Time For Our Leaders To Walk Across Old Georgetown Road

That smoke you see rising over White Flint isn’t from (prohibited) autumn leaf burning, it’s the flame war that has erupted over the Montgomery County Department of Transportation’s plan to plunk a “commuter thoroughfare” in the middle of the new walkable, sustainable, bikeable White Flint Sector Plan. Of course, like everything MoCo, it’s not that simple, and the flames obscure a significant trust issue that no one’s talking about.

When I last sat down with County Executive Ike Leggett on the White Flint Sector Plan, I was representing Friends of White Flint, this community-based organization including residential associations, employers, and property owners in White Flint. In the three years leading up to the adoption of the White Flint Plan in 2010, Friends of White Flint held over 200 community meetings to educate and activate the public. We knew what the community thought about the County and its planning processes. I told Mr. Leggett that the County had a trust problem: people believed that the County promised big but later changed its mind and did something else.

Mr. Leggett looked me in the eye and said “That’s a valid point. But that won’t happen this time.” And he kept his word, delivering – along with the County Council – the needed road funding over the last four years.

So why the disconnect between Leggett’s office and the County Department of Transportation? Both sides seem to be saying the same thing, but acting in different ways. And – beyond the trust question – that seems to be the real problem here.

There’s an old adage: “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The more modern useage: confirmation bias. You tend to focus on what you’re comfortable with.

The Montgomery County Department of Transportation has a vital job: moving cars through a jurisdiction with a million people. People in Montgomery County, like people everywhere, hate traffic congestion, pollution, climate change, sprawl and all the things that come with the automobile-centered society we have built over the last fifty years. They hammer on the County Executive, Council and agencies to do something about traffic. Then they get in their cars and contribute to the problem. So MCDoT has a tough job: moving traffic in a community that wants it all.

Right now, Old Georgetown Road is a major road on the western edge of the White Flint Plan area, curving at its far northern end to dump thousands of cars a day onto Rockville Pike. People new to the area think the function of Rockville Pike is to move cars, like a pipe, as quickly as possible through White Flint. But there’s more than one way to move a big volume of traffic: you can have, as we do now, one big, really, really fast pipe, or you can have, as the White Flint Plan directs, a lot of smaller, safer, slower streets so people can get around accidents and traffic snarls.

The first way – the big pipe with fast cars and no pedestrian or bike safety features – leads to pedestrian fatalities, like last month’s death of 24-year-old Aaron Papirmeister on an eight-lane section of southbound Rockville Pike in White Flint. The second way’s like the Internet, designed with lots of pathways so no single blockage stops its traffic.

White Flint is part of the County’s official policy of improving neighborhoods so they are more walkable, safer for bikes and bicycle commuters, and less reliant on automobiles. It’s a sophisticated, non-coercive approach to traffic planning, designed to communicate with drivers about appropriate speeds, and protect fragile flesh from tons of metal and glass. We’re not going to ignore the people who live “in-between” here and there so others can speed through on their way to somewhere else, but we’re going to let everyone get where they want to go quickly and safely through careful and sophisticated traffic management. It works in lots of places, like Arlington County, where a huge increase in residents and offices hasn’t resulted in an increase in traffic. So, the White Flint Plan calls for slowing, narrowing, and sharing even the most major roads, while increasing the “street grid” by giving drivers a variety of options for moving through White Flint.

Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike are part of that planned transformation. White Flint is being designed – and now being built – for residents, pedestrians, bicycle users, rapid transit, and, yes, even drivers. Buildings are rising. Seven restaurants are scheduled to open in the next two months in Pike & Rose, the new planned urban center just north of the section of Old Georgetown Road we’re talking about. People are already living in Persei, the new “mixed-use” residential building on Old Georgetown Road.

And all those people expect Old Georgetown Road to be walkable, bikeable, and not a “commuter thoroughfare.” After all, it’s what the County promised, not just in evanescent discussions, but in the official White Flint Sector Plan, adopted in 2010, and now four years old.

