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Montgomery District 5 candidates want growth and transit, but in different places

All of the candidates running for Montgomery County's District 5 council seat say they want to bring jobs, shopping, and transit to an area that's long awaited them. But they seem to disagree on whether that investment should go where it's most needed, or where there's the least resistance.


District 5 is in light blue on the east side of the county.

Councilmember Valerie Ervin's resignation last fall left an open seat in Montgomery County's District 5, newly redrawn in 2010 to cover a narrow strip from Silver Spring to Burtonsville. Several candidates jumped in to succeed her.

Joining former journalist Evan Glass, who'd already announced before Ervin resigned, are state delegate Tom Hucker, Board of Education member Chris Barclay, community organizer Terrill North, and preacher Jeffrey Thames.

The majority-minority district struggles with poverty and disinvestment, and has some of the county's highest rates of transit use and lowest rates of car ownership. In ACT's questionnaire and in public forums, candidates said those issues are why the area needs
more transit and economic development.

Candidates want to build near transit, but some aren't sure about actual plans


Evan Glass. Photo from the candidate website.

Most candidates say they support building near transit, notably in downtown Silver Spring, home to the one of the region's largest transit hubs. Glass, who lived in downtown Silver Spring until 2012 and helped start the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, supports more development there as a way to preserve other areas and provide more affordable housing.

He's also called for reforms that could help local businesses and draw younger residents. Last month, he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post with restaurant owner Jackie Greenbaum about the need to reform the county's liquor laws.


Tom Hucker. Photo from the Maryland Assembly.

Other candidates have been reluctant to embrace specific projects that have faced resistance. At a Conservation Montgomery forum last month, Tom Hucker said the council should have never approved the Chelsea Heights development 5 blocks from the Metro station because it required cutting down old-growth trees.

Meanwhile, candidates have endorsed bringing more investment to Burtonsville's dying village center, 10 miles north. Residents generally support that idea, and State Delegate Eric Luedtke, who lives in Burtonsville, has called on District 5 candidates to start talking about it more.

Candidates have also touted the county's White Oak Science Gateway plan, which envisions a new research and technology hub surrounding the Food and Drug Administration headquarters alongside a town center containing shops and restaurants. The White Oak plan has considerable community support, but is tied up due to concerns about car traffic.

"If we don't build it in White Oak," said Hucker at a candidates forum in Briggs Chaney last week, "those jobs are going to go to Konterra [in Prince George's County], they're going to go to Howard County, they're going to go to DC."

Backtracking on transit

At the core of the White Oak plan are three planned Bus Rapid Transit corridors, on Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and Route 29, which the county will start studying in detail soon. All of the candidates say they support BRT, and Glass has been vocal about giving buses their own lanes, even if it means repurposing general traffic lanes. "Efficient and timely travel can only be achieved through dedicated lanes," he wrote in his questionnaire.

But others have offered reservations, especially in Four Corners, where a small group of neighbors have fought it for years. Hucker says he supports BRT "in certain places where it makes sense," and wants to focus in fixing Ride On first. "I don't support building BRT on the backs of our current Ride On or Metrobus," he said at a recent forum in Four Corners.


Terrill North. Photo from the candidate website.

Terrill North wants BRT on New Hampshire Avenue and on Route 29 north of White Oak, but not on Route 29 in Four Corners, which would be the most direct route to Silver Spring. "I don't think we need to take away curbs or take away business from this community, take away business from this community, take away lanes, because I think that could make things worse," he said at the same forum.

Likewise, all five candidates have endorsed the Purple Line, which could break ground next year. Hucker has long supported the light-rail line between Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and represents the General Assembly on Purple Line Now!'s board.


Chris Barclay. Photo from the candidate website.

Meanwhile, North and Chris Barclay have expressed reluctance about developing around future Purple Line stations, like in Long Branch, citing concerns about higher density and the potential impacts to affordable housing and small businesses.

