UPDATED – 12:25 p.m. – Montgomery and Prince George’s county leaders promised Tuesday to commit to equitable economic growth along the Purple Line during an event in College Park.
Montgomery Executive Ike Leggett and Prince George’s Executive Rushern Baker described the agreement as a way to protect local businesses and residents located along the light-rail line’s route.
The agreement espouses four goals for local governments and planning boards along the route: help local businesses prosper, expand the local labor force, create housing opportunities for all incomes and promote vibrant, sustainable communities.
The agreement is not legally enforceable, but the leaders said it could provide a moral guide to future leaders who will have to handle the new development and economic growth expected after the Purple Line is completed in 2022.
"Keep in mind this is not a legally binding agreement," Leggett said. "It rests upon the will, it rests upon the motivations and attitudes of the people who want to see this happen."
Leggett said that to make the agreement a reality, it will require the people who have pushed for it the past several years to continue to lobby for equitable growth well after the Purple Line is completed.
Local leaders such as Leggett, Baker and University of Maryland, College Park, President Wallace Loh signed the agreement, along with Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and other regional planners.
Baker related a story about how U Street developed after he started working as a community organizer in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood in 1978. He said the area is now appealing, but it displaced long-time residents and businesses who could no longer afford to live or operate there.
"A lot of good-meaning folks wanted to see the neighborhood stay the same and grow with it," Baker said about the displacement in that area. "What was missing is what we have today."
Both Baker and Loh said Prince George's County and the University of Maryland should grow together.
"It is certainly a moral obligation, it is an institutional obligation to make sure that the community and economic benefits of the Purple Line spread throughout the whole region," Loh said.
Gustavo Torres of the immigrant advocacy group CASA and Gerrit Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, also signed the agreement Tuesday.
The Purple Line Corridor Coalition, which drafted the agreement, is made up of resident groups such as Safe Silver Spring, business groups such as the Maryland Building Industry Association, local governments, and community organizations such as the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Purple Line Now.
The coalition started work on the agreement in 2014 after the federal government approved the project’s Record of Decision—effectively giving it the green light to move forward.
David Bowers, vice president of Enterprise Community Partners Inc., an affordable-home developer, gave the most passionate speech of the day, urging leaders and community members in the room to make the agreement a reality.
"We can put our heads in the sand and act as if we haven't seen this in other places—where investment comes and residents and businesses get displaced," Bowers said. "We know it has happened. You can go 15 minutes down the road to the nation's capital and look at neighborhood after neighborhood where investments have been made and because there was not sufficient proactive steps taken, you look and say, 'Wow, a lot of folks who used to live there don't live there anymore. A lot of businesses that used to be there aren't there anymore.'"
Bowers said the people in the room Tuesday need to make sure affordable homes along the route can stay affordable and more homes and opportunities for low-income residents become available.
"The question is: Do we have the heart?," Bowers said. "To make sure the words on this paper, while not legally binding … are compelling enough [that] everyone who wants to stay has the opportunity to do so."
Once completed, the 16.2-mile light-rail line will stretch from downtown Bethesda to New Carrollton in Prince George’s county.
Gov. Larry Hogan broke ground on the project in August. Since then, crews have been clearing trees along the former Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring, as well as preparing construction sites along the rest of the route. The state estimates construction to be completed in 2022.
The line is expected to cost about $2.4 billion to construct and is being built under the state’s $5.6 billion, 36-year contract with Purple Line Transit Partners. The private team of construction and finance companies has been tasked with financing, constructing, operating and maintaining the project.
Anderson said Monday that Montgomery County has been proactive in approving master plans in Long Branch, Lyttonsville, Chevy Chase Lake and downtown Bethesda along the light-rail route to protect current communities while also encouraging new development. He noted that the Downtown Bethesda Sector Plan requires 15 percent of new residents to have "moderately-priced dwelling units" (MPDUs), which is more than the 12.5 percent required elsewhere in the county for developments with more than 20 units.
"It’s not just about making sure that people are able to stay in places like Long Branch, where people have lower incomes, but also about creating opportunities for people who have moderate incomes in more affluent areas along the corridor like Bethesda and Chevy Chase," Anderson said.
"This is zoning, this is land use, this is something that's within our control," Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner said. "Now, is it also true market forces can only be nudged so far, before they say, 'I’m sorry, you’re exacting too much from me.' That’s true, too. You have to find that sweet spot to ensure you exacted everything you can and still allow progress to occur."
Still, concern remains that the multi-billion-dollar Purple Line will price people out of existing communities if land values increase significantly along the route. Another concern is that five years of construction might put existing stores and shops along the route out of business due to the inconvenience to their longtime customers.
State Sen. Will Smith (D-Silver Spring) is proposing changes to state regulations to potentially enable business owners along the project's route to be reimbursed for significant losses.
On Tuesday, Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich, a candidate for county executive, expressed his concerns about potential community displacement. Elrich has stood by comments he made at candidate forums when he described anticipated development along the Purple Line route as a form of "ethnic cleansing."
Elrich first used the loaded term to describe proposed zoning changes in the Long Branch area. He said Tuesday his use of the term helped defeat those proposed zoning changes that could have displaced existing communities in the area.
"The older apartments along the corridor are going to remain vulnerable," Elrich said. He noted that the agreement signed Tuesday originally was intended to be a compact, but the label was changed after leaders couldn't agree to changes in law or regulations to protect existing communities.
"Everyone's words are be vigilant, look forward, be aware, but those have no teeth," Elrich said. "Absent figuring out what we're going to do make sure these people don't get displaced, I think we have a long-term problem."
He proposed rent stabilization on older buildings to preserve them. If not, owners of land and buildings along the route should be persuaded to pursue goals other than "making large profits," he said.