With apologies to the late author Douglas Adams, whose birthday was celebrated by Google this week.
Meetings of the White Flint Implementation Committee are usually snoozers. The acrid smell of chlorine wafts through the air at the Shriver Aquatic Center as engineers and designers struggle to explain incomprehensible slides.
But not tonight.
Tonight the State Highway Administration and its partner the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (“McDot”) unveiled their plans for “Montrose Parkway East,” the extension of the Montrose Parkway past its existing terminus at the newly-redone Chapman Avenue, running all the way to Viers Mill. This was the first public discussion of the design plans for the new extension of Montrose Parkway.
As soon as the slides started, so did the gasps. Evan Goldman, an architect and one of the leaders of the movement to pass the White Flint Sector Plan, leaped out of his seat, with a loud: “This is a disaster!” He wasn’t alone. The slide presentation stopped as residents and others in the room began to protest loudly. All four of the transportation planners rushed to protect their drawings, which ran along one wall.
In one misguided moment, roadbuilders could destroy the New Urbanism of White Flint, and punish low- and middle-income families. And they argued for pushing forward as fast as possible, “accelerating planning” in one explanation.
Step back a moment. White Flint is justly praised as a new design for Montgomery County, a shining New Urbanism area, where transit, walkability and sustainability meet soaring buildings and bustling retail streets. You can see it rising daily with construction cranes at Pike & Rose and the new Aurora building at North Bethesda Center, and the crowds at the Whole Foods at North Bethesda Market.
But among all the glitz and hustle, there’s another side to White Flint. The eastern side of White Flint is dominated by the vibrant Randolph Hills neighborhoods, home to thousands of workers and families. They aren’t as wealthy as those in the heart and western side of White Flint. They are more diverse, and they have more children. Someone once said that eastern White Flint is the “workforce housing” for White Flint.
They live, literally, across the tracks. One of the biggest problems in White Flint planning is the lack of east-west crossings, caused partly by the CSX railroad tracks that cut off Randolph Hills from the rising White Flint glamour. We’ve been trying for years to figure out a way to bridge that gap. The geography works against us; they’re little hills, but hills nonetheless.
And now the alternatives proposed for Montrose Parkway East will make that worse, not better. “Alternative No. 1” for the eastern portion would wall off one of the few remaining east-west crossings, by cutting off Randolph Road before it reaches the tracks. Eastern White Flint residents will have to divert north for a couple of blocks, make a turn and swoop down the new highway extension to reach the rest of White Flint. The other alternative is less drastic, but even then, traffic will be diverted north as well.
The reason for this cut-off? The traffic planning agencies, using a federal “accident prediction model,” think that there will be a lot of rail-automobile accidents at the at-grade train crossing on Randolph Road. “People will DIE,” is the mantra. But when asked about alternatives to walling off neighborhoods, the transpo experts were mute.
And that’s what we’re really talking about here. The Montrose Parkway idea is 1960’s thinking: “let’s create a big pipe for cars to race through Montgomery County from Viers Mill to 270.” It’s that old “automobile as king” mentality, saying that we can’t do rapid transit, but we can build more limited-access highways. And if we cut through, or cut off, neighborhoods, well, them’s the breaks. That was, some may recall, why the Earth was destroyed in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe, to make room for an intergalactic off-ramp.
And what’s worse, this is being done in violation of every MoCo tradition of public participation and discussion. We all know how MoCo planning works: meetings and more meetings. We held 200 meetings for the White Flint Sector Plan.
How many public meetings have been held on Montrose Parkway East? Zero. This was the first. The next one is at the Planning Board on March 21.
Yet the design work is already 30% done; a simple request to wait until the Master Plan for White Flint 2 is started was met with “we’re too far along to stop and listen now.” And, oh yes, the funding is already there, so we can’t stop now, even if the money could be used so much better for, say, the Western Workaround to allow us to rebuild Rockville Pike. It’s like Adams’ Vogons, who, when faced with complaints about the impending destruction of Earth, say that protests are too late, because the notice was posted on a planet only a few lightyears from Earth.
We’ve heard this before – with the Montrose Parkway West. It was already well underway when the White Flint Sector Plan was begun. So it couldn’t be stopped, and we now have those odd loops and slow traffic signals at Montrose Rd and the Pike. And the bridge carrying Rockville Pike over Montrose Parkway West? It’s too narrow for the rapid transit planned for the Pike. A glorious example of Vogon planning at its best.
So, since that part of Montrose Parkway went so well, we’re going to do it again. Only this time, it isn’t the wealthy communities of western White Flint that will bear the brunt; it’s the working families struggling on the east side, across the tracks. The planning for White Flint 2, already two years behind its earlier schedule, would look comprehensively at Randolph Hills and other areas that will be cut off by the extension of the Montrose Parkway. A little delay, so we could, say, THINK about what this does, might go well.
Douglas Adams might be weeping in his grave, but he did warn us about the danger of letting off-ramps overwhelm neighborhoods. Sometimes you destroy worlds, just so cars can move a little faster.
** Updated 3/12/13 at 4:53pm. Follow this link to see last night’s presentation for yourself: WF advisory Group presentation Full