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33 pages after calling for a growing and inclusive city, DC's Comprehensive Plan muddies that vision

Greater Greater Washington readers are reading the DC Comprehensive Plan together. Each week we discuss a section online. We'll post a summary of each chapter and our participants' thoughts about the changes we want to see in the upcoming amendment process.

DC's 2005 Comprehensive Plan began with a strong and encouraging vision: building a growing and inclusive city. Just one chapter later, it lists a set of contradictory guiding principles that waffle between preserving the status quo and promoting inclusive growth. Oops.

Image by Debbie Ohi on Flickr.

A great vision gives great promise

DC's 2005 Comprehensive Plan accurately forecast DC's growth up to 2010, though the city has grown much faster than predicted since then.

The plan did not, however, fully anticipate the spiraling housing costs that are putting housing in DC out of reach for so many people. But it issued a strong guiding vision to grow inclusively. It's a vision statement worth repeating:

Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices—choices about where they live, how and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school.

Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices—regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age.

This vision was right for 2005, and it is definitely right for 2016, as we watch rents rise at twice the national average and many outside of the wealthier income brackets are feeling pressured to move out. Figuring out how to capture the benefits of this growth without excluding many is the challenge we'd hope this document would take on.

Don't judge a book by its cover; a vision gets lost

After making a lot of predictions about the future, the plan starts to get into principles for guiding DC's growth. It starts out well:

1. Change in the District of Columbia is both inevitable and desirable. The key is to
manage change in ways that protect the positive aspects of life in the city and reduce negatives such as poverty, crime, and homelessness.
But then, the plan seems to say that not everyone has to help make room for new neighbors or any other kind of change.
6. Redevelopment and infill opportunities along corridors and near transit stations will be an important component of reinvigorating and enhancing our neighborhoods. Development on such sites must not compromise the integrity of stable neighborhoods and must be designed to respect the broader community context.
Of course it's important to respect the neighborhoods and neighbors as they currently exist, but this statement is simply not bold enough to let the city be and remain inclusive.

The plan seems to acknowledge that every neighborhood has to be a part of the solution:

12. Each neighborhood is an integral part of a diverse larger community that contributes to the District's identity. Growing an inclusive city means that all neighborhoods should share in the overall social responsibilities of the community, including housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and accommodating the disabled.
But, then, not:
8. The residential character of neighborhoods must be protected, maintained and improved. Many District neighborhoods possess social, economic, historic, and physical qualities that make them unique and desirable places in which to live. These qualities can lead to development and redevelopment pressures that threaten the very qualities that make the neighborhoods attractive. These pressures must be controlled through zoning and other means to ensure that neighborhood character is preserved and enhanced.
Corey Holman noticed that many of these statements use "near antonyms," like "Maintaining and enhancing the mix of housing types" (Principle #3) or "ensure that neighborhood character is preserved and enhanced" (Principle #8). He wrote, "How can something be maintained or preserved while also being enhanced? It's that wishy-washy language that allows people to see what they want in this document, instead of laying out a clear vision.

"It's saying, 'we need growth in commercial corridors—but "stable" (which seems like code for "affluent single-family homeowner") neighborhoods should not be touched,'" said David Alpert. Or, "Growth should be inclusive, but don't worry, people in exclusive areas—we don't mean YOU have to be inclusive."

Corey Holman added, "To me, this is an example of 'I got mine, move the development elsewhere' that certainly shouldn't be considered a guiding principle of growth in the city."

DC's need to accommodate new residents applies to Chevy Chase, too. Photo by Dan Reed.

A timid Comp Plan is not going to work

The vision of an inclusive, growing DC is maybe even more needed today than in 2005. The status quo of today is not acceptable for many people who are being priced out of living in safe neighborhoods. We can't fix that with a bunch of weak or confusing "guiding principles" that just qualify and carve out broad exceptions to its compelling vision.

No, we shouldn't just build on every scrap of land available. No, we shouldn't just build 12 stories on top of every low-rise building. Green space matters. A diversity of housing types and neighborhoods matters.

