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Posts about Suburban Sensibility


Where do young adults live in Montgomery County?

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.

Why is that? Trends show that Millennials want an urban lifestyle, but are often stymied by limited funds and a dearth of affordable housing.

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:

Where Millennials work in Montgomery County. Click to enlarge.

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.


Towson can't beat Bethesda or Silver Spring without housing

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.

Downtown Towson. Photo by pauledely on Flickr.

Few places in Maryland, outside downtown Baltimore, have as many destinations within walking distance as downtown Towson. 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.

"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.

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.

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.


TD Bank a step back for urbanism at RI Ave

A suburban-style building is about to go up in the shadow of smart-growth development at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.

Photo by the author.

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 herethe location is in the part of the parking lot furthest from both the Giant and the Home Depot. I never see any cars parked there, even during busy hours at the stores. The land will be better utilized than before, but it will still be a car-centric drive-to and -through location.

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.

Plan for the site. Click to enlarge.

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.


UMD plans to ban all transit from Campus Drive

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.

Concept sketch of Purple Line in front of the student union. Image by MTA via Rethink College Park.

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.

Left: Proposed new campus shuttle (blue) would be the only transit in the center of campus. Right: Routes to other destinations would stop at the edges.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The SGA recently once again explicitly endorsed the Campus Drive alignment of the Purple Line, debunking some of the arguments against Campus Drive:

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,

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;

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.)

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.


Fairfax still suburbanizing Old Town

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.



Toronto's "tower renewal" could point the way for East County high rises

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.

New townhouses surround a high-rise in Briggs Chaney. Photo by Dan Reed.

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 strange—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.
This 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.

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 Wheaton library should be in downtown Wheaton

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.

Current Wheaton library. Photo by Montgomery County Pub. Libraries, MD.

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.


Olde Towne Gaithersburg: He who hesitated was lost

During the now-defunct credit bubble, legacy walkable urban places in Montgomery County enjoyed renovation and investment unparalleled in decades. Silver Spring received a brand new commercial development that catalyzed a better reputation and increased foot traffic. Investment in Bethesda accelerated beyond its already fast pace. Wheaton got a renovated mall and new residential development for the first time in decades. Takoma Park saw an increase in property values and commercial vitality.

Historic train station in Olde Towne Gaithersburg. Photo by Seth Gaines.

Most dramatically, downtown Rockville recognized that its experiment with 20th century-style "urban renewal" was a miserable failure and restored a human-scale street grid while providing incentives for walkable urban development in its Metro-adjacent location. The only legacy downtown that didn't get in on the action was Gaithersburg, whose historic downtown is known as Olde Towne Gaithersburg. According to the Gazette, Gaithersburg is now seeking advice from developers how to revitalize their downtown.

Most of the land within the corporate limits of Gaithersburg currently sits underneath car-dependent suburban sprawl built between the 1970s and the 1990s. However, Gaithersburg was once a major agricultural stop on the B&O Railroad, whose tracks share a right-of-way with the Metro Red Line between Silver Spring and Union Station. Consequently, Gaithersburg possesses a walkable, urban historic downtown with a human-scale street grid. However, preexisting suburban sensibilities blocked new investment during the development boom years of the middle of this decade:

"We didn't build anything," said Councilman Henry F. Marraffa Jr., pointing to meticulous planning rules, political intractability and overconfidence among city leaders who he says "placed too many conditions" on projects. The city now has more than 4,000 apartments, condos, townhouses and single-family homes approved to be built, but many are years from development, he said.

Marraffa sat on a previous council that in 2001 passed a first-ever moratorium on residential development, designed to last one year, citing a need to review the city's master plan. Developers and schools added capacity elsewhere. Now the city is looking to developers to learn how to lure builders during the recession and lending crisis.

Parking minimums are another specific example of suburban sensibilities that are currently stifling growth:
Malcolm Van De Reit, a former developer with JPI and now president of White Oak Properties in McLean, Va., cited three other obstacles to Olde Towne development. He said parking ratios tied to new projects should be reduced; land assemblage for large projects is challenging in part because of landowners' expectations on pricing; and city leaders must be sensitive to the changing economy and developers' need to be cost-conscious.

"Most developers right now are going back to basics, so they're not going to be moving too far out of their comfort zones as far as spending a lot of money on ... bells and whistles," Van De Reit said.

An existing parking ordinance does not reflect an urban model or the way apartment communities operate. It asks developers to build parking and has caused some projects to crumble under their own weight or lose financing through delays in planning processes, he said.

As Mr. Van De Reit said, parking minimums provide a sizable disincentive to a developer who wishes to invest in an urban-friendly project. Without new investment, a city or town stagnates and declines. That is exactly what happened in our major cities, including Washington, DC, from World War II to the end of the century. Hindsight has taught us that preventing all development is just as destructive in the long term as promoting poorly planned development.

Olde Towne Gaithersburg, like every walkable urban place in the region and the United States, needs to adopt a zoning and planning framework that makes sense in a human-scale environment. Gaithersburg already has neighboring communities in its own county to learn from. Neighboring Rockville would be an excellent place to start due to proximity, similar demographics, and similar infrastructure, though without a Red Line Station. Like Rockville, as an incorporated town, Gaithersburg has more control over land use planning. Unincorporated Wheaton, Silver Spring, and Bethesda are all governed and planned at the county level.

