Posts about Real Estate
Some members of a Silver Spring civic association recently tried to keep their new neighbors from joining. While residents rejected the measure, the fact that the issue got consideration at all illustrates how people disagree on who "belongs" in urbanizing communities.
The new townhouses rise behind single-family homes in Seven Oaks-Evanswood. All photos by the author.
The Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (SOECA) sits in the shadow of downtown Silver Spring, just a few blocks from the Metro station. Nearly all of its 220 households live in single-family homes, though the association recently lost a years-long battle to stop Chelsea Heights, a development of 63 townhomes on the site of a former private school on Ellsworth Drive.
Last week, the SOECA board proposed an amendment to the civic association's bylaws that would limit membership to "residents of the R-60 zoned areas," or people living in single-family homes. The amendment would effectively bar the new townhouse residents from joining. The association already keeps out people living in a handful of small apartment buildings within the neighborhood's borders, which are drawn to exclude nearby high-rise apartment buildings.
The proposal unleashed a fiery conversation in the normally sleepy neighborhood, both online and at a community meeting last night that 50 people attended. But after a vote, neighbors voted 32-17 against the change.
Neighbors worried townhouse residents would "out-vote" them
Why propose barring the future residents of Chelsea Heights from the neighborhood association? On the community listserv, some residents worried that the Chelsea Heights residents could join the civic association and "out-vote" existing residents on neighborhood issues, such as whether to restrict cut-through traffic.
"Will their interests as members of a higher-density tract development coincide with, complement or be in conflict with those of a neighborhood association composed of residents in single-family homes?" asked one resident.
SOECA president Jean Cavanaugh noted that Chelsea Heights will have its own homeowners' association, and says that her organization would be willing to cooperate with it. "There are other civic associations that work side-by-side with large townhouse developments that have their own association," she told me.
She added that this had nothing to do with the fight to stop the development. "We have no issue with the people buying property in Chelsea Heights. Our issue's with the Planning Board, the county, and [Chelsea Heights developer] EYA," she told me. "We can distinguish between who we had our battle with and the innocents who are gonna move in to Chelsea Heights."
Other area neighborhoods welcome all comers
It's not unusual for neighborhood groups anywhere to fight development. But in Silver Spring, a community that's generally progressive and tolerant and where many neighborhoods have a mix of housing types, it's unusual for associations to deliberately exclude people based on what kind of home they live in.
Next door to SOECA, the Woodside Park Civic Association has a long history of opposing townhouses from being built there, but remains totally open to anyone who wants to join. And the East Silver Spring Civic Association is open not only to townhouse dwellers, but apartment and condominium residents as well.
"The fact that I live in an apartment does not mean I am any less impacted by a nearby development or the loss of a local park, than say a homeowner would be," says ESSCA president Megan Moriarty. "Furthermore, I think we can come up with better solutions if all voices are considered in the debate."
Liz Brent, a real estate agent and Seven Oaks-Evanswood resident for 20 years, says that the disagreement reflects a disconnect between how long-time residents and newer residents see the neighborhood.
"There are people who come [to Silver Spring] for the transportation, come here for the walkability, come here for the diversity," she says. "I'm not saying the people who came here 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago don't want the diversity. But people who are coming here now...that's critical. It's a sea change for people who have been here for 30 and 40 and 50 years."
Keeping people out weakens community
Civic associations have a lot of sway in Montgomery County politics, largely because they're so organized. They provide a voice to thousands of residents, and they have done a lot of good in the county, from organizing community events to fighting highway extensions that would have cut across Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
But civic groups also disenfranchise many people, whether by restricting membership to certain residents or by becoming adversarial towards people who disagree. That's one reason why participation in civic associations across Montgomery County is in decline.
Just 20% of eligible households in Seven Oaks-Evanswood are members of SOECA. I've spoken to SOECA residents who supported Chelsea Heights and say they stopped participating because of the group's eagerness to vilify anyone who supported the development. "I couldn't think of a decision that had been made that I agree with," Brent said as to why she left.
While neighbors who fight new development say they're doing it to "preserve" or "strengthen" their neighborhood, they ultimately weaken community organizations when they push out people who might otherwise want to get involved too. Change is a fact of life, but so is difference and disagreement. Community organizations do themselves a disservice by trying to squelch both.
Besides, I bet that people buying houses in Chelsea Heights, or the renters who are already excluded from participating in SOECA, probably moved there because they like and enjoy the neighborhood. I bet they have a lot more in common with their single-family dwelling neighbors than some would like to admit. And now, we'll get to find out.
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.
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.
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