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Scarred by urban renewal, Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood gets a second chance

Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood has a rich history, but urban renewal nearly destroyed it. With the Purple Line coming, this historically-black community could get a second chance, but not everybody looks forward to it.

Urban renewal nearly destroyed Lyttonsville in the 1970s. Photo by Alan Bowser.

Located west of the Red Line tracks from downtown Silver Spring, Lyttonsville is one of Montgomery County's oldest neighborhoods, founded in 1853 by freed slave Samuel Lytton. The area could soon be home to a Purple Line station if the light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton opens as scheduled in 2022.

Over the past two years, Montgomery County planners crafted a vision for a small town center around the future Lyttonsville station, bringing affordable housing and retail options the community lacks. Some residents are deeply skeptical of what's called the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, though it could restore the town center Lyttonsville lost long ago.

A rough history

During the early 20th century, a thriving main street developed along Brookville Road, including schools, churches, and a cemetery. As surrounding areas became suburban neighborhoods exclusively for white residents, the black Lyttonsville community lacked public services like running water and paved roads. For decades, its only connection to Silver Spring was a wooden, one-lane bridge that remains today.

In the 1970s, the county seized much of the area, destroying Lyttonsville's main street and replacing much of it with an industrial park, a Ride On bus lot, and storage for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Many of the older homes were replaced with large garden apartment complexes.

This wooden bridge was once the only way in and out of Lyttonsville. Photo by the author.

Today, Lyttonsville is a racially diverse community, and sought-after for its location between Silver Spring and Bethesda and being in the vaunted Bethesda-Chevy Chase school catchment. But one out of ten residents lives in poverty, compared to 6.9% of residents countywide. Lyttonsville is hard to access by any form of transportation, isolating its residents from nearby jobs.

Some residents claim the county's plan will continue a legacy of destructive planning decisions. They're worried about traffic and density, about getting redistricted out of the B-CC cluster, and that the area's affordable apartments could get replaced with luxury housing. Others are wary of the Purple Line after fighting off plans to locate a storage yard in the neighborhood.

Charlotte Coffield, who grew up in Lyttonsville during segregation and whose sister Gwendolyn fought to bring services to the area (the local community center is named for her), has emerged as one of the biggest critics. "All [Purple Line] stations do not need to be town centers," she wrote in a letter to the county planning board. "The proposed density would destroy the stable character and balance of our ethnically diverse neighborhood." Last week, the Lyttonsville Community Civic Association, where she is president, voted to accept no more than 400 new homes in the area.

New development in Lyttonsville

Bethesda-based developer EYA, which is currently building townhomes next to the future Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line station, has an alternate proposal for Lyttonsville that could address residents' concerns. The biggest land parcels in the area are owned by several different property owners, including multiple government agencies, each with their own plans. Some want to build lots of new homes, while WSSC has a large site that they intend to leave alone.

EYA's vision for Lyttonsville.

EYA has reached out to several landowners about coordinating, allowing development on a combined 33-acre site to happen together. First, they would partner with WSSC to build several hundred affordable apartments and townhomes on their property. Residents of existing apartments could move there first without getting displaced. Then, EYA would partner with the two non-profits who own the affordable apartments to redevelop them with market-rate townhomes. The county would restrict building heights to 70 feet.

Next to the Lyttonsville station itself, EYA envisions a plaza surrounded by market-rate apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space (about half the size of a Giant supermarket), and a small business incubator modeled on Baltimore's Open Works that would offer job training to local residents.

Public art would promote the area's history, while Rosemary Hills Park would get a small addition. Local streets where drivers speed today would get traffic calming and new pedestrian and bicycle connections.

The $500 million proposal addresses most of the neighbors' concerns. EYA seeks to build 1200 new homes on the land, compared to the nearly 1700 the county would allow there. (What Montgomery County wants to allow in Lyttonsville is still less dense than plans for other Purple Line stations, including Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake.) One-third of the new homes would be set aside for low-income households, and every existing affordable apartment would be replaced.

Lyttonsville's future Purple Line station. Image from MTA.

"The county can leave a legacy for how you can build Smart Growth," says Evan Goldman, VP of Land Acquisition and Development at EYA, stressing that the private development could help pay for the public amenities neighbors want. "There's only so much [public benefits] this can afford," he adds. "If you reduce the units so you can't pay for the benefits, the public benefits won't come."

Can the proposal actually work?