But our city's Comprehensive Plan needs to provide solutions, not a list of non-committal statements that read in conflicting ways. It should push for the inclusive growth we need in no uncertain terms. And while each neighborhood should be a part of the discussion and have some voice in shaping how it grows, no neighborhood should get an unqualified opt out from growing and being inclusive.

Interested in helping us find ways to make this plan stronger? Join our online "book club" by filling out the form below. We cleared 110 members last week. Jump on in!


Why Washington's transportation is a problem, in one map

Why does Metro have budget problems? Why is traffic bad? While there are many reasons, this map shows the biggest one: Our region keeps growing mostly on one side, which taxes strained transportation networks and wastes resources.

Image from PlanItMetro based on COG forecasts. Read the analysis.

This map shows projected growth around the region. There's a stark line between all the highest-growth areas, in the west, and lower growth to the east. The folks at PlanItMetro, who made this map, wrote:

Between 2020 and 2040, the region expects to add about 870,000 more jobs (25% increase) and 1 million more people (16% increase). As shown in the map below, much of that growth is planned where transit is already at or exceeding capacity, while many other areas that have high-quality transit continue to be underdeveloped. The result: more congestion.
These stats were part of a big new study, called ConnectGreaterWashington. Last weekend, I wrote about the broad strokes in the Washington Post. The key takeaway: Our region is not growing enough in areas, mostly on the east side of the region, where there's already ample transit (and road) infrastructure, while the growth that is happening is straining the infrastructure we have.

There's a real price tag for this.

Unbalanced growth costs money

In the ConnectGreaterWashington study, WMATA planners modeled several scenarios. With no particular change in our current path, Metro will have crush loaded trains (which are not just uncomfortable but more often delayed) on the Orange/Silver lines west of Rosslyn and the Yellow/Green lines south of L'Enfant. Meanwhile, its operations will cost local governments $350 million a year by 2040 (up from about $245 now) in subsidy.

Just making the areas around stations more walkable and bikeable and changing fares to encourage off-peak travel helped only a tiny bit on its own. Shifting predicted growth between 2020 and 2040 inside individual jurisdictions, from places far from transit to places near, helped more, but the crowding imbalance on Metro (and roads), where trains (and highways) are packed in one direction and nearly empty in the other, didn't change.

Metro could be profitable! Or, at least, closer to it

There was a scenario which fixed myriad problems: Rebalancing growth more evenly across the region from 2020 to 2040. If the region focused enough of its economic development efforts where there is underused transportation capacity, Metro could even run a surplus of $270 million a year. That's a revenue stream WMATA could bond against for fixes like a second Rosslyn station to relieve Blue Line crowding (costs about a billion), walkways between downtown transfer stations (similar), or all eight-car trains (about $1.7 billion).

Those fixes would be even more needed than they are today, as under this scenario, Metro would also need more capacity. And I wouldn't oversell the chance that Metro becomes "profitable"—it probably requires more shifting of growth than most governments, employers, or developers are willing to go for.

Besides, it's not clear that running a surplus is what a transportation system ought to plan around. We build transportation systems to move people, and they cost money. Many European cities happily spend much more on their transit systems, because they find them valuable and are willing to invest in public works projects. It's worthwhile to have transit even if its ridership isn't astronomically high.

The hole will just get deeper

However, we need to recognize that for every year the western edge of the region grows much faster than the east side, we're digging a bigger hole. New COG projections, which come from local governments' own growth plans and aspirations, estimate that Loudoun and Prince William will add 100,000 jobs each by 2045, or 75% more than they have today. Meanwhile, the forecast estimates Prince George's will just gain 19% more jobs and 10% more residents.

For every year that kind of pattern continues, we're making Metro more expensive, fiscally, than it needs to be and making the challenges of crowding on roads and rails worse. This is costing every jurisdiction and taxpayer far more than it should, including those on the west side of the region.

Or, to put it more starkly: Even Virginians and western Montgomery residents pay every day for the lack of growth in Prince George's, and it's in their interests as well as everyone else's to better balance our growth.


Here's how Metro can cut costs and grow smarter

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld recently laid out his roadmap for addressing the agency's problems. We should all hope he succeeds in this effort. If he can get Metro back on track in the short term, our region must do its part to set up Metro for success in the long term.

Photo by isuperwang on Flickr.

