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Architecture


How to sculpt a skyline: Arlington planners rethink Rosslyn

Do skylines matter? Planners in Arlington say they do, and are re-planning Rosslyn to give it a better, more sensible one.


Possible future Rosslyn skyline. All images from Arlington County.

Rosslyn is the most prominent cluster of tall buildings in the Washington region, and with more development coming it's only going to get more substantial. To get Rosslyn right, planners must grapple with how the height and form of such tall buildings affects their surroundings.

Realize Rosslyn will be Arlington's plan to transform Rosslyn from a dense but historically car centric area to a more pedestrian friendly place. Among other things, the plan will delve into how building scale, mass, and views affect aesthetics, light, air, open space, and walkability.


Another scenario for a possible future Rosslyn.

What's at stake?

Existing policy in central Rosslyn is to taper building heights so the tallest buildings are near the center, with shorter ones on the edges. That keeps the greatest building heights closest to the Metro station, and makes for a gradual transition from quieter nearby streets.

But the existing taper policy isn't perfect. The rules aren't specific on how the taper should occur, nor do they prescribe lower densities in areas with shorter buildings.

And then there's the hill.

Rosslyn is on a steep hill, sloping up away from the Potomac. Between the hill and the taper, some buildings may not be able to simultaneously meet their permitted densities while satisfying the taper rules.

In short, two different policies are pushing development in Rosslyn in two different directions.

Meanwhile, existing policies also need to work economically. If new buildings can't go tall enough to make it worthwhile to knock down an older building on the same site, property owners may not redevelop at all.

That may stand in the way of achieving the community's goals for a more walkable, up-to-date Rosslyn. To meet those goals, county planners need to develop better rules to allow them to happen, rather than rules that work against each other and don't work economically.

That means looking strategically at where and how taller buildings might be appropriate.

And of course, it's still more complicated. Skyline planning is a balancing act. Taller buildings still need to comfortably transition to adjacent neighborhoods, and maintain views from the public observation deck atop the future CEB Tower, and minimize shadows. All in addition to the normal things planners have to get right, like sidewalk retail and walkable design.

Three scenarios, next steps

For Rosslyn, planners are developing multiple alternate scenarios looking at the effects of different building masses. There are scenarios for individual sites, and collectively across central Rosslyn.


Three potential development scenarios for the same property.

These images are a sneak peek of preliminary work, but more details will be available to the public when planners present their initial modeling work at a meeting on Tuesday, September 30.

Later this fall, the community will use the modeling work to help formulate specific recommendations for Rosslyn's form and massing.

Fun


"We built this city on: hot hipsters." Cards Against Urbanity wants to make you laugh

Nothing adds to any nerdy party better than the card games "Apples to Apples" or "Cards Against Humanity", but now thanks to a bunch of DC urbanists we may soon have "Cards Against Urbanity" with cards focused on all sorts of aspects of planning and urban living.


Image from the Kickstarter page.

The founders officially launched their Kickstarter drive with an event Tuesday night in Arlington. In order to make this game a reality, the group needs to raise $7,500. As of last night, they were already 43% of the way to the goal with $3,207 raised.

If you've never played Cards Against Humanity, you're missing out. It's a hilarious party game. The way it works is that each player takes turns playing the judge. He or she draws a black card with a question or phrase with blanks. The remaining players then select white "noun" cards from their decks and play the one they think fits best. Whichever card the judge picks determines who won that round.

Cards Against Humanity took its gameplay from the tamer party game Apples To Apples; Cards Against Urbanity is a spinoff and will focus on city life and planning.

You can see some of the examples of the cards on the kickstarter page. I can't wait to see what my friends throw down for "My city's economic plan includes _____________." Perhaps "a pink fixie," "dangerous minorities," "citizens for urban chicken keeping," or "Starbucks proliferation." Whatever the combo is, I'm sure it will make me laugh out loud.

At the launch event one card combo was, "We built this city. We built this city on ________" combined with "Housewife crying at public meeting."

