Montgomery County Council’s War on Our Being A Suburb
By Mark Uncapher
The popular image of Montgomery County as a “suburban” community, filled with single family detached home with backyards and spatial separation from neighbors, embarrasses our County Council. While the county generally enjoys an overall density of just 2,000 people per square mile, a central tenet of the Council’s land use ideology is to “stack & pack” as many people into as limited a space as they can get away with politically.
Earlier this month the Council voted unanimously to authorize more new townhouses and high-rise apartments in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood. The move has been fiercely opposed by area residents. In adopting their revised Westbard plan, the Council tripled the housing density in the area, going from an average of just over three units per acre to 10. This equates to a density of 16,000 people per square mile, nearly 50% higher than the District of Columbia’s average of 11,000.
Why? The Washington Post quoted Council member Hans Riemer as saying: “We now know with scientific certainty what the combustion engine is doing to our planet. Building homes on what is already a giant parking lot just a mile from two Metros and from the D.C. line is far better for our environment than developing a farm, or bulldozing a farm an hour north on 270.”
Yet in the same article Post reporter Bill Turque dryly corrects Councilmember Riemer’s whopper by pointing out that: “The shopping center is actually 2.2 miles from the Friendship Heights Metro station and 3.3 miles from the Bethesda stop.”
The actual distance to the Metro is no small point. Areas closer to Bethesda Metro, such as the Woodmont Triangle, have been experiencing intense high rise development after the Council “upzoned” the area. Here density makes some planning sense because these residents can more easily do without a car by using mass transit than can those in Westbard. Already three of the top 50 most congested intersections in the county are along River Road leading though Westbard from the Beltway to the district line. This congestion will only worsen.
The Council’s motivation can be best understood by listening to Councilmember George Leventhal, captured on tape expressing his opinion that “suburbs are a mistake.” He explains that “the very thing that was so marvelous when Olney and Gaithersburg and Wheaton were laid out in the 1940s and 1950s is now killing our planet. We can’t afford to drive as much as we do, we have to change our land use patterns, and our transportation patterns…Our heirs will blame us for our failure to do that. It’s one of the culprits in climate change.”
Leventhal’s pro-density philosophy conflicts the strong popular preference for detached, single-family homes that is the end goal for the majority of Americans. Eighty percent of the population would prefer to live in a single-family home and seven in ten Americans (70%) actually do.
As urban planning expert Joel Kotkin points out, Americans are continuing to suburbanize. According to the 2010 census of the 51 metropolitan areas that have more than 1 million residents, only three saw their core cities grow faster than their suburbs. According to Kotkin: “The top ten population gainers—growing by 20 percent, twice the national average or more are largely suburban in form. None developed the large, dense core cities that dominated America before the post–World War II suburban boom began.”
Despite this popular preference to live on more space, the deeply ideological County Council wants to remake a more density populated Montgomery County. Yet inquiring minds might wonder just how receptive the three councilmembers hailing from Takoma Park would be were developers to offer a proposal to double their city’s density from 8,000 people per square mile to 16,000, even as most of their community really is within one mile of a Metro stop.