Posts about Suburban Sensibility
There are many questions surrounding Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit proposal, but there's just one the Planning Board will consider next Thursday: whether we should set aside room on our main streets for public transit. The answer is decidedly yes.
It's been 5 years since Councilmember Marc Elrich first proposed a countywide network of rapid bus routes. His idea has been reviewed, vetted and refined by transportation engineers, a task force of community and business leaders, the world's leading experts on BRT, and now county planners.
Today, the Planning Board is reviewing a draft of what's called the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which envisions a 79-mile network containing 10 BRT routes across the county. While it's much smaller than what previous studies have proposed, it offers a realistic answer for our county's current and future traffic congestion.
I worked with Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth to create a video about why we need BRT in Montgomery County:
In some parts of the county, especially in the congested Downcounty, we don't have the room to move everyone in cars now, let alone in the future. Keep things the way they are and they'll get worse. Provide a dedicated lane for transit, as this plan proposes in many areas, and people will gain a fast, reliable alternative to sitting in traffic.
Don't get me wrong: I love driving, and I love my car. But I'd rather spend my time in the car having fun, not sitting in traffic because there's no better way to get around. Some will insist that transit doesn't work for them, and that's okay. However, there are places and times when transit is the best tool we have to get people moving, and we have to take advantage of it.
Expanding our transit network is really the only way that Montgomery County can continue to grow, and the county will grow, whether people want it to or not. This plan will provide improved transit service in areas where people already use it, like along Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville, where thousands of apartments were built in the 1970's and 1980's in anticipation of light-rail line that never materialized. And it will support future development in places like White Flint, where BRT along Rockville Pike will form the spine of a new urban center.
Of course, many questions remain about this proposal. Elected officials have asked how we'll pay for it. Residents are worried about impacts to their individual neighborhoods. And there's a larger, philosophical debate about Montgomery County's transition from being the "perfect suburbia" of 50 years ago to a slightly more urban place.
We're not going to answer these questions today, not do we have to. There are still a lot of details to consider, and there are smaller, incremental improvements we can make to our transit network sooner rather than later. What this plan can do, however, is begin a conversation about getting transit on equal footing with cars.
Growing up in Montgomery County, I was taught to value diversity. We may have different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different lifestyles, but we still come together to form one community. Building a transportation network that acknowledges that not everyone drives is a statement that we value all residents of Montgomery County, not just those who drive.
The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan this Thursday at 6pm at the Montgomery County Planning Department, 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To sign up to testify or send written comments, visit their website.
If you're interested in learning more about Montgomery County's BRT plan, the Action Committee for Transit is hosting a talk with Larry Cole, the county's head planner for BRT, at their monthly meeting this Tuesday at 7:30pm at the Silver Spring Civic Center, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street.
After 40 years of planning, an extension of Montrose Parkway through White Flint could soon become a reality. County and state transportation officials say the highway is needed to move cars, but residents and county planners say it contradicts their goal of making White Flint an urban center.
Yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board recommended that the State Highway Administration and Montgomery County Department of Transportation change their plan to build a $119 million, 1.62-mile extension of Montrose Parkway from Rockville Pike to Veirs Mill Road. They questioned how it fits into the White Flint Sector Plan, which calls for the creation of a place "where people walk to work, shops and transit."
"It's hard to see this as consistent with a pedestrian-friendly environment," said Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier, who lives near White Flint. "It detracts from our efforts to create a grid of streets ... it makes our transportation goals harder."
Work on Montrose Parkway began in the 1970's, when it was planned as part of the Outer Beltway, which was eventually built as the Intercounty Connector. Later, a portion of the highway's route between Veirs Mill Road and New Hampshire Avenue was turned into Matthew Henson State Park.
Planning for the current version of Montrose Parkway began in 1998 and resulted in the construction of the segment west of Rockville Pike, which opened in 2010. The Planning Board's recommendations, which aren't binding, will next go to the County Council for a vote. SHA officials say that construction won't begin for at least 5 years.
