Rollin Stanley, Montgomery County's new planning director, has a big personality and big ideas. Both are rubbing some people the wrong way.
“I think it’s good that we have him, as outspoken as he is,” Germantown-area developer Bradley Chod said after the meeting. “He’s definitely bringing many new ideas we haven’t seen or considered, and he’s framing the bigger issues we’re going to face. The good thing is he recognizes that growth is not a bad word. Sprawl is.”
“I put this guy in the same category as many other visionary types of leaders,” says another attendee, real estate broker Paul Yanoshik of Gaithersburg. “Visionaries are always controversial, but the bottom line is that he has good ideas about density and redevelopment.”
What the Future Holds
According to recent estimates, the population of Montgomery County will increase by more than 200,000 over the next 20 years. It’s Stanley’s job to figure out where to put everybody. The proposals in the master plans created by his staff vary depending on the location and, Stanley says, could take between 25 and 30 years to complete. To the north, a radical makeover is envisioned for Germantown and for so-called Gaithersburg West, which takes in the sprawling office parks around Shady Grove Adventist Hospital and the Johns Hopkins campus. Basically, Stanley is proposing that the spaces around the office buildings be filled in with apartments, stores and services, all linked by green paths to give people the options of walking or biking instead of driving. Parking would go underground.
Older commercial centers like White Flint, which are served by Metro, are due for revitalization, Stanley says. According to his proposal, acres of surface parking around the mall and the surrounding commercial properties would give way to high rises. The upper stories would house offices or apartments; shops and restaurants would fill the floors below. The aim, Stanley says, is to create a lively destination that would look a lot like Bethesda Row.
“Nobody says, ‘Hey, let’s go to White Flint,’ in the same vein as they say, ‘I’ll meet you in front of the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda.’ We hope to change that,” Stanley says.
Already built-up communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring are slated for infill—the process of filling in vacant plots with new construction and sometimes tearing down older buildings to make way for the new. “The growth policy is not about going into established residential neighborhoods and creating wholesale change,” Stanley says. “One of the messages we have to get out to people is that if we grow strategically, it won’t impact the stable neighborhoods that everybody loves. What we’ll see in those neighborhoods is infill development as people rebuild their homes or their lots. In commercial areas, larger lots that may not have been considered suitable for development in the past will be developed.”
Translation: Every nook and cranny of downtown Bethesda could eventually be built up, though it might be a long time before that happens. The recession has virtually shut down construction in the central business district, and some projects may never get off the drawing board.
Once the economy picks up, most of the redevelopment is likely to take place in the Woodmont Triangle, the older part of downtown that lies between Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road. It’s more attractive for developers to build there because new regulations permit construction to go as high as 16 stories— even higher if affordable housing units are included.
Change is also planned for Bethesda Row that would make the Barnes & Noble intersection scarcely recognizable. Current plans call for the two surface parking lots on either side of Woodmont Avenue to be replaced by five-story condominiums with retail space on the ground floors. The county would operate a public parking garage with 1,200 spaces under the larger lot. In addition, the lot next to the movie house and Gifford’s ice cream parlor would be taken over by a 12-story office building (it originally was slated to be a hotel), a small park and a leg of the Capital Crescent Trail. It’s also going to serve as the last stop on Metro’s Purple Line, with trains running under the new office building and emerging into the park.
“All these office buildings and apartments are going to have thousands of people in them,” says lawyer-activist Norman Knopf. “But the citizens are being totally shortchanged because no one is putting in the kind of amenities to support the quality of life. Where is the park to service these people? Have you seen how crowded the Bethesda library is?
These new buildings should be supported by amenities, and they just aren’t there. The amenity that does exist is the Capital Crescent Trail, and they are going to kill that when the Purple Line comes in.” Stanley, an ardent backer of light rail for the Purple Line, thinks such criticism is shortsighted. “The frustration for me,” he says, “is that a lot of folks look at the county as it is, for the people who are here now. Of course, that is important, but we need to think about the population as it may be, for all of the people who are yet to arrive.”
Life has been very different for Stanley Since moving east. In St. Louis, he and Ann found time to cycle long distances along the Mississippi River or drive into the countryside on weekends. They socialized with their neighbors and worked in the community garden. And Rollin Stanley enjoyed getting together with his brother-in-law at a local tapas bar a couple of nights a week.
These days, he and Ann lead a rather restricted social life in their rented apartment in downtown Silver Spring, partly because they work such long hours and partly because they’re still new in town. “It’s harder to find community living in a high rise,” Stanley notes. On Saturdays, they usually run errands. They may have dinner with friends on Saturday nights, but Sundays find them both working again. The only exercise he gets these days, he says, is working out on his stationary bike in front of the TV.
He has been driving himself relentlessly since taking the job here. After a 10-or 11-hour day at the office, he might have an evening meeting with citizens or developers. Then he goes home and works some more. His e-mails to colleagues often arrive after midnight.
During the day, Stanley spends most of his time consulting with his 150-member staff, reviewing drafts, suggesting revisions or dashing off sketches. He is still working to implant his vision in people used to operating under different guidelines. “The staff was hesitant at first, but things have really jelled and the energy and creativity is rising to the top,” he says. “I am very proud of the amount of work produced in our first year together and the increase in the quality of the product.”
Despite the frustrations he has encountered, Stanley says he’s happy he took the job. “Absolutely,” he says. “It was time for me to work where the opportunities for the greatest growth in this country will occur. The ability now to come into a suburban environment that’s starting to urbanize and meld, that’s the next frontier in this country. Yes, there will be growth in the central cities. There has been. But the real potential is in remaking the suburbs strategically to accommodate the growth that’s going to take place. That’s the challenge for me.”
Barbara Matusow is a contributing editor of Washingtonian and longtime resident of Bethesda.