Montgomery County's Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan (draft) and transit and transit oriented development and reshaping land use paradigms
One of the items on this coming Monday's agenda for the Montgomery County Planning Board is a recommendation to move the draft forward for the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan with preliminary approval and scheduling of a public hearing in September. This matter will be heard starting at 5pm.
This area of Montgomery County will be served by the future Purple Line light rail line, which will connect the eastern and western legs of the Red Line in Montgomery County and the northern leg of the Green Line, and the eastern end of the Orange Line in Prince George's County.
Eventually the line could be extended beyond New Carrollton in Maryland, and to Northern Virginia from Bethesda, although no planning for such is occurring at present.
Above: Washington Post graphic of the Purple Line routing and station map.
One advantage that the Purple Line light rail will have, compared to all the other light rail projects out there across the country, with the exception of those in Denver, Dallas, and Portland, is that it will be an element in an already existing heavy rail transit system, and that it will provide faster trips in a corridor that is already experiencing high bus ridership.
Personally, I think it is likely that the Purple Line will be the most successful light rail line in the US with 70,000 (and likely many more) daily riders, and the ridership on this single line will rival the total ridership of light rail systems in Denver and Dallas.
While much of the proposed Purple Line light rail alignment in Montgomery County travels through already developed residential areas that aren't capable of absorbing much in the way of new development, and new development adjacent to transit is one of the ways that return on public investment in transit is realized, there are four station areas in Montgomery County that will have significant build out opportunity:
- Takoma Crossroads/Langley Park at the intersection of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue on the border of Montgomery and Prince George's County;
- Long Branch, an area in Montgomery County already targeted for revitalization
- Chevy Chase Lake, at Connecticut Avenue and the Georgetown Branch railroad right of way, which is the first "commercial town center" along the Avenue north of DC (and the Chevy Chase commercial district there), and was built as the terminus of the streetcar line on Connecticut Avenue which was created to support the real estate development of Chevy Chase by Sen. Frank Newlands and the company he created, the Chevy Chase Land Company, still in operation today;
- Fenton Street in Silver Spring, although the reality is that over time, this area will intensify regardless, because of long term redevelopment trends already moving forward.
Notably, the Chevy Chase Lake station area is more "upscale" compared to the other three station areas, which may present complications when it comes to recommendations for land use intensification.
Another example of the debate about Montgomery County's future as a "suburb"
So the plan in Chevy Chase Lake is an indicator of how far Montgomery County is willing to push its thinking (and planning) with regard to development and transit in extant areas, irrespective of pushing forward on massive intensification and redevelopment in the White Flint Sector Plan and the County's push forward on developing a bus rapid transit network to complement the subway, railroad commuter, and light rail transit network.
It's another data point in the ongoing drama over Montgomery County's redefinition of its future as a suburban county that is "urbanizing" or intensifying.
Few opportunities for a "do over" when it comes to land use planning
It's also important because the ability to realize development opportunities at transit nodes are "path dependent" in that once zoning is set and projects begin to be created, chances for redevelopment are lost (unless properties are rental).
A key example of this is development of rowhouses at locations within a block or two of Metro Stations, such as has already happened in Silver Spring, or on WMATA-owned land such as is proposed for Takoma.
Note that these kinds of planning "failures" are why many investments in transit systems, the BART system is a particularly good example, of typically don't reshape mobility paradigms more towards transit use and away from automobile dependency. There needs to be more shift in land use and spatial organization towards patterns that optimize walking, biking, and transit over automobility. Legacy attitudes about development can make this very difficult.
The Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan as an under-realized opportunity to fully leverage transit investment
The Action Committee for Transit and the Purple Line Now coalition argue that the opportunities identified in the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan for "enhanc[ing] and creat[ing]" multifamily housing as well commercial space are not being fully realized, that the plan should call for more density for a number of reasons:
- to provide more opportunity for affordable housing, so that transit oriented development in Montgomery County is more than upscale housing;
- to provide more economic return on the public investment in transit;
- to produce more riders for transit;
- and to provide more housing proximate to the Walter Reed Medical Center, a recently enhanced federal military facility which combined the former WRMC in DC with the Bethesda Naval Hospital, in part as a transportation demand management strategy.
