Monday, January 06, 2014


The Dark Side of White Flint, Part 20:

Welcome to The Dark Side of White Flint, an ongoing series about the not-so-wonnerful, wonnerful, wonnerful side of urbanizing the suburbs of Montgomery County.

After ignoring the first phase of demolition at White Flint Mall last year, a curious thing happened: the Washington Post published a story about the "last Christmas" at the North Bethesda shopping mecca. What made it "curious?" The story didn't strictly follow the Post's notoriously pro-development company line (the Post and Post Co. actually have financial interests in several properties around the DC area, including their downtown headquarters. Acceptance of "smart growth" propaganda in the region is essential to maximizing the potential profits of those properties in DC, along the Alexandria waterfront, and in Southern Maryland).

In fact, the story was a bit of a backfire, for those who believe the suburbs and indoor malls are "over," and "a mistake," and should be paved over as dense urban areas. A backfire, because the details on the mall's architecture, opening and golden era sounded so much better than what's to come: another cookie cutter urban town center. One reason this turned out to be pretty good article, is that the reporter herself has her own nostalgia for the 1980s, as those who have read Jen Chaney's longtime work in the Gazette and Post are already aware. The article mentions that a photography volume of classic American malls is in such demand, the publisher can't print enough copies. The conclusion the reader comes away with, is that the end of White Flint Mall is a sad turn of events, not something to celebrate. 

Even the Post photos indirectly made a pretty devastating point about how White Flint will change between today and the future. Two pictures that accompanied the piece showed the pleasant view and very nice architecture of the mall, as seen from Rockville Pike. Most significantly, they showed something else that will soon be in short supply at the site: a clear, blue sky. Inch after square inch of picture-perfect blue sky dominated both shots. Are you ready to trade green space or open skies for parking dungeons and concrete canyons? Shopping convenience and a variety of price points for expensive boutiques?

If not, expect to feel some Astroturf "grassroots" peer pressure, and hear ridicule.

After Chaney's report caused larger numbers of current and former area residents to learn of the mall's fate, buzz about the sudden but well-planned "decline" of White Flint Mall is at an all-time high. 

Wait a minute! How do we win back the public, and make them believe that the "new" White Flint will be better than the mall?

Ridicule! And so the Post's Monica Hesse took a different tack in Saturday's Style section. According to Hesse, the problem isn't a developer pulling the plug on a successful mall with jammed parking lots to replace it with a mini-Manhattan. No! The problem is you!

And so begins her propaganda feature, "SAD LIBS" (because this is so serious, it needs to be said in ALL CAPS).

In the process, Hesse earns a fact-checking 4 Pinnochios, "Pants on Fire" score for inaccurate statements. Reversing from what the Post article had just reported December 22, Hesse says, "White Flint Mall is rumored to be closing." Rumored? It's not only going to close, it's going to be demolished!

The upshot of SAD LIBS is that if you think malls, big box stores and the suburbs are good, you're actually wrong, and you just need to get over it. You're one of a dwindling few who remain. And if you let Hesse "walk yourself through the feelings," you can let go of those decidedly-unhip feelings before your peers catch on to you. You wouldn't want your friends to find out. 

So Hesse ridicules you. Who knew that, in your quest for trees, green space, decent schools, convenient shopping, free parking, and safe, quiet neighborhoods, you were actually just on a wild goose chase for "the meaning found within mundanity?" 

Hesse concludes in 4 Pinnochio fashion: "In a way, time and progress are responsible for this closing." Aside from those standard canards employed by developers, and the few calling for urbanization of the American suburbs, the fact is, that is completely false. White Flint Mall was fully-leased just two years ago, according to the mall itself. When dining at the restaurants, I had to park far away from the building to find a space. The gusts of time and progress are not buffeting White Flint Mall; simply a desire by the landowners to roll the dice on urbanizing the suburbs, with bigger profits in mind. Were "time and progress" the cause of the traffic jam entering Westfield Montgomery Mall this Christmas? Were "time and progress" behind the wheel of all those cars filling the parking spaces there? The rumors of the American indoor mall's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Her SAD LIBS concludeth thusly: "The end of _______________ represents a certain kind of progress." It's a certain kind alright. But is it progress?

"We can lament it," Hesse counsels, "but we can't stop it." Says who? If suburban residents don't think the county should be paved over, and forests clear-cut, for Soviet-style apartment blocs, they can stop it. They can stand up, speak out, and vote politicians out of office.


Anonymous said...

Well managed malls, such as Westfield Montgomery and Tysons continue to expand and thrive. They understand that you have to deliver an experience and not just shopping.

Anonymous said...

Malls actually seem efficient to me. Everything you need in one place, protection from the elements, good people watching, etc. I used to hate them, but if Rockville "Town Square" is the future, I say, bring back a GOOD mall. And though I was never a huge White Flint fan (Tysons did it better; it was and is for everyone, not just the rich), it seems stunningly wasteful to demolish rather than improve and revivify it. So here's hoping that the urban village idea is done well this time. I'm not blown away by what I see in the plans available online and I despair at the length of time this all seems to be taking. Hoping that it really IS walkable and that the county holds developers responsible for contributing meaningfully to the surrounding neighborhoods' accessibility, walkability, etc.

