Greater Greater Washington

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Transit


Three ways to build in Forest Glen without creating more traffic

As new homes, offices, and shops sprout around the region's Metro stations, Forest Glen has remained a holdout due to neighborhood resistance to new construction. But that may change as WMATA seeks someone to build there.


Metro wants to redevelop this parking lot. All photos by the author.

Last month, the agency put out a call for development proposals at Forest Glen, in addition to West Hyattsville and Largo Town Center in Prince George's County and Braddock Road in Alexandria. WMATA owns 8 acres at Forest Glen, most of which is a parking lot, and developers have already expressed interest in building there.

Forest Glen should be a prime development site. While it's on the busy Red Line, it's one of Metro's least-used stations. It's adjacent to the Capital Beltway and one stop in each direction from Silver Spring's and Wheaton's booming downtowns. Holy Cross Hospital, one of Montgomery County's largest employers with over 2,900 workers, is a few blocks away. But since Forest Glen opened in 1990, not much has happened.

On one side of the Metro station is a townhouse development that's about 10 years old, while across the street are 7 new single-family homes. The land the parking lot sits on is valuable, and it's likely that WMATA will get proposals to build apartments there because the land is so valuable. But zoning only allows single-family homes there, the result of a 1996 plan from Montgomery County that recommends preserving the area's "single-family character," due to neighbor concerns about traffic.


Townhouses next to the Forest Glen parking lot.

As a result, whoever tries to build at Forest Glen will have to get a rezoning, which neighbors will certainly fight. It's true that there's a lot of traffic in Forest Glen: the Beltway is one block away, while the adjacent intersection of Georgia Avenue and Forest Glen Road is one of Montgomery County's busiest. While traffic is always likely to be bad in Forest Glen, though by taking advantage of the Metro station, there are ways to bring more people and amenities to the area without putting more cars on the road.

Make it easier to reach Metro without a car

Today, two-thirds of the drivers who park at Forest Glen come from less than two miles away, suggesting that people don't feel safe walking or biking in the area. There's a pedestrian bridge over the Beltway that connects to the Montgomery Hills shopping area, a half-mile away, but residents have also fought for a tunnel under Georgia Avenue so they won't have to cross the 6-lane state highway.

Montgomery County transportation officials have explored building a tunnel beneath Georgia, which is estimated to cost up to $17.9 million. But county planners note that a tunnel may not be worth it because there aren't a lot of people to use it.

And crossing Georgia Avenue is only a small part of the experience of walking in the larger neighborhood. Today, the sidewalks on Forest Glen Road and Georgia Avenue are narrow and right next to the road, which is both unpleasant and unsafe. WMATA has asked developers applying to build at Forest Glen to propose ways to improve pedestrian access as well, and they may want to start with wider sidewalks with a landscaping buffer to make walking much more attractive. Investing in bike lanes would also be a good idea.

Provide things to walk to

Another way to reduce car trips is by providing daily needs within a short walk or bike ride. The Montgomery Hills shopping district, with a grocery store, pharmacy, and other useful shops, is a half-mile away from the Metro. But it may also make sense to put some small-scale retail at the station itself, like a dry cleaner, coffeeshop or convenience store, which will mainly draw people from the Metro station and areas within walking or biking distance. Some people will drive, but not as many as there would be with larger stores.

Putting shops at the Metro might also encourage workers at Holy Cross to take transit instead of driving, since they'll be able to run errands on their way to and from work. Encouraging this crowd to take transit is important, since hospitals are busy all day and all week, meaning they generate a lot of demand for transit, making it practical to run more buses and trains, which is great for everyone else.

Provide less parking

Whatever gets built at the Metro will have to include parking, not only for commuters, but for residents as well. While Montgomery County's new zoning code requires fewer parking spaces, each apartment still has to have at least one parking space. Even small shops will have to have their own parking. The more parking there is, the more likely residents are to bring cars, which of course means more traffic.

Thus, the key is to give future residents and customers incentives to not drive. The new zoning code does allow developers to "unbundle" parking spaces from apartments and sell or rent them separately. Those who choose not to bring cars will then get to pay less for housing. The code also requires carsharing spaces in new apartment buildings, so residents will still have access to a car even if they don't have their own. If Montgomery County ever decides to expand Capital Bikeshare, the developer could pay for a station here.

And the developer could offer some sort of discount or incentive for Holy Cross employees to live there, allowing hospital workers to live a short walk from their jobs.

No matter the approach, there are a lot of ways to build in Forest Glen without creating additional traffic. A creative approach can do wonders for the area's profile and elevate the quality of life for residents there.

Development


Prince George's is trying to be serious about transit-oriented development

Prince George's County officials want everyone to know that the county is serious about transit-oriented development and making the most of its Metro stations. A promise to plan needed streets, sidewalks and parks around a short list of stations could be an important change to county spending that's been focused on big-ticket road projects.


Photo by the author.

The county has been lobbying hard to get the FBI headquarters at the Greenbelt Metro station. Next week, officials break ground on a new Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development headquarters at the New Carrollton station. And the county has committed to locate a $650 million hospital at Largo Town Center station.

