Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Gentrification in Logan Circle: Wonderful--or Something Else?

The Washington Post published a front page story recently, Gentrification inOverdrive on 14th Street, which took a look at some of the changes witnessed in recent years to 14th Street NW.

As someone who lived in the middle of the 14th Street "renaissance" for five years, and who blogged about it throughout much of that time, this is a topic I maintain a great deal of interest in and have continued to follow closely, even after my wife and I decamped to the suburbs in September 2011. My feelings are that while 14th Street and Logan Circle have developed into a premier destination in the city, and that there is much to celebrate about that, as a livable neighborhood it can feel lacking.
A Rapid Transformation

I work just a few blocks west of 14th Street, and venture over there occasionally. What I find is a neighborhood that, in less than two years' time, has been transformed to a point where even I barely recognize it--and I speak as someone who followed the changes along 14th Street closely, was on a first-name basis with many 14th Street business owners while I lived there, and felt as if I knew every building and block by heart.

What I see occurring along 14th Street now is something that could scarcely even call "gentrification." Gentrification occurred some time ago on 14th Street; what I see taking place now is a transition towards an ever-more-exclusive neighborhood that increasingly feels out of reach for many.

The admittedly sensitive topic of "gentrification" came up in roundabout ways numerous times during my 14th Street blogging days. Commenters would bemoan the loss of the supposed "character" of old 14th Street with the opening of every new wine bar or high-end furniture store. Escalating housing costs and businesses that were increasingly perceived to cater to a certain demographic (often white, always wealthy) led to a great amount of suspicion. And even many of us who didn't regard every restaurant opening with skepticism, such as myself, still questioned in what direction the neighborhood was headed, and who stood to benefit.

As evidenced by the skyrocketing real estate prices and the nature of the businesses flooding into the corridor, I now feel that we have an answer to those questions. And if you aren't in a position to afford a $900,000 condo, you probably aren't going to like those answers.
It's Better...But Is It 'Wonderful?'

It's a given that a city needs revenue in order to provide services to its citizens. Inhabited, maintained, tax revenue-generating properties are a positive for the city. And when the businesses that fill properties along commercial corridors succeed, they not only put revenue in the city's coffers, they incite more businesses to open and help to cultivate an energy and vitality that many seek via city living. Ideally, you have a win-win situation: a more bustling, energetic city that is providing more and better-quality services to its residents.

That certainly seems to be the position of Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, who is quoted in the Post article as saying, “What is going on on 14th Street is fascinating, anomalous and wonderful for the city." Fascinating, yes. Anomalous, perhaps. Wonderful? Well that depends on who you ask, and who you are.

You won't find many who clamor for the conditions of the "old" 14th Street, or at least not the social ills that plagued it and surrounding streets throughout much of the latter-half of the 20th century. I have family members who lived along the corridor in the mid-80s who can regale you with stories of the drug transactions, prostitution and other activities that took place just outside their front door. The corridor was woefully underdeveloped, a victim of the flight out of the city that began in the late 1950s and reached its zenith immediately following the 1968 riots. In that respect, there's little argument that 14th Street is in a better place today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

But there is no shortage of people who clamor for a more connected and sustainable neighborhood, one more accessible to a broader array of people where there's a greater likelihood that many of its residents will be able to put down roots and make a long-term investment in its improvement. A significant reason why 14th Street was able to turn around and become a desirable address was due to the tireless work of many residents who moved there during the 70s, 80s and 90s—and remained. There were no million-dollar penthouse condos there then, and that was part of its appeal. But at some point the prices started rising, and haven't stopped since.
From Stability To Unaffordability

For many people, there didn't seem to be much of an "in between" stage for 14th Street and Logan Circle. The neighborhood never really seemed to strike that balance between offering stability and a good quality of life with affordability and approachability. It seemed to vault between two extremes over a relatively short period of time. The change that took place along 14th Street was drastic, and whenever change occurs that quickly, there will be people who were able to "get in" and are largely satisfied, and there will be people who find themselves shut out.

