Wednesday, December 18, 2013


I came across a curious invitation for speakers who would like to expound on a "makeover" of suburban Montgomery County. What makes it interesting, is that it is not an open forum to discuss the future direction of the county. Rather, it only invites speakers who subscribe to a particular view, with a preset list of acceptable topics. The language of the announcement is exclusive, rather than inclusive. And it starts what is ostensibly an academic exploration with rigid, ideological conclusions prepositioned firmly in place.

First and foremost among these "consensus" views, is that the suburbs were a 20th Century Mistake. In fact, the suburbs were part of a revolution that created the greatest period of economic mobility and convenience in American history.

But consider the prejudicial language employed by the announcement.

The event itself is called, "Makeover Montgomery." In reality, does a wealthy county, which nearly a million residents have proclaimed a great place to live, need a planning "makeover?"

"Transformation." This noun is defined by Google's dictionary as "a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance." We're not talking about spiffing up the place, then. What's advocated is an upheaval of the current dynamic. Montgomery County currently has two successful edge cities, Bethesda and Silver Spring. They always were downtowns, and have evolved into more densely-developed downtowns. This progress will and should continue. And the bedroom communities around them and north of them have desirable, single-family home neighborhoods, with commercial corridors and shopping centers that provide needed services. In regards to planning, other than the need to address our failure to complete our master plan highway system, and our affordable housing crisis, where is the demand or need to force a "thorough or dramatic change" in Montgomery County's "form or appearance?" From the legion of residents who testified against the radical county zoning rewrite, it's clearly not coming from a majority of the citizenry.

The announcement seeks ideas that will "continue to transform suburbs into exciting, attractive and sustainable communities." Again, this is biased language, suggesting that suburbs are currently not attractive. The population count and diversity of Montgomery County suggest otherwise.

"Taming suburban street design." It's a jungle out there, apparently.

Now, a lot of what's up for discussion at this event is actually worthy of discussion. Improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the relationship of land use and transportation, and affordable housing are important issues.

But referring to "commuting culture" and suburbs in a negative light is counterproductive. Criticizing people who can't afford to live in Bethesda - but want a nice neighborhood and a backyard for kids to play in - for buying homes further out, and driving in to work because it is convenient, is not academic. It's elitist. And the encroachment of urbanization into suburban neighborhoods - now codified in the pending zoning changes - suggests where that "dramatic change in form" is going. That's one extreme makeover Montgomery County doesn't need.


Anonymous said...

Nobody has a god-given right to a big lot and a backyard and a gas-guzzling SUV. The fact is we live in a place with many people, with more people coming and the common good is not served well by wasteful and increasingly inefficient suburban lifestyles.

And please with the tired backyard argument....that's why we have parks (something we obviously need more of in Bethesda). If the green grass of a yard was actually a big deal, you wouldn't see the tsunami of teardowns and mcmansions that dominate Bethesda. It's really about having a big, expensive-ass house for yourself. Unfortunately, that's still the priority for most folks.

Anonymous said...

The majority of the most affluent will always have their big expensive ass house and several full size SUVs.

The question is what housing options will there be for everyone else?

Robert Dyer said...

I don't believe the Founders specifically mentioned SUVs, but they did recognize God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness/property. Ample lots, backyards and SUVs fall under those, as would tiny apartments and bicycles. In this country, we have freedom of choice. Government can't tell me how or where I'm going to live, or how and when I move about.

We do have a legitimate shortage of affordable housing in the county. However, Montgomery County does not have infinite public resources to support an infinite number of future residents. There is no legal requirement that the county must grow by any specific population number.

I don't think there's any comparison from a safety or privacy standpoint between a public park and a backyard.

If homeowners don't want a backyard, that's up to them. But many others do use their backyards. What the traditional space of larger lots give working people is the ability to expand, as well as use their home as collateral to start a business. Or as an investment by selling it. That's why the suburbs enabled greater social mobility.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the world is so black and white that you are either a bike-riding urban apartment dweller or the resident of a 5000 sqft McMansion with 5 Hummers.

Robert Dyer said...

I never said it was. There are a lot of great neighborhoods in Rockville and Aspen Hill where homes are smaller, and there are downtown Bethesda residents who drive supercars.