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Residents of award-winning, transit-oriented development say no to transit

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 2, 2011 in Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil

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  King Farm Blvd (by: Dan Reed/thecourtyard)

See that wide median running down the boulevard?  That's where the light rail will go.  Or not, as it may turn out.

So much for the widely-touted concept of “transit-ready” development.  The residents of an acclaimed new urbanist village built around planned light rail (or bus rapid transit) stops have decided that they don’t actually want the transit their community was designed for.  So let’s be more careful about the claims we make for master-planned suburban development, shall we?

God, that paragraph sounds like something straight out of The Onion.  But it’s real.

  residential street, King Farm (by: EPA Smart Growth)  commercial street, King Farm (by: EPA Smart Growth)

  playground at King Farm (by: EPA Smart Growth)

The developer and designers of King Farm, a 440-acre community in the outer suburbs of Washington, DC, certainly tried to get it right.  Other than the dubious practice of naming suburbia after the farms that it paves over (there’s also a road called “Rolling Fields Way” running through the heart of the development; I swear I’m not making this up), this attractive development as conceived would have gotten lots of praise from me, had I reviewed it.  On what became an infill site after sprawl gobbled up everything around it, not far from the last stop on the Washington Metro system's Red Line, and with mixed uses, a variety of housing types, walkable design, fixed-guideway transit planned through the center, and excellent density for a suburb, King Farm’s concept represented what I promote in this blog and in my work all the time.

It did get lots of praise from others, especially for its transit-oriented design.  Bestowing a prestigious Charter Award on the development, the Congress for the New Urbanism called it “one of the most exciting projects” among the candidates.  CNU’s web site includes this passage:

“The town is designed around a light rail line linking the town center to the subway station. Similar to Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, the light rail will be built along the principal boulevard. The town square, town center neighborhood and the office neighborhood are located along this street and mark the proposed stops on the rail line.”

  retail street in King Farm (by: EPA Smart Growth)  office building at King Farm (by: EPA Smart Growth)

EPA’s Smart Growth Office was no less effusive:

“As a high-density, walkable, mixed-use community, King Farm in Rockville, Maryland, takes full advantage of the wide variety of current and future transportation choices at or near the site . . . A proposed Corridor Cities Transitway will provide light rail or bus rapid transit from the Metro station, through King Farm, continuing through Gaithersburg, Clarksburg and possibly all the way to Frederick, Maryland.”

As noted at the top of the post, King Farm Boulevard, running through the heart of the community, was designed with an extra-wide median specifically to accommodate transit vehicles.  Two stops have long been planned in the development for the Transitway.  They are marked in red on the map and satellite image below.  (Note that, although alternative alignments for the route have been studied, all options include the two King Farm stations.)  On the Google Earth image, the transit route is shown in blue/green, linking up with the Metro line shown in red.  Both light rail and BRT are under consideration.

  CCT route through King Farm, stations marked in red (by: The Transport Politic)

  King Farm with CCT route in blue, Metro route in red (via Google Earth)

Well, the Transitway is going to be built.  The government authorities are in the process of deciding the details.  But, after listening to the NIMBY complaints of King Farm residents who are just fine with driving their cars and apparently see transit as blight rather than benefit, the Rockville City Council just voted 4-1 to route the transit corridor around, rather than through, the walkable development of 3200 homes along with commercial space.

Writing on the excellent local blog Greater Greater Washington, Dan Reed reports that a resident founded the “Coalition for the Preservation of King Farm” after realizing that transit vehicles could run in front of her condominium on King Farm Boulevard.  She says that she was never told about the transit that the development was built for.  Sean Patrick Norris reports in the Rockville Gazette that “the group is worried about the effect construction will have on traffic, parking, pedestrian safety and buildings.”  (Does anyone else see an irony in something called the Coalition to Preserve King Farm when 90 percent of the real King Farm no longer exists, because the coalition founder’s condo is sitting on top of it?) 

City Councilmember Piotr Gajewski, a King Farm resident who apparently saw no need to recuse himself from the matter before casting a number of votes on it, reportedly said that the Corridor Cities Transitway would bring "no benefits" to the neighborhood while being "incredibly disruptive."  In an article written by Cindy Cotte Griffiths, the local news site Rockville Central quotes Gajewski as saying he “unequivocally opposes light rail because it is only possible if it goes down the median of King Farm Boulevard,” the street that was specifically designed from the beginning to accommodate it.

