July 19, 2011
Washington Post
Seeing red over the Purple Line
By Katie Shaver

Developers and planners in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are already factoring a light rail link between Bethesda and New Carrollton into their business and growth plans even though a 16-mile Purple Line has yet to win highly competitive construction money.

A debate in Montgomery highlights the balancing act that officials face in both counties. Land-use planners are seeking to focus growth and rejuvenate older suburbs near 20 potential Purple Line stations, but some residents are concerned that too much redevelopment would swamp their roads and schools and drastically alter the character of their communities. Developers argue that a certain level of density is needed to make projects profitable.

Although county officials have broad visions for what they would like to see at the stops, in most cases there are few specifics.

In the Chevy Chase Lake area of north Chevy Chase, many residents say they would welcome a more walkable community of apartments, condominiums and offices above street-level stores and restaurants. The Chevy Chase Land Co. has proposed a cluster of 23 buildings at a Purple Line station that would be located at Connecticut Avenue about a mile inside the Capital Beltway.

Such developments have been popular with commute-weary residents and often fetch premium prices.

“Here you can have a mixed-use transit [development] where you can live, eat and work in the same area,” said Scott DeCain, managing partner of Bald Eagle Partners, which is working with the Land company on the project. “There’s much less impact environmentally because you have the ability to do much of what you need in the community.”

But some say the developers’ 49-acre proposal,which includes buildings 10 to 19 stories tall, would overwhelm the critical Connecticut Avenue commuting corridor, which runs from the District line to Kensington, Wheaton and Olney. Motorists from any new development would come on top of the additional 3,550 vehicles projected daily for that section of Connecticut Avenue after the nearby National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda completes its expansion in September as part of the Base Realignment and Closure program.

“It’s already a disaster from a commuting standpoint,” said Geoff Gonella, a board member for the nearby Columbia Country Club, which has opposed the proposed Purple Line route through its golf course. “Our fear is too much development in Chevy Chase Lake is only going to make that worse.”

‘Here’s an opportunity’

In a preliminary proposal, Montgomery planners have recommended far less new building, suggesting that the County Council approve only about 1 million square feet of new office, residential and retail space out of the more than 4 million square feet that the Land company has proposed.

Most of that — about 800,000 square feet — would be permitted only after Purple Line construction begins. Planners also have recommended limiting building heights to about six stories to better blend with surrounding houses. The planning board is scheduled to make a recommendation this fall to the County Council, which will make the final decision.

“Not all stations are created equal,” said Montgomery Planning Director Rollin Stanley. “Chevy Chase is not downtown Bethesda. There’s not a lot of traffic capacity on Connecticut Avenue or East West Highway. Even if you put in the Purple Line, it will not help.”

The area that would be redeveloped has single-story strip malls, which include Chevy Chase Supermarket on one side of Connecticut and a Starbucks and Einstein Bros. Bagels on the other.

“So much of what’s occurred is this mundane sprawl,” DeCain said. “This is one of those wonderful opportunities where you can take advantage of transit. Instead of everyone living further out here’s an opportunity to do infill, an opportunity to leverage off of mass transit.”

‘People don’t want a city’

The Land company’s proposals are some of the most concrete plans to emerge for development along the proposed rail line.

As a single land owner, it also has a significant advantage because redevelopment efforts can stall when developers must piece together smaller parcels owned by different people.

Christopher B. Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said current Chevy Chase Lake residents stand to benefit. Proximity to a Purple Line station would increase their property values, he said, and redevelopment would bring more stores and restaurants within walking distance.

“The folks around [the development] will have a nice little windfall,” said Leinberger, who reviewed Land Co.’s development plan. “They’ll be living in suburbia and will be able to walk to great urbanism and a transit stop.”

Patricia Burda, a Chevy Chase Town Council member who opposes the state’s Purple Line route, said many residents think Montgomery planners’ recommendation for less density “got it right.” She said the Connecticut Avenue Corridor Committee, a group of 21 homeowner and resident groups, likes the idea of a more cohesive town center in Chevy Chase Lake with wide sidewalks and more shopping options.

“I think people would agree to that,” Burda said, “but people don’t want a city there.”

One group, however, says any significant development would do irreparable harm to the Georgetown Branch Trail, an extension of the wooded Capital Crescent Trail. The popular running and biking path goes through Chevy Chase Lake and would be rebuilt adjacent to a Purple Line’s tracks.

“It would change the trail from what it is today — a nature trail through a quiet community — into a strip of asphalt through an urbanized area,” said Bill Schulz, a board member of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.

‘Common thread’

Discussing what to construct around Purple Line stations is a long way from building the light rail line.

A Purple Line, which is estimated to cost $1.93 billion to build and $18 million in annual operating subsidies, has no funding. And winning federal money for the project could become even more challenging as congressional leaders consider transportation funding cuts as part of budget discussions.

Even so, federal officials who evaluate local transit proposals give significant weight to those demonstrating that they would reshape communities and spur reinvestment.

It’s too early to know which areas surrounding planned Purple Line stations would see private investment first. Even if a Purple Line were to clinch construction money, planners and developers in other cities with light rail lines say private investment can lag years behind new stations as developers wait to see how many people ride the trains.

That concern has not held back the planning process in Prince George’s, either, where the County Council has approved plans for areas around seven proposed Purple Line stations, including New Carrollton and the U.S. 1 corridor in College Park. Planners said they expect to address areas around the four remaining stations planned for the county over the next 12 months.

“The County Council has been very emphatic: They want to see the Purple Line as a major vehicle for quality development and redevelopment at each of those 11 stations in the county,” said Harold Foster, the Prince George’s planner coordinator.

A development team is in place for a project at New Carrollton, a major transportation hub, which would be the eastern terminus of a Purple Line.

Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park) said the University of Maryland is also negotiating with a developer about its East Campus plan — a mixed-use development designed to better connect the campus with the surrounding community. A Purple Line would travel through the heart of that project.

Residents, officials and developers in both counties will continue to debate what level of development along the rail line will enhance their communities while providing enough financial incentives for developers. But most parties seem to agree that the prospect of a light rail line provides an opportunity to rethink how people live, work and commute.

That’s “the common thread that runs through these master plans,” said Montgomery County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).

“It allows us to think through where we want community investment,” he said, “and it’s completely consistent with principles of smart growth: bringing together housing and jobs and improving everyone’s quality of life.”