All are examples of the county's strategy targeting five Prince George's Metro stations: Largo, New Carrollton, Prince George's Plaza, Branch Avenue, and Suitland. The county will speed up the approval process around these sites and offer financial incentives for transit-oriented development.

The county has also committed to plan infrastructure such as streets, sidewalks, and parks around each station. For the last few years, the county's requests to the state government for transportation projects listed infrastructure at Metro stations, but did not make a detailed request. County officials now are committing to assessing specific station area needs, to make sure that infrastructure at Metro stations are in the line for funding from the county, state, or other sources. The current draft of the county's 20-year land use plan also calls to revise the county's capital project lists to align with its transit-oriented development priorities.

But apart from the Purple Line, which isn't entirely in the county, the lion's share of local and state funds continue to flow to expensive road widening, interchanges and other facilities that chase sprawl.

The county has won a state commitment to spend $150 million on an interchange at Suitland Parkway and MD-4, and a new interchange for MD-210 (Indian Head Road) at Kerby Hill Road for $100 million. The Suitland and MD-4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) interchange feeds develop­ment at the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia project, which is a bad deal for the county.

The county's top request from the state this year is to fund another interchange for MD-210, which could cost close to $100 million. The complete plan for 7 interchanges along MD 210 prices at more than $600 million. Those numbers dwarf the $26 million the state committed last year for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

Rushern Baker's administration's pledges to help spur development at priority Metro stations are very welcome. Residents are hoping to see them follow through.

Development


Takoma Metro development proposal is a real compromise

For more than 10 years, we've discussed what kind of development at the Takoma Metro station would make this station a lively, safer place. A new plan for a residential building does just that, while offering a compromise to neighbors concerned about open space and parking.


Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Since 2000, WMATA has attempted to develop the area around the Takoma station. Last year, developer EYA proposed building about 200 apartments on a surface parking lot. The building would have 3 stories on Eastern Avenue and step up to 4 toward the train tracks. It would replace most of the parking, only about half of which is used at one time.

The plan keeps the existing 2.5 acre green space open, and offers some enhancements to make it more usable. The proposed building and residents overlooking the site will help foster a safer, more pedestrian-friendly environment by orienting the building to the bus drive, with entrances and windows facing the lane. Previous plans for live-work units or retail space have been dropped because of the weak market for retail at the site.

A 2006 plan that later stalled out offered about 90 townhouses and a one acre village green, but no replacement for the Metro parking, which is only for short term use. While the attractive townhouse and inviting village green were worth pursuing, I always thought this site would be better for an apartment building.


Image from EYA.

Then and now, some neighbors in both Takoma and the adjacent city of Takoma Park, which sits across Eastern Avenue, have opposed the project. In 2006, both supporters and opponents gave the developer grief about building homes with 2-car garages at a Metro station. But many critics also said that WMATA should replace all of the existing parking, in addition to preserving the whole 2.5 acre open space in front of the station and adding more bus bays.

The new plan responds to nearly all of the major criticisms, while at the same time more than doubling the amount of housing originally proposed. Now, opponents mostly object to the potential building's height, even though it is on a block with other 3-story apartment buildings, all of which face single-family houses.

The proposal's modest scale is in sync with the downtown district's eclectic variety of buildings. EYA has already agreed to make the building shorter and reduce the number of units from 266.

At a March 13 WMATA committee meeting about the project, the board members incorporated amendments that the city of Takoma Park requested into its resolution to move the project forward. This Thursday, the WMATA Board will vote on an agreement with EYA to pursue the project, and to hold an official public hearing.

If WMATA approves the project, it will go to the DC Zoning Commission, which will have an opportunity to refine the design in its review process. Neighbors will have ample opportunity to raise their concerns about any aspect of the proposal then.

Like with any proposal, there is room for more improvement. The proposal offers much less parking for residents than before, which makes sense for a site next to a Metro station. But it could be lower still, since this is the transit agency's land and the point is to build housing for more transit customers.

The new proposal offers residential parking at about 0.7 spaces per unit, down from 1.5 to 2 spaces per unit in the townhouse proposal. It would be sensible for WMATA to require that developers on their property to build less parking and offer their residents incentives to ride transit and use carsharing. That makes it easier to market the building to transit-oriented households who rely much less on personal cars.

The other important way the WMATA Board could improve this project is to honor the DC Council's 2002 request that 20% of any housing at this site be set aside for households making 30%, 60%, and 80% of the area median income. This is still the right commitment for a property that the public transit agency and District of Columbia control, and our need for more affordable housing has only grown in the intervening years.

It's been a long time coming, but this proposal for the Takoma Metro station will make downtown Takoma a better place for everyone. It will help a greater number of people use transit, have daily access to local shopping, and live with a lower carbon footprint. This is exactly where our region should be growing, and where we can accommodate more people who seek a transit-oriented lifestyle.

If you agree, ask the WMATA Board to move ahead with this project. Click here to let them know.

Development


Progress at Gaithersburg's two new town centers

Gaithersburg's collection of walkable new urbanist neighborhoods is growing, with impressive construction progress at both the Crown development and Watkins Mill Town Center.


Ellington Boulevard in Downtown Crown, seen from the north. All photos by BeyondDC.

