Archives December 2009

A Delicate Discussion

Today’s Washington Post has an article raising a subject that sometimes is uncomfortable: older drivers. As the more mature members of our community realize, even the best drivers’ skills often deteriorate over time. This poses an immediate and very painful dilemma for an alert, but frail, person. Driving, for many, equals independence. Losing the ability to drive, voluntarily or not, is perceived as losing some portion of life — not just freedom, as often portrayed, but parts of the things which make life still a joy to many who have seen much of it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, through most of recent history it wasn’t like this at all. Before, say, 1950, most of the community opportunities at risk from aging were often nearby and easily accessible. If not by walking, which provided needed exercise and public interactions, then by community assistance or transit.

It is only because of the rise of the suburbs, where the automobile is king, that our seniors, as a group, have become so isolated. If you NEED a car and don’t have one, then life is harder. If you don’t have one and there’s no alternative readily available, that difficulty jumps in orders of magnitude.

Walkable, sustainable communities are often thought of as merely playgrounds for the young, drawing in those who will enrich our future. But they can also be places for those who have made the future possible. This is one reason why AARP has testified in favor of the White Flint Sector Plan.

White Flint is already home to some “aging-in-place” pioneers: The Grand condominium (a very active residential member of Friends of White Flint), for example, is home to an active, educated and mature population. Paul Meyer, who has participated in dozens of White Flint meetings as representative of the Grand, points out that most of the Grand’s residents moved there because it was within walking distance of the Metro, of shopping, and of amenities. Discussions with representatives of newly-opened properties indicate that many of the new units opening in White Flint are being snapped up by seniors, and in a greater proportion than predicted.

The Post article has a secondary headline of “Car-dependent communities can become a trap.” But there’s a secondary message in the article, conveyed nicely by various analysts from the Coalition for Smarter Growth: “We need more mixed-use, walkable developments in the suburbs so that seniors can downsize and still remain within their communities,” Steve Schwartz told the Post.

You can find the Post article here:

Barnaby Zall

ACT Slams Montgomery County DOT’s Anti-Transit Policies

For Immediate Release, Monday, Dec. 28, 2009Source: Action Committee for Transit 

ACT Slams Montgomery County DOT’s Anti-Transit Policies 

The Montgomery County Dept. of Transportation has become systematically hostile to transit riders and pedestrians, charges a front-page article in the January 2010 issue of the Action Committee for Transit’s quarterly newsletter, Transit Times.  “The county’s traffic engineering philosophy,” commented ACT president Ben Ross, “is to push pedestrians, bicycles, and buses out of the way so that there are more cars on the road.”   

The 600-member advocacy group backed its charge with a five-point bill of particulars:

“That’s not even the end of it,” added ACT vice-president Hans Riemer.  He pointed out that the county DOT has stalled completion of the Metropolitan Branch bicycle trail through Silver Spring and insists that local streets should be built with wide lanes that encourage cars to move at unsafe speeds.Riemer observed that MCDOT’s policies undermine the county’s efforts to promote smart growth and non-automobile transportation.  “Our Transportation Department is years behind the times,” he said.  “The kinds of places their policies create–like today’s Rockville Pike–are often the most difficult and unpleasant places for people to live, to visit, to commute. These policies destroy community life, and they are less and less effective at promoting economic growth.  The path we are on is unsustainable.” 


Posted by Greg Trimmer

Where Do We Go From Here?

Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest, most-educated, and best-run counties in the country. Its far-sighted self-sacrifice of preserving a huge amount of green and open space as part of the “agricultural reserve” won numerous awards and is a crown jewel in the County. The County is in the midst of considering one of the most innovative “New Urbanism” master plans for development — the award-winning White Flint Sector Plan.