Some of the answer cards that have been produced included "hot hipsters," "nude roof deck," and "rezoning s****storm." But the launch event was interactive. The organizers wanted suggestions from the attendees. If you have a suggestion for a card (either question or answer), make sure to leave it in the comments.

Although the game's language may be too salty for a civic gathering, it could definitely get more people to talk about local issues in a fun and silly way. And if you're already involved in planning, cities, or civic engagement, it can be a great way to poke a little fun at things you may encounter all the time; whether an overactive neighborhood listserv or draconian HOA rules.


The launch party. Photo by Lisa Nisenson.

Dying to get your hands on a set? Even if the kickstarter doesn't meet its production goals, the very first prototype set will be raffled off to an attendee at the Coalition for Smarter Growth's Smart Growth Social fundraiser on October 15so purchase a ticket to be one step closer to having your very own set.

Roads


A traffic engineer and a planner both study a closed freeway segment. Their conclusions are wildly different.

Let's say you have a closed piece of freeway along your waterfront. What should you do with it? Ask many traditional traffic engineers, and they'll likely answer with some variant of "build a lot of car lanes, maybe with some path for walkers and cyclists if there's room." Ask an urban planner, meanwhile, and the answer could be a more nuanced mix of buildings, parks, roads, or other pieces of a city.

Just look at what traffic engineers versus planners came up with for the piece of DC's Southeast Freeway between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle:


Four-lane road with parking and overpasses. Image from DDOT.


Concept extending DC's street grid into the freeway. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Advocates of "urbanism" or "livable streets" or "smart growth" often deride the "traffic engineer mindset." This is the attitude of some (but not all) engineers who primarily build and maintain roads. These folks tend to hold an ingrained assumption that more roadway lanes are basically the answer to any mobility problem.

Meanwhile, graduates of most planning schools today will bring a wide variety of tools to the table. They'll often look not just at how to move vehicles or even people, but whether more motion is really the best way to use some land. If people are encountering more traffic to get to jobs, one solution is to build a big transportation facility, but another approach is to create more opportunities for the people to live near the jobs, or to put the jobs near the people.

For one of the starkest illustrations of this "lane engineer" versus planner mindset dichotomy, look at the Southeast Boulevard studies in DC. There used to be a freeway running along the edge of eastern Capitol Hill to Barney Circle. Long ago, plans called for it to connect to a new bridge over the Anacostiathe Barney Circle Freeway, and part of an "inner loop" of freeways around downtown. That would have been a very damaging plan for both DC's environment and its congestion.

DDOT's study thinks very narrowly

In 2005, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) came up with a somewhat better scheme, to essentially widen the 11th Street Bridge by building a new parallel local bridge and convert the freeway segment from a four-lane freeway to a four-lane urban boulevard.

DDOT then conducted a 2014 study of options to replace the freeway segment. The study devised xis options, but all of them basically looked like near-freeways. While pedestrians and cyclists could cross to access the waterfront, and cars could turn on and off to nearby streets in some options, all of the options turned a huge expanse of pavement and empty grass into other huge expanses of pavement and empty grass, sometimes also with tour bus parking.

DDOT's options still primarily focused around moving cars fast, and would all have created big empty spaces that would not create any actual sense of place and would be, at best, unpleasant to cross on foot.


Map of Concept 2. Images from DDOT.


Concept 2.


Concept 4A.

Planners think more creatively

Residents, led by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven, were not happy with the narrowness of DDOT's analysis. Instead, at Councilmember Tommy Wells' urging, the Office of Planning stepped in to do a more open-minded study of how to use the space.

OP's options still look at four-lane boulevards and even four-lane parkways, but with much more appealing designs like a big park next to and partly on top of the road:


Concept C2. Images from the DC Office of Planning.

Or just extend the street grid right through the site with new townhouses like the old ones:


Concept A2.

Or a new avenue fronted by larger buildings:


Concept A1.

Or a hybrid:


Concept B1.