My wife and I found ourselves in the latter category. After living in a one bedroom Logan Circle apartment for five years, we determined that, in addition to needing to provide my wife with a saner commute to her Montgomery County employer, we had tired of running into each other and simply needed more space. We would have preferred to remain in Logan had we been able to, but aside from a handful of two bedroom apartments and condos that were approximately the size of (or smaller than) our one bedroom home, we found ourselves largely priced out of the market. A $600-$700,000 "luxury" condo, with its associated condo fees and taxes, was simply beyond reach.

But my evolving feelings about my old neighborhood aren't influenced simply by my own experiences while living there. They're also influenced by what has happened there since we left. The types of businesses that have continued to move into the neighborhood--posh eateries and bars, furniture stores selling $6,000 sofas, boutiques selling $100 pairs of yoga pants—are good at attracting young, moneyed visitors to the neighborhood, but aren't necessarily the kinds of businesses that serve the daily needs of the neighborhood's residents. How many times a week, for example, are you going to drop $80 or $100 on dinner? How many $15 cocktails will you consume? How many $2,000 chairs will you purchase?

Beyond the upscale boutiques and restaurants, and the neighborhood's overall shift in commercial character, lies an even greater issue: who is moving here for the long term? I certainly do not mean to suggest that there aren't many fine, committed residents in Logan Circle invested in the long-term betterment of their neighborhood. I know from firsthand experience that there are. But much of the new housing being built along and around 14th Street and featured in the Post story isn't being built with long-term inhabitance in mind. Many people can only live in a studio or cramped one bedroom apartment for so long. Eventually you couple off, have a child, or simply decide you need more room. Where to, then? With, as the Post notes, two bedroom condos in the neighborhood fetching close to $1 million, and houses garnering more, it's safe to assume that many will not remain.

How do you build a community with such a constant revolving door of residents? And what happens if you can't? They are questions Logan Circle residents will need to answer over the coming years and decades.
Trendy Destination = Good Neighborhood?
14th Street is a very popular destination, but as a neighborhood Logan Circle today can feel a bit hollow. Undoubtedly, there are many fun places to go, good drinks to be drunk and great food to be eaten. It's lively, it's safer, and it's generating a lot of money for the city. "Huzzah!" to all of that. But before we stamp it with a "wonderful" and seek to determine how we can emulate it in other D.C. neighborhoods, consider everything that it may not be: Affordable. Approachable. Sustainable. Economically diverse. And then ask yourself what the District would look like if every neighborhood developed along a similar path.

I recently took a stroll along 14th Street, past old haunts like Thaitanic, Great Wall and Pulp, and past new additions like Be Too, Black Whiskey, Ghibellina, Pearl Dive, and everyone's new favorite French brasserie, Le Diplomate. I felt some nostalgia for the street I walked along so many times, and I marveled at the frantic energy and the rapid pace of change that brought it to this point. And then I studied the people dining outside at 14th Street's many sidewalk cafes, and I wondered how many of them live in the neighborhood? How many could? How many would make it their home for 10, 20, 30 years? And how many simply view it as a playground of sorts, good for a night out or a stroll, but otherwise not a place they can—or care to—settle in?

Change is inevitable, and there are many things to enjoy about the "new" 14th Street. It's a great destination, and can be a fine place to live. But I'm not sure that everything's wonderful.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Is Paul Waldman the worst journalist on Earth?

Before I get too far into this, I should be up front about a couple of things. Yes, this is a blog ostensibly about the North Bethesda/Rockville area of Montgomery County, Maryland. It's not about DC, although being just outside of DC the two are of course very closely related. Also, the foci of this blog are to inform people about what is happening in this pocket of Montgomery County, and to occasionally advocate for thoughtful and sensible policies and development that will (hopefully) make this area a more enjoyable place to live.