How’s that retrofitting suburbia concept looking now?

  location of King Farm in relation to the Washington region (via Google Earth)

See, the thing is, we need the transit to make these big suburban developments work for the larger region's traffic and for the environment.  King Farm is not an inner suburb.  It’s about 10 miles beyond the Capital Beltway (see image above) and 21.6 miles from NRDC’s downtown DC office, according to Google Maps.  There’s a shuttle to the Metro station, another thing the developer did right, but that only helps if you’re going where the Red Line goes, basically only south from the station since it’s the end of the line. 

For those who live, work or shop along its route, the Transitway will not only make it easier to reach the Metro (or to reach King Farm from the Metro) at more times during the day but also run along more of an east-west route, linking its customers to additional centers of employment and activity.  A majority of King Farm residents and visitors will probably still drive.  But that's OK, because even small mode shifts make a difference for the environment and, over time, ridership grows as newcomers who are attracted by the transit move in to the development; that's how it works.

But, if the residents see “no benefit,” what’s the point of designing for transit, exactly?  (I know: rhetorical questions are coming fast and furious today.)

Kentlands (by: EPA Smart Growth)To their credit, the residents of another iconic new urbanist development, the nearby Kentlands (photo left) are reportedly enthusiastic about the Transitway and are advocating that it be light rail rather than BRT, according to Reed’s post.  Good for them.

But, as to King Farm, I think there’s a lesson here.  “Transit-oriented" or "transit-ready” may not mean squat if the transit isn’t fully committed.  If the line isn’t built through the development, King Farm will still be a lot better than the sprawl that surrounds it, but it won’t be all that we said it would when we were passing out those awards.  And, next time we give out awards, we should be more careful with our praise. 

Meanwhile, the final decision will be made by the governor.  Expect the NIMBY chorus to get louder.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

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Comments

Tom LenarFeb 2 2011 10:21 AM

Kaid - I agree with you 100%. I don't live in or near King Farm, but I am familiar with the area. Also, I don't care much for NIMBYism any more than anyone else from the planning and design industry, but I will say this in their defense:

The transitway map you included with the article illustrates a reason for the KF community to be opposed to this piece of infrastructure. It would have one stop within the community, and it's located such that it's only another 5 minute walk to the Shady Grove Metro station. KF already operates a shuttle service to the Metro station through the community, and while I don't know where all the stops are, but because it has multiple stops it's already providing a greater level of convenience and service than the light rail would offer. I can't imagine that this is an either-or proposition when it comes to the shuttle and light rail stop, so I suspect that rather than endure the construction of the transitway, they'd prefer to reroute their existing shuttle to include whatever will be the next closest light rail stop.

That being said, I hope that resources haven't already been spent on design and engineering for the portion of the line that would have run through KF.

SeanFeb 2 2011 10:58 AM

If they didn't want the transit, they shouldn't have moved there.

But there's a danger of overstating the opposition. Seven people spoke at a recent City Council meeting, but that doesn't necessarily mean the opposition is widespread.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 2 2011 12:17 PM

It seems that, unfortunately, one of the opposition is on the City Council and taking full advantage of the platform. It will be interesting to see if there's another side to this within the community.

Jessica MillmanFeb 2 2011 12:49 PM

Thanks for sharing this Kaid. I was unaware of the pathetic Rockville City Council vote. How sad.

My guess is that the traffic studies completed prior to entitlement assumed a certain level of transit ridership based on the CCT alignment through King Farm. This "promise" of reduced traffic most likely convinced neighbors that the traffic impact of King Farm wouldn't be so bad. Given the the City's vote to re-align the CCT, I wonder if the City should "compensate" the neighbors who didn't expect a transit unfriendly development.

Max B.Feb 2 2011 01:29 PM

How is it that there isn't a rallying cry to bring the light rail to the site? If I was one of the 3,200 home owners or one of the business owners who made my decision to purchase/open business in an area with the epxectation of light rail and didn't get it I would be vocal.

For people not to know, or to lobby for the light rail I think there must have been a failure of the project developer to market the project as a mixed use, transit friendly project.

Ken FirestoneFeb 2 2011 02:02 PM

I was living in Rockville while King Farm was planned and built. This transitway was in the plan from the beginning. I suggested to the then planning director that they try to get the developer to actually build the transit infrastructure and provide some vehicles immediately, and extend the system later. This idea went nowhere, unfortunately.

More recently, I heard that the formerly enlightened city council was taken over by a bunch of anti affordable housing nimbys.

Dhiru ThadaniFeb 2 2011 02:50 PM

I wonder if these selfish, myopic individuals will feel the same way when gasoline hits $5 a gallon.

Richard J. BonoFeb 2 2011 04:09 PM

If even 1% of the nation's sixty billion annual advertising expenditure could be devoted to truly essential public education........