Which makes the Montgomery County Department of Transportation’s current plan for the two east-west blocks of Old Georgetown Road just south of Pike & Rose surprising. In June 2013, MCDoT revealed its plans for that short section of road, and the words were encouraging; Bruce Johnston, MCDoT’s transportation engineering chief, told the County’s White Flint Implementation Committee: “We want to provide an environment that’s pedestrian and bicyclist friendly and will encourage people to get out of their vehicles.” But their plans didn’t actually do that; their plans included eight traffic lanes and a 40 miles per hour speed limit, much higher than where Old Georgetown Road travels through Bethesda. The White Flint Plan calls for only four traffic lanes, bike paths, wide sidewalks, and more; none of that was included.

Why? Johnston said because of “the anticipated [vehicular] traffic volume on that road.” In other words, we have to ignore the sophisticated (and proven) plans to handle “the anticipated traffic volume” in favor of making it more difficult for bikes and pedestrians.

Still, it was only a preliminary “35%” plan, and at least they were saying the right things about their intentions. But that tension between community, planners and MCDoT primed the community to watch for the same sort of evasion of the White Flint Plan in the future.

In the meantime, those two blocks were “improved” to include narrow sidewalks with wires and poles plopped directly in the middle. Not easy for pedestrians, strollers, or wheelchairs to get around. And no bike lanes. Not particularly reassuring.

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So last week, MCDoT revealed what is likely to be in its “70%” plan for the same two blocks. The result, almost exactly the same: eight traffic lanes, not four; no bike lanes; no pedestrian medians or other safety features; still the “anticipated traffic volume” as the driving force.

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Above, what we expect from MCDOT’s plan. Below, what we expected under the sector plan.

The community, which had been primed to watch for just this sort of thing, exploded. In just 24 hours, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s office received hundreds of letters from residents complaining about the Old Georgetown Road planning.

The response? County assistant chief administrative officer Ramona Bell-Pearson sniffed at the residents’ complaints: “It seems like enough is never enough.” Ken Hartman, regional services director for Montgomery County, called the residents’ characterizations “disingenuous.” MCDoT said that it would build the two blocks one way now and then rebuild the road again later. County officials blamed the state of Maryland.

Which brings us back to our two ways to move traffic: one big pipe or many little, safer, slower pipes. We have learned we can’t build enough roads to handle the problem; there simply isn’t any more space to build big new roads “down-county.” So we have to maximize what we have. And we can do that, like Arlington County has, through careful and consistent management and planning. We know what to do, but we actually have to grit our teeth and do it.

And the County and state transportation agencies are slowly – ever so slowly – moving in the right direction. At a recent Friends of White Flint meeting, a representative of the Maryland State Highway Administration talked about “communication with drivers” as an important part of their current planning. That is a breakthrough; before planners would try to simply impose their wills on drivers, but now they are beginning to try to understand and work with drivers instead.

But because that change is slow and because MCDoT has as its main priority moving traffic as fast as possible – and most important because of that trust issue with unfulfilled promises – what one side sees as slow progress, the other sees as “sabotage.”

And they’re both right. Slow progress can be seen as “slow walking” something to death. Seeing interim solutions as “sabotage” can be seen by the other side as “enough is never enough.”

Issues of trust, rubbed raw by years of conflict. What we are left with is a lot of smoldering feelings, ready to erupt in flames at the least provocation.

Time for Mr. Leggett to step forward again. Let’s have another public commitment.

Ike, come down and walk across the eight lanes of Rockville Pike, or Old Georgetown Road. Make your statement right there. Make that statement clear. Montgomery County Department of Transportation should become the Department of Mobility, to reflect the new direction the County must move in. Embrace it, and the community that has asked for it. Set the tone again.

You’ll see that community vigilance can work both ways: to help you achieve your commitments (and enhance the County in the process) and to illuminate those times when County agencies aren’t quite getting your message.

