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Government


Casey Anderson is Montgomery's new Planning Board chair

Montgomery County's new Planning Board chair will be Casey Anderson, a strong advocate for growing the county's urban areas and improving its transit network. The County Council voted 8-1 to appoint him this morning.

An attorney who lives in Silver Spring, Anderson has been a community activist on smart growth, transit, and bicycling issues, previously serving on the board of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. He stepped down to join the Planning Board in 2011, and can be seen walking or biking to meetings there. The council will have to find a replacement for his old seat.

Councilmembers appeared to rally around Anderson last week over four other applicants for the position. "Anderson comes closest to holding the vision I have for our County's future," wrote Councilmember Roger Berliner in a message to his constituents. "He is a strong proponent of smart and sustainable growth, served by world class transit. These are the key components of a strong future for our county."

The Planning Board chair is responsible for giving the County Council recommendations on land use and transportation issues, meaning they can play a big role in how and where the county grows. As chair, Anderson says he'd like to look at the way Montgomery County uses the amount of car traffic as a test for approving development. The tests often discourage building in the county's urban areas, where people have the most options for getting around without a car.

As a board member, Anderson has advocated for more transportation options and more nightlife as ways to keep the county relevant and attractive to new residents. He was the only vote against approving an extension of Montrose Parkway through White Flint, where the county wants to create a pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented downtown. He also served with me on the Nighttime Economy Task Force, which sought to promote nightlife in the county.

Anderson was a strong influence in favor of the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, and persuaded some of his fellow commissioners to support repurposing existing lanes for BRT. Anderson also pushed for performance standards for BRT which aim to prevent BRT from being watered down in the future.

Upcounty, he opposed the board's unfortunate vote in support of the M-83 highway last fall. He did support keeping development in a part of Clarksburg near Ten Mile Creek which turned the Montgomery Countryside Alliance against his candidacy.

Councilmember Marc Elrich was the only vote against Anderson. Though he didn't nominate her this morning, Elrich favored former Planning Board member Meredith Wellington, who had support from some civic activists who feel that the county is growing too fast. The field of candidates also included current board member and real estate developer Norman Dreyfuss, current deputy planning director Rose Krasnow, and former County Councilmember Mike Knapp.

Montgomery County offers a wide variety of urban, suburban, and rural communities. Anderson's appointment suggests that the county's ready to embrace its urban areas while preserving the suburban and rural ones, providing a greater variety of community types and transportation choices for an increasingly diverse population.

Architecture


To turn this Silver Spring street around, one building owner put in fake stores

For years, the ground-floor shops at the Guardian Building in downtown Silver Spring have sat empty. To lure new tenants, the building's owner brought the space to life with fake storefronts.


All photos from Devin Arkin.

The Arkin family has owned this six-story office building, located at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street, for decades. But as owner Michael Arkin's health declined and he wasn't able to keep the building up, many of the retail tenants moved away, retired, or passed away. After a stroke a few years ago, his sons took over management of the building. "We had our work cut out for us," said son Devin Arkin, who grew up in Silver Spring but now lives in Chicago.


The Guardian Building before.

The sons renovated the building and commissioned an sculpture for the lobby of 1950s-era hardware they found in the basement. But they weren't sure what to do with its nearly 7,400 square feet of empty retail space until they read about towns in Northern Ireland who disguised their empty shops with murals depicting open, lively businesses.

Arkin's advertising firm Huckleberry Pie crafted scenes of busy stores, like a men's wear store and a bakery, and fitted them over the empty windows. Workers toil away behind the counter as ducks and chickens peer out from door frames. Discrete "For Lease" and "Build to Suit" signs appear between images of food and goods.


The fake storefronts seen from across the street.

Cameron Street is a few blocks away from the shops and restaurants along Ellsworth Drive, and as a result there isn't a lot of foot traffic. The Guardian Building isn't alone in having an empty first floor. The Cameron, an apartment building across the street, lost one of its two ground floor tenants, an outpatient surgery center. And two blocks away at Cameron and Spring streets, there are ground floor spaces at United Therapeutics' new headquarters that have been vacant for nearly four years.