Why 4 lanes?

But even OP's study assumed that there need to be 4 lanes of traffic, as that's what DDOT insists on. OP's presentation points out that 4 lanes of traffic can be a part of residential boulevards, like New Hampshire Avenue in Petworth or East Capitol Street near Lincoln Park. However, these roads still feel much wider than others. Drivers tend to move faster here, often too fast to safely mix with other neighborhood users. New Hampshire Avenue north of Dupont, in contrast, is just one lane each way.

So why do there need to be 4 lanes of traffic? DC just effectively widened the 11th Street Bridge, adding car capacity there. Can't there be a reduction on an adjacent street? More than that, there haven't been any lanes for years now. It seems that a traffic pattern with zero lanes works fine.

If there's new development, it would need a road and some lanes to get to it, but to say we need 4 because we already had 4 is circular reasoning without logic, unless you assume that more lanes are always better, and any lane once built must always remain to eternity. That's the ingrained belief of many traditional traffic engineers, and it's the answer I got from Ravindra Ganvir, DDOT's deputy chief engineer, when I asked in February of 2013:

The constrained long range plan (CLRP) traffic model is assigning traffic volumes that would exceed the capacity of a two-lane facility and is showing Southeast Boulevard as a four-lane arterial facility.
Traffic models "show" traffic on a link that varies depending on what kind of link you have built, so to say that the model shows a four-lane boulevard worth of traffic when you have a freeway or boulevard in the plan is again circular. Or, as one contributor wryly paraphrased, "We are building a big road because we need a big road because there was a big road there before."

DDOT needs to re-examine its reflexive assumption that 4 lanes is the only possibility. Regardless, this area now stands a good chance of becoming an excellent urban place now that people who think about spaces broadly and creatively got involved.

Development


In White Oak, the region's east-west divide becomes an urban-suburban one

The DC area has long faced an east-west divide, with more of the wealth going to the west side. Increasingly, investment is also heading to urban areas over suburban ones. For struggling suburban areas on the east side, the only answer is to take on more urban features.


All photos by the author unless noted.

One of those places is White Oak in eastern Montgomery County, where the County Council will vote tomorrow on a plan to create a new town center. Local residents are eager to have more jobs and amenities close to home, but civic and environmental groups want to limit the amount of density in White Oak because it's several miles from a Metro station and roads are already congested.

But the kind of compact, dense development proposed for White Oak could allow residents to access jobs, shops, or other amenities by walking, biking, or simply driving a shorter distance than they would otherwise. It would generate less traffic than the alternative: more of the sprawling, car-oriented development that's currently allowed in White Oak, plus additional sprawl farther out.

Residents say it's East County's turn

East County has experienced little of the prosperity that more affluent parts of Montgomery County take for granted. One reason is the county's traffic tests, which prohibit development when roads reach a certain level of congestion until more roads are built. This standard led to a 20-year development moratorium in East County that ended in 2004.

Development simply moved to the western, more affluent side of Montgomery County or farther out to Howard County while East County roads remained congested. Today, White Oak consists largely of aging strip malls, office parks, and industrial brownfields surrounding the Food and Drug Administration's new headquarters near New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29, which will eventually hold 9,000 workers.


LifeSci Village rendering courtesy of Percontee.

The White Oak Science Gateway plan, which councilmembers will vote on tomorrow, would allow them to transform into urban, mixed-use neighborhoods with up to 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs. Much of this development would occur at LifeSci Village, a concrete recycling plant that the county and developer Percontee want to turn into a research and technology center.

Local residents say it's their turn, speaking out in favor of the plan at two public hearings. At a public forum last fall, community members called the White Oak plan their highest priority for economic development.

Traffic tests won't solve traffic

But the Science Gateway plan would still fail the traffic tests. County Executive Ike Leggett and some councilmembers have recommended excluding Route 29 from traffic counts, arguing that it's a regional highway that would be congested no matter what.


An abandoned office building in White Oak.