I think these are reasonable concerns, but also illustrate some of the difficulties of leveraging transit investment and changing land use paradigms and perceptions of what a "suburban" county is.
Residents likely are concerned about being a high density pod, sort of like how the area looks around Grosvenor Metro off Rockville Pike.
And yes, the Chevy Chase Land Company and other land owners originally recommended a higher density plan, which of course, would make them more money. According to "Firm downsizes plans for Chevy Chase development" from the Gazette, the original proposal was for 4 million s.f. in increased build out, but they have settled for the plan's recommendation of 1.5 million s.f.
Four other things I noticed while reading the plan draft that are problematic are:
1. The recommendation to make more intense build out recommendations contingent on the funding for the Purple Line. To do this, they propose two different zoning changes, the first to be acted on as part of the plan approval process; the second to be triggered once the Purple Line is funded.
a. This creates two zoning categories, one intended to improve existing retail and office sections, along with multiunit housing that is more or less congruent with the current scale of the town center, and another one which is more intense, but contingent.
b. My experience with development in DC is that developers are likely to wait til the time they can do both types of development. The contingent zoning recommendations likely will delay development overall. In short, don't expect much in the way of "enhancement" any time soon.
2. Relatedly, a delay in build out might hurt the case for Purple Line funding, especially at the federal level, because if more intensive development begins to occur along the Purple Line alignment, especially proximate to the proposed stations, this makes a stronger case that the transit line will be successful and the ranking of the project should be higher when compared to other transit line proposals across the country competing for the same money.
For example, the recent approval of the Cafritz redevelopment project in Riverdale Park in Prince George's County, near the future Riverdale light rail station, while not an ideal project in many respects, is an example of development triggered by the coming of a light rail line, and an indicator that will likely be considered by the Federal Transit Administration in consideration of the funding request for the Purple Line.
3. The plan doesn't consider the opportunity to develop more housing in Chevy Chase Lake in part as a way to serve people working at Walter Reed Medical Center specifically, but also the National Institutes of Health on the west side of Rockville Pike, as well as in other areas of the County that will be served by the transit lines newly accessible from a light rail station at this location.
The Chevy Chase Lake town center is from 1.25 to 2 miles to Walter Reed, depending on what roads you take.
Chevy Chase Lake area map. Purple line = proposed Purple Line light rail. Black box = approximate location of the Chevy Chase Lake light rail station. Red line = proposed path for a biking-walking trail connected to the Capital Crescent Trail (which will parallel the light rail alignment). Blue line = proposed path for a cycletrack on Jones Bridge Road.
4. With regard to transportation access, the plan recommends "Expand pedestrian and bicycle access to the Capital Crescent Trail, where feasible."
a. One recommendation would be to create a shared use path between the Capital Crescent Trail west of Connecticut Avenue and south of Jones Bridge Road, showed in the red line on the map above.
It could be located on the grounds of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, if they are willing to provide an easement. (The likelihood of doing this on the border/the grounds of the Columbia Country Club golf course is unlikely because the organization fervertly opposes the light rail line, because it would mean that their "seizure" and fencing off of some of the public land from the Georgetown Branch Railroad right of way will have to be reversed.)
b. And a cycletrack should be integrated into Jones Bridge Road, at least from Connecticut Avenue to Rockville Pike. I seem to recall that the road pretty much is wide enough for cycletracks, although I don't go on that road much during rush hour. That's shown in blue on the map.
The plan recommends (p. 44) an on-street bike lane, but a cycletrack would be much much better.
Ideally, a cycletrack could be extended east of Connecticut Avenue to Jones Mill Road, but that would be harder to integrate given the varied width of the road and right of way. Of course, it would be great, because it would connect to the highly used Rock Creek Trail which is full of bicycling activity, weekends especially.
A cycletrack would contribute to an increase in biking on the part of non hardcore bicycle populations and would support bike commuting to the NIH and Walter Reed campuses.
Ideally/2, a Jones Bridge Road cycletrack could extend into both the NIH and WRMC campuses.
Ideally, the recommendations in the plan will be modified. If not, the likelihood of the delay in development there because of the proposed contingent zoning will provide another opportunity to change the recommendations sometime in the next 5-8 years.