Build a Better Burb recently sat down with Dan Reed, founder of the suburban Montgomery County, Maryland blog Just Up the Pike, to talk with him about development in the eastern part of the county, how it can create more affordable neighborhoods, and the role New Urbanism in older suburbs.
Our meeting place was the locally owned Zed’s Café, part of the dynamic Ethiopian-American business community that characterizes east Montgomery County’s commercial center, Silver Spring, which is undergoing a renaissance of new apartment housing construction. Historically, much more development and investment have been concentrated in the predominantly white (but increasingly more diverse) west side of Montgomery County, often bypassing the much more racially and ethnically diverse east side.
As we spoke, the foot, bus, bike, and car traffic of Georgia Avenue went by outside Zed’s picture windows. It was the perfect place to meet: a little bit city, a little bit suburb.
BBB: So, you grew up in Montgomery County, and you started this blog 12 years ago. Now you have over 8,500 people reading you. Who are they?
Reed: Most of them live here on the eastern side of Montgomery County, some in Washington, DC. I write sometimes for Greater Greater Washington. The readers of Just Up the Pike tend to skew young, Twitter followers especially, and those tend also to be closer in to Silver Spring. I guess I’d divide them into three camps: people who are excited for change and development, those who read me because they’re reluctant and want to investigate, and people who are just curious, for whom I am a source in an area that has weak local news. I’m one of the few people they can turn to anymore.
BBB: The center of your blog remains around development, housing, and transportation, but you move out into education, into social and demographic issues, into public health—and sometimes, you share more personal commentary.
Reed: Everything is so tightly connected. I think it’s important to show things as they are. I think right now there is a lot of tension about development and growth here, especially with an election this year. There’s a prevailing view that growth or development is kind of profane, benefiting only wealthy people or certain people. Part of why I try to connect development to social justice, and health, and mobility, and community and culture is that it really does all of those things at once. We have to take a broader view of what building things means.
BBB: We often critique techniques and tools instead of the power structures that influence their use.
Reed: It’s super easy to look at [a new neotraditional development] and say, “well, clearly this is for rich white people; clearly this shows that all development, and all New Urbanist development, is only for a certain kind of people, and there’s no way it can possibly help anyone else and we should just not have it.” And the conversation ends there and that’s that. But we know it can be different. Silver Spring is proof that we are having a tremendous amount of investment and development in this community, and it’s only becoming more diverse and more interesting, a stronger and more tightknit community, because of the investment, not despite it.
BBB: Is there a tipping point that you are worried about?
Reed: I’m less worried about the downtown than the neighborhoods. Here in downtown Silver Spring, there are thousands of apartments under construction. Look out this window and you’ll see a 20-story building being built with 400 apartments in it. Of those 400, the majority will be affordable for people making the county’s median income, with 12 to 15 percent set aside for people making below the county’s median. That’s housing that many people can afford. Young people can actually afford to live here. This is a building that is going to be available to a pretty broad swath of people in the community. A few blocks away, in the neighborhoods that we have decided will be single family homes forever, home prices get higher and higher and higher. Even a modest fixer-upper house from the 1940s consumed with mold will sell for $400,000. There—that’s what I worry about. These communities keep being only for wealthier people, and losing the opportunity to contribute to the diversity of this place.
BBB: What about accessory dwelling units (ADUs)? Shared houses?
Reed: I think my favorite places in the county are places where people are just figuring it out, and especially in the older sections, people have been turning houses into group houses and mini-apartment buildings—and in one case, a mini-mall—for decades, sort of out of the public eye. On the one hand, it is cool, and you’re seeing different kinds of investment, and people are finding ways to “hack” these buildings designed for middle-class white people to their own ends—but there’s danger in it too. A lot of these places are not safe to live in.
Six years ago, Montgomery County passed a law to allow ADUs. I’d like to see amnesty for those existing units that were done illegally, so people can maybe even get help bringing them up to code without being penalized.
BBB: What are the big challenges Silver Spring and east Montgomery County face right now?
Reed: We are an engine for social and economic mobility, and so many people come here to get their foothold and get a better life for themselves. We need to embrace that. But I really worry about the overheated nature of some of these real estate markets, and being able to keep people here. I know so many folks who have just left the region because of high housing costs, whether retirees or going to downsize. There’s so much potential here.
This is where the conversations about design, and planning and social justice intersect, and it’s really counterintuitive for people. I certainly get no shortage of flak for talking about it. But it has to be done.