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Posts about Rockville


MARC backs away from all-day service on Brunswick Line

In 2007, the Maryland Transit Administration proposed adding a third track to the MARC Brunswick Line, which could make it possible to have all-day, two-way service. With a recent plan update proposing less third track, it's unlikely that this will ever happen.

MARC's Brunswick Line in Dickerson. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The 2007 MARC Growth and Investment Plan proposed a third track from Georgetown Junction in Silver Spring, to Point of Rocks in Frederick County. It would have been built in three stages between now and 2035. In contrast, the 2013 draft update proposes one small portion of third track in Montgomery County and at unspecified locations elsewhere.

This reduces the chance that there will ever be all-day, two-way service. CSX owns the tracks that MARC trains use, and the agency will not allow MARC to run more service if there isn't a third track. If MARC doesn't say where they plan to put a third track, Montgomery County can't reserve the right-of-way for it, making it harder to build the third track later.

Current service on the Brunswick Line consists of 18 daily trains, peak-service headways of 40-75 minutes, one off-peak train on Fridays only, no reverse-peak service, and no weekend service. The Maryland Transit Administration's original plan for MARC called for bringing all-day, two-way service to the Brunswick Line in three stages.

In 2015, there were to be at least 6 additional peak-service trains, or 3 round trips. By 2020, there were to be shorter peak-service headways, plus some reverse-peak and off-peak service. And in 2035, there were to be reverse-commute and weekend service, as well as service to L'Enfant Plaza and Northern Virginia.

As for the third track, first, MTA would build near Rockville and along the Frederick branch of the Old Main Line. In 2020, there would be a third track on Barnesville Hill, roughly between the Monocacy River, west of Dickerson, and the Bucklodge interlocking, west of Boyds. In the long term, MTA would build the remaining sections of track between Georgetown Junction and Point of Rocks.

In comparison, the 3-stage expansion in the 2013 draft update builds up to only marginally more service. There would be no additional trains in the short term. During the 2020s, MARC would add 3 additional trains, including one reverse-peak train.

Between 2030 and 2050, there would be 6 additional peak-service trains (3 round trips), plus some off-peak service and some more reverse-peak service. The draft update only proposes building a short section of third track on Barnesville Hill in the 2020s, with "additional triple tracking" at unspecified locations in the long term.

Why is MTA's 2013 draft update so much less ambitious than its 2007 plan? Perhaps MTA is trying to hold down the costs of the plan. But unlike the 2007 plan, the 2013 draft update does not provide cost estimates for the long-term plans. So reducing the scope of the long-term plans does not affect the total cost in the 2013 draft update.

Or maybe MTA now believes that there will be insufficient demand for all-day, two-way service and weekend service on the Brunswick Line in the future. But this seems inconsistent with MTA's explicit recognition of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the 2013 draft update, including the creation of high-density, mixed-use TOD on existing surface parking lots within walking distance of MARC stations.

In Montgomery County, there are plans for MARC-related TOD at Kensington and White Flint, and construction is already underway at Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Metropolitan Grove. But will there be enough transit to support TOD at these stations, if even MARC's own Growth and Expansion Plan does not call for eventual all-day, two-way service?

And will these plans leave room for an eventual third track, if MARC's Growth and Expansion Plan does not call for one? Montgomery County's draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which proposes a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, also covers right-of-way for MARC. But it only includes a third track northwest of Metropolitan Grove.

All of these projects should maintain a reserved right-of-way for the third track that will make it easier to provide all-day, two-way service on the Brunswick Line. And for this to happen, MTA's final update of the Growth and Investment Plan must restore both all-day, two-way service and a third track between Georgetown Junction and Point of Rocks as long-term plans.

If you support all-day, two-way service on the Brunswick Line, please e-mail MTA at MTA will accept public comments on the draft update through mid-November.


Montgomery announces new bikeshare locations

Late this summer, Capital Bikeshare will expand into Montgomery County with 51 stations and 500 bikes. County officials have released maps of where they hope to put the stations, and they will hold meetings later this month to talk about the new service.

Bikeshare stations in Rockville and Shady Grove.