Mt. White Flint Rises

You might not know it now, but traffic-choked, overhead-wire-tangled Rockville Pike actually sits atop an ancient trail that follows the ridge of a local chain of hills. Who knows what tales the buried stones could tell, echoing the movement from white-tailed deer paths, to indigenous peoples’ footprints, to settlers’ wagon tracks, to the arrival of the first smoky, noisy automobile?

It’s one of the highest points around, which is why WSSC has placed a giant “standpipe” (water tank) at Executive Blvd. and Woodglen to keep pressure in the area’s water system (and why we’ll never see WSSC take that down, even though the Planning Board would like it as a park). It’s also why all the new developments have to take into account the changing elevation as the ground falls away from the Pike.

And now, soaring above the ridgeline, is a new peak at the corner of the Pike and Montrose Parkway. I don’t know that it’s been christened, but I call it “Mt. White Flint.”

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As Kilimanjaro rises above the African plain, so too does the new mountain dominate the landscape. (Or, if you’d like, since it’s manmade, perhaps as Space Mountain rises above Disney World?)

So, why, you might ask, is there a huge mound of dirt cheek-by-jowl with the Pike, at the northern entrance to the new, revitalized White Flint?

Actually, says Tommy Mann of Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is building the new Pike and Rose development on that property, it’s a feature, not a bug.

They dug up all that dirt on their site, and rather than paying to have lots of dump trucks haul it off, then paying more trucks to bring it back for landscaping or fill, they’ll just keep it there for a while and use it. He didn’t use the term “locovore,” but it’s the same idea: save the fuel, keep the air clean, etc. by keeping things local. Sustainability, which they try to keep in mind.

So, not to make a Mt. White Flint out of a molehill (sorry), but how about using that big pile for recreation in the meantime? Perhaps supplement the climbing walls with something more earthy? Probably not a wise move, for insurance reasons. But maybe they could use some of the new, artiste-adorned fencing to screen it a little? Or color it, like Chicago does the Chicago River on St. Paddy’s Day? Hold a contest to decorate it? Plant something on it? Just sayin.’

Barnaby Zall

 

Vogons Come to MoCo

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

Why Did the Chicken Cross Rockville Pike?

 

Why? To reach the Bus Rapid Transit stop.

 

A new study of Bus Rapid Transit options in Montgomery County has County officials scrambling to avoid egg on their faces. The officials who commissioned the new study (paid for by a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation) received the report in December, but the Washington Post broke the study story today.

To summarize: Bus Rapid Transit for the entire County doesn’t seem to make financial sense, because there isn’t enough demand to support it in most places, and the alternatives (driving yourself) are too easy. “The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a New York firm commissioned by the county, said the MD 355/Rockville Pike is the only corridor where demand for service and plans for new construction justify bus rapid transit. Redevelopment underway in the White Flint section of North Bethesda is expected to create 3,000 housing units to replace traditional shopping malls and parking lots over the next decade.”

Critics, however, are crying “fowl,” pointing out that this study, which relied, in part, on comparing Montgomery County to some megalopolises in Latin America, isn’t the final word. (We usually compare Montgomery County to similar areas near major metropolitan areas in North America, but putting all your eggs in one basket isn’t a good idea.) Sometimes you have to invest to generate demand. Remember “if you build it, they will come”?

In New Urbanism terms, people use cars because they have to go somewhere they can’t walk or take transit. So you build things close so people don’t have to drive; that’s the White Flint philosophy: you won’t drive because you don’t have to.

But you can’t entice people out of their cars if there isn’t an existing transit alternative. “Hey, we’ll build it soon if you don’t drive now” is another way of saying there isn’t enough current demand for transit. So you’d have to force people out of cars, through parking restrictions or something equally ineffective, which would just aggravate people without any commensurate benefit to the environment. Shades of “speed bumps” instead of more effective communication with drivers (as Friends of White Flint showed in its 2010 Annual Meeting).

Bottom line: how you interpret the study depends on your “chicken-and-egg” perspective (OK, I’ll stop the feathered metaphors now). Which comes first: the development pulling transit demand, or the transit demand driving development? There are good arguments on both sides.

