Close-up of the Glenmont Shopping Center.  Photo by pappa91 on Flickr.

Recently, the Gazette discussed the future of the Glenmont Shopping Center.  This site serves as a golden opportunity for a White Flint-style suburban-to-urban retrofit.  Such a move towards environmental and economic sustainability would just be plain Smart.

As the article alludes, the shopping center is currently underutilized.  It has acres of seldom-used surface parking.  It’s also within a five minute walk to the Glenmont Metro station. 

Like most car-dependent suburban developments, the Glenmont Shopping Center was built at a time when it was at the fringe of the region.  However, Glenmont was eventually overshadowed by the farther flung cluster of strip malls at the intersection of Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, and Aspen Hill Road.  Glenmont has been stagnant since.

While Glenmont’s story parallels thousands of other suburban retail clusters around the United States, its current potential is extremely different than over 99% of its brethren.  Montgomery County chose to have the eastern Red Line run under Georgia Avenue north of Silver Spring, terminating at Glenmont, rather than following the Metropolitan Branch to Rockville via Kensington.  The Glenmont Metro station opened in 1998, completing the original plans for the Red Line. 

Our experiences around the Washington region have taught us that opening a Metro station has the potential to completely change the local economic systems, provided that the government and landowners take advantage of their infrastructure investment. However, the Gazette article shows that the investment in transit is not being leveraged:

With a new high-end apartment and condominium complex being built on Layhill Road, the raising of Georgia Avenue over Randolph Road and the move of the fire station to the Glenmont Metro, where a new, 12-floor parking garage is being built, residents are holding out hope that a sparkling new shopping center could be just a few years away.

One can’t emphasize enough that an elevated highway and a walkable neighborhood in the same space are mutually exclusive things.  If you only plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic.  That is just as true in Glenmont as it is anywhere else.

The landowners of the Glenmont Shopping Center appear to be far less business savvy and enlightened than the coalition of landowners who cooperated to plan for the recently passed White Flint Sector Plan that envisions a new human-scale town.  It appears from the article, that there is none of that kind of cooperation going on in Glenmont:

Karen Durbin, the manager of Arcade Florist, has been selling flowers to shoppers since 1969. When asked how the shopping center has evolved over the years, she laughed as a co-worker slowly dropped a thumbs-down.

"The problem here is that there’s a lot of different landlords, and they don’t cohesively get together, Durbin said. “...Major renovations? The only thing I ever see them do is work on the parking lot.”

As more and more new projects are completed in the immediate area that leverage their proximity to the Metro, the Glenmont Shopping Center will become more and more of a weight around the neck of revitalization. 

If the shopping center gets a street grid as a result of a suburban-to-urban retrofit, there will be more connectivity with the surrounding small streets like in the White Flint Sector Plan.  People living within walking distance of amenities in a new mixed-use development adjacent to the Metro will contribute to reversing the whirlpool of induced demand.

If the demand for road space could be better managed, Montgomery County wouldn’t have to build the overpass for Randolph road over Georgia Avenue.  (Sadly, the county DOT’s Level of Service traffic metrics will always recommend building more roads.)  The county would get tax revenue from redevelopment because walkable urbanism has more billable floor space per unit land area, and also a smaller road bill.  I wonder why no one thought of it, despite the fact that it has already been done within Montgomery County in Bethesda, Silver Spring, and soon White Flint.

Montgomery is very lucky that the landowners in the White Flint Sector Plan area are forward-thinking enough to cooperate to improve environmental sustainability while increasing their long term profits.  Clearly, the county is not as lucky in Glenmont.  I have never met the landowners of the Glenmont Shopping Center.  I do not know how they view their commercial rental property.  However, I do know that any profit-seeking private business is motivated by improvements to their own bottom line.  They stand to make a fortune in either redeveloping their property as a mixed-use town or by selling it to someone who will.  The article in the Gazette demonstrates a lack of vision in the area.  However, the county needs to provide zoning and planning support to make something happen.

Developers are profit-seeking businesses just like any other.  It is up to the citizenry, through its elected officials in government, to set up a business environment that incentivizes developers to do the right thing.  The landowners in White Flint had to jump through hoops to do the right thing.  The status quo will not produce more transit-oriented, sustainable, human-scale towns.  We can do better than dreaming of a more sparkly 1960’s era strip mall flanked by a Metro station on one side and an overpass on the other.  That’s just putting lipstick on a pig.  The opportunity costs are too high to waste the investment of the Glenmont Metro station.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.