A Changed White Flint

A Changed White Flint

In today’s Washington Post, venerated columnist David Broder discusses a preview of next year’s report of the decennial Census, and looks at “A Changed America.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/07/AR2010050704064.html. Broder notes major shifts in urban and suburban areas, with both becoming more diverse in a variety of measures.

We’ve seen the same type of shifts in North Bethesda generally, and in White Flint in particular. But was that hope or actual change?

Throughout the four-year development of the White Flint Sector Plan, the consensus was that White Flint would offer a younger, more diverse alternative to downtown Bethesda, and certainly to the existing White Flint demographics. White Flint was to become more urban, and that would, the conventional wisdom held, mean younger, more hip, fewer kids. One development proposal was expressly predicated on the younger, more mobile population, which would snap up small, less-expensive “modules” near a Metro station, just as they have on Massachusetts Avenue in the District. Developers report that their focus groups of prospective purchasers were unanimous that there would be tremendous movement of young families and singles from townhouse communities and other options to the new White Flint. During the public hearings before the County Council, several young people testified that they wanted the new White Flint or they would simply move out of Montgomery County.

But sales in the actual new residences in White Flint have been different. The vast majority of sales reported anecdotally are to “move-ups,” senior citizens moving from “flat-land” single-family houses in neighboring communities to the new, pedestrian-friendly tower condominiums in White Flint. The demographics of the new White Flint appear to be more white hair than white light nights.

Some of this is undoubtedly economic. Rents in White Flint, at least for commercial premises, are already higher than in Bethesda. The thought was that residential rents would be lower in the new White Flint, attracting younger residents. But the advertised rents in White Flint are still sky-high: up to $4,000 a month vs. $2,000 a month in nearby Grosvenor.

Part of the rent pressure is because the potential demand is enormous. Just look at the packed single-family communities nearby; if older residents are moving into White Flint now, while the place is an asphalt parking lot-covered, strip shopping mall-dominated wasteland, how much greater will be the demand once White Flint is renovated into the walkable, sustainable, amenity-filled community that older Americans should want?

Could this upset the development applecart? Would a group of older residents unhinge the concept of the new White Flint as a lively place? Will walkers replace strollers on White Flint’s new pedestrian promenades?

You didn’t hear about this, but County Council staff seemed to want to avoid that result, on flawed assumptions. AARP and Friends of White Flint worked together to craft a proposal for a “multi-generational center” in White Flint, melding the differing groups in an active and proactive way. Council staff flatly rejected that approach, arguing only that the Recreation Department didn’t want to “isolate” seniors. Ultimately the intergenerational concept dropped by the roadside, the victim of misunderstandings about what was happening and how to deal with it, and the final frenetic consideration of the Plan in light of opponents’ attacks.

But Broder’s article also contains the seeds of the answer to the White Flint change which is different from that projected in the sales material: the movement into the suburbs is general, across racial, social, and economic grounds. And we are seeing that in the White Flint area as well. The area is becoming more diverse in many ways.

This is particularly true in “greater” White Flint, which is the area beyond the boundaries of the White Flint Sector, as outlined by the Planning Board during the planning process. There have been and will always be wealthier communities near White Flint, but there will also be more diverse and younger communities in the White Flint area. The prototype may be the Randolph Hills community, the biggest of the residential communities, to the east of the White Flint Sector boundaries. Randolph Hills is younger, lower-income, and rapidly changing. It has the most foreclosures in the White Flint area, but also the largest number of low- and moderate-income families. Its schools are bursting at the seams with local students, where the more wealthy Old Farm neighborhood to the west has long been sustained by long-distance students from as far away as behind Congressional Plaza. It used to have a nascent gang problem until a new generation of community leaders united to forge a new neighborhood identity. That new group of leaders, young and active, gives us a view of what “flat-lander” White Flint will look like in the future that is different from the “tower-dwellers” nearer the Metro.

And that is what Broder notes at the end of his column: the pre-Census report “also uncovers political struggles between the aging populations, ill-accommodated in many suburbs, and the young populations expanding into those same suburbs.” 

I heard this clearly in a recent panel of bloggers organized by the Planning Commission; the generally-young bloggers railed against the perceived tyranny of old retirees in the planning process. The same is true in closed-door sessions with Councilmembers and their staffs, where pointed questions were asked about the high participation rate of retired activists as opposed to those who were “the future of Montgomery County.”

Yet, in White Flint, the aging populations are both “accommodated” and participatory in concert with the “young populations.” Both have worked together. The intergenerational approach is already working, at least in Friends of White Flint and some other groups. Towers and flat-landers have worked together on a vision of the new White Flint, because they agreed that it would benefit both. This is tremendously encouraging, in a political sense. And in the sense of ensuring the inevitable transition among generations.

It is true that challenges remain. The most significant, in light of these demographic changes, almost hydraulic in their inevitability, is how to integrate the flat-land communities around White Flint with the projected tower communities within the sector boundaries. If you want a dispute, the easiest way to foment one is to isolate the groups; the best defense is working together so everyone has a stake in the outcome.

That is the subject of this week’s 2010 White Flint Town Hall, with neighborhood meetings and a public presentation and discussion on Thursday night. http://blog.friendsofwhiteflint.org/2010/05/04/announcing-the-2010-white-flint-town-hall-may-13/.

Friends of White Flint is holding meetings with the communities surrounding White Flint to discuss “Neighborhood Mobility Balance,” which is a fancy way of saying: “how do we balance access for surrounding residents to the benefits of the new White Flint, while protecting the surrounding communities from congestion and cut-through traffic?” We are bringing in expert Ian Lockwood from the firm of Glatting Jackson, which proposed the new White Flint street network and the renovation plan for Rockville Pike. (This approach is taking about a third of our tiny annual budget, but we think it’s important.)

Everyone is invited to participate in the meetings, especially the Thursday night meeting and presentation on “best practices.” More information on location and schedule is available at www.townhall.whiteflint.org.

So the new White Flint isn’t shaping up as the battle Broder expects in other parts of America? Perhaps that’s because we’ve tried so very hard for years to make this a consensus discussion about solutions, rather than grabbing a piece of the pie for one group or another. We invite you to join us to continue that tradition on Thursday night.

There’s a different take on the same survey Broder examined in today’s Post as well: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/08/AR2010050803324.html?hpid=newswell

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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One comment

alester174

If the new white flint hopes to attract the demographic of young professionals it’s going to have to not only become a newer cheaper alternative to DC/Bethesda/Arlington, it’s going to have to get a decent amount of night life and business’s that cater to the younger crowd. Arlington and DC have become a large concentration of these groups because of the entertainment venues that are near by. Young professionals move to areas where there are other young professionals and entertainment close by which explains the high number of them in the district and the Rosslyn/Ballston corridor. Right now White Flint has absolutely zero night life etc outside of David Busters, and if all your future neighbors are mostly going to retirees that is not really appealing to someone in their 20’s looking for a place to live, especially when the other choices are dupont, rosslyn, etc that are already established as the go to spot for young people in the region.

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