The one place where BRT will make sense, and everyone seems to agree on that, is Rockville Pike – in White Flint. This area is already one of the biggest retail and economic drivers in the entire state of Maryland, and that will only increase as the new developments bring both work and people.

But Bus Rapid Transit, like almost everything in Montgomery County, is a hot political topic. With the political balance in the County shifting to the heavily-populated down- and East-County areas, an expensive proposal like this one has to be shown to benefit all parts of the County. In White Flint terms, this is because something to benefit just Rockville Pike is a non-starter politically, even if it’s the logical place to start. We found that sentiment time and again while promoting the White Flint Sector Plan. “Wait,” we would argue, “we’re going to generate BILLIONS in new tax revenue for the whole County, but you’re saying we can’t do it because it will be seen as a boost to a rich area?”

Fortunately, the MoCo powers-that-be understood investments that benefit everyone can be placed somewhere, shall we say, not as politically-neutral. And we got the Sector Plan approved so everyone, everywhere in the County, can benefit over time.

Let’s hope the same intelligent analysis is applied to the new BRT study. The fact that there’s not enough demand for BRT everywhere isn’t a good reason not to start somewhere.

Friends of White Flint Annual Meeting, February 21, 2013

Friends of White Flint 2013 Annual Meeting

February 21, 2013 7PM

Friends of White Flint will hold its 2013 Annual Meeting at 7PM on Thursday, February 21, 2013, at JBG’s offices, 4445 Willard Avenue, Suite 400, in Chevy Chase. Immediately following the Annual Meeting presentations, the FoWF Board will hold a Board meeting. Both meetings are open to the public, and all members of Friends of White Flint are encouraged to attend.  RSVPs are welcome, but not required, by emailing Info@WhiteFlint.org.

 

The Annual Meeting will include reports from Directors and from Executive Director Lindsay Hoffman on progress in White Flint, and in Friends of White Flint. Like White Flint itself, FoWF went through some substantial changes in 2012, and this is a good time to hear about them.

 

In addition, the Annual Meeting is part of the 2013 FoWF Board nominating process. Each year, one Director is elected (or re-elected) to a three-year term from each of the three groups of voting members: Residents, Businesses, and Property Owners/Developers. Associate members are not eligible to vote or be nominated to the Board.

 

This year, the terms of FoWF Co-Chairs Suzanne Hudson (Residents), Barnaby Zall (Businesses), and Evan Goldman (Property Owners/Developers) are ending, and need to be filled. The existing Co-chairs were the founding Chairs of FoWF and may run again to be Directors.

 

Any member of FoWF is eligible to be nominated for election to the Board in the appropriate category. A person may nominate him- or herself or may be nominated by someone else. Nominations will be accepted by e-mail in advance of the meeting until February 20, and may be made during the meeting from the floor. Nominees will have to fill out a nomination form (available here: 2013 Election Nomination Form). This year’s elections process is on an accelerated timetable to accommodate the meeting schedule.

 

The actual election will be by vote of the Board of Directors at the meeting following the Annual Meeting. In addition, after the vote for Directors, the Board will elect officers for the upcoming year. The Board will also consider a resolution amending the Bylaws to clarify that Directors remain in office until the election of their successors. The Board may consider other matters as well.

 

Hope to see you at the 2013 Friends of White Flint Annual Meeting!

 

By Barnaby Zall

FoWF Board Meeting Monday May 21 at 7PM

The Friends of White Flint Board of Directors will hold a meeting on Monday, May 21, at 7PM at Federal Realty, 1626 E. Jefferson.

The meeting will feature a presentation on funding future FoWF activities through an increase in membership contributions, and a proposal from a vendor to provide services to manage and operate FoWF for the next year. Absent these plans for funding and operations or some reasonable alternative, FoWF will likely go dormant or cease to operate.

The meeting is open to the public, and you are encouraged to participate in the discussions.

As always, thanks for your support.

