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