Hans Riemer is an at-large candidate for the Montgomery County Council. At his campaign kickoff, I was impressed with his vision for Smart Growth in Montgomery County. Recently, he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions.
1. What details about the newly approved White Flint Sector Plan will require the most attention and consensus-building? How do you intend to ensure White Flint becomes a vibrant, sustainable town?
There are several ongoing issues that will shape the success of this great vision for the White Flint community. First, I will protect the integrity of the community’s vision so that it will be an area that prioritizes walking and biking. The Pike [Rockville Pike, MD 355] has closely resembled a highway for too long. You can’t build community on a highway. Yet, some policy makers don’t see it that way and promise to re-prioritize auto speed at the expense of community if they can.
A second major issue will be the successful implementation of transit infrastructure improvements and the street grid, which together will bring walkability to White Flint’s daily life. Walkability has been crucial for winning the support of the surrounding community. Turning this auto desert around with improved transit, separated bike paths, and a walkable street grid that can move more people and more cars will require a lot of scrutiny. The commitment to this vision cannot be allowed to slip over time — no more Clarksburgs!
A critical factor to success in White Flint over time will be continuing to involve newer residents, young families, retirees, and others who see the value of the new planning model. When empowered, these important residents will press elected officials to hold true to the vision in the recently passed Sector Plan. This takes new and committed County leadership; people who see their job as helping to engage the community and organize for change.
2. Wheaton is both routinely overlooked by the county as a whole and also posseses great economic and social potential as a vibrant, walkable, sustainable town. What is your vision for Wheaton’s future?
Wheaton’s time has come! The next Council must prioritize Wheaton for investment and support. There are many interesting and good plans for revitalizing the parking lot in the center of town into a community square. We should move those plans forward.
However, the elephant in the room is the Westfield Wheaton Mall. We should establish a walkable street grid with housing on the mall property, and use economic development dollars to incentivize the transformation through gap financing. If we attract more residents who embrace walkable lifestyles to the urban core in Wheaton, the small businesses there will flourish. It is a very risky proposition to move existing businesses out of their spaces and hope that they survive during a rebuild — and will be able to afford new-building rents afterwards.
If well designed, such a transition of the Mall would work without jeopardizing Wheaton’s existing small business character. Finally, if the County is going to give Westfield $4 million to build a Costco, they should use that as leverage to get going on a mixed use (housing + retail), walkable street grid on mall property — without any more gas stations. Georgia Avenue already has plenty.
I will also add that plans for Wheaton have come along every few years and have gone nowhere for a variety of reasons. We’re only going to see success during this coming Council term if we bring together the bloggers, transit advocates, neighborhood activists, immigrant organizers, small businesses, property owners, and others, in a mighty chorus of “Now is the time!”
3. In your campaign kick-off, you expressed a clear vision for locating many new jobs along existing infrastructure in East County rather than in new office parks in Gaithersburg West. What sites do you envision for new jobs and do you see a need for new transit infrastructure to support them?
We have plenty of room for new jobs in Silver Spring, Wheaton, White Oak, Burtonsville, and Glenmont. Many of these areas are currently served by Metro. Others are in the Route 29 corridor, which needs a rapid transit service in order to support new jobs. One cost-effective transit solution would be a next generation bus system, as described by Councilmember Elrich, with its own separated lane and priority through intersections. In our present time of fiscal austerity we will need to think creatively about how to finance it — we need a model that larger landowners can pay for.
I helped push the Council to a good compromise on Gaithersburg West, but one of the concerns I raised was that the plan is projected to reduce job growth in East County. We can’t let that happen! East County has been given short shrift for too long. We need good planning to create the commercial space, housing, and transit that will get this under-served area moving again.
We also need policymakers who can get new people involved to support the kind of change that we need in the County — people like Councilmembers Valerie Ervin (D-5) and Nancy Navarro (D-4). I hope to join them in this cause and I am grateful for their support of my efforts to get this County moving again.