Archives June 2010

FoWF Board Meeting July 13

The Board of Directors of Friends of White Flint will hold a meeting on Tuesday, July 13, at 7PM at the offices of Federal Realty, 1626 E. Jefferson, Rockville.

The tentative agenda includes:

  • a presentation by Casey Anderson on bicycling in the suburbs: (1) where do bikes fit into the suburban-but-urbanizing transportation network, (2) why don’t more people ride bikes for utilitarian purposes in the suburbs, and (3) what are the implications for public policy of the answers to the first two questions?;
  • a discussion and likely adoption of a process to review and recommend on proposals for development projects in the new White Flint; and
  • a discussion of the current delay on adopting a plan to finance the infrastructure needed for the new White Flint.

The meeting is public and guests are welcome.

Barnaby Zall

“Talk to Me” Part Two

Right after last month’s 2010 White Flint Town Hall meeting on Neighborhod Mobility Balance, I flogged about lessons I learned from Ian Lockwood about traffic calming and design. The principal lesson was that modern traffic design is a form of communication. The environment “talks” to drivers, telling them whether it’s okay to go fast or whether they should slow down to avoid kids or because they have entered a “special place.” It isn’t just physical barriers, which simply redirect the problem onto someone else’s street. You need to get inside the driver’s mind, figure out the problem, and then craft a “win-win” solution. That’s better design.

Today’s Washington Post has a front-page article illustrating that point, in reverse. New York Avenue is, and has pretty much always been, a big mess. Big street, LOTS of traffic, lots of signs, lots of street lights. New York Avenue gives mixed messages; it “talks funny.”

new-york-traffic-jam.jpg

The Post points out that drivers get frustrated sitting at these lights for miles and miles, and then when the street widens, they zoom off — only to be caught by a roving speed camera. The word that springs up is “unfair.” A professor opines that it’s not fair to deny these drivers their “freedom,” which they associate with a green light. But a police spokesman notes that it’s not unfair to require people to obey the law.

They’re both right. But missing the point. This is the same frustration which causes drivers to honk when speed bumps are put in on streets which appear to permit faster driving. It’s not unfair to enforce the laws, but it IS unfair to expect drivers to instantly pick up on the real problem: a mismatch between messages the environment is sending (“you can go FAST here”) and the traffic regulations (“you must go SLOW here”).

Drivers “hear” the environment “talking.” If traffic designers talk “wrong,” then it is unfair to expect the drivers to hear “what I mean, not what I say.” And the police shouldn’t just ignore the problem; they should be at the forefront of those who press for a solution — through design.

One of the solutions modern communications-oriented design suggests is that giving drivers something to look at and something to do helps to curb the need to speed. And often it’s cheaper, since good signage is a lot cheaper than widening streets. And it can help an area at the same time it’s handling traffic. For example, instead of just having an easily-ignorable sign which says “Slow,” how about having a sculpture holding the sign instead? People would notice it, and having noticed it, would be more likely to obey. Plus, done well, it could be artistic and interesting, instead of an interruption in neighborhood aesthetics for a big yellow, reflecting thingy.

That’s the difference between traffic islands which “redirect” traffic (which slows drivers) and those which just sit there in the middle with a few forlorn bushes and sagging plants (and have no effect on traffic). There may be an opportunity for D.C. in that principle: since the problem area on New York Ave. is right in front of the Arboretum (which is still a pretty nice place to go, by the way), use the environment to communicate to drivers that putting the pedal down is not appropriate, even if they are frustrated. Use the Arboretum to communicate with the drivers that there is something special here which they should look at. Might be as simple as some Arboretum-related signs, plantings or amenities on the street, instead of a blank streetscape which makes the Arboretum look like IT is the intruder in the environment (“How dare they plant a tree by the side of the road? Someone might crash into it!”), rather than the cars. Let the frustration bleed away slowly instead of being released in a pent-up burst, and you serve more than one purpose.

Of course, D.C. needs the money these speed cameras bring in. So probably nothing that enlightened will get done. But we can hope?

Barnaby Zall

Tysons White Flint

Today’s Washington Post has a front page story on the Fairfax County Supervisors’ approval of a plan to revise and improve Tyson’s Corner. Tyson’s, headquarters for many huge corporations and home to the regional supermall, is a quintessential “edge city,” built up over decades without plan or limits, into a behemoth wobbling on only three legs — there’s essentially no residential living in Tysons.

The inevitable problem with not having residences in a dense community is that the car becomes king. The guiding logic behind “New Urbanism,” the philosophy behind the White Flint Sector Plan and Montgomery County’s planning shift toward urban density centered around Metro stations, is to reduce dependence on automobiles by putting people near everything they need. Which means having them LIVE near their work, schools, shopping and fun.

