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Posts about Suburban Decline


Removing the superintendent won't fix the broken culture at Montgomery's public schools

Montgomery County school superintendent Josh Starr resigned this week. Many community members are wondering what went wrong. While Starr had a lot of supporters, his role in a MCPS culture that didn't take criticism well may have been his undoing.

Starr at the March to Close the Achievement Gap. Photo by the author.

A week ago, Bethesda Magazine reported that four of the eight school board members didn't support renewing Starr's contract. Last weekend, Starr and the Board of Education quietly met to discuss his departure February 16, four months before his contract ends.

Some elected officials, along with parents and students were confused about what he'd done wrong, pointing to increased test scores since Starr arrived in 2011. Others felt that Starr didn't have a clear direction for the school system, and wouldn't listen to people he didn't agree with. Ultimately, that may have led to his dismissal. But the frustration with Starr reflects a larger issue with how MCPS deals with a rapidly changing school system.

Starr made promises, but didn't always follow through

Despite its reputation as a high-performing school system, MCPS also struggles with the suburbanization of poverty, which has made the achievement gap among minority and low-income students more evident. Starr championed the issue, boasting of his commitment to social justice and even appearing at a student-organized March to Close the Achievement Gap last spring.

But if community members or public officials tried to question him on this or other issues, Starr could be arrogant or dismissive. When the county's Office of Legislative Oversight found that growing segregation in the schools is exacerbating the achievement gap, Starr shrugged it off, saying the school system was already working hard to fix the problem.

In practice, that didn't always seem to be the case. MCPS spends less on its low-income students than other area school systems. There's been little talk about Starr's "innovation schools" program, which pledged additional resources and supports for 10 high-poverty schools, after a big announcement two years ago. And last year, Starr threatened to remove programs that could help close the gap from the budget if the County Council didn't give MCPS more money.

A reflection of the broader system

Meanwhile, the school system has struggled with other controversies over the past year, including widespread math exam failures, improper credit card use, and a sexual abuse scandal. Starr wasn't directly responsible for any of these things, but frustration grew with his aloof nature and unclear agenda for MCPS.

"Four years went by and people were still waiting to hear what the new direction was all about, where are we going," said Nancy Navarro, a councilmember and former school board member, to the Washington Post. "That was never really articulated."

This impatience made Starr an easy scapegoat when things went wrong, as Councilmember Marc Elrich notes. Yet his behavior is really a reflection of MCPS as a whole.

MCPS gets its high-flying reputation from a handful of high-performing schools in the most affluent parts of the county, even as many schools are doing much worse. This perception is one reason why the teachers' union has such a strong influence on local politics.

As a result, people assume that all of MCPS is doing fine and are unwilling to challenge the school system. Meanwhile, officials are reluctant to admit anything's wrong. "The county's progressive image has created a fierce resistance to serious analysis of rapidly changing conditions," wrote Harvard researcher Gary Orfield in a 1994 study of segregation in MCPS, which is still relevant today.

To fix MCPS, recognize that it's broken

This culture is a big problem for MCPS, which is used to being the preferred school system for families with the means to choose where they live. Today, many of those families are moving farther out to Howard or Frederick counties, or taking a chance on the District's improving public schools. To keep MCPS competitive, the school system and its leadership have to acknowledge that it's no longer solely defined by its success, but its failures as well.

On the day he resigned, Starr retweeted a photo of a girl at White Oak Middle School, a high-poverty school in East County that I once attended in the 1990s, with the caption: "I want to be recognized for my work. I have been in the honor roll for a long time."

Like her, MCPS is used to being a well-regarded school system, and wants to be recognized. But the real test of its success is how it grapples with the great challenges facing it. Whoever replaces Starr will need to ensure that all the county's schools deserve the "honor roll" status that attaches to the more affluent ones on which the county has staked its reputation.


It's not the "end" of the suburbs, but a transition

A new book by Leigh Gallagher heralds "the end of the suburbs," but it may just be a change in how people want to live and get around in suburban communities. Judging from new suburban developments happening in the DC area, that shift is already underway.

New townhomes with roofdecks at Crown in Gaithersburg. All photos by the author unless noted.

