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Development


Nobody wants these school buses in their backyard. But moving them is worth it.

Montgomery County wants to move a school bus lot away from the Shady Grove Metro station to make room for new houses there, but residents of other neighborhoods don't want the buses in their backyards. But the move is worth it if it means more people can live walking distance to the train.


The Shady Grove bus depot across from new townhouses being built. All photos by the author.

This week, the Montgomery County Council could vote not to sell off a school bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville, next to the Shady Grove station. Montgomery County Public Schools has outgrown the lot, and the county wants to move it to make room for a new neighborhood around the Metro station that would have 700 new homes, parks, a school, and a library.

The move is part of a decade-long effort that County Executive Ike Leggett calls the Smart Growth Initiative. Until recently, the Shady Grove Metro station was surrounded by government warehouses and depots storing everything from Ride On buses to school cafeteria food. The county's been able to move nearly all of the facilities, many of them to a new site in Montgomery Village. In their place, construction has already begun on an adjacent, 1500-home neighborhood, called Westside at Shady Grove.

The school bus depot needs to stay near Rockville, since its 400 buses serve schools in that area. But neighbors fought attempts to move the buses to a nearby school, an empty parking lot at the school system headquarters, and a gravel lot in a historically-black, working-class neighborhood. At each location, neighbors have raised concerns about traffic, pollution, or reduced property values.

Naturally, councilmembers are nervous about proposing to move the buses anywhere else. Councilmember Marc Elrich has suggested that the best option may be to keep the buses where they are.

But even if the depot stays, the county still has to find more space to store buses. And in an urbanizing county, those buses are likely to go in somebody's backyard.

Councilmember Craig Rice notes that there are already school bus depots next to houses in Glenmont and Clarksburg, and those residents haven't had any problems with them.

Jamison Adcock, one of the bus lot opponents, told me on Twitter that existing communities' needs should come first. But what about people who want to live here but can't afford to because there aren't enough homes to meet the demand, driving up house prices? Or what about people who either can't or don't drive and would like to live near a Metro station? The county is responsible for their needs too.

Moving the bus depot has serious benefits for the county and the people who could live on that land. There are only thirteen Metro stations in or next to Montgomery County, and they represent some of the most valuable land around. We know that lots of people want to live near a Metro station, and that people who already do are way more likely to use transit and have lower transportation costs.

It's increasingly expensive to live near Metro because the demand outstrips the supply of homes near Metro stations. So if the county's going to build new homes, we should prioritize putting them there.


This is a better use of land next to a Metro station than a bus lot.

Meanwhile, there are roads all over the county, and the trucks that carry things to and from the county's warehouses can go pretty much anywhere there's a road. That's why ten years ago, county leaders decided that it made more sense to put homes near the Metro, and warehouses and bus depots somewhere else.

That won't make everybody happy, but it's the right thing to do.

Bicycling


Some Silver Spring residents are against bike lanes that haven't even been proposed yet

Big plans for bike routes in Montgomery County are underway, and Silver Spring is a focal point. When one group of neighbors learned that the county is studying the possibility of a new bike lane near their homes—a far cry from considering any actual plans in detail—they immediately voiced vehement opposition that overstates the downsides and understates the benefits of bike lanes.


Sharrows at the intersection of Silver Spring Avenue and Fenton Street. Bike lanes on Fenton could make the area even more bike-friendly. Photo by Dan Reed.

Silver Spring has been designated as a Bike and Pedestrian Priority Area, meaning it's getting extra funding for bike infrastructure improvements. So far this has resulted in plans for separated bike lanes on Spring and Cedar Streets, with construction set to begin this year.


Planned Spring/Cedar Street bike lanes. Map from MCDOT.

In addition to these and other planned lanes, Montgomery's department of transportation has examined important downtown Silver Spring corridors. For example, there has been mention of studying possible bike lanes along Fenton Street, which could conceivably be implemented in conjunction with a massive PEPCO dig project on Fenton Street that will take place in the next several years.