Bikeshare stations in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

Bikeshare stations in Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

30 stations will go in the downcounty area, including Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Bethesda and Friendship Heights. In conjunction with the City of Rockville, the county will also place 21 stations in Rockville and the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center as part of a pilot program to see whether bikesharing can work in suburban areas, especially for carless low-income residents and reverse commuters.

County Department of Transportation officials will hold 3 meetings later this month where residents can learn how Capital Bikeshare works and offer feedback on the proposed stations. For more information, visit the county's new bikesharing website.

All 3 areas where Capital Bikeshare will go already have higher-than-average bicycling rates, like downtown Bethesda, Takoma Park, and even Rockville Town Center. That's not surprising, as these communities have an older, urban built form that easily lends itself to bicycling.

Bikeshare stations will also serve major employment centers, like NIH and the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, along with local schools, like Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park and both the Rockville and Silver Spring campuses of Montgomery College. This will make bikesharing a real option for residents who live too far to walk, while helping students who either can't or don't drive.

However, the maps also show the need for improved bike infrastructure. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association and MoBike have proposed a network of new bike lanes to compliment the CaBi stations, but it'll be a while before the county actually builds some.

In addition, it looks like some of the stations are spaced too far apart to be useful. The station at Flower and Piney Branch in Silver Spring, for example, is over a mile from any other station and at the top of a hill. That means users are likely to bike from there and not come back, creating a rebalancing problem.

What do you think of the station locations?


Upper Marlboro is too remote for most Prince Georgeans

Access to government is an essential part of a functioning democracy. When a county's government is too far away from its citizens, it impedes many who would otherwise participate. Prince George's County's seat in Upper Marlboro is a particularly poor location.

I created this map showing where the county seats relate to the geographic and population centroid of each county in Maryland:

Click the image for larger version.

Upper Marlboro is on the far eastern edge of Prince George's County. The courthouse, in fact, is only 2 miles from the border with Anne Arundel County.

That means that for many residents, it is a long, tedious trip to the county seat to testify before the council or otherwise participate in events at the county's administrative center.

For those with a car, it's a long trip. For those without a car, it is a long, and at some times, impossible trip. The last bus leaves Upper Marlboro bound for Addison Road station at 6:40 pm. If you want to testify at the council after that, you'll need a car.

When I was called for jury duty last year, I had to borrow a car to get there. Jurors are expected at 7:30. For people living in the northern end of the county, that means catching the 6:30 bus from New Carrollton. And if your bus doesn't get to New Carrollton by 6:30, you're out of luck. For example, the first bus from the north end of Greenbelt doesn't get to New Carrollton until 6:49.

Upper Marlboro is not central

Upper Marlboro is not particularly close to the geographical center of Prince George's County. The geographical centroid (the average latitude and longitude of all points in the county) is just northeast of Andrews Air Force Base, just over 5 miles west of Upper Marlboro.

Of Maryland's 23 county seats, Upper Marlboro is the 9th most distant from the geographical centroid of its county. The worst is Oakland, over 10 miles from Garrett County's center. On the other hand, Denton is less than a half mile from the center of Caroline County. The state average is 3.97 miles.

More important than geographic centrality is that the seat is close and accessible to the populace. In that regard, Upper Marlboro fares much more poorly.

Upper Marlboro is 9.66 miles from the county's 2010 centroid of population (the average latitude and longitude of each resident's home in the county). That's the 2nd largest, after only Worcester County (home of Ocean City).

The distance between population centroids and county seats ranges from a high of 12.83 miles in Worcester County to a low of just 0.32 miles in Caroline County. The statewide average is 4.02 miles.

The 2010 population centroid of Prince George's County is near the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr Highway and Sheriff Road in the Landover area. This is about halfway between the Cheverly (Orange Line) and Morgan Boulevard (Blue Line) Metro stations.

Centroids of Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Click for interactive map. The blue dot represents the population centroid, and green is the geographic centroid.

If we compare this to Montgomery County, we find that Rockville is only 1.75 miles from the population centroid and 4.51 miles from the geographic centroid of the county.