The proposed four-lane highway would have a stoplight at Chapman Avenue and overpasses at Nebel Street and the CSX railroad tracks. At Parklawn Drive, there would be a single-point urban interchange or SPUI (pronounced "spooey"), where drivers on Parklawn would stop at a light before turning onto the highway. A SPUI already exists at the junction of Falls Road and I-270.
SHA and MCDOT representatives insist that Montrose Parkway is needed to handle anticipated traffic from the redevelopment of White Flint. "If you build more density, you're going to have more traffic congestion," said Edgar Gonzalez, MCDOT's deputy director for transportation policy.
However, recent studies and local examples suggest that compact, mixed-use development like what's proposed here will actually reduce traffic, raising the question where MCDOT and SHA's concerns are actually valid.
Parkway would reduce east-west connections
Since the latest plans for Montrose Parkway were first presented two weeks ago, residents have expressed concerns about the state's plans to close Randolph Road, a major east-west thoroughfare running parallel to the parkway, where it crosses the railroad tracks.
"One of the biggest problems in White Flint planning is the lack of east-west crossings," wrote Barnaby Zall last week. "We've been trying for years to figure out a way to bridge that gap."
SHA officials say it'll improve safety. The Federal Railroad Administration calls it the 4th most dangerous crossing in Maryland: there have been 21 collisions there in the past 35 years, including one death. Since 2007, there has been just one collision. Separating the road from the railroad tracks also means trains won't have to blow their horns when they pass through, something many neighbors have complained about.
Randolph Road would end in a cul-de-sac just east of the tracks, and anyone who wanted to go further west would have to get on Montrose Parkway. Chair Carrier worried that this would hurt access to shops along Randolph Road. "It would be hard to imagine that the businesses there would remain viable," she said.
Gonzalez said it could be a safety hazard. "You have to weigh the benefits [of access to Randolph Road] with the possibility of a future event occurring," he said. "Nobody wants to be in a train collision."
Nonetheless, board members voted to keep Randolph Road open at the railroad crossing, which planning department staff recommended because it gives travelers more options, reducing the traffic burden on any one road.
Debate over whether interchanges are "barriers"
Much of the debate about Montrose Parkway revolved around the proposed interchange with Parklawn Drive. Board members worried it would become a barrier between White Flint and Twinbrook, making it difficult for people to walk or bike from one side to the other.
"We should rethink what we're doing in the context of the future land use of White Flint," said Planning Board member Casey Anderson. "We're not trying to build these huge slabs of asphalt that divide communities into pieces."
In the past, county planners have recommended putting a stoplight there instead. Former planning director Rollin Stanley argued that interchanges in White Flint "[reinforce] the view that Rockville Pike is a runway to get through White Flint versus moving through the area as a destination itself." Last fall, acting planning director Rose Krasnow wrote a letter asking MCDOT and SHA to consider it, but was rebuffed by MCDOT director Arthur Holmes, who said the interchange would "improve safety and reduce barriers by separating conflicting flows" of cars, pedestrians and bicyclists.
Likewise, Gonzalez said that an at-grade intersection, which would require that Montrose Parkway be 9 or 10 lanes wide to handle projected traffic, which would be just as bad for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Planner Larry Cole argued that it's because the county and state's plans are "overdesigned" and overestimate the amount of future car traffic in White Flint. "The reason [Montrose Parkway] is this big is that the space is available," he said.
Nonetheless, the board eventually voted in favor of keeping the interchange after officials from MCDOT and SHA promised to look at ways to make crossing the interchange safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, such as restricting right turns on red. The parkway will already have a 10-foot path for bicyclists and pedestrians on the north side and a 5-foot sidewalk on the south side.
Over time, the vision for White Flint has changed a lot. Forty years ago, the Outer Beltway was supposed to pass through it. Twenty years ago, the Planning Board sought to build multiple interchanges along Rockville Pike. Even the White Flint and Twinbrook sector plans, which are less than 5 years old, included the Montrose Parkway.
