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Silver Spring's old police station could become new artist housing

Three years ago, Silver Spring neighbors proposed turning an old police station into artists studios. Now, it looks like they might get their wish, along with new housing for artists.

The police station today. Photo from Google Street View.

Minneapolis-based developer Artspace wants to turn the old 3rd District Police Station on Sligo Avenue in downtown Silver Spring into artist work space, in addition to adding 68 apartments in a new, four-story building and 11 townhomes. Artspace builds artist housing and studio space around the country, including developments in Brookland and Mount Rainier.

In the proposal, a new apartment building would wrap around the old police station, forming an "F" shape. The lawn in front of the police station on Sligo Avenue would become a public, partially paved plaza, while a rear courtyard would give the residents private open space. To the east, eleven townhouses would sit along Grove Street, with an alley and parking lot in back.

The proposed plan. Image from Artspace.

For artists to move in, they need a place to live

Montgomery County vacated the 1960's-era police station last year after a new one opened in White Oak last year. In 2012, a proposal to tear down the police station and build townhouses met opposition from neighbors in the adjacent East Silver Spring neighborhood, which with nearby Takoma Park has had a long history of attracting people in the arts.

Neighbors and architects Steve Knight and Karen Burditt wrote an op-ed in the Silver Spring Voice saying that the building should become an arts center modeled on the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, and that the green space around the building become a community garden.

At the time, I suggested that the arts center idea would only really work if there were also artist housing, since people who make art for a living often have a limited income and may not be able to afford close-in, urban neighborhoods like Silver Spring.

The county eventually did reach out to Artspace, and officials announced the projectearlier this year. While neighbors were initially skeptical of any housing on the site, the East Silver Spring Civic Association unanimously voted to support this project.

Artspace building in Mount Rainier. Photo from Google Street View.

It's great that neighbors are okay with building some townhouses here, considering how other Silver Spring neighborhoods fought building them. They're a great option for households who need more space than an apartment but less than a house—especially in Silver Spring, where most housing is either high-rise apartments or single-family homes.

We don't know what the units will look like on the outside, but hopefully they'll incorporate high-quality materials and be designed to look good on all four sides, since the backs of the townhouses will face the plaza.

Overall, the project looks like a great compromise. Neighbors get an arts center that allows them to showcase their work and some open space. Artists get studio space and housing they can actually afford. And the community as a whole gets a new gathering place in the form of a public plaza.

Artspace's plans will go to the Montgomery County Planning Board for review December 17.


Lots of Maryland residents from places other than Montgomery and Prince George's use Metro

Although WMATA's impact on Maryland is most significant in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, the system is important to the entire state. 5% of daily Metrorail total ridership comes from Maryland locations outside of those jurisdictions.

Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Every Maryland Metro station is in Montgomery or Prince George's County, but we have long known that Maryland Metro riders come from all over the state. A typical morning at Union Station finds a flow of MARC train commuters going from the commuter rail line to the subway. Other residents from southern Maryland, for example, access the system by parking at Prince George's County stations.

While lawmakers in Annapolis often see WMATA as a Montgomery and Prince George's County issue, the system affects a much larger portion of Marylanders.

The study includes the origination and destination of Maryland riders, purpose of the trip, and how riders get to and from the system. You can read the full study here, and some major takeaways are below:

  • Only a small majority (52%) of Maryland Metrorail riders access the system by car, with the rest using other modes such as bus, bike, or foot.
  • While 34% of Montgomery County riders access Metro by foot in the morning, just 11% in Prince George's County riders do so. That suggests that investment in transit-oriented development in the two counties has not been equal.
  • 5% of rail and bus system riders commute from DC and Virginia into Maryland each weekday morning, representing a not insignificant reverse commute.
  • 3.3% of all rail and bus trips on a typical weekday are by Maryland residents besides those living in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties.
  • 5% of daily Metrorail ridership on a typical weekday is by Maryland residents besides those in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties.
  • There are thousands of Metrorail riders from jurisdictions in Maryland besides Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. The data should be more focused in future reports, as right now WMATA only studies five non-Montgomery and Prince George's categories of origins.
WMATA capital and operating subsidies represent a rising cost for the state of Maryland even though WMATA is not increasing the jurisdictional operating subsidy this year. For Maryland's investment to continue to grow—and if WMATA is going to be a world class system again, it's going to have to—it's important to have data such as this to support Maryland's role in the system.

The study, which a 2015 General Assembly bill called for, was part of a broader effort to increase attention to WMATA issues in the state house. It's now required every five years, and future versions should have even more specific data.


Montgomery will go ahead with BRT, but at what cost?

Despite a big funding setback last week, Montgomery County could start building bus rapid transit after all. But to do so, it may have to do it on the cheap. That could mean making BRT less useful for transit riders.