With that said, having lived in (and maintained a blog in) DC for a number of years, I remain one of its most ardent defenders. There's a lot about the city that rubs me the wrong way, and a lot of things I'd like to see changed. But I remain a fiercely loyal advocate of the city and its residents, and if you come at DC, you'd better come armed with more than a bunch of lazy maxims and outdated and disproved cliches.

Which brings me to Paul Waldman.

Mr. Waldman is a contributor to, among other outlets, The American Prospect, for whom he recently penned an article called "Is Washington the Worst Place on Earth?" You could argue that with such a blatantly inflammatory headline, the piece is designed to be an over-the-top dollop of absurdity not meant to be taken seriously. And perhaps that is the case. But, having wasted several valuable minutes of my life reading it, two things struck me about the piece.

For one, his framing of the piece not as a straight-up argument based upon a thesis, but rather as a gosh-I-don't-know question, is irksome. Is Washington the worst place on Earth? "I'm not saying this is the case," Mr. Waldman seems to imply. "I'm just asking the question." He's not saying Washington is the worst place on Earth, don't you see? He's only repeating what he's heard others say, and approaching the question with a golly-gosh naivete as he kicks around some possible reasons people might say that. Shucky darn.

Secondly, and the reason I'm even bothering to write this, the reasons he puts forth as to to why Washington might be considered by some (but not necessarily by him!) the worst place on Earth are ridden with the worst, most insulting and misdirected attacks against the city and its residents. They are tired cliches, long-since debunked or out-of-date, and some are just bizarre. He begins the piece by noting, correctly, that "obviously, there's "Washington," an actual city where people live and work, and "Washington," a rhetorical construct that embodies the things people don't like about government and politics." After making this helpful distinction, he then proceeds to conflate the two, assigning the perceived dysfunctions of our nation's government as faults of Washington the "actual city where people live and work."

Thus, I thought that I might take a few minutes and examine the reasons put forth by Mr. Waldman for why DC is such a horrible place, so we can see just how strong a case he actually manages to build.

Washington is small.

"Part of the reason D.C. has no representation in Congress is that when it was established, it was thought that while the work of government would be carried out in the District, no one would live here. With a little over 600,000 people, Washington ranks number 25 in population among U.S. cities. [And] because D.C. is so small, it's more dominated by its dominant industry than anywhere else."

There are several arguments here, and all of them are bogus. To begin, it was never "thought that no one would live" in Washington. Quite the opposite; soon after the city was laid out by French architect Pierre L'Enfant, George Washington commenced an ambitious effort to encourage people to relocate to the nation's newly created capital. Lots were auctioned off at next-to-nothing prices, and politicians and federal workers relocating to the federal district were strongly encouraged to make it their permanent home. Even in L'Enfant's original plans for the city, he designed 13 "state squares," around which L'Enfant envisioned states competing with one another for who could attract the most residents and development. True, such development was very slow in coming--it was not until after the Civil War and the reign of Alexander "Boss" Shepherd that many of the city's streets became paved and critical public infrastructure was built. But to state that it was never anticipated that people would live here is flatly wrong.

Further, it's worth noting that DC's current population exceeds that of two states--Vermont and Wyoming--and is within spitting distance of Alaska and North Dakota. When considered as a percentage of the nation's population, DC today has a greater percentage than states such as Nevada and Wyoming upon their admittance to the Union.

As to the argument that DC's perceived existence as a "one industry town" somehow prevents it from attaining congressional representation, as soon as Mr. Waldman points to the constitutional amendment stating that only jurisdictions with sufficiently diversified economies warrant representation in Congress, I'll accept this argument. Ultimately, the constitutional argument against DC representation has always rested upon its requirement that representation in Congress is the province solely of "the people of the several states," and since DC is a District and not a state, it therefore does not warrant congressional representation. Anything else is, well, nonsense.

What Washington does affects everyone, and not always in a good way.

"Despite the fact that Washington has produced some terrific things like Medicare and the Clean Air Act, it's also the fount of a steady stream of misbegotten policies and political nastiness. And D.C.'s most horrible people can have an impact on all of our lives...[t]hat disgusting congressman is making the laws we all live under."