The Tysons renovation is designed, in large part, to develop just this sort of complete community:

The proposal permits Tysons to become a city of office and residential towers with sidewalk cafes, boutiques and manicured courtyards. It also calls for energy-efficient buildings, affordable housing, park space and a new street grid to filter local traffic. A planned circulator bus system would ferry riders among future Metrorail stations, offices and shopping malls.

“Tysons is a downtown. While it may not be a municipality, it will be a community,” Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), whose district includes the employment hub, said before the vote. “Tysons is not going to be an auto-oriented environment. It’s going to be walkable for the people who live there and for the economy.”

Sound familiar? It should. The Tysons and White Flint planning processes have been going on in parallel for years. In fact, there has been significant intellectual sharing between the two planning groups. The White Flint Advisory Group — the group of outside advisors to the Planning Board which began its deliberations in 2006 — expressly modeled some of its first plans on the same sort of discussions from Tysons. The final report of the Advisory Group included some of the vision and goals, discussed in several Advisory Group meetings, developed by the similar Tysons group.

So it’s not surprising that the two visions are similar: walkable, transit-oriented, sustainable.

But there are also big differences between the Tysons plan and the White Flint Sector Plan: Tysons is much bigger and much denser than White Flint. Tysons is also much more transit-oriented, planning four new Metro stops on the new “Silver Line.” Ironically, though it includes a similar new “grid” of streets to promote walking, it’s likely that the sheer size of the Tysons community will result in retaining a greater automobile-dependence than White Flint. The new Tysons is built around four new 1/2-mile walking zones, but it’s unclear whether people will take the Metro for a mile or so to change from one “zone” to another. (Tysons will also have a circulator bus system to promote better circulation within the overall community.)

It will be an interesting experiment to see if Tysons can make the New Urbanism model work in such a large and heavily-used area. Some people believe that the New Urbanism model can be too small, as in the new Rockville Town Center; now we’ll see if it can also be too large.

[UPDATE: Thursday’s Washington Post had a front page article on the obstacles to the new Tyson’s proposal. Mentioned just in passing was the need to finance the infrastructure redevelopment; that’s the issue which is currently holding up the White Flint Sector Plan, which was approved by the Montgomery County Council last March. The Post article doesn’t describe any similar political/County Executive staff dawdling on the Tysons financing.]

Barnaby Zall

Montgomery Heritage Days this weekend

This weekend is Montgomery County Heritage Days, with a full calendar of events celebrating the County’s long and storied history. For more information, see http://www.heritagemontgomery.org/content/heritage-days-0.

One of the Bethesda opportunities is for the Josiah Henson Park site, which is only open twice a year. The “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” park, at the corner of Tilden Lane and Old Georgetown Rd. (in the Luxmanor community), is one of the most historic sites in White Flint, and will soon be made into a public park. This year it is only open for three and a half hours on Sunday, June 27.

Here’s the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and the Riley Plantation farmhouse, built during Josiah Henson’s tenure as “superintendant” of the plantation around 1800:

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” from MNCPPC, www.josiahhensonsite.org

Heritage Montgomery’s write-up says:

1. Josiah Henson Historic Site (Uncle Tom’s Cabin)
Sunday only
11420 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda
301-650-437                       
www.JosiahHensonSite.org
Guided tours of the Riley farm where Josiah Henson lived and worked as a slave from 1795 to 1830. Reverend Henson’s 1849 autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tours every half hour from noon to 3:30PM. Park at the Montgomery Aquatic Center at 5900 Executive Boulevard.
 

Barnaby Zall

Plans for Josiah Henson Park

Happy Josiah Henson’s Birthday!

Josiah Henson, from www.uncletomscabin.org

How appropriate that the Parks Department would hold a community meeting to begin the public participation portion of the planning for a park to celebrate the internationally-famous author, abolitionist, minister and former slave, whose 1859 autobiography was the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In 2006, Montgomery County purchased the land at the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Tilden Lane to form the Josiah Henson Special Park. The County plans to convert the main house, dating from 1800-1815 and the attached log cabin, into a public museum to celebrate the challenging and inspiring life of Josiah Henson, to educate about slavery in Montgomery County, and to promote interest in Montgomery County history.

When you walk in Montgomery County, you step in the footprints of slaves who built this area. The echoes of their footsteps are faint now, and fading fast through the years. But some of them were giants, and their strides changed this country and the world. Now the County is striving to preserve what it can of their lives, and doing so by celebrating one of the most influential authors to live in Montgomery County, a former slave who taught himself to read and write, and in doing so, led Harriet Beecher Stowe to fictionalize his work and change history. As the Park and Planning website notes:

The impact of Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, cannot be underestimated. Published in 1852, it broke all sales records of the time and sold over half a million copies by 1857. It inspired and enflamed the abolitionist movement in the mid-19th century and many believe it helped to propel the American Civil War.