BRT in Alexandria. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Montgomery County officials have been looking at building rapid transit routes for buses since 2008, and approved plans for a countywide BRT network in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett had proposed creating a transit authority that could raise taxes to pay for building it, but yanked the idea last week due to opposition from some community members.

Yesterday, he announced that the county would build one or two of its planned BRT routes in a "less costly" fashion. One way to cut costs is by taking out dedicated lanes that give buses a way out of traffic. But doing that would make BRT slower and less reliable, discouraging people from using it.

According to Leggett, the county can afford to pay for one or two BRT corridors from its construction budget, which the County Council approves each spring. There are three corridors transportation officials are looking at, down from ten in the original plan: Route 355 between Bethesda and Rockville, which would cost an estimated $422 million to build; Veirs Mill Road between Rockville and Wheaton, which would cost $285 million, and Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville, which would cost $200 million.

Where people use transit in Montgomery County. These areas coincide with the three potential BRT corridors being considered. Map by the author using Census data.

The three corridors serve the county's two biggest downtowns, Silver Spring and Bethesda, plus the county seat in Rockville and emerging town centers like Wheaton, White Oak and White Flint. These are places where lots of people already ride transit.

They're also congested streets that are ideal for bus lanes, the key feature of bus rapid transit, which can give riders a fast, reliable alternative to sitting in traffic. But there's limited space to make bus lanes, whether by converting existing lanes or by widening the road. And some neighbors in these areas are loudly against them.

This street might be congested. And that's why it needs bus lanes. Photo by the author.

Not only do dedicated bus lanes make the bus faster, but they reduce labor costs, since bus drivers can do more trips in less time. Like train tracks, bus lanes create the sense of permanence that can attract development to underserved areas like White Oak. Better transit also means lower commute times, which has a huge impact on access to jobs and economic mobility.

Leggett might find that not including bus lanes on all or some of these routes could save money and avoid confronting transit opponents. But there are ways to design them that require less space and reduce impacts on neighborhoods. And as long as buses are stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, people will be less interested in riding them, and county residents will have a hard time seeing the benefits of investing in more transit.

Last week, I suggested that Montgomery County show people how BRT works by doing a temporary trial. It looks like county officials want to go a step further and try building something more permanent, which is great. That's why it's even more important they do it right.


What if Montgomery County gave BRT a temporary test run?

Last week, Montgomery County pulled its proposal for building bus rapid transit, citing community opposition. How can the county win people over? By getting something on the ground now and doing a trial run.

How can we get streets like Colesville Road better transit sooner rather than later? Photo by the author.

After several years of discussion, the county approved a plan for a network of dedicated bus lanes in 2013 with strong support from residents, business leaders, and transit advocates. Soon after, County Executive Ike Leggett proposed creating an Independent Transit Authority that could build and operate transit in the county and raise taxes on its own to pay for it. Today, the department of transportation runs transit service, using money from the county's budget, which the County Council sets each year.

Leggett's proposal drew an unlikely coalition of opponents, from civic organizations who were against BRT in the first place to groups worried about government spending. Meanwhile, initial designs for BRT on corridors like Georgia Avenue proposed unnecessarily massive road widenings that would have removed dozens of homes and businesses, which naturally angered many residents.

Do county leaders still want BRT?

Now in his third term as county executive, Ike Leggett has alluded to transit as part of his legacy. He's said that the 100,000 jobs slated to come to places like White Flint and White Oak depend on better transit. Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 355, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road are among the county's top transportation priorities.

But the county seems to be backing away from BRT. The Georgia Avenue line got shelved. And Leggett already pulled his ITA proposal earlier this year.

Ike Leggett says he wants to do a public outreach campaign for BRT to build support for a transit authority. But it may not be enough to convince skeptical residents. They need to see something tangible.

Metroway in Alexandria. Photo by Dan Malouff.

We could send people to Alexandria to ride the Metroway BRT line. It's already carrying 20% more riders than anticipated. It serves the new neighborhood of Potomac Yard that looks like what Montgomery County wants to create in White Flint or White Oak.

Or we could start bringing BRT in some form to Montgomery County today in trial form, so people can see how it can improve their daily lives.

A trial run?

Bus Rapid Transit consists of several different parts that make buses faster, more reliable, and more comfortable, like a train: machines where you pay before getting on; larger, covered stations; longer distances between stops; and of course, dedicated lanes.

The county's vision for BRT, as in many other places, involves doing all of those things at once. It's more effective, but also more expensive. We're already implementing some of those things now, like limited-stop bus service or off-board fare machines.

The thing that has the biggest impact, but is also the most controversial, are bus lanes. And that's what people need to see in action.

A very basic bus lane on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton. It's maybe a mile long. Photo from Google Street View.