Yet doubts remain, on  many fronts, about where Montgomery County is going, and how it will get there. This week, two county leaders posed the same question in different publications. In the Sentinel, newly-elected County Council President Nancy Floreen said that she was mulling a new “economic development authority” to get Montgomery County back on track. “Nothing else works unless we have a vibrant, dynamic economy and right now, we don’t.” Floreen told the Sentinel, citing a rising unemployment rate in the County. She and incoming Vice-President Valerie Ervin will be presenting their new proposals to the Council when it reconvenes in January. The Sentinel article is available here:

Meanwhile, another Councilmember, George Leventhal, has an op-ed in the Gazette on the future of MoCo. Leventhal, a no-nonsense speaker who hasn’t been seen as much in the White Flint debates, raises the same points as his colleagues in a different way: “There are many economic factors that are beyond county government’s control, including the banking crisis, trade imbalances, globalization of industry and more. But one area where we have significant influence is in the direction of our Planning Board, which has substantial say in which jobs are generated and how rapidly.” Leventhal wrote in the Gazette. Leventhal pointed out that the Council will be filling two seats on the Planning Board within the next year:

As I weigh who will earn my vote to fill upcoming Planning Board seats, the following questions will be paramount for me:

– Do applicants understand that we can no longer take for granted that Montgomery County is a magnet for investment?

– Are applicants willing to see economic development as part of the Planning Board’s role and to work toward a more effective partnership with the executive and council to generate jobs and restore our county’s economic health?

– Will applicants commit to streamlining and expediting project approvals, even as we continue to provide ample opportunity for public input?

Every branch of county government must focus on the jobs crisis. If we fail to do so, the debate in coming years will no longer be how to manage our growth, as it has been in the past, but rather how to stem our decline.

 You can read Leventhal’s Gazette op-ed here:

These are not typical ruminations for Montgomery officials. They sound downbeat, even slightly alarmed. But they may be justified.

Recently news stories have looked at how government agencies and major employers are flocking to Arlington’s New Urbanism renewal areas, while Montgomery County gets some perfunctory looks and some left-over military base realignments. Brave talk of requiring new development projects to include community amenities is met by choruses of “the market won’t support that” from the beleagured private sector. “Vacancy” and “For Lease” signs dominate commercial areas. During public hearings on the White Flint Sector Plan, architectural and engineering firms pleaded for help, not for the projects they were preparing, but for their lay-offs, job losses and inability to get construction permits through the County bureaucracy, sometimes for nine years or more. Young, well-dressed, and accomplished people — the future of the County — testified they were looking for work.

Has MoCo’s “paralysis by analysis” or its legendary permitting shuffle finally put the County so far behind the curve that the recession kicked its feet out from under it? Always in the past, the County’s quality of life and proximity to power (and government money) have insulated the local economy from the worst variabilities of the economy. Perhaps not this time.

I worked in community-based economic development, part of the 1970’s anti-poverty effort, so that may color my perceptions, but I’m not sure that this new situation is that difficult to understand. And these three Councilmembers may be the right ones to pick it up. What appears to be different this time is not so much the vision or the bureaucracy. The vision, and the mechanisms which craft it, remain bright, as shown by the breadth of the White Flint Plan. Floreen’s a former planner, and knows how to look past the surface. The bureaucracy may be worse than before, but only marginally so, if war-stories of the past are to be believed. Leventhal, past his acerbic sound bites, seems to want to kick tail and take names of bureaucrats. At the White Flint hearings, Ervin absorbed the Friends of White Flint “New Urbanism” testimony in seconds, zeroing in on the carbon vs. traffic message we were presenting and discussing development in Arlington in that context and with an eye toward transferring the experience to Montgomery.

What is different now is that there are other options.  With the decline of the Web booms in the Virginia exurbs came an opportunity for Montgomery to step up. But the bio-tech industry the County was counting on doesn’t seem to have the same caloric explosiveness for Montgomery that AOL and its spawn provided to Northern Virginia. Now is the time to examine why.

Arlington, in particular, has overtaken Fairfax or Loudoun Counties as a principal competitor to Montgomery. Given the nature of the slow recovery, the principal economic drivers will be those agencies and employers who are flocking to the transit-oriented communities along the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor. The County must, in short, welcome, not halt, new development, especially the kind of stable economic interests who support sustainable growth, instead of seeking massive “campuses” and highway sprawl.

