's not actually impossible, because NIH has now changed its plan. Instead of adding 1,000 spaces, it will add zero, capping parking at the current level of 9,045. That would shift the parking ratio from 1:2.3 to 1:2.6.

    NCPC spokesperson Stephen Staudigl said in an email, "In response to our concerns, NIH suggested a cap on existing parking on the campus, as opposed to its previous proposal to add new parking. We see this cap as an interim step towards achieving a long-term goal of the 1:3 ratio. ... Looking forward, we plan to continue working with NIH staff in anticipation of its next master plan update in 2018, which should include a more detailed approach to parking reduction over time."

    The plan will consolidate much of the campus' surface parking into a few new parking garages. This will let NIH actually increase the percentage of open space on the campus from 36% to 39% while growing, because parking will drop from 9% of the land area to 5%.

    As NCPC commissioners pointed out in April, a public health organization, in particular, ought to recognize the value of having people not dependent on cars. Thanks to NCPC's pressure, it seems to have come around.

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    Transit


    This futuristic concept for the Bethesda station entrance has an even more futuristic Metro map

    Imagine that one day the Bethesda Metro station's entrance could look like this. Then look closely at that Metro map and imagine that we could have all of the extra, nonexistent Metro lines it shows.


    Image from Brookfield Properties.

    This rendering shows the escalators and stairs from the street level to the current bus bays. People entering Bethesda station from the street descend to the bus bay level, then continue into longer escalators continuing down.

    As Bethesda Magazine reports, Brookfield wants to build a high-rise building on top of what's now a large but mostly inert plaza, and create a "Bethesda Central Park" of more active and greener space.

    But Clark Enterprises, another developer in Bethesda whose headquarters are next door, wants to keep the space open to protect views from its buildings, and has designed a competing park plan that puts the park space closer to the street, atop Brookfield's land.

    Brookfield recently tried to sweeten the pot by proposing a big facelift for the bus bay level and the entrance. Neither company, however, is in a position to make one piece of this drawing a reality: that Metro map, which is not the real Metro map but actually Neil Flanagan's 2009 fantasy Metro map:


    Image from Neil Flanagan.

    Flanagan designed a Metro loop that's somewhat like the one WMATA has actually proposed, but larger, stretching out to U Street and Florida Avenue instead of staying downtown, and with a branch east of the Anacostia and out to National Harbor.

    This happens to be the same fantasy map Terry McAuliffe's campaign accidentally used in a flyer attacking his 2013 gubernatorial opponent, Ken Cuccinelli:


    Imag from the McAuliffe campaign.

    Presumably there's a search on Google Images or the like which brings up this map, and some graphic designers less well versed in the Metro system grab it, not realizing what it is. It's happened to maps I've made as well, like this 2008 MediaBistro ad or this graphic from one cheesesteak shop:

    It's always worth laughing at this phenomenon, though.

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    Development


    The White Flint Mall has become a ghost land. Here are some pictures.

    There's a lawsuit holding up redevelopment of Montgomery County's White Flint Mall, but the 70s-era structure itself is almost completely gone. Deconstruction will likely be complete by the time we get snow.


    A look from the west side of the property. You can clearly see the central elevator shaft here. All photos by the author.

    Here's background on the mall from my first post with photos of the tear down, in early September:

    Developer Lerner Enterprises wants to turn the mall into a new urban neighborhood with shops, housing, and a new street grid. It's one part of Montgomery County's plans to make the larger White Flint area into a new downtown.

    But department store Lord & Taylor, which still has a store at the mall, says that violates a promise Lerner made in 1975 to keep the mall a mall, and filed a lawsuit against the developer last year. Last month, a Maryland judge ruled in favor of Lord & Taylor and said Lerner has to pay them $31 million in "lost profits," which the Lerners say could imperil their plans to redevelop the site.


    A shot from the south. The golden, round shape is one of the mall's glass elevators.

    These two photos are from near the old main entrance. The elevator tower in the front is the Borders Bookstore elevator.

    Lord and Taylor is actually now separated from the mall structure: There's a vertical space just above the right side of the planter, and the department store is on the right while the mall is to the left.

    I hope to talk to the management of North Bethesda Market and get a shot from on high once the last parts are down and carted away early next year.

    If you've ever wondered how it feels to live in a desolate wasteland that may not recover because of your own lawsuits, just ask Lord and Taylor.

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