Thursday, August 3, 2006
A politician running for local office in Maryland this year has a billboard that reads: "Tired of Traffic? Vote for ---." Humor aside, a focal point of his campaign is to add another route, centered around my old hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, to the Washington Metrorail system. The proposed "purple line" (the system already has red, blue, green, yellow, and orange lines) would run from the suburban Amtrak town of New Carrollton to the University of Maryland in College Park (near Greenbelt, the famous New Deal planned town), through the growing office suburb of Silver Spring, and stop in the established business and entertainment downtown of suburban Bethesda. The revolutionary thing about the plan is that, although it would connect to routes heading to D.C., by itself the purple line would be a purely suburban line. As far as I can tell, it would be the only purely suburb-to-suburb subway line in the nation (not counting L.A.'s airport-oriented green line). There's already fairly decent bus service between these locales, but of course buses are often slow, unreliable, and stuck in traffic. The great question of policy is whether travelers would give up suburban auto trips (all these areas have ample parking) in numbers large enough to justify (traffic externalities, energy, and global warming all included in the calculus, of course!) the millions to build the subway. If the purple line were to succeed, it would be stunning evidence that public transportation can work in at least moderate-density suburbs.
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
The job of sober economists is, of course, to tell advocates of land use and other laws that their efforts to make the world better will often backfire, because it is human nature to try to get around laws whenever possible. In the field of historic preservation, one drawback to the designation process is that it discourages property owners from allowing a building to become distinguished and venerable enough to be designated. (The same unhappy incentive works on landowners who fear that an endangered species may be found on their land.)
Here's a story that could have turned out very sadly. One of the focal points of my old hometown, Silver Spring, Maryland, was the 1930s art deco "Silver Theatre." By the early 1980s, as most old single-screen movie theatres around the country were closing, the county government announced that it was considering designating the Silver as a landmark. Soon thereafter, I remember driving by the theater one Sunday morning and seeing what appeared to be workmen hamming away at the decorative tower outside. Here's a story about the effort to deface the theatre and make it unworthy of landmark status.
The historic designation was made anyway. After sitting vacant for many years, the Silver was recently restored its 1930s glory -- as a movie palace run by the American Film Institute -- financed in large part by the county's revitalization program for Silver Spring. It's now a magnificent theatre again, and all it took was millions of dollars of taxpayers' money!
Tuesday, August 1, 2006
[The first in a series called "Hometown week"]
I'm spending mid-summer in the town I grew up in -- Silver Spring, Maryland, a middle class suburb just north of Washington, D.C., which has, not coincidentally, been the center of a number of instructive land use controversies in recent years. Here's my telling of the recent history of Silver Spring's development:
By 1960 Silver Spring was suburban Maryland's economic center, with department stores, two traditional pedestrian shopping streets, surrounded by ample parking, and middle-class homes of a variety of sizes and prices. It also saw the construction of a lot of apartment blocks (built in large part to house singles and young families who moved to work for the booming Washington government) close to the suburban downtown. By the '70s, many of these apartment units became popular with African Americans moving out of Washington and with immigrants, including many from the Indies. As more blacks patronized the downtown shopping area, more whites decided to shop elsewhere, and by 1990 the downtown had been transformed. The department stores and hardware stores closed, and they were replaced by Jamaican luncheonettes and mall clothing shops catering to the growing number of immigrants from El Salvador and elsewhere. I returned to the area in 1988 after some years away.
By this time, politicians and others began talking of a need to "revitalize" Silver Spring, even thought I saw very few empty storefronts in the downtown. It was "seedy," "declining" (Declining in what, one might have asked?), and even "dying," they said. A humorous incident occurred in the '90s, when the West Edmonton Mall developers, the Ghermezians, concocted a plan to build a colossal upscale mall in the town; they turned tail once they actually visited Silver Spring. The progressive Democratic-run government began a multi-million-dollar "revitalization" program that involved a lot of eminent domain and big projects. A few skeptics (Can you guess who?) snickered that the plan was to make downtown Silver Spring comfortable again for the affluent white folks who ran the county.
The headquarters of Discovery Communications was lured to the downtown. Meanwhile, the focal point for the residents was the transformation of a once-back-street into an outdoor festival/new-urbanist shopping center that is now filled with the usual suspects -- a Border's, Potbelly sandwich shop, Starbucks, and a Regal move theater showing all the blockbusters, as well as a number of more-local restaurants. And, to the surprise of some, it seems to be extraordinarily successful and well-integrated by race and age. A success? Perhaps, but not necessarily to those merchants outside the redevelopment area, which have seen their patrons siphoned off, and perhaps not to the taxpayers of the county, who have seen millions go to subsidizing people like me to shop at Border's.
A few miles north of downtown Silver Spring is Wheaton, a place with even less panache; outside its old-fashioned suburban mall is a hodge-podge of little shops, many of which are popular with the Latino and black residents who have moved further north. There is now talk of "revitalizing" Wheaton ... as well as concern of local small shop operators about their future …