It’s good to see three of the County’s leaders thinking about these issues, and recognizing that we can have a growing economy, one which entices stable and productive jobs, without sacrificing our environment. Let’s compare the County Executive’s reaction to the Council’s, at least on the White Flint Plan: the Executive (it’s not just Executive Ike Leggett himself; it’s a whole group of Executive branch officials) thinks its job is to “raise the questions.” That’s important, but the Council, at least those writing this week, think it would be better to propose solutions. And that is the better approach, even if it is more risky for the ones who propose solutions; nothing is easier than to snipe.

But even that kind of leadership is not enough today. What is needed is not necessarily the ideas; those appear to have surfaced already. What will cement the County’s future is the follow-through; the ability to deliver on the promises. That’s always been the issue in recent years. It’s the reason the 1992 Master Plan for White Flint failed; grand ideas, never implemented. That’s what drives much of the opposition to the White Flint Plan: a fundamental fear that the County will promise big, but not perform. And, in large part, it is what gives agencies and businesses eyeing Montgomery as a possible new home, more than a little pause.

And that, quite frankly, implicates the Executive. The Council sets policy. The Executive implements it. I have no doubt that they can do so, but will they?  

Let’s hope our new Council leaders keep their eyes on the ball. We don’t need lots of new ideas; we have those. What we need is to build confidence that we will actually get things done. In a word, commitment.

Barnaby Zall

Schools and the Mall Dominate the last 2009 PHED Committee worksession

Live blogging from the afternoon session of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee of the Montgomery County Council. Morning session dealt with transportation issues; the afternoon will be spent on “land use” including zoning, particular project proposals and the “districts” the Planning Board created within the White Flint Sector.

Marlene Michaelson, the Committee staff member for this portion of the meeting, prepared a memorandum on December 4 which served as the focus of discussion the last time the Committee considered land use issues. The memo is available here:

First, though, the Committee reviewed the feedback from public facilities review by agencies: it had requested in its earlier meetings. Committee staffer Marlene Michaelson discussed “co-locating” the proposed library with the Civic Green. Councilmember Marc Elrich returned to an issue raised at an earlier meeting: the Library Department determines the need for a library based on distance from existing libraries. Elrich asked whether the need could be based on population or demand, rather than geography. Michaelson said she would talk to the Library Department.

Michaelson then said that the county Recreation Department decided yesterday that the area would need a new Recreation Center. Committee Chair Mike Knapp said, “We’ve been working on this for three years and they just decided yesterday?” The Committee also discussed the Fire Station location and said that would be the subject of a report due in January. Assuming the January report is positive, the fire station would likely be put on the Maple Avenue site.

And then the Committee took up the relatively-noncontroversial topic of school siting. Just kidding: the schools issue is one of the most explosive in the Plan. In November, the Committee supported the White Flint North location at White Flint Park.  the Board of Education met on Tuesday to discuss the school siting issue. Joe Lavorgna from MCPS reported on the Board meeting. The Board looked at six sites and is recommending the White Flint Mall South site, with three backup sites: Lutrell water tower, White Flint Mall north, and Maple Avenue/SHA property site. The White Flint Mall south site is the existing parking lot behind the medical buildings at the very south part of the Mall. Initial estimate for Lutrell site cost were $60 million. Michaelson recommended the White Flint Mall south site first, and then Lutrell. a report on the Maple Ave site will be due in January.

Robbie Breuer, speaking for White Flint Mall, pointed out that the Mall site would cost some $11 million, where the Maple Avenue site would be much less expensive. In addition, Breuer pointed out that the Mall was working with the neighborhood nearby and had agreed on a “perfect complement” for the site. Because the school wouldn’t be needed for decades, Breuer predicted that there would be a surface parking lot on the site instead. He asked the Committee to keep its options open.

Greg Trimmer, Treasurer of Friends of White Flint but speaking on behalf of JBG Companies, pointed out that this would be the third taking from the Lutrell family (Wall Park and the water tower). JBG has a ground lease for the space, and would have to be compensated as well. Any taking would also need 473 parking spaces to be replaced, and the replacement would likely be expensive and would take space from the school.