However, these neighborhoods are envisioned as urban places where people will be able to drive less, and to succeed it needs a street network where people feel comfortable and safe not driving, and Montrose Parkway as proposed could undermine that. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation and State Highway Administration work for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, not just drivers, and their plans for places like White Flint must reflect that.
Crossposted on the Friends of White Flint blog.
Montgomery County community leaders want to draw more Millennials, members of the generation born between 1982 and 2000, hoping that they'll stick around when they're older. As they explore ways to attract twenty- and thirtysomethings, from new transit projects to more nightlife, it's worth looking at where they live in Montgomery County today.
Where Millennials live in Montgomery County.
Click on the image for a larger version, or see it without the rankings.
According to the 2010 Census, Montgomery County has about 186,000 residents between the ages of 20 and 34, making up about 19% of the county's population. In a recent Washington Post article about the county's Night Time Economy Initiative, reporter Bill Turque notes that young adults make up a lower share of Montgomery County's population than other places in Greater Washington.
As a predominantly suburban, affluent county, Montgomery doesn't seem like the kind of place where young adults would want to live. However, if you look at individual neighborhoods, you'll find substantial concentrations of Millennials, suggesting a way forward for Montgomery County as it seeks to draw more of them.
Millennials flock to areas near transit, jobs, affordable housing
The map at the top shows Census tracts where the percentage of 20-to-34 year old residents is higher than the county's 19% average in the 2010 Census. The county's largest concentrations of Millennials are along the Red Line in places like White Flint, downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, where young adults are a slim majority. Notably, these are also the places where walking, biking and taking transit to work are most common.
Young adults also seem to gravitate towards shopping and entertainment districts like the Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg. Even though it's not near a Metro station or major bus route, Washingtonian Center is a pretty walkable area where one can shop or grab dinner without a car.
We can also conclude that many Millennials are trying to live as close as possible to their jobs. Here's a map of where people under 29 work in Montgomery County:
Compare it to the first map and you can see that clusters of young people coincide with the county's biggest job centers, White Flint, Bethesda and Silver Spring. Yet there are also large concentrations of Millennials in places with fewer jobs, like Briggs Chaney in East County and Germantown in the Upcounty.
Not surprisingly, these communities are also more affordable. According to the 2006-2011 American Community Survey, the median monthly rent is $1,565 in Census tract 7048.06 in Bethesda's Woodmont Triangle, compared to $1,344 in Census tract 7008.18 in the Middlebrook section of Germantown.
Both of these neighborhoods have some of the county's largest concentrations of Millennials, suggesting that there may be more to it than affordability. If we take a closer look at different segments of the county's young adults, we can get a better understanding of why they live where they do.
Educated and single Millennials move closer in
Here's a map of 18-to-34-year olds with at least an associate's degree:
Where college-educated Millennials live in Montgomery County.
Click on the image for a larger version, or see it without the rankings.
The general distribution of young people is the same, but there's a slight shift towards the Downcounty. College-educated people tend to have higher incomes, which might explain why there are more of them in expensive areas like Bethesda and Friendship Heights.
Where young singles live in Montgomery County.
Click on the image for a larger version, or see it without the rankings.
However, the county's single Millennials have decidedly chosen to live closer in, settling in and around downtown Silver Spring, downtown Bethesda, Friendship Heights and White Flint. These neighborhoods have almost everything that a young single person would want: they're close to Metro, major employers and the District, they contain a fair number of bars and restaurants, and they have a variety of housing options. Silver Spring in particular has a number of group houses.
Millennials with families move farther out
Where young families live in Montgomery County.
Click on the image for a larger version, or see it without the rankings.
While singles are flocking to closer-in neighborhoods, Montgomery's young families, defined here as households led by individuals under 34 and related by marriage, blood or adoption, are moving farther out. All ten of the county's largest concentrations of young families are well outside the Beltway, particularly in Gaithersburg and Germantown. Just one is near a Metro station, Twinbrook.