In recent years, there's been a lot of research about how many people, whether young Millennials or retiring Baby Boomers, want to live in places where they don't have to drive everywhere. That's part of the reason why center cities, like DC, have experienced a resurgence in recent decades.

But it leads some commentators to assume that everyone's going to move to the city now, and that's simply not true. Even if we raised the height limit, cities like DC can only hold so many new people. And the false binary between "city" and "suburb" ignores the actual diversity of places on either side of the city line, along with the possibility that people can have the urban, walkable experience they want in a "suburban" place, especially one where they may have grown up and feel connected to.

Site plan of Crown's first phase. (Note the cool street names: Strummer, Hendrix, etc.) Image from the developer.

Take Crown, a New Urbanist development being built in Gaithersburg that I visited last weekend. It was originally an 180-acre farm dating to the early 1800's, but today it's surrounded by office parks, cul-de-sacs and the Washingtonian Center, an early lifestyle center that I call "Green Day urbanism" because it's a sort-of walkable, urban environment.

Urban design firm Perkins Eastman/EE&K laid Crown out as a series of compact, walkable neighborhoods around the future Corridor Cities Transitway bus rapid transit line, which just got design funding from the state of Maryland.

While construction is only beginning, it's clear that projects like Crown represent a very different approach to suburban development. The developer has purposely marketed Crown as an urban place, even naming its website Most of the over 2,000 homes being built here will be townhouses or apartments. Instead of big backyards, the homes have roof decks, but there will be several public parks.

The Corridor Cities Transitway will have a stop right here.

This project's biggest amenity isn't privacy or quiet, but being close to "Downtown Crown," a 260,000-square foot complex of shops and restaurants surrounding a plaza, the Washingtonian Center, or all of the jobs at the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center. One of the first things you see upon entering is a sign saying "Future Right-of-Way of the Corridor City [sp] Transitway." Unlike nearby King Farm in Rockville, whose residents have protested the CCT in a neighborhood built around it, Crown residents will buy homes there expecting transit to come.

These amenities might explain why neighborhoods around Crown have some of Montgomery County's highest concentrations of young families. A generation ago, these buyers might have moved to Gaithersburg because it was cheap and they could buy a big house there, even if it was far from everything.

Today, many young families are moving to neighborhoods in the District because they offer a sense of community, easy access to shopping and jobs, and don't require a car. But they're also choosing places like Gaithersburg that are willing to evolve and adjust to meet their needs.

At Crown last weekend, I toured the model houses alongside many young couples with kids. Some of the townhouses here sell for over $700,000, which is certainly out of reach for many families. But it's also a testament to how desirable places like this are, even in a community 20 miles from downtown DC next to a transit line that hasn't even been built.

Media, the kind of suburb Leigh Gallagher says people want more of.

In an interview with the Washington Post's Jonathan O'Connell, Gallagher admits that many affluent car-oriented suburbs, particularly those with good public services like schools, will probably remain sought-after. And she notes that people may be drawn to suburbs like Media, the historic, walkable, trolley-served town near Philadelphia where she grew up.

There aren't a lot of Medias in the DC area, but there's no reason why we can't try to create more places like it. Crown is just one of several transit-oriented developments being built along the CCT in Gaithersburg. And from the Mosaic District in Fairfax County to Maple Lawn in Howard County, the DC area has become a national leader in showing how suburban communities will evolve in the coming decades.

While "The End of Some Places with Suburban Land Use Characteristics and/or Bad Schools" isn't as catchy or provocative a title, it's more accurate description of what's actually happening. People will still be able to live in a big house on a cul-de-sac, if that's what they want. But we'll also see new kinds of suburbs for those who want something else.


Watch poverty suburbanize in Montgomery County

As Montgomery County has become more diverse, it also faces new challenges with poverty. A new mapping tool shows just how much the county's changed over the past 30 years.

Where poverty is in Montgomery County. Each dot represents 20 low-income people. Blue dots are whites, yellow dots are blacks, green dots are Hispanics, and red dots are Asians. Original image from the Urban Institute.

The Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank that looks at social and economic issues, made this awesome mapping tool that shows where very low-income people lived between 1980 to 2010. The Atlantic Cities notes that the maps show dramatic demographic shifts across the country, notably the suburbanization of poverty.