Residents I've spoken to like EYA's proposal, but are skeptical if it can happen. This project could have a transformative effect on Lyttonsville, but only if all of these partners agree to it. Recent experience in Shady Grove suggests finding new locations for the Ride On bus lot or WSSC's facility may be difficult.

"If EYA can execute its plan, there are more upsides," says resident Abe Saffer, "but since they don't have any letters of intent or partnerships firmly in place, I remain nervous."

The Montgomery County Council will hold two public hearings on the Lyttonsville Sector Plan next week in Rockville. Here's where you can sign up. If the plan is approved, the county would then have to approve EYA's proposal, which could then start construction in 2020 and take 10 to 15 years to get built.


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.


Slow start for Capital Bikeshare in Montgomery County

Since launching in September, the Capital Bikeshare stations in Montgomery County have been slow to draw riders, with some stations being used less than once per day on average. This may change over time, but it'll take a more complete bike network to increase ridership.

Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

I reviewed Capital Bikeshare's trip history data to find lessons from the first few months after the September 27 launch through December 31. Of the 50 stations in Montgomery County, the highest-performing ones were those in Friendship Heights and Bethesda, and those near Metro stations.

To count each station's number of trips, I included any trip that started or ended at the station. Trips that both started and ended at the same station counted only once, but if those trips lasted less than 30 seconds, I decided not to count them at all. To find the trips-per-day averages, I made sure to account for the fact that some stations were installed after the initial launch.

On the maps, blue dots are stations which averaged 10 or more trips a day; green dots at least 5 trips but less than 10; yellow at least 2 trips but less than 5; orange at least 1 trip but less than 2; and red dots were stations with less than one trip per day. Black dots represent stations that weren't installed until this year.

Bethesda and Friendship Heights

The most popular bikeshare station in Montgomery County so far is the one at the Friendship Heights Metro station, which was involved in about 11 trips per day. It has several things going for it. Metro stations are a popular place for bikeshare trips, as we'll see throughout this analysis. The location is also right on the border with DC, which has its own bikeshare stations nearby and, presumably, residents who were already members before the Montgomery launch.

Map by the author.

The next most popular station was at Bethesda Avenue & Arlington Boulevard, in the dense, mixed-use Bethesda Row area. The third most popular was the station at Montgomery Avenue & East Lane, close to the Bethesda Metro stop. Those two each saw between 7 and 8 trips per day.

The most common trip involving a Montgomery station went from Battery Lane & the Bethesda Trolley Trail to Norfolk Avenue & Fairmont Avenue. But this trip only happened 70 times last year, meaning a handful of users could easily be responsible for all the trips. As a result, I'm hesitant to draw any broad conclusions from the popularity of certain trips.


Bike sharing in Rockville started very slowly. The only station involved in more than two trips per day was East Montgomery Avenue & Maryland Avenue, which averaged 2.5 trips per day. It's the closest station to Rockville Town Center, and also less than a half-mile from the Rockville Metro stop.

Map by the author.

The most glaring omission in Rockville is the lack of a bikeshare station at the Shady Grove Metro stop. Capital Bikeshare put stations in the King Farm and Fallsgrove neighborhoods, both of which have bike-friendly routes to the Shady Grove Metro.

The lack of a bikeshare station at the Shady Grove Metro seems like a missed opportunity to connect residents to a major destination. Throughout the system, Metro stations are among the most popular sites for bikeshare stations. The two most popular stations in the whole system were the one near the Dupont Circle Metro stop's north entrance and the one near Union Station. Each was involved in more than 300 trips per day from September 27 to December 31 last year.

Silver Spring and Takoma Park

Map by the author.

Like Bethesda, Silver Spring has some of the highest rates of bicycle commuting in the county. But the most popular station in eastern Montgomery County was the one near the Silver Spring Metro station, at Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue. It saw just 4.3 trips per day.

There's no bikeshare station right near the Takoma Metro station. The closest one is at Carroll Avenue & Westmoreland Avenue. It was Takoma Park's most popular, averaging 4.1 trips per day after it was installed in late October.

Comparing Montgomery County to Alexandria

Alexandria was the first jurisdiction outside of DC and Arlington that Capital Bikeshare expanded to. The cluster of stations there is geographically isolated from other parts of the system in a similar way to the Montgomery County clusters.

The growth of ridership in Alexandria since its stations launched on August 31, 2012 could offer a clue for what to expect going forward in Montgomery.

There were 4,736 trips involving at least one of Alexandria's stations during the fourth quarter of 2012. In the fourth quarter of 2013, that number went up to 5,345, an increase of 13% from the previous year.