This fits the long-held stereotype that once you get married and have kids, you move to the suburbs in search of larger, more affordable housing. Not only is it cheaper to rent in the Upcounty, it's cheaper to buy: the median home value in Middlebrook is just $294,000, compared to $516,800 in the Woodmont Triangle.
Yet families who choose to move farther out will pay considerably more for transportation than they would elsewhere. That might explain why young families appear to have settled in neighborhoods like Fallsgrove in Rockville, which were designed to encourage walking and biking, near shopping areas like Washingtonian Center or employment areas like the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center.
Meanwhile, young families still make up one-tenth of all households in downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, suggesting that some are interested in an urban lifestyle. This isn't a new trend: I grew up in an high-rise apartment building in downtown Silver Spring in the 1990s, and there were plenty of kids around. Of course, my mother chose to live there because it was "affordable and quiet," which I'm not sure characterizes the area today.
What does this mean?
These maps have implications not just for Montgomery County, but the whole region. They show that the District and Arlington aren't the only places that can attract Millennials, so long as they can be near neighborhoods near transit, shopping and jobs. While many young families are choosing to live farther out, they're still seeking a semi-urban experience.
They also show that one of Montgomery's greatest strengths remains its diversity of neighborhoods, allowing it to attract both singles and families. However, two distinct challenges lie ahead. One is to preserve a supply of affordably-priced housing in the county's urban areas, both established places like Bethesda or emerging ones like White Flint. The other is to create more walkable neighborhoods and improve access to jobs, shopping and transit in the Upcounty and East County, where young families continue to settle.
Of course, Millennials aren't the only ones who want an urban or semi-urban lifestyle. But if Montgomery County wants to attract a new generation of residents, it needs to start listening to young adults. Without us, the county doesn't have much of a future.
Cross-posted at Friends of White Flint.
Baltimore County wants to make Towson an "even better" destination than Bethesda or Silver Spring, but allowing single-story, suburban-style development in one of Maryland's largest and busiest downtowns won't make it happen.
Few places in Maryland, outside downtown Baltimore, have as many destinations within walking distance as downtown Townson. Towson is home to two colleges, one of which is Maryland's second-largest public university, one of the state's biggest and nicest malls, the Baltimore County seat, and a small but thriving Main Street anchored by the Recher Theatre, a music venue where nationally touring acts play.
With that amount of activity comes a lot of potential, which is why I was disappointed by recent comments from Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz about a proposed retail complex for downtown Towson:
Officials announced on Tuesday a trio of new restaurants and a VIP section for the 15-screen movie theater planned for the Towson Square project, an $85 million development seen as a key element in attracting more shoppers and visitors to the county seat.Towson is already a regional destination for all of the reasons above, but it's no Bethesda or Silver Spring, and projects like Towson Square won't make turn it into one. Even with some high-end chain restaurants, it's basically a single-story strip mall pushed up to the street. That wouldn't be a problem if it weren't literally in the center of town.
"We are going to make Towson a regional destination, even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a news conference Tuesday announcing the restaurants.
What makes Bethesda and Silver Spring not just regional draws, but fun and vibrant places to be is their density and mix of uses. Downtown Towson has plenty of jobs: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' County Business Patterns, it has 43,000 workers, fewer than downtown Bethesda (50,000) but more than downtown Silver Spring (32,000).
However, it doesn't have as many people. According to the 2010 Census (accessed via the New York Times' Mapping America), the densest parts of downtown Towson have about 8,900 people per square mile, compared to 17,000 people per square mile in downtown Bethesda and 30,000 in downtown Silver Spring, where over 1800 housing units have have opened or broken ground in the past year. The only housing being built in downtown Towson right now is a small townhouse development.
Sure, people come from across Greater Baltimore to work in Towson, and you have 20,000 college students in the area, but they don't make a neighborhood as active as people who live there after the offices close at 5 pm and when school's out for summer and winter break. Towson Square would do far more to contribute to the area's vitality if there were apartments or condominiums on top of it.