If all of the storefronts on Cameron Street were filled, it might actually become a compelling destination that could draw shoppers and diners from other parts of downtown Silver Spring. But since most of them are empty, nobody wants to be the first to take the risk. (Other than Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the first floor of the Cameron, which as a chain can draw customers on name recognition alone.)

Hopefully, the Guardian Building can buck the trend. Its fake storefronts may not convince anyone, but it does look better than it did before. Hopefully, they'll catch the eye of potential tenants soon. According to this marketing brochure, the space is still vacant.

Politics


What does Maryland's primary mean for smart growth?

Turnout was low in Maryland's primary election yesterday, but there were some surprises, especially in the local races. What does it mean for urbanism in the state, particularly in Montgomery and Prince George's counties? Our contributors offer their thoughts.


Attorney general nominee Brian Frosh in Silver Spring. Photo by Alan Bowser.

Ronit Dancis: Though primary elections tend to draw out the voters most inclined to oppose change, candidates in Montgomery County who campaigned on an anti-growth platform didn't perform well. In the at-large council race, groups including the Sierra Club threw their support behind anti-growth candidates Beth Daly and Marc Elrich while targeting Purple Line advocate George Leventhal, who had just cast crucial votes against M-83 and Ten Mile Creek.

As in 2010, Marc Elrich won first place, but Beth Daly, who campaigned as "Marc's second vote," took 5th place in a race for four seats. In District 3, developer ally Sid Katz defeated two opponents more attuned to smart growth. As a result, the council will have a three-person pro-development bloc, with Katz, Craig Rice (District 2) and Nancy Floreen (at-large).

Dan Reed: Smart growth supporters got a win of sorts in Montgomery's Council District 5, containing Silver Spring, Takoma Park, White Oak, and Burtonsville. Current state delegate Tom Hucker is leading former journalist Evan Glass by just over 200 votes.

A 12-year resident of downtown Silver Spring, Glass helped start the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, bringing together a redeveloping urban district that's one of the region's youngest neighborhoods. He's advocated for more affordable housing, the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, and changing the county's liquor laws to support local businesses and nightlife.

As state delegate, Tom Hucker fought for the Purple Line and has support from the building trades, who are naturally pro-development. But as a council candidate, he opposed new housing near the Silver Spring and Takoma Metro stations. He also allied with Councilmember Marc Elrich, who received donations from real estate interests even as he lambasted Glass for doing the same.

This tight race suggests that voters aren't necessarily interested in the "growth-vs.-no growth" debate. It also gives Glass has a good place to start from if he ever runs for office in the future. (Full disclosure: I supported Evan Glass's campaign.)

Ben Ross: Legislative results brought some good news for urbanists. Two strong transit advocates will enter the House of Delegates: David Moon, a former Purple Line Now! and Communities for Transit staffer, won in District 20 (Silver Spring and Takoma Park), and attorney Marc Korman in District 16 (Bethesda and Potomac). Susan Lee moved up easily into the Senate in District 16 while Lou Simmons, the county's lone vote against the gas tax increase, failed to advance to the Senate in District 17.

In District 18, containing Chevy Chase, Kensington, and Wheaton, lone Purple Line supporter among the incumbent delegates Ana Sol Gutierrez was easily reelected, while senator and Purple Line opponent Rich Madaleno fended off a surprisingly strong challenge from Purple Line supporter Dana Beyer.

Jim Titus: The primary results for bicycling were as good as we could have hoped. Brian Frosh has been one of the State Senate's key supporters for bicycling rights, and we can expect an informed perspective should the need arise for an official opinion of the Attorney General. That is certainly better than the outgoing Attorney General, who advised state police that stop signs are optional, at least when he is the passenger.

