Goodbye Surface Parking Lots

Folks who have heard me speak about the future of White Flint have heard me address the matter of surface parking lots.  At the start of sector planning, of the 430 acres identified around the White Flint metro station, 161 of them were surface parking lots.  Thirty-seven percent of our land was sitting empty most of the time as surface parking lots!  That’s a lot of space that could be used more efficiently and the ideas of infill and density were born for the area.

At the end of the build out, 20-30 acres will be for surface parking.  The rest of our cars will find spaces in parking garages, either under or attached to our destinations.  But, we’ll also be able to park once and walk to where we wish to go instead of having to drive from one end of the block to the other because a huge parking lot is in our way.

Earlier this summer, CityLab delved deeper into one perspective on surface parking lots.  Read their piece by clicking here.

We’ll be advocating for well-built, safe, and comfortable garages – will you be with us?  Our next business meeting is coming up on September 3rd.  Click here for more information on it.


Finding the Right Balance

Something we’ve been demanding for White Flint is that we strike a balance when creating spaces for people to get around.  This means that car shouldn’t be king – nor should any other group.  We must find ways to encourage people to walk and bike, but also acknowledge that many will still drive (and need to park).  For too long, road design has skewed toward vehicles and created unsafe conditions for other modes of transportation – it’s time to shift that paradigm.

Yesterday on Greater Greater Washington, our friend Ben Ross looked at the ways public funds are still being spent to prioritize the car.  One project on which he focuses is the parking garage proposed for the Bethesda North Conference Center property.  Now, this is a project that we really like.  It allows expanded capacity of conference center parking, while also allowing us to build the western workaround, which requires the realigned Executive Boulevard to cut through the existing surface lot.  But, Ben suggests that the funding of the project could be executed in a smarter way that would result in more money for increasing pedestrian-friendliness around our area.

It’s just some food for thought… we’re curious what you think.  Read Ben’s whole piece by clicking here.

Can Wall Park become more than a parking lot?

Wednesday night, representatives from Montgomery Parks led a community discussion about how to renovate Wall Park. While some residents were concerned about losing parking spaces and impacts to the Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center, others were excited about the park’s potential.

Residents vote for things they'd like to see at Wall Park. Photo by the author.

Residents vote for things they’d like to see at Wall Park. Photo by the author.

Today, the 11-acre park is home to the Shriver Aquatic Center, a small playground, a stand of trees, and a big parking lot. Planning for a new Wall Park began with the White Flint Sector Plan in 2010, which recommended making it a major outdoor gathering place.

From a parking lot to a “great lawn”

The renovation of Wall Park would happen over two phases. First, the parking lot would become what Montgomery Parks project coordinator Rachel Davis Newhouse called a “great lawn” with space for events, festivals, and smaller, informal gatherings. Developer Gables Residential would build a new, 900-space parking garage behind the aquatic center in conjunction with an apartment complex they plan to build on a property just north of the park.

The parking lot at Wall Park could become more green space. Image from Montgomery Parks.

400 of the spaces would be set aside for park and aquatic center users, compared to 260 spaces today. Accessible parking and the drop-off loop would stay where they are now.

“It just makes sense to build that all as one parking structure,” Newhouse said. “You save money to do all that at once and then it’s done.”

In the second phase, the park would be fully built out as a regional outdoor destination. The “great lawn” could get a stage and a small amphitheatre, allowing it to host live performances. Movable seating, shelters and picnic areas, could accommodate smaller gatherings.

There could also be a number of new additions, including an expanded playground, a skate park, a dog park, and a “splash zone” similar to the fountains in downtown Silver Spring and Rockville Town Square. Newhouse is also exploring food and drink options, like a park cafe and food trucks. And a “walkway to freedom” would connect the park to Josiah Henson Park, located across Old Georgetown Road, with interpretive signage and a museum kiosk.

Meanwhile, the Recreation Department wants to expand the 44,000-square-foot aquatic center, which is already the county’s busiest pool. Officials are also considering building a new recreation center alongside it, noting that the nearest facilities are the Bauer Drive Recreation Center in Rockville and the Jane Lawton Recreation Center in Chevy Chase, both of which are five miles away.

