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Monday, June 30, 2008

Imagine Langley Park

I've spent quite a bit of time in Langley Park during my life. I grew up about 2 miles away. As a kid, I remember going to Hot Shoppes for ice cream with the family. later, my friends and I would bike to the Taco Bell that took its place. I'd explore the bodegas and shops down there, but honestly since I turned 17 (and got my driver's license) I haven't been doing a whole lot of that. It became the traffic-infested town I had to drive through on my way to the University of Maryland.

I certainly don't blame that on the demographic shift that has occurred there-- Central Americans, Southeast Asians, Indians, and Africans have established immigrant communities there-- but more on the lack of a sense of place that it has. It wasn't much better when I was a kid. I had to bike somewhere, though, and it was closer than downtown Silver Spring (which was a hole back then anyway). But the dominating feature at University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue is parking lots. Considering the lower- to middle-income residents (who are less likely to own a car), that seems somewhat wrong.

I think Langley Park has a pretty strong sense of culture there. Immigrant populations generally do. But that culture is abandoned in a wasteland of spread out rental apartments and strip mall retail. The pedestrians, which are plentiful, suffer spread out destinations and startlingly unsafe conditions, even with the recent improvements in the last few years.

What really alarms me is the particularly racist and xenophobic sentiments that even the most liberal folks have expressed to me when discussing Langley Park. I don't assume everyone in LP is in MS-13. That is just as offensive as people assuming my mother has mafia ties because she's Sicilian. LP has a very diverse tapestry of peoples beyond the very few gang-banging Salvadorians people like to cite. My experience is that a good majority of the residents are honest hard working people trapped in car-oriented town where no one wants to invest time, money, or public works.

What that part of town really needs is a transit center which they might in fact be getting in the next couple years. The current plan is for a bus depot that will perhaps one day also house the Purple Line. Imagine if we could get some serious transit oriented development there. Perhaps tear out those awful low-density spread out run down apartments between New Hampshire and Riggs Road. Offer high quality transit links to Silver Spring and College Park. Turn University Boulevard into an actual boulevard, with street front retail, street parking, and a shaded median.

Langley Park has every right to be a destination like Silver Spring or Bethesda. I decided to imagine it as one:
(click to enlarge; made with Google Earth)

Blue = retail; darker blue is office with ground floor retail
Red = housing; darker is high rise apartments, lighter is townhouses etc.
Green = parks, of course
Tan = civic use
Orange = transit station
Black = parking garage

Most notably, I redrew virtually the entire Hampshire Village and Willowbrook apartment complexes to create more continuity in the street grid and allow for much better land use. Those apartments are affordable, yes, but I believe we can fit more apartments there, perhaps making them more affordable. My main lament is that I didn't add more park land, but I figure commercial plazas and the like would fill that void. I also imagine there would be a few live-work units, perhaps a couple of those neat little bodegas and restaurants could be rescued from the strip malls and reinvented as streetfront shops with apartments overhead.

The Purple Line will connect LP with the University of Maryland. Imagine a new choice for college and graduate students, another place for them to live and work, all the while being exposed to the diversity (and delicious food, if I may say so). Perhaps UMD could use some of that civic space and set up a program where college students teach residents English as a second language, or help/encourage them to enroll in some courses.

If we invest some money in the area, we help the people. In return, we'll get lower crime, less traffic, and a new destination, just like we did in Silver Spring and scores of other places where the effort was put forth. Langley Park has everything it needs to bloom except the geography. Imagine if we made it happen.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

More Rockville Pike

Rockville Pike indeed. There was recently a charette for the Pike. GreaterGreaterWashington did a nice piece highlighting it. Not only did this charette embrace the grid idea that I was pontifficating, it also appears to be embracing innovative storm drainage techniques. I don't know much about water runoff engineering, but this seems really cool to me. I understand that it's cheaper than conventional storm runoff, and it makes plant life a functional part of a streetscape.