Anonymous said...

Smart growth "propoganda?" Seriously???

Anonymous said...

'"We can lament it," Hesse counsels, "but we can't stop it." Says who? If suburban residents don't think the county should be paved over, and forests clear-cut, for Soviet-style apartment blocs, they can stop it. They can stand up, speak out, and vote politicians out of office.'

Hopefully one day you'll come to the realization that this is what the market wants. Millennials demand to live near transit stations in an urban environment. Just look at the drastic increases in the DC population over time. The suburbs and its big-box stores/shopping malls are dying. It's not just in Montgomery County or Maryland. Springfield Mall in Fairfax, Landmark Mall in Alexandria, and Laurel Mall in Prince George's are all going through the same process. These days counties can only successfully support one or two malls. In MoCo it's Westfield Montgomery.

I can't see how anyone in their right mind could think that Mid-Pike Plaza as it was a few years ago will be anything but far worse than what they're building now. Same goes for WF Mall.

If nobody wanted this, Lerner wouldn't have been able to get Bloomingdale's to move back to White Flint; FRIT wouldn't have attracted luxury iPic theater, Strathmore music venue, and leased out 90% of their retail; JBG wouldn't have been able to attract a Whole Foods or LA Fitness; and LCOR wouldn't have been able to attract Harris Teeter. Not to mention all the residential towers leased at over 90%.

So yeah, the trend might not make sense to an older generation used to hopping into the car and driving to ugly, monolithic, climate-controlled buildings surrounded by seas of parking, but social media might not make sense to much of that generation either.

Ranting about imaginary Soviet-style apartment blocs and other overly exaggerated 'evils of smart growth,' ad hominem attacks against journalists, and straw man arguments don't do much for your credibility. I actually don't mind reading an article arguing against the merits of smart growth, but the diatribe here, which lacks any real evidence (just personal preferences and anecdotal evidence), is more akin to arguments that the world is flat.

Anonymous said...

It's about lifestages!

Speaking of facts and actual research, here's a good read from Forbes.

The Geography Of Aging: Why Millennials Are Headed To The Suburbs


Green activists hope this parting of the ways between the new generation and the preferences of their parents will prove permanent. The environmental magazine Grist even envisions “a hero generation” that will escape the material trap of suburban living and work that engulfed their parents.

Less idealistic types, notably on Wall Street, see profit in this new order, hoping to capitalize on what Morgan Stanley’s Oliver Chang dubs a “rentership society”; in this scenario millennials remain serfs paying rent permanently to the investor class.

But a close look at migration data reveals that the reality is much more complex. The millennial “flight” from suburbia has not only been vastly overexaggerated, it fails to deal with what may best be seen as differences in preferences correlated with life stages.

We can tell this because we can follow the first group of millennials who are now entering their 30s, and it turns out that they are beginning, like preceding generations, to move to the suburbs.

Research conducted by Frank Magid and Associates that finds that millennials prefer suburbs long-term as “their ideal place to live” by a margin of 2 to 1 over cities.

Robert Dyer said...

Absolutely. Just call it what it is.

Robert Dyer said...

My article is fact-based. Do you really need to resort to ageism to debate the topic? I'm not a senior citizen by any means. But just because someone is a senior doesn't mean their opinion is irrelevant. Your suggestion that they don't understand social media is not only a "monolithic" generalization, but simply not true, if you've been on Facebook or Twitter recently.

The suburbs are "dying?" Have you been to Loudoun County or Fredericksburg recently? Can you point out a specific shopping center along 355 in Rockville that is abandoned and vacant?

My article is fact-based. Here's another fact from a Washington Post poll: 60% of millenials in DC said they plan to move out of DC.

The growth in DC is entirely the result of federal government jobs. Millenials and everyone else go where the jobs are.

There is a Whole Foods on River Road in a 100% suburban Bethesda neighborhood, and a Harris Teeter at Park Potomac (nowhere near Metro). Their presence in White Flint has nothing to do with transit-oriented growth. It's hard to say towers are 90% leased, when 90% of them have yet to be built in White Flint.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't specifically targeting the senior demographic. My point was that people (in general) don't like change and are uncomfortable with the unknown whether it makes sense or not.

MD355 won't die anytime soon (and likely never will) since it's the busiest commercial corridor in the Maryland suburbs (i.e. the one that is least likely to ever fail regardless of suburban trends). But, if you define "dying" as being torn down and redeveloped, yep there's plenty of that on 355 from Bethesda to Gaithersburg, including two failing malls that will eventually be torn down. I guess the developers (who always consider their long-term bottom line/ROI) must be pretty clueless to tear down their very "successful" shopping centers to put up these unprofitable, mixed-use "Soviet-style" high-rises/town centers that no one will want to live/lease space in.