As a result, some civic associations and environmental groups around the county have criticized the plan, arguing that urban development shouldn't be allowed away from a Metro station. They say Montgomery County should follow its own rules and stick to the traffic tests.

But the traffic tests can't really fix congestion if their required solution is always to build more roads, which is proven to cause more traffic. And East County residents know that they haven't solved congestion, since they have to travel longer distances for work, shopping, or other things they can't find closer to home.

That's not to say that White Oak doesn't need better transportation. Councilmember George Leventhal has asked Leggett to put together a financing plan for Bus Rapid Transit within two years, so the county can figure out how to fund and build it as development moves forward.

East County's future depends on having a town center

More development doesn't have to mean more driving. Montgomery County added 100,000 residents over the past decade, but the rate of driving actually stayed the same. That's because as the county grows around Metro stations, more people can get around without a car. But even in town centers away from Metro, like what's proposed at White Oak, people would have more transportation options than they do otherwise, whether that means walking, biking, taking the bus, or even driving a shorter distance.


It's possible to create urban places away from Metro stations, like Shirlington in Arlington County.

We know that people increasingly want to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. We've seen businesses gravitate to more urban locations in the region, like Choice Hotels, which moved from an office park near White Oak to Rockville Town Center.

For decades, there's been a growing divide between the east and west sides of Montgomery County. East County increasingly lags the rest of the county when it comes to new town centers like White Flint, Crown in Gaithersburg, and even Germantown. If we're going to close the east-west gap in Montgomery County, White Oak can't stay a land of office parks forever.

Government


Casey Anderson is Montgomery's new Planning Board chair

Montgomery County's new Planning Board chair will be Casey Anderson, a strong advocate for growing the county's urban areas and improving its transit network. The County Council voted 8-1 to appoint him this morning.

An attorney who lives in Silver Spring, Anderson has been a community activist on smart growth, transit, and bicycling issues, previously serving on the board of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. He stepped down to join the Planning Board in 2011, and can be seen walking or biking to meetings there. The council will have to find a replacement for his old seat.

Councilmembers appeared to rally around Anderson last week over four other applicants for the position. "Anderson comes closest to holding the vision I have for our County's future," wrote Councilmember Roger Berliner in a message to his constituents. "He is a strong proponent of smart and sustainable growth, served by world class transit. These are the key components of a strong future for our county."

The Planning Board chair is responsible for giving the County Council recommendations on land use and transportation issues, meaning they can play a big role in how and where the county grows. As chair, Anderson says he'd like to look at the way Montgomery County uses the amount of car traffic as a test for approving development. The tests often discourage building in the county's urban areas, where people have the most options for getting around without a car.

As a board member, Anderson has advocated for more transportation options and more nightlife as ways to keep the county relevant and attractive to new residents. He was the only vote against approving an extension of Montrose Parkway through White Flint, where the county wants to create a pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented downtown. He also served with me on the Nighttime Economy Task Force, which sought to promote nightlife in the county.

Anderson was a strong influence in favor of the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, and persuaded some of his fellow commissioners to support repurposing existing lanes for BRT. Anderson also pushed for performance standards for BRT which aim to prevent BRT from being watered down in the future.

Upcounty, he opposed the board's unfortunate vote in support of the M-83 highway last fall. He did support keeping development in a part of Clarksburg near Ten Mile Creek which turned the Montgomery Countryside Alliance against his candidacy.

Councilmember Marc Elrich was the only vote against Anderson. Though he didn't nominate her this morning, Elrich favored former Planning Board member Meredith Wellington, who had support from some civic activists who feel that the county is growing too fast. The field of candidates also included current board member and real estate developer Norman Dreyfuss, current deputy planning director Rose Krasnow, and former County Councilmember Mike Knapp.

Montgomery County offers a wide variety of urban, suburban, and rural communities. Anderson's appointment suggests that the county's ready to embrace its urban areas while preserving the suburban and rural ones, providing a greater variety of community types and transportation choices for an increasingly diverse population.

