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The dilemma for young people in Montgomery County

You're a Millennial working in Montgomery County. You want to be close to work, but you also want to be close to the action. Can you find both here? Sort of.


If you're a Millennial in Montgomery County, you might want to live in North Bethesda. Photo by the author.

That's something county leaders have been working on. Three years ago, Montgomery County began its Night Time Economy Initiative to bring in businesses by attracting the Millennial (or young adults born between 1982 and 2000) they wish to employ. Noting studies saying Millennials want to live in urban (or urban-lite) settings, the county has been redeveloping its town centers, building bike lanes, and revising liquor laws.

While the nation's largest generation isn't a monolith, there's some truth to the narrative. The county's young professionals tend to live near its job centers, transit lines, and favored hangouts. That generally means Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville.

That said, for those who want the urban experience, the county has serious competition from other parts of the region, especially the District and Arlington. And if you work in Montgomery County, particularly outside the Beltway, you're forced to choose living in an urban neighborhood far from work or a more suburban area with a shorter commute.

I was thinking about that reading this recent email from Sky, a young teacher moving to Montgomery County and wondering where a Millennial should live.


Hello Dan (or Co.),
I recently read an article about millennials in Moco and am wondering if you would give me some advice about where to live.

I will probably be moving to the area to teach [in Gaithersburg] and would love to know where young singles live around the area.

Like your article said, I certainly want to be close to work, but I also want to have a thriving personal life.

If you have any suggestions, the would be much appreciated.

Thank you!

Awesome blog btw!

Here's how I responded:
Thanks for writing me and for the kind words! You've presented an interesting challenge: you work in Gaithersburg, but you want to be near the action. Those two things are (mostly) mutually exclusive, as much of the region's nightlife is in DC, 20 miles away. That said, this isn't an impossible situation. Of the 20- and 30-somethings I know who work in Montgomery County, they generally do one of three things:

  • Live in DC, and do the reverse commute. You'll have your pick of hoppin neighborhoods with lots of things to do and people to meet, and you won't have to drive home after the bar. You will, however, have to drive to work, though you'll mostly be going against traffic on your way out of the city. Consider neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan, which are both filled with young people and things to do, but also near major roads like 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue that you can use to get out of the city. This might be the most expensive option, since you'd be paying higher DC rents and paying for the cost of transportation.
  • Live in Gaithersburg. You'll be really close to school, and while Gaithersburg is a lot quieter than DC, there are a couple of areas with restaurants and bars. Kentlands is a nationally-famous neighborhood where you can walk to shops and restaurants. Old Town Gaithersburg has a growing number of Latino and African restaurants that are pretty great. And Rio/Washingtonian Center has a lakefront that's great for hanging out on weekends. The rents are generally cheaper than DC, though transit service is limited (there's no Metro station) so you will be driving a fair amount.
  • Live somewhere in the middle. The Red Line connects Montgomery County to DC and the rest of the region, and stops in several walkable neighborhoods in Montgomery County with lots of things to do and a large number of young people. You'll still get that reverse commute, though you'll pay a premium to live next to a Metro station. Three areas you might want to consider: Bethesda's more expensive, but has lots of places to hang out; Silver Spring (where I live) is more affordable, way younger, also has lots going on, and is closest to DC; Rockville is also more affordable and closer to Gaithersburg, but has less nightlife.
A few weeks ago, Sky let me know that she's moving to Rockville, which offers the best of both worlds: it's close to work, but also has a real downtown and access to the Metro.

For years, Montgomery County has encouraged the creation of more downtowns and town centers in places like White Flint, Germantown, and White Oak, while promoting the ongoing development of urban places like Silver Spring or Bethesda. That's great for people moving to the area like Sky, because it gives her more, and more affordable, choices for where to live. However, we still have lots of work to do in making these places attractive to new, younger residents, from creating more walkable and bikeable streets to streamlining our liquor laws to make it easier for restaurants and bars to open here.

We'll have to follow up with Sky once she gets settled in. But in the meantime: What would you tell a young person interested in moving to the county?

Arts


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Bicycling


These detours will help you bike during Montgomery County's SafeTrack closures

As part of Metro's sixth SafeTrack surge, trains are single tracking between Silver Spring and Takoma. To help those who use those two stations as well as the ones north of Silver Spring, Montgomery County has laid out a bike route that takes riders to the West Hyattsville Metro station, where trains are operating normally.