I sure have been to Loudoun and they're building the same mixed-use "town centers" going up in Montgomery. This will likely increase even more when the Silver Line eventually extends there. Please note that this is a gradual trend. People of all ages aren't just going to simply pack up and move to the city. The sprawling suburban growth will definitely continue, but at a slower rate. I also accept your valid point that many millennials will return to the suburbs to raise a family...but then they'll come back as empty-nesters.

I think you missed my point that this is not just a local trend. Baltimore's federal jobs are pretty much all in the suburbs, yet the city has managed to reverse its 4-decade population slide. Pittsburgh and "jobs" don't usually belong in the same sentence, but that city has started to reverse its decline as well.

Yeah, and if you've been to the River Road Whole Foods you'd know that it was a joke compared to the one in Friendship Heights, or even most Giants/Safeways for that matter. Park Potomac may not be Metro-accessible, but it is still a mixed-use town center. You don't have to be near transit to employ many of the principles of smart growth.

BB said...

Not just people, but companies are also moving away from the suburbs:!

Regarding the age issue, many baby-boomers are moving into the city:

And finally, in reference to the Whole Foods in River Road, the neighboring shopping center is being eyed for redevelopment:

Robert Dyer said...

I know about Westbard - I'm the one who broke that story here on this blog, and I grew up there.

Robert Dyer said...

"BB:" By the way, I find it curious that you post a link to Bethesda Now for me "educate" myself about a neighborhood I know like the back of my hand. And, ostensibly, to direct my readers to that website, when a simple search of my blog (using the search box or Google) reveals that I have been providing in-depth, hyperlocal coverage of the Westbard area for over 7 years on this blog.

So on this specific Westbard issue, I'm curious why you are directing myself and others to an article published several hours later, after I broke the story on my website? Why not link to my article on the issue, which has a lot of context, background, and history related to the topic? Why not link to the Washington Business Journal story, which credited me as the source? I find this intriguing, as well as insulting to my intelligence, and to the intelligence of my readers, who are already fully informed about the Equity One announcement, thank you very much. If you want to promote a website, please buy an ad.

Furthermore, what in the world does the redevelopment of the Westwood Complex have to do with Whole Foods' decision to open a grocery store on River Road many, many years ago?

Finally, just because a few companies or baby boomers move to a city doesn't mean anywhere close to a majority are. Aerospace companies are buying up trailer parks nowhere near downtown in the south. And plenty of retirees are aging in place, or retiring to suburban communities and Florida.

Robert Dyer said...

I think you are correct to the extent of people not supporting change when the benefits are not exactly clear or certain. But the "unknown" of urban living is a known unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld might say. Noise, pollution, crime, low quality schools, lack of shopping options and green space, concrete canyons and underground parking dungeons are just a few of the "unknowns" that have led people to choose the suburbs. I would hope that no planner would base his or her's jurisdiction at the mercy of a Disneylandesque snapshot in time of Washington, D.C., during a period of federal government expansion in healthcare, lobbying, and the homeland security industry. And bolstered by luxury housing in then-underpriced neighborhoods. Those conditions simply don't apply to Montgomery County.

I follow what's going on in Baltimore, and I am a big fan of the city. But you may be overstating the success there. As well as in Pittsburgh. The population of the country is growing overall, and in the case of Baltimore and MoCo and PG counties, much of the growth has been in the lower income brackets. Ironically, many of these working families are fleeing the "success" of the District, where they've been forced out. Hence, the infrastructure and service costs are not matched by the increase in revenue.

I've always been a Giant man, more than Whole Foods, but I don't believe Whole Foods' store selection has much to do with "smart growth." More likely, the FH store was custom designed, whereas the River Road location was jammed into part of an old Brunswick bowling alley.

I won't contest that "town centers" aren't just a local phenomenon; developers - not surprisingly - want to maximize density and profit. But is it good for the nation in the long run? I don't believe the current success of Rockville Pike is assured to continue if the future of 355 is a town center on every block. How do you sustain that? Has a local economy ever been built on Starbucks, boutiques and paid parking garages?

"Smart growth" away from the urban core and Metro is simply a recipe for traffic gridlock. High density growth has no place in bedroom communities north of downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda.

Anonymous said...

Whole Foods didn't decide to put a store on River Road. It inherited that location when it bought/merged with Fresh Fields. And while there may have been a bowling alley there once, I believe the current shopping center was new construction.

Robert Dyer said...

Actually, the Whole Foods is in the bowling alley, as I wrote. When they redid the floor, they ripped it up and found the old bowling lanes beneath. It was indeed originally called Fresh Fields.

Anonymous said...

Robert, I found your critique of the Washington Post stories quite sharp and on-target. The Post "Style" section long ago developed a pretty powerful tool-kit for editorializing with a kind of arch, knowing, and would-be ultra hip tone, and trying to mock readers into thinking the 'right' way. Their writers have been doing this for at least 40 years.