“Rather than building new, freestanding recreation centers, we’re trying to take advantage of what we already have,” says Gabe Albornoz, director of the Montgomery County Department of Recreation. The new facilities would wrap around the existing aquatic center. Albornoz expects that construction would last about 18 to 24 months, which may disrupt activities at the aquatic center.

Concerns about losing parking, safety

Newhouse gave everyone stickers, asking them to vote on what they’d like to see in the park. But many people in attendance said they didn’t want anything at all. Residents had concerns about construction disrupting the aquatic center, traffic from new park visitors, and the “environmental impacts” of removing the parking lot.

gables typical upper level plan

Plan of the proposed Gables apartment complex, including the parking garage it’ll share with Wall Park. Image from Gables.

Meanwhile, several parents of swimmers at the aquatic center worried about the loss of free parking and safety in the parking garage. One parent who lives “one mile away” in Luxmanor said she drives her kids to and from Shriver “8 times a day, 7 days a week.”

“I’m tired of parking being taken away,” she said. “I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t go to Bethesda, I don’t go to Rockville. It’s not fun sitting in traffic.”

Albornoz insisted that the parking would be free for aquatic center visitors, perhaps by using validated tickets, like at the Rockville Library. He also said that the aquatic center could add a second, rear entrance to the aquatic center to reduce the walk from the parking garage.

Paul Meyer, member of the White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee, proposed a covered, lighted walkway similar to the one between the Music Center at Strathmore and the parking garage at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station. “Nothing’s totally safe, but you can make it pretty safe,” Meyer said.

“We need this kind of amenity”

Meyer noted that several thousand new homes are being built in White Flint and will need amenities to serve them, like those proposed at Wall Park. Meanwhile, the developers of those new homes are being taxed to pay for those amenities. “I think we’re thinking of this as a single property,” he said. “It’s a piece of a puzzle. A small piece.”

One resident of the Georgetown Village condominium says that the park will give kids in White Flint much-needed places to play. “We’ve been fighting tooth and nail for more playgrounds,” he said. “We need this kind of amenity . . . I know people are frustrated with a lot of aspects of this, but I’m looking forward to it. It can’t be built fast enough.”

There are still a lot of questions with the Wall Park plan. There’s no cost estimate yet, and there’s no final design, so it’s unclear how the aquatic center will be affected during construction.

But that’s no reason for people to automatically reject the idea of making a better park, especially one that will benefit many people in White Flint. People often complain there isn’t enough open space in Montgomery County’s urban areas, and renovating Wall Park is an opportunity to create more of it.

The Montgomery County Planning Board will review a preliminary concept for Wall Park in conjunction with designs for the Gables project at a meeting on Thursday, October 24. Depending on when the Western Workaround gets built, construction on the parking garage and apartments could start by “mid-2015 at best,” according to Eddie Meder, development associate at Gables Residential, meaning that work on the park could soon follow.

White Flint Implementation Highlights

The White Flint Implementation Advisory Committee met on Monday night at Shriver Aquatic Center.  The highlight of the meeting was a parking study of Woodglen Drive and the surrounding area.  Spurred by the proposal to remove six metered parking spaces along the east side of Woodglen, in order to install a bike lane, the County’s DOT undertook a parking study of the entire area to ensure capacity would meet demand.  Three of the parking spaces are near Security Lane, in front of a synagogue, and the other three are right near the entrance of Whole Foods.

The study was an interesting look into the mechanics of seemingly small decisions.  Although the removal of six spaces seems inconsequential, the study looked for any ripple effect that might be caused.  To do this, the study defined a wide area of White Flint and inventoried all parking options, including on-street and garage.  They then spent three days in April, a Thursday/Friday/Saturday, monitoring the spaces for parking turnover and duration data.  While the coveted 80 on-street parking spaces in the vicinity of Woodglen Drive and Executive Boulevard experience high usage, the peak usage in the three days was at noon on Saturday with 93% occupancy.  At its Friday peak, at 7pm, the spaces were only 75% occupied.  So, capacity does exist at all times.

