Millennials and suburban hipness and Montgomery County, Maryland
Suburban commercial hipness
Today's Post has a piece, "Montgomery considers lifting hipness quotient with later bar hours," about how Montgomery County wants to be hip too. They've had a nightlife task force in place for about one year and they've produced some reports. I haven't read them yet.
Bethesda Row is marked by restaurants, bars, and some decent retail, anchored by a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Landmark Cinemas is there, which helps extend business into the nighttime.
MoCo has at last two interesting examples of entertainment-nightlife type districts, Bethesda Row--which is probably the largest concentration of restaurants in MoCo and is a walkable district, although it's mostly comprised of new construction, but using walkability design principles, and Silver Spring--which is more comprised of large buildings.
Both are marked by a preponderance of chain offerings. So supporting the creation of independent concepts and businesses in the context of large scale property ownership and development will be a big challenge.
South Silver Spring still has remainder low scale building stock that houses a fair number of independent restaurants (like Jackie's which just missed being one of the Post's Top 40 restaurants), but doesn't function in the same way as a destination like Bethesda or as a night life destination for younger demographics, not in the way that Ellsworth Avenue does in Downtown Silver Spring.
Those principles of great streets and storefronts highlighted in the previous entry are universal, they aren't specifically urban as much as they are about walkability.
Much of the historic building stock in commercial districts like Silver Spring is getting demolished in favor of large buildings, while Bethesda has done a better job of ensuring a walkable district in terms of the streetscape and its integration with the first floor of commercial buildings.
Of course, Clarendon in Arlington is another example of how to work with older building stock (some) and newer building stock to get a great mix of uses and to stoke evening/nightlife business.
Places like Iota Cafe, Clarendon Ballroom (Flickr photo right by Kathy Dodd), and Whitlows are authentic, fun places. (Continental Pool Lounge in Rosslyn is really cool too. It's got an H Street NE vibe, but might be better.)
In fact, MoCo should probably look to Clarendon more for guidance on how to improve their attractiveness to younger audiences than to DC. Although Silver Spring has a cluster of places including the Fillmore, Round House Theatre, and the AFI cinemas.
These past entries are about Bethesda, in the context of opposition by then politicians in Fairfax County over walkable districts :
-- Why are people so damn good about asking the wrong question?"(2006)
-- It's the (urban) design (compact development, mixed-use, connected, walkable, friendly to all mobility modes) stupid!
And this is about Silver Spring:
-- The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example
Liquor licenses and community opposition
The funny thing about H Street NE in DC is that initially there was tremendous opposition expressed against the various proposals by Joe Englert--I remember because I was one of the few voices expressing support ("Local involvement is so much fun"). Now those establishments are heralded, accurately, for stoking the improvement on the corridor.
A guy I know active in Baltimore City and County revitalization somehow received the MoCo task force survey and he commented about difficulties in his Waverly neighborhood (next to Charles Village, close to Johns Hopkins with some great potential) in getting restaurants that appeal to younger demographics because of reflexive opposition to granting liquor licenses. See "Darker Than Blue to close in Waverly but may return in Charles Village" from the Baltimore Sun.
I think this is potentially a problem in Montgomery County as well, and is still an issue in DC. See "Montgomery County is already hip" from the Post. From the letter to the editor:
I take issue with the Feb. 17 front-page article on luring a “hipper crowd” to Montgomery County. What The Post and some of our elected officials have failed to see is that, although Montgomery has the highest percentage of “seniors” in the region, we are seriously hip. The article implied that to be hip, you have to be young. Pshaw!What my Baltimore City colleague's comment made me appreciate is that in DC, we don't have "Councilmanic privilege" on the granting of such licenses, where the ward city councilmember could reflexively deny licenses. Instead, there is a separate process that goes through the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and it follows due process.
Silver-haired hipsters in Montgomery County aren’t hanging out in trendy bars after-hours. We don’t need to. We generate our own night life with cool dinner parties in our homes, where we enjoy the sweet life in a liberal and — yes — hip county.
Please, we’re older, wise, and vital, and we define “hip.”