But even with the study not underway yet, some nearby residents expressed loud opposition to any possible bike lanes. They created a petition with the following claims (all the capital letters are part of the original):

  1. Not necessary because there is CURRENTLY A DESIGNATED COMMUNITY BIKE ROUTE—"Grove Street Bike Route"—THAT PARALLELS FENTON STREET along Cedar Street, Bonifant Street, Grove Street and Woodbury Drive.
  2. A Fenton bike lane REMOVES PARKING and DELIVERY TRUCK LOADING AREAS from the Fenton Village businesses.
  3. A Fenton bike lane INCREASES MORE UNWANTED PARKING ON NEIGHBORHOOD ROADWAYS (Bonifant Street, Easley Street, Thayer Ave, Silver Spring Ave and Grove Street) because Fenton Village customers will seek parking on the neighborhood roadways adjacent to Fenton Street instead of in parking structures.
  4. A Fenton bike lane FORCES MORE UNWANTED LARGE DELIVERY TRUCKS, INCLUDING 18 WHEELERS, ON NEIGHBORHOOD ROADWAYS adjacent to Fenton Street for loading / unloading to businesses in Fenton Village.
  5. A Fenton bike lane INCREASES TRAFFIC ON THE NEIGHBORHOOD ROADWAYS, particularly on narrow Grove Street, a neighborhood roadway outside the Silver Spring CBD.
This level of vehement opposition is out of proportion to any impacts of possible bike lanes. Many of the concerns are also misplaced. To address all of them:
  1. The current bike route goes through minor neighborhood streets and consists almost entirely of sharrows since it would never have enough bike traffic to warrant protected lanes. Lanes on Fenton would serve as a much better connector for the Downtown Silver Spring bike network and would also make it easier to get to shops and residences along Fenton.
  2. There are four public parking decks and three public lots within a block of this route, in addition to adjacent private lots for shoppers. We should definitely work to develop strategies to better direct people to parking if that is a concern, but there is no shortage of parking. Moreover, MCDOT plans to carry out a parking study to identify any issues with parking in and around the Fenton Street corridor, with any findings informing the ultimate proposal.


    Public parking garages (in green) and lots (in orange) along Fenton Street. Image from Montgomery County.
  3. Parking in nearby residential neighborhoods is easily addressed with neighborhood parking permits, which Montgomery County seems to enforce quite well. East Silver Spring already has such a system, and it seems to work smoothly.
  4. We should definitely have a discussion about how best to accommodate delivery trucks, but there's no need for that to start with "NO BIKE LANES!!"
  5. Fenton is already quite congested at rush hours, and it's not at all clear how bike lanes would divert more traffic. More importantly, MCDOT plans to carry out a traffic study before making any proposal. And finally, a wealth of previous research has shown that well-designed bike lanes don't cause congestion.
In many cities both in the US and abroad, merchants have been shown to overestimate both the proportion of their customers arriving by car and the negative impacts of removing street parking spaces. In city after city, researchers have found little evidence of any negative effect of new bike lanes, and in some cities they have found significant increases in sales.

The opposition to these potential bike lanes also ignores that if the proposal were well-designed and implemented in conjunction with the PEPCO project, the benefits of the bike lanes could come at very low cost, with concerns about parking and congestion mitigated.

But we're never going to get that far if we allow loud opposition to shut it down before MCDOT even has the chance to make a proposal.

How to get involved

If you live in downtown Silver Spring or one of the nearby neighborhoods, you will have likely opportunities to hear from MCDOT representatives and provide feedback. Keep an eye out for meetings of your local civic associations and, should the process move forward, meetings hosted by MCDOT.

Montgomery County residents can also join the Action Committee for Transit (ACT), or sign up to receive the agency's email alerts—ACT advocates for bike and pedestrian improvements in addition to transit. Another way to stay informed about land transportation options, such as bike lanes, is to sign up for updates from the Coalition for Smarter Growth to hear about improved bicycle facilities in Silver Spring and elsewhere in the region.