That's especially evident here in Montgomery County. 30 years ago, the county's only significant concentration of poverty was around close-in Langley Park and Long Branch, which had established themselves as immigrant gateways by the late 1970s.

But today, you can also find clusters of poverty throughout East County and the Upcounty, in Wheaton and Aspen Hill, in White Oak and Briggs Chaney, and even along I-270 in Gaithersburg and Germantown. Many of them have only emerged within the past decade.

Meanwhile, communities that have historically been affluent, like Bethesda or Olney, appear to have stayed the same. The area along Rockville Pike between Rockville Town Center and White Flint, where a considerable amount of new, high-end development is happening, seems to have actually become less poor.

We know that people increasingly desire urban neighborhoods, whether that's places like Columbia Heights in DC or downtown Silver Spring. But the flip side of that revitalization is that the poor often move or are pushed out into suburban areas. While these communities offer more space or better public services, they aren't always well-equipped to help low-income people.

Groups like IMPACT Silver Spring, which helps low-income people and immigrants connect with community groups and social services, began working in and around downtown Silver Spring in the 1990s. Today, IMPACT does outreach at garden apartment complexes in Gaithersburg and Briggs Chaney. Unlike close-in Silver Spring or Long Branch, these areas don't have easy access to shopping, jobs, public services or transit.

Here, fears of crime mean parents won't let their kids play outside. Even walking to the bus stop can be dangerous due to roads designed for speeding cars.

A family tries to cross busy Columbia Pike in White Oak. Photo by the author.

Instead of working to combat the problem, more affluent neighbors fight any attempts at change or build fences in a lame attempt at keeping "undesirables" out. Meanwhile, kids growing up in these neighborhoods are often blocked from the high-quality public schools Montgomery County is known for.

The challenges that suburban poor face aren't necessarily different than those of their inner-city counterparts. But they're compounded by the built form of suburbia, which was designed under the assumption that everyone would have money and a car and does little to accommodate those who lack both.

Initiatives like the county's BRT plan or the White Oak Science Gateway will help bring transit, jobs and other amenities to these neighborhoods and improve residents' quality of life. But it'll be important to ensure that they aren't pushed out again into even more remote areas.


Science Gateway plan brings urban approach to White Oak

50 years ago, White Oak was a prosperous suburb that inspired The Wonder Years, but today the community north of downtown Silver Spring struggles with disinvestment. Montgomery County planners say an urban approach to redevelopment can bring new life to the area.

Photo by the author.

While White Oak has several historically affluent neighborhoods, today it has no majority racial or ethnic group, and renters make up over a third of the population. There are abandoned office buildings and a reputation for crime, whether real or perceived. Residents have to go long distances to Bethesda, the I-270 corridor or DC for work, shopping, and more.

Planners found that residents are frustrated with the status quo. "There is great interest in seeing 'things happen'," they write in a draft of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, a proposal to transform White Oak's strip malls and office parks into a "vibrant, mixed-use, transit-served" research and technology center.

Plan calls for three urban nodes, new parkland

Planners envision creating three new "activity centers" clustered around the Food and Drug Administration, whose 9,000 employees began moving here in 2009, and Washington Adventist Hospital, which wants to move here from Takoma Park.

Concept drawing of the White Oak Science Gateway from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The largest would be LifeSci Village, a partnership between local developer Percontee and Montgomery County to build a planned community for bioscience research and technology behind the FDA campus. Today, it's a 300-acre brownfield site containing a shuttered sludge treatment plant and a concrete recycling facility.

"We have to create a compelling reason for people to come here," says Jonathan Genn, executive vice president at Percontee. Bioscience workers "tend not to [have] your normal 9-to-5 week," he adds. "They're working nights and weekends. They want that vitality."

An "academic quad" at LifeSci Village. Image from Percontee.

Designed by New Urbanist architecture firm Torti Gallas and Partners, the $3.2 billion project would contain a research campus with several "world-renowned" academic institutions, along with offices and labs, a hotel and conference center. There would be a commercial district with shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, and up to 5,300 new homes, including apartments, townhomes and some single-family homes.

