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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

BRAC =/= Community Building

Today I was talking to a good friend of mine at work about Takoma Park. She is a relative newcomer to the area, moving up here from the South just over a year ago. She works with me at Fort Meade, lives in Annapolis, and goes to church in Takoma Park. She was considering moving closer in to the city, but wasn't too fond of Takoma Park, her only experience with it being the two mile drive down University Boulevard from the Beltway to her church on Carroll Avenue.

This, of course, is right by where I grew up. So naturally, I had to chime in and offer to take her on a tour of a town much more pleasant than the snippets that she has experienced over the last sixteen months.

I could sing Takoma Park's praises for hours. It's a very pleasant streetcar suburb. It's very friendly, clean, and safe. It houses a very diverse spectrum of people. And it's close to everything. Frankly, I was perturbed that this hadn't been exposed to her previously. Why was this? I can attest that she is highly intelligent. But when she moved up here for her job at Fort Meade, my guess is that the hiring office pointed her toward the drab car-oriented apartment complexes of Central Maryland so that she could be (relatively) close to work. To her credit, she moved to Annapolis and not Columbia or Odenton, but nonetheless, after a year of suburban isolation, she wants to move closer to one of the cities.

She chose the DC area because that is where her church is, in Takoma Park. But a word she threw around often during our conversation was "community". Not just church community, but community as a place to live. Her apartment complex, though safe and quiet, offers no such sense of community.

I explained to her my philosophy on choosing an apartment complex (I've only once ever lived in one, and would never do it again now that I own a house, but I love offering my unwarranted advice). If you can enter an apartment building from a sidewalk along a street and you don't have to walk across a surface parking lot, it is more likely to be better than other apartment buildings in the area.
-Apartments with street entrances generally make better use of the land on which they lie, leaving fewer dark corners for crime to breed.
-They encourage pedestrian activity, which adds eyes on the street, detering criminal activity.
-People walking around are more likely to interact every day, and thus less likely to behave poorly towards each other (as I've found the anonymous neighbor might tend to do).
-Pedestrian activity also implies less dependence (real or perceived) on the automobile.
-Less automobile dependence ipso facto means less money spent on the automobile, which in turn implies a larger disposable income, raising their socio-economic status
-People of higher socio-economic status demand a higher standard of amenities and are less likely to tolerate crime or unsanitary conditions in and around the building.

Again, the above is just my own little method of choosing a decent apartment, and it is entirely unscientific. But I use the example of down town Silver Spring: The apartment buildings on East-West Highway between Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road are far superior than those just a quarter mile away in the Summit Hills complex (Slummit Thrills, as my college buddies who lived there call it) at East-West and 16th Street. Better urbanism makes a more palatable place to live. Thing is, we're seeing that transformation to urbanism in Silver Spring and Takoma Park... not so much in Anne Arundel and Howard Counties.

It got me to think about where I live. I work at Fort Meade, which I've stated before is absolutely horrible for the region as a whole. I live in Laurel, because it is close to work. My father, who also worked at Fort Meade, chose a much longer commute, coming from Silver Spring... because it was near my parents' church, good schools, a community. And he moved there in the car-happy early '70s. And now, I find myself driving to Silver Spring at least four times a week to partake in that community (my church, the football team I coach, my family, many of my friends). And drive I must, because Laurel doesn't have convenient transit for me to bus or train it to Silver Spring.

So now you have me driving 13 miles round trip to and from work every day, plus 25+ miles round trip to Silver Spring several times a week. Then there's my friend who drive about 41 miles round trip every day for work, plus another 62 miles round trip every Sunday for church. If we could commute to work via transit, chances are we'd both live near a transit hub, set our roots there, and that would eliminate 300+ miles driving a week right there. Richard Layman points out the dangers of sending thousands more jobs to military. If there are going to be thousands of new jobs sent out here with the BRAC, perhaps there should be an initiative to encourage these folks settle in an area-- a community-- that minimizes their impact on the highways (and their wallets) with the commute.

After the BRAC takes full effect, Fort Meade will have over 50,000 jobs on it, and thousands more around it. And Fort Meade doesn't have a single transit station. It's a ticking time bomb.

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