Photo by patrickd on Flickr.

Last Friday, I spoke to the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce. My interest spiked when I heard the first speaker, a visiting fellow in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy program, criticize the Planning Department. In his opinion, we were not maximizing the opportunity presented by the Purple Line in Chevy Chase Lake.

Specifically, he referred to the Chevy Chase Land Company’s holdings at Connecticut and the Capital Crescent Trail. He mentioned he thought it was critical to maximize the transit investment.

I quickly added a slide to my presentation to address his comments. And what I told the assembled when I had the floor was that there is no transit system in the world that creates 18-story buildings at every transit stop. In fact, most transit stops have very little density relative to what the Brookings speaker may have thought is appropriate.

I included in my presentation a video I took at a major intersection in Toronto on a cold spring day around 4 p.m. More than a dozen street cars go through this intersection in about 30 seconds. The buildings are all four floors or less.

This intersection is about 2.0 km from downtown. Count the streetcars going through the intersection in about 35 seconds. Even a guy on a bike. How tall are the buildings? Were we not maximizing the transit investment? Or is this a great example of how transit serves its purpose — moving people from one place to another, providing options for people to move to where they want and need to go.

The same is true for the Toronto subway stations. The one I used for commuting if I did not take a streetcar passed through neighborhoods of three to five-story buildings all along the corridor. The subway line ran under Danforth Ave, including Greektown, an incredibly vibrant 24-hour neighborhood, then continued for miles, with a stop every four blocks or so. (Cue the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding). In sum, a pedestrian-oriented, active, mixed use, diverse corridor with three-story buildings on top of a subway line with about a dozen stops. Any Toronto resident would say we capitalized on our transit infrastructure.

Photo by Geof Burbridge.

This is the 502 street car line in Toronto I used to ride to work every day. There were two other lines that shared some of the route. It traveled for over 20 km across the width of the city. Check out the buildings that line the street. Ends was a terrific clothing store with some apartments up top. For the most part, the buildings are two and three floors along the route except at major street intersections. During rush hour, you never wait for more than four minutes for a ride.

The point is simple. Not every transit station has to be downtown Silver Spring or Bethesda. In reality, the best transit systems have a very diverse network of transit stops.

A month ago, I spoke to residents in Park Hills, located around the Wayne-Dale intersection west of downtown Silver Spring. Great people, willing to listen about change, transition, transit and stable residential neighborhoods. They asked about the changes the Purple Line might bring to the Wayne- Dale intersection in terms of land use. Well, not much, for a number of reasons.

  1. This is a stable residential community. The purpose of public transit is to move people to where they want to go, not to tear down neighborhoods to do it. These goals are not at odds, they can work together.
  2. Wayne & Dale will not be downtown Silver Spring. There is a lot of property to develop in downtown Silver Spring for decades to come, and we hope the Purple Line will help. And maybe the residents of Park Hills will ride the Purple Line to get to Fenton Village and its restaurants in the future. Imagine, public transit getting people to entertainment rather than just being used to up-zone every neighborhood a rapid transit line runs through.
  3. Nobody would invest the money, even if it were permitted, to buy up small lots at high prices, just to build a low-scale building where the number of units would not be a whole lot different than the original houses on the site.
  4. There should never be tall buildings at Wayne & Dale. It does not make sense. With so much infill to do elsewhere, new rapid transit will help maximize the potential for redevelopment where it makes sense. And it does not make sense everywhere.

For those of us who have run streetcars into new emerging neighborhoods, who rode them each day through vibrant, ethnic, low-scale neighborhoods to reach the 50-story buildings downtown, we understand how transit connects people and neighborhoods. Rockville Pike has a subway under it, and, we hope, terrific bus service in the future.

The new JBG building, just under 300 feet high, stands a block away from townhouses on Woodglen Drive, which are across the street from a seven-story building that houses a new Whole Foods on the ground floor.

This building height/use relationship is terrific; after a few months, everyone seems happy, except for a few people quoted in the paper saying they are not used to parking in a parking structure to go grocery shopping. (Welcome to the 90s — this is how the rest of the urban world shops.) This is a place where we decided maximizing transit investment makes sense.

There is road capacity on the Pike. There is an existing transit line with lots of capacity. The location is a major regional shopping node, and it can be designed so that within a block, there are townhouses.

Chevy Chase Lake meets none of those characteristics. In Chevy Chase Lake:

  • There are considerable issues with traffic
  • If this was such a desirable location, something would have happened here in 2004, during the biggest real estate boom ever, when there was 250,000 square feet of approved building capacity that was never taken advantage of.
  • This is not downtown Bethesda, so would 18- and 19-story buildings really be appropriate at this location?
  • Would 4.5 million square feet make sense at this location, as some have suggested?
  • Should there be a near- and long-term strategy of phasing zoning and infrastructure to provide for sound, orderly development with higher levels of capacity once the Purple Line arrives?

Planner Elza Hisel-McCoy narrates a presentation explaining the Planning Department’s preliminary recommendations for the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan.

We believe there should be orderly development structured around reasonable expectations of what might and should happen within this small node along a busy street. We have floated the idea that the near-term strategy should reflect the current approvals for development that has existed for many years — an extra 250,000 square feet, with the added flexibility to convert some of that space to residential uses.

We also suggest that once the Purple Line is under construction, additional floor area capacity be raised another 750,000 square feet, for a total of just over one million additional square feet. Those recommendations fall right within the Brookings fellow’s criteria for upzoning around transit. With the exception of a transit corridor running out of Dallas, I believe he will be hard pressed to say the early ideas for this plan are not building on transit investment.

I stated to the Bethesda Chamber that the role of the planning department in master planning was not to increase land values, but to manage expectations. This means creating plans that have both short- and long- term scenarios. It also means setting the stage to maximize real estate where it makes sense, and at a scale appropriate to the immediate environment.

I have asked the staff working on several master plans to look at implementing “phased” zoning, where changes are made now in expectation of local potential, and then, when certain conditions and infrastructure change occur, maybe additional capacity is freed up. In this way, the community understands how the future landscape can evolve over time, and builders and landowners realize how their land holdings may develop over the next five, 10 and 20 years.

The County has had many master plans built on grand visions that had little basis in reality. Not every commercial area has the potential of White Flint, not even the area north of Montrose, as I wrote about a few weeks ago. And this is a good thing. MoCo is very fortunate to have such a diverse set of neighborhoods. Our planning efforts should capitalize on the individuality of each of those communities to help them grow and thrive and, more importantly, help the diverse people living in our communities realize the potential of their neighborhoods.