Sure the DC process can be screwy and businesses complain that residents have too much control of the process, but while very aggravating, the process works (see "Hank's Oyster Spar," Washington City Paper). It's a lot harder in the suburbs (plus generally, suburban jurisdictions have limits on the number of liquor licenses that can be operative, which is regulated by the state; DC as a city-state has no such restrictions).
Hipness and living in suburbia
A couple years ago, then Montgomery County Planning Director Rollin Stanley made a point that I found incredibly interesting, that much of the housing stock that typifies Montgomery County residential subdivisions is not attractive to younger demographics seeking housing today. He's updated this thinking a bit, according to these pieces from the Calgary Herald, "Calgary's top city planner says higher density suburbs strike right balance," and "Canada’s new identity: a suburban nation." (Rollin is Canadian and moved to Calgary to take the planning director job there. Calgary is a boomtown in response to the oil business based in Alberta Province.)
The difficulty that Montgomery County will have in being hip "residentially" is that it doesn't have rowhouses dating from before 1940.
Rowhouses as a type appear to be a key element to revitalizing urban neighborhoods, combining historicity, attractiveness, authenticity, and density.
The County has "townhouses," built over the past 40 years. While I don't care for the earlier iterations of this housing, newer developments tend to be more attractive, although for the most part they are placed in housing pods that are disconnected rather than part of a more walkable fabric.
The town parts of the county have the traditional walkable urban design and usually a tighter street grid, with houses closer together.
But the cost of houses in those areas is stratospheric (e.g., "Somerset, a stone's throw from Friendship Heights," Post) and so it will be very difficult for those neighborhoods to attract younger residents as owners, and typically those neighborhoods don't have other housing options available such as accessory dwelling units or apartments.
The article on Somerset cited in the previous paragraph is fascinating. Rather than "allow" a condominium building to be built in the Town, they de-annexed the land, so that the condo owners wouldn't be able to be citizens of the town. Take that "other."
Not discussed in this series of blog entries is the issue of transportation. A great deal of the attraction of center city living appears to be not having to be reliant on an automobile to get around. See "With new apps, D.C. millennials help fuel an evolution away from sitting behind the wheel" from the Post.
That's harder to accomplish in the suburbs, although if you can live in a walkable area within a conurbation, it is do-able. You could live without a car in Silver Spring and in the core of the Bethesda for sure.
At the same time, challenging the automobile challenges how suburban residents define what it means to live and be in their community. You see this in the County already in terms of the ongoing opposition to the Purple Line light rail project in some quarters. Ironically, some support bus rapid transit instead of light rail, but then there is a developing opposition to bus rapid transit in the county as well, especially in terms of providing dedicated transitways.
Supporting transit, biking, and walkability is a challenge when people think that (1) only poor people ride transit and therefore it is a social service and (2) people who walk or bike only do it because they can't afford to own a car.
I think that many suburban districts have great potential to reformulate into a more traditional urban design that embraces walkability, density, and even nightlife.
It won't be easy to get suburban residents to redefine what suburbanity means, but a big advantage is that changes to this definition are beneficial to developers, and they have the financial wherewithal to make this happen.
Redevelopment of the Tysons Corner district in Fairfax and the White Flint area/and perhaps Rockville Pike more generally in Montgomery are two of the biggest suburban "urbanizing" projects happening in the US and indicate the way that the real estate market is moving.
It is not completely changing, but as mentioned in the piece yesterday in response to Joel Kotkin, the point is that desires are changing enough, demand is increasing for residential lifestyle options that are more urban-like and there is room to add such options within the suburban landscape. And developers are responding.
Some great resources on suburban revitalization
I have been remiss in not creating a set of links in the right sidebar about suburban revitalization although I have always considered revitalization resources of various sorts to be applicable to urban, suburban, and rural settings (the revitalization profession grew out of the community development thread of agricultural extension programs in Rural America).
This blog entry lists a number of good resources, "Long Island, New York and suburban revitalization more generally," including these:
-- Build a Better Burb, the online journal of suburban design
-- Reinventing Suburban Business Districts, ULI
-- Reinventing America's Suburban Strips, ULI
Note that one of the coolest coffee shops I've been in in awhile was in a strip shopping center in West Seattle. Once you entered the space, you'd never know where you were. The same goes for Continental Pool Lounge in Rosslyn.
So it's not the place so much as the attitude and the urban design.