Of course, if Towson were to have more housing, it would probably need more transit as well. If Kevin Kamenetz is really serious about creating a rival to Bethesda and Silver Spring, he might want to focus on extending the Baltimore Yellow Line light rail to Towson.
A suburban-style building is about to go up in the shadow of smart-growth development at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.
While construction has begun on Rhode Island Station, an mixed-use infill development that is replacing the former parking lot at the Metro station, a smaller, adjacent development has not received much attention.
In the parking lot of Rhode Island Place, a large strip mall that was plopped down on top of what used to be a city impoundment lot (and a cemetery before that), TD Bank is about to begin construction on a new branch. This was first reported by a commenter on the Rhode Island Ave NE Insider blog in March, but was not widely circulated.
On the one hand, this land is a completely unused piece of asphalt. Look at the map here A sidewalk to the Metro station runs alongside this site. When the bank is completed, there will be more complex traffic movements at the point where the sidewalk meets the parking lot. It will be worth paying attention to pedestrian safety at this location when the construction is finished.
It's somewhat ironic that, while we are encouraging transit-oriented development on the old WMATA parking lot next door, we're moving further away from that goal at Rhode Island Place.
A sidewalk to the Metro station runs alongside this site. When the bank is completed, there will be more complex traffic movements at the point where the sidewalk meets the parking lot. It will be worth paying attention to pedestrian safety at this location when the construction is finished.
It's somewhat ironic that, while we are encouraging transit-oriented development on the old WMATA parking lot next door, we're moving further away from that goal at Rhode Island Place.
The University of Maryland plans to close the central Campus Drive to nearly all traffic this summer, including Metrobus and almost all student shuttle bus routes. This will diminish student access to transit and seems designed to strengthen the UMD administration's efforts against a Purple Line through the center of campus.
The closure follows the 2001-2020 Facilities Master Plan, last updated in 2007, which calls for creating a more pedestrian-focused central campus core. That plan only allows a single internal circulating shuttle on Campus Drive.
All other shuttles and transit vehicles would be relegated to the edges of campus along with private cars, and forcing many students to transfer to reach the Metro or other destinations outside campus.
According to the MTA, 750 transit vehicles use Campus Drive between 6 am and 7 pm on a typical school day, compared to 5,500 private cars, mostly containing only a single passenger. The University could still make Campus Drive a mostly pedestrian-centered area without banning transit vehicles. Meanwhile, Shuttle UM ridership has soared as the University builds more off-campus student housing connected to the campus by shuttles.
One transit route that is planned to run on Campus Drive is the Purple Line, connecting UMD to the Metro, New Carrollton, Silver Spring and Bethesda, and finally connecting the campus to surrounding areas in ways that were missed when UMD and College Park pushed for a Metro alignment along the railroad tracks instead of along US-1.
Student Government Association (SGA) Director of Environmental Affairs Joanna Calabrese wrote,
I strongly believe that students will react negatively to this current plan. The Stamp [Student Union] is a central transit hub and a primary destination of students and visitors. Denying transit access to the such a central place would make it difficult for visitors, staff, students, and faculty to reach a prime campus destination and would unnecessarily complicate area transit routes.The administration has been fighting this for years, citing concerns that the trains would harm sensitive experiments in the basements of the bio-sciences, physics, and engineering buildings that are on Campus Drive. This does not hold up to even the most basic logic test. Cars and buses have been running on Campus Drive for decades. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland has become a world-class research institution during that time.
Including transit vehicles in the Campus Drive access restriction plan runs counter to goals established in the Master Plan (and Climate Action Plan) to encourage alternative transportation use. Students are supportive of restricting private vehicle access from Campus Drive. However, the idea of eliminating transit vehicle access to campus drive poses unnecessary inconvenience, decreases transit access, and would appear to many students as nonsensical.