Zoning


DC planners want to limit row houses from becoming condos

In neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, people have been converting row houses to 3- and 4-unit condo buildings. Should zoning stop this practice? It would under a new proposal from the DC Office of Planning, but not all of DC's zoning commissioners were enthusiastic about the idea.


Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

This proposal would apply to the zones now designated R-4, including neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Trinidad, Bloomingdale, Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, and Park View. Today, it's legal to have two separate units in one of these row houses, but not more unless the lot is particularly large.

OP's proposal would take away the ability to have more than 2 units at all. It would also limit houses to 35 feet instead of 40 (though owners could go to 40 with a zoning hearing) and end the current policy allowing small "mezzanines" to not count as floors.

The Comprehensive Plan defines the R-4 zone as primarily single-family row houses (perhaps with basement apartments), not as apartment buildings. But in booming neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, OP planners say, developers have outbid individual families for houses with the expectation that they could get BZA exceptions to make the building into a multi-unit condo and add on to the top and back.


Color-coded map of residential zones (as of 2008). R-4 zones are in purple.

Zoning commissioners worry this may reduce housing

OP Associate Director Jennifer Steingasser presented this plan to the Zoning Commission, DC's part-federal, part-local board which has the final say on zoning, on June 9. Commissioner Marcie Cohen asked whether this change would reduce the amount of new housing that can get built in the city. She said,

A major concern that I have is the need for housing, and that's usually the need that's brought before us in the BZA cases. It's adding housing. And no one seems to appreciate density, yet we have the infrastructure in certain neighborhoods for density and I guess I'm in favor of taking advantage to provide the needed housing that we have in the city. How do we balance that?
Steingasser laid out the arguments, and said,
It's just a balance. We're trying to encourage housing, by all means, but we would rather it not be in the single family and at the expense of the historic row houses, that it be geared more towards these larger lots or into these higher-density, multifamily, commercial mixed-use areas.
Something of a debate ensued.
Chairman Anthony Hood: I'm glad to hear you say that, Ms. Steingasser ... While I understand the need, there are a lot of folks in this city who bought in their areas for a reason. ... Do we just throw everybody on top of them or do we kind of balance that out? ... While there is a need for housing, we have to be delicate with that because in this city who's been there a long time, they spent a lot of money in purchasing their homes which is their biggest investment, and they didn't buy into that.

Comissioner Rob Miller: That's why there are five members on this commission, because it is a changing city, it is a growing city, and where you tip the balancedoes two to three [units in a building] really change the character of a neighborhood? I don't think so. But maybe others do.

Steingasser: This is coupled with the new RF zones that we're proposing that do allow for more than 2 units. And where those get mapped will accommodate that. So it's not ensuring an amberification of all R-4, but allowing some areas to have more and some to have less.

However, Steingasser just walked back a very important proposal in the zoning update where homeowners in the R-4 zone, who can already have two units in their building, could put one of them in a carriage house without a zoning special exception. This will reduce the amount of housing that gets added in R-4 zones inside existing buildings.

At the moment, not clear if the neighborhoods that will take advantage of the new 3-unit and 4-unit zones will be R-4 (2-unit) zones, adding more potential housing, or R-5 (unlimited unit) zones, which would decrease potential housing.

In a blog post, unnamed OP planners added,

So, in a time when the demand for housing is great in DC, why would OP propose this? In addition to being inconsistent with the intent of the R-4 zone and sometimes the character of the neighborhood, this is having an impact on the diversity and the relative affordability of our family housing stock. ...

Buildings with one and two dwelling units represent approximately 38 percent of the District's housing stock, but only about 4 percent of the units in the housing pipeline over the next 15 years. Conversely, the District has a large supply of multi-family or mixed use zoned land and developments in the housing pipeline for multi-family housing that is appropriate to meet the demand of smaller households.