Architecture


Pike + Rose is an experiment in modern ornament

The Pike + Rose development on Rockville Pike is a surprisingly experimental collection of buildings. It's contemporary in style, but also filled with architectural ornament. The result upends the common architectural conceit that ornament cannot be "of our time."


All photos by the author.

Pike + Rose is one of the region's most ambitious attempts to retrofit an aging suburban place to become more urban. It gets far more headlines for its planning than for its architecture.

But although Pike + Rose isn't flashy enough to find itself on the cover of Architect Magazine, it's fascinating and instructive for what it tells us about how architecture can interact with urbanism.

Ornament doesn't have to be historic-looking

In the world of architecture criticism, ornament is taboo. Buildings should be "of their time;" they must not rely on historic styles to look good. Since so much ornament is either historic or kitschy faux historic, the world of architecture has turned its nose up at it for decades.

But many laypeople prefer buildings with little flourishes, because, well, little flourishes are pretty and people like pretty things. Those flourishes are particularly important on urban buildings, where people walking along a sidewalk need human-scale things to look at.

Pike + Rose attempts to rectify that mismatch by providing the sort of small-scale ornamental flourishes that pedestrians crave, but using unabashedly contemporary styles and materials.

Mixed but instructive results

No doubt about it, Pike + Rose is an experiment with mixed results. Its designers tried a lot of things, and failed as often as they succeeded. But failure teaches as much as success, and future architects can learn much from what happened here.

The most successful attempts are those that fully embrace their modern manufacturing, using carefully-placed materials to create repeating abstract patterns of factory-produced detail. These are unmistakably both contemporary and ornamental, and look great.

The same effect thrives on fences and other urban accoutrements.

Less successful are the more literal decorations. These are individually beautiful, but on buildings they're awkward and kitschy.

Least successful of all are the murals, particularly this cartoonish fake advertisement for a baking machinery factory that never existed:

Other murals are more honest about what they are, and thus aren't so bad.

It's easy for architects to retreat to glass boxes and pretend they're bold, and it's easy for laypeople to point at old buildings and say "do that," but neither is a satisfying way to build modern cities.

The architects of Pike + Rose, WDG, deserve praise for pushing an envelope that needed to be pushed. Contemporary ornament can work, but it's going to take talented designers willing to try controversial things to build on and refine these early results.

I hope this continues. Our cities will be more beautiful and more livable for it, even if it takes a while to figure it out.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Places


Join us in Silver Spring for happy hour with Montgomery County's planning board chair

It's time for the next Greater Greater happy hour! This month, join us in Silver Spring with special guest, Montgomery County Planning Board chair Casey Anderson, who will tell us about challenges and opportunities facing the county and how to get involved.


Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The Planning Board oversees Montgomery County's departments of Parks and Planning. It is responsible for approving new development, crafting master plans that shape how and where new development gets built, deciding where new roads and transitways go, and managing the county's parks and open space. If you're interested in any or all of these things, the Planning Board is where you can give feedback or input.

Tuesday, June 21 from 6 to 8 pm, join us at Bump 'N Grind, located at 1200 East-West Highway. While it may look like a coffeeshop, it's also a record store and one of the Washington Post's most underrated bars.

Bump 'N Grind is a five-minute walk from the Silver Spring Metro station (Red Line). If you're coming by bus, it's a few blocks from the 70/79 stop at Georgia and Eastern avenues, or the S2/S4/S9 stop at Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road. There's also a Capital Bikeshare station right outside the bar. If you're driving, there's free parking both on the street and in the public parking garages on East-West Highway and Kennett Street.

This year, we've held happy hours in Adams Morgan, H Street, and Edgewood. Stay tuned for happy hours in Prince George's County (at long last!) and Northern Virginia.

Transit


Montgomery County will build bus rapid transit in four years

After nearly a decade of debate, Montgomery County wants to build a bus rapid transit line in four years, for 20% of the originally estimated cost. While it'll be a better bus service, it may not be so rapid.