Both neighborhoods are planned around future stations of the Corridor Cities Transitway, which will someday connect a whole string of walkable neighborhoods in upper Montgomery County to Shady Grove Metro station. But with rapid transit service still years away, construction is working from the outside in, focusing first on sections farther from planned transit stations.

Crown

At the Crown development, construction progress is focused on Phase 1, the western half. A mixed-use town center surrounds the corner of Ellington Boulevard and Crown Park Avenue, with blocks of rowhouse neighborhoods to the side.


Ellington Boulevard, seen from the south.


Crown Park Avenue, perpendicular to Ellington Boulevard.

It's clear that serious work and expense went into the architectural details.


Downtown Crown.


Downtown Crown.

To the east, the rowhouse neighborhoods are taking shape as well.


Rowhouses on Hendrix Avenue.

Decoverly Drive marks the boundary of Phase 1, as well as the future route of the transitway. Crown's original plans show an even larger town center surrounding the BRT station along Decoverly. But following actual construction, it appears density has been reduced around the station, and rowhouses line the Phase 1 edge instead.

One wonders if Phase 2 will make Crown a truly transit-oriented place, or if transit will merely run through it.


Decoverly Drive.

Watkins Mill Town Center

A few miles to the northwest, adjacent to the Metropolitan Grove MARC station, Watkins Mill Town Center is taking shape.


Watkins Mill Town Center.

At Watkins Mill, the rowhouses and lower density portions are nearing completion, but the downtown section has yet to begin construction. As a result, a huge field separates the MARC station (and future BRT stop) from the constructed portions of the development.


Urban Avenue, not quite urban yet.

Someday, the Corridor Cities Transitway could make Gaithersburg a second Arlington, a string of walkable communities knit together by transit. Whether that actually happens or not will depend the State of Maryland getting the transitway built, and the City of Gaithersburg insisting on truly transit-oriented places.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


Prince George's new general plan places too much emphasis on sprawl

Last year, Prince George's County planners kicked off a bold effort to revise its general plan and direct most future growth to transit stations inside the Beltway. But a continuing focus on sprawling suburban development on the county's fringes could thwart those worthy goals.


Photo by La Citta Vita on Flickr.

The Planning Department has been working on "Plan Prince George's 2035," an update of the county's blueprint for long-term growth and development. It proposes directing most growth to a few "downtown" areas at major Metro stations inside the Beltway. Planners stressed the need to revitalize older communities and preserve natural resources.

Throughout the process, planners urged the county to be "bold and forward thinking" and to reject the "business as usual" approach of supporting sprawl development. But the County Executive's and County Council's continuing enthusiasm for big greenfield developments like Westphalia and Konterra, will only continue this pattern by directing growth away from downtowns.

Preliminary draft plan reflects council's desire for more "business as usual"

The preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, released in September, is graphically impressive and chock-full of data. Planners have spent the past several weeks reviewing, digesting, and responding to public comments received in November and December.

In many ways, the preliminary draft plan lays out the right overall vision and framework for how the county should "live, work, and sustain" over the next 20 years. It says that 50% of the county's growth should go to one of eight "Regional Transit Centers": Largo Town Center, New Carrollton, Prince George's Plaza, Branch Avenue, College Park, Greenbelt, Suitland, and National Harbor. Of these, only National Harbor is not Metro-accessible, and all of these areas are either inside or adjacent to the Beltway.

In many other ways, however, Plan Prince George's 2035 is at odds with the planners' stated vision. It's too permissive of allowing growth to continue in the sprawling areas of the county that lie outside the Beltway and away from transit. Inside the Beltway, the preliminary plan misses the mark in identifying existing neighborhoods most in need of capital investments to catalyze revitalization and redevelopment.


Photo by Magnus D on Flickr.

New "Suburban Centers" and sprawling subdivisions away from transit encourage growth in the wrong places

The plan identifies five "suburban centers," all located outside the Beltway and away from transit: Bowie, Brandywine, Landover Gateway, Westphalia, and Konterra. Planners envision that these centers will be "larger in size" than development around Metro stations and will "rely more on vehicular transportation."

According to the plan, 6,300 new homes should be built in these areas, representing 10% of the county's growth over the next 20 years. But Konterra and Westphalia alone are already approved for 9,500 homes, or 15% of the county's projected growth. Add the approved and planned development at Woodmore Towne Centre and the old Landover Mall (both at Landover Gateway), as well as Bowie and Brandwine, and Suburban Centers could easily be responsible for more than 20% of Prince George's projected future growth.

County planners may have felt they had to include the suburban centers because they're already reflected in existing master plans. Additionally, County Executive Rushern Baker and many County Council members continue to vigorously support growth and development in these areas. But the point of the General Plan is to provide a blueprint for the county's future growth, not to ratify the bad growth decisions of the past.

The preliminary plan also recommends directing another 20% of the county's growth to so-called "Established Communities," which refers to every place in the county that's eligible for public water and sewer connections. But such an overarching designation, which includes many areas that are currently undeveloped, turns the whole concept of "established" on its head and does virtually nothing to control sprawl.