Few new multifamily buildings are being delivered with three or more bedrooms, unless they are part of housing planned to replace similarly-sized public housing units. Over the past three years, three-bedroom units have risen in price almost three times as fast as one-bedroom unitsa reflection of the limited supply, subsequent demand pressure, and rapidly escalating prices.

Families seeking to purchase relatively affordable homes are competing with developers who can pay more for a larger house than a family because they can profit by splitting up the building and selling smaller units. Ensuring that the R-4 zone remains a single-family rowhouse or flat zone can begin to address this pressure.

Despite appearances, this doesn't deal with pop-ups very well

OP is right that DC does need some family housing. It also needs single and couple housing. Encouraging family housing is a good idea, but like many zoning proposals from OP recently including the past few years of zoning update tweaks (and like DC's parking policy in recent years), it seems to be just layering customized rule on top of customized rule without a broader strategy.

This specific proposal doesn't even address many of the complaints people have. This is mainly being billed in the press as a move to stop pop-ups. The lower height will deter some of the worst pop-ups, but it isn't going to stop people from adding a third story onto a 2-story row house in a place like Trinidad and the biggest objection is usually that the pop-ups are cheaply made and ugly. A design review process may be better than a zoning limit. Nor will this do anything about many of the more infamous pop-ups, like the one on V Street, which is in an ARTS/C-2-B zone.

How about some actual planning?

Rather than slap on a patchwork of new rules that react to each neighborhood request, why can't the Office of Planning actually plan? Work with residents to figure out where the housing DC needs can go, and what's the best place for different size housing. Figure out where and what kind of family housing there could be, and then write rules to encourage that.

There's a good chance that existing row houses are a more ideal place for family-sized housing. A limit might make sense if, at the same time, the city has a strategy for adding the housing it needs in other ways. It doesn't have one now. There was also massive opposition to allow even targeted exceptions to the federal height limit. People are fighting development at McMillan, at Takoma, at the Big K site in Anacostia, and on my block, all saying that whatever is proposed is too big for whatever area it's in. There was a lot of opposition to allowing accessory apartments in single-family zones, even though that wouldn't change any buildings. And so forth.

Since the first zoning update proposals in 2008, Steingasser's division of OP has been largely reactive, responding to complaints and tweaking the zoning (just about always to make it more restrictive). The agency needs to start being proactive and engaging residents in a discussion about the best way to add the housing DC needs. It's got to be somewhere, and really a lot of somewheres.

Soon, DC will revisit its Comprehensive Plan, which is a good opportunity for this conversation. But it will only happen if OP actually plans for growth which DC's sustainability plan already calls for.

Public Spaces


Bethesda's planning survey loads the dice against urbanism

Planners drafting a master plan update for downtown Bethesda are running an online "visual preference" survey to get public input. But the choices they offerand, even more, the questions they choose not to asktilt against the urban style of development that Montgomery County's most successful downtown needs.


The choices in the survey contrast higher-density streets with one-way traffic (top) with lower-density buildings facing two-way streets (bottom).

The survey compares two patterns of development. One is low-density development with two-way streets; the other, mid-rise and high-rise buildings on one-way streets. But these aren't the only options. Two-way streets are much more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists, and there is no reason a dense area can't have them.

Equally important is what's left out of the images entirely. A low-rise shopping district, like the one in the lower right of the picture, could never survive in Bethesda on customers who come by Metro from DC. It needs either dense housing and jobs nearby, or lots of parking.

The parking cannot be underground because single-story stores can't support the expense of underground garages. A realistic picture of low-density retail must include big parking lots or multistory above-ground garages.

Something else is missing from all of the images. Montgomery County zoning requires empty land (known by the Orwellian name of "public use space," although productive use of the space is banned) next to all mixed-use buildings.


Zoning forced the Lionsgate mixed-use high-rise to include this little-used plaza where busy sidewalk-facing storefronts once stood. Photo by the author.