Another "activity center" would be at 40-acre White Oak Shopping Center at New Hampshire and Route 29 would give way to apartments, offices and shops in buildings up to 200 feet tall surrounding an "urban plaza" and a "neighborhood green" for community gatherings. The plan encourages redeveloping the 1960's-era garden apartments behind the shopping center, but only if the new buildings set aside at least 15% of their units for affordable housing.

The third would be in Hillandale, where both Georgetown University and Montgomery College have expressed interest in buying the former National Labor College campus at New Hampshire Avenue and the Beltway.

Meanwhile, residents would get a larger open space network, including neighborhood parks, a recreational park and a proposed, 130-acre expansion of Paint Branch Park into the FDA property, the vast majority of which is unused.

Planners seek new approach to congestion

The Science Gateway plan is a 180-degree turn from previous plans for White Oak and East County, which sought to keep the status quo. Planners say that old solutions won't fix White Oak's real issues, and that improving transit and bringing amenities closer to where people live is the best way to handle traffic.

The commercial district at LifeSci Village. Image from Percontee.

"Creating a really vibrant, mixed-use community ... is a mitigating factor," says Genn. "People can walk to work, bike to work, people can do other activities after work. All of those things mitigate traffic impact at rush hour."

In total, the Science Gateway plan allows up to 8,500 new homes and 13 million square feet of new commercial space containing up to 43,000 new jobs. That's more than double the amount of homes and commercial space here today, and nearly triple the amount of jobs.

Planners hope that new transit and improved local street connections will help reduce the Science Gateway's traffic impacts. Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit network would connect the three centers to each other and to the rest of the region with lines along Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue, and Randolph Road.

BRT lines currently under study (in blue) and an extension to LifeSci Village (in green). Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The plan also calls for connecting dead-end streets where possible and building a new street grid at the White Oak Shopping Center and LifeSci Village. Planners recommend rebuilding a bridge that carries Old Columbia Pike over the Paint Branch, which was closed to cars 30 years ago, and creating a network of "green streets" with bike lanes.

By giving residents, workers and visitors alternatives to driving, the plan's goal is that 30% of all trips will be made without a car by 2040. That may seem unrealistic, but 25% of White Oak residents already commute to work by foot, bike or transit today. The Metrobus K and Z lines, which serve White Oak, are some of the most-used routes in suburban Maryland.

Strict staging requirements would ensure that new development wasn't occurring without the public infrastructure needed to support it. Under the plan, most of the development wouldn't occur until after the Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 29 and New Hampshire were funded and built. The Planning Department would have to submit reports every 2 years showing that infrastructure has caught up to development.

Science Gateway could improve jobs-housing imbalance

While the Science Gateway could help fix the region's jobs-housing imbalance by putting more jobs on the east side, closer to where the most affordable housing is, reducing the need to commute to the I-270 corridor or Northern Virginia for work.

There are no fewer than 5 plans each calling for a similar amount of development as in the White Oak plan along I-270, like the the Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, which both residents and smart growth advocates criticized for putting too much development in an isolated area.

Many of them suggested that White Oak was a better location for it, and East County residents agree. In 2009, the East County Citizens Advisory Board demanded more jobs and investment in the area, while visitors to a 2010 open house advocated for more density and transit.

Improving pedestrian, bike and transit connections could help traffic in White Oak. Photo by the author.

Nonetheless, most of the Science Gateway isn't allowed under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which discourages new development in congested areas based on the assumption that everyone will drive everywhere no matter what.

But "even if Montgomery County limited development," planners note, "regional and local traffic will continue to congest the highway network." To make White Oak eligible for new development, planners simply recommend not including regional highways like Route 29 and the Beltway in traffic counts, which would lower the area's traffic counts, making it eligible for new housing and job growth.

Not everyone's convinced, however. "This just means we're going to suffer from more traffic," said Alison Praisner Klumpp, Calverton resident and current member of the East County Citizens Advisory Board, said at a presentation on the plan earlier this month. Carole Ann Barth, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation and a resident of Four Corners, called the plan "shallow, simplistic and ultimately impractical" while claiming it would force people to live in apartments against their will.

Plan needs transit, some industry to succeed

As someone who currently lives and bikes in White Oak, I'm excited by the Science Gateway plan. Having more jobs, shopping and housing choices in East County will encourage hopefully make this area a destination of choice once again.