As anyone who shops at Whole Foods knows, those three spaces that are slated for removal are nearly always occupied, and there’s often a fourth car illegally parked right at the corner.  But, even though those spaces are frequently used, there is enough capacity in the immediately surrounding area to compensate.  Many meters on Executive Boulevard are 12-hour meters, which encourages all day parkers to leave their cars on the streets when garages or lots are better options.  The purpose of a meter should be to encourage turnover so that convenient parking is available when a patron is ready to pop into a business.  Cars left there all day block this purpose. The recommendation is that these meters be converted to 2-hour meters for this purpose.  A “repositioning of the system” should alleviate any stress caused by the removal of the three spaces and, overall, capacity in the general area looks good.

The Whole Foods garage offers two hours of free parking.  Its peak usage was at 7pm on Friday when it was 93% occupied.  But, otherwise, occupancy never exceeded 80%.  Paladar Latin Kitchen is offering free valet parking – but the valet stand is in the middle of the future bike lane at the moment.  So, we’ll be checking in with them for their plans on that.  Construction on the bike lane project begins next month – click here for more on that.

New parking regulations are looser, but not enough

Is this space best used for cars, or people?

Montgomery County’s new zoning code will allow less parking in new developments in order to use land more efficiently and encourage alternatives to driving. However, the regulations still require parking in ways that will hinder the walkable urban places the county wants to build.

For 4 years, the Planning Department has been revising its complicated, unwieldy code, which sets rules for how buildings and neighborhoods are laid out. First written in 1928, the code hasn’t been updated since 1977, when the county was still mostly suburban. The new code will go before the County Council in a public hearing June 11.

Under the current code, buildings must have lots of parking, even near transit or in areas where most people don’t drive. The new parking regulations are simpler and allow developers to build fewer parking spaces, though they do require other amenities, like bike racks, changing facilities and spaces for car sharing or carpools.

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Wall Park to become more “flexible,” get Gables apartment building next door

gables and wall park site

Wall Park today (in green) and the future apartment site (in red) with new streets outlined.

Today, Wall Park at Nicholson Lane and Executive Boulevard is home to a playground, a basketball court and the Shriver Aquatic Center. In the future, it could not only become White Flint’s main outdoor hangout, but a place to live as well.

Representatives from Montgomery Parks and developer Gables Residential presented their plans for a revitalized Wall Park and an adjacent apartment complex at the White Flint Implementation Advisory Committee’s monthly meeting last Monday. They would share a 900-space parking garage behind the aquatic center, which would allow the park’s surface parking lot to be replaced by a community green.

The two projects are made possible by a new street network called the Western Workaround, intended to create an alternative traffic route to Rockville Pike. Executive Boulevard would move east and connect to streets in Pike + Rose, while a new east-west street called Market Street would be built between Executive and Old Georgetown Road. This creates a new city block north of Wall Park where the apartments would go. The Western Workaround is still being designed by county transportation planners, according to Dee Metz, White Flint Implementation Coordinator.

Rachel Davis Newhouse, a landscape architect and planner for the Parks Department, describes the new Wall Park as White Flint’s “primary recreational destination.” The park would be built in two phases, starting with the parking garage and the parking lot’s replacement, a “large, open lawn” measuring about 200 feet by 360 feet, a little more than half the size of a football field.

Newhouse wants to create “interim” programming for the lawn, like concerts and festivals, to get activities happening there sooner rather than later. It’s also an opportunity to test-drive ideas for the park’s second phase, which would add features including dog parks, a new playground, and sports courts. Wall Park’s existing forest buffer along Old Georgetown Road would preserved and get picnic tables and a “natural play area” where kids could climb logs or play in the dirt. Meanwhile, the aquatic center would get a 15,000 square foot addition, while a new 35,000 square foot recreation center would be built behind it.

