May-June 2009

Tall Talker

Rollin Stanley, Montgomery County's new planning director, has a big personality and big ideas. Both are rubbing some people the wrong way.

Driving around the Bethesda area with Rollin Stanley, Montgomery County’s director of planning, is a revelation: He sees all kinds of things a casual observer would never notice.

“There’s a missed opportunity over there,” he says, pointing to the new Clyde’s restaurant in Friendship Heights. “It’s one story high on a busy corner, and there aren’t any windows. The whole building is walled in. You’d think an expensive restaurant could do better than covering up its windows like some dingy bar. “It’s a waste of land,” he says. “We can’t afford to do that when there is only 4 percent of the entire county left to build on.”

He also doesn’t like the CVS/pharmacy farther up Wisconsin at the corner of Bradley Boulevard, where big signs have been plastered over the glass windows. “There’s no light coming out on the sidewalk,” he notes. “People don’t feel as safe when they walk by. There isn’t that interaction you get in downtown Bethesda, where you see people shopping and can look at the wares for sale as you pass by. That’s what makes streets vibrant.”

Stanley dislikes drive-in banks and office parks and loves tall, skinny buildings built up right up to the edge of the sidewalk. He extols the virtues of mixed-use development, putting office space above strip malls or combining public parking with housing. “Why aren’t we putting affordable housing on the ground level of parking garages?” he asks. “It makes the garages safer, it makes the sidewalks safer, and we do it at a lower cost because you’re building the structure anyway.”

Stanley is a modern-day evangelist preaching the gospel of smart growth: the movement to cluster housing, jobs and stores around mass transit, thereby cutting down on the need to drive. A newcomer to these parts, he was hired away from the top planning position in St. Louis in February 2008. Since then, he has made it clear that he believes Montgomery County and its sprawling suburbs are behind the times. Many in the real estate and development community are intrigued by his ideas, but his commitment to height and density—proposing to build 28-story buildings around Metro stations, for example—puts him squarely at odds with citizens groups and a number of county officials.

“We cannot continue growing in the suburban mold,” Stanley says. “There isn’t enough space left. Taller, narrower buildings allow for strategic growth in small areas, so the growth is not spread out but concentrated around things like a subway stop. This reduces the impact on the wider community.”

“What we’re afraid of in Bethesda is becoming another Manhattan,” responds Bette Petrides, the founder and president of Citizens for a Better Bethesda, a watchdog group. “Stanley is not interested in little buildings.”

His casual dismissal of traffic problems also has set off alarms. “Traffic jams are good,” Stanley says in his provocative way. “Congestion is good. What it does in some areas is to force people to slow down. It forces them to think about alternative transit, like biking, walking or mass transit. It also helps retail because people are on foot, and they’re going slower. If you think of any environment that people truly like and want to go to, such as London, Paris or New York—they are congested. They are places where you can’t use your car.”

Counters Marc Elrich, a slow-growth advocate on the county council: “Basically, what you’re saying when you say that is, ‘the only way we can grow is by making our quality of life worse, by getting so congested that you can’t get around so you have to use transit.’ Which might work if you had adequate transit, which we don’t have.”

Outside the Box

Stanley was considered a good catch when he took the job as the county’s lead planner. According to the man who hired him, Royce Hanson, the chairman of the planning board, Stanley came highly recommended by the American Planning Association. The winner of several international awards, the 51-year-old native of northeastern Ontario, Canada, held top jobs in Toronto and St. Louis, gaining a reputation in both places as an innovative, outside-the-box thinker. In St. Louis, he played a major role in helping to attract $5 billion in private money to rebuild the city’s shattered neighborhoods, which he accomplished mainly by offering developers tax credits for saving historic buildings.

“Rollin was somebody who could see a structure [that] somebody had abandoned and see its potential and articulate it,” says Jeff Rainford, a top aide to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. “Others would walk away from it, leave the devastation behind. He’d say, ‘Wait a minute. This could be something really good.’ And he would get people excited.”

From all accounts, Stanley didn’t have a lot of competition for the $170,000-a-year job with Montgomery County. The department had been without a permanent chief since 2005,when planning director Charles Loehr retired amid highly publicized allegations of lax building code enforcement.

Enter Stanley, who is so flamboyant compared to the average bureaucrat that he seems to have parachuted in from another planet. A lithe-looking hipster with a long, flowing mane and well-tailored suits, he is a brash, irreverent guy with an offbeat sense of humor. Bethesda Realtor Jane Fairweather remembers meeting Stanley when she was making a presentation to county officials on behalf of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.

“One of my slides said that developers and homeowners were fleeing the county,” she says. “Rollin jumps up and says in this loud voice, ‘Oh my God,’ and runs over to the window, looks out and says, ‘I don’t see anybody fleeing the county.’ I thought, ‘Did he really say that?’ Nobody in Montgomery County would have said that. I’m thrilled that he’s here.”

The second youngest of six siblings, Stanley describes an idyllic life of camping and tobogganing in North Bay, Ontario, where he became a champion long-distance runner in high school. “I was one of the fastest long-distance runners in the country,” he says. A kind of hyperactive Renaissance man, he has raced go-carts at speeds of 120mph, collected vintage cars and rebuilt his house in Toronto from the ground up, doing all the plumbing, wiring and carpentry with the help of his wife, Ann, who is also an urban planner currently working for the Gaithersburg office of URS, a worldwide engineering firm.

Stanley says he became interested in planning when he wrote a paper in 10th grade on how large and expensive houses in city centers become rundown and eventually home to a succession of immigrants. From then on, he was passionate about urban planning and what makes cities tick.

“If there’s something he’s interested in, he throws himself into it 100 percent or more than 100 percent,” Ann Stanley says. “Cars fascinate him. So does World War II. And Winston Churchill. He’ll read everything he can lay his hands on about him.”

As a student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Rollin Stanley fell in love with the cosmopolitan bustle of the city. Later, he reveled in the grittiness of St. Louis, where he and Ann resided in a renovated 1880s grocery store. He admits he never pictured himself living and working in a place like Montgomery County.“ I’d never heard of Montgomery County,” he says. “I was very city-centric. I even had a bumper sticker that said, ‘I don’t do suburbs.’ I’m kidding of course. But [County Planning Board Chairman] Royce Hanson sold me on coming here because he said Montgomery County needed change, and I could be part of that.”

“The county had really changed in the last two decades,” Hanson says. “But we were continuing to operate on a suburban model, looking mainly at road capacity, which is mostly in the outer suburbs, where growth is the least environmentally sustainable. What we needed to be doing was concentrating growth at transit stations and along bus lines. So it was important to recruit a new planning director who could rethink the kinds of things that needed rethinking.”