Last fall, the County Council extended the validity periods for several previously approved but still-unbuilt projects dating to before the housing bust. Eighty percent of those projects are for single-family subdivisions in undeveloped areas outside the Beltway.

With the "Suburban Centers" and "Established Communities," as contemplated in the preliminary plan, over 40% of the county's projected growth will occur in outer-Beltway suburbia, away from transit. This can hardly be the "bold" direction that planners originally envisioned.

Plan doesn't direct enough resources for inside-the-Beltway communities

In contrast to the massive growth planned for "Suburban Centers" and "Established Communities," the draft plan only anticipates 15% of the county's growth going to the 20 Metro, MARC, Purple Line, and other transit stations inside the Beltway that are designated as local transit, neighborhood, or campus centers. There's little mention in the plan of public funds for capital improvements, like new streets or public facilities, and other catalytic investment in these areas, meaning even that tiny amount of growth is not likely to materialize.

The draft plan focuses its "Neighborhood Reinvestment Area" priorities solely on the six neighborhoods that County Executive Baker designated in his 2012 Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative (TNI) program, which provides educational, public health and safety resources to communities particularly plagued by crime.

In her public testimony, Lillie Thompson-Martin, mayor of the town of Fairmount Heights, rightly criticized the preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035 for "starving the older established communities," refusing them any meaningful revitalization assistance.


State-designated revitalization opportunity areas like this, across from the Addison Road Metro Station, get little attention in Plan Prince George's 2035. Image from Google Earth.

A better approach would have the plan focus on those areas that county and state economic development officials have already identified as most in need of revitalization. Maryland has designated several Prince George's communities as either a Sustainable Community, Targeted Area, or Enterprise Zone. This would encompass most of the inner-Beltway Metro station areas designated as Local Transit Centers or Neighborhood Centers, like West Hyattsville and Addison Road, and many other older communities, like Brentwood, Mount Rainier, and Capitol Heights.

Tell Prince George's it's time to change directions

Although the public comment period has passed, the final draft of Plan Prince George's 2035 has not yet been adopted. The Planning Board and the County Council still have to meet and vote to adopt the final plan.

If you believe that Prince George's needs to make developing our Metro stations and revitalizing inside-the-Beltway communities a priority, you should write to them and urge them to hold another public hearing. For the Planning Board, send your emails to the Public Affairs Department, with copies to Planning Director Fern Piret and Deputy Planning Director Al Dobbins.

For the County Council, send your emails to Council Chair Mel Franklin, with copies to the Clerk of the Council and Ingrid Turner, chair of the council's Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development committee.

Cross-posted on Prince George's Urbanist.

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To:Public Affairs Department, Prince George's Planning Board
Mel Franklin, Chair, Prince George's County Council
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Al Dobbins, Deputy Planning Director, Prince George's Planning Board
Ingrid Turner, Prince George's County Council
Clerk of the Council, Prince George's County Council

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Transit


Who rides (and will ride) transit in Greater Washington?

About one in seven workers in the DC area commutes to work via public transportation, higher than any other large American metropolitan area outside of New York. But where and how we take transit to work will make increasing ridership a challenge.


Photo by techne on Flickr.

A new study by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis (CRA) reveals many surprising insights about the region's transit commuters. Naturally, transit ridership is highest in the region's core and near Metro stations. But there are also many well-heeled, outer-suburban commuters who use transit by choice, and low-income suburban workers for whom transit is a lifeline.

These two populations will present a challenge to the region as it continues to grow. With limited resources making a massive transit expansion unlikely, we'll have to focus on smaller improvements in service, as well as encouraging transit-oriented development in suburban communities to encourage "reverse commutes," taking advantage of excess capacity on Metro.

The percentage of transit users will stay the same

According to new data from the American Community Survey, 14.3% of Washington-area residents commuted to work via public transportation during the three-year period covering 2010-2012. We're in second place among the 10 largest US metro areas, though first-place New York is far higher at 31%. Our transit use is higher than "older" areas that are often thought of as more transit-friendly, such as Boston (12%), Chicago (12%), and Philadelphia (9%).

But the overall share of Washington-area commuters who travel to work via public transit has changed little since 1990, and it is not expected to increase much in the future. In 1990, about 13% of all commuters in the area used transit. Looking ahead, a 2012 CRA study projected it will only be about 15% in 2040. While more people are now riding the bus and train to work, there are also more drivers, as well as more teleworkers and more people who walk or bike to work.

Where you live and where you work determines whether you use transit

Not surprisingly, more commuters use transit in some areas than others. DC residents are the most likely to commute via public transit, at 38.7%, followed by Arlington (27.2%), Alexandria (20.2%), Prince George's (17.6%), and Montgomery (15.6%). Fairfax (9.2%), Charles (7.0%), and Prince William (5.7%) are the only other major jurisdictions where more than 5% of commuters use transit.


The percentage of transit users by county and CDP (Census-Designated Places). All images by the author.

The above map shows the transit commuter shares for the region's major Census-Designated Places (CDPs), which include both incorporated and unincorporated cities, along with the shares in the balance of each county. There are nine CDPs in the region in which at least 20 percent of residents commute to work by transit: Chillum, Silver Spring, Suitland, Landover, North Bethesda, Wheaton, Rockville, Langley Park, and Bailey's Crossroads.