Montgomery County could get this, sort of. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Last month, the county announced its plan to build a 14-mile BRT line along Route 29 (also known as Colesville Road and Columbia Pike) from the Silver Spring Transit Center to Burtonsville. It's part of a larger, 80-mile system that's been studied since 2008 and was officially approved in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett wants to have this line up and running by the end of 2019, an ambitious timeline. The county also says they can do it for $67.2 million, compared to the $350 million county planners previously predicted.

How? Most bus rapid transit systems, like the new Metroway in Northern Virginia, have a separate roadway for buses that gets them out of traffic and provides a shorter, more reliable travel time.

On Route 29, the county envisions running buses on the shoulder between Burtonsville and Tech Road, where it's basically a highway. Further south, as Route 29 becomes more of a main street, the county would turn existing travel lanes into HOV-2 lanes for buses and carpools. For about three miles closer to downtown Silver Spring, buses would run in mixed traffic. This setup allows the county to build the line without widening the road anywhere, which saves on land and construction costs.


Map from Montgomery County.

The line would have other features that can reduce travel time and improve the current bus riding experience. Each of the 17 stations would feel more like a train station, with covered waiting areas, real-time travel info, and fare machines so riders can pay before getting on. At some stoplights, buses would get the green light before other vehicles. Buses would come every six minutes during rush hour, and every 10 minutes the rest of the time.

County officials estimate that 17,000 people will use the service each day by 2020 and 23,000 people will ride it each day in 2040. The line, which would be part of the county's Ride On bus system, would replace express Metrobus routes along Route 29, though existing local bus routes would remain.

Montgomery County would cover half the cost of building the line, while the other half would come from the US Department of Transportation's TIGER grant program for small-scale transportation projects. In addition, the grant would include money for sidewalks, bike lanes, covered bike parking at stations, and 10 bikesharing stations along the corridor. The county will find out if it's won the grant money this fall.

The project could give Montgomery County somewhat better transit now

This plan could bring better bus service to East County, which has been waiting for rapid transit since it was first proposed in 1981. The Metrobus Z-line along Route 29 is one of the region's busiest, with over 11,000 boardings each day, but riders face delays and long waits.

East County lacks the investment that more affluent parts of the county enjoy, and so residents must travel long distances for jobs, shopping, or other amenities. Residents suffer from poor access to economic opportunities: according to the county's grant application, 30% of the area's 47,000 households are "very low income." County officials hope that better transit could support big plans to redevelop White Oak and Burtonsville.

While not having dedicated transit lanes makes this project easy to build, it also makes it hard to provide a fast, reliable transit trip. Enforcing the HOV lanes will be hard, especially south of New Hampshire Avenue where the blocks are short and drivers are constantly turning onto Route 29 from side streets. And without dedicated lanes in congested Four Corners, buses will simply get stuck in traffic with everyone else, discouraging people from riding them.

The route also includes two spurs along Lockwood Drive and Briggs Chaney Road, each of which serves large concentrations of apartments where many transit riders live, but would force buses on huge, time-consuming detours. One possibility is that some buses could go straight up Route 29 while others take the scenic route. But that's basically how the existing bus service on the corridor already works.

This could make the case for rapid transit

This might be a temporary solution. The county and state of Maryland will continue planning a "real" bus rapid transit line that might have its own transitway, but that could take several years.

In the meantime, the county needs to build support for better transit. BRT has broad support across the county, but many residents are still skeptical. Supporters and opponents alike have been confused and frustrated by the lack of information on the county's progress in recent months.

By getting something on the ground now, Montgomery County can show everyone how BRT really works sooner, rather than later. Despite the shorter timeframe, it's important to make sure this service actually improves transit, and that residents actually know what's going on.

Development


Montgomery County isn't really waging war against suburbia

Some Montgomery County residents are accusing county officials of waging a "war against suburbia." But the county isn't coming for your single-family house, no matter who tells you otherwise.


Bethesda residents protest the Westbard plan. Photo by Sonya Burke on Twitter.