Of all of Waldman's purported reasons for why DC is awful, this one is the worst. Basically, it boils down to the belief that since the politicians here are doing things that Mr. Waldman finds disagreeable, the city of Washington is terrible. Putting aside for a moment the argument one could make that the behavior of Wall Street bankers had at least as much of a negative impact on the country as anything to come out of the federal government in the last 20 years, who Mr. Waldman is actually indicting here are the residents of the 50 states that send to DC those disgusting politicians whom Waldman despises so much. This is where equating the district of Washington--fully functioning city of over 600,000 residents--with "official Washington" is most maddening. The residents of Washington have no say in whom the citizens of the rest of the country send here to conduct the nation's business, and the decisions those individuals make have nothing whatsoever to do with Washington the city.

If you want to find fault here, perhaps direct your ire towards the people of the state who continually send to Washington a representative who thinks taxes are preventing a cure for Alzheimer's.

Washington gets more scrutiny.

The fact that politics gets the deserved attention it does means that ordinary people hear a lot not only about the consequences of policy but the ugly process of making it...[t]hat means that most of the ugliness is on full display.

Here again we have the conflation of the politicians sent here by the rest of the country as an indictment of the city of Washington. So the White House and Capitol Hill press corps reporting on the absurdity of our nation's government makes Washington an awful place? See the response above, and perhaps have a word with those fine people in east Texas who keep sending Washington a representative who warns us of the dire threat of terror babies.

Nowhere else do more people fail upward.

The fact that connections matter more than merit in getting ahead is true to some degree everywhere, but not to an identical extent, and nowhere is it more true than in Washington. That doesn't mean Washington isn't brimming with extraordinarily talented people, because it is. But based on my unscientific survey, it has more hacks enjoying undeserved career advancement than anywhere else.

At least Mr. Waldman admits that his survey used to arrive at this conclusion was "unscientific." This is the argument that grates on me the most, because it paints an entire city as a caricature: a metropolis filled with empty suits who have no tangible skills other than glad-handing, the ability to talk a good game and having the right connections to the right people. And even though that description also seems like a good fit for failed CEOs such as J.C. Penney's Ron Johnson (to say nothing of numerous executives at well-known Wall Street institutions), it's true that there are people here who rightly fall into that category. But therein lies the problem with stereotypes and generalizations. For every high-ranking empty suit Hill staffer, there are dozens of passionate people doing extraordinary work.

Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, there are people working on cures for AIDS and other terrible diseases, people working fervently to identify solutions to endemic poverty, people advocating for models of better and smarter growth in our nation's cities, journalists who are informing the public about crucial issues that impact our society, and on and on. There are musicians and painters, entrepreneurs and nonprofit executives, transit geeks and planning nerds. *My* admittedly unscientific study shows DC to be a city full of passionate, hard-working, smart, friendly people. House of Cards may be lauded for its accurate portrayal of the seediness and corruption of political Capitol Hill, but never mistake the denizens of Official Washington with the hundreds of thousands of people here doing exceptional things.

Washington has more short-timers.

OK, I'm not sure this is true, and I don't know if anyone has the data to establish it. But it does seem that a huge number of people come to Washington, spend a few years working in the politics industry, and then leave to go somewhere else...[That] transient population keeps D.C.'s character defined by politics, which is the part that never changes.

More anecdotal evidence put forward as solid reasoning to support his thesis. First, I would point Mr. Waldman to the U.S. census figures, which shows that compared to the other 50 states, two--Nevada and Florida--rank behind DC in terms of native-born residents. But that only tells part of the story (after all, claiming that 48 states have more native-born residents than you isn't exactly an ideal argument for non-transiency.) The key here is that DC is compared with other states; jurisdictions that are significantly larger, sometimes exponentially so, than DC. Someone could be born in Montgomery County or Arlington County, move to DC, and would be considered among the many Washington "transplants." Likewise, one could move from DC to Prince George's or Fairfax counties and be considered to have emigrated from the nation's capital. That's not exactly a 1:1 comparison.