Barnaby Zall

Bike Sharing in White Flint? McDoT Forum Nov. 29

Bike sharing is a new concept similar to Zip-Car and other automobile-sharing programs. You rent a bike for a period of time from a public location and return it when you’re done. Red bike sharing sites are popping up across the Washington area.

In Montgomery County, bike sharing programs are envisioned in Rockville and Shady Grove. The new White Flint, with its increased bicycle-friendly mobility structure, would also be a good place for bike sharing.

Now the Montgomery County Dept. of Transportation is soliciting comments on new bike sharing locations. Here’s their announcement:

Bikesharing Locations: Your Input Needed

 The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) invites public input on bikesharing locations and opportunities in the area of the county stretching from the D.C. line to the Beltway along the Metrorail Red Line including, Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Forest Glen, & Wheaton on the East Leg, and Friendship Heights, Bethesda, and Medical Center along the West Leg.

 Public Forum: Please attend a public open house on Tuesday, November 29, from 6:00pm–8:30pm, to provide your comments on the County’s grant application to the Maryland Department of Transportation to obtain funding for this bikesharing initiative. The event will take place in the lobby auditorium of the Executive Office Building, 101 Monroe Street in Rockville, a short walk from the Metrorail Red Line’s Rockville station.

 What to Expect: The meeting will consist of a short presentation on bikesharing and an open house to solicit input on locations for bikesharing stations in that area.

 Background: This effort is part of a larger MCDOT initiative to institute bikesharing throughout Montgomery County to increase options for non-automobile travel.

 Questions: Email mcdot.CommuterServices@montgomerycountymd.gov.

 McDoT, with its “auto is king” mentality, has long been a thorn in the side of New Urbanism activists, putting, for example, nearly-useless surface parking lots in White Flint when there are lots of other possibilities. http://blog.friendsofwhiteflint.org/2010/04/28/from-the-people-who-brought-you-more-surface-parking-in-white-flint/

It’s good to see McDoT waking up to alternatives to the car.

Barnaby Zall

$6,666.67 per page White Flint Amenities Wish List Report is now Available

In June, the Montgomery County Department of General Services held two meetings to receive public input on the location and exact description of the public amenities proposed in the White Flint Sector Plan. http://blog.friendsofwhiteflint.org/2011/05/23/white-flint-charettes-june-1-16/. The charettes followed months of controversy about the consulting contract, and especially the cost. http://blog.friendsofwhiteflint.org/2011/04/12/do-you-know-who-youre-hiring-april-11-meeting-of-white-flint-implementation-committee/, http://blog.friendsofwhiteflint.org/2011/04/13/diane-schwartz-jones-responds-to-concerns-about-public-amenities-charette-process/.

The consulting contract was for $100,000. The report was finally released today, and can be found at:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/DGS/DBDC/RegionalProjectPages/BethesdaProjects/Resources/WF-Final-Report.pdf.

The report is brief, with 15 pages and lots of tables in the appendices, but essentially boils down to a list of features requested by residents, with some comments by the county agencies and property owners who will have to build and maintain the amenities. Notably, the “wish list” of features in the tables in the appendices are not coordinated with the property owners’ development plans; for example, the residents asked for “children’s sailing ponds,” which last night’s White Flint Mall presentation showed would likely already be available in the “Piazza” portion of the 43.5 acre site.

Still, there are some interesting suggestions in the report.

Barnaby Zall

White Flint Implementation Committee Meeting Nov 14

From Nkosi Yearwood, chief planner for White Flint:

The November meeting of the White Flint Implementation Advisory is scheduled for Monday, November 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Wall Local Park (5900 Executive Blvd). The proposed sketch plan for White Flint Mall is the main agenda item.

Nkosi Yearwood (c) chairing April 11 WFIC meeting, with (from left) Mike Coveyou of the County Executive's Office, Jacob Sesker of the Planning Department and Dave Freishtat, Co-Chair of WFIC (and FoWF Board Member)

Barnaby Zall