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.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sub/urban land use and political development: Bethesda and Montgomery County, Maryland

Some past blog entries relevant to Bethesda area development include:

1. The recommendation to create a broader transportation management district rather than a "parking district": "Parking districts vs. transportation/urban management districts: Part one, Bethesda."

2.  The need to think about transportation between DC and Montgomery and Frederick Counties in terms of corridor management: "Transportation network service interruptions part 3: corridor/commute shed management for Northwest DC and Montgomery County, Maryland."

3.  and discussions about the Purple Line, suggesting that planning for extending the line west into Northern Virginia should already be underway.

Washington Post graphic.

Bethesda has been in the news because some residents are objecting to the update of the area's "sector plan," which calls for additional development ("In downtown Bethesda, residents and county debate whether more height is right," Washington Post).

Interestingly, the additional developable space created by the plan is assigned to the district generally, not to individual parcels, which allows for creating amenities and community benefits in more directed ways than is typical of development processes that are led by the private sector, which ultimately owns and develops the properties. According to the article:
The plan places new emphasis on design and environmental sustainability and would require property owners to pay for parks and affordable housing to get permission to build bigger and taller — up to 29 stories along the neighborhood’s central artery.

The hope is that the downtown Bethesda of 2035 will truly be greener, more walkable and architecturally striking. In other words, a significant change.

Under the new plan, all additional density, 4.6 million square feet, would go into a central pool.

To tap into it for their projects, property owners would have to pay a $10-per-square-foot “park impact” fee that would finance the acquisition of new green space. They also would be required to set aside 15 percent of all new apartments as affordable or workforce housing (instead of the usual 12.5 percent) — meaning that prices would be within reach of families making between 60 and 120 percent of the area’s median income, in a neighborhood where new apartments rent for an average of $2,750 a month.
According to one opponent ("The half-baked Bethesda plan," Post):
Developers want to go forward because they expect to generate considerable income from young professionals eager to move somewhere close to the District on the Red Line, with many bars and restaurants. And Montgomery County planners are eager because they anticipate a tax revenue windfall. They also argue, with some justification, that if there is to be development in Montgomery County, it’s better that it be in areas dense with public transport than out in, say, Germantown where cars are the main mode of transport.

But there is one major problem with these plans: They would bring more people (with more cars and more children) to a location where the public schools are already bursting at the seams and where drivers experience daily a kind of traffic Armageddon during rush hour on the Wisconsin Avenue corridor, affecting local residents and D.C. commuters alike.
-- A counter op-ed, "A half-baked critique of the Bethesda plan," Post

Rendering of new Marriott Corporation headquarters, flanked by a new Marriott Hotel.

And just today, Marriott announced they will be moving their headquarters to a site within a couple blocks of the Bethesda Metro Station, moving from a car-centric location in the I-270 corridor ("The search is over for Marriott International's new headquarters. The winner is...," Washington Business Journal).  

This is in-line with companies moving headquarter operations to more transit-friendly locations, like how a couple years back, Choice Hotels moved from a completely car-centric location on Colesville Road in distant "Silver Spring" to a site within the Rockville Town Center development, adjacent to subway service.

The Washington area is not immune to the trend of of the decline in value of automobile-centric suburban commercial properties as location preferences change ("Office bust hits suburban Washington DC: metro area awash in vacant buildings," Building Design & Construction).

What some people call a corporate "back to the city movement" is really more subtle, as it is a move from car-centric locations to transit/walkable locations that aren't necessarily in cities.

Counties too are intensifying, and in fact the long-time Bethesda Row development was an early example of this (Bethesda Row, ULI Case Studies), whereas now in both Montgomery County (White Flint) and Fairfax County, Virginia (Tysons), large swathes of what had been islands of suburban development are being reproduced into more town-like urban design configurations marked by connectedness.

