2021 | Government

County’s planning leadership answer some questions on Thrive Montgomery 2050

Casey Anderson, Gwen Wright discuss some goals of proposed general master plan

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Montgomery County Planning Board chair Casey Anderson (left) and Planning Department Director Gwen Wright.

Montgomery County Planning

The Montgomery County Council is continuing to deliberate and consider amendments to Thrive Montgomery 2050, a proposed update to the county’s general master plan.

It’s unclear whether the council will vote on the plan before taking its break for the winter holidays. County Council President Tom Hucker said in a recent interview that the incoming council president, likely current Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz, probably will have a say in that decision.

But he also hinted it’s unlikely a final vote would happen by year’s end, citing the need for more discussion and debate between council members, given the amount of work that went into smaller area plans.

“We had maybe four or five … work sessions just on the Bethesda sector plan alone,” Hucker said, “just to make sure the council felt comfortable with everything in there. … With a general plan like this, I don’t see how we could have four work sessions by the end of the year.”

Thrive Montgomery 2050, if passed, would be the county’s first update to its general master plan since 1993. It would be a completely new plan compared to the Wedges and Corridors plan, which dates back to the 1960s and included both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Bethesda Beat spoke with Montgomery County Planning Department Director Gwen Wright and Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson about some basics and aspects of the plan. Here are some of their responses, edited for length and clarity.

Thrive Montgomery 2050 itself would not change zoning, but the plan mentions the need to look at rezoning and other methods to address the county’s housing shortage. What do the Planning Board and planning staff envision in terms of any potential rezoning in subsequent area master plans and site plans?

Gwen Wright: I mean, honestly, a lot of what’s in Thrive is really reflective of the way we have already been evolving as a county all the way back to the White Flint plan, where we talked about changing a lot of area along Rockville Pike from single-use strip shopping centers into mixed use areas. … I’ve said this a bunch of times. Thrive is not a bunch of brand new ideas. It’s really something that builds on a lot of the work we’ve done in the last 10 years in the county.

Casey Anderson: It’s not like, one day, everybody wakes up and says, ‘Oh, let’s try something 180 degrees in the opposite direction.’ It’s what’s gone on for the last 50 years. There’s been a gradual evolution of thinking over time.

Now, having said that, we do think there are some important new ideas in this plan. Missing middle housing is one of them that we’re putting a finer point on. … It’s not that it was invented, you know, this year, last week or yesterday, but in fact, it was prefigured in the 2011 housing element that was adopted by the County Council. But we’re putting a finer point on it here because we think it represents the direction or housing policy across the country.

To address the housing shortage, Thrive mentions potential housing types that might help increase supply and make housing more affordable: duplexes, triplexes, apartment buildings, tiny homes and others. Which types of housing might be most applicable to solving housing affordability issues?

GW: There are many different tools in the toolkit to try to make housing more available and affordable. And although there’s been a great focus by residents on this idea of duplexes and triplexes, the plan itself talks about a lot of other housing policy ideas. It talks about the need to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing. It talks about the need to look again at our moderately priced dwelling unit program and make sure that we’re really getting the most we can. It talks about the need for supportive housing for the homeless.

CA: For example, one of the things we talked about is different construction techniques like mass timber, which is building taller buildings, larger buildings out of wood. Now, that doesn’t sound very sexy. But it’s really important to making it cheaper to build stuff. So if you can build a 10-story building out of wood, instead of just a six-story building, that can be really helpful in creating more units at a lower price whether those units are being built by a private developer for their own account or whether it’s an affordable-housing provider.

The plan is critical of how development and planning centered around the automobile has led to long-term challenges. How does the county see a long-term shift to make communities less dependent on the car? How do you accomplish that from a cultural standpoint, given how much prior infrastructure has been centered around automobiles?

GW: There is nothing saying that suddenly, magically, people are going to stop using cars, but we need to reset our priorities. Right now, whenever we review a development project, or think about building a new road, we prioritize how that’s going to impact vehicular traffic. We need to start resetting the priority to say, how is it going to impact pedestrians, bicyclists, transit, people who use other modes? And I think there’s greater support for that now, particularly because of the enormous number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities that we’re having on so many of our roads.

CA: The point here is not about giving up driving or even reducing driving so much, as it is about designing communities around the needs of people, and not around the needs of cars. And so that means not just more transit, biking, walking infrastructure, more bike lanes, more [bus rapid transit], the Purple Line, more sidewalks, all those sorts of things. But it’s also about the things that get built around the transportation infrastructure.

Thrive, according to data in the plan, states that of all the new housing needed by 2040, 54.8% of units needed should be multifamily renter and 27.4% should be multifamily owner. Where might those units go countywide?

CA: [Thrive opponents are] conflating the idea that Thrive plans for how to accommodate 200,000 more people with the idea that Thrive is an argument that we should try to add 200,000 — more people than we would otherwise get. The point of Thrive is to say, we’re going to get those people whether we plan for them or not. And unless you want to build a moat around Montgomery County, it will be very difficult to keep them out.

Our argument is, if we’re going to have 200,000 more people here, we should put them within the existing growth footprint instead of letting real estate development sprawl out into the ag reserve, into the far-flung reaches of the county, because that’s not good for anyone.

GW: The East County was sort of written out of previous general plans as places where growth might happen, and I think because of that, they have not seen investment and they have suffered. So we really see the idea of refocusing on East County growth corridors as an equity issue. … We believe [growth] should happen in activity centers, and primarily along corridors that have some sort of transit. 

A lot of debate on the plan has separated supporters and opponents of Thrive into what each views as two distinct groups. There are NIMBYs (not in my backyard) who oppose the plan and YIMBYs (yes in my backyard) who support Thrive. Do these labels hurt honest debate about the plan? 

CA: Personally, I don’t find the use of NIMBY or YIMBY to be necessarily pejorative. I think of them as more descriptive. I know some people get their backs up about those sorts of terms. … We live in an age of distrust and there has been corrosion of the quality and civility of public debate.

To some extent, I think people need to make some accommodations for if there’s going to be a heated debate, and people’s emotions are going to run high … to some degree, that’s OK. That can be healthy and within reason. But I think people need to accept the fact that these are important issues, and they’re going to get contentious at some times. 

GW: I honestly believe everyone is trying to be sincere in talking about how much they love Montgomery County and how much they want to see it be a wonderful place.

I do understand that some residents get very upset when they are called racist for living in a single-family house. I don’t think that’s a fair thing to say. Many of us live in single-family houses, and I don’t think that very action, in and of itself, is a racist action. But I also think … there are a lot of new voices with different ideas that need to be recognized. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com