Because of the historical associations of the Josiah Henson Site there is perhaps no property in Montgomery County that conjures up images of slavery and the slave experience as much as this resource. The goal for the interpretation of the Josiah Henson Site is to accurately portray Henson’s life and the Maryland slave experience as well as to explore the impact of Stowe’s novel

The museum will be part of Montgomery County’s effort to tell the story of the African-American experience within the county parks, centered on Henson’s incredible life story. Henson, through his travels and his fame from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” may have been one of the most widely-known residents of Montgomery County at the time. As shown in the play and movie “The King and I,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was known even in isolated Siam. The museum will join the other County efforts to educate about slavery and life in early Montgomery County, including the Underground Railroad Trail Experience, which also includes information about Quaker heritage in Montgomery County.

josiah-henson-park-sign.JPG

 The park planning process is just beginning, and the Planning Board has already scheduled a public hearing on the park plan for September 23, with a follow-on “facility planning” meeting for November 2010. Tonight’s meeting was to start getting public input on the park and how it would interact with the White Flint Sector Plan, the surrounding communities, and transportation and parking needs.

The site is one of 110 historical buildings preserved by Montgomery County, and Cheryl Spicer, one of the chief planners, pointed out that it is in the “top 20” for the County because of its historic character. The Isaac Riley plantation stretched across the area which is now the Luxmanor community (the current park site is the little patch of green on the right side, just off Old Georgetown Rd.):

Isaac Riley’s Plantation

 But now for the bad news: the little log cabin we were all told was the real “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?”

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

According to analysis of the tree rings in the wood, it was built in 1850-51, twenty years after Josiah Henson escaped to Canada. It’s not likely that Henson actually lived in the cabin.

Nevertheless, he did live on the plantation, and was the “superintendent” from 1795 to 1830. He was there when the attached house was built over fifteen years. It was his detailed and gripping description of slavery in Montgomery County which captured the attention of Americans and listeners throughout the world. The County wants to use the entire park to celebrate his remarkable life. Henson himself was well-traveled, and the Parks Department has prepared a map showing where he lived:

Josiah Henson’s travels

  The plans now call for the museum to be open some time in 2012. Until then, the County plans to have the facility open only twice a year (and by special arrangements), including during the June Montgomery County Heritage Day. This year, the cabin will be open on Sunday, June 27. Parking will be at Wall Park on the other side of Old Georgetown Rd.

Barnaby Zall

The End of the Beginning?

Royce Hanson, 78, was honored yesterday for his long service as Chairman of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Hanson served twice as Chairman, during two pivotal eras, first, 1972-81, creating the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve (which preserved green land in a wealthy and dense county) and then, since 2006, as the down county shifted from a purely suburban character to a more urban setting. More info. His term ended last week, and the tribute/farewell was for his “third retirement.”

He led the Planning Board in its development of the White Flint Sector Plan, the first Montgomery County master plan to fully embrace the concept of New Urbanism. He presented the Plan to the first White Flint Town Hall meeting, sponsored by Friends of White Flint, in September 2009.

Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson at 2009 White Flint Town Hall

 Most of the MoCo power elite turned out for the tribute speeches in the mid-afternoon heat yesterday, including Congressman Chris Van Hollen, County Executive Ike Leggett, Council President Nancy Floreen and other councilmembers:

Cong. Chris Van Hollen and FoWF Board Secretary Ken Hurdle

 Cong. Van Hollen and FoWF Board Secretary Ken Hurdle (left) 

Hanson, Councilmembers Berliner, Trachtenberg, Floreen, Knapp and Leventhal, and Executive Leggett

(Royce Hanson, Councilmembers Berliner, Trachtenberg, Floreen, Knapp and Leventhal, and County Executive Leggett)

Royce Hanson made people think, and he liked to talk to people who had thought. He could summarize complicated concepts simply and clearly, but his folksy style hid the fact that he was proposing radical changes. He was a comforting authority figure, whose well-founded self-confidence easily slid onto his listeners. He combined that intellectual and forward-thinking spirit with a zest for organization which taxed those who could barely keep up with him.  He often clashed with Councilmembers, whom he thought of as too willing to bend to every passing comment and complaint. (The Washington Post had an article yesterday on this conflict.) He especially resented the fact that the Council staff often tried to function as a super-planning agency; in more than one hearing where the Council staff attempted to characterize the purpose of various proposals, he would get up and leave the room until his unhappiness subsided.  

Hanson represents an interesting set of innovative concepts in planning, shifting the County from blind growth to protection of green space, from suburban sprawl to planned density in “urban” areas, from automobile-centered transportation planning to transit-oriented communities, and from simple zoning for each area to complex, incentive-based zoning proposals designed to generate more public amenities at lower cost.