Resources on Suburban Revitalization

-- Build a Better Burb
-- Classic Towns (Greater Philadelphia}
-- First Suburbs Consortium (OH-revitalization)< -- Michigan Suburbs Alliance
-- The Next Frontier: Retrofitting Suburban Commercial Strips
--Putting the Urban in Suburban: Art and Business of Placemaking
-- The Quest to Confront Suburban Decline: Political Realities and Lessons
-- Reinventing Suburban Business Districts
-- Reinventing America's Suburban Strips
-- Revitalizing Distressed Older Suburbs
-- Revitalizing Suburban Downtown Retail Districts

It is this intensification that Bethesda residents are objecting to, because it conflicts with their understanding of what the suburban land use development paradigm means, and admittedly, because at the edge of the commercial district, some residents will be more directly affected by the changes (tall buildings looming over low scale residential housing).

On the other hand, given today's economic circumstances, in the 21st Century, not the 1940s and 1950s, suburbs have to change in order to remain relevant  ("The suburbs aren't dead, but they do need to change") and financially sustainable ("The real lesson from Flint, Michigan is about municipal finance"), which is something that many residents aren't attuned to nor willing to consider.

To its credit, Montgomery County government has realized the need to change, which is why they had hired a planning change agent, Rollin Stanley, to lead the County's Planning agency and the update of the county's Master Plan (Tall Talker: Rollin Stanley, Montgomery County’s new planning director, has a big personality and big ideas. Both are rubbing some people the wrong way," Bethesda Magazine).  He did that, ruffled a lot of egos, got the plan changed, and then moved on to Calgary.

(Similarly, the creation of the Silver Line in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties isn't so much about providing rail service to Dulles Airport as it is about repositioning those areas for 21st Century development paradigms.  See "Short term vs. long term thinking: transit, the Washington Examiner, Fairfax/Loudoun Counties vs. DC<" and "Silver line reshaping commercial office market in Fairfax County.")

But as I say, a plan isn't an end, it's a beginning, and there remains a lack of consensus amongst Montgomery County residents about how to go about "reproducing space" in the context of the "new" Master Plan.

The Brady Bunch
This house in Suburban Los Angeles stood in for exterior shots for "The Brady Bunch" television show.

The general intent of the plan is to shift mobility towards sustainable modes away from automobile dependence, although the message doesn't always get through to either the Montgomery County Department of Transportation or the Maryland State Highway Administration, and to intensify land use in areas with high capacity transit.

A complementary initiative is the County's plan to create a wide-scale bus rapid transit system ("Bus rapid transit taking shape in Montgomery Co.," WTOP Radio) and to embrace the east-west Purple Line light rail line.

Incorporation as a city as a strategy to ward off change.  Some of the objecting residents have called for incorporating Bethesda as an independent city ("Bethesda Residents Weigh Merits of Incorporating as a City," Bethesda Magazne") which they believe would give them more control over land use policy within the incorporated area.

But this is unlikely for two reasons.  First, the County Council has to sanction a vote by the residents.

Second, the County Government would retain control over land use and transportation policy within the area, unless the City of Bethesda is able to get home rule legislation passed by the State Legislature, which is now vested within the county.

Parallel to the creation in the 1920s of what became the federal National Capital Planning Commission in DC, Maryland created a similar planning and building regulation system in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, to encourage congruence between "national city" planning goals in the City of Washington and the two suburban counties that abut it.  The county governments, not sub-jurisdictions, control planning and building regulations.

Levittown House, 1948Levittown, NY, 1948.  

It's unlikely that Bethesda residents could muster enough support to change that law, even if they passed the initial hurdle of being able to vote on incorporation, and then were successful in getting people to vote in favor--let alone all the difficult work of creating a new governmental body.

Interestingly, while there are many examples of cities and counties merging over the past couple decades, there is also the trend of deconsolidation or the creation of separate cities or school districts such as in Suburban Atlanta ("Suburbs secede from Atlanta," or Memphis ("One county, seven districts: Vying for students as Shelby County Schools de-merges," Chalkbeat), where the city and county school districts merged a few years ago, are about maintaining "white control" of local government.  Fortunately, that's not what's going on in Bethesda.

