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.

Monday, November 15, 2021

East County, Montgomery County, Maryland: Council redistricting spurs ideas for revitalization | Part 1 -- Overview

--"East County, Montgomery County: Council redistricting spurs ideas for revitalization | Part 1 -- Overview"
--"East County, Montgomery County: Council redistricting spurs ideas for revitalization | Part 2 -- Some transformational concepts"

There's a great article ("In Montgomery’s long neglected east county, a new map stirs hope for stronger representation") in the Washington Post about the easternmost section of Montgomery County, Maryland.  That section of the county languishes compared to its west.

Montgomery is the 17th wealthiest county in the US, has over 1 million residents, a renowned school system, is served by the Metrorail Red Line subway, MARC train service, and local and regional bus service, as well as the forthcoming Purple Line light rail line, has a handful of major corporate headquarters, along with a number of federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, and a biotechnology cluster. 

It wrings its hands comparing its economy to Northern Virginia, especially Fairfax County, although I argue the difference comes down to NoVA's position within the military economy ("The East-West Divide | DC area regional economic development: anchors and where they are placed matter + airports | But military spending matters the most").

The Post article's hook is how the redistricting process for the County Council will result in the creation of a Council District for the Eastern County, while heretofore the area has been divided amongst many districts, which has led to underrepresentation. 

I hate to admit that I hadn't thought of the relative poverty issue between the East and West of the county in a more overarching way.  The article made me realize that the issue is bigger, deserving of a comprehensive and transformational approach. 

Montgomery County is wealthy enough and has one of the most robust planning regimes in the country, where it could take this on.  

But I am not sure it is innovative enough--not that any other community really stands out in successfully taking on such a challenge, which requires more than the typical one or two terms of a County Executive or Mayor.

10 Goals from the Dallas GrowSouth program include general and area-specific items.

Communities that have launched noteworthy anti-poverty/revitalization initiatives on this scale, at one time or another include Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, the GrowSouth program in Dallas, Richmond ("Richmond’s Poverty Problem: Lots of Attention, But Pinpointing Progress is Difficulty," Style Weekly), and Toronto.  

(One problem with such initiatives is that they are dependent on the originating elected officials staying in office, which marks the efforts in Dallas and Richmond in particular.)  

Book link.

Of course, I continually tout the success of social urbanism in Medellin, Colombia, which I believe is applicable to US settings.

-- "Experiments in Social Urbanism"
-- "Story of cities #42: Medellín escapes grip of drug lord to embrace radical urbanism," Guardian
-- "'Social urbanism' experiment breathes new life into Colombia's Medellin Toronto Globe & Mail
-- "Medellín's 'social urbanism' a model for city transformation," Mail & Guardian
-- "Medellín slum gets giant outdoor escalator," Telegraph
-- "Medellín, Colombia offers an unlikely model for urban renaissance," Toronto Star

East County lags compared to West County.  You wouldn't think such a wealthy county in the U.S. would need a revitalization program, but like many other "inner ring" suburbs, MoCo has its issues, although its eastern focus has tended to be "Down County" on Silver Spring foremost, Wheaton, as well as White Oak, and not so much a systematic approach to the eastern section as a whole, although separate initiatives by the schools ("When 'Unequal' is Fair Treatment," Education Week, 2008) and the Montgomery Housing Partnership are long standing.

Note that Eastern County issues are a bit different than traditional "inner ring suburb" issues.  Traditional issues are disinvestment as population moves further out.  By contrast, Eastern County issues are more about underinvestment more generally, and the area being the locus for poorer and newer residents than the rest of the county.

From the Post:   

Tenants at the sprawling apartment complexes in eastern Montgomery County aren’t used to door knocks from political candidates. Here, where vacant strip malls languish, overgrown fields poorly hide debris and bus stops are crowded with workers awaiting sporadic transit, residents have learned not to expect much from their local government. 

The area known as “east county” has not shared in the multimillion-dollar investments that built up downtown cores and economic corridors in western Montgomery over the past four decades. It has been neglected, civic leaders say, as it evolved into a home for thriving immigrant communities, predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, and some of the poorest residents in one of the most affluent suburbs in the nation.

Northern and Southern sections of East County.  The southern section of East County is poorer, more tenant, people of color, and immigrant, while the northernmost section is more white and homeowner but still less wealthy compared to the west.  There aren't "town centers" so much as a lot of strip shopping centers--which distinguishes west from east also.