Natalie Goldberg, speaking for White Flint Park/Garrett Park Estates, said we ddn’t have time to react. We need time to comment. Put a school in the center of the Sector. Not at the fringe. Council President Nancy Floreen: we’re taking out that language on redistricting the schools. Michaelson: absolutely.

The Committee then turned to the Maple Avenue District. Much of the discussion was over heights and zoning, with some saying the language was ambiguous. Paula Harris on behalf of Washington Realty Investment Trust, said it was fairly clear to someone who had to plan a development. Michaelson said it wouldn’t be clear to those who have to review the permits. 

There was an extended discussion of the WMATA bus lot. Councilmember Roger Berliner said he was distressed that this was the lowest possible use of valuable space near the Metro station and wondered if there had been discussions about a possible land swap with WMATA. There had been some discussions, but WMATA was very defensive about the only bus facility in Montgomery County. Berliner: there’s the possibility of a win-win here, since the land is so valuable. This is a conversation we ought to be encouraging.

The “pinks” problem which bedevilled the Committee on Monday reared its ugly head again during the discussion of the White Flint Mall District. Some residents from neighboring communities had interpreted some of the zoning maps as permitting 150′ high buildings at the southern edge of the Sector, but Michaelson and Piera Weiss from the Planning staff pointed out that the height limits were actually 70′ and 50′ in that area. Michaelson: “it’s kind a pale yellow and I feel sorry for anyone who’s colorblind.”

Council President Floreen asked about when they would deal with some of the issues which affect the Randolph Hills community. Councilmember Roger Berliner seconded the question, reacting to the suggestion that an upcoming “White Flint Two” planning process would handle those issues. The Committee decided not to make a decision on the Nicholson Court area, with the expectation that it would be re-examined in White Flint Two.

The Committee ended its consideration of the White Flint Sector Plan, except for the “few items” to be reconsidered in January, at this point. Unfortunately, some of those “few” items are quite contentious and significant, such as the proposed financing mechanism (i.e., who will pay for all this) and phasing and staging (i.e., when will each important part happen). But this is the last hearing in 2009, and anything remaining will happen in 2010. The Committee wished the dozens of regular attendees  “happy holidays.”

Barnaby Zall

PHED Committee Worksession: School Site, parking,

Live Blogging from the worksession of the PHED committee.

One of big issues is where to reserve land within the White Flint Sector for a new elementary school (which won’t be needed for 16 or more years). The PHED Committee last month agreed with the Board of Education to reserve space at White Flint Park, but also asked for more possible sites. The Board of Education identified several alternatives, but one would have been within the proposed route for an extension of Nebel Street. Glenn Orlin, PHED Committee staffer, recommended that the potential site on the Nebel Street route be taken out of the discussion.

Gary Stith, speaking for the County Executive, then talked about reserving parking for members of the public. that’s part of our study, which should be back some time in 2010. Committee Chair Knapp: that’s part of a bigger issue.

Orlin: Affordable housing and public facilities proposed for the “excess” land north of the Montrose Parkway. But issue has arisen about a “park and ride” lot. I disagree with that proposal, since we generally don’t have park and ride lots in urban areas. Councilmember Marc Elrich: what about park and ride closer to 270? Orlin: looked at earlier, and there’s no place to put it. Floreen: I agree with Orlin, but only so many spaces at Metro stations. Those of us who shake hands go to all of them. We need to have Metro parking capacity. This is a demand. We have made other policy decisions that go hand-in-hand. Demand issue. Edgar Gonzalez from MoCo Dept of Transportation: we are going to be relying on buses, and in our discussions with developers, we have talked about replacing these parking spots with more. Economic development issues. We are not saying leave these at-grade parking spaces forever, but we need to look at what’s coming down the Pike, literally.

Knapp: staging and phasing elements. We’re going to have to put some language in and need to craft it during the next few weeks.

the Committee recessed until 2PM. The committee will then return to land use issues. The Committee’s land use memo can be found at:

Barnaby Zall

Planning Board MSPA Decision Stands

The PHED Committee meeting on White Flint transportation issues continues. Live blogging from the worksession.