Strong support for complete streets

With a state highway as its spine, District 5 can be a dangerous place for a pedestrian, with lots of busy road crossings and fast-moving traffic. All candidates have said they support making our streets safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders.


Jeffrey Thames. Photo from the candidate website.

At the Four Corners forum and other events, Jeffrey Thames said he'd like to see more Barnes Dance intersections, like the one at 7th and H streets NW in the District, where pedestrians can cross in all directions. When asked if they'd support pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly streets even if it slowed drivers down, Glass, Hucker, and North all said yes.

After years of watching the rest of Montgomery County draw jobs and investment, it seems like it might finally be East County's turn. Whoever represents the area next will get the chance to determine whether the area can give its residents, especially those of limited means, the investment they want, or if it continues to be a pass-through on the way to other destinations.

Full disclosure: Dan Reed is a member of One Montgomery, an organization that has endorsed Evan Glass, and has contributed to Glass's campaign.

Development


Fairfax Circle takes a step toward urbanism, but it's still an island for now

On Tuesday, Fairfax City approved the city's first major redevelopment project on Fairfax Boulevard. This will bring new residences, a grocery, and pedestrian-oriented spaces to an area that's strip malls and parking lots today. But since the city has no larger plan, the project isn't poised to connect well with future projects or bring all the amenities the city needs.


Fairfax Circle Plaza. Image from Combined Properties.

Seven years ago the city completedbut did not adoptthe Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan, which envisioned denser, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use redevelopment along the three main nodes of the city's main commercial corridor. Fairfax Circle is the eastern node, located within walking distance of the Vienna Metro station and in the midst of a rapidly urbanizing area.


Fairfax Circle. The development is at the top (north side). Image from Bing Maps.

More than 16,000 residents live within one mile of Fairfax Circle Plaza, and many more will be moving into the new apartments and condominiums at MetroWest.

Combined Properties will build two apartment buildings with 400 units, ground-floor retail, and a 54,000 square foot grocery store. In place of a sea of surface parking and a nondescript service drive, the project will provide a pedestrian-friendly frontage road with parallel parking and bulb-outs, a 10-foot path, and a landscaped buffer. The proposal also provides expanded sidewalks and buffers along Pickett Road and Lee Highway.

The project is far from perfect. Because Combined could not consolidate smaller properties on its sides, trucks and other service vehicles will use the main entrance and the pedestrian-friendly streetscape will stop before connecting to Fairfax Circle. The proposal lacks an adequate gathering space, and the amount of permeable, landscaped surface only marginally exceeds what's on the current site.

The lack of affordable housing is a major weakness. During the past year the city has incorporated affordable housing goals in its comprehensive plan, and the mayor has stated strong support for setting aside 5-10% of new development for affordable units.

Combined is providing some below-market units, but refused to provide truly affordable apartments. Instead, it calculated maximum monthly rental rates assuming residents spend 33% of their income on housing rather than the standard 25%, and did not exempt ancillary fees or utilities from the affordability calculations.

As a result, the rent for these apartments approaches that for market-rate units. While many of the councilmembers recognized Combined's proposal isn't adequate, none seriously pushed back from the dais.

Many of the project's shortcomings stem from the fact that Fairfax City still does not have a clear plan for Fairfax Boulevard. An adopted plan that sets forth clear guidelines for street connectivity, green infrastructure, affordable housing and other elements would make the process easier for applicants and more beneficial for the city.

As the city looks to tackle more complex projects elsewhere on the Boulevard, it will need better planning tools. Meanwhile, though, Fairfax Circle will at least take a significant step forward, even if it's a smaller step than it could be.

Development


Prince George's adopts "Sprawl Plan 2035" over community objections

It was supposed to be different this time. Prince George's County's new general plan was supposed to embrace a bold new vision for a more sustainable and transit-oriented growth strategy. Instead, the county chose to cling to its old, failed approach of mouthing platitudes of support for walkable urban development around transit while actively facilitating suburban sprawl far from transit.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

County residents and smart growth advocates feared this when planners released a draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, the updated countywide comprehensive plan for long-term growth and development, last fall. The draft placed too much emphasis on sprawl.