All eight stations in Alexandria launched on the same day, and there have been no additional stations since then, so it's easy to compare them from year to year.

Notably, and not surprisingly, the bikeshare station near the King Street Metro station was Alexandria's most popular.

Looking forward

Montgomery County can expect bike sharing to grow over time, but it shouldn't assume that such a slow start is normal.

In DC, the station at North Capitol Street & G Place NE opened in mid-December and managed 14 trips per day during the final few weeks of the year, even during a relatively cold month. The 10th Street & Florida Ave NW station, added in October, saw 25 trips per day for the rest of the year.

No station in Montgomery County really came close to those numbers, let alone those of the most popular stations in DC.

If the county wants its investment in bike sharing to pay off, it should fill in key gaps, especially at the Shady Grove Metro. Providing bike lanes or paths to connect neighborhoods to Metro stations would also encourage the kind of trips that have proven popular everywhere else in the system.


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?


8½ minutes to cross the street

When you get off the northbound bus at Route 355 and Shady Grove Road in Rockville, it takes 8½ minutes to cross legally to the other side of the street. Along the way, you traverse 28 traffic lanes.

Photo from Bing.

Just last week, two pedestrians were severely injured crossing the street at this intersection. I went there Saturday to look around. When I explained what I was interested in, people waiting for the southbound bus immediately pointed me to the bus stop on the other side.

I walked there, taking care to obey the law, and timed the return trip. It took 8½ minutes one way.

From the northbound bus stop (off the picture past point A on the picture below), I proceeded along the Route 355 sidewalk and reached the intersection at B. There I walked across a wide turn lane designed for high speeds that has no traffic signal—fortunately weekend traffic in the turn lane is light—and reached the traffic island at C.

Photo from Google Earth.

There is no crosswalk across the south side of the intersection (because there's a traffic light here, there's no unmarked crosswalk). Therefore, I had to wait for the walk signal to cross the 9 lanes of Shady Grove Road. The wait was substantial, because this is a slow light; the signal cycle is 2½ minutes.

When I reached the next traffic island at D, I found a "beg button"—a button that you press to get a walk signal. Cars made left turns for a little while, the through lanes began to move, and I got my signal to proceed across the 8 lanes of Route 355. The walk and flashing don't-walk phases, together, lasted 23 seconds.

I walk briskly, so I was able to finish the 104-foot crossing before the signal became a solid don't-walk. But a slower, and strictly law-abiding, pedestrian would have had to stop in the median. There is no beg button in the median, so they would have had to wait—who knows how long—until another pedestrian came along who follows traffic rules so punctiliously that they bother to push beg buttons.

Having finally reached point E, I had to wait again for a walk signal. This time I had 10 lanes to cross, but here there is a long green that gives you plenty of time. Finally, I walked along the sidewalk from F to G, and after 8½ minutes I arrived at the southbound bus stop.

New beg button at "C." Photo by the author.

The Montgomery County Department of Transpor­tation is not ignoring this troubled intersection. It has installed 4 new beg buttons, not yet operational. But the way MCDOT is using these devices almost flaunts the low priority it assigns to pedestrian safety and convenience.

One of the new buttons is at location C. That's where pedestrians cross a high-speed turn lane that has no traffic light. The turn lane won't change at all. It still won't have a light; you will still take your life in your hands to cross during rush hour. The beg button will only control the through lanes, making you wait through the 2½ minute light cycle if you arrive when the light is already green. Walking will be even slower; a few more cars will get through.

MCDOT is willing enough to spend money on walk signals. Here and there, as at this intersection, it will make traffic islands prettier and improve curb cuts. But getting people where they want to go on foot, quickly and safely, is never as important to the department as moving cars.

Route 355 and Shady Grove Road, as envisioned in the 2006 master plan and as it is today. Left, rendering from MNCPPC; right, photo from Google Earth.

Ironically, this is a place the county has designated for transit-oriented land use. It is only ¾ of a mile from the Shady Grove Metro station and on a future Bus Rapid Transit route. According to the master plan for this area, "Residents will find walking along tree-lined streets and using bike paths as convenient as driving."

The master plan, which the County Council enacted in 2006, specifies that road builders must "provide four-way crosswalks at all intersections." Seven years have passed, and MCDOT can't seem to find a can of paint. It takes as long to cross the street, at Shady Grove and 355, as the Purple Line will take to go from Silver Spring to Bethesda.


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.

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