Friday, November 18, 2011

The Future Of Montgomery County: Take DC's Streetcars to MoCo's Suburban Big Box Stores? // aka the Walmart Question

Rorschach's Journal 11/6/2012
The year is 2020. Tom Smith, a resident of Gentro Heights NW, needs a sack of grain. He picks up the Georgia Ave Streetcar from in front of his house and gets off at the Downtown Silver Spring Transit Hub, where he transfers to the Purple Line. Tom's journey ultimately ends at the Walmart West Montgomery Station in Rockville, Maryland. Welcome to Montgomery County 2020.... maybe.

Maryland Juice's domestic partner/wife Virginia Juice has recently been reading a classic land use and planning tome, "Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs. I don't remember why she started reading it, and don't tell her, but I wasn't paying close attention when she was telling me about the book. Nevertheless, my eye was drawn to a mention of the book in the comments to this morning's very interesting MoCo-centric news round-up at the Greater Greater Washington blog (excerpts below):

Streetcar to Silver Spring?: Montgomery Councilmembers Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer are asking DC to consider running the streetcar to Silver Spring. It's entirely logical, if only the various DOTs can work together. (South Silver Spring)
Berliner against anti-urban Walmarts: Councilmember Roger Berliner wants to stop the Walmart at Rockville Pike and Randolph Road because it will undermine the more urban form the county wants to foster in that area. (Patch) 
Mall owner prefers a town instead: The owners of White Flint Mall want to replace the mall with a town. The project would include 5 million square feet of offices, apartments, and shops and will take 25 years to complete. (Gazette, Mike) 
Jobs outstrip housing: The region is failing to match job growth with housing growth. Eventually, employers and workers may relocate to cities where housing is cheaper. (Post) ... Building up, rather than out, is the best solution we've got. (City Block)
Food stamps down in DC, up in MD, VA: The number of food stamp recipients fell 10.5% in DC while jumping 10.2% and 21.2% in Virginia and Maryland respectively. The shift may signal the displacement of poverty from DC to the suburbs. (Examiner) 
And...: Prince George's County will create "prostitution-free zones" along the DC border. (Patch)

Sidebar on the Future of Civic Activism: Increasingly the era of the suburban civic activist is being displaced (or at least enhanced) by the era of the digital civic blogger, email/listserv warrior, etc. Just look at the slow proliferation of interest in wonky sites like Greater Greater Washington, Just Up the Pike, the South Silver Spring Association blog, the Citizens League of MoCo and many other land-use oriented blogs. Too often, I hear elected officials asking why young people, working class folks, communities of color, and others don't "participate" more. They ask why people don't show up at public hearings, why they don't apply for advisory boards, etc. But when I look around, I see a vibrant culture of expression on some very nerdy policy issues -- from a range of voices. It is not hard to find the outlets where ordinary citizens are speaking out on such matters these days. Just look at the first few comments to the news roundup above (I highlight one comment for continued discussion below):

Re: Streetcar to Silver SpringThis is one of the reasons why I think all the various streetcar / light rail projects being proposed or build in the Washington should agree on common rolling stock type. Platform height, car width / height, current collection methods, traction voltage.
by Sand Box John on Nov 18, 2011 8:29 am  (link)
Maybe this was already in the links. I don't know. But in testerone fueled culture of GGW, maybe a useful reminder.
by charlie on Nov 18, 2011 8:32 am  (link)
Agreed on the Streetcar, including the Columbia Pike system. Sometime in the future, that line may need to be extended over the 14th Street bridge.Similarly, the region should be looking to extensions of streetcar lines out the major radial roads to places like Bethesda and Rockville, Kensington and Wheaton, Silver Spring and White Oak, Hyattsville and College Park etc. A strong and redundant system will benefit all involved, despite the investment it will take to realize.
by William on Nov 18, 2011 8:49 am  (link)
A streetcar or dedicated bus lanes (maybe BRT) for Georgia Avenue would be great. It's so clogged with cars and buses and no one goes anywhere on Georgia Ave. This would actually allow for movement on that historical road.
by dc denizen on Nov 18, 2011 9:23 am  (link)
The Mt. Rainier MUTC plan has provisions for a streetcar in it, but as far as I know no city or county leaders have been pushing for it. Many residents along Rt. 1 think the Phase II streetcar line should link all the way to College Park. In the meantime, let's get BRT rolling on Rt. 1/RI Ave. There is no need what-so-ever for RIA to be 3 lanes once inside DC. Make it a dedicated bus/bike lane all the way to (at least) Logan Circle.
The comment highlighted in yellow above references an Atlantic Cities article about the previously mentioned book Virginia Juice is reading: Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities:
Jacobs, of course, thought big...  not big demolition and car-based projects but big physical and social infrastructure like mass transit and library systems or big urban networks of smaller components like interconnected neighborhoods.
In the 1993 introduction to the Modern Library edition of Death and Life, Jane questioned the widespread claim that her book changed the urban development field....
She wrote: "It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly. This book turned out to be helpful ammunition against such experts. But it is less accurate to call this effect 'influence' than to see it as corroboration and collaboration..."
There are many takeaways one can identify from such discussions of Jacobs, but mine is simply to reiterate the importance of challenging the "experts" when they perpetuate more of the very policies and practices that have led us into our current budgetary, traffic, and environmental messes. Jacobs, in some ways, was her era's blogger and she built herself a platform to convey her views. So much of this public skepticism continues to surround us -- just look at the public comments ordinary residents make about policy matters every day on low-tech and high-tech outlets like am radio, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