It ignored the revitalization needs of most inner-Beltway communities and downplayed neighborhood Metro stations. At the same time, the preliminary plan supported massive greenfield development outside the Beltwayboth at mixed-use "suburban centers" like Konterra and Westphalia, and also in scattered single-family residential subdivisions.

Each subsequent revision of the plan only made matters worse. When the Planning Board adopted its version of the plan in March, it added hundreds of acres to the exiting suburban Bowie Regional Center, which was already too disconnected from transit.

Likewise, when the County Council approved its version of the general plan earlier this month, it removed hundreds of additional acres of woodlands from the rural preservation area and placed them into the "established communities" area, making them eligible for further sprawl development. The council also added language specifically endorsing automobile-oriented suburban "town centers," stating they "help[ed] fulfill countywide goals."

Planners and council members rebuffed calls for TOD fixes to plan

When planners held their first town hall meeting about Plan Prince George's last June, they appeared committed to a strategy of picking 3 Metro station areas as "downtowns" and focusing most of their energies at those stations.

But when the preliminary plan draft finally emerged, it did not seriously put weight behind directing more growth to those downtowns and less to areas far from transit.

When the preliminary draft plan went before the Planning Board for review in March, more than 100 citizens and public officials from across the county signed a petition urging county officials to reconsider the land use priorities in the preliminary plan.

Among the petition's signatories were Maryland State Senator Joanne Benson, Capitol Heights Mayor Kito James, Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant, Forest Heights Mayor Jacqueline Goodall, and a host of civic leaders representing all 9 council districts. The Planning Board ignored these pleas and forwarded its sprawl-enhanced version of the plan to the County Council for approval on March 6.

Led by council members Ingrid Turner (District 4) and Derrick Leon Davis (District 6), the County Council chose to maintain the build-anywhere-you-want culture that has left the county with the least-developed and least-profitable Metro station areas in the region. The lone dissenter was outgoing District 3 council member Eric Olson.

In the end, Plan Prince George's 2035 embodies the same undisciplined, sprawl-centered approach that planners cautioned against. While the plan says many good things about why the county should focus on developing its transit stations and reinvigorating its older communities, it ultimately allows and encourages uncontrolled growth away from transit and outside the Beltway. As such, it does not improve much upon the previous 2002 general plan.

Fortunately, the county does not have to wait another decade to right this wrong. Any future master plan or small-area sector plan can amend the general plan as it relates to that specific planning area. But to realize that opportunity, the county needs council members who are serious about focusing on smart growth.

A version of this post originally appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.

Development


Northern Virginia skyscraper rivalry has a new leader: Fairfax approves 470′ Capital One tower

Last Friday, Fairfax officially approved a new headquarters tower for Capital One in Tysons Corner. At 470 feet tall the new building will be the tallest in the DC region after the Washington Monument.


Proposed Capital One skyscraper. Image from Fairfax.

If that news sounds familiar, it's because in May of 2013 Fairfax approved developers proposed a 435 foot tall building, then the tallest in the region yet. And when Alexandria approved a 396 foot tall tower, that also would've been the tallest. Meanwhile, Arlington's 384 foot tall 1812 North Moore tower recently finished construction, officially taking over the title of region's tallest skyscraper (for now).

There may not be an explicit competition, but the fact is undeniable: Northern Virginia's in a full-on skyscraper rivalry. And Tysons is pulling insurmountably ahead.

At 470 feet tall, this new Tysons building will be the first in the DC region to officially eclipse Richmond's tallest, the 449 foot tall Monroe Building. Baltimore and Virginia Beach each have towers above 500 feet, often considered to be the breaking point for a true skyscraper.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Development


Residents skeptical of BRT and mixed-use development grill Montgomery council candidates

In the coming years, eastern Montgomery County could see some big changes, from faster, more reliable bus service to a new research and technology hub. Last night, candidates for County Council talked about these issues with some very skeptical Four Corners residents.