Metro's sixth SafeTrack surge is the first to take place in Montgomery County, and on top of the single tracking, trains up to Glenmont and down to NoMa are only running 25% as often as usual. Officials are encouraging the 94,000 riders affected by this surge to seek alternatives like taking the bus or riding a bike, as well as teleworking.

As part of the effort, Montgomery County's bike planners designed a route that directs people from the Red Line stations affected by the current surge toward the Green and Yellow Line's West Hyattsville station.

At the Glenmont, Wheaton, Forest Glen, Silver Spring, and Takoma stations, MCDOT designed and placed large wayfinding signs to guide people on bikes around the track work and along the route it designed.


Dennis Avenue at the Sligo Creek Trail. Photo by the author.

From Forest Glen, Silver Spring, and Takoma, the route runs almost directly to the Sligo Creek Trail, a trunk route whose end is near the Northwest Branch Trail, which runs next to the West Hyattsville station. Signs direct riders along a slightly more complex route from Glenmont and Wheaton.


Map from Montgomery County.

The signs, designed by MCDOT just for this period, are the size of a political campaign sign, in bright colors, and placed conspicuously anywhere there is a turn in the route. They are temporary (and not made to withstand serious weather), so they'll be gone at the end of the surge.

Anecdotally, the signs have been helpful to occasional and first-time bike commuters on Monday morning, filling in known gaps in the permanent wayfinding signs on both county and park property. Also, one person I spoke to wished there was additional information on the sign, or a link to it, such as a web site or QR code.

There aren't directions west along the Georgetown Branch Trail to Bethesda because service is still slightly reduced on the western portion of the Red Line, but the bike route from Silver Spring to Bethesda is already marked with permanent signs.

For Surge 7, which will mean single tracking between Shady Grove and Twinbrook starting August 9th, the signs will highlight a single route from Shady Grove, through Rockville, and on to Twinbrook, where normal service will resume.

Elsewhere in the region, Greater Greater Washington contributor Joanne Pierce noted that she recently saw this handmade sign directing people toward the Huntington Metro Station:


Photo by Joanne Pierce.

It's not totally accurate—only the Yellow Line runs there—but it still lets people know how to get to the Metro.

Have these signs helped you? Are there upcoming events where similar temporary wayfinding for people on foot and bike would be helpful?

Politics


You can help shape Silver Spring's urban future

Silver Spring isn't a city, but it faces the challenges of one. Its Citizens Advisory Board, which advises the Montgomery County Council, has eight empty seats. If you want to help shape Silver Spring, from how it grows to how people get around, joining the board is the best way.


The Silver Spring Civic Building, where the advisory board meets each month. Photo by the author.

After decades of decline, Silver Spring is booming. Thousands of new homes have been built in the past few years, and more are still coming. We're home to well-regarded local brewers, butchers, and ice cream makers. A new civic building, town square, and library have given this community places to gather and celebrate.

Yet this rebirth is fragile. Rising home prices have led to worries about displacement and gentrification. Years of Purple Line construction could disrupt local businesses. There are ongoing concerns about crime and homelessness. And there's a tension between the reality of an urban, diverse, and inclusive place and some neighbors who want it to be suburban and exclusive.

Silver Spring looks like and functions as a city, but like most communities in the DC area, it's unincorporated, meaning all local government takes place at the county level. We have a County Councilmember, Tom Hucker, who represents all of eastern Montgomery County. But downtown Silver Spring and adjacent neighborhoods don't have a mayor or city council to speak for them exclusively.

However, there are Montgomery County's five Citizens Advisory Boards, each of which are appointed by the County Council to be that community's voice to the county government. They're similar to the District's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in that they don't make laws, but they have some influence on issues you might care about if you read this blog, including transportation, economic development, housing, young people, and the environment.

However, unlike the ANCs, they're not elected, and they represent a much bigger area, sometimes as many as 200,000 people. Each board member serves a three-year term. They don't get paid, but they can get reimbursed for travel costs.


Montgomery County's 5 Regional Services Centers.

There are five Citizens Advisory Boards in Montgomery County: Silver Spring (which includes Silver Spring inside the Beltway, Four Corners, and Takoma Park), Bethesda-Chevy Chase (which includes Potomac and Rockville), Mid-County (Wheaton, Aspen Hill, and Olney), East County (White Oak, Colesville, and Burtonsville), and Upcounty (Gaithersburg, Germantown, and beyond).

The Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board has eighteen seats for people who live or work in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. Right now, there are eight empty seats. If you want to see this community continue to grow, attract new businesses, retain its diversity, and be a better place to get around, the board is an excellent way to get involved.