A New Expectation from Our Officials: In today's faster-paced information culture, successful elected officials will have to understand how to use this feedback to engage residents and tap public opinion, rather than expecting residents to come to them. It should also be noted that advocates are also simultaneously learning how to weaponize constituent contacts. I would also posit that the availability of so much darn information on the Internet (much of it bad, but much of it very useful) has elevated the BS-meter for the constituents of today and tomorrow. It is harder for policymakers (and even parents) to get away with Stork and Trickle-Down explanations of the world when everyone can Google their way to their version of the "truth" in seconds. Watch how fast young people today can scan through an email box and avoid clicking the spam messages. It is astonishing.

From Streetcars to Walmart: Okay, back to the Future of Montgomery County.... One of the undeniable features of smart policymaking heading into the future will be the need to coordinate many policies across regions, to ensure leveraged and coordinated impact. That's why Governor Martin O'Malley's Plan Maryland (which we will discuss in future posts) is so important. That's also why it is so encouraging to see Montgomery Councilmembers Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer calling on County Executive Ike Leggett and District of Columbia Mayor Vince Gray to start talking about how MoCo can collaborate with DC's fast-moving Streetcar revival:

Montgomery Councilmembers Nancy Floreen & Hans Riemer Letter to Ike Leggett & Vince Gray

REAL Regional Coordination Is a Must: It is clear that we must embrace a vision of a redefined Montgomery County that sees our future success as one increasingly intertwined with the fates of Prince George's County, Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia, Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Frederick, etc. We've also got to be playing to succeed in the long-term, not just in this rough patch. Walmart has increasingly tried to step into the breach and "rescue" flagging retail zones, first in the District of Columbia, and now in Montgomery County.

Maryland Juice is still pondering the big Walmart question, but one thing is clear -- any decisions need to proceed slooooooowly. In D.C. Walmart won over city officials and even some smart growthers with plans for a couple "urban" stores in seriously distressed retails zones. But after winning approvals, they rolled out plans for even more stores, suddenly raising the fear from small and local business owners of Walmart slowly saturating the grocery and retail market and potentially driving smaller competitors out of business. That's not a theory, that's often their business model.

At What Cost? There are several proposals and bits of legislative dissent out there already, and I copy a few of them below. But one question should be asked in the midst of all this. As Montgomery County builds a vision for the future, how far are we willing to go to achieve that vision, and should we at least consider the cost of rejecting some of Walmart's jobs as a loss-leader for the Montgomery County small businesses, neighborhoods and economy of the future? There may be some very good Walmart designs and plans out there, and I don't claim to have looked at them yet, but with the flood of Walmart's being proposed in the region, it is at least worth playing devil's advocate with some of these questions.

Loss-Leading for Future Success: Perhaps saying  no to some of the Walmart's could be a worthwhile write-down or investment for Montgomery County's future? Some of the Councilmembers opposing Walmarts in their districts appear to think so. Both Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Nancy Navarro are attempting to help articulate their community's respective visions for the future:

Councilmember Roger Berliner Letter to JBG Developers Opposing Planned Rockville Walmart
  Councilmember Nancy Navarro Letter to Lee Developers Opposed Planned Aspen Hill Wallmart

Note that the two letters above do not have much to do with the labor relations issues involved in the Walmart disputes. The letter of opposition to the Rockville Walmart is about transit-oriented development, and the letter about the Aspen Hill Walmart is about cannibalizing small businesses.

The Labor Question: Nevertheless, the labor questions and the impact on existing businesses are legitimate concerns. That's why Council President Valerie Ervin introduced a Community Benefits Agreement bill that has some area business leaders upset. But remember, one of the key backers of the bill is UFCW Local 400. The Washington Post and others have tried to portray this as a union-backed special interest ploy, but remember who Local 400 represents. Regardless of your view of the Walmart-related proposals, it is important to remember that they are defending the "special interests" of the employees at some of our favorite area stores and services:
  • Best Way Food
  • Bethesda Co-Op
  • CVS
  • Farmers Market
  • Freshgo Markets
  • Giant Food, Inc. 
  • Kroger Pharmacy
  • Magruders
  • Macy’s
  • Safeway Stores
  • Shopper Food Warehouse
  • Super Fresh

That's why Walmart is trying to preempt questions with its press operations. They recently sent out a press release stating:
"There’s an obvious excitement around bringing jobs to Montgomery County and at Walmart, we’re committed to developing an engaged workforce by providing future employees with opportunities to learn, grow and advance," said Keith Morris, Senior Director, Community Affairs, East Region. "We offer good jobs with competitive wages and affordable benefits, and the chance to build a career – nearly 75% of our store management team joined the company as hourly associates."

Maybe all of that is true. Remember, I am not passing any judgment on any of Walmart's plans. But after watching what they've been doing in the District, I think MoCo could do well to take this slow and let the whole Walmart regional plan unfold before making any tough decisions.

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