Without a doubt, the system must be safe, and workers and managers at all levels must stop hiding problems. Riders expect and deserve reliable service, and Metro must get a handle on the obstacles, such as ineffective rail car maintenance, that have stymied performance.

Once Metro has surmounted these immediate challenges, once it has regained the confidence of riders, voters, businesses and elected leaders, it—and we—must confront the larger structural challenges.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post.


What does "Smart Growth 2.0" mean for Arlington?

In discussing the state of the county, Arlington County Board chair Mary Hynes recently called on residents to help "chart a new course" to plan for the future. Hynes says we need a "2nd generation of Smart Growth," and ArlNow called Hynes' vision Smart Growth 2.0. What do you think Arlington's priorities should be?

Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

Arlington officials will soon unveil a new county transportation plan, prioritizing transit improvements between Crystal City, Columbia Pike and Rosslyn. What, exactly, will be in that plan is still unclear.

In her State of the County address last Friday, Hynes said increased competition, strained resources and little remaining developable space demand that we update how we approach transportation and development.

"Those incredible ups that we had are not going to come Arlington's way again," Hynes said. "I challenge each of you to be part of the solution."

A lot of challenges are coming Arlington's way

Arlington's 2009 Master Transportation Plan projects that our population and workforce, along with our demand for transit, will increase significantly by 2030. The plan recommends substantial investments in transit, along with mixed-use and transit-oriented development that works to make alternatives to driving, like biking and walking, more feasible.

Arlington defines Primary Transit Network as operating daily at least every 15 minutes, for at least 18 hours. Data from Arlington's 2009 Master Transportation Plan.

Since last year's cancellation of the streetcar, officials haven't presented a concrete plan for investing in accessible, convenient transit in Arlington. Hynes said that announced that this month, county staff will launch a new transit development plan, along with a conversation that "isn't about fixing what we have, it's about how we vision forward."

Hynes says decades of decisions to fund expansion of transit and implement environmentally conscious land use policies have meant huge economic, environmental, and other quality of life benefits for Arlington. But, she warned, those benefits will not continue at the same levels. She cites Arlington's high office vacancy rate, rising school enrollment, stiff regional competition and limited remaining space for development, and the federal government's reduced local presence as challenges for the county.

A new vision can help Arlington overcome those challenges. But as we recently learned from the fallout over the streetcar, broad-based support has to be a top priority for any project. If it's not there, sustainable transportation projects won't be so sustainable.

Arlington has a lot at stake

Does Arlington need a "second generation of Smart Growth?" What should Arlington do to retain and strengthen its appeal for years to come?

In September 2014, Matt Carmichael of Livability wrote the following about Arlington:

"Together, its mix of retail, residential, government buildings, and offices help draw residents and businesses, but also help support the more traditional suburban parts of Arlington such as the cul-du-sac, single-family-home neighborhoods of Country Club Hills and Columbia Pike."

Carmichael makes a salient reference to how mixed development supports Arlington's traditional suburbs. Often, homeowners oppose plans to add more residential units and further increase density in their backyards when they're not convinced they'll benefit. This is happening now with RiverHouse, where I live.

So what will it take to sustain Arlington's impressive combination of quality-of-life rankings, like best DC suburb for young professionals? Or second best place in the country to retire? Or Livability's third best small to mid-size locality in the country to live?

In her address, Hynes also touted mega European retailer Lidl's recent decision to locate its US headquarters in Arlington, near the future Potomac Yards Metro station.

Big revenue-generating employers help fund Smart Growth initiatives. Arlington's livability rankings help lure the Lidls here. Those ratings depend on forward thinking and follow-through just like reaching the top of a hill by bike depends on non-stop peddling: Rest, and see what happens.

So now which way do we go?

Arlington is experiencing dramatic turnover among its leaders. Hynes and longtime County Board member Walter Tejada are not seeking reelection. In November, we will elect their successors. Jay Fisette, first elected in 1997, will be the only member who has served more than four years. And the Board is searching for a new County Manager.

Board members Libby Garvey and John Vishstadt, while known for what they were against, are approachable decisionmakers. Of the four candidates running in November—Democrats Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol, former Republican and now Independent Mike McMenamin and Green Audrey Clementonly one, Cristol, addresses smart growth issues on her website. (Disclosure: I supported Cristol and Dorsey in the June 9th Democratic primary.)