Next issue is the Metro Station Policy Area boundary question. The White Flint Plan contemplates a larger area than the traditional MSPA. Being within a MSPA means that you can use different transportation measurements, tax rates are different, and more urban road construction standards are used instead of suburban ones. All of the MSPAs currently designated are more than 1/2 mile from their respective Metro stations. The question in White Flint is whether the wider area or the narrower existing MSPA should be used. Glenn Orlin, PHED committee staffer, the White Flint MSPA is undersized, and the council in 2007 agreed to expand it, but just didn’t get to it. So Planning Board, and Orlin, recommend to make the White Flint MSPA consistent with the others, and with the Sector Planning area.

Councilmember Marc Elrich: the MSPA captures what we’re trying to capture. If you’re not going to get the transit ridership, why are you going it? Orlin: square off the corners on the 2007 MSPA at the northeast and southeast. Natalie Goldberg: our real concern is raising the congestion standard at Edson Lane and Rockville Pike, because a lot more cars will go southbound on the Pike. That intersection’s going to be in trouble. Dan Hardy, transportation Planner for the Planning Board, that intersection is part of the circulation pattern.

Floreen: I don’t want a pedestrian unfriendly intersection. I don’t want cars just to drive fast. I want to protect the communities. I want clear rules. I think this is a distraction from the fundamental issue, which is how we are going to handle the growth policy. Let’s just pick. Robbie Breuer: why exclude part of White Flint Mall? Why would you change so that one property is divided, especially when it would affect the value of a property you want for an elementary school? There’s no magic on the 1/2 mile. Lots of variation throughout the County. Why divide this unified property that you’re counting on as part of the Plan? Perry Berman: this time representing Nicholson Court which is within the 1/2 mile. Floreen: I think it’s just too broad an area. Natalie Goldberg: Hillery Way and Flanders should be out. Orlin: they are out.

Agreed to Planning Board proposal for MSPA same as Sector boundaries.

Barnaby Zall

Old Georgetown Road: Through or Southbound only?

One of the most contentious issues in developing the White Flint Sector Plan is mobility, or in the more automobile-oriented vernacular of the Montgomery County Council, “transportation.” One of the purposes of the Plan is to transform an area dominated by asphalt parking lots and Rockville Pike into a walkable, sustainable community, where pedestrians, bicyclists, differently-abled persons, and families with strollers can be as comfortable moving through the streets as cars and truck drivers.

Today the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee of the Montgomery County Council is meeting all day, and as Chairman Mike Knapp announced moments ago, they will begin their consideration today with transportation, and try to get through as many issues as possible today. Committee Staffer Glenn Orlin opened the discussion by summarizing the first page of his memo (discussed in a prior posting, and available on-line here:

The Committee had asked whether “Old” Old Georgetown Road could be extended northbound to connect with Rockville Pike after it passes Montrose Road (it is now only southbound at the connection). The Montgomery County Dept. of Transportation testified that doing so would interfere with their plans to put a stormwater management pond in the open area. Council President Nancy Floreen responded: “We’re going to interrupt this grid for a stormwater pond?” Edgar Gonzalez, speaking for the MCDoT, said, “well, we have a grid. It’s a different grid, but it’s a grid.” He complained that we have a perfectly functional road at Executive Boulevard, and asked why we should “tear this up.” Floreen responded, “what bothers me about the Planning Board’s Plan is that we’ll have to buy all this land.” Committee staffer Orlin pointed out that under the Plan, making this a through street would make this a “local street” which is “the heart of the Plan.” The Planning Board’s version “would make this a much more developable area. It’s a trade-off.” Gonzalez interjected: “if it’s a public road, it’s yours to develop.” Dan Hardy, head of transportation planning for the Planning Board, pointed out that it was a partnership to make the area “work,” and compared it to Block 31 in Bethesda.