Several years back, the good folks at We Love DC did a piece on this topic, where they examined the question of whether DC is truly as transient a city as is commonly thought. The answer, as one might expect, was more nuanced than many believe. The data they studied found that DC compares quite favorably to other major U.S. cities both in terms of the percentage of residents who were born in that city, and the percentage of the population that were residents of that city one year prior. DC had slightly fewer native-born residents than Boston, and slightly more than San Francisco, for instance. Taken in context with the aforementioned problems of comparing DC with states, there is little evidence to support the contention that DC falls outside of the normal range of native vs. non-native population compared with other large cities.

Further, there is another question raised here, which is: does a higher percentage of native-born residents inherently make a city "better"? Better is, of course, a subjective trait. There is something to be said for the stability one finds in neighborhoods with a great percentage of residents who have lived there for generations. But what of "magnet cities" like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami, Boston and others that attract residents for reasons such as job opportunities or quality-of-life reasons? My hometown of Columbus, Ohio, a fine city in many respects, has a greater percentage of "native-born" residents than does DC or Boston, for instance. Does that make Columbus a better (or "less awful") city than DC or Boston? By what metrics?

I realize that this is likely giving far too much credibility to an argument that doesn't merit very much. And I am not even venturing into the subtle racism that exists in statements that say that DC does not have a legitimately homegrown or native culture (many longtime African-American residents would vehemently disagree with that; as would the family of my wife, a fourth-generation Washingtonian).

Ultimately, my point here is to correct what I feel are absurd generalizations about the city of Washington, DC that do a tremendous disservice to the multitude of its residents. Pieces like Mr. Waldman's perpetuate a stereotype that is both unfair and harmful: unfair to its citizens, and harmful to the city's reputation both domestically and abroad. Washington, the city, is certainly fraught with its own problems, including its increasingly stratospheric cost of living, a problematic education system and the continued struggles endemic to its most vulnerable residents. And its function as the seat of government for the nation positions it in a unique place in the public consciousness, thus giving it a degree of scrutiny (such as that of Mr. Waldman) that many other cities do not receive. (Can anyone locate the last piece of journalism purporting to ask whether Tulsa, Oklahoma is the worst place on Earth?) But the city of Washington is, in many respects, also a fantastic place to live, something I have observed firsthand both as a resident and as someone living just beyond its borders. (Ironically, my wife and I contributed to DC's supposed transiency problem with our decampment to the suburbs a year-and-a-half ago.)

Waldman ends his piece with the following: "So is Washington worse than anyplace else? Does it really have a higher concentration of dreadful people doing dreadful things? I can't say for sure. But maybe."

Perhaps, as the journalist that he purports to be, Mr. Waldman might spend a bit of time determining whether he *could* say for sure. After all, it would not be tremendously difficult to turn the tables around here and ask: Is Paul Waldman the worst journalist on Earth? Does he really write a greater number of dreadful pieces putting forth dreadful things? I can't say for sure. But maybe.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Strathmore music venue coming to Pike & Rose

It's a jumbled mess of cranes, dirt and skeletal structures now, but by next year the first phase of Federal Realty's Pike & Rose, arguably the centerpiece project of efforts to transform the White Flint area into a dense, quasi-urban neighborhood, will be open for business. And the list of businesses and amenities on the way continues to be very exciting.

As reported on the Friends of White Flint blog, Phase One will include both 18 story and four story residential buildings with street-level retail, a green/performance space, an 80,000 SF office building, and an iPic movie replete with a Tanzy Restaurant, Salt Bar and--perhaps most enticing--a music club situated above the theater that will be built to host both indoor and open-air performances.

Earlier this week, we received some additional details about what that music club will be like when it was announced that the Strathmore music hall would be opening the performance space above the theater. According to the Washington Business Journal, the space will include a 250 seat concert venue, an 1,100 SF "function space," a green room, and doors that can be opened during performances in warmer months.