This rule, fiercely defended by homeowner groups protective of the county's suburban image, gives us the empty plazas which blight Wisconsin Avenue and are spreading into the Woodmont Triangle. To be accurate, the survey should offer a choice between the attractive streetfront stores in its images and the bleak streetscapes that may emerge if the master plan preserves the status quo in this realm.

Missing entirely from the survey is the relationship between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Although most nearby single-family homeowners enjoy their proximity to downtown, neighbors opposed to urbanism often seek to wall themselves off. The connections that emerge from contentious development debates are of widely varying quality.



Three ways Bethesda connects (or doesn't) to adjoining neighborhoods: the Giant parking lot, the Whitney, and the Chevy Chase Bank building. Photos by the author.

The public should get to choose whether to border downtown with attractive buildings, walkways, and streets, or "buffers" made of walls and parking lots. This choice should not stay hidden, only to emerge later out of closed negotiations between individual builders and the opponents of their projects.

The last page of the survey reveals its authors' bias once again. There, it asks voters which category they belong to: resident, property owner, development professional, student, or special interest/activist. There are no categories for a regular shopper/diner or office worker.

Nearby homeowners are stakeholders, even if they hate the downtown and never go there. But if you work or shop in Bethesda, you're off the planners' radar screen. And never mind the rest of the region, all of which suffers from car traffic that's made worse by Bethesda's overly auto-oriented design.

Development


It's not about how fast we should grow, but where

Pointing to busy roads and crowded schools, some candidates in this year's Montgomery County primary election say the county is growing too fast. But people are going to come anyway, making the real issue where that growth should happen.


Montgomery County's urban and newer suburban communities are growing, while older suburbs are slowing down. Image by the author.

The county's actually not growing that fast

In 2006, voters weary of the housing boom brought in a county executive and several councilmembers who promised to slow things down. The recession made people hungry for investment again, especially on the poorer eastern side of the county, but some residents and candidates this year are arguing that the county's still growing too fast and that developers need to "pay their share."

Today, Montgomery has just over one million residents, adding about 100,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, a rate of 11%. That might seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to most of the 20th century, when the county added as many as 180,000 residents each decade and doubled in population during the 1950s. In recent years, the county's grown slower than many other parts of the region, including the District and Arlington.

Growth is going to the county's downtowns and walkable neighborhoods

According to the 2000 Census and 2008-2012 American Community Survey, most parts of the county aren't changing that much. Many of the county's older suburban and rural communities, from Chevy Chase to Poolesville, saw little increase in population over the past decade, and in some cases even lost people.

Instead, much of the county's growth is going to its downtowns, like Bethesda, Wheaton, and Silver Spring, which doubled in population between 2000 and 2010. Dense, walkable neighborhoods like Kentlands in Gaithersburg and King Farm in Rockville also had substantial growth. These places already have infrastructure like schools and transit in place, as well as nearby shopping and jobs so new residents don't have to drive or drive as far.


Montgomery County's population has grown, but the amount of driving miles hasn't.
Graph from the Planning Department.

That's how the county could grow while driving rates have stayed at 2002 levels. Fortunately, the county's urban, walkable places will receive most of its growth in the future.


Clarksburg's exploding, but the services haven't caught up yet. Photo by the author.

But growth is still happening in areas far from amenities and transit. Clarksburg quadrupled in population between 2000 and 2010, making it the county's fastest-growing community. Though it added 9,500 residents in 10 years, Clarksburg didn't even have a grocery store until last year, has overcrowded schools, and few transit connections to the rest of the county.

New development isn't why school enrollment is rising

Some candidates this year blame new development on rising enrollment in Montgomery County Public Schools, which is adding 2,000 kids each year. In a campaign video, at-large challenger Beth Daly describes driving past a school with portable classrooms. She and her kids shake their heads. "Doesn't the county know that additional growth requires additional infrastructure?" she asks.

But many of the county's most crowded schools are in neighborhoods where the population isn't growing. Researchers for MCPS say this happens due to other factors, like older families moving out and younger families taking their place, new all-day kindergarten programs that mean classrooms can't "double up" to hold two half-day classes, or families returning from private school (though in many parts of the county, the reverse is happening.)