Floreen: everyone agrees that adding additional southbound capacity to Old Georgetown Rd. But if can’t connect to Old Georgetown Rd. northbound, you’re going to have a problem. People won’t have a way to go. Orlin: Just can’t go all the way to the Pike, but can go most of the way. Floreen: what’s wrong with having two ways to go? Orlin: takes through traffic out of core of White Flint. Floreen: it’s going to be a little sparse. Gonzalez: coming southbound you have one lane, but northbound on Old Georgetown Road, you have three. So you still have more capacity to move traffic. This is the only alternative to 270 southbound. Councilmember Marc Elrich: Old Georgetown carries a heavy load, and you’re going to solve this by making people turn on Montrose? Hardy: it’s all signalized in a grid. Elrich: you need someone to model this.

Gonzalez: through movement northbound, not southbound. Evan Goldman, Co-chair of Friends of White Flint, representing Federal Realty, if it isn’t a through street, we will turn our development away from it, because it’s the back end of our development. we’d never put anything lively or walkable there. Paula Bienenfeld, speaking for Luxmanor, said we are concerned about people going north-south who will cut-through our area (which is to the west of Old Georgetown Rd.). Elrich: what would you need to protect that? Bienenfeld: some kind of traffic calming and traffic mitigation protection. Hardy: Luxmanor has worked with DoT and they have solved the problem. Forecast is that cut-through traffic through Luxmanor will not be a problem. Knapp: Ballston, Rosslyn corridor this isn’t a problem. They have a grid system similar to what we’re talking about. Have they seen increases in cut-through traffic? Hardy: haven’t seen the problem there. They have put in improvements. They have a good grid, but their grid is more extensive than ours.

Joe Alfandre, representing the Planning Board, said that he’s gotten lost in Luxmanor more than anywhere else. “Their problem is that they have an old grid meeting the newer suburban model. There are steps that can be taken to address Luxmanor’s problems.” Floreen: “I don’t know why we’re putting this whole project behind a storm pond.” Orlin: two ponds. One part of the Montrose Parkway, and another by the Monterey. Gonzalez: water flows down no matter what the Council decides. This is the low point and the pond has to be here. Fear in Luxmanor because grid system works when you get here, but the majority of the traffic comes from 270, and that’s where the cut-through comes from.

Elrich: I’m ok with the Planning Board version. Knapp: ok, we’re agreed.

Barnaby Zall

PHED Committee Worksession December 10, 2009

The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee (PHED) of the Montgomery County Council is meeting today — all day — to continue its work on the White Flint Sector Plan. This is the fourth meeting of the PHED Committee on the Plan, and the schedule includes some backtracking on topics covered in earlier meetings: transportation and land use. Land use means zoning and density questions, including going through each “district” or part of the Sector, as laid out by the Planning Board in its proposed draft of the Plan. There are six districts, and the PHED Committee has already considered four of them in some detail. One of the biggest, however, remains: the White Flint Mall area in the south of the Sector.

I’m live-blogging this meeting (as I did almost all of the Planning Board’s meetings), so long as my signal (and battery) hold out.

Barnaby Zall

PHED Committee Staff Transportation Memo No. 2 Available

The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council continues its worksessions on the White Flint Sector Plan tomorrow, beginning at 9:30AM and continuing all day. The schedule remains fluid, with planned discussions of financing mechanisms apparently being delayed so that County Executive Ike Leggett can issue a report and recommendations on financing, perhaps in January.

Leggett has already made clear that he disagrees with the Plan’s recommendation for a comprehensive financing mechanism, since he believes that it will limit his flexibility to use money generated in White Flint for other parts of the County. At Monday’s PHED Committee meeting, Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson described the financing mechanism as the connection holding together many of the complex parts of the White Flint Plan. Leggett has said he recognizes the need for innovative financing mechanisms and has engaged a financial consultant to help prepare his report to the Council.

One of the other major sticking points with the Plan is the continuing disconnect between the Council’s traffic speed measurements and the new traffic grid in White Flint. The White Flint Plan proposes a new way to deal with congestion: rather than build more lanes on a few major roads to speed traffic through a few intersections, the Plan provides many more smaller roads, effectively doubling the number of north-south lanes through White Flint, while converting Rockville Pike to a lively boulevard.

Road Grid

The idea, used in a variety of cities across the world, is that traffic is like flowing water; drivers will find a way through slow areas by using new roads. So to speed traffic, don’t widen existing roads; provide new ones. This is the same concept which spawned the Internet: to avoid problems, provide a variety of ways to reach a destination. And it also gives the opportunity to make all the roads more pedestrian-friendly and -safe.

