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, May 08, 2018

Metrorail as a revival mechanism for the inner suburbs: Takoma Park

In the area, we acknowledge, sort of, despite the fact that Metrorail doesn't run so great now, that unlike many other metropolitan areas where the inner ring suburbs that first supplanted the center cities went on to be supplanted later by development further out from the core, most of DC's inner suburbs are doing quite well.

Prince George's County is an exception, because the path of their Metrorail lines mostly avoided serving extant areas, so it didn't have the kind of revival effect it has elsewhere.

In DC while many people now take it for granted, virtually all of the neighborhoods served by what I call the monocentric core of the Metrorail system -- from Van Ness on the northwest to Brookland on the northeast and Foggy Bottom on the south west, Navy Yard on the south, and Stadium-Armory on the southeast -- have revitalized, decidedly.

Compared to other inner ring suburbs in other metropolitan areas like Cleveland, Alexandria, Arlington County, and many of the communities served by the Red Line in Montgomery County, especially Bethesda, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and to some extent Rockville, are successful, even if they have issues ("My Pleasant Suburb is Going a Little Bit Crazy: How Allison Silberberg Became Mayor of Alexandria," Washingtonian Magazine).

This almost universal process of continual outward expansion has been written about definitively by Sam Bass Warner in the book Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900.

He followed that book with one about Philadelphia, The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth.

The processes he describes apply to the development pattern in virtually every US metropolitan area. These days, in many regions, inner ring suburbs are desperately trying to revive themselves.

-- First Suburbs Consortium (OH-revitalization)
-- The Quest to Confront Suburban Decline: Political Realities and Lessons
-- Burbs Going Bust, infographic

While the decline of inner ring suburbs is acknowledged by historians, geographers, and planners ("The Decline of Inner Suburbs: The New Suburban Gothic in the United States," John Rennie Short, Bernadette Hanlon, and Thomas J. Vicino. Geography Compass, 2007), it's not so much the case in the DC area.

In fact, research by GWU professor Christopher Leinberger states that the DC area has more "Walkable Urban Places" than just about any other place in the nation.

Also research demonstrates a positive link between housing prices, neighborhood stability and transit service.  And research demonstrates, at least in areas with the right urban form ("Transportation and Urban Form: Stages in the Spatial Evolution of the American Metropolis," Peter Muller), that proximity to high capacity transit service, in particular rail, is associated with greater transit use.

Takoma Park.  The reason I have been thinking about this is because Sunday was the annual Takoma Park historic house tour and I volunteered as a docent.  That meant I could look at the houses for two hours, and then I had a two hour shift in a particular house. This particular round I learned tons of stuff.

Historical interpretation board, Opal Daniels, Historic Takoma, Takoma Park, MarylandOne is that I learned there is an Opal Daniels Park -- NOTE TO Montgomery County Parks Department ("Montgomery County, Md., has 421 parks. This guy wants to visit every one," Washington Post) which doesn't have a sign on Carroll Avenue so how do people even know about the park if they don't live on the west side of the street?

At the reception for the tour held in the park, there was a cultural history placard posted about Opal Daniels, the park's namesake. 

As I was photographing and reading the sign, a guy who turned out to be Buddy Daniels came up to me and said he was the son of the person the park is named after and he could answer questions, so we started talking.

It was a great conversation. This is what I found particularly interesting:

He said that the Metrorail station "saved" Takoma Park, that before it opened the city was declining, that not many people used the railroad.

But with Metrorail (and yes, he discussed fighting the not very good station area development plan that residents got the city to drop), he said that people started moving back into the city after a period of time.

... including government workers who could use transit passes on the Metrorail, and people with children, and this began rejuvenating the community (comparable to Arlington, which we didn't discuss, which was on the decline as an inner ring suburb before the creation of Metrorail).

I asked him about the railroad commuter service before Metrorail and he said that not many people used it to get to and from work by the 1960s. 

Not unlike how the service today between inner ring suburban communities like Kensington or Riverdale Park to DC on the MARC lines is very infrequent, by the 1960s only two trains provided service to Union Station in the morning, and there was just one train that stopped at Takoma at night

(Although there was more frequent service to nearby Silver Spring--7 trains in the morning and 8 trains at night.  Note too that there was service on Saturday and Sunday too.)

That make sense.  Compare it to today, where there are multiple subway trains serving the station each hour, in both directions!