On the Prince George's County Council, the strongest bike supporter has been Eric Olson, who was term limited. But his chief assistant Danielle Glaros will replace him. She will be a strong voice for the eventual urbanization of New Carrollton, thorough technical understanding, and sufficient political skills that she will almost certainly serve a term as Council Chairman.

Events


Events roundup: Our next happy hour, Rockville transit, bike in Tysons, and more

It's time for Greater Greater Washington's next happy hour! This month's will be Thursday in Tenleytown. Also, learn about BRT plans in Rockville, see Tysons by bike, and more at events around the region.


Map of Montgomery BRT by Communities for Transit.

Join us Thursday, June 26 for a happy hour with Ward 3 Vision at Public Tenley, 4611 41st St NW. Stop by at 6:30, or come earlier to watch all or part of the 4:00 World Cup games. Neil Flanagan and others will be watching the game, then segue to discussing how to make the region more walkable, affordable, and vibrant.

Rockville rapid transit open house: Learn more about Montgomery County's planned 80-mile Bus Rapid Transit system, especially proposals on MD-355 and Veirs Mill Road. Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth will talk about the projects, show maps, and provide free refreshments Wednesday, June 25th, 6:30-8 pm.

After the jump: Tour Tysons by bike; public meetings on Virginia Route 7, Canal Road, Braddock Road; plus online maps and your vote.

Tour de Tysons: The Tour de Tysons bicycle race is Sunday, June 29. But FABB is making sure it's not just for racers. While racers take a break from noon to 1, the one-mile race course will be open to everyone for a family-friendly bike ride that's also a great chance to experience Tysons streets without trafficbasically an Open Streets event.

In the morning, a League of American Bicyclists instructor will hold a bike commuting seminar. Members of the Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling (FABB) will also lead "bike trains" to help teach potential bike travelers safe routes to the Silver Line from three locations: the Barns of Wolf Trap, Mosaic District, and the Vienna caboose.

Widening Route 7: VDOT plans to widen Route 7 west of Tysons Corner. You can encourage them to design it in a way that's more walkable, bikeable, and good for transit at the public meeting tonight, Tuesday Jun 24, 6-8:30 pm at Forestville Elementary School, 1085 Utterback Store Road in Great Falls, just off Route 7.

Canal Road safety: DDOT is studying how to make Canal Road safer between Chain Bridge and M Street. The second public meeting for the study is Thursday, June 26 from 6:30-8:30 pm in the Palisades Neighborhood Library, 4901 V Street NW.

Braddock Road Metro: WMATA is holding a public meeting Thursday, June 26th to get community input as the agency starts planning to redevelop the area around Braddock Road station. The meeting is in the Charles Houston Recreation Center on Wythe Street in Alexandria.

Try out Alexandria's interactive maps: The City of Alexandria is setting up a new online, interactive map system, and they want people to kick the tires. Many of you can probably give them very valuable feedback! There are six in-person sessions in the next few weeks to try them out, or you can try them online and send in your feedback.

And vote! If you're a Maryland resident, don't forget to vote in the primary today if you haven't already! See our election coverage for information on candidates in competitive Montgomery council races.

Do you know an event that should be on the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Send an email to events@ggwash.org with the details and a link to a page on the web which has more information.

Correction: The first version of this post erroneously listed the date of the happy hour as for tomorrow, Wednesday, June 25 instead of Thursday, June 26. The happy hour is Thursday.

Development


Otherwise-progressive Maryland elected officials choose exclusion at the Takoma Metro

In our region, in 2014, shouldn't building housing on top of Metro stations be an uncontroversial idea? To many people and elected officials in Takoma Park, that's only tolerable as long as you add a very small number of residents and don't build anything larger than surrounding buildings.


Photo by bradleygee on Flickr.

This attitude ensures that housing costs stay high and many communities remain off-limits to many people who would like to live there. Montgomery Council candidate Tom Hucker, gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur, congressman Chris Van Hollen, councilmember Marc Elrich, state senator Jamie Raskin, and delegate Sheila Hixson all reinforced much or all of this exclusionary attitude last week.