The problem is that the current County traffic measurements essentially time how fast cars move along various roads, such as Rockville Pike. The faster cars move, the more development can be put in an area. Seeing how fast cars move simply pushes development into less developed areas, promoting sprawl and removing any incentive to redevelop older, less sustainable areas, like White Flint. And it is possibly the worst thing you can do to pedestrians, who generally don’t want to be near speeding cars.

In fact, most drivers cautiously provide themselves more space from other cars at higher speeds, which is why faster roads carry less traffic overall. The greatest traffic “throughput” is generally at 25-30 mph, not the faster 40 mph currently in effect on Rockville Pike. Ironically, faster traffic does not mean less congestion, it just pushes the overall impact further outward (meaning sprawl). But Montgomery County primarily measures “Level of Service” as speed through intersections and along major roads.

Traffic Speeds

And oddly, despite its many faults, Rockville Pike is not considered a failure under these current measurements; the current level is an acceptable “Level of Service -D” (LOS-D), one step above the planned level. So Rockville Pike, the main thoroughfare in White Flint, fails pedestrians, the environment, bicyclists, and everyone else, but it satisfies the current traffic tests.

Traffic on Rockville Pike: we asked for it, and we got it

The Plan’s reliance on more lanes outside of Rockville Pike mean that those measurements of how fast cars move fail to capture the proposed traffic patterns in White Flint, since the Plan doesn’t add new lanes to Rockville Pike. So the old tests could fail on Rockville Pike, even though the actual number of cars moving through White Flint, using the new non-Pike lanes, may increase. This failure is called in shorthand “Level of Service E” or LOS-E.

The Council recognizes that, as in Arlington County to the south, transit-oriented development can increase density while reducing traffic. Arlington quadrupled density in areas served by Metro stations, but traffic congestion went down, because all the new people were using Metro. But the Council hasn’t dropped the old traffic measurements; instead, in the Annual Growth Policy discussions last month, the Council simply put off any specific changes for White Flint until next year.

This presents Committee staff with a problem. They are legally bound to obey the Council’s old, failed traffic tests. Yet the White Flint Plan is designed in a totally-different way — relying on transit instead of cars — that isn’t reflected in the old tests.

So the PHED Committee staff is scrambling for ways to reconcile the two controlling schemes. This, in a microcosm, is the overall County dilemma with future growth: do you continue with automobile-oriented controls for development, or do you embrace the new New Urbanism thinking which promotes walkability, sustainability, and other factors, but doesn’t permit cars to speed through intersections as fast as they would like? The Committee has asked to have its cake and eat it too, and the staff is furiously trying to come up with ways to roll that rock back uphill.

The latest version of this Sisyphusian task is Glenn Orlin’s most recent staff memo on White Flint transportation issues, available here:

Orlin begins the memo by saying: “Planning staff and Council staff will be developing and analyzing options that would reduce the proposed land use density from the Final Draft Plan in order to bring the build-out Relative Arterial Mobility no lower than 40% (i.e., staying out of Level of Service ‘E’). We will report the results at a worksession after the winter recess.” This means he will be trying to meet the old “cars-through-intersections” tests, while trying to keep the innovations of the White Flint Sector Plan within reach.

The real tragedy here is that most observers, both those supporting and opposing the Plan’s transportation proposals, agree that the current traffic tests are useless and counterproductive. Everyone wants to change them. But in the meantime, committee staff, and the Council, are tying themselves into knots trying to comply with obsolete tests without losing all the benefits of the Plan.

Barnaby Zall

Tempers Flare at PHED Committee Meeting

The seventh floor hearing room in the Montgomery County Council office building in Rockville has some of the world’s most uncomfortable chairs. Yesterday, mine had a back that wasn’t quite attached, meaning that I was pretty much slumped back, looking like I was watching TV in a recliner while the Redskins were losing again. It can also be hot and stuffy, and newly-elected Council President Nancy Floreen herself got up to adjust the windowshades so the audience wasn’t squinting that much.