He said Takoma experienced real estate booms in the early and mid 1980s, the early and mid 1990s, and of course in the 2000s, as a result, and it made a positive difference in terms of maintaining the historic building stock -- which as people know is not always cheap to maintain, especially because Takoma houses are also known for large lots.  (He did point out zoning restrictions on apartments, which made for a somewhat homogeneous community.)

Anyway, given how many people in Takoma Park talk about the Metrorail station and plans for development there, you'd never have any idea that Metrorail has been essential to the stabilization and revival of the core of the City of Takoma Park.

-- "Takoma's Brookland moment: some opposition to apartment development on the WMATA station site," 2013
-- "The Takoma Metro Development Proposal and its illustration of gaps in planning and participation processes," 2014
-- "Design of the apartment building at the Takoma Metro: offering better design cues," 2014

(Interestingly, I don't know why, Takoma Park's housing prices have hit a plateau.  Maybe because of high taxes -- they have both a city and county tax.  A house that we knew just sold for $784,000.  While it had a bad rear location backing onto Ethan Allen Ave., a car sewer, inside the house is huge and has a beautiful front yard.  But now renovated, smaller houses in my neighborhood are selling for significantly more.)

Arlington.  In talking with the then County Manager back in 2006 at the Arlington County Fair (can you imagine another community having a whole row of local government booths at their county fair or city festival and the booths being staffed by a wide range of employees, including the county manager?) he mentioned how when Metrorail was being planned, Arlington County was losing population.

And that the elected officials at the time figured out that "hitching the County to Metrorail service," but threaded within the County along Wilson Boulevard, with five stations from Rosslyn to Virginia Square, instead of within the I-66 median which was the original plan, they had a good chance at reversing the county's then declining fortunes.

They completely changed the velocity of the county's position as a successful community.  Although these days, the County has issues too with being supplanted by development further out and the high cost of desirable housing.

-- "How one DC suburb set a gold standard for commuting," NPR
-- "When Metro Came To Town," Arlington Magazine

Bethesda and Rockville.  When the Red Line opened, Montgomery County developed a suburban bus system designed to ferry people between home and station without having to use their cars. More recently, these two places (Bethesda isn't incorporated, Rockville is) have been successful more recently in attracting business to sites located adjacent to Metrorail. Although it's been tougher for Rockville to leverage Metrorail given its farther out location amidst a car-dependent land use and transportation planning paradigm.

Silver Spring
. Has issues, and has problems maintaining a successful position as a location for commercial office, but the development of multiunit residential continues apace, and the County has developed Downtown Silver Spring into a very successful night time and weekend destination for people of all ages, with a decent but not perfect retail offer, and a number of cultural attractions.

But you can't rest on your laurels.  The thing is that to remain successful and attractive, communities need to be dynamic and constantly improve, and assess and address problems and changes to economic, social, and community circumstances.

In communities like Takoma Park or various DC neighborhoods, many people are content to be static, believing it was stasis, not other factors, that led to the community's success and maintaining those elements, mostly without change, is key to success in the future.

But the reality is different and 21st century conditions require different approaches and recognition that development patterns of 100 years ago can need tweaking for today.

Wayfinding signage, Alexandria, Virginia waterfrontAn example is Alexandria.  The above cited article on the mayor's race there from Washingtonian Magazine is fascinating. 

Some segments of the community and especially the business community, sees their waterfront as losing out to new developments in Prince George's County--National Harbor--and DC--the Wharf, Navy Yard, and Buzzard's Point, where a new soccer stadium will open later this year.

It's an example of how at some point, remaining static is a losing proposition, because your competitors, at least the ones who are best at it, keep improving.

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At 3:32 PM, Blogger Edward Drozd said...


In re Takoma Park, I can't imagine how anyone can deny that MetroRail was instrumental to Takoma Park's stabilization and revival. At least speaking for myself, my wife and I wouldn't have paid anywhere near as much money for our house if Silver Spring (vs. Takoma) were the nearest Metro stop, and we live almost as close as one can be to the Silver Spring Metro as one can in Takoma Park. It boggles my mind that anyone could think otherwise.

In re house prices, it presumably has to do with property tax. My understanding is that, for the same assessed value, Montgomery County property tax rates are higher than DC's, and property tax rates in TP are about 50% higher than Montgomery County's. The PV of those extra taxes do add up.