County government as a structure separate from cities.  I am from Michigan, where for the most part, cities and to some extent townships, are the primary form of local government, supplanting counties, which mostly focus on social service matters (hospitals, public health, sometimes roads).

Bethesda is the major west county activity center that is town-like in design and practice, whereas much of the development paradigm is otherwise focused on automobile-centric development. Photo: Bethesda Magazine.

When I moved to DC in the late 1980s, I was surprised at how "around here," counties are dominant form of government and that in Maryland especially, there are large conurbations that function like cities, but aren't incorporated as such.

In Montgomery County, Bethesda and Silver Spring are the primary examples, although incorporated cities and towns (e.g., Rockville, Takoma Park, Chevy Chase) do exist elsewhere in the county.

Similarly, for the most part, in this area public schools are organized at the county scale, rather than according to the boundaries of cities and townships as is the case in Michigan.  For example, Oakland County, Michigan, which is about twice as large as Montgomery County, has 28 separate local school districts while there is only one school district in MoCo.  (In Northern Virginia, school districts are organized at the county scale, with a couple of exceptions, such as separate school districts in Falls Church in Fairfax County and Manassas City and Manassas Park in Prince William County.)

While I do understand the value of local control over land use and transportation policy, to be effective and substantive, increasingly such matters need to be addressed at larger scales, and with changes in the financial capacities and demands on local governments, smaller units of government are becoming less sustainable.

That's why I do advocate for, such as in Baltimore, the merger of cities and counties ("Opinion: What Baltimore and D.C. can do to start working better together as a region (Baltimore Business Journal op-ed).

Hennepin County and Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In doing some research on parks planning, I found fascinating a journal article about Hennepin County's Community Works initiative.

The program launched in the early 1990s and invested in parks, trails, and open space in Minneapolis as an economic development and stabilization strategy ("A County and Its Cities: the Impact of Hennepin Community Works," Journal of Urban Affairs, 30:3, 2008).

Because Hennepin County relies on property tax revenues for the bulk of its annual income and because Minneapolis comprises a disproportionate share of the county's tax base, the County Government was alarmed over the economic deterioration of the city.

The county found that except for neighborhoods around parks and lakes, the city's property tax base was rapidly declining in value.  As the property assessments declined, so did the amount of money collected in property taxes.

As a matter of risk management, the County realized they needed to to step in and invest in urban economic revitalization in order to reverse the downward trajectory of property values within the city.

Initially, they focused on the expansion of parks, open space, and trails development, and later the program incorporated the development of light rail transit service as a way to further build value in the core of the metropolitan area.

Conclusion.  Were Bethesda to incorporate and win home rule control over land use policy and practice and to adopt an anti-growth approach, likely this major economic center would start to decline in terms of its centrality, while also negatively impacting the county's revenue picture.

A need to explain and educate citizens about "how things work" today.  Like how in DC I argue that the city government has been ineffective in laying out the economic and quality of life arguments that favor selective intensification ("Zoning redo in Miami: and 21st century planning and zoning in DC" and "DC and the zoning rewrite and the approach not taken" and "The Takoma Metro Development Proposal and its illustration of gaps in planning and participation processes"), Montgomery County may have the same issue.

Montgomery County is known for particularly thorough and time consuming planning processes and sometimes the amount of time required to go through the process militates against innovation and taking advantage of opportunities as they are presented because those concepts "aren't in the plan." Nonetheless, despite the complaints, it is robust and transparent process.

Even so, that isn't enough.   Montgomery County needs to invest more time and energy in educating citizens about the economic constraints faced by the polity and how selective intensification, the addition of new transit services, and other steps can help their community become more successful and resilient, and relevant in 21st Century, and that the conditions these choices are made in are fundamentally different from the Postwar period in which all the trends favored simple choices promoting growth of any kind, rather than better choices and optimality.

Also see "The tension between planning a community's future and the present is much more complicated."

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