Local political consultant Adam Pagnucco has suggested that the county build a BRT line on Veirs Mill Road to prove that it works, but it would still take a few years and a lot of money.

In the meantime, we could do a trial: for a few months, simply reserve the curbside lane of a major street for buses, using paint and some police enforcement to keep drivers out. Drivers and transit riders alike could see how it would affect their travels.

The catch is we'd have to do this in a place with high transit use, like Veirs Mill Road, Route 29, and Route 355, the three BRT corridors the county's studying. These streets are congested now, but they're also where most transit riders are, and would get the most benefit from dedicated lanes.

Doing a trial would be hard and require a lot of political will. But it's ultimately easier than convincing the public to make a huge investment on something they haven't seen before. And it allows us to see what works and what doesn't work, so we can make needed tweaks early on.

Most importantly, a trial gives Montgomery County transit riders a better trip now, rather than far in the future. They can't afford to wait, and neither can we.


Montgomery's most walkable streets are also its safest

Downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Rockville are where it's easiest to walk around in Montgomery County. They are also where drivers are least likely to kill someone on foot.

A decade of traffic fatalities in the Wheaton-Glenmont area. A red person represents a crash where the driver died. Orange is passenger, yellow is pedestrian, and purple means multiple people died. Image by Max Galka.

An extraordinary new interactive map by Metrocosm shows the location of all traffic fatalities in the United States between 2004 and 2013.

Zeroing in on Montgomery County, the map shows that pedestrian death comes in clusters that center on high-speed suburban arteries. Drivers killed eight people on foot in Aspen Hill, for example, four in downtown Kensington, and five on a 3500-foot stretch of Route 118 in Germantown Town Center.

The places where people walk the most are far safer. One pedestrian died in Bethesda's downtown, one in Rockville's, and three in Silver Spring's—and all five of these killings occurred on the fringes of the urbanized centers.

Drivers killed 4 people walking in downtown Kensington (top) and one on downtown Bethesda's more urban streets (bottom), even though Bethesda's downtown is bigger, has more people on foot, and is hardly as easy to walk in as it might be. Photos by the author.

These downtowns are hardly walking paradises—they contain many of the county's identified hotspots for frequent pedestrian crashes—but they share some characteristics that seem to prevent fatalities. Streetcorners are close together, stores front directly on the sidewalk, and speed limits are reduced.

Trends elsewhere in the region are similar. In the District, roads engineered for incoming commuters, New York Avenue in particular, are deadlier than downtown streets where far more people are on foot. Old Town Alexandria and, to a lesser degree, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor stand out as islands of safety in the Virginia suburbs.

Indeed, researchers who looked at data from the entire country found that there are fewer traffic deaths of all kinds, and especially fewer killings of pedestrians, in counties with denser population and smaller blocks.

Unfortunately, Montgomery County continues to build the kind of roads where drivers kill. County and state transportation officials have made concessions in the long-running battle over street widths and speed limits in the rebuilt White Flint, but elsewhere they continue to resist life-saving urban street designs.

The highway engineers have been especially obstinate in insisting on dangerously large street blocks. At Glenmont Metro, for example, the State Highway Administration rejected a street connection for being too close to another corner. With evidence accumulating that smaller blocks are safer, the agency will be on very shaky legal ground if it tries to issue such vetoes in the future. Under Maryland law it may only deny a builder access to a state highway "to promote safety."

The new data show a way forward to make pedestrian killings the rare events they should be. The urban places that the market now demands are not only more pleasant, but safer too. Rebuilding suburban highways as city streets saves lives.


A chain-link fence is blocking people from getting to the Forest Glen Metro

You'd think residents of a building full of apartments and condos right next to the Forest Glen Metro would have an easy time getting to the station. But a chain-linked, barbed-wire fence means they have to take a circuitous route to the station. Is it time to tear the fence down?

Photo by the author.

First built in 1967, the Americana Finnmark complex originally included a seven-story mid-rise building. Four garden-styled condo buildings joined it in 1974.

Conveniently located on Georgia Avenue at Forest Glen Road, just before the I-495 ramp, American Finnmark has housing that's attractive to a lot of people, with moderate prices and a park-like setting with tot lots, a dog run, picnic areas including grills, a large pool, toddler pool, tennis and basketball courts. It's also got ample parking.

But because of the fence where American Finnmark borders the Metro station, there is no direct access despite being just a few hundred feet from the main entrance.

Aerial view of Americana Finnmark and Forest Glen Metro. The fence runs along the tree line that's north of the parking lot and south of the tennis courts. Base image from Bing Maps.

As a result, many Americana Finnmark residents have to walk around the perimeter of the complex and onto Georgia Avenue before trekking down Forest Glen Road to the Metro entrance.