They were writing about the planned 200-unit apartment building atop the Takoma Metro station. It will cover what's now the Kiss and Ride parking lot and a patch of trees. The site is inside the District of Columbia, but is across the street from some houses in Maryland. The WMATA Board held a hearing last week on the proposal.

A group of people, led by Takoma Park councilmember Seth Grimes, have been fighting against the project. They want the project to preserve some open space, be shorter, have fewer residents, and include fewer parking spaces. And they say that the developer, EYA, has not listened to them enough in the process.


Image from EYA.

Plan has a lot of good, some room to improve

The current proposal isn't perfect. It probably does have more parking than is necessary. Some elements of the current design aren't as attractive as they should be.

On the other hand, it's not an unreasonable size for the area and for the fact that it's atop a Metro station. In fact, EYA has already shrunk it down from the first iterations of this apartment building plan, which had 225 units. WMATA and DC worked out a deal to keep the other half of the site as a park.

This building will be more compact than a 2006 proposal to construct townhouses. Neighbors also fought against that plan, and successfully delayed it into oblivion.

The plan may get even better in the future. WMATA wouldn't be approving the final design for construction. Rather, this project is what's called a Planned Unit Development, where the DC Zoning Commission has extensive input into its design. That part of the process hasn't even begun, and so there will be a lot of opportunities for people to ask for changes.

Maryland residents will be able to testify at Zoning Commission hearings on the project, and especially with two federal representatives on the Zoning Commission, there's every reason to believe that board will listen to any reasonable arguments they make.

However, Raskin, Hucker, Hixson, and Mizeur, who are the sitting state legislative delegation for the area, argue in their letter that Maryland "has limited formal involvement" in the PUD process. They therefore ask the WMATA board to delay approval until there can be yet another process, where a neighborhood working group with members from DC and Maryland get to push for more changes (surely including reducing the amount of housing even further).

"More dialogue" is a smokescreen

That letter also states that neighbors haven't been involved enough. So does at-large councilmember Marc Elrich's letter. Perhaps the developers have listened as much as they could; perhaps not. In countless development disputes, however, opponents say that they are just looking for "dialogue" and haven't been listened to, when in fact they are demanding a substantially smaller project with less housing, and that is not a realistic request.

Years of delays and battles killed the 2006 townhouse effort. Maybe if opponents can just delay this project enough, nothing will get built, or only a very small amount of housing will end up going at this site. That would be an enormous loss to the region. There are limited developable parcels around Metro stations, and those are best places for new housing and jobs. This building may be larger than many around it, but it's not really that big.

Hans Riemer, another at-large member of the Montgomery County Council, confined his letter to making specific recommendations to improve the project. That's a good approach and the developer should heed his suggestions. Opponents, unfortunately, have responded to his more constructive approach by campaigning against him in tomorrow's primary.

When other elected officials like Hucker (who hopes to win a primary contest tomorrow to represent the district on the council), Raskin, Elrich, Van Hollen, and the others ask in letters for delay and more consultation, they aren't standing up for good civic process. They are just strengthening obstruction.

Building apartments at the Takoma Metro means more customers to support Takoma's thriving local businesses, fewer people who need to drive everywhere, and the ability to meet the demand for housing, resulting in lower or at least more stable housing costs. That's the truly progressive thing to do, not trying to keep new people out in favor of those who came here first.

Politics


Montgomery at-large candidates diverge on growth, development issues

The most controversial primary in Montgomery County this year might be for the at-large council seat. More so than any race, this one focuses on how the county should grow and whether it can meet the increasing demand for urban, transit-served communities.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

There are six candidates vying for four at-large seats on the County Council. The incumbents include Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal, both elected on a pro-growth slate in 2002 and finishing their third terms; former teacher Marc Elrich, who won on a slow-growth platform in 2006; and Hans Riemer, a former political campaign director elected in 2010. The challengers are Beth Daly, director of political ad sales for Telemundo, and Vivian Malloy, retired Army nurse and member of the county's Democratic Central Committee.