While income levels vary greatly in these areas, they all have frequent, high-capacity transit service. All of them but Langley Park and Bailey's Crossroads are located immediately adjacent to Metro stations, while those two areas both have frequent bus service and high shares of residents who do not have access to vehicles and are thus considered "transit dependent."


Median earnings and transit commuter shares by CDP in metro area.

Conversely, CDPs in the region with the lowest rates of transit use are far from Metro stations. This group includes some of the most affluent parts of the region, like McLean, Potomac, Franklin Farm, and South Riding, as well as places with moderate earning levels such as Sterling, Chantilly, and Ashburn.


Transit share by place of work.

However, where you work is a stronger determinant of whether you commute by transit than where you live. Among those with jobs in the District of Columbia, 36.9% take a train or bus to work, compared with 22.0% in Arlington and just 12.0% in Alexandria. The transit shares are considerably lower for those with jobs in the inner suburbs, particularly in Fairfax County, where just 3.2% of workers take transit to work. For those who work in areas beyond the reach of Metrorail, just 1.1% of commuters use transit.

Transit commuters vary depending on where they live and work

For the whole region, transit commuters have almost the exact same median income ($50,203) as for all commuters ($50,288). For residents of DC, Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington, and Alexandria, those who commute by transit have either similar or lower incomes than do all commuters. But some transit commuters have higher incomes, like in Fairfax ($11,000 difference), Loudoun ($22,000 difference), and Prince William ($23,000 difference). Transit commuters living in these areas are clearly using buses and trains to access higher paying jobs in closer-in locations.


Median earnings summary for area commuters.

Meanwhile, those who take transit to jobs in suburban locations earn far less, while commuters working in either DC or Arlington earn about the same as all commuters. In Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince George's, and Prince William counties, the median earnings for transit commuters is less than half those of all commuters. This disparity is largely due to the fact that many people who take transit to jobs in these outlying locations are lower-income, transit dependent workers.

Just 4% of residents living in the region's outer suburbs (all areas outside of DC, Arlington, Alexandria, Montgomery, Prince George's, and Fairfax) commute via transit. But they stand out from closer-in transit commuters in three key ways:

1. More than half (52%) of outer-suburban transit commuters work for a local, state, or federal government agency. By comparison, just 26% of all outer ring residents work for the government. In the inner ring, 32% of all transit commuters are government employees.

2. Outer-ring transit commuters have very long commute times, at a mean of 76 minutes. That's almost twice as much as the mean travel time for all outer-ring residents of 39 minutes. Transit commuters in Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's have an average travel time of 52 minutes, while it's just 37 minutes in DC, Alexandria, and Arlington.

3. Transit commuters from the outer suburbs use transit by choice, not by necessity. While 24% of the region's transit commuters do not have access to a vehicle, fewer than 3% of outer-ring transit commuters have no vehicles.

What does this mean for future transit?

It's clear that more people will commute via public transit where transit is readily available. As a result, it's tempting to argue that the region can overcome congestion simply by aggressively expanding its transit network.

This approach ignores two critical points. First, while some expansions are likely to occur, financial and political realities will prevent many large projects from being built. Second, the current profile of transit riders offers many opportunities to increase ridership simply by increasing service or developing near existing transit.

There are three things the region's already doing that will likely boost transit ridership:

  • Increasing the number of seats and frequency of service on existing suburb-to-core transit routes. To their credit, WMATA, MARC, VRE, and regional bus operators are all already working to expand the capacity on their existing routes, but more can be done.
  • Increasing commercial development around outlying transit stations. This will allow more people living in the region's core to "reverse commute," making use of excess capacity in the transit system. Proposals to relocate the FBI headquarters to Greenbelt or Springfield, along with Prince George's County's plans for the southern Green Line are excellent models for this approach.
  • Encourage transit-oriented development (TOD) around future rail transit. There are already a number of examples of TODs in the region that were planned around future transit lines, most notably King Farm and Crown along the planned Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County. Even if proposed high-capacity transit lines do not materialize, these types of developments can encourage expanded commuter bus service and can limit non-commuting vehicle trips by locating shopping and dining closer to where people live.
While these approaches are helping the region battle its legendary traffic congestion, it's impossible to ignore the prediction that more than 75% of the region's commuters will still drive to work in 2040. And the region will have several hundred thousand more residents by then.

If the Washington metro area continues to grow in the same way it has before, it's reasonable to expect that congestion and its related problems will cause residents and businesses to leave. In order to remain competitive, our region clearly must do more to expand the appeal of transit.

Transit


Live chat with Chris Zimmerman

We're talking with Chris Zimmerman today from 12-1. Zimmerman is stepping down after 17 years on the Arlington County Board to work for Smart Growth America.

Update: The chat has ended. Here is the transcript, edited only for formatting, to correct typos and punctuation, and to insert paragraph breaks.

Michael Perkins: Hi and welcome to our Greater Greater Washington live chat. We have with us today as our guest Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Board member for the past 18 years. Mr. Zimmerman will be retiring from the board within the next couple weeks to work for Smart Growth America. Thanks for joining us today, Chris.