CountyCounty seatMiles to pop.
Miles to geo.
Anne ArundelAnnapolis8.426.32
Baltimore CountyTowson1.745.15
CalvertPrince Frederick2.491.26
CharlesLa Plata3.102.20
HarfordBel Air2.102.37
HowardEllicott City4.175.50
Prince George'sUpper Marlboro9.665.01
Queen Anne'sCentreville4.703.45
SomersetPrincess Anne5.586.34
St. Mary'sLeonardtown3.401.75
WorcesterSnow Hill12.834.22
Click on a column header to sort the table.

Time for a change?

The population centroid is a contantly-changing point on the map.

In 1920, for example, the population centroid for Montgomery County was located north of Rockville. By 1960, it had moved as far south as Garrett Park, as the downcounty area urbanized. But then the wave of population growth moved north, and pulled the centroid with it.

In Prince George's County, since suburbanization began with streetcars in the early 1900s, growth has always stayed close to the DC boundary. Even as sprawling neighborhoods began to appear throughout Prince George's, the density of the close-in neighborhoods means that the population centroid has stayed close to DC.

Because so many Prince Georgeans live in the northern part of the county and close to the DC border, moving the county seat could make it easier for county residents to get involved in their government.

The county has already taken steps to move some departments to Largo, including the county's Department of Public Works & Transportation.

Prince George's should continue that trend, and moving the County Council should be a top priority.

If Largo were the county seat, it would be about the same distance from the geographical center of the county (5.16 miles instead of 5.01 miles), but it would be much closer to the population centroid (2.79 miles away instead of 9.66 miles).

Additionally, a seat in Largo would be much more accessible to residents without access to cars. Largo has a Metro station, and is a transit hub for several bus routes. Transit service there lasts almost until midnight, as opposed to shutting down at dinner time, as it does in Upper Marlboro.

A seat with Metro service would also put Prince George's in the same category as some of the other counties in the region. DC, Arlington, Alexandria, and Montgomery all have Metro-accessible seats.

Upper Marlboro is very inconveniently located. It's time Prince George's stopped asking its residents to slog more than halfway across the county just to participate in local government.


52 years late, Rockville will be whole again

For literally decades, downtown Rockville's most central block has sat empty, used only as a parking lot. It's been a huge hole in the city's urban fabric, separating the area near Rockville Metro station from the more vibrant Town Square. Now, after multiple failed attempts, it is finally, finally, being developed.

Rockville's long empty block. Image from Bing.

And with this property, the most visible sign of Rockville's failed 1960 urban renewal will be erased.

Back in 1960, Rockville was transitioning away from its historic role as a sleepy county seat, and into a booming post-war suburb. City leaders fully embraced the notion that walkable urban places were obsolete, and approved an urban renewal plan that bulldozed 111 buildings covering 47 acresalmost all of Rockville's historic downtown.

Like countless such plans from that era, this one was a disaster. A few mostly car-oriented buildings were constructed, including the short-lived Rockville Mall, but much of downtown remained empty.

It wasn't until New Urbanism started taking hold in the 1990s that Rockville once again began thinking about its downtown as a downtown, instead of a glorified strip mall and office park.

Since then Rockville has had many successes. The Regal Theater opened, a grand new courthouse was built, and of course, the impressive new Town Square redefined the center of downtown. But in all that time, one key property has failed to redevelop, despite repeated attempts.

The Town Center parking lot forms a gaping hole in Rockville

The current Town Center development. Image from Duball LLC and the CIM Urban Real Estate Fund.

Ever since the 1960 mass bulldozing of downtown, the block bounded by Middle Lane, Montgomery Avenue, Maryland Avenue, and Monroe Street, has been vacant of buildings. It's the central block in Rockville's downtown street grid, and marks the transition between the remaining urban renewal era highrises to the south, and the new Town Square to the north.

Arguably, it's the most important single block in Rockville, and it's been nothing but a parking lot for decades. In 2009 I named it the 5th most offensive parking lot in the Washington region, and the #1 worst outside of the District.

In 1994 the city worked with developers to plan a huge complex of office towers, including what would have been the tallest building in the city. The proposal floated around until the dot com bust soured the upper Montgomery County office market. By the turn of the millennium, the proposal was dead.

Then in 2005 the City of Rockville approved a new mixed-use redevelopment for the property, with somewhat shorter buildings. But development never got started, and when the recession hit those plans were once again tabled.