All six candidates filled out the Action Committee for Transit's questionnaire for the scorecard, which is based on both their responses and public statements. This year, how ACT rated the candidates' responses has become a story of its own.

Riemer, Leventhal, and Floreen want more housing in urban areas; Daly and Elrich say we'll have enough

As with the Purple Line, all six candidates say they support building in the county's downtowns and near transit, where more people are interested in living and where an increasing share of the county's growth is happening. But they disagreed on where exactly to build, and how much new housing was necessary.


Riemer. Image from Maryland Manual On-line.
Most of the candidates focused on ways to meet the growing demand for housing in urban areas. Hans Riemer, George Leventhal, and Nancy Floreen all voted in favor of five master plans that would allow over 15,000 new homes to be built around Metro or future Purple Line stations, especially on the less-affluent eastern side of the county.

Riemer pointed to accessory apartments as one way to increase affordable housing, while Floreen named specific impediments to building more affordable housing, such as the county's parking requirements and developer fees. Both Riemer and Vivian Malloy advocated increased funding for the county's affordable housing programs.

Meanwhile, Elrich and Daly both say the county is growing too fast, though much of the county is pretty stable. Elrich has been especially critical of plans to around future Purple Line stations at Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake, both of which he voted against.


Daly. Image from her campaign website.
Both candidates have said that there are 46,000 approved but still-unbuilt homes in Montgomery County, suggesting that the county doesn't need more. But Lisa Sturtevant, a researcher at the Center for Housing Policy, says that the county will actually need nearly 84,000 new homes to meet the demand for housing over the next 20 years.

Candidates say they support the Purple Line, though Daly is hesitant


Leventhal. Image from his campaign website.
All four incumbents support the approved Purple Line route between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which the federal government has approved and could break ground next year if Congress approves the final piece of funding. "The Purple Line is my top priority," said Councilmember George Leventhal, who co-founded the group Purple Line Now! Councilmember Elrich has been lukewarm to the project in the past, but replied that he supported it as well.


Malloy. Image from her campaign website.

Both Vivian Malloy and Beth Daly wrote in their questionnaires that they support the Purple Line. Daly has expressed some skepticism about the Purple Line both in the questionnaire and in public appearances, which earned her a minus on the scorecard.

Support for complete streets, but disagreement over how to make them


Floreen. Image from Maryland Manual On-line.
Most of the candidates unequivocably supported pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly streets. Riemer noted that he and District 1 councilmember Roger Berliner are working on a new "urban roads" bill that would create safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists in the county's urban areas.

Elrich and Floreen say they support complete streets, but have also pointed to the road code bill they passed in 2008, which encourage pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly street design but allowed wide roads that encourage drivers to speed. Daly wrote that she supported complete streets "in the more densely populated regions of the county."

Strong support for Bus Rapid Transit, and opposition to new highways


Elrich. Image from Maryland Manual On-line.
Candidates also generally supported the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, which Marc Elrich first proposed. When asked if they would convert existing traffic lanes to bus lanes, Elrich, Leventhal, Riemer and Malloy all said yes. "Studies show that repurposing a curb lane already being used by buses, the increase in transit riders can offset the drivers displaced from the curb-lane," wrote Elrich.

Daly testified in favor of BRT at public hearings last year, but said she wanted to "look at creative solutions" for creating bus lanes on narrow, congested roads. Floreen, who has been skeptical of the BRT plan, said her support would "depend on the particular location."

Meanwhile, all six candidates say they oppose the M-83 highway, which would go from Montgomery Village to Clarksburg, and would prefer a less costly alternative that involved transit.

Voters face two different paths in this race

The conventional wisdom is that Nancy Floreen, who's raised the most money, and Marc Elrich, who received the most votes four years ago, are safe. That makes the real contest between George Leventhal and Hans Riemer, who have spent their terms encouraging new investment in the county's downtowns and discouraging it in environmentally sensitive areas, and Beth Daly, who's called herself "Marc's second vote" and has mainly talked about slowing things down across the board.