If you'd like to be on the Citizens Advisory Board, go here to learn more or send your application. You've got until August 1 to apply.

Once applications are in, Montgomery County executive Ike Leggett will appoint board members, and the county council will approve them.

Development


The peculiar fight over density at the Bethesda Metro

Clark Enterprises, a company that formerly owned the biggest road construction contractor in Montgomery County, is fighting against a new building planned atop the Bethesda Metro station.


The plaza above the Bethesda Metro station. The former food court is behind the fountain. Photo by the author.

Brookfield Properties owns a failed food court on a platform above the station's bus waiting area, which it wants to replace with a high-rise containing homes or offices. Brookfield would also bring more light and air into the bus bays by cutting into an underused plaza that occupies the remainder of the platform.

This site, in the center of Bethesda directly above the Red Line entrance and bus terminal, is ideally situated for transit- and pedestrian-oriented development. No new parking will be built. The downtown master plan now under review by the Planning Board recognizes the value of this location by allowing building up to 290 feet high.

Clark has opposed building here before

In 2008, Clark helped defeat a plan to build on the Metro station platform, and it has been fighting Bookfield's proposal since it emerged two years ago. A new structure would interfere with the view from the building where Clark's executive offices are located. As one of the building's tenants wrote, the new building would "obstruct views from our existing space." A second tenant acknowledged the same objection.

The construction firm, a relentless promoter of highway widenings elsewhere, has renewed its efforts over the last month with two mailings each sent to thousands of Bethesda residents. They call on the public to "protect open space" and suggest that the plaza could be expanded by demolishing the food court and turned into an attractive park.


Clark's first mailer.

The mailers' attractive photographs of grassy parks surrounded by trees have little in common with any possible upgrade of the plaza—tree roots can't grow on the platform—and even less with the dingy bus bays below. Indeed, Clark's proposal could make the bus bays even worse than now.

In their second mailing, the builders argue that the plaza should be made "street facing." What currently separates the plaza from the street is the one opening that penetrates the deck above the bus bays. Decking over that opening would further deprive transit riders of light and fresh air.


Top: The image from Clark's mailing opposing the new building. Bottom: The Bethesda Metro entrance. Lower photo by the author.

It's easy to laugh at a situation some have described as "builder turned NIMBY," and one might think Clark has little chance of success. But plans to build on this ideally located site have already been derailed once. Montgomery County's decision on the Bethesda Metro plaza will test its commitment to development near transit.

Correction: The initial version of this post referred to Clark Construction as the company opposing the building. Clark Enterprises, the parent company, sold Clark Construction to its executives in January 2016. However, as of this article's initial publication, the Clark website still listed Clark Construction as a subsidiary (but it was subsequently updated after this article ran).

Public Spaces


Silver Spring could get a big, new, temporary park

Downtown Silver Spring could get a big new park as part of a massive redevelopment of the Blairs, an apartment complex across the street from the Metro. The park will be temporary, but eventually several larger parks will take its place.


Plan of the new park from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

First built in the 1950s, the Blairs are a complex of apartments, offices, and a strip mall across from the Silver Spring Metro station. Owner Tower Companies will redevelop the 27-acre superblock over the coming years, replacing a massive parking lot with 1400 new apartments (there are 1400 there now), new retail, and four acres of new parks.

The first new apartment tower, called the Pearl, is under construction, but much of the new stuff won't arrive for a decade. In the meantime, Tower wants to create a park over one acre in size on the site of a future apartment building.


The Pearl under construction. The temporary park would go in front of it. Photo by the author.

Located near the corner of Eastern Avenue and Blair Mill Road, the new park would have a big lawn and a wood stage for performances. A playground and adult-sized fitness equipment would let people of all sizes work out, while a "fitness trail" would loop around the entire site. The park would also include a community garden and a temporary building that might house a leasing center.

While the park is set to go on private property, it would be open to both Blairs residents and the surrounding neighborhood. The park would be a welcome addition for neighbors who have clamored for more open space in the past. Silver Spring doesn't lack for parks, but many of them are either too small or designed to be unusable.


One of several new parks that will eventually come to the Blairs. Image from Tower Companies.

This wouldn't be the first temporary park in downtown Silver Spring. Over a decade ago, residents and visitors alike fell in love with "the Turf," an artificial grass lawn on Ellsworth Drive, and protested when it was removed to build Veterans Plaza. Possibly hoping to avoid the same result, Tower Companies will place signs at "visible locations" around their temporary park "informing both residents and visitors that the temporary green is the future location of a residential building, and that it is not permanent."

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