Thursday, July 02, 2009

Is This Smart Growth? Part Four

In Part Two of this series, we detailed how the Planning Department staff recommendation for a new growth policy relaxed standards on mitigating traffic congestion. In Part Three, we explained how the staff proposal would cut impact tax rates on projects in areas that were far from transit, including Clarksburg, Damascus and Olney. But all of that pales beside what you are about to read.

Under Policy Area Mobility Review (PAMR), developers of projects in local areas with both road congestion and slow transit are required to install trip mitigation measures, all of which cost money. The new staff recommendation would allow developers to use an “Alternative Review Procedure” to offset all or part of their mitigation cost requirements. This procedure could be used for projects that have a minimum 50% residential use, achieve at least 75% of the maximum density allowed by the zoning, meet certain energy efficiency standards and provide additional below-market housing above county requirements. The procedure would only be available in two types of areas:

1. Projects within a half-mile of an existing or planned transit station or “high-quality transit corridor.” The latter term is defined as “a corridor with fixed route bus service where service intervals are no longer than 15 minutes during peak commute hours.” These projects would be eligible for a 100% mitigation offset.

This category is more inclusive than it may first appear. Montgomery County has two bus services: WMATA and Ride On. Between the two of them, they have a rather high frequency of service on some major roads during rush hour. Consider the stretch of Georgia Avenue between Randolph Road and Norbeck Road. It is covered by four WMATA routes (Y5, Y7, Y8, Y9) and one Ride On route (51). Between 6 AM and 9 AM on weekdays, southbound WMATA buses come down Georgia Road every 11-17 minutes. The Ride On bus comes through every 20-30 minutes. The two of them together meet the standard of “high-quality transit corridor.” That means developers along this stretch of road would have no mitigation requirement even though there is no Metro station other than Glenmont, which is near the southern point of the route. Other major corridors without Metro stations but with at least four WMATA bus routes include US-29 from Four Corners through Burtonsville, Randolph Road from Rockville to US-29, New Hampshire Avenue from Takoma Park to US-29 and Veirs Mill Road from University Boulevard to Randolph Road. Projects in all of these corridors may just escape any PAMR traffic mitigation requirements under the staff proposal.

2. Projects within a half-mile of ten “basic services.” These services “include but are not limited to: bank, place of worship, convenience grocery, day care, cleaners, fire station, beauty, hardware, laundry, library, medical/dental, senior care facility, park, pharmacy, post office, restaurant, school, supermarket, theater, community center, fitness center or museum.” These projects would be eligible for a 50% mitigation offset.

Where are the locations in which these basic services are clustered? Many are in the county’s four downtowns (Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville and Wheaton) or are around Metro stations, but those areas are already covered by the transit offset category. The rest are strip malls. The staff proposal explicitly acknowledges this:

This category recognizes that not all development in the County will be near a major transit corridor. Many of the 106 strip malls in the County do not qualify. However, they should be redeveloped in a more sustainable manner.

A strip mall on Route 29 could offer amenities that would reduce vehicle trips through mixed uses and a minimum of stores that provide services and products that residents and workers use on a daily basis, or what LEED for New Construction and Major Renovation defines as “basic services.”

Basic services include grocery stores, dry cleaners, fire stations, medical office, and fitness centers. People who live near these services frequently walk to them, reducing car trips. For projects that qualify, the PAMR requirement would be offset by 50 percent.
Since the staff refers to US-29, let’s consider one area that might be eligible for an offset under their proposal: Four Corners. This is the intersection of US-29 and University Boulevard, the gateway to East County. It has a school (Blair High School), a church, a pharmacy, a supermarket, a bank, a dry cleaner, several restaurants and many other retail services, so projects there may qualify for a 50% mitigation offset. It also has four WMATA bus routes (Z9, Z11, Z13, Z29) and three Ride On routes (9, 19 and 22), so projects there may even qualify for a 100% mitigation offset.

But let’s be honest: encouraging dense development at a place like Four Corners is not smart, it’s madness. The intersection was explicitly designed to move cars by splitting University into opposing segments. Yet, it is still congested, acquiring special infamy at rush hour. It is near two Beltway intersections (US-29 and University). Some of the retail resides in the Woodmoor Shopping Center, a strip mall on the eastern corner. Pedestrian travel is difficult at best, dangerous at worst. There is no Metro stop and no plans to build one. Why should developers receive a traffic mitigation offset of any kind here? And how many other strip malls will be eligible for those offsets?

This proposal for traffic mitigation offsets is the worst single element of the staff recommendation. It would reward dense development of at least 75% of zoning along several corridors far from transit stations, as well as many of the county’s strip malls. This is NOT smart growth. In fact, it is a prescription for endless traffic congestion with no way out.

In Part Five, we’ll offer a few ideas for improvement.