In re Bethesda and Rockville vs. Silver Spring, just look at where CEOs and other executives live. Martine Rothblatt lives in Silver Spring, and United Therapeutics is there, too, instead of in Bethesda.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Wow. I do know about the research about CEOs and business location. (E.g., why Hilton went to Fairfax, etc., or places to CT or Boca Raton.)

Thank goodness that Martine Rothblatt lives in Silver Spring! United Therapeutics is the shining star now of Silver Spring's commercial office market, especially with Discovery leaving.

... I didn't mean to say that a lot of people don't appreciate Metrorail (e.g., I say the most important thing that happened to H St. was the NoMA Metrorail Station, because of how it changed demand for living north of H Street).

But in all these development discussions, Metrorail is seen more as a scourge than as an ongoing benefit.

The discussion I had with Buddy Daniels was telling, because obviously, I wasn't here then, and how he described the changes that resulted is what we talk about in transit planning. But too soon after people forget.

When I first came here in 1987, I happened to do some work with contractors at Clarendon and Virginia Square and so I saw what those areas were like then. So different from now. Not unlike the difference with H Street today.

But people forget pretty quickly. And we need to constantly recommunicate about the value of transit to quality of life in our communities, not just housing demand and price appreciation.

(WRT the house I mentioned, I was shocked only because I'd been in it, and it was a "killer house," ideal for combining our household with Suzanne's aging parents, except for the back yard problem... well, the kitchen needs work but it was a sweet house and they had some great furniture items which made it even better. + a totally, completely awesome porch. Our bungalow seems to be one of the only ones ever constructed without a great porch, for which bungalows are known.)

At 7:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just read the Washingtonian article about Alexandria. So much truth.

At 8:15 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

United will be bought out soon. CEO is unstable and wants out. PAH is a big area but they otherwise don't have much of a future. JnJ thought about buying them last year but went with a european PAH drug.

At 8:20 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

if that's the case, that's not good for the outlook for hcommercial office market in Silver Spring. (Plus they bought a couple buildings on Connecticut Ave. in DC. DK what that's about.)

At 9:41 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Didn't know about Connecticut Ave acquisitions. Looking at them I can't image they would go anywhere.

I was going to write this on your big piece on "bio tech" a few weeks ago but there is real industry struggle here. Biotech is turning into basically Boston/San Diego. SF and NYC might be secondary. Nobody else gets a chance.

there was a good piece recently on how NYC is having a hard time.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger David said...

Actually, despite your anecdote, housing prices in Takoma Park are escalating rapidly, from the historic district to the beighborhoods near the purple line. The taxes are marginally higher thwn Montgomery County overall. A property assessed at $500k would pay about $2k to the city government... compared to about $6k to the county. Despite popular perception, Takoma Park is about
50% renters. It is an extremely diverse community. The City abuts Langley Park/Prince George’s County and has an aggressive rent stabilization program.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

David -- Hmm. Thanks. True, I forget about all the renters. The other thing that I didn't mention is that there are two Takoma Parks, the "core" made up of "historic housing" and the sections outside (e.g., towards U Boulevard and New Hampshire). Note that wrt taxes a $500K house would pay at max about $4500. (It's less if you've lived in the house for awhile, because then actual taxes lag the assessment).

charlie -- didn't know that about biotech but of course, given clustering, I can see things shaking out like that. Still, that doesn't mean that MD can't have a secondary cluster because of NIH and the other assets.

Interesting about SF. I guess because IT is so dominant that biotech has subsided somewhat. Genentech being acquired, etc.

Even so, wrt what I wrote, it would still make sense to do a medical science campus adjacent to a new UMC as a "priming device" for St. Elizabeths.

... the other thing though about the two dominant clusters... remember how no IT ventures would stay in PGH, despite the presence of Carnegie Mellon and Pitt? That led to Florida's book?

Now they built up enough critical mass that is no longer the case, even though it will never be like the Silicon Valley, Maybe there is still room for secondary centers like SF and NYC (and MD), even though they will always have a ceiling on what they can achieve and how much they can grow?

At 5:11 PM, Blogger David said...

You’re not quite right on taxes. $4500 to the county plus $2K to the city, so you’d be pushing $7k a year. There is between the wars housing throughout the incorporated city. My house (located near Washington Adventist U) was built in 1936 but is not in the historic district.

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

David -- sorry, I was referring to DC in that sentence, but I didn't say so specifically.

At 12:39 PM, Blogger David said...

Got it. There is Takoma and then there is Takoma Park. Confusing!


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