Monday, October 20, 2008

Suburbs become the city that DC never had

The Washington Post, which is pretty good at covering urban planning, has a great two-part series on possible redevelopment of Rockville Pike, a commercial road in Montgomery County, a Maryland suburb of DC. Like Reston and Tysons Corner – communities in Northern Virginia, the south suburbs of DC – the towns along Rockville Pike have been hit with New Urbanism fever, and are eager to redevelop their commercial streets into a denser urban form. Though they don't probably don't realize it, this is actually a more market-oriented approach, with developers building more dense structures than we have today if it weren't more widespread restrictions on density outside of the inner core of American cities.

But unlike Reston and Tysons Corner, Rockville Pike has the advantage of the Washington Metro's Red Line, which runs directly underneath (or something like it) the street for the length of four station stops. The line goes directly into the center of Washington, DC, and is a huge asset.

The towns, however, don't quite seem to have the ideas down. They still appear to be operating in the minimum parking mindset, enforcing rules that developers have to build more parking than they otherwise would, so as to avoid residents and customers using free city-maintained parking. They essentially offer the developers the right to build as the market demands in exchange for payments to the local coffers:

Floreen, who formerly served on the Planning Board, said there might be a way to reduce the amount of parking developers are required to provide if they are willing to pay more for greater density.

Floreen would do well to read a previous Washington Post story about minimum parking regulations in the NoVa communities that Rockville Pike seeks to emulate.

Unlike DC, these Maryland and Virginia suburbs do not always have the District's stifling height restrictions, and it is possible that a buildings 28 stories or higher could be built along Rockville Pike. The Post has a slideshow in the second article with some mock-ups of what planners want the boulevard to look like. And though the drawings always look better than reality, the only way reality will come close to the drawings is if local planners give developers the freedom to build urban buildings, without the weight of minimum parking requirements or county bribes in order to rise above the traditional suburban skyline. With all the talk of favorable tax zones and other things that amount to handouts to developers, you'd think that the planners would realize that it's their restrictions that are forcing them to have to bribe developers into building more densely.

But the potential for DC suburbs is quite good when you think about it, considering that they don't have as much competition in urban living from DC itself. Though there are areas of Washington that have distinctive urban traits, it's difficult to get over the fact that none of the buildings seem to rise much above ten stories. It isn't surprising that so many DC suburbs are adopting New Urbanism as planning guides, though it would be nice if they would recognize that recreating urbanism requires nothing more than doing away with the old Euclidean and suburban scriptures – no need to replace them with anything else!

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