Though all of the speeches rightfully honored Hanson for his many contributions to the development of Montgomery County over forty years, there were hidden tensions and confusion. Council President Nancy Floreen promised him yesterday that “We will do better.” Councilmember Marc Elrich, who didn’t attend yesterday’s event, told the Post that Hanson “often ignored other views” about not “wrecking the place.”

Now, with the County leadership consumed by financial problems brought on by the recession, a lingering question remains: As Hanson was being feted for bringing Montgomery County planning into the twenty-first century, would the cash-strapped County slip back?

Only time will tell.

Barnaby Zall

Cities Try Bike-Sharing

On the heels of the IPO of Zip-Car, an automobile-sharing service, comes an article about a service sharing bikes. Today’s Washington Times (yes, in some parts of White Flint, the print edition of the local paper is back) has an article focussing on Minneapolis’s bike-sharing programs.

I just returned from a trip to Minneapolis, which has many features highlighted in the White Flint Sector Plan, including a bicycle culture. “Minneapolis, which recently was named the most bike-friendly city in the U.S. by Bicycling magazine, has 128 miles of bikeways – on and off the streets – and is adding an additional 35 miles this year.” Even in the winter, many urban Minnesotans ride bikes to work.

Minneapolis converted the historic Old Stone Arch Bridge into a bicycles-only bridge over the Mississippi River:

Old Stone Arch Bridge

and a busy downtown street into Nicollet Mall, a bus and pedestrian mall running from the heart of downtown to the lakes and parks area just to the west:

Nicollet Mall

One big difference between the new bike-sharing programs in Minneapolis and some earlier, failed programs, is that the new bikes have a built-in computer chip monitor, so so riders can be responsible for damaged or stolen bikes.

But with the level of bicycle-consciousness in White Flint (Friends of White Flint began as a bicycle-oriented residents’ organization), maybe a program like this one could be popular.

Barnaby Zall

Public Meeting on Josiah Henson Park

One of the most significant historical sites in White Flint is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a small log structure attached to a house at the corner of Tilden Lane and Old Georgetown Rd. The cabin was purchased by Montgomery County in 2006, and Park and Planning has said it will be turned into a museum for Rev. Josiah Henson, the former slave, turned author, whose autobiography formed the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel.

Josiah Henson, from www.uncletomscabin.org

The cabin has been mostly closed to the public since its purchase, with a small sign saying the cabin is not yet open to the public. Throughout the White Flint Sector Plan development process, the Parks staff had been telling residents that it would have an inclusive public process for making decisions on area parks, and it appears that the new Josiah Henson Special Park will be the first for that process.

One of the biggest issues will be parking. The site is simply too small for much parking, and there is no parking on busy Old Georgetown or at the crowded intersection nearby. At the few events held at the park already, parking was difficult, with most patrons sent to the Wall Park/Montgomery Aquatic Center parking lot across Old Georgetown Rd.

On Tuesday, June 15, at 7PM, Park and Planning will hold a public meeting at Tilden Middle School, 11211 Old Georgetown Rd., to talk about “future development of Josiah Henson Special Park.” Note: this is the new Tilden Middle School, formerly Woodward High School on Old Georgetown Rd., not the old middle school on Tilden Lane.

Shirl Spicer, the Museum Manager for the MoCo Department of Parks, sent a notice out last week announcing the meeting. Spicer will also take written comments or provide more information; her telephone number is 301-650-4373.

The Gazette ran a story with background on the process and the cabin.

Barnaby Zall

Knapp Won’t Seek Re-Election

Montgomery County Councilmember Mike Knapp, an upcounty Democrat, won’t run for re-election this year, he announced yesterday. Instead he will start a new business offering services to life sciences companies interested in coming to Montgomery County. Knapp chaired the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee which first considered the White Flint Sector Plan for the Council.

Councilmember Mike Knapp

[Update: here’s a Gazette article on Knapp’s decision.] 

 Barnaby Zall

Financing Watch

It’s been eleven months since the Planning Board proposed a financing mechanism for White Flint. It’s been nine months since the Montgomery County Council first began public hearings on the White Flint Sector Plan, including the financing plan to support the new infrastructure. It’s been six months since the County Executive first began proposing financing options for White Flint. It’s been five months since the Council Committees began considering the County Executive’s financing proposals. It’s been three months since the Council unanimously approved the White Flint Sector Plan. It’s been two months since the County Executive became so bogged down in budget negotiations that even the prospect of $7 BILLION from White Flint redevelopment couldn’t shake the financing plan loose. It’s been a month since the County Council made some very hard decisions on the budget.

Which of these is the right measure of how long we’ve waited for a financing plan?

Barnaby Zall