Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Montgomery County creates White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee

It's no great secret that the White Flint North Flintville area of Montgomery County is booming. With several massive mixed use developments currently under development and several more in the near-term pipeline, the area is going to change immensely over the next five to ten years. A drastic uptick in density and commercial activity means that north Flintville is changing, and in this blogger's meager opinion, that change is undoubtedly for the better.

However, how that change occurs, and ensuring that the changes are truly beneficial to nearby residents, is an ongoing concern for the County. After all, you don't want such drastically evolutionary change occuring without also ensuring that area residents, businesses and stakeholders have provided appropriate input that has been received and responded to.

it is with this in mind that the County recently announced the formation of the White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee. According to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center:
The Committee will advise County departments on public services in the White Flint Sector Plan Area; and coordinate community activities that promote and advance business interests, and a sense of place, community, maintenance and walkability within the Area. The Committee will also advise and make recommendations to the County Executive and County Council on the feasibility and timing for the establishment of the Urban District in White Flint no later than September 2017. The Committee will provide an annual report to the County Executive and County Council.

County Commissioner Ike Leggett (D) is seeking to fill eight vacancies on the Commission: three representatives of commercial property owners in the Sector Plan Area; two representatives of businesses that employ fewer than 25 employees; two representatives of residential communities in the Sector Plan Area, and one representative in or outside of the Sector Plan Area. In addition, according to the Regional Services Center, the Committee "will also include two members nominated by the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce; one representative who is a member of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board; and three ex-officio, non-voting members representing the County Executive, County Council, and North Bethesda Transportation Management District."

The White Flint Sector Plan was created in March 2010 following years of diligent, difficult work on teh part of amny in the community. According to the Montgomery County Planning Commission's website, the Sector Plan was designed and implemented with the following aims in mind:
  • Create thriving, diverse mixed use center with highest intensity closest to Metro and along Rockville Pike
  • Create new parks and open spaces
  • Transform Rockville Pike into a boulevard with street trees and improved crosswalks
  • Develop a transportation network that includes a grid of new public streets
  • Improve the pedestrian and bicycling environment
  • Promote sustainable development
The full plan can be downloaded and accessed here.

Members of the Advisory Committee will serve staggered three year terms. Those interested in being considered for positions on the Board can find more information on the County's website.

White Flint is "walkable"--but by how much?

A story in the Washington Post over the weekend highlighted the fact that the so-called "walkability" of a community is increasingly becoming a prized asset in the real estate world. The ability to walk to one's place of employment, to the grocery store, to restaurants, coffee shops and bars, and so forth is a highly desirable asset. From the Post's article:

“Walkable” is a feature sparking sales and energizing future development and redevelopment, according to a recent report by a George Washington University professor that calls the Washington area a national model for compact urban areas where residents can live and work without cars.
“The strongest housing market is in walkable urban areas,” says Christopher B. Leinberger, author of the report, “DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call.” “That’s where the demand is.” 
...Regionally significant walkable urban areas — referred to in the report as “WalkUPs” — have cultural amenities such as museums and libraries, offices, shopping, restaurants and different types of housing. There are 43 such neighborhoods in the Washington area, spanning seven counties. 
One of those 43 neighborhoods is the North Bethesda/White Flint area. The neighborhood rates pretty highly on the walkability index, scoring an 89 out of a possible 100 points. (The index rates the portion of day-to-day activities that can be accomplished within a ten minute walk--approximately 1/2 a mile--of one's home.) It's hard not to argue that, as far as suburban neighborhoods go, the White Flint area is indeed more walkable than many.

The sheer number of commercial centers lining Rockville Pike, coupled with the presence of the White Flint Metro station (and, a bit further north, of Twinbrook) coupled with access to numerous bus routes and sidewalk-accessible streets make it quite convenient to live one's life without the absolute need for a car. In fact, one might plausibly argue that we actually live within closer walking distance to a number of services and retailers than we did when we lived in Logan Circle in DC.

And yet, by and large, we both find ourselves driving more here than we did in DC. Why is that?

Part of the answer is sheer convenience. Parking is plentiful and free around nearly all of the commercial strip malls dotting the Pike, taking away a significant negative factor in trying to drive to destinations in dense urban environments. But part of it lies in how desirable it actually is is to walk around the North Bethesda area.

The picture above is the eastern side of Rockville Pike facing south, in front of the Mid-Pike Plaza, which is currently being redeveloped into a massive mixed-use development. Pedestrians walking along this part of the PIke find themselves encountering obstacles both physical (narrow sidewalks, horribly designed intersections and crosswalks, physical barriers, etc.) and mental (aesthetically unpleasing, and the unease that comes with walking immediately adjacent to an urban highway with cars flying past you at upwards of 50 mph). It all contributes to a feeling on the part of the pedestrian that maybe I'm not really supposed to be here.