The coming transportation plan will aim to tackle some pieces of Hynes' second generation of Smart Growth, but there isn't reason to expect a bold vision. She previewed that it may address Blue Line shortcomings. And outline improvements for Columbia Pike, Virginia's busiest bus corridor, where the county is proposing to install 23 new transit stations. From what I've seen, the county has learned from its mistakes with the million dollar Walter Reed bus stop debacle. New, cost-effective designs I've seen feature improved signage, seating and protection from bad weather.

Will the new plan focus on Lee Highway or Glebe Road, listed as priority corridors in the Master Transportation Plan? Or on providing better bus service between Rosslyn and Ballston? We'll soon see.

Once the transportation plan is released, we'll have some answers—and still important questions to explore. The significant changes in Arlington's political leadership present an opportunity to engage and think fresh about the path forward. Fisette, together with Vihstadt and Garvey and the two new members, will chart Arlington's "new course." And we will, too, if we choose to take up Hynes' challenge "to be part of the solution."


Smarter growth will expand Prince George's tax base

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wants to raise real property tax rates by 16% to increase funding to public schools. The real way to boost Prince George's economy is to develop around its gateway Metro stations near the DC line.

The area around the Capitol Heights Metro station is underdeveloped. Image from WMATA.

Prince George's is home to the lowest median home values and highest property tax rates in the region, largely because of the low home values in its older, deteriorating communities that border the District of Columbia. Seven of the county's 15 Metrorail stations are in these gateway neighborhoods, but they all are devoid of any substantial transit-oriented development (TOD).

Improving existing home values will strengthen the tax base

Like many other suburbs, Prince George's County has historically been a bedroom community. The county's largest source of tax revenue comes from real property taxes, and 61% of taxable real estate is residential property.

It stands to reason, then, that even small increases in existing home values in the county would go a long way to raise revenues even without any major large-scale development.

Currently, median home values in the five Prince George's county subdivision areas bordering the District of Columbia fall 10-31% below the countywide median value of $269,800. If existing home values in these areas simply rose to that level, the county's taxable real estate base would increase by approximately $2.47 billion. That would add approximately $23.7 million annually in revenue to the county.

Of course, if the county got serious about developing the seven Metro stations located in these struggling communities (Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Cheverly, Southern Avenue, Naylor Road, Suitland, and West Hyattsville), real property revenues would soar much higher than the median.

Undeveloped transit station areas undermine economic growth

Shockingly, Prince George's current General Plan doesn't recommend any substantial growth around six of the seven Metro stations near the DC border over the next 20 years. (The Suitland station, next to the U.S. Census Bureau, is the exception.) Indeed, the county's planners believe there are currently "too many" Metro stations in the county and that developing all of them would "undermine economic growth."

More specifically, planners say that the six gateway Metro stations bordering DC, plus the four stand-alone MARC stations, plus all the planned stand-alone Purple Line stations should only account for 15% of the county's future growth in the next 20 years. That equates to fewer than 600 new housing units per transit station.

By contrast, the General Plan recommends putting 30-40% of the county's projected growth and development over the next 20 years—or up to 25,000 new housing units—far away from transit and mostly outside of the Beltway. This recommendation appears despite county-funded research that concludes that failing to focus on TOD puts the county "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors."

Prince George's has continually squandered opportunities to focus its attention on revitalizing its neighborhoods inside the Beltway. Continuing to encourage scattered development away from transit has crippled the county financially, environmentally, and aesthetically.

Gateway communities can't wait 20 more years to redevelop

The close-in Prince George's neighborhoods and Metro station areas near the DC line are likely the first thing the region's current and prospective residents think about when determining whether they would like to live and work in the county.

Until Prince George's County improves its gateway neighborhoods, it will be difficult for it to attract the region's best and brightest. The county can't wait another 20 years for that transformation to happen.

County executive Baker is rightly concerned with diversifying the county's revenue base, creating more jobs, and expanding the county's commercial tax base. To that end, he has advocated strongly for developing the end-of-line Metro stations at the Beltway's edge.

