The Future is Looking Up | Page 2 of 3

The Future is Looking Up

Picture yourself strolling the Champs-Élysées, visiting shops and restaurants before retiring to your high-rise above it all. Now picture yourself doing that in Montgomery County

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Meredith Wellington, Chevy Chase resident and former planning board member, speaking of looming developmentTo allow greater density in return for a laundry list of amenities, county officials approved new zoning for White Flint back in March 2010. The so-called White Flint Sector Plan is widely regarded as a prototype. To permit such development elsewhere, the county council last October approved a new commercial-residential (CR) zone by an 8-1 vote. Not everyone is on board, though, and little wonder, considering that the very future of Montgomery County is at stake.

There are powerful forces at work here. Landowners, developers and builders see economic opportunity, with big profits from taller buildings. But along with the doers are the dreamers—the visionary planners. At times, the two have seemed to inhabit different planets, though no more. Then there are the dissenters. But more about them later.

“I’d never planned on doing suburbs,” says Rollin Stanley, the county’s brash, 53-year-old planning director, who arrived four years ago from St. Louis, where he held a similar position for six years. Before that, he was a planner in Toronto for 21 years.

The Canadian-born Stanley has become internationally known in planning circles—he recently represented the American Planning Association (APA) in helping to create a growth strategy for the Chinese city of Shouzhou—and he sees himself fulfilling a mission here, if not a calling.

Stanley remembers receiving a call from Jeff Soule, the APA’s director of outreach and international programs based in Washington. Soule said, “ ‘We think you are needed in Montgomery County, Md.’ I said, ‘Where’s that?’ I’d never heard of it,” he says. “At the same time, Philadelphia was calling.”

Everyone, it seemed, wanted him to save their region from the spreading sprawl and crawl. Then he got a call from Royce Hanson, the outgoing Montgomery planning board chairman, encouraging him to come look, telling him that the county was “at the point of change.”

Since then, Stanley has gone from one community meeting to another, selling his vision of a vertical future. He sometimes angers his listeners with statements such as “congestion is good,” because it forces people out of their cars and onto mass transit.

He has little patience with dissenters. Stanley goes so far as to accuse them of being “rich, white women…spreading fear.” He says they stalk his appearances before community groups, sowing discord. He claims they refer to themselves as “the coven.”

Meredith Wellington, a former planning board member, lawyer and Chevy Chase resident, is among the alleged inciters. “No, that’s silly,” she says of Stanley’s reference to the coven. “We’re professionals, I don’t get into personalities. I feel sorry for him if he feels that way. I have never made such a reference, and I have never heard anybody else make such a reference.”

Wellington’s organization, Neighborhood Montgomery, seeks to inform other residents about the countywide rezoning and how it could affect them. Her group’s battle cry: “Don’t Urbanize Montgomery County.”

“I don’t want everything to look the same,” Wellington says.

The resistance comes largely from leafy, single-family home communities worried that the new high-density, high-rise projects will bring more, not less, traffic to their neighborhoods, as well as place greater demands on schools and other public services. “There are a lot of really angry people,” says county council member Marc Elrich, the lone dissenter in the panel’s vote to approve the new high-density zone.

But the critics say it would be wrong to characterize them as anti-redevelopment. Take Mid-Pike Plaza. “If you look at it, with the sea of parking and buildings way back, yes, it needed to be redeveloped,” says Pat Baptiste, chair of the Chevy Chase Village Board of Managers and a member of the county planning board from 1991 to 1998.

But Baptiste is skeptical about high-rise Metro-related development as a one-size-fits-all solution. She points to empty storefronts with “for lease” signs at Wisconsin Circle in Friendship Heights to suggest that high density doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.

Wellington says she supports smart growth and transit-oriented development. “My problem is the failure to have great transit,” she says. “Metro has deteriorated and never added the infrastructure—buses and other connectors.” Without a grand design, she believes that the planners’ visions are unattainable and that the adjoining neighborhoods will suffer.

“If you are unable to keep up with transportation or school use, maybe you need to slow down for a bit,” Wellington says. She cites as a success story the master plan for downtown Bethesda, which has tied development to the increased use of mass transit: As mass transit use goes up, so does the allowed density.  

Elrich describes the planners’ strategy as: “Make roads so bad people only use transit.”

“But we can’t provide enough transit in most of the county,” he says, “and the cost is extraordinary.”

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