The typical walk from Americana Finnmark to Forest Glen Metro. Base image from Google Maps, drawing by Sean Emerson.

Illustrated by the yellow line on the above map, the path to the main Metro entrance around the fence is approximately .41 miles, or 2,150 feet. Because of the shorter distance, many residents instead use the secondary metro entrance at Forest Glen Rd and Coleridge Dr.

Photo by the author..

In order to get to this more convenient Metro entrance, many Americana Finnmark residents have to cross a dangerous intersection, where they battle drivers eager to get on I-495 and Georgia Avenue. If a pedestrian pathway replaced the fence, Americana Finnmark residents would only have to walk a mere .09 miles, or 480 feet, to get to the Metro entrance and there would also be no need for the shortcut across Forest Glen Road.

Unlike the Forest Glen Metro station, other Metro stations in the region are surrounded by residential and commercial complexes that flow directly into them. Communities like Virginia Square in Arlington have opened up their apartments and condos to the Metro, creating a natural flow where residences seamlessly integrate into commercial, retail and transit spaces.

Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr.

According to land records, WMATA owns the fence separating the station from the Americana Finnmark. It's likely that the fence went up at a time when Metro stations were largely associated with crime. With the mass exodus of white families from DC into the surrounding areas, many saw Metro as a vehicle for bad actors. The fence could have provided a certain level of assurance that properties would be safe from such individuals.

Land records showing Property Ownership. Image from Montgomery County.

But those worries aren't very common today. Instead, properties close to mass transit are the most desirable in the country. With developers building around Metro stations more than ever, now could be the time to ask whether we need such a "security" fence. Without the barrier, Americana Finnmark's significant population could not only patronize any new retail at the station, but also could take advantage of any other redevelopment that might happen at the Forest Glen Metro.

There's tons of potential to create a new dynamic space for the community. Let's lose the fence.


Here's a look at how Cape Town, South Africa is doing bus rapid transit

A new bus rapid transit system opened in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010. Here's a look at the system and some of the ideas our region (looking at you, Montgomery County) might put to use.

The MyCiTi Adderley station in Cape Town's city center. All photos by the author unless noted.

Cape Town opened the MyCiTi BRT just in time to carry visitors around the South African city for FIFA World Cup that year. The network now encompasses 31 routes with more than 500 stations and stops that showcases many of BRT's strengths and weaknesses when not fully implemented.

The MyCiTi bus system offers a comfortable, safe, and largely reliable formal transit system in parts of Cape Town and its environs that are unserved by its Metrorail commuter rail system. In many places it replaced an informal network of vans that plied major streets and corridors.

A map of the MyCiTi BRT network.

The BRT system has 36 rail-like stations with faregates and level boarding at key points and along busy routes.

Faregates at a MyCiTi station, riders use tap myconnect cards for payments.

MyCiTi stops are simple affairs ranging from shelters to just a sign on the side of the road.

A MyCiti bus stop with a shelter.

MyCiTi has dedicated lanes in some areas, allowing the buses to speed past traffic. However, these do not extend the full length of routes, leaving buses to the whims of traffic on many popular routes.

The dedicated bus lane ends with the red paint on the road.

This hybrid of true BRT and a regular bus network is an example of "BRT creep," which is where services that characterize BRT get cut back and the system starts to look more like a standard bus system.

Still, MyCiTi is a positive step forward for Cape Town. The system replaced an informal van system, improving safety—a big concern in South Africa—comfort and reliability for transit riders. In addition, it cost much less to build—R6.5 billion ($477 million) as of this May—than a comparable light rail system or heavy rail system. That's especially important in South Africa, a country where transportation funds of any kind are limited.

In addition, bus riders in central Cape Town bridge race and socioeconomic lines, which are still noticeable in South Africa more than 20 years after the end of Apartheid.

Five years since opening, MyCiTi bus carries an average of about 48,000 passengers on weekdays.

MyCiTi has some lessons for Montgomery County

Montgomery County in Maryland has ambitious plans to build an 81-mile BRT system across the county.

Map by Peter Dovak.

BRT creep is a very real concern in Montgomery County. The County Council has already watered down its original plan by shrinking some routes and removing dedicated lanes and other aspects that add the "rapid transit" to buses in others.

More cuts to the BRT plan could occur as county leaders figure out a way to fund the proposed system.

Cape Town shows that a hybrid system, which works in many ways for the South African city's unique set of circumstances, could suffer from many of the same problems as the existing bus network: slow, unreliable transit that sits in the same traffic as the car next to it.

Montgomery County should follow the example of Cape Town's city center stations and dedicated lanes and roll something similar out across the county.

For more on transit developments in other cities and around the world, check out Ned's's writing on Dallas, Hartford, San Diego and San Francisco.

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