Of all of the races in Montgomery County, this one may offer the starkest differences in candidates' positions when it comes to transportation and development issues. Simply because the voices in the at-large race have been so strong, changing any one of them this year could have a big impact on the county's direction over the next four years.

Full disclosure: Dan Reed worked in George Leventhal's council office from 2009-2010.

Transit


Four big questions for a Georgia Avenue streetcar

As plans crystallize for a north-south streetcar in DC, four big questions will drive what the line ultimately looks like:


Streetcars on the Hopscotch Bridge. Photo from DDOT.
  1. How will the line snake through the center of the city?
  2. Will it reach Silver Spring?
  3. Will there be dedicated lanes, and if so, where?
  4. Is there any money to actually build anything?
Planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) are still months away from settling on final details for the North-South Corridor. But at a series of public meetings last week, these big questions came into focus.

How will the line snake through the center of the city?

DDOT's latest report focuses on four potential alternate routes, but project manager Jamie Henson says DDOT could still mix and match components of multiple alternates to create the final path.

Four route alternatives under study. Dedicated lanes could potentially fit on the purple and blue sections. Image from DDOT.

North of Petworth, DDOT has settled on a Georgia Avenue streetcar alignment going at least as far north as Butternut Street.

The line could run south from Petworth down Sherman Avenue as far as Florida Avenue, or it could stay on Georgia. Georgia is wide enough for dedicated lanes and is lined with shops instead of houses, so it would probably attract more riders, but Sherman would offer a more stark contrast to the route 70 Metrobus.

South of Florida Avenue things get really interesting.

The route could stay on 7th Street through downtown DC, but that duplicates Metrorail's Green Line, and 7th Street isn't wide enough for dedicated lanes. Or it could travel on 14th Street, where population density is most concentrated and where it's a long walk to any Metro stations. But 14th Street is already booming; a streetcar might help more elsewhere.

11th Street and 9th Street are intriguing possibilities. Infill and commercial development have lagged there relative to 14th Street. Would a streetcar bring a 14th Street-like boom? Meanwhile, both 11th and 9th are wide enough for dedicated lanes.

9th Street is already home to one of DC's only existing bus lanes. Though the bus lane is lightly used and poorly enforced, that might make 9th a particularly easy place to add streetcar lanes.


Existing 9th Street bus lane. Photo by the author.

To traverse the National Mall, the line could either turn onto F Street through downtown and then use 7th Street to go south, or it could turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue and then use 4th Street.

The F Street to 7th Street option seems to be a path of less resistance, could fit dedicated lanes, would be more central to the National Mall, and would directly serve The Wharf development at the Southwest waterfront. On the other hand, 4th Street would better serve the existing Southwest neighborhood.

Will it reach Silver Spring?

Silver Spring is a natural end point for this corridor. It's big, dense, and already one of the DC region's largest multimodal transit transfer points.


Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Around 4,000 DC-bound passengers board WMATA's route 70 Metrobus in Silver Spring every day, with still more boarding the parallel S-series routes. There's tremendous opportunity for the streetcar to reach more people and have a greater impact by ending in Silver Spring instead of DC.

But for that to happen, Maryland and Montgomery County have to step up with plans of their own. DDOT has neither authority to plan nor money to build outside the District's boundaries.

So for now, DDOT is keeping its options open. But eventually they'll need to make a decision. At this point, it's on Maryland to come to the table.

Will there be dedicated lanes, and if so, where?

Whether or not the streetcar will have dedicated lanes depends on two factors: Is there adequate width on the street, and is there enough political support to repurpose lanes from cars?

The first factor is easy. This chart shows potential street cross-sections, color-coded to match street segments along the route alternatives maps.


Potential street cross-sections, color-coded to the map above. Image from DDOT.