But now it appears that 2005 proposal has been dusted off and is ready to be built. The developer has a tenant and bank financing, which had always been the major holdups.

7 years after project approval, 18 years after the first proposal, and 52 years after urban renewal ruined Rockville, downtown is finally being stitched back together.

Upon seeing the property fenced off for the start of construction last week, @thisisbossi said it best on Twitter: FINALLY.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


School officials freak out over 5th grader riding public bus

A Rockville mother decided to let her 10-year-old daughter ride a public bus to get to her school, confident it would be safe. Other "concerned parents" reported this to the principal, who called the central office, who even called Child Welfare Services.

Photo by Tribute/ Homenaje on Flickr.

The mother, Anna, wrote a letter to the Free Range Kids blog that several readers sent in as a tip:

It had been brought to her attention, the principal said, by some "concerned parents," that my daughter had been riding the city bus to and from school.

I said, yes, we had just moved outside of the neighborhood, and felt that this was the most convenient way for our 5th grader to get there and back.

The principal asked was I not concerned for her safety? "Safety from what?" I inquired. "Kidnapping," she said reluctantly. ...

We did a lot of planning and preparation before we allowed L. to ride the bus. As a parent I feel that it is my job to advocate for her right to practice this new skill, for as long as she wants to do it and for as long as we her parents continue to feel it is safe.
The principal went on to tell the mother that the central office wanted Child Welfare Services to evaluate whether it was an acceptable parenting decision to let a 5th grader ride the bus.

In contrast to the anxious overreaction from school officials, Anna writes, her daughter told her mother she didn't need to wait in the car at the bus stop for the bus to arrive, because she wanted to talk to her "people friends":

There was the Chinese lady, the lady with the baby who cried a lot (but it's not his fault, he can't help it), and the grandma who always got on at the next stop. In a few short weeks, my daughter had surrounded herself with a community of people who recognized her, who were happy to see her, and who surely would step in if someone tried to hurt her.
One commenter noted that many places have kids ride the buses even younger. One said that when he or she grew up in Queens, all children rode the bus starting in 2nd grade. Another noted that Hamburg, Germany teaches kids to ride public transportation in 4th grade so they can use it alone after that.

Our suburban areas, including Montgomery County, have spent far too long building an environment that is not especially hospitable to kids walking to school. That forces almost all parents to drive their kids to school when the school bus is not an option, making school officials start to believe those are the only ways and flip out when anyone bucks the trend.

Correction: The last paragraph originally left out riding the school bus as one of the more common ways kids get to school. It now includes this as well as being driven by parents.


Annexation war pits Gaithersburg against Rockville

Rockville and Gaithersburg are nearly identical in many ways, and usually get along. But they aren't happy with each other right now, as they fight over who will annex a property located in the narrow swath of unincorporated land between them. This fight shows how long-term planning works and why it is important.

The disputed property. Image from Google Street View.

The crux of their disagreement is that Gaithersburg wants to annex a piece of land near the Rockville border that Rockville has never annexed itself, but to which Rockville thinks it is entitled. The land is south of Shady Grove Road, which many people think of as the unofficial boundary between the two cities.

But what people think of unofficially is not the law. There are actually laws on the books that govern how annexation works. When the dust settles, Gaithersburg is going to win this fight, because Gaithersburg has proactively thought about its long term planning needs, while Rockville has been strictly reactive.

The State of Maryland requires incorporated cities to adopt a future expansion plan, showing areas that each city may want to annex in the future. The entire point of this requirement is to give cities the opportunity to show where their "unofficial" boundaries are, so that everyone can plan accordingly.

And whether Rockville cares to admit it or not, they never made any kind of claim to the land in question until after Gaithersburg claimed it for itself, despite many opportunities to do so. If Rockville thought itself entitled to everything south of Shady Grove Road, then Rockville should have used the state's process to stake a legal claim.

Here are maps showing each city's adopted expansion plans, taken from their respective growth plans (page 66 on Rockville's on the top, page 30 on Gaithersburg's below):

The property in question is near the southeast corner of Shady Grove Road and Frederick Road:

Map by the author on Google Maps.