Image courtesy of Federal Realty Trust

According to a press release issued by Strathmore, the venue will feature "intimate jazz, rock, folk and contemporary performances, as well as a variety of well established, trend-setting touring acts.”

This will be the first expansion for Strathmore beyond their original campus, approximately 1.5 miles south of the Pike & Rose development off of Rockville Pike.

Other businesses currently slated to arrive as part of the Phase One development include a 2 Amy's-style pizzeria and a cafe/wine bar. Phase Two is set to kick off in February 2014, when ground will be broken on four additional buildings.

Um, you can't do that

I'm not under any sort of delusion about the relative beauty of Rockville Pike, particularly as it runs through North FlintVille. Parking lots, strip malls, car dealerships, gas stations, few trees and a crummy sidewalk don't exactly make for an aesthetically pleasing experience.

But do we have to make it worse?

You've probably seen these signs all up and down Rockville Pike (and other thoroughfares): signs advertising cheap massages, rug stores that are perpetually going out of business, cash 4 gold, you name it--it's a veritable Yellow Pages out there. And it's also illegal.

It may not occur to some people, but those signs are all in the public space, and they have no right to be there. Aside from making the streetscape of the Pike that much more unattractive, they're an illegal use of public space for private advertising purposes. Sometimes the County sends out a team to clear them out; this spring when some heartless individual put up a bunch of them in the median strip on the Montrose Bridge that was full of blooming daffodils. But most of the time they remain there for weeks, or months, on end, cluttering up sidewalks and intersections.

So, take this as a PSA: if you're out walking around the neighborhood and you see one (or 20) of these signs, contribute a bit towards cleaning up the area and put the signs where I put them last weekend:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

So...what do you call this place?

While we continue to prep more stories for posting here (they're coming--honest), head on over to the Friends of White Flint blog for an interesting piece from Dan Reed about the potential renaming of the White Flint neighborhood:
The White Flint Partnership, a coalition of property owners working to transform White Flint from a suburban strip to an urban hub, wants to change that. They’re looking for a marketing firm to develop a new “brand” for the White Flint Sector Plan area.

Partnership member Lerner Enterprises will fund the project. They own White Flint Mall, which will be partially demolished and redeveloped as an urban neighborhood. Francine Waters, managing director of Lerner Enterprises, hopes to “identify what would resonate the best not only locally, but regionally, nationally and internationally,” she says. “It’s not only a name but, frankly, telling the story of our journey from where we were to where we hope to achieve.”

It's an interesting question to ponder, particularly for an area such as White Flint/North Bethesda/South Rockville that suffers from something of an identity crisis. White Flint seems the most common and preferred term, but is also based on an indoor shopping mall (located, ironically, in Kensington) that is preparing to go the way of the dodo. North Bethesda is the designated census name for the area, but conjures up images of contrived realtor lingo. South Rockville is probably the most geographically accurate and was once a term used to identify the area, but that has fallen out of use and is unknown to most people. The name of this blog is meant to reflect the uncertainty/confusion regarding the name of the neighborhood in which we live.

Names are important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because it provides people--residents and visitors alike--a point of reference for a place. When people hear the words "Dupont," "Clarendon" or "Old Town," most people have a certain mental image associated with those words. So, particularly as Montgomery County embarks on a rigorous initiative to redevelop the White Flint area into a "destination" for the region, deciding upon a single name as an identifier for the neighborhood is a crucial step.

Perhaps that name will be "White Flint," "North Bethesda," "South Rockville" or something else. We'll know in due time, but it might just end up being one of the most important decisions made about the future of the neighborhood, rivaling the size and scale of new development, transit initiatives and infrastructure enhancements. Because while everyone's attention is turned towards the various mega-developments that are set to remake the neighborhood, it will be the name of the neighborhood that will singularly garner the most attention.

Head on over to FoWF and weigh in for yourselves on the various options being bandied about. And, yes, NorthFlintVille is among them.