I hope one day I have the time to attend these sorts of things. Perhaps after I move and I'm spending less of my life in the car...

Imagined: Downtown Silver Spring

There are certainly a lot of controversies in downtown Silver Spring. There's the historical landmarking of the Falkland Chase apartments, which I am avidly against. There is the Purple Line, which I cautiously support. The Paul Sarbanes Transit Center is often the source of debate as well.

And Silver Spring has it's foibles as well. Forest Glen Metro station, separated by the Beltway, is markedly less useful than it would be if it were built about a quarter mile south of it's current location. The Georgetown Branch trail has failed to make it's way into Silver Spring. Colesville Road is a traffic disaster.

But for all its issues and controversies, something very good was done there.

I grew up in Silver Spring, near University and the Beltway, about 2 miles from the downtown. in the '80's, it was a blighted area. it was ugly, unsafe, unfriendly, uninviting, and downright scary. Ellsworth Avenue, now home to the famed Silver Plaza (aka Silver Sprung) was boarded up building well into my post-college Army days.

But yesterday, I had the luxury of experiencing how a little urban planning can create a truely cultural experience. I was killing time after work at the Borders in the plaza area, purchasing a few books (including Suburban Nation by Andres Duany et al, which I am halfway through already!) and I decided to sit at the Lebanese Taverna cafe and do a little reading... something I'm rarely compelled to do in my behind-the-strip-malls Laurel neighborhood where I currently reside. It was a sunny pleasant setting, with kids of all types happily playing in the fountain.

But out of nowhere, a torrential storm came through. All that we were missing was the wicked witch on a bicycle. So much for that. Guess I'll head out, this place is dead. I'll just wait for the rain to pass... And pass it did, but with the sun out came even more people than were in the plaza before. A rock band from Blake High School prepared to play on the stage in the center of the plaza.

Then it got really interesting. A fire alarm (which would later turn out to be a dumpster fire at the Wayne Av garage) cleared out the entire east side of the plaza. All the buildings were vacated, including the movie theater. With half the shops closed, a bunch of teenagers playing loud rock music in the middle of it all, and hundreds of probably annoyed movie goers, I was sure a riot was on the horizon.

Instead, crowds formed around the stage, and around a street performer banging on a set of drums made of kitchen utensils. Another small crowd gathered to watch few skater kids doing tricks near the Chik-Fil-A. despite the horribly inconveniece of being locked out of their stores and movies, everyone there seemed to be having a good time doing something.

And what really impressed me was the overall diversity of the crowd. Young dreadlocked hippies in long flowing skirts, amputee war veterans from Walter Reed, yarmulke-clad group of young men, men in business attire, families with young children, old couples, average joes. It was a tapestry that spanned racial, cultural, socio-economic, and religious boundaries. And the shops at the plaza encourage it. Lebanese, Tex-Mex, Persian, Vientamese, Irish, Thai, Mexican, and Western cuisine as informal as Potbelly's and as first-datey as Red Rock Canyon Grille. And that's just in the plaza area.

Everyone was making the best of an inconvenient situation, all getting along beside each other. The only reality check was when a police car that had responded to the fire was driving down Ellsworth, which was otherwise closed to vehicles, and slammed on the brakes when a young girl ran in front of it. Simultaneous boos from several people in the crowd ensued.

The sight was not lost on me. I know what would have happened if the theater at any isolate location (even a mall) had been evacuated and movie goers were forced to wait in the parking lot. Shouting, complaining, frustration, fights. Hopefully a cop or two might show up. Hopefully there were no little kids that would start crying and create more of a scene.

This was a project borne of wise urban planning, giving Ellsworth Drive back to the people, not the car. This is why the plaza as a centerpiece for a town is such a community asset. In Silver Spring, it is a great unifier, a great equalizer, and a haven from beltway traffic life. I imagine that one day, every town will have a plaza where all types can interact in such a positive cultural experience.