Thus, the truly important question is not "can you walk somewhere?" Rather, it is "do you want to walk somewhere?" The Post article touches on this a bit towards the end:

But it’s not just about distance. Success depends on how appealing a walking environment is — whether there are trees and short blocks, for example — Goldman and other experts agree. If traffic is whipping past, if the sidewalks are adjacent to empty parking lots (or nonexistent), people won’t walk, they say.
Take Dan Hoffman, a government project manager, who could walk from his Randolph Hills neighborhood to the White Flint Metro station in 20 minutes but doesn’t because of physical obstacles (a fence) and traffic.
When the projects are complete, says Hoffman, chairman of the White Flint Implementation Advisory Committee, “Our neighborhood will be able to walk to dining, shopping, offices.”
And the walk to the Metro will become much safer and more appealing, Hoffman says.
I completely sympathize with Dan Hoffman, and I don't even have a fence blocking my efforts to walk. Most mornings and evenings, I walk to and from my home to the White Flint Metro station, and it is a trip wrought with obstacles. First, there is no simple way to access Rockville Pike from our home just off of Montrose Rd.--the most convenient way to do it involves cutting through the ill-planned commuter lot at Montrose and Hoya, then walking across an unpaved, muddy "desire path" to reach the sidewalk on the Pike (see below).

Once I've reached the Pike, I walk parallel to a street that basically acts as an urban highway, with cars, trucks, buses and utility vehicles flying by within feet of me at speeds regularly in excess of 50 mph. When I reach the intersection of Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road, I feel at times as if I am taking my life into my hands attempting to cross that intersection, as cars turning right onto Old Georgetown from the Pike are given a softly arcing turn that can easily be made at 30 mph--and that cuts directly through a crosswalk. More times than I can count, I have either had to dart quickly across the road, or relied upon the braking system of the car driven by the distracted driver who did not see the pedestrian crossing until it was almost too late.

Upon reaching Marinelli (where the Metro station is located), I must wait upwards of two minutes to cross the six-lane thoroughfare, whereupon I have to be particularly vigilant for left-turning vehicles who don't see or ignore pedestrians in the crosswalk. All the while, I can't shake the nagging feeling that I'm an outlier here, that I really shouldn't be out here walking around, even though the sidewalks and crosswalks say otherwise. I don't feel welcome. And all of that is to accomplish a walk that, by distance, is barely 1/2 a mile. Is it any wonder more people don't walk around here?

This is one of the greatest problems that the ongoing redevelopment of North Bethesda is attempting to solve. It's not simply the physical barriers and engineering, some of which is being addressed as new projects come online and changes or made to street grids and functionality in anticipation of an influx of new residents. Rather, it's also creating an environment where walking isn't simply legally permissible, but actually welcomed and encouraged.

This means building wider sidewalks, designing intersections that are friendly to both pedestrians and vehicles, creating a greater barrier between pedestrians and cars along the Pike and--yes--lowering the speed limit along the Pike.

Montgomery County is trumpeting the onslaught of new development surrounding the White Flint Metro as the beginning of the transformation of White Flint into a dense, walkable truly urban environment. And they're banking on a lot of people taking the Metro once they're here. I hope that they are successful in this endeavor, because it's going to take more than simply tall buildings and ground level retail to make White Flint a neighborhood that one wants to traverse using something other than an automobile.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Restaurant news: Rockville Ale House opens, Vegetable Garden closes

Following on the September opening in Rockville of popular DC restaurant Chef Geoffs in the former Houston's/Againn space, another new dining spot has hit the Rockville/North Bethesda scene. Rockville Pike became home to the nation's 57th Miller's Ale House, which opened recently at 1471 Rockville Pike, just north of the Congressional shopping plaza.

Miller's doesn't purport to offer anything particularly groundbreaking in either its food offerings or its drink menu. Its website boasts: "Can’t decide between a steak, fresh seafood or Buffalo wings? Our restaurant menu has it all," while the beer offerings won't be giving the always fantastic Gilly's a run for its money anytime soon. Still, it's an option to kick back with some drinks and pub fare in front of a bunch of TVs in a part of suburbia surprisingly lacking in such options. So I guess the people at Miller's did their research. The Ale House will be open till 2 AM Monday through Saturday, and until midnight on Sundays.

A bit farther down the Pike (and a bit late in delivering this news), a longtime Asian staple has closed its doors. The Vegetable Garden, which had a devoted following among those who crave good vegetarian Chinese cooking, shut down after a lengthy run in the strip mall across the street from the White Flint Metro station. Apparently the inevitable "lease issues" were to blame, with the strip mall owner in search of new tenants and having no qualms about losing old ones. (Witness the opening of the sex shop, La Tache, at the end of the strip mall.)

According to those who spoke with the owners, there are no plans to reopen. Another restaurant in the strip mall, Mediterranean House of Kabob, closed briefly earlier this year also following a dispute with the landlord. It has subsequently reopened.

For those still looking to get their vegetarian Chinese fix in Rockville, well, there remains no shortage of options. Chief among them is Yuan Fu, a bit farther north up the Pike.

North Flintville Perspectives: One North Bethesda

Snapped this photo of the recently opened One North Bethesda tower, located directly behind the entrance to the White Flint Metro station. ONB is one of the homes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is part of LCOR's larger North Bethesda Center project. Phase two of the project, including a second residential tower near the intersection of Marinelli and Chapman, is currently under construction.