Chris Zimmerman: Glad to be here (virtually speaking).

Michael Perkins: just a note to anyone joining us today, you can submit a question for the chat by typing /msg perkinsms and then your question. I'll pick some to include. Chris, let's start out with Arlington and your experience on the board. How has Arlington changed in nearly two decades?

Chris Zimmerman: Well obviously the vision for Arlington as a TOD-based community has blossomed into reality; in the 90s it was still more of a plan, something hoped for. Beyond the growth of the R-B corridor, we've also extended the vision of a walkable, transit-oriented community to non-Metrorail places.

Michael Perkins: In the 90s Arlington was one of the first communities to try some smart growth principles. What was the reaction at the time?

Chris Zimmerman: That has resulted in transit service being extended county-wide (ART), sidewalk improvements, bike facilities throughout the County, etc. In the 90s we didn't have the smart growth vocabulary, so it was a little less cohesive as a shared vision. Most people supported the idea of transit, but there was less consensus on what we wanted to be as a community.

Many people were concerned about traffic in neighborhoods, for instance. That can become an anti-development movement (as happens in many places), or it can be the basis of a movement for greater walkabilitypedestrian safety, safe routes to schools, good urban design, etc. We took the latter path.

Michael Perkins: Right now there's a big debate going on in Arlington about the plan to add streetcars to Columbia Pike/Pentagon City/Crystal City. At least two of the declared board candidates are opposed to streetcar. How will the streetcar plan fare after you leave the board as one of its strongest advocates?

Chris Zimmerman: There has been strong for the streetcar plan consistently since the first approval in 2006. A solid majority in both the Arlington and Fairfax Boards is committed to realizing it. They recognize that completion of the streetcar system is a vital part of our economic and fiscal future.

Michael Perkins: Some of the candidates would prefer an option like enhanced buses, which some people call BRT. How did the county evaluate streetcar against BRT and choose its preferred option?

Chris Zimmerman: The debate over streetcar in Arlington parallels that over every rail project anywhere in America, especially in recent years. Opponents use "BRT" as a tactic, usually not because they want BRT, but because they are interested in stopping a transit project.

Michael Perkins: Part of the problem with BRT is that the concept is not concrete enough to know what you're getting. In some ways the Pike Ride bus system is very close to the best BRT we could have on the pike.

Chris Zimmerman: BRT is an important component in an overall strategy for regional mobility. It is not a substitute for streetcar in an application to the kind of corridor we are working with. Most significant to the decision with Columbia Pike, however, was simply that we realized we did not have a BRT option. We could add more buses, but that isn't BRT.

As you say, folks aren't necessarily sure what BRT means. That makes it easy to make up false comparisons in which there is a "far cheaper alternative", which isn't really an alternative at all, and wouldn't bring the benefits we're seeking.

Michael Perkins: A question from Canaan: "A lot of people criticize the Columbia Pike streetcar because it won't have dedicated lanes. But Mr. Tejada pointed out that is because VDOT won't allow a lane to be taken away from cars. What made you decide the project was worth it anyway, and if VDOT changed their mind would that mean the board would likely support a new design even if it meant some sort of delay?"

And a side note, is the decision to have a dedicated lane something VDOT could revisit with the county at a later time?

Chris Zimmerman: A dedicated lane for transit is always to be desired. However, when the analysis was done it was found that there would be relatively little travel-time benefit. This is because the east-west flow on Columbia Pike is actually quite good. And of course, the distances are not great. So, a dedicated lane was found not to be essential to achieving high quality transit service.

On the other hand, the quality of the service (particularly in terms of rider experience) can be greatly enhanced with street-running rail. And, yes, at some point in the future the state can decide it wants to convert car lanes to transit lanes.

Michael Perkins: A question emailed in from Rick Rybeck: "What do you think about the use of 'value capture' to fund transit and about its ability to promote more compact and affordable development?" I know this is something the County has done under your leadership in the Crystal City area.

Chris Zimmerman: I think value capture will likely be key to significant transit improvements and TOD in the US in coming years. This is of course a large component of our plan for streetcar in Arlington. The Crystal City plan adopted in 2010 included creation of a TIF for the purpose of funding transportation improvements, most especially the streetcar. We have had that in place for several years now, and it can fund most of the cost of the Crystal City-Pentagon City-Potomac Yards portion of the line.

Michael Perkins: A question from David Alpert: "There seems to be a very loud contingent of people stridently opposed to the transit and smart growth vision that Arlington has held to for so long. Is that new, or just more visible because of social media like Twitter? Is it because now it's moving into new areas like Columbia Pike, versus building out R-B and CC-PY?"

Chris Zimmerman: I think that today there is a loud contingent of strident people opposed to all kinds of things, everywhere. The Internet is wonderful in many ways. One of the ways is the ability to create virtual communities, to connect people who would never have been in contact with each other. It is also a megaphone, that amplifies voices of a few (often a good thing).

These qualities have a profound impact on public discourse, however, and I don't think we have entirely worked out (as a society) how to process all of it. Among its impacts is the "nationalizing" of all discussion, so that trends that are running in a larger political conversation (state, national) are quickly transformed into local memes. This makes for a very robust discussion at the local level, which can be a very good thing, but it can also be distorting, giving a funhouse mirror look to policy dialogue.

