2020 | Opinion

Opinion: Gaithersburg can make great strides as it remakes Lakeforest

Embrace the connection between economy and place

Lakeforest Mall presents a rare opportunity for the city of Gaithersburg to continue its pursuit of becoming an international hub for biotechnology and life sciences, particularly on the east side of Interstate 270, where such activity has been sorely lacking.

In fact, the city has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reshape Lakeforest in accordance with its overall vision through the formation of a new innovation district that connects the city’s leading anchor firms and institutions with supporting and spin-off companies, business incubators, mixed-use housing, office, and retail, and high-quality amenities and transport.

Although COVID-19 might have slowed these trends temporarily, profound economic, demographic and cultural shifts in recent years have fundamentally altered the place preferences of the residents and businesses within our region. This will require the city to fully embrace the connection between economy shaping and place making.

As Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution explain in “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy,” open, innovative economies, especially in biotechnology and other life sciences, require proximity and integration. That allows knowledge to be disseminated easily among companies and workers and thus enable the formation of new ideas that catalyze greater economic activity and development.

Along the same lines, in “How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom,” author Matt Ridley contends that innovation is not just some sudden action performed by lone geniuses. Instead, it occurs when random encounters and serendipitous insights are shared, reproduced and improved upon by countless individuals.

In other words, because so much innovation results from this pattern of chance, collaboration and recombination, it can only thrive in areas where people with different expertise, perspectives and cultures can come together, allowing them to cross paths, mingle and exchange ideas.    

As this makes abundantly clear, if the city of Gaithersburg desires to market itself truly as an internationally recognized center of biotechnology, as described in its strategic plan, it must continue to create well-defined communities that offer a multitude of resources for businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers and residents.

Pursuing this approach at Lakeforest offers the added benefit of stimulating needed revitalization of the Md. 355 corridor, another key economic development strategy of the city’s strategic plan.  

At the same time, the city would be remiss not to use the redevelopment of Lakeforest as an opportunity to combat its (and Montgomery County’s) affordable housing crisis.

In particular, the city should look at various ways — such as through zoning codes, setback requirements, minimum lot sizes and parking minimums — to encourage the construction of “missing middle” housing.

This includes a diverse set of housing options, such as duplexes, fourplexes, courtyard apartments and bungalow courts, that can cater to a wider spectrum of our community who are, at present, left unfulfilled by the area’s predominantly bifurcated housing supply: single-family houses and large apartment complexes.

These types of dwellings were long a staple of housing in American history — that is, until they lost favor in the rise of the post-World War II suburban experiment and the development of single-family subdivisions.

As the Opportunity Insight team at Harvard University has found through a series of studies since 2014, neighborhoods have a profound effect on children’s long-term outcomes through childhood exposure effects.

In fact, the team’s research has discerned that every extra year a child spends growing up in a neighborhood with better social mobility outcomes enables that child to have better outcomes in adulthood. Indeed, moving within the same metro area from a below-average to an above-average neighborhood in terms of upward mobility can increase the lifetime earnings of a child growing up in a low-income family by $200,000.

Within any given city, social mobility varies widely across neighborhoods, and Gaithersburg is no different.

These findings demonstrate that local, place-focused approaches are vital to improving economic mobility, particularly through making investments to transform areas with low levels of mobility, like Lakeforest and the surrounding area, into high-opportunity neighborhoods that are affordable to low-income families.

In a recent article for The Wall Street Journal, Professor Richard Florida noted that the COVID-19 pandemic, like all others throughout the course human history, has not been a fundamental disrupter for our communities, but rather an accelerator of pre-existing trends.

This includes not only the clustering force of talent and innovation, but also class and racial divides and economic and geographic inequality.

We must take concerted action to ensure that cities like Gaithersburg do not merely reinforce these trends, but instead come out of the pandemic more equitable, more inclusive and more livable. Lakeforest is a great place to start.

Jason Wilcox is a member of the city of Gaithersburg’s Educational Enrichment Committee.

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