Photo by mystadobalina on Flickr.

Smart growth can work in suburban areas and even find enthusiastic support, when good design meets genuine community outreach. Evan Goldman of Federal Realty Investment Trust, the developer behind White Flint, talked about these themes as he received the 2012 Livable Communities Leadership Award from the Coalition for Smarter Growth last Wednesday. Below are Goldman’s remarks at the event.

I grew up in a middle class suburb of New York City that at the time would have been considered an exurb. My parents had left Brooklyn in the early 1970s and demonized the city and quite frankly everything urban.

We had our half acre in a suburban subdivision. Every house looked the same and for entertainment we could walk 20 minutes to the 7/11, our closest store. My parents drove me everywhere until at last at 16 I learned to drive and gained my independence.

Like many Generation X and Y members, I craved something different but didn’t quite know what that was. It was living in New York City after college that exposed me to the benefits that come with high density transit oriented development. The principles are actually quite simple:

  • A grid of streets
  • A dense network of reliable and regular transit
  • A mix of housing and office to keep the streets active and alive 18 to 24 hours per day,
  • A density level that provides enough customers to support great creative retail.
  • And finally, community amenities, parks, playgrounds, dog walks, recreation centers all built in a sustainable fashion that improves instead of destroys our environment and you have yourself a recipe for Smart Growth.

It’s easy to recognize smart growth when it is done well. The struggle is how to impart these characteristics into a suburban instead of urban framework and of course how do you actually get something like this approved when almost every single regulation on the books is in direct conflict with the principals stated above.

And so that brings us to the story of White Flint.

Today, the Rockville Pike in White Flint represents the engineering and design direction that consumers demanded from the 1950s through the 1980s. Tomorrow it will become a model of how to reclaim suburbia in order to create order out of chaos. Within a half mile of Metro, White Flint will one day house 20,000 to 25,000 residents and up to 40,000 employees generating close to $7 billion of net new tax revenue for Montgomery County.

The plan includes more than 2000 affordable housing units and a sensational mix of local and national retailers. There will be a grid of streets and a dramatic increase in transit accessibility. There will be parks, community amenities, and every single building will be LEED certified and most will go well beyond that requirement.

In just 2 months, Federal Realty will break ground on our first phase of Pike & Rose, the rebirth of Midpike into a truly magical neighborhood. 900,000 square feet of development including 492 residential units a boutique 80,000 square feet office building and 150,000 square feet of new retail including an IPIC movie theater, and that’s just our first phase. It is an exciting time to be working and/or living in Montgomery County.

And so how did this daring and visionary plan ultimately get approved in a county where dinner conversation regularly revolves around traffic?

It came down to civic outreach, education and engagement. People who typically have opposing viewpoints sat down together and learned about the principals of smart growth and how White Flint could be a win win for everyone. Transparency was a cornerstone of the Partnership’s work and we went hand in hand with resident supporters to spread the word. We jointly reached out to the silent majority and engaged them in the political process. And the best part was that the silent majority was ready to be heard.

To provide some insight into the results of the Partnership’s outreach effort, I would like to read excerpts from testimony submitted and read by two local residents.

First, from Jane Fairweather, a County resident and business person:

I am fortunate to live in the smart growth urban community of downtown Bethesda. I live at the corner of Woodmont and Montgomery Lane.

For 22 years, I lived in a wonderful stone colonial home off Bradley Boulevard where I spent my days driving.

I drove to the grocery store, the bakery, the dry cleaners and the book store. I drove to the hardware store, the drug store, the library, the gym and the hair dresser (obviously this is not my words). On the weekends, I drove to the movies and restaurants and of course to the gas station, early and often. In the suburbs, I was sleeping in my house but living in my car. And, since my neighbors were also car bound, we had very little time to interact with each other and be a part of the community we lived in.

While I knew some of my neighbors, finding time to hang out was difficult. Living in the suburbs meant that I spent at least 3 hours per day in my car and endless dollars on gas to fuel it. I clogged the streets and polluted the air, while ranting the entire time about the traffic congestion around me. I met the enemy and the enemy was me.

After 22 years, my husband and I found ourselves empty nesters and so we moved to a condo in downtown Bethesda. Now we walk to the grocery store, the bakery, the coffee shop, and the book store. We walk to the library and to the gym. I walk to the hairdresser, to 16 movie screens and dozens of restaurants that surround my condo.

Now, I laugh at the people who are sitting in their cars. I never get in my car unless I am working. If I didn’t work, I wouldn’t even own a car. I live, shop, recreate, relax, learn and exercise within a 12 block radius of my home. If I can’t walk there, I take the Metro, which is a ½ block away.

In short — We no longer need to “drive there” because we “live there.”

Isn’t that just great. This is from an ordinary citizen and resulted from broad outreach and education.

The following testimony comes from someone who lives in White Flint already:

I am here to ask you to improve the exceedingly inhospitable stretches of Rockville Pike and surrounding streets of the White Flint area. For the most part, these streets could not be more hostile to pedestrians. I am speaking about this based on personal experience.

Last year, while crossing Rockville Pike at Hubbard Drive in my wheelchair, to go from Starbucks back to my apartment, I was hit by a car. Today, Rockville Pike is designed for high speed traffic. Due to the near total absence of pedestrians, the simple fact is that drivers on the Pike are not on the lookout for pedestrians.

Fortunately I was not seriously injured, but I ask you to please remember those of us who cannot, or choose not to travel short distances by car. A pedestrian friendly design would enhance my personal safety, and would also result in less traffic by eliminating today’s pattern of people driving literally across the street when walking would be eminently more practical.

I ask that the next time you drive down Rockville Pike you envision what it is like for me to get around. Perhaps even borrow a wheelchair and spend the day navigating between housing, strip malls, and the expansive parking lots with no sidewalks. Then think about the possibilities. You hold the power, please use it well.

Because of these voices and countless others, the Sector Plan was approved. Its ultimate success will depend heavily on a continuous drum beat of support from local activists like yourselves and a smart and engaged community.

There are still those that believe the auto should be the central and defining element of urban planning. Until such time that transit and walking are raised to the same level of importance, we will all struggle to win approval and to build great new urban places.