Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rollin Stanley: Problem and Potential, Part One

Montgomery County Planning Director Rollin Stanley is starting to hit a wall. That’s a problem – not only for him, but also for the county that depends on him.

Rollin Stanley is not an ordinary public servant. He is the choice of legendary Montgomery County Planning Chairman Royce Hanson to be the leader of the county’s planning staff. That is a hugely important position given the fact that the staff writes master plans that guide future development, drafts revisions to the growth policy every two years and reviews individual development projects for conformance with the county’s tests and standards. When Hanson hired Stanley in December 2007, many believed he was a visionary super star. And maybe he is.

Stanley is not a bureaucrat or administrator. He is a big thinker and a change agent in a county that says it values those qualities but does not reward them. In his prior positions as a staffer in Toronto’s planning department and as the chief planner in St. Louis for six years, Stanley worked for the ideal of walkable, interesting and revitalized urban neighborhoods.

The River Front Times wrote a lengthy profile of Stanley in 2004, more than two years into his tenure as the planning head in St. Louis. The Times summarized Stanley’s goals this way:

Rollin Stanley has bold plans for St. Louis. If he had his way, downtown’s one-way streets would be eliminated, buildings would have to retrofit their basements to include showers for bicyclists, and bike lanes would meander alongside major thoroughfares. Stanley envisions a pedestrian paradise where workers, residents and visitors can window-shop and run errands. He also wants more teeth put in Missouri’s planning and zoning laws; currently, his department isn't required by law to examine, approve -- or see -- any proposed deviation from the zoning guidelines and comprehensive land-use plan.
The Times said this about Stanley’s advocacy for mixed-use redevelopment in downtowns:

Then Stanley moves on to the future of residential downtown developments, in crumbling districts and in thriving areas like the Central West End. He stresses the importance of mixed-use developments, buildings with ground-level retail and residential above. His favorite residential development is the Louderman Lofts on Locust. His office is across the street. “I can walk out and, within two blocks, I can go to the hardware store, I can have lunch, I can go to the dry cleaners; just down the street I can go to the pharmacy. I can go to a restaurant. I can go to Famous-Barr. I can go to a men’s clothing store, and the list goes on and on. I can do all those things because that’s such an urban building.”

New high-rises, he said, should offer a wide range of units that are affordable, not only to empty-nesters with money to burn, but to twentysomethings with a craving to live in the city.

“When I first came here,” he says, “I couldn’t believe the size of the units people were building. What created a market in places like Denver or Toronto was smaller units -- first-home buyers. And nobody’s hitting that market. Nobody.” Developers tend to balk, he says, at middle-income condos. “They say, ‘Well, I’m not sure. They’re only making $40,000.’ But they’re buying a unit from you! What are they going to do, go upstairs and steal somebody’s TV? No. They’re going to be vested in the property. And that’s going to be a wonderful thing for the city, because instead of living in O’Fallon in a townhome, they’ll be able to walk to work.”

“All those things are baby steps to success,” Stanley concludes. “Now you’ve got bikes downtown, and you’ve got people walking, you start to see people thinking differently about the street patterns. But there’s tremendous resistance down there.”
Montgomery County has an influential and growing smart growth community that would agree with Stanley’s outlook. Downtown Bethesda, Downtown Silver Spring and Rockville Town Square are all popular residential, retail and employment locations. But while quite a few people may want to see more transit-oriented development in flourishing downtowns, Stanley has advocated some provocative ways to get there.

“Congestion is a good thing,” Stanley once told a planning forum in St. Louis. “Some people might not believe that. But think about any city that you like and compare it to here. Chicago is congested. Boston, Seattle, they’re all congested. You’ve got to look at the street patterns, and one-way streets are a disaster. They kill retail… density, to some people in St. Louis, is a four-letter word.”

Stanley later told a planning forum in Montgomery County a similar message according to the Washington Business Journal:

“We’ve added 195,000 people since 1988 and they took up 40,000 acres of land. We don't have that for the next 195,000 people,” Stanley said, adding that the only land the county has left is 8,000 acres of surface parking lots, 14,000 acres of non-continuous vacant land, and 10,500 acres of land around Metro stations.

Pointing to a decline in two parent homes in Montgomery County - from 50 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 2006 - Stanley said there is less of a need for 3,000-square-foot homes. “People don’t think kids can live in high-rises, but they can and they do. Not everyone wants to live in a single family home with a lawn to mow,” he said.

“In Montgomery County, two factors influence development - schools and road capacity,” Stanley said. “That pushes development to where there is no congestion, but it should go the other way, because congestion will force people onto public transportation.”
The idea of using congestion to push people towards transit is shared by some in the smart growth community. To be fair, Stanley’s recommended growth policy does not merely do that. The policy combined relieving developers of some traffic mitigation requirements, relaxing congestion standards, encouraging development in town centers (some of which are far from transit) and encouraging more density near strip malls to enable shorter car trips. Your author questioned whether all of these recommendations were really smart growth – especially those allowing more development away from transit – and the County Council expressed its reservations by defeating or deferring most of them.

Despite Stanley’s visionary capacity – or perhaps, because of it – he faces some stiff challenges in Montgomery County. We’ll explore them in Part Two.