Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

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.

People on the sidewalk, Bethesda RowBethesda 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.

Ellsworth Avenue in Silver Spring.  Photo from Homewood Suites.

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.

Clarendon BallroomOf 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!

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.”
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.

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.)

A typical suburban house in Montgomery County.  Image from Trulia.

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."
.Rockville Pike, looking north, which Montgomery planners want to transform into a network of urban villages.
Rockville Pike, Montgomery County, Maryland. Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary.
Suburban hipness and transportation

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.

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At 5:28 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

The problem that I have is what you are really measuring is the stumble home drunk factor.

People love that! And as the econony/inernet dating/whaever, people are getting married later.

And in the DC area educated people even more so. And postponing children.

But it is a universal rule that stumbling home drunk doesn't work so well when you have kids.

A lot of hipster gentrifcation is just putting that off, rather than anything else.*

* used by 2x with the gays, but now they seem to be reproducing even more than the hets.

At 6:32 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

not just. it's also about being able to walk to a neighborhood commercial district and buy stuff, get coffee etc.

e.g., Nob Hill in Portland, even the 9th and 9th district in Salt Lake City is pretty nice. There are so many examples around the country.

I didn't mention Royal Oak Michigan (and maybe Ferndale) as an example. RO is not a Main St. program now, and I thought it was a national winner but it wasn't, but it should be.

It's a traditional town in Oakland County so it had a core. And now it's revitalized (well I don't know since the recession, it probably declined some). Really an awesome district.

Birmingham Michigan too.

I put in a query to the Building a Better Burb people about the night time economy...

At 6:34 PM, Blogger dan reed! said...

As someone who served on the task force, I generally think your comments are spot on. I think you're a little quick to broadbrush Montgomery County as uniformly unaffordable. Like in DC, Rock Creek Park serves as a rough border between the more affluent/expensive west side of the county (Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac) and much more affordable east side, and the price difference can be substantial.

My roommates and I rent a house near downtown Silver Spring that's maybe $1500 cheaper than a similar house 4 miles away in Bethesda, and also cheaper than much of Northwest DC (even the still-gentrifying parts like Petworth or Takoma). Not surprisingly, of the 190,000 Millennials in Montgomery County (about one-fifth of the county's total population), most of them cluster in Silver Spring or parts of East County, or north of Bethesda along the Red Line.

I also take issue with your suggestion that a lot of the historic building stock or local businesses in Silver Spring have been removed or displaced. Yes, the 1920's-era armory was torn down to build a parking garage (which was a huge mistake), but otherwise the redevelopment in the 2000's along Ellsworth Drive displaced surface parking lots and a McDonald's. In fact, it contains a preserved 1938 Art Deco shopping center and a historic movie theatre. Not to mention, of course, the historic storefronts along Georgia Avenue (which are the same exact apartment-over-shop rowhouse type that exist on Georgia Avenue in DC).

The Nighttime Economy Task Force had 12 public meetings over the past six months in Metro-accessible locations all over the county. It would've been great if you'd joined us to offer some of your insights.

At 8:32 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Not sure. Yes, RO and Birmingham are great examples, and that they can thrive in a place like Oakland County is amazing.

But Birmingham and millenials? Transit? RO yes.

And in terms of the alcohol vs. coffee phenemon, I'll just state that the west end WF took out their coffee grinders to set up more microbrews. It is popular.

Continental? Good lord. They asked me to invest in that 15 years ago! I'd say Galaxy hut may be a better example!

All this goes to Arlington as being a good blend of apartment living and SFH within close proximity. Very little of the rowhouse charm. Perhaps that is a better model (DC is execptional in that?)

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Dan -- 1. I was surprised the task force never reached out to me, but I was pretty busy. Been writing about these issues since 2005, as it related to the Adams Morgan study, and I have delved into a lot of the work from the UK.

The guy I keep citing in my European culture districts papers, John Montgomery wrote a lot about this issue, his book is probably the best single tome on culture districts and revitalization.

There is other writing (look up Phil Hadfield, etc.), but true a lot of it is focused on cities. But the reality is that it's about conurbations.

2. I wasn't really clear about what I was referring to in Silver Spring, South Silver Spring.

The core of the revitalization effort has been superblocks, which typically aren't favorable to walkability. That's not what was done exactly on Ellsworth specifically, well it was, but they got the ground floor right, and the activation program, plus the lucky "accident" of the Plaza (which you have written a lot about too).

fwiw, I am really proud of the piece I did on Silver Spring and layering, even though it never got even one comment.

In the early part of the last decade a UMD class did their urban design studio on South Silver Spring and how to support the independent businesses there.

Anyway, the second part of my unstated point is that long term, I expect these properties will be rolled up into bigger superblock type developments and go bye bye. Maybe that's a 10+ year process (less if my point about a South Silver Spring Metro Station on an infill basis ever happened).

If the old firestation had become a club instead of a sub-average restaurant it would be possible to grow an entertainment side to that area.

charlie mentioned Galaxy Hut, I mentioned Iota, Continental and Clarendon Ballroom.

another example would be how Buffalo Billiards used what was considered hyper marginal space, basement space, but across from the Dupont Circle south exit and with a light well so it had sun and a basement patio.

This space had been a club but someone was killed so it was empty for years.

BB came by with an entertainment concept, probably paying subnormal rent, and has made a fortune and provided a broader option.

A couple places like that in South Silver Spring would go a long way...

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

another question to ask would be why Clarendon and why not South Silver Spring? One is walkability. Wilson Blvd. feels slower, while GA Ave. does not. But also the spaces and how they are used. Etc.

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

Clarendon is also a lot more central than South Silver Spring.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Absolutely. They have that spine of Metro. But South Silver Spring isn't any farther from Silver Spring Metro than H Street is from Union Station or NoMA. And 8 years ago, when Englert set his sights on H St., H Street was not on anyone's radar really.

At 2:33 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

No no no... I'm not talking about walking distance to a Metro station, I'm talking about the geographic location within the region.

Clarendon is closer to Downtown DC (as the crow flies) than South Silver Spring is.

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always thought that the success of the R-B corridor in attracting younger workers and those fresh out of school is the relatively central location between DC and the Tyson's/Dulles Corridor. Such a location affords flexibility in the early stages of one's career. You have a wider pool of jobs available, via several modes of transportation. There are *choices*. If your job changes, you run less risk of being trapped in a geographic dead zone, or having to constantly move with your job due to limited or untenable transportation options.

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

sorry, haven't gotten back to this. Alex B., Clarendon and South Silver Spring are about the same distance from Downtown physically. But in terms of Metrorail connection and speed, Clarendon is much closer.

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Anon -- very good point. Clarendon offers maximum connectivity to the two main employment centers in Greater Washington. It'll be even better with the Silver Line.


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