For example, he's called for the FBI to relocate its headquarters to Greenbelt Metro, for the state housing agency to relocate to New Carrollton Metro, and for a new regional medical center to come to Largo Town Center.

Likewise, the General Plan's strategy to direct 50% of future growth to the seven largest Metro stations (including the three mentioned above) plus National Harbor, and to create three "downtowns" at Largo, New Carrollton, and Prince George's Plaza, is sensible.

Still, the county's economic development strategy should also reach beyond downtown, and deeper inside the Beltway, to the neighborhood Metro stations near the District's edge. Most of the new development that the General Plan currently contemplates for outer-Beltway suburbia should instead go toward these gateway areas.

Prince George's County cannot simply tax itself out of last place in the region. Instead, its leaders need to become better stewards of the public's trust and the public's resources. The county's transit-rich gateway neighborhoods are economic engines ready and waiting to be fired up, but county leaders have to ignite the switch.

Prince George's must get serious about revitalizing its old streetcar suburbs. These vital neighborhoods can't be left to languish for another generation.

Crossposted on Prince George's Urbanist.


Topic of the Week: Is the term "Smart Growth" out?

"Smart Growth" is the idea that cities and regions should focus on growing in existing communities and near transit rather than in rural or fringe area. A colleague recently said he doesn't hear the term as much as he used to, and wondered why that might be.

Photo by pderby on Flickr.

Perhaps Smart Growth's proponents worry that people who get nervous about change will bristle at the term, so they talk about its tenets—walkable communities, transportation choices, the preservation of open space, etc—without actually saying the words.

Stepping further back, it could be that a lot of people don't know that Smart Growth comprises these elements, so it makes more sense to talk about them specifically.

Greater Greater Washington contributors added their thoughts as well.

Dan Reed said:

I consciously stopped using the phrase "Smart Growth," as well as "New Urbanism," because I felt the two were used and misused way too much. I agree that it makes more sense to talk about specific aspects of each, as it may be easier to find common ground with people on one issue (and build support for it) than to ask people to commit to an entire "agenda," at least right off the bat.
Agnes Artemel explained what she hears when people discuss these issues in Alexandria:
In Alexandria, no one talks about Smart Growth, although many support the underlying principles. The term has been replaced by euphemisms or subset terminology, like "walkable community," "complete streets," "density around transit," and the overused "live, work, and play." "Growth" is a fear factor word, even when tempered with "smart."
Payton Chung followed up on Dan Reed's mention of "New Urbanism":
There's been chatter within the Congress for the New Urbanism about whether it's worth dropping the "new," or even just declaring victory and disbanding. That was originally a wordsmith's attempt at reclaiming language—in the dark days of the 1990s "urban" was used as a racist, classist code word. Since then, that meaning has fallen away, and the architects behind CNU have been successful at pushing the French-derived "urbanism" into the American vernacular. Both Smart Growth and New Urbanism have declined as search terms since the mid-2000s.
Ben Ross also mentioned the word urbanism.
I hear "urbanism" in place of Smart Growth. It's a slight change of focus, from choosing where we grow to making the places where we now grow differently, but mostly just a change of language.
Canaan Merchant explained that he thinks that the term needs refining.
I prefer having a strict definition for Smart Growth (note the uppercase) and having a specific list of criteria for something to be Smart Growth. That helps prevent the term from being coopted as just a marketing buzzword (though I've seen people try) or a general term that says "any type of development I like is Smart Growth, even if what I like is actually sprawl or auto-centric."
Alex Posorske, the Coalition for Smarter Growth's managing director, explained why he thinks the term is as important as ever (he did, of course, admit that the term being part of his organization's name might make him at least slightly biased!):
I still think it's a great term. It encompasses a wide range of what we do: pro-transit, anti-sprawl, advocate for transit-oriented development, affordable housing, transportation spending priorities, etc. Other terms, like urbanism, don't quite manage to take everything in.

There's something to be said for finding common ground issue by issue. But from a regional movement perspective, there's also something to be said for simplified communication to ease outreach to the people who support what the term encompasses. Smart Growth isn't the clearest term ever—it can still take some explaining—but at only two words, it's a great start.