With limited space, Newhouse emphasized the need to create versatile areas that could compliment each other as well. For instance, the sports courts could accommodate multiple sports, while a skate park could be designed as a sculpture, making it public art as well. A plaza could accommodate farmers’ markets or an outdoor dining area for food trucks, which Newhouse hopes to attract to the park. “Not everything can happen in this park, but with flexible spaces they can be used in different ways,” she said.

Wall Park’s location on the future White Flint Recreation Loop means it’ll be connected to the rest of the area with foot and bike paths, while a special kiosk could help guide visitors to Josiah Henson Park two blocks away. Named for freed slave Josiah Henson, that park is home to the plantation that inspired the classic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Rendering of the new street, or "via," in the Gables complex.

Rendering of the new street, or “via,” and bridges in the Gables complex.

John Malone, development director for Gables, previewed their concept for an apartment complex north of the park on what’s currently a 3-acre surface parking lot. They propose building three 6-story apartment buildings containing between 450 and 500 apartments and 31,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space along Executive Boulevard.

Two of the buildings would flank a new street that would connect to the park and Marinelli Drive, while a third would face Old Georgetown Road. Since the site slopes from east to west, the buildings would step down towards Old Georgetown Road, providing a transition to the single-family homes on the other side. Each building would have its own courtyard and direct access to the parking garage.

Renderings Ashtary showed suggested that the complex would be built in a modern style, with large glass windows and private balconies. Each building would have different materials and finishes to create the “feeling it’s built over time,” he said. “Each building has its own identity.”

gables typical upper level plan

Upper level plan of the Gables complex, showing the new street and bridges crossing over it.

Architect Daniel Ashtary of Torti Gallas and Partners described the street as a “via,” a sort of courtyard wrapped by bridges that connect the two buildings, some of which would contain apartments. He compared it to Bethesda Lane, which Torti Gallas also designed.

While the bridges allow residents to access the apartments’ common areas and parking without going outside, it also takes them off the street. Not only does this mean fewer “eyes on the street” to improve public safety, but it also cuts the complex off from the larger community. The bridges also obstruct views of Wall Park, which would be a very desirable amenity to many residents, and they might be worth reconsidering.

However, members of the advisory committee were more concerned about the proposals’ shared parking garage. “Based on the numbers I’ve been playing around with, you’re about 1000 spaces short,” said Paul Meyer, who lives in the Wisconsin condominium. Each unit there has 2 parking spaces, he noted, adding, “I will guarantee that everyone who is in their 30’s or 40’s and has two people [in their apartment] will have two cars.”

Nkosi Yearwood, the county’s lead planner on the White Flint Sector Plan, noted that the point of the plan is to reduce car use, and that changing demographics suggest that future White Flint residents may not bring cars at all.

Both proposals are far from finished. Newhouse hopes to have a public meeting where residents can offer their input on the park design soon. Once the design is finalized, it’ll go to the Planning Board for a sketch plan presentation, presumably some time later this year. Meanwhile, Gables plans to file a sketch plan for the project in May; if it receives all of the necessary approvals, construction could begin in 2015 and last for about 2 years, meaning it could open by 2017.

Higher Parking Rates Start Today in White Flint

Parking meters are an urban staple and, with increases across the country effective January 1st, some downtowns are charging a premium for them. Similarly, starting today, it’s going to cost a bit more to visit the White Flint district by car.  As part of the North Bethesda Transportation Management District, White Flint’s on-street meters are increasing to $1.00/hour from the previous rate of $.75.  Parking convenience stickers, used at the lot on Montrose Road and Rockville Pike, have increased to $123 per month.

So – start thinking outside of the car when traveling around White Flint. Once the sector plan comes to full fruition, you’ll have a choice of public transportation options to reach the area and, then, be able to walk to the various amenities!  Until then, pop a few extra quarters in your pocket.  Even better, don’t forget that many White Flint-area meters take payment via ParkNOW‘s Pay-By-Cell option!

See more on the County’s website:

Learn about other ways around White Flint and North Bethesda at the North Bethesda Transportation Center website: