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Remarks of Councilmember Roger Berliner

Before the Maryland Association of Counties Forum

 “Leading Effectively in Smart Growth”

January 7, 2015

 

As I thought about this presentation, I asked myself what is the biggest lesson I have learned over the past eight years as we in Montgomery County have sought to implement smart growth principles.  And the answer I would offer is simply this – change is hard, and changing a deeply rooted culture is even harder. 

And that is what we have confronted even in a very progressive community like Montgomery County.  Our county, for so many years, thought of itself almost exclusively as a lovely suburban community, home to great residential neighborhoods, which we most assuredly have, neighborhoods that I have had the privilege of representing.  That mindset was mostly accurate, but one that makes it so very hard to comfortably adjust to the creation of what can properly be called “urban nodes” and the very different dynamics that are necessary for those nodes to thrive.   If you then layer upon that cultural clash the deeply entrenched transportation mindset that has for decades dominated both local and state transportation bureaucracies, a mindset that has traditionally focused first and foremost on moving cars and trucks, almost to the exclusion of other values, the challenges to smart growth principles have not just doubled, they have grown exponentially.

But as difficult as it is, change is possible; culture can shift; values can be realigned.  But to do so requires perseverance, grassroots organizing, coalition building, outreach, and even an occasional press strategy – basically, something that every elected official here understands – a real campaign.  In Montgomery County, our efforts to remake a part of our community that has been known as White Flint, and recently renamed the Pike District, is a classic study of all that is necessary to overcome community fears and transportation bureaucracy resistance.

I thought I might need a slide to show you what Rockville Pike in Northern Bethesda has looked like for decades, but then I realized that each of us has just driven through a very comparable stretch of road right here in Cambridge on Route 50.  That image is close enough.  A classic 50’s type strip mall environment, with acres of asphalt, and buildings set far away from the road, with hardly a hint of public transportation.  And I hope I am not offending the good people of Cambridge or its elected officials in such a characterization. We have seen countless other examples of this throughout our travels all over the country.  What actually made our situation more subject to honest criticism than what Cambridge has here is that in White Flint we have one of the most utilized Metro lines in the entire Washington region running down its spine.  So, it became one of my goals as the representative of that area, and the goal of my colleagues on the Council, to transform this strip mall on steroids into a vibrant, enlivened, walkable, bikeable, urban node that would attract millennials and seniors alike.  A true transit-oriented development.

Easy you might think, particularly when it was estimated that at build-out, this new community would contribute a net $7 billion to our local economy.  No.  It was not easy.  It took years to approve a plan that would allow for this transformation to take place.  Every community that abutted this area was justifiable concerned as to the impact such major redevelopment would have on the quality of their life, particularly given the traffic that already existed on this stretch of road. 

It took steady and persistent efforts of planners, elected officials, and the development community itself to allay those fears.  The development community helped immensely by creating a vision that could excite people, a vision where surrounding neighborhoods could see that their own property values would not depreciate, but appreciate; a vision where they saw that they could easily avail themselves of the incredible amenities that would follow; a vision that would transform one of the most unattractive, barren, pedestrian unfriendly environments into a grand boulevard with a bus rapid transit system running down the middle of Rockville Pike; and the creation of a new grid of roads that every study shows will take cars off the Pike and disseminate traffic. 

And with that vision uppermost in our collective consciousness, we were able to approve this transformation unanimously. 

You might think that at that point, the hard battles were over.  No.  Because a plan is just that – only a plan.  Implementation turns out to be another kettle of fish entirely.  And it may not be true in other communities, but in Montgomery County, our planners and our local and state transportation officials don’t always see eye to eye.  And that would be an understatement. 

So here we are, where literally hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to build what has become a terrific first phase of the Pike District, a place that we have said will be a great urban environment, with walkable, enlivened streetscapes, and our transportation community says that we are going to need eight lanes of traffic in front of this new community.  Really.  Eight lanes.  Try and hold those two concepts together – a great walkable, enlivened streetscape and eight lanes of traffic.  They simply do not mesh. 

And so, what could have been considered a small matter became much more than that – it became a litmus test for whether we had the gumption to follow thru on our commitment to create a vibrant urban space on a major arterial.  And to win that fight, we had to employ all the same methods that were used to create the plan in the first instance – grassroots support, development community engagement, press, public pressure, and the introduction of legislation that would mandate a less car-centric approach.   And I am pleased to report that those efforts succeeded.  We convinced our own DOT and the State that less was more and that we had adequately taken care of traffic in ways that would not jeopardize the urban vibe we are working to create. 

And I would be remiss, no worse, I would be an ingrate, if I did not call out the work of the Smart Growth community, from Governor Glendening to Stewart Schwartz, to Kelly Blynn for the extraordinary efforts they made to secure this victory.  Hundreds of emails were sent from community members to our County Executive urging him to lead us to a better place, and he did.  But I don’t know think it would have happened without that kind of public grassroots campaign.   The culture within the transportation engineering world is deeply rooted, and it takes everything you have, and more, to bring it along into a new vision of community. They are good people doing their work the way they were trained, but the world is changing around us and they too must adapt – and I believe they are.  Slowly but surely.

This experience taught me another lesson.  We don’t collectively have the energy to fight these battles one at a time.  So I introduced, with the support of my colleagues, a new road code for our urban communities.  It is a road code that is literally designed to reduce the speed of traffic through urban areas, to reduce the width of the roads in urban areas, and to make them safe and accessible for pedestrians and bikers alike.  Once again, we had the same battles with our transportation people.  And we brought the same campaign tactics to play along while utilizing successful models from across the country.   And we won.

So, bottom line, change is hard, but smart growth principles are so very compelling – a smaller carbon footprint, greater reliance on transit, stronger economic development, and creating communities that young and old alike flock to.  Those principles, when combined with good old fashion campaign style politics, can make for a better quality of life for our people.  And I am convinced we have done that in Montgomery County. 

 

 




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