Cheryl Cort, the Coalition for Smarter Growth's policy director, added more background:
Smart Growth is a shorthand term that can be useful, but when I'm persuading someone to embrace policies that create a more walkable, inclusive and sustainable place, I don't use it. Any shorthand term can be abused and co-opted. Another example is "sustainable" which has regained its popularity after some years out of favor.

In the 1990s, professional planners used to talk about "growth management." People who thought of themselves as environmentalists, or just opposed a development often were "no growth" or "slow growthers."

Maryland Governor Glendening came along with a more qualitative approach to growth: we want growth, but it needs to be the right kind, in the right place. Or, in other words, Smart Growth.

What do you think? Do you think we should keep using the term Smart Growth? Does it accurately describe the ideas it's supposed to represent? Let us know in the comments.

If you have a burning question to ask or a topic we should discuss, send an email to!


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.


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.


With new mixed-use development, the "Little City" of Falls Church keeps growing up

The only way the City of Falls Church can grow is up. To expand its tax base, city leaders have been promoting mixed-use development and even blocking projects that aren't mixed-use. This trend is taking another step with a new building under construction at 301 West Broad Street.

Rendering of 301 West Broad. Image from the City of Falls Church.

Broad Street is Falls Church's major link to Tysons Corner, Seven Corners, and Alexandria. Within the city limits, the street features a mix of styles that reflect several eras in architectural history. There are low-slung commercial buildings, but 301 West Broad will add to a growing number of taller mixed-use buildings that are ramping up the density in Falls Church.

The building, by developer Rushmark, will be seven stories tall with 282 apartments. A Harris Teeter and another retail space will occupy the ground floor. The building is replacing a post office and a restaurant, Anthony's, which had been at the site since 1972. Both have relocated, the post office to another mixed-use building up the street.

The "Little City" embraces urbanism

Nicknamed "the Little City," Falls Church is only a bit larger than two square miles and is one of the smallest municipalities by area in the country. The city is so small that the city's middle and high schools were actually located in Fairfax County until last year.

To fund city services on par with its much larger neighbors, Falls Church is actively embracing mixed use construction. City leaders recognize that mixed-use buildings offer more economic value on smaller parcels than typical suburban construction. Mixed-use also provides more tax revenue than single-use construction, even when the total building size is smaller.

Falls Church is actively planning for growth where the best opportunities exist. Besides directly on Broad Street, there are relatively large commercial parcels along South Washington Street and land it gained in a land swap with Fairfax County in 2012.

View from West Broad Street. Photo from the City of Falls Church.

The city enjoys advantages for building smart growth compared to its larger neighbors. Most streets follow a grid pattern, and the city's zip code, 22046, rates a Walk Score of 78 ("Very Walkable"). The W&OD Trail also runs through much of the city, and the Custis trailhead is close by.

While WMATA's two Falls Church metro stations aren't actually inside the city, residents aren't more than a few minute bus ride to either one and service is frequent.

The Route 7 Corridor Study is examining transit options for route 7 between Tysons Corner and Alexandria. This could bring a potential light rail or a streetcar line right in front of 301 West Broad and put higher quality-transit close to residents all over the city.

Obstacles and opposition remain

The city's small size and population makes it relatively easy for citizens to get involved in planning decisions, and there was a lot of input during the project's design. The city's Winter Hill neighborhood is adjacent to the project and many citizens weighed in, often with tentative support.

Some worried about the noise and trash in the back of the building from the grocery store's loading dock. Some said that at 65,000 square feet, the Harris Teeter was larger than appropriate for what was supposed to be a more "urban" grocery store.

Rushmark responded by totally enclosing the loading dock and noting that a similar store in a mixed use development in Tysons Corner was around the same size.

Other residents were generally concerned about schools, roads, and parking. They said these impacts would outweigh the tax revenue from the new development. Meanwhile, members of the city's planning commission reportedly worried that the building was too "urban" for the "suburban" city of Falls Church.

But Falls Church is in a unique position. It neighbors some of Northern Virginia's biggest commercial areas. Its small town image has competed with the region's growth for a long time. Still more changes to the "Little City" are coming, and the city may not stay so little for long.

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