However, this plan can't happen without good transit, especially a direct connection to LifeSci Village. While the staging requirements require BRT to be funded and built before major development occurs, the county's current plans call for buses without dedicated lanes on much of New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29. Without fast, reliable transit, people will continue to drive, placing an undue burden on area roads.

Should we keep some light industrial activity in White Oak? Photo by the author.

In addition, planners may want to reconsider preserving some of the light industrial uses in the plan area, like at the Montgomery Industrial Park on Industrial Parkway. Just 1% of Montgomery County is zoned for industrial activity, and there aren't many other places where it can go. There may not be enough of a market to rezone all of it for mixed-use development, as the plan recommends.

Studies show that a majority of Americans across racial and generational lines want to be close to transit, jobs, shopping, dining and entertainment, and communities across Montgomery County and the region are responding. If White Oak wants to reclaim its former prosperity, it can and should follow suit.

The Montgomery County Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan this Thursday at 6:30pm at the Planning Department, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To sign up to testify or send written comments, visit their website.


White Flint's journey points way for other struggling malls

White Flint Mall opened in 1977 as the emblem of Montgomery County's rising suburban affluence, but over time the luxury mall began to show its age. Now located at the center of the urbanizing White Flint Sector Plan area, the mall's transformation into an urban neighborhood is a sign of where the county's going.

White Flint Mall today. All images by the author except where noted.

"It's going to be an incredible project, certainly adding to the energy and synergy of White Flint," says Francine Waters, managing director of owner Lerner Enterprises, which built the mall and others like it throughout the region over the past several decades.

In October, the Planning Board approved a sketch plan to replace the 874,000-square-foot mall and an adjacent office building with 5.2 million square feet of shops, homes, offices and a hotel. The project could take 25 years to build over 3 phases; when finished, it would be the largest development in the White Flint area.

In a 2011 Washington Post article, Michael Cohen of Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects described the project as "making a town, a community."

Enclosed malls like White Flint were popular throughout North America during the late 20th century, but have become less popular as changing demographics and shopping habits have lured consumers to big-box stores and the Internet.

Borders, one of the mall's anchors, filed for bankruptcy and closed in 2011, followed by Bloomingdale's, which closed last year and moved to the mixed-use Wisconsin Place complex in Friendship Heights. Though Lerner won't divulge how many vacancies there are, portions of the mall are now empty.

What can you do to refresh a mall? Some, like Landover Mall in Prince George's County, were simply demolished while awaiting another use, while others like Harundale Mall in Anne Arundel County were turned into a strip center. A few, however, are being turned into something that resembles a neighborhood, with a mix of residential and commercial uses and public open space.

One of the best examples of this kind of redevelopment is Belmar, a former mall outside of Denver that is being redeveloped as a suburban downtown. Closer to home, plans are underway to do the same with Landmark Mall in Alexandria and Owings Mills Mall in Baltimore County.

Photo by Chris Yarzab on Flickr.

To orchestrate this transformation, Lerner hired Elkus Manfredi, which also designed CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Florida, a renowned example of New Urbanist planning principles, and Americana at Brand, a mixed-use project in Glendale, California. Both projects helped revive formerly struggling business districts and became regional destinations.

"We're looking for that exciting compelling story that [the Friends of White Flint and the White Flint Partnership] all have been looking for," says Waters. "Elkus Manfredi is a world-class architect and Americana at Brand certainly reflects a very successful project."

Site plan of the proposed redevelopment of White Flint Mall.

In the proposed design, both department store spaces—Lord and Taylor and the former Bloomingdale's—would remain, effectively preserving the "memory" of the mall's original footprint. Meanwhile, the center of the mall would be demolished and replaced by a 1.7-acre "central piazza" surrounded by smaller shops with housing above.

The tallest buildings, reaching as high as 200 to 250 feet, would line Rockville Pike and a future extension of Executive Boulevard that would form the site's northern boundary. From there, the height steps down to 100-foot-tall buildings around the piazza and 50-foot buildings on the site's eastern and southern boundaries, where it's closest to single-family homes.