The Gaithersburg plan was adopted in 2009, and clearly shows this property as part of Gaithersburg's claim area. It's possible Gaithersburg claimed the land even earlier, but at the very latest by 2009 they had declared their intention to the land. Meanwhile, Rockville's plan shows that they didn't start thinking about this property until 2010, and had even specifically excluded it from their expansion plan during their previous update in 2002.

If Rockville wanted this land, why didn't they claim it in 2002? Or even before? If they really thought of Shady Grove Road as the boundary with Gaithersburg, why not make it official during any of the many updates to their expansion plan over the decades? Why wait until after Gaithersburg claimed it to express any interest?

Rockville didn't plan for the long term, and Gaithersburg did, and so Gaithersburg is going to win. They are set to annex the property at tonight's City Council meeting, and Rockville is powerless to stop it.

This is a good lesson to everyone. Proactively plan for what you want, or lose out to someone who did.


Retailers are embracing urbanism with zeal

As enclosed malls continue to decline and close, more and more retailers are opting to locate in pedestrian-friendly urban districts.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

3 years ago, I expressed sentiments that the car-oriented shopping mall was a business model with no future. The events since have offered further proof that retailers and customers now prefer an urban format, at least in our region.

Recent news that Bloomingdale's in White Flint and Macy's in Laurel will close has little to do with the sales performance of those stores, and everything to do with their host malls being unable to survive. Both have been visibly declining for years, and will soon be redeveloped into mixed-use walkable urban places.

The Laurel Macy's has managed to remain open for years despite much of its host mall being shuttered. That store would likely have closed years ago if it wasn't making money, especially in the wake of the Great Recession.

Similarly, if it had not been profitable the White Flint Bloomingdale's would have closed in 2007 when another location of the luxury retailer opened a mere 3 Metro stations away.

Within the Favored Quarter, the most economically competitive and healthy part of our region, only the largest and most dynamic enclosed malls are continuing to thrive. The rest are slowly dying.

In Maryland, Montgomery Mall is the most vibrant, while in Virginia the Tysons cluster reigns supreme.

When the White Flint redevelopment plan was approved in 2010, it provided the owners of White Flint Mall the opportunity to earn a healthier profit by giving the market more of what it wants: walkable urbanism.

Elsewhere in the region the malls are doing as bad or worse. Most have either closed or are in the process of being converted to walkable town centers.

Arlington has had success turning the area around its two enclosed malls into mixed-use towns, first at Ballston and now at Pentagon City, where the process is still under way.

In Fairfax, Springfield Mall is slated for redevelopment, and Fair Oaks Mall is actively considering a mixed-use future.

In Prince George's County, the area around the Mall at Prince George's (formerly Prince George's Plaza) has been undergoing a process similar to Pentagon City. At Bowie Town Center, County officials are looking at adding more entertainment and housing options.

Meanwhile, urban shopping areas that I mentioned three years ago have increased in prominence:

In the District of Columbia, there are four shopping districts that support clusters of national retail chains that are usually mall-based: Downtown (Old Downtown clustered around Metro Center), Connecticut Avenue between Farragut Square and Dupont Circle, Friendship Heights, and Georgetown. Columbia Heights is emerging and has a different mix of retailers.
Urban-format suburban shopping districts also continue to thrive and grow.

Silver Spring's retail is more vibrant than ever. The space vacated by Borders was quickly filled by Smart Toys. Bethesda and Clarendon are continually adding to their mixture of chains and smaller upscale retailers. Wheaton is a work in progress.

Even outside the Beltway, urbanism is catching on. Rockville Town Square and Gaithersburg's Washingtonian Center are growing, and National Harbor is setting the standard for Prince George's County. Two decades ago, all those developments likely would have been enclosed malls.

While purely car-dependent malls aren't going to go completely extinct, they are becoming far more rare. In the future, it is likely the only enclosed malls that remain will be the largest super-regional "winners" inside the Favored Quarter. Meanwhile, no new malls are planned.

As the 21st Century continues, both living and dead mall sites will be either be completely redeveloped or will evolve into mixed-use walkable urban places. Retailers will continue clustering at transit-oriented, walkable urban locations, both downtown and at new suburban "uptowns."

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