Streets color-coded as either purple or blue are wide enough to potentially fit dedicated lanes. Streets coded as green, yellow, or orange are not.

The political factor is harder. Depending on the location, providing dedicated streetcar lanes might mean eliminating or reducing on-street parking, pushing truck loading onto side streets, or any number of other trade-offs.

DDOT's ridership forecasts say shaving 5 minutes off streetcar travel time would boost ridership 11%. If true, that suggests thousands more people would ride a streetcar with dedicated lanes than without.

And of course, the inverse is true too: Without dedicated lanes, many riders who could be on the streetcar might instead opt to drive.

At public meetings last week, representatives from the Georgia Avenue business community voiced strong objections to dedicated lanes, fearing that loss of parking would hurt their stores. But if dedicated lanes add more streetcar riders to a block than they remove parking spaces, the reverse could very well be true.

Is there money to actually build anything?

Thanks to Chairman Mendelson and the DC Council cutting streetcar funding in the latest budget, the DC budget currently doesn't have any funding for this line.

The council could add more money in future budgets, or DDOT could seek alternate funding options like the federal New Starts program. But for now, this line is unfunded and there's not yet a clear plan to change that.

In the meantime, DDOT will continue to plan, with the next step being an environmental study. But all other details pale next to the overarching and unanswered question of how to fund whatever the studies recommend.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Bethesda's planning survey loads the dice against urbanism

Planners drafting a master plan update for downtown Bethesda are running an online "visual preference" survey to get public input. But the choices they offerand, even more, the questions they choose not to asktilt against the urban style of development that Montgomery County's most successful downtown needs.


The choices in the survey contrast higher-density streets with one-way traffic (top) with lower-density buildings facing two-way streets (bottom).

The survey compares two patterns of development. One is low-density development with two-way streets; the other, mid-rise and high-rise buildings on one-way streets. But these aren't the only options. Two-way streets are much more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists, and there is no reason a dense area can't have them.

Equally important is what's left out of the images entirely. A low-rise shopping district, like the one in the lower right of the picture, could never survive in Bethesda on customers who come by Metro from DC. It needs either dense housing and jobs nearby, or lots of parking.

The parking cannot be underground because single-story stores can't support the expense of underground garages. A realistic picture of low-density retail must include big parking lots or multistory above-ground garages.

Something else is missing from all of the images. Montgomery County zoning requires empty land (known by the Orwellian name of "public use space," although productive use of the space is banned) next to all mixed-use buildings.


Zoning forced the Lionsgate mixed-use high-rise to include this little-used plaza where busy sidewalk-facing storefronts once stood. Photo by the author.

This rule, fiercely defended by homeowner groups protective of the county's suburban image, gives us the empty plazas which blight Wisconsin Avenue and are spreading into the Woodmont Triangle. To be accurate, the survey should offer a choice between the attractive streetfront stores in its images and the bleak streetscapes that may emerge if the master plan preserves the status quo in this realm.

Missing entirely from the survey is the relationship between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Although most nearby single-family homeowners enjoy their proximity to downtown, neighbors opposed to urbanism often seek to wall themselves off. The connections that emerge from contentious development debates are of widely varying quality.



Three ways Bethesda connects (or doesn't) to adjoining neighborhoods: the Giant parking lot, the Whitney, and the Chevy Chase Bank building. Photos by the author.

The public should get to choose whether to border downtown with attractive buildings, walkways, and streets, or "buffers" made of walls and parking lots. This choice should not stay hidden, only to emerge later out of closed negotiations between individual builders and the opponents of their projects.

The last page of the survey reveals its authors' bias once again. There, it asks voters which category they belong to: resident, property owner, development professional, student, or special interest/activist. There are no categories for a regular shopper/diner or office worker.

Nearby homeowners are stakeholders, even if they hate the downtown and never go there. But if you work or shop in Bethesda, you're off the planners' radar screen. And never mind the rest of the region, all of which suffers from car traffic that's made worse by Bethesda's overly auto-oriented design.

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