Overall, there would be 1 million square feet of retail space, which would be joined by another million square feet of office space, a 280,000-square-foot hotel, and over 2400 apartments in 14 buildings. Underground parking garages containing 9,300 spaces would serve the entire development. According to the planning department's report, each building will be designed and oriented to take advantage of passive solar heating and lighting, reducing energy costs.

A new grid of private streets would divide the site into blocks and connect it to Rockville Pike and future extensions of Executive Boulevard and Nebel Street. The streets will be designed to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and cars and have extensive landscaping and street furniture.

Meanwhile, 40% of the site would be set aside as public or private open space, including the piazza, a 2.3-acre addition to the existing White Flint Park, and four smaller plazas scattered throughout the development.

Lerner will also set aside 4 acres on the property's southern end for an elementary school if Montgomery County Public Schools chooses to purchase it. County planners estimate that the 14,000 housing units that could eventually be built in White Flint will create demand for new schools in the area.

However, there was a brief conflict last fall when the Planning Board asked the developer to simply give the land away, but they later backed down. At the time, Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier argued that the school was necessary to placate concerns about overcrowded classrooms.

Handing over the property "was not in the sector plan," says Waters.

Bird's-eye view of the proposed White Flint Mall redevelopment.

While the redevelopment of White Flint Mall has a lot of potential, some urban design issues stem from its history as a mall. While streets break the site up into city blocks, they are much larger than blocks in other projects in the White Flint Sector Plan area. For instance, the block containing the former Bloomingdale's appears to be over 800 feet long, while the 2 blocks closest to Rockville Pike are subdivided by what appear to be cul-de-sacs that don't connect to the Pike itself.

Not only does this reduce pedestrian connectivity, but it forces drivers onto a series of 4- and 6-lane streets roughly located where the mall's ring road is today.

These larger blocks and road sections may arise in part from county Department of Transportation regulations that discourage blocks shorter than 600 feet. While a series of pedestrian passages cutting through the site help improve connectivity, it may be worth reconsidering how the street grid is set up, and whether traffic can be managed with a more fine-grained grid of smaller streets and shorter blocks.

Though the mall is set to close next year, it's unclear when construction will begin. The Planning Board will need to approve a preliminary plan and a site plan, both of which are more detailed than a sketch plan, before anything can happen. Nonetheless, Waters looks forward to what the property will become.

"It's going to be an incredible project certainly adding to the energy and synergy of White Flint," says Waters. "I am absolutely, positively thrilled with what we're proposing and how it works with the other projects within White Flint."

This content was originally developed for the Friends of White Flint blog. For more images of White Flint Mall and its proposed redevelopment, check out this slideshow.


Plan revitalizes Burtonsville with housing, street grid, parks

Burtonsville's had a hard time over the past few years. A highway bypass hurt local businesses, the beloved Dutch Country Farmers Market skipped town, and nearly a third of the village center is vacant. But that could soon change if a redevelopment plan is adopted.

One-third of Burtonsville's retail is vacant. Photo by the author.

Montgomery County planners say they know how to stop the bleeding. Their Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan, which will be discussed at a public hearing on Thursday, would revitalize Burtonsville's village center with new investment, new street connections, and new open spaces.

While the plan has many great suggestions, questions remain about how it introduces housing into the commercial district.

This isn't the first time planners have looked at Burtonsville. In 2007, the county studied local retail (PDF), concluding that Burtonsville couldn't compete with larger shopping areas and needed to differentiate itself. A charrette in 2008 resulted in recommendations for mostly aesthetic improvements, like new landscaping on Route 198 and facade improvements for local businesses. Many businesses along Route 198 received new storefronts from that proposal, which was carried out with grants from the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Route 198 Shopping Center Sign
Stores along Route 198 received new fašades with county funding.

Nonetheless, challenges remain, such as a lack of sidewalks, visual clutter, and a lack of community organizations. The Burtonsville Bypass, completed in 2006, deprived many businesses of customers. As a result, 30% of the area's retail space is now empty. Many shops have moved to Maple Lawn, a planned community a few miles north in Howard County, or just across the street to the newly built Burtonsville Town Square shopping center.

The area does have some strengths, however. A strip of well-reviewed sit-down and ethnic restaurants has emerged along Route 198, earning it the name "Restaurant Row." Five bus routes now serve the Burtonsville park and ride lot, including the Z Metrobus, one of the most popular lines in the region.