As a UMD alum (B.S. Physics, 2003) I implore the University of Maryland to listen to the Student Government Association and to also come clean about why they oppose the Campus Drive alignment. The administration is not doing the University any favors in the present or the future by their actions.
8. WHEREAS, the University of Maryland does not currently support the campus drive alignment because of concerns of electromagnetic interference which could potentially affect delicate research equipment in buildings close to Campus Drive; and,When I was a freshman, I lived in the dorms on North Campus. The College Park Metro Station is a 25-30 minute walk from my old dorm. I learned that if I could get to the Metro, I would be able to explore the region. (I didn't grow up in the area and didn't even know what a subway system was when I first moved in.)
9. WHEREAS, concerns of electromagnetic disturbance to delicate research equipment has been debunked by researchers and experts; and,
10. WHEREAS, the University of Maryland has proposed an alternative route alignment which adds an eighty million dollar tunnel to run underneath of Preinkert Field House; and,
11. WHEREAS, the Maryland Transportation Authority has stated the University proposed alternative alignment as unserviceable; ...
13. WHEREAS, the success of the Purple Line rests on federal funding; and,
14. WHEREAS, the allocation of federal funding is threatened by the University of Maryland's stance against the Campus Drive alignment for the Purple Line;
I found out that one of the buses that stops in front of the Stamp Student Union on Campus Drive is a shuttle that goes to the Metro. I walked over to the Student Union, caught the bus to the Metro, and later that day walked around a major city unsupervised for the first time in my life.
I was hardly the only one to use those buses. The bus stops in front of the Student Union are the main transit hub on campus. Multiple bus services including ShuttleUM, WMATA, and TheBus stop there. It's how transit-oriented students and staff arrive on campus.
However, the UMD administration now intends to close Campus Drive to all motorized vehicles, including personal cars, buses, and a future Purple Line. Such an action will immediately create a tremendous inconvenience to the large portion of students, faculty and staff who ride buses to campus. It would require rerouting buses to streets that are not well-equipped to handle them. It would require transit-oriented students, faculty, and staff to walk much farther to reach classroom buildings, most of which are clustered near the Stamp Student Union.
The administration doesn't like anything that looks or feels urban. They view the campus as suburban or even rural. They largely live a car-dependent lifestyle and have never lived a student life on the campus. They don't understand what it's like to have so many amenities just out of reach due to poor connectivity with the regional transit network.
They don't get what it's like to take the Metro to a campus whose Metro station is a 25 minute walk from most classrooms. They don't get how much more accessible the University of Maryland is because its main bus stops are located in the heart of campus, convenient to most classrooms. They also don't get that the Purple Line is a fantastic chance to rectify the huge mistake made in the original Green Line routing; they probably don't even think that original routing was a mistake.
The UMD Climate Action Plan identifies the Purple Line as a key strategy for attaining carbon neutrality by 2050. Sadly, when it comes to the Purple Line, sustainability and student satisfaction don't trump suburban sensibility.
Instead of condominiums, Fairfax City is poised to move forward with a suburban townhouse development in Old Town. Residential development on the lot formerly occupied by the city library has long been part of Fairfax's plans for a lively downtown with more feet on the street outside lunch hour. Walnut Street Development had received approval to build 80 condominium units, but then backed out as the condo market soured. In April 2009 the city issued a new Request for Proposals for the site. RFP guidelines included a minimum size of 2,500 square feet per residential unit and minimum parking of 2-2.33 spaces per unit.
Downtown Fairfax doesn't need more of this.
The winning development proposal did a good job of fitting within the framework of the RFP. "Madison Mews" will put 26 homes and 64 parking spaces on the lot, a major downscaling of the original plan. Instead of connecting pedestrians and bicyclists to downtown Fairfax, the development will dead-end and have only one entry and exit point on the opposite end. It's designed to make it easy for residents to drive out of downtown and get on I-66. It doesn't encourage residents to walk or bicycle to Old Town destinations, even though they will be a five-minute walk away.