Well done, Silver Spring.

Update 6-29: Sligo of Silver Spring, Singular was also present that day, and he had a decidedly different experience than I did. Of course, he was trying to see a movie when the fire occurred.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Imagine Rockville Pike

In high school, I spent a lot of time at Silver Diner at the intersection of Rockville Pike and Montrose Road. That diner had a '50's feel to it, and though it's surrounded by hundreds of acres of parking, you feel like you're in a small town when you order a strawberry malt and a slice of pie with your high school buddies on a Friday night.

Now, that intersection is getting ridiculous expressway built beneath it. Certainly this will not help the few suicidal pedestrians that choose to walk about the Pike. Instead, it will likely promote more Ford Explorers with a sole driver idling in a left turn lane burning $4.59 a gallon waiting to turn into a giant parking lot so they can do their part for the economy.

Why is Rockville Pike just a conglomeration of strip malls and parking lots with no street life? Why isn't it more like, say, Wilson Boulevard in Arlington? Greater Greater Washington has a nice piece talking about why Arlington works and Rockville Pike does not. He argues, among other things, that the stations on the Red Line are spaced too far apart. I agree. But I think there's more to it than that, and it can perhaps be fixed without infill stations all over Rockville.

Arlington has a grid road system (albeit an irregular one) which siphons traffic along parallel thoroughfares. Rockville Pike is choked off in a couple of places, notably by the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, the Beltway/270 Spur interchange, Georgetown Prep and Holy Cross High Schools, and, most needlessly in my opinion, Woodmont Country Club. Every bit of traffic between Bethesda and Rockville is funneled down Rockville Pike. Pedestrians be damned. All the TOD around Grosvenor, White Flint, and Twinbrook stations won't turn the Red Line into the Orange Line.

So what would it look like if Rockville Pike had a bit of a grid to it? Perhaps a few centralized parking garages, a bunch of pedestrian improvements, and of course my imaginary strip of Metro rail running between Silver Spring and Twinbrook with a stop at Nicholson Lane? Maybe throw a couple decks over the trains, connect the street grid, and make Rockville a city instead of an unsightly mash of strip malls.

Once again, I remind everyone that I am not an engineer. I'm sure this would be prohibitively expensive, and MoCo NIMBYs are the worst, and would probably have some problems with this. I'm sure parts of it are impossible to engineer. But I think it's important to envision Rockville Pike as part of a network, and not the single point of traffic failure.

I imagined Rockville Pike:

(Lower)The purple indicates decks over the train tracks. The Orange indicates Metro facilities. The big change is extending Jefferson Street up through part of the Woodmont Country Club. I'm sure they can relocate those two (of their 36) holes. I opted not to place any other proposed building lots down, partly because this is a huge area, partly because parts of it are under development, and partly because I'm tired. Suffice to say many of those parking lots would cease to exist.

Would this street alignment make Rockville look more like Arlington? Perhaps. It would certainly promote walkability and reduce the number of car trips (especially if you have ever driven across a massive parking lot to get to another store in the same strip mall!) and likely decrease traffic through the area. But no, instead we're getting the Montrose Parkway and a mid-20th century wasteland between the downtowns of Rockville and Bethesda.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New Blog

If I have any readers yet, welcome to the new page. Go DC Go was discontinued because it turns out that is DDoT's help-you-get-around-the-city page. I have no affiliation with DDoT, and I don't want them to harass me about it in the future. So considering that this blog is going to be about fantasizing over what the DC metro area could look like, I've decided on Imagine, DC.

Imagine walkable city streets with large parks, open boulevards leading to town centers, ample transit for anyone not willing to pay $5 for a gallon of gas, accessible civic features, and friendly places to live, work and relax. Sounds like an advertisement for a new community way out in the exurbs somewhere. But it's not, it's just my fantasy for what I think DC should look like, and hopefully what it will in the future. It's just me imagining DC and the metro area.