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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An Email

I know posting has been sparse recently as I have been busy with a new job and overwhelmed by selling my suburban house while preparing for a series of temporary work-related relocations. But recently I received an email regarding municipal land use policy that I wanted to open up to a wider debate. Please leave any constructive comments you might have regarding the issue.

do you think it is a good idea, bad idea, or value neutral idea for a small town to amend their ordinance protecting "open spaces" in order to allow for the refurbishing of an existing building to be transformed to affordable senior housing.
(I don't know if "open spaces" is a standard term, but in this case it means land zoned for institutional use and includes areas that have a lot of property such as schools, churches, library etc)

I watched a LONG debate/discussion at a city council meeting and found I'm kind of in the minority in my opinion and wondered what a less biased person with actual knowledge of city plan would have to say.

Dave Murphy 
"Open space" is a very sketchy term. Gigantic empty lawns that nobody uses for anything are often considered "open space". On the one hand, if they can be used for something more meaningful, I'm all for it. If a building or set of buildings reinvigorates the town, absolutely it is a better use of the land, regardless of its use.

A great example in my opinion would be Four Corners, an area we both know and love... When they tore down the Kay Tract to build Blair High School, they demolished acres and acres of "green space". That area was a haven for homeless people and drug activity. It was unpatrolled, unregulated, secluded, and crime-ridden.

But when they tore out all those trees, what arose was a school already too small for its student body despite the fact that it was spread out over twice the real estate of the old school. The main feature that interacted with the rest of the "town" (if one were to consider Four Corners its own town) was not the main facade of the school, not the grand entrance, walkways, side buildings, or even athletic fields; it is the driveways and parking lots that front the school.

It secluded the student body, who for the most parts are residents of Four Corners and downtown Silver Spring, from the rest of the town. Was it a better municipal use of land than a bunch of trees with trash and homeless people? Absolutely. But does it contribute more to the townliness of Four Corners? Barely.

A good side effect was the pedestrian improvements that came along with a 3,200 student school, and Four Corners desperately needed those pedestrian improvements. But despite the fact that it is the most heavily traveled intersection in Eastern Montgomery County (for PEOPLE, not cars... more people move through that intersection than even Georgia and Colesville) no major mass transit improvements came with the school save for maybe a bus shelter or two.

Now consider the lawns providing the setback for St. Bernadette's. That is open space. It is green space. Is it serving the people of Four Corners? Does it serve St. Bernadette's other than to isolate it from the high speed traffic of University Boulevard or the "public school kids" that as a universal community of faith we ought to be reaching out to and embracing? The only thing I've ever used those fields for is stretching out a football team before a game at St. Bernadette's. And in 5 years of coaching and two years of playing, I can count the number of times I've done that on two hands.

Now consider something like this:

Erik Bootsma, the architect that authored this article, is a Beaux Arts architect and a Catholic. He writes about religious structures often. Here's his website, it's great:

But back to the suburban church being retrofitted... American churches are often gigantic, isolated structures that are monuments to themselves. Whereas in Europe, Cathedrals are the centerpieces of the towns, in America you have junk like the Mormon tabernacle, which only interacts with people driving down the Beltway and in no other way serves as a structural outreach to the community. For all their questionable doctrine, this is actually my number 1 gripe with the Mormon church. They structurally isolate themselves from their surroundings, even in Salt Lake City. But nowadays, every church does that. They move from central locations to wherever they can have the biggest parking lot, assuring that few will walk to their services and ostensibly turning away anyone that does not drive a car.

If St. Bernadette's was to take the lawns in front of the parish and do something useful such as what Bootsma proposed there in Arlington, it would create a community directly affected by the parish rather than isolated from it. And for a religious institution, what better way to attract members than to make the primary structure (the church) the focal point of a community? And as far as traffic on University Boulevard goes, building frontage could slow traffic down, and a more permeable street network could actually relieve congestion there. A train line running up Columbia Pike would be nice also.

As for your case, affordable senior housing is never a bad thing in theory. But what are they building? Garden style apartments with ample parking that will eventually mock seniors who lose the ability to drive? Or a community of well designed buildings that will allow seniors to partake in society without forcing them to drive? In my opinion, the latter serves more use than an open lawn that nobody uses.