University Blvd approaching Route 29. Photo from Google Maps.

The Four Corners area, part of Council District 5, is slated for Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 29 and University Boulevard. The White Oak Science Gateway plan would add research and technology office space along with with homes and shopping.

I live-tweeted the forum, along with Joe Fox and Jessie Slater. Here's a Storify. Update: If you don't see the content in the box below from the home page or another list of articles, try going to the individual post page.

Development


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.

Development


Dead ends: Euphemisms hide our true feelings about growth

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. Vicky Hallett also discusses the book in today's Express.

Ross is giving a book talk on Tuesday, April 22nd, 5:30 pm at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. Afterward, GGW is cosponsoring a happy hour at the Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW, at 6:30pm. Stop by for just the talk, just the happy hour, or both!

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee "that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they."


Photo by Michael Patrick on Flickr.

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don't want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise.

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

Land use disputes thus come before the public veiled in a thick fog of evasion, euphemism, and flat-out falsehood. From this miasma rises a plague of obscurity that infects the language itself. Terms devised to conceal reality become so familiar that they are uttered without thinking. Critics find themselves unable to question received dogmas for want of words to express their thoughts.

A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning.

Compatibility, in the enlarged sense, is often thought of as a sort of similarity. But if two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, while with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos.

The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean, "I don't like it and I'm not explaining why." The word is notably unpopular with New Urbanists. Faced with such an obvious case of incompatibility, in the literal sense, as a parking lot in a walkable downtown, they call it a "disruption of the urban fabric" or a "wasteful use of land."

Compatibility may be the most pervasive linguistic deformation, but it is hardly the only one. Homeowners will complain about the impact on their neighborhood when basement apartments are rented out or high-rises are built nearby. This word conflates purely psychological desires, among them the wish to keep away from people with lower incomes, with physical detriments like smell and shade. Its value lies in its vaguenessobjectors can make a case without saying concretely what their objection is. ...

Another slippery phrase is public use. Here the word use conveys almost the exact opposite of its common meaning. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a definition: public use space is "space devoted to uses for public enjoyment, such as gardens, plazas, or walks." A common example is the empty plaza that sits between an office building and the street, elevating the status of its surroundings through the display of conspicuous waste.

The operative word in the definition is not "use" but "enjoyment." In other words, no productive work can be done in the space. By this definitional sleight of hand, disuse becomes a kind of use, and indeed the only kind allowed. In one case in 2011, the planning board forbade the placement of a barbecue in a public use space when a neighbor complained that it would encourage the public to use the space. ...

Our linguistic tour would hardly be complete without a visit to the greedy developer. The key to decoding this phrase is that the word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avariceif anything, non-profit builders of low-income housing encounter more hostility than the truly greedy. The ostensible target is the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses. The real one is the people who will live in them.

The builder stands accused, often enough, of the sin of manhattanization. When first used in San Francisco in the late 1960s by opponents of downtown skyscrapers, this was a vivid and descriptive coinage. But just as the developer's first name lost its connection to avarice, manhattanization became unmoored from New York City. The term, in current usage, can refer to almost any structure that rises above its surroundings.

A campaign against manhattanizing Menlo Park, California, objects to two-, three-, and four-story buildings around the train station. The movement's leader explains her goals by asking "Are we going to remain a small town, with low-density development, or are we going to be more like Redwood City and Palo Alto?"

Manhattanize might seem an odd choice of word to convey the meaning of "make it look like Palo Alto," but stale metaphor, as George Orwell pointed out years ago, does a service. It releases the speaker from the need to explain, or even figure out herself, exactly what she means to say. The premise of the argument against density is left unstated and thus immune from challenge.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell warned in his famous essay Politics and the English Language. For a half-century and more, deformed language has made it hard to think clearly about the communities we live in. Our system of land use will be the easier to understand, the more we use words that say plainly what we mean.

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