But none of that mattered yesterday, since the discussions were riveting. The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee was continuing its worksessions on the White Flint Sector Plan. Mostly the Plan is sailing through Committee. Committee staffer Marlene Michaelson praised all the work done by the Planning Board and its huge citizen advisory groups: “The designs are very good.” But Michaelson, and the Committee, had substantial problems with “how the issues are presented.” One councilmember asked: “Is that parcel pink, peach or salmon?” Another replied, “I’m not sure what color it is on that map, but it’s a different color on this map.” “Maybe we should move the color guide next to the map itself so we can tell the difference?” came the reply. And Michaelson’s biggest complaint was that citizens would have to look in two different places to figure out the complicated zoning and master plan limits for a particular property.

But then the Committee started to go property by property through several of the “districts” which the Planning Board had set out in the Plan, and some fireworks sparkled skyward. Normally Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson is a grandfatherly, professorial figure, prone to long and complicated descriptions of long and complex planning arcana. But yesterday he slammed both hands down on the witness table and shouted: “That was NOT the rationale!” when Michaelson tried to explain her interpretation of what the Planning Board intended for a particular property. He then left the room, only to return a short time later and rejoin the discussion.

The disconnect was between the Board’s four-year odyssey preparing the intricacies of the White Flint Plan, the new CR Zone, and the accompanying Design Guidelines, and the Committee’s (and Committee staff’s) focus on a few sticking points which just seemed to be out of place. These three interlocking instructions give enormous flexibility in urban and architectural design, while promoting more residential development and sustainability in a walkable environment. That is the promise of the new White Flint Plan, and the Council (with a few exceptions) seems to buy into the dream.

But moving piecemeal through the details of the Plan invites Councilmembers to nitpick: “What if we moved it here?” was one question. Throughout the session, Michaelson and the Planning Board staff repeatedly endlessly that the purpose of a master plan (like the White Flint Plan) was not necessarily to be exact for each detail, but to lay out the overall pattern. One observer said the Councilmembers were “down in the weeds” when they needed to see the whole thing first. You could just sense the professional planners and attorneys in the room, who can read a description on paper and just see it brought forth intact and in context in their heads, being frustrated with we slower mortals. “Bring more pictures,” I told one planner, pointing out that the worst thing that happened at the hearing was at the beginning, when they rolled the big screen into the ceiling and didn’t show any pictures. (By the way, we have pictures of all the projects and areas being discussed, with links to both the project proposals and community reactions, on our main website, under White Flint Plan.)

Committee Chair Mike Knapp pointed out, indirectly, that the schedule had slipped. Some councilmembers had hoped to finish the White Flint Plan before the upcoming December recess, but that is not to be. Knapp noted that the financing and funding decisions will be a “January conversation.” Financing was a lively part of yesterday’s discussion, and it wasn’t even on the agenda. Councilmember Marc Elrich, who has expressed substantial skepticism about the transportation elements in the Plan, asked what the developers would get for their “upzoning,” and Michaelson replied that “the ones who are benefitting are the ones who are going to pay.” Hanson jumped in to point out that the financing piece was part of the connections between the various elements of the Plan, which prompted Elrich to comment on the “many moving parts” they were being asked to consider.

Elrich also sparked more lively debate when he criticized the North Bethesda Market project, now nearing completion on Rockville Pike, with its 289′ high tower. This was beyond the 1/4 mile area near the Metro station where growth should be concentrated, Elrich charged. “It isn’t smart growth if you just ignore it.” But Michaelson pointed out that the tower was already approved under existing rules, and the Planning staff noted that these areas, though more than 1/4 mile from the Metro station, were also on Rockville Pike, which made them more accessible to transit. Elrich then pointed out that he wouldn’t support changing “anything below Edson Lane. That’s the logical place to draw the line, and you have to draw it somewhere.”

The PHED Committee will have another worksession on Thursday, starting at 9:30AM and running through the rest of the day. The Committee plans to continue discussing the individual districts and the projects proposed for each block, as well as the financing issue and will likely return to some of the transportation issues dealt with in previous meetings.

Barnaby Zall