Several people at the Tuesday meeting expressed dismay with the plan. "If you want to keep downtown sick, this is the way to kill it," one resident remarked. To survive and thrive, local businesses need more residents who are looking for a more urban environment, one local landowner observed. "The density is grossly inadequate to revitalize downtown."
Unfortunately, the proposal fits within current zoning. The next step is a site plan. The city could at least incrementally improve the project by requiring the developer to provide pedestrian and bicycle access on the southern edge of the development facing downtown.
During the 1960s and '70s, eastern Montgomery County experienced a high-rise building boom, with apartment towers sprouting up as far north as Burtonsville. A rough count shows there are over forty apartment buildings with more than eight stories in East County outside of Downtown Silver Spring, many of which are clustered in White Oak, Leisure World and along University Boulevard.
Today, these buildings designed for young professionals and small families fleeing the city are showing their age at a time when everyone's moving back downtown. Not only that, but forty-year-old high-rises aren't very energy-efficient. In Toronto, Canada, which has over a thousand such buildings, Mayor David Miller has launched a project to bring them into the twenty-first century.
Dense but often surrounded by generous lawns, these "towers in the park" can be isolating for their residents. Entire neighborhoods filled with these buildings and lower-density garden-style apartments are too diffuse (and often too poorly connected) to provide easy access to shopping and transit.
The Mayor's Tower Renewal initiative has two goals. First, make the buildings "green" with extra insulation and replacing obsolete materials. And second, to find new uses for the land around the buildings, whether it's as public parkland, vegetable gardens, or for amenities like rec centers, shops and restaurants, or even offices. This is how architect Graeme Stewart, who began developing this concept as a grad student at the University of Toronto, describes it:
Right now neighborhoods offer residential density, but they're employment and service deserts. The idea that to solve it, you would add more density seems sort of strangeThis seems like a proposal ready-made for East County's apartment towers. "Filling in the gaps" between high-rises would provide extra income for landlords and developers; reduce car trips by locating amenities where people already live; offer places for kids to hang out; and provide space for small businesses to locate (not unlike my "shop-house" proposal last year), generating jobs in a community that definitely needs them.
— and I think that's going to be the biggest point of contention to the neighboring areas — but at the same time, during early engagement with the communities, people are saying, "I'd like a grocery store," "I'd like to be able to open up a small business." It almost seems like a no-brainer. The fact that these neighborhoods have been ignored and stayed the same for so long is actually what's weird about them.
The above Census map depicts the average household income in White Oak by color, with darker green representing wealthier areas. It shows that residents of the Enclave and White Oak Towers, two 1960's-era high-rise buildings, are poorer than their counterparts in surrounding single-family neighborhoods. They are wealthier than people living in White Oak's more affordable garden-style buildings, but this may be because high-rise apartments are more expensive to maintain and thus charge higher rents.
Places like White Oak and Briggs Chaney have been maligned for creating congestion and "demographic shifts" in East County, while their residents are isolated from the larger community and even from people living in the next apartment complex. Tower Renewal, or whatever you'd like to call it, could transform areas like White Oak and Briggs Chaney into vibrant neighborhoods and "town centers."
We're already seeing elements of Tower Renewal in this area. Lofts 590, a new building in Crystal City, returned low-rise scale to a '60s-era complex of apartment towers in a park. And in Briggs Chaney, townhouses were built around the Waterford Tower on Castle Boulevard, giving existing residents an opportunity to "move up" into larger housing without leaving the neighborhood.
Neither of these projects go quite far as what's being proposed in Toronto. They're still isolated from the community and do nothing to address the issues of accessibility and energy use. Still, they show that developers and neighborhoods alike are open to the possibilities of recycling the "tower in the park."
The draft for the new Wheaton Sector Plan currently includes provisions to build a new library in downtown Wheaton. The new library would replace the current Wheaton library which, oddly, is not in downtown Wheaton.