It's one thing for a dedicated livable/walkable communities and mass transit activist to suggest such a course of action. The point is driven home even more acutely when members of the business community say the same thing:

Developers have suggested a more flexible ordinance in Olde Towne, "an urban model," used in downtown Rockville or Bethesda, Van De Reit said. The current requirement forces structured or partially below-grade parking at costs not justified by Gaithersburg rents.
While seeking feedback from developers can be a positive part of the process, as Richard Layman says, a request for proposals isn't a plan. There's no subsitute for a carefully crafted plan that combines ideas from planners, developers and residents. Gaithersburg should bear that in mind as it moves forward with much-needed planning to leverage its most valuable asset.


It takes a village: why walkable urbanism is good for adolescents

The March edition of GQ features a 12-year-old budding food critic, David Fishman of New York, NY. One of Fishman's favorite activities is to visit local restaurants and write critiques. Due to his age, his parents limit him to restaurants within walking distance in his Upper West Side neighborhood. While such parental ground rules would amount to house arrest for children in car-dependent subdivisions, it provides David with a balance between safety and freedom while leaving plenty of restaurant options.

Photo by VickyvS on Flickr.

In conventional suburban neighborhoods, meanwhile, there is simply nowhere for a preteen or teenager can explore within walking distance. Fishman would While proponents of a car-dependent lifestyle often argue that the subdivision is a better environment for raising children, they forget that children's needs change when they become pre-teens and need to socialize and explore their surroundings. Quite simply, David would not be able to explore his passion for critiquing restaurants if he did not live in a vibrant walkable urban place.

David's story, while unique in its national magazine coverage, is not unique to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In downtown Wheaton, pre-teens and teenagers walk around, go to and from the Metro, eat at cafes, shop at the Westfield Wheaton mall, the local comic book store, or the grocery store. In neighboring Silver Spring or Bethesda, many pre-teens and carless teenagers shop at the stores and eat at the numerous restaurants. The same scene repeats itself in Tenleytown, Friendship Heights, Georgetown, and Ballston. In these walkable places, teens can learn valuable social skills and enjoy a measure of freedom.

I spent last Thanksgiving at a friend of a friend's house. The host's parents and their friends grew up in a walkable neighborhood in Norfolk. The boys could walk to the local ball field and see who was around for a pickup game. (At that time, I guess, girls weren't welcome in the boys' pickup games). If any of the kids made a misguided, immature decision, their neighbors would walk over and tell their parents. As much as they hated it then, they now wish they had raised their children in such an environment. Their raves about the old neighborhood sounded just like my dad and my aunts describing their old neighborhood on the South Side of Pittsburgh.

Now, the host's parents own their "dream house" in a subdivision in Upper Marlboro. They can't walk over to a local field for a pick-up game. It's much harder to get to know your neighbors without a sidewalk leading to a local park or other destination where you might run into each other. If they ever saw a neighbor's child doing something they shouldn't, would they even know whom to call? It takes a village to raise a child. What happens when there is no village?

The subdivision I grew up in had a couple other kids that were in my age range. I was lucky. Outside of the subdivision, there was nothing else in walking distance. The roads to get there had no shoulder, either. As much as I liked the other guys in the subdivision, they weren't my best friends. If I wanted to see friends from school, my parents had to drive. Once again, I was lucky that my parents had time for frequent trips to friends' houses, as long as I gave them ample notice and they talked to my friends' parents. However, that's a lot of big "ifs." It's silly that a parent must devote time, energy, and money from gasoline, insurance and car depreciation every time two kids want to play video games or kick a soccer ball together.

A pick-up soccer, football, or basketball game was even more complicated. We couldn't just go down to the local field and play with whatever kids were hanging around looking for a game. Instead, we had to call guys who lived in distant subdivisions and talk to their parents about car transportation. If anyone's parents weren't around, or were too busy to take an hour out of their day to drive their child to a pick-up football game, we couldn't play. Since organizing required effort, we'd only call our friends. This deprived us and other adolescents of a major social lesson: getting along with people other than your friends.

Between college and graduate school, I taught ninth grade math. Many of my students would go home after school, fire up the video game console, eat dinner, and then play more video games until they went to bed. Would I have been any different if there weren't other kids in the subdivision, I wasn't into playing sports, or my parents couldn't drive me to the games? Obviously, there are plenty of couch potatoes around the world who do live in walkable urban places. However, without other options, children have few alternatives to a sedentary lifestyle.

Car-dependent places design each area for one single land use. They also seem to design for single life stages, too. A large yard may make sense when a child is just learning to walk. However, what happens when children outgrow the yard and want to interact with their peers and explore the world around them? While it is clearly possible to raise children who become successful adults in car-dependent places, it clearly has its shortcomings for pre-teens and carless teenagers. Why does so much "conventional wisdom" claim that suburbia is inherently a better place to raise children? Suburbia has its advantages, but also more than its fair share of shortcomings.

I'm probably going to get a lot of negative feedback in the comments for this, but I suggest that the myth about suburbia being a better environment for children arose from a combination of suburban marketing and our collective attempt to rationalize the divestment and abandonment of our cities and towns. Amazingly, our society continues to collectively embrace the idea of car-dependent suburbia being best for children while, simultaneously, the baby boomer generation pines for the walkable towns and neighborhoods of their youth.

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