Michael Perkins: Some cities around the country are just starting to look at Smart Growth/Transit oriented development. What advice do you have for these cities? What are the low-hanging fruits that are good "first steps" to take?

Chris Zimmerman: First thing is to assess what assets you already have in place. A grid of streets? A good Main Street? Legacy buildings? Etc. Your greatest returns will come from using these as anchors. Remember that the key objective in any such development patternwhether in a major metropolis or a small villageis proximity. The value of small spaces is the key. People tend not to realize just how much can be accomplished with very little real estate.

If you're starting with nothing, get one or two good blocks done. If you've got one or two good blocks, build on to them. After that, you can talk about how much you want to invest in transit and other infrastructure. But the focus has to be on creating great places, places people want to be in, and connecting them to everyone.

Michael Perkins: You're leaving the board after nearly 20 years. How do you think working for a national organization will change how you can advocate for Smart Growth compared to being an elected official?

Chris Zimmerman: As an elected official I've had the opportunity to work very intensively on one communitymy ownand have an impact on how it has developed. I'm very excited for the opportunity to help with this work on a wide variety of communities, all across the country.

Some are similar to Arlington, or to where Arlington was 20 or 30 years ago; others are very different, in size, demographics, economy, etc. But all have challenges in common, and for all there are basics that can improve the quality of life, the state of the environment, and their economic and fiscal health.

I've believed for a very long time that the issues of how we build our communities, how we create the places in which we live, work, and playhow we use the scarce resource of land has a profound impact across a great range of issues, environmental, social, and economic. So, I think I'm very fortunate to be able to work with people who are trying to make a difference with these policies all over America.

Michael Perkins: We have about 10 minutes left in the chat. If you're listening in you can send a question in by typing /msg perkinsms and your question. I may not get to them all.

Michael Perkins: I'm going to shift to Metro. The original Metro system was built using money that was shifted from a large highway system that the region largely didn't need and didn't want. The original Metro system is now running into capacity constraints, especially on the orange line.

How are we going to be able to afford upgrades to the core capacity of the system? I see a lot of plans on what capacity upgrades we could make, but I don't see something out there that signifies the $5-10B we are likely going to need to start.

Chris Zimmerman: That's really a question of political will. The original system (actually only partly funded by shifting money from highways) represented an enormous fiscal commitment from all levels of government. In real terms, the funding needed now is far smaller relatively to our fiscal capacity. The difference now is almost entirely in attitude. We've made it hard to raise money for anything government does. But if we want to have a first-class transportation system, it is entirely within our means to do so.

Michael Perkins: In your organizational statement you mentioned that we seemed to be "gripped by a 'can't do' mentality." How do we overcome that?

Chris Zimmerman: The "we" I was referring to was the nation; so, unfortunately, this is a problem of politics. For the most part, people here in the National Capital Region have not been consumed by this malaise. Recent "controversies" however, illustrate how this mentality is being imposed on our policy dialogue. Even in places like Arlington.

But we don't have to succumb to it. We have the means to accomplish what we need to do. And my sense is that peoplethe majorityare ahead of leaders in being willing to move forward. So, advocacy is really important.

Michael Perkins: And with that I think we are done. Thank you very much for joining us.

Chris Zimmerman: Thank you.

Michael Perkins: Thanks to everyone for submitting questions and for listening in.

Transit


Prince George's seeks the right kind of growth around Green Line stations

Prince George's wants to encourage development around stations on the southern end of the Green Line. But plans to do so have stalled in an attempt to prohibit "undesirable" businesses there.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

A recent study from national consulting firm RCLCO shows that since 2000, the northern Green Line corridor between Columbia Heights and Navy Yard captured a larger share of young, professional, and affluent households than the Red Line in Northwest, traditionally the bigger draw for that population. To do the same thing along the southern Green Line, Prince George's County is working on a plan for sustainable, urban development around the Branch Avenue, Suitland, Naylor Road, and Southern Avenue stations.

The proposal would create an "overlay district" around the stations banning everything from nail salons to strip clubs. While some businesses may not be ideal for areas next to a Metro station, the bottleneck might deter future investment that residents anxious for walkable urban development are eagerly anticipating.

Prince George's lags the region in urban development

In his report The WalkUP Wakeup Call, George Washington University Professor Chris Leinberger identifies the DC area with its 43 walkable urban communities as a national model for urban development. These places not only provide residents with increased local amenities such as restaurants, retail, and entertainment options, but also bring jobs closer, reducing commutes.

However, only a handful of these communities are in Prince George's County. Due to a weak market and decades of disinvestment, parking and vacant lots surround the four Metro stations along the southern Green Line. Creating a vibrant, safe, and pedestrian and bike friendly atmosphere would serve to increase the quality of life as well as the property values of those living in neighboring communities.

In response, the Prince George's Planning Department proposed the Southern Green Line Station Area Plan last summer. It is an excellent step in the right direction, proposing vibrant, walkable, mixed-use development around each station. Real estate consultants RCLCO drafted the design for each station area as part of the Southern Green Line Station Area Plan Market Study the Planning Department commissioned in 2012.