The southern section has more crime and health disparities, and the school outcomes lag, even with the school system's initiatives to close the gap between students of color and whites/Asians.

East County doesn't have rail transit--which is the region's biggest land use concentrator--although this will change a bit with the addition of light rail, and one major road that acts like a regional highway, Rte. 29/Colesville Road, connecting Howard and Montgomery Counties and DC--which is one area where the county has already implemented Bus Rapid Transit.

In past transit writings, I've suggested that the Yellow Line subway could be turned and extended from the Fort Totten Station in DC up New Hampshire Avenue to serve Eastern Montgomery/Western Prince George's.  

And the Purple Line light rail will provide better east-west connections that will serve some of this area, but at the potential expense of displacement, as housing costs and desirability rise in response to better transit connections.  

-- "Revisiting the Purple Line (series) and a more complete program of complementary improvements to the transit network," 2019 (original series 2017)

Fear of displacement has motivated a fair amount of organizing in the Takoma Langley area ("Report: Purple Line threatens affordable housing in Langley Park," Post, 2017), led in part by La Casa of Maryland--that's why I suggested the creation of a bi-county community development corporation tasked with buying, holding, funding, and building affordable housing to maintain affordability as well as to invest in urban design, placemaking, and quality of life improvements ("PL #6: Creating a transportation development authority in Montgomery and Prince George's County to effectuate placemaking, retail development, and housing programs in association with the Purple Line," 2017).  (Although I first suggested this in 2009).

Separately, Prince George's County under former County Executive Baker had a neighborhood revitalization initiative which for a time included a focus on the Langley Crossroads area, but after four years PG moved their focus to other areas ("Maryland’s Langley Park tests yet another relationship with Prince George’s County," Capital News Service).

The new hospital opened in 2019, moving from Takoma Park.

There are a couple of significant new developments in the area, centered around the relocation of the FDA campus in White Oak ("F.D.A. consolidates at former Navy site," New York Times, 2009) which includes the 2019 opening of a relocated Washington Adventist Hospital.  

The county supports the development of biotechnology related business in the vicinity of FDA.

Redistricting will still split East County into two sections. While the article touts a new East County Council District, the reality is that East County will still be split amongst multiple districts.  The new district will be mostly north of the Beltway,  proposed District 5, shown in green, while the southeasternmost section will be part of proposed District 4, shown as light blue, and joined with Silver Spring and North Bethesda. The green district has a majority of people of color, while the light blue district is more white.  

So East County will be split between the two districts, and I suspect the issues of the easternmost section of proposed District 4 will be secondary to the issues of North Bethesda and Silver Spring.

A number of people are already running for the new "East County" seat, including some people of color.

The divides between owners and renters, people of color and whites, and northern and southern "East County" are reflected in the comments on the article, which challenge the article's conclusions about the existence of a divide.

The Post article didn't mention the Purple Line as a potential revitalization lever, although that makes sense, since it focused on proposed District 5, which is a bit outside of the light rail's catchment area. The section of the Purple Line in East County is the section shown as yellow in the image below, called the International Corridor and centered on University Boulevard.

Equity planning: Takoma Langley Crossroads/East County.  In 2013, when I first started thinking about equity planning in a more serious fashion, reflected in these later posts:

-- "An outline for integrated equity planning: concepts and programs," 2017
-- "Equity planning: an update," 2020

I wanted to apply this thinking to two areas, DC's East of the River section ("Social urbanism and equity planning as a way to address crime, violence, and persistent poverty," "Revisiting East of the River medical care: United Medical Center," 2017), and the Takoma Crossroads Langley Park section of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties.  Takoma Langley is a defining element of East County, and probably is poorer and more Hispanic than the section of East County in proposed District 5.  

Branding for Takoma Park's New Hampshire Avenue revitalization initiative.

I mentioned some of these issues in a review on the Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center, including opportunities along New Hampshire Avenue (in part under the jurisdiction of Takoma Park, which has an extremely underfunded revitalization initiative there) and I meant to write a specific entry about the Long Branch area, where a Purple Line station is being constructed, and could use some direct priming actions to construct denser housing around the station.

I didn't realize that these issues extend further northward and shape East County more broadly.    

I know about some of the development issues farther out, like in Burtonsville, which are more a matter of population density and development complications.

The Purple Line is limping along, having been delayed about two years because of issues between the State of Maryland and the original contractors.  Now they have this ironed out, with the selection of a new contractor ("New Purple Line contractors selected to resume full construction this spring," Post).