Rather, it is north of downtown Wheaton, on the corner of Arcola Avenue and Georgia Avenue. Though the current library is a fifteen minute walk north of the Wheaton Metro, its pedestrian-hostile configuration and pedestrian-hostile place discourage walking.
Moving the library to a more transit-rich, centrally located site in downtown Wheaton would both improve the accessibility of the library and the social and economic vitality of the existing walkable urban downtown. The other walkable urban downtowns in Montgomery County such as Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville, and Takoma Park have libraries at their walkable centers.
Nevertheless, a number of "don't move the library" signs have started appearing in Wheaton. Why would they want to save it?
The current Wheaton library is very suburban and hostile to pedestrians. It's not in downtown Wheaton. It's past where the walkable urban town ends and becomes car-dependent suburbia. The cars travel faster on Georgia Avenue there than in Wheaton proper. It's really hard to cross Georgia Avenue at Arcola Avenue.
The main entrance opens up to the parking lot, which is behind the building, away from the sidewalk. The secondary entrance does not open up to the narrow sidewalk on Georgia Avenue. Rather, it is behind some bushes and a drop-off and pick-up driveway for cars. It was constructed in 1962, remodeled in 1985, and designed to be by the car, of the car, and for the car, like most buildings built during those time periods.
The "Save Wheaton Library" website says:
The Library as currently situated is easily, safely, and pleasantly accessible by foot and public transportation to thousands of residents in its surrounding neighborhoods.However, before making this assertion, it points out another feature of the current library:
Parking at the Wheaton Library's present site is ample, free, and there are no complications about misuse (as is the case in other CBDs).This argument reveals why the authors of this website like the current library. It has ample, free parking. Lots of it. Too much of it. So much that it makes it hostile to pedestrians, like many other car-dependent places. (Plus, the current library is not actually in the CBD.)
Just like most other anti-campaigns, this one is merely about preserving the status quo. Somehow, I doubt that the small handful of my neighbors with signs on their front lawns have ever walked to the library. I live on the northern side of downtown Wheaton, really close to the library. I don't ever use it because I hate walking there. In fact, I've only used it in the past six months to pick up tax forms. That's because it's so much safer and more interesting to walk in a town environment with where I can run multiple errands, the blocks are short, and the cars drive at 25 miles per hour.
In order for Wheaton to live up to its potential as a vibrant economic and cultural center, it needs a mix of uses. Its current zoning allows single story, single-use retail, without parking minimums. Earlier this decade, new townhouses were built on the periphery of the downtown. More recently, new apartments opened up on top of the Metro. But downtown Wheaton still lacks a center of public life. A library would create that activity center, increasing foot traffic, the customer base for the small businesses in the downtown, and safety by putting more eyes on the street.
The opponents also list safety as one of their reasons to oppose a downtown library:
Security [would be a perceived] big issue. Many felt they would not feel comfortable leaving their children at the downtown location. Many feel the open parking lot at the present library is safer than a covered structure that would be downtown (especially for women). Also, school buses use the present library to drop children off from school. Many parents expressed concern about dropping their children off at a downtown library.A downtown library would improve safety in its area, not reduce it. Yet this argument seems to stem from a classic suburban perception of safety: walkable is unsafe while car-dependent is safe. The truth is, of course, far more nuanced. In our region, there are a whole range of crime rates in both walkable urban and car-dependent places. You can't simply tie a land-use arrangement to a 50-year-old perception of safety.
Wheaton is very fortunate to have a Metro station directly underneath it. With great privilege comes great responsibility. An important civic place like a library should be situated in a place where the community can use and celebrate it as much as possible. When the very location of the public structure will also breathe more vitality into an already functioning walkable urban place, it is the responsibility of the community to embrace change for the common good. It is silly that the current Wheaton library serves a certain constituency, motorists, at the expense of everyone else. A library located in downtown Wheaton, rather than in its car-dependent fringes, would better serve all constituencies, including motorists.
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