Proposal could inadvertently discourage good development

While the Planning Board and County Council were supposed to approve the plan already, it's been pushed back due to neighbor concerns. And councilmembers have proposed creating an overlay district prohibiting businesses near the stations that might undermine attempts to create an upscale retail environment, such as nail salons, car dealers, liquor stores, and tattoo parlors.

In some cases, overlay districts have been used to encourage more upscale retail establishments, but prohibiting certain types of businesses could discourage developers who are already hesitant about investing in these areas. It would be better to use the county's licensing and permitting processes to tailor the types of businesses that are allowed around Green Line stations. It seems others agree; at a public hearing last night, many business owners testified against the imposition of restrictions on the area.

Hopefully, this proposal will only be a short-term hold up. The southern Green Line has a long way to catch up with the sustainable development that has already occurred at many of the region's other Metro stations, but the approval of the Metro Green Line Sector Plan could be a major step in the right direction. And it will show the development community that Prince George's County is serious about sustainable development.

Ultimately, the county will have to implement an innovative investment strategy to reduce some of the actual and perceived risk that developers face in Prince George's. Reducing barriers is one of the most critical strategies the county can employ in order for the southern Green Line to get the investment it needs.

To voice your opinion about the proposed overlay district and its impact on the southern Green Line, you can still submit written comments to the County Council via their website.

Transit


Can we build up around MARC stations?

It's not surprising that corporate offices and sprawling suburbs are consuming the green fields between DC's and Baltimore's beltways. What is surprising is there's no real alternative: no urban places are being built at all of the MARC stations in the same corridor.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

My wife and I live in Baltimore. Each morning, we splash cold water on our faces before heading to Penn Station in the dark. There, I drop my wife to catch the 5:50 MARC train to Union Station, where she will then transfer to the Metro and arrive at work by 7:30. This is a better choice than driving through morning and evening rush hour in two cities, which she has tried before.

I work in Baltimore, but have meetings in the suburbs between there and DC. By being in the middle, families and businesses can access the employment, cultural, airport, and other benefits of both regions. But the traffic is terrible, and there is pressure to use taxpayer dollars to widen roads or create new ones, like the Intercounty Connector.

The status quo development between Baltimore and DC is comprised of both commercial and residential sprawl, some of which is very close to MARC stations. But the way it's designed and sited makes it inaccessible to train passengers.

The US Green Building Council (USGBC) and its LEED rating system need to play a role. USGBC should not be giving isolated, land-gobbling sprawl producers green credentials for energy efficiency when these same buildings require inefficient commuting.

By contrast, all seven Penn Line stations, and most of the Camden Line stations between Baltimore and DC lie in a desert of surface parking lots (there's actually a garage at BWI Airport station). It's difficult to even get a cup of coffee at most of these outposts. But the train service offered there can deliver a passenger to the center of Washington or Baltimore roughly as fast and as comfortably as the Metro or a car.

Can we encourage transit-oriented development around MARC stations, the way we have around places like Arlington, Rockville, Bethesda, and Silver Spring, which have grown up around Metro stations? Kaid Benfield has covered Arlington's success in revitalizing neighborhoods without increasing traffic. And Chris Leinberger has described the growth of what he calls "WalkUP" development that is becoming so prevalent in the DC area.

While I advocate for infill development inside the beltways, there's still demand for development in between. It is time to start urban, mixed-use development along the MARC Penn and Camden lines.

The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) proclaims they are open for business partnerships at MARC stations, and have a transit-oriented development (TOD) underway at Odenton. Private sector developers have made lots of money building urban neighborhoods at Metro stations, particularly in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There is potential for similar opportunity adjacent to MARC stations.

So why has scattered growth continued between Baltimore and DC while MARC stations remain constellations of barren surface parking? I speculate the issue is the cost of structured parking, which frees up room for urban development. With cheap available greenfields to build lots on, why spend the money?

The frequency of MARC service also affects the prospects for development around stations. Headways on the Penn Line are close to an hour outside of rush hour, while the Camden Line is even less frequent, and offers no trains in the middle of the day or on weekends.

More frequent MARC trains help overcome one advantage the Metro has over Maryland's commuter lines. Increased service, like weekend service on the Penn Line that started this December, makes TOD more viable because the people who live and work there can rely on it.

There are an increasingly large number of people who travel between Baltimore and Washington that may prefer a hassle-free train ride to a drive in traffic. Especially if there's a cosmopolitan urban environment where they get on and off the train. There is a premium for this in Bethesda and Arlington, and there could be at MARC stations as well.

To get on a roll at MARC stations, the public sector may have to help build and finance structured parking to open up land adjacent to stations for development. Stu Sirota, principal of TND Planning Group, says there needs to be an overarching vision coupled with marketing. "A real regional planning effort or charrette will show how all these station areas could become cool transit villages (or bigger)," he says, "and what an incredible impact that could have on the Baltimore-Washington corridor."

Once there are a few hot spots along the Penn and Camden lines, the areas around MARC stations will become coveted real estate. It is time to get started.

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