But the advantage of the problems with constructing the Purple Line is that it provides more time to apply a kind of transformational planning approach to East County, including all of proposed District 5 and the most eastern section of proposed District 4.

The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs

Inner ring suburbs and revitalization.  Montgomery County shares "inner ring" suburb decline issues with other counties elsewhere.  (Arlington County began addressing their comparable issues in the late 1960s where they adopted a plan for Metrorail on the Wilson Boulevard corridor rather than in the middle of I-66.)

This has been recognized in revitalization initiatives in Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Long Branch, although it hasn't been thought of in an overarching manner like in Cleveland or Philadelphia, because of the county's relative wealth. 

(Plus, because Takoma Park is an incorporated city, it controls some of the land in this area, and Montgomery County instead leaves it to Takoma Park to deal with its revitalization issues, but without much in the way of funding.)

-- Build a Better Burb
-- "A County and Its Cities: the Impact of Hennepin Community Works", Journal of Urban Affairs
-- First Suburbs Consortium (OH-revitalization)
-- National Center for Suburban Studies (Hofstra University)
-- 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 (ULI)
-- Reinventing America's Suburban Strips
-- Revitalizing Distressed Older Suburbs
-- "The secret to a successful suburb: Lakewood, Cleveland Heights and the Inner-ring Divide," Cleveland Plain Dealer
-- Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations

How about a  revitalization/Transformational Projects Action Plan for East Montgomery County? It's worth approaching Montgomery's East County revitalization more broadly than I had been thinking about previously, as I had limited my thinking to Takoma Langley Crossroads, Long Branch, and Silver Spring.  

Examples to draw upon include my recent articles on St. Louis:

-- "St. Louis: what would I recommend for a comprehensive revitalization program? | Part 1: Overview and Theoretical Foundations"
-- "St. Louis: what would I recommend for a comprehensive revitalization program? | Part 2: Implementation Approach and Levers"

And writings on equity planning, which I previously applied to DC's East of the River section, and Takoma Langley Park, social infrastructure/civic asset creation and programming, social urbanism, and creative quarters/innovation districts, along the lines of what I suggested for New Carrollton and Silver Spring, using the Purple Line as a priming device:

-- "Part 4 |   Making over New Carrollton as a transit-centric urban center and Prince George's County's "New Downtown""
-- PL #5: Creating a Silver Spring "Sustainable Mobility District"
Part 1: Setting the stage
Part 2: Program items 1- 9
Part 3: Program items 10-18
Part 4: Conclusion

using the overarching concept that I call Transformational Projects Action Planning, where you create catalytic projects as anchors/priming devices, to drive implementation forward.

Revitalization elements.  

Off the top of my head, using the St. Louis program as a model and the Purple Line writings, but with this proviso as the Purple Line revitalization proposals focused east-west and included Prince George's County, and East County issues are also north-south, I'd say most of the framework from St. Louis is applicable, although there are some additions.  

For details, review the entries on equity planning, St. Louis, Silver Spring, and New Carrollton.

  • Create a master community economic development plan
  • Using the Transformational Projects Action Planning framework
  • Develop new social infrastructure, using Metropolitan Area Projects approach from Oklahoma City and Medellin social urbanism as models
  • Implement through the creation of a community development corporation 
  • Focus on the preservation and expansion of affordable housing 
  • Brand as an Innovation District the biotechnology focus centered on FDA and Washington Adventist Hospital  
  • Create sub-area commercial district revitalization action plans
  • Create an overarching neighborhood stabilization program
  • Energy conservation programming
  • Environment/watershed/sustainability 
  • Create a systematic program for urban design and placemaking improvements, especially focused on promoting walking, transit, and biking (sustainable mobility) in the New Hampshire Avenue, Colesville Road, and University Boulevard corridors
  • Promote entrepreneurship and microenterprise development (the languishing "International Corridor" initiative is a good model)
  • More Sustainable Mobility improvements in addition to the Purple Line and BRT
  • More schools revitalization
  • Public safety and policing improvements
  • Create new types of public health and wellness programs to address health equity
  • (re)Branding, Identity and Positioning for East County
  • Create civic engagement and participation programs focused on integrating people of color, immigrants, and the otherwise marginalized
  • Work as closely as possible with Prince George's County on matters of mutual interest concerning the bordering sections of East County.
Part 2 won't go into each of these elements in great detail--that's what the other pieces did--but it will add some creative wrinkles to some.

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