Slowing or even stopping new development won't change this. Developers have to pay "impact fees" to cover the cost of schools and roads near new construction, but the county doesn't collect anything in places where nothing's being built.

We can't afford to not grow

In many ways, Montgomery County has moved past the "growth vs. no growth" debate, which at-large councilmember Hans Riemer calls "outdated." Riemer and fellow at-large councilmember George Leventhal have talked about the benefits of new investment, whether it's paying for the things people want and need, like schools and transit, or the ability to attract younger residents.

It's also easy to see the consequences of restricting growth in places like East County, which was in a development moratorium for many years due to traffic concerns. There aren't any portable classrooms at Springbrook High School in White Oak, which has over 400 empty seats. Burtonsville's village center has been hemorraging businesses since a highway bypass opened, and abandoned or unkempt houses aren't an uncommon sight in neighborhoods still wracked by the recession. It's no surprise that residents support plans to create a town center in White Oak.


Building in the right places is the way to manage growth, not simply slowing it down. Photo by the author.

Directing growth to our town centers and areas near transit can meet the demand for new housing and give people what they want. But it also reduces the pressure to develop other parts of the county, whether it's suburban neighborhoods, the Agricultural Reserve, or parks.

That's the real solution to growth: making it easier to build in the right places, so we can provide the infrastructure and be able to pay for it. It may be more complicated that saying "slow down," but it's ultimately the best path for the county's future.

Events


Events roundup: Books, bikes, bridges and more

Bikes are in the spotlight this week. Help clean up a bike trail in NE DC, talk bicycle and pedestrian planning in Tenleytown, support bicycle advocacy at BikeFest, and more. It's a busy time of year!


Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

WABA BikeFest: Join other bicycling enthusiasts for WABA's annual fundraiser. Enjoy tacos, drinks, dancing, art, and more while supporting our region's bike advocates at Eastern Market's North Hall on June 13 from 8 pm to midnight. Tickets are $45 for WABA members and $55 for the public.

Bike trail cleanup: The Metropolitan Branch Trail needs some spring cleaning. On Sunday, June 15, from 10 am-12:30 pm, WABA's Trail Ranger team and community volunteers will tame vegetation and clean debris from the trail for smooth summer riding. Volunteers will meet at the Met Branch Trail at 4th and S Street NE. You can RSVP here.

After the jump: see plans for the north-south streetcar and 11th Street Bridge Park, and take a walk in Wheaton.

Meet the 11th Street Bridge Park designers: The field has narrowed to four teams competing to design a park on the piers of the old 11th Street Bridge across the Anacostia. Though the designs are not yet complete, each of the four teams will talk about their approaches and early ideas tonight, 6:30-8 pm at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Avenue SE.

Streetcar planning: DDOT is holding its final round of open house meetings for its study of a future north-south DC streetcar. You can see DDOT's analysis of possible streetcar routes and weigh in. All three meetings last from 3:30-8:30 pm, with overview presentations at 4 and 7 pm. The full schedule is below:

  • South meeting: Tuesday, June 10, at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 2nd floor community room, 1100 4th St SW.
  • North meeting: Thursday, June 12, at the Emery Rec Center, 2nd floor community room, 5701 Georgia Ave NW.
Downtown Wheaton walking tour: The Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee (WUDAC) invites you to join their annual Wheaton walking tour this Saturday, June 14 at 10 am. The tour will be divided into three parts to encourage community feedback and conclude at 1 pm. RSVP by this Wednesday. Details and RSVP info.

Dead End book talk: This Thursday, June 12, join Ward3Vision to hear Greater Greater Washington contributor Ben Ross talk about his book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, at the Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library (4450 Wisconsin Ave NW) at 7 pm. A lively discussion on walking and biking in cities will follow. Please RSVP.

Do you know an event that should be on the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Send an email to events@ggwash.org with the details and a link to a page on the web which has more information.

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