Last week, about 70 protesters from Bethesda demonstrated outside the Council Office Building over the Westbard Sector Plan, which would redevelop a cluster of 1950s-era strip malls off of River Road into a small-scale town center with new shops, parks, and up to 1200 townhomes and apartments. The council is set to approve the plan tomorrow.

Holding signs saying "suburban not urban," the group shouted down Councilmember Roger Berliner when he tried to address them, calling him "corrupt." Berliner, who represents Bethesda, had successfully convinced the council to reduce the amount of allowable development in the plan, which effectively limits building heights to six stories.

The group, called Save Westbard, is led by Jeanne Allen, former Republican state delegate candidate and charter school advocate. In an email blast two weeks ago, she called the Westbard plan "Orwellian" and says Berliner's "visits to Cuba and China influenced" his support for developing the area.


One of the shopping centers in Westbard today. Photo by Todd Menhinick on Flickr.

She argues that the county wants to "destroy" wealthy suburban neighborhoods like hers, overcrowding the roads and schools, and possibly changing the culture of her community. "Suburbs breed generous people," she says. "They have community meetings and fundraisers in their homes (on streets where people can park)...take care of one another's kids (who can play in yards)...suburbs have a purpose."

Is the county really at war against the suburbs? Save Westbard released a document called the Westbard Papers containing emails between county planners and attorneys for Equity One, one of the major property owners in Westbard, though they don't reveal anything illegal. And Allen refers to three-year-old comments from Councilmember George Leventhal (though not about Westbard) in which he calls the suburbs "a mistake."

Except in reality, Leventhal is talking about the spread-out nature of some suburban places, which forces people to drive really far for work or shopping, resulting in lots of traffic and pollution. He's not making a value judgment about suburbs, but instead acknowledging that some kinds of suburban development have negative costs.

"We see the substantial separation of residential areas from commercial areas from industrial areas from retail areas as a mistake," he says. "Because the very thing that was so marvelous when Olney and Gaithersburg and Wheaton were laid out in the 1940s and 1950s is now killing our planet. We can't afford to drive as much as we do, we have to change our land use patterns, our transportation patterns...Our heirs will blame us for our failure to do that. It's one of the culprits in climate change."

It's possible to have suburban neighborhoods where you can have a big house with a yard and still be able to walk to things. You only have to go about two miles east of Westbard to Chevy Chase to see what that looks like. That's why Montgomery County wants to focus development in aging commercial areas like Westbard, or Chevy Chase Lake, or White Oak. The county is built out, and investing in these areas gives current residents access to more things without having to sit in traffic, while accommodating future population growth.


Rendering of the Westbard redevelopment from Equity One.

There are many current Westbard residents who agree with Leventhal and Berliner that having new shops and amenities within walking distance is a good thing. The Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights, which represents nineteen neighborhoods and condo buildings in the area, supports the Westbard plan, calling it a "compromise of different interests," including the developers and some residents who wanted less development.

Another petition circulated by Equity One includes signatures from 182 neighbors who support the plan. "Westbard is a highly affluent area of Montgomery County," reads the petition, "yet its streets are not pedestrian-friendly, its residents shop at an unsightly retail center surrounded by a sea of asphalt, it's service workers can't afford to live there, and its natural resources are among the county's worst."

And there are the people who have yet to live in this community. While looking for a job after graduate school, I worked out of the Westbard Giant giving out samples for a local bakery who sold cakes there. I got to know some of the people who worked there, and discovered that few of them lived in Montgomery County, let alone in the neighborhood. These are the people who have to drive long distances to work in Westbard, which is one of the most expensive parts of an already expensive county. The county's plan for the area would set aside 15% of new housing units for lower-income households, allowing some people who work here to live there as well.

Leigh Gallagher's recent book "The End of the Suburbs" might freak out any Westbard resident who likes the suburban aspects of their community, But Gallagher's argument is that suburbs aren't actually going anywhere, particularly affluent ones with good schools that are walkable. It bodes well for Westbard, but it doesn't mean that Westbard, or anywhere else, isn't totally immune to change.

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