Though many residents were once skeptical of any new development, they're now anxious for the same jobs and shopping amenities other parts of the county enjoy. When Colesville Patch polled residents about what stores they'd like to see in Burtonsville, many asked for "nice restaurants" and "entertainment venues" while lamenting that they now have to drive to Silver Spring, Rockville or Columbia for them.

In response, county planners seek to make Burtonsville a destination, using its rural heritage to distinguish it from surrounding areas while allowing property owners to give residents the amenities they want.

Left: Vision for the Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan. Right: A more detailed site plan. Images from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Though the Burtonsville Bypass and recently-opened Intercounty Connector take potential shoppers out of Burtonsville, they also reduce the burden of car traffic on Burtonsville's two main streets, Route 29 and Route 198. Thus, the plan proposes converting Route 198 from a run-down highway into a "main street" serving primarily local traffic. The street would have new sidewalks and bike lanes, along with trees and a landscaped median. Left-turn lanes and curb cuts would be consolidated to calm traffic. And a new grid of smaller streets would tie the village center together, making it easier to walk or bike throughout the district.

The plan also bolsters the existing "Restaurant Row," proposing additional funds for fašade improvements and the creation of a chamber of commerce for area businesses. It also replaces the current zoning, which basically only allows strip malls, with a new CR or Commercial-Residential Zone that allows property owners to add housing or other uses alongside existing shops.

Burtonsville Day 2009
A new public green would hold events like the yearly Burtonsville Day festival.

Property owners can also build up under the new plan. Building height limits would be raised to 75 feet at the Burtonsville Crossing shopping center and adjacent Burtonsville Office Park, which already has buildings about 50 feet tall. Planners hope this will encourage the redevelopment of the shopping center, which is more than half empty. Elsewhere in the village center, height limits would range from 45 to 65 feet.

There are also provisions for additional open space. A 3-acre lot in front of Burtonsville Elementary School would become a "Public Green," which was first proposed 15 years ago in another plan. The green could accommodate large gatherings, like the yearly Burtonsville Day festival and parade. Planners recommend that an adjacent 15-acre plot called the Athey Property become a public park with playing fields, which may be needed in the future (PDF).

North of the village center, the plan keeps the existing Rural Cluster zoning to preserve woods, farmland, and the Patuxent River, which provides drinking water to the area. It also proposes restoring the Burtonsville Forest Fire Lookout Tower, which was built in 1945 and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

In total, the plan could allow for as many as 600 new multi-family homes and between 150,000 and 670,000 square feet of new office and retail space, which could accommodate as many as 2,100 new jobs. If built out, the plan would effectively double the amount of commercial space and employment in the village center today.

Nonetheless, there are some issues with the type of development the plan proposes. Although it calls for multi-family housing, there may not be any demand for apartments or condominiums in an area so far from established job centers, and neighborhood opposition to that type of development remains high. But with just 8 single-family homes, the village center could use additional residents to support existing businesses and provide a market for new ones to fill vacant spaces.

Wyndcrest Park Looking North
Small-lot single-family homes and townhomes like those at Wyndcrest in Ashton may be the most realistic solution for the village center.

As a result, senior housing may be more feasible than conventional apartments. Senior housing has been proposed before for the village center, and could allow older residents to age in place near friends and family. Planners should also look at townhouses or small-lot single-family homes like those at Wyndcrest, a New Urbanist neighborhood in Ashton designed as an extension of a semi-rural village. Not only are homebuyers interested in that kind of housing, but they could provide a better transition to surrounding areas than apartments.

Turning the Athey Property into a small neighborhood like Wyndcrest is a better use for that land than a park, especially since it was already approved for houses in 2007. The "Public Green" in front of Burtonsville Elementary provides more than enough open space for events like Burtonsville Day. If there's a need for playing fields, they can go on some of the 170 acres purchased by the county and the state throughout Burtonsville for new parks.

The Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan takes stock of Burtonsville's potential and creates a compelling vision for its future. With some small changes, it can get the village center on the right track.

The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the plan at 7:30 pm on Thursday at the Planning Department headquarters, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To testify or for more information, visit their website.

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