Brett Van AkkerenFeb 2 2011 06:28 PM

As Tom Lenar points out, with regard to transit, the folks at King Farm can say "I got mine". The transit stops are for people further up the line to access the commercial properties at King Farm. Asking them to support transit is like asking MA voters to support national healthcare.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 2 2011 07:00 PM

Brett, why didn't you say that when your office at EPA cited the transitway as a reason for holding out King Farm as such a great example of smart growth? Since the EPA web passage uses one of your photographs of the development, I would presume that you knew about it.

BradyDaleFeb 3 2011 01:03 PM

I give up.
Really.
I can't take it any more.

Why do I still live in this country?

I can't take it.

Audrey RomanoFeb 3 2011 01:15 PM

I believe you only have a part of the story. I think you'll find that the King Farm residents who oppose the CCT are the ones who chose to live next to it. They are the ones at the meetings trying to stop it from coming down KF Blvd. Many KF residents are in support. Unfortunately it's the vocal minority that get all the attention. Signed .. A KF Resident.

Jim NoonanFeb 3 2011 02:13 PM

This is, unfortunately not a rare development. In addition to being short sighted and stupid, one could argue that the City Council action is illegal, barring a full amendment to their existing comprehensive plan.
Where is the State of Maryland on this issue? After all this is a local land use decision that is inconsistent with an adopted master Plan. Why does that matter?
If I can bore your national audience with one of the vagaries of Maryland statute. Recent legislation requires that implementing land use and other ordinaces necessary for the implementation of a comprehensive plan, be consistent with that plan. This action sounds suspiciously like an action that would be contrary to the "policies, timing of implementation, timing of development, development patterns, land uses, and densities or intensities' of the adopted comprehenisve plan.
It may be a stretch to apply the statute to this decision. After all, the legislation was aimed, not at the City of Rockville, but at Allegany County, a place with little or no influence in Annapolis. Still, it might be a useful exercise to see how serious the State is in requiring that local actions be consistent with their own planning documents.
I might post this elsewhere to see what happens.

Laurence QamarFeb 3 2011 06:00 PM

Ahh, don't you just love the will of the people. Another example of what I call 'Petroleum-Fueled Democracy'. As Dhiru alludes to, they'll be begging for transit once gas spikes to $5/gallon.

DanaFeb 3 2011 06:31 PM

I agree with Audrey. I hadn't even heard about this matter being discussed, and I'm a resident of King Farm. As far as I know, the residents weren't polled. I vaguely remember being told about the light rail possibility and I was fine with it.

DJ AbromowitzFeb 3 2011 06:59 PM

This is a very misinformed and misleading post on a number of levels.

1. Why should the residents of KF have to have a gigantic light rail system go through the heart of their community so that people who moved 10-15 miles farther out in the burbs don't have to***gasp*** ride the BUS to the Metro station? Because all this is is a way for Kentlanders and people farther out to get to the Metro without having to drive and park at Shady Grove. People in KF already have a very green way to get to the Metro - the KF Shuttle (or many of us just walk). You can't seriously sit there and pontificate to KFers who paid a premium to intentionally live in a community that is walking distance to the Metro that they need to destroy their neighborhood to accommodate people who live in FREDERICK and commute into DC. Maybe you should be taking issue with the people who live in Frederick and drive 30 miles+ down 270 every day?

2. How much is this project again??? Close to $1 BILLION you say? Seriously? We could buy all of the Kentlanders hybrids for that price. This is a gigantic amount of money to throw at this "problem" when the solution is to have people live closer to where they work. How about giving that money to Metro so they could provide more trains or buses? How about building a fleet of cool wifi buses like they have in the Bay Area to get people from Frederick to Shady Grove? That has to be significantly cheaper than $1BB for a light rail system which destroys a big area of green space in KF.

Perhaps instead of criticizing you should take a walk around KF first and see how people live there, how many people walk to everything, how many people have solar panels on their roofs. If you are trying to call out a neighborhood for not being green you are barking up the wrong tree.

Fenno HoffmanFeb 3 2011 07:14 PM

I must admit, if I lived on that green space, I wouldn't want it replaced with a light rail system either, once I'd become used to the tranquility of the green. If it was already a busy street and the train was to replace buses and clamor - fine, but from green to tracks is a BIG change.

Sure, those people new it was coming, and we could call them transit turncoats, but there is also a lesson for the designers and developers who must manage resident's expectations to allow phasing like this. This circumstance is not just a NIMBY problem but a design problem. Making the track space a park like space worsened the resident's experience of change by making it too extreme. If that space had been a busy street first, the light rail system would have been only an incremental change.
It's not just about people being fickle. Phasing development to accomodate change is all about managing expectations.

Besides NIMBY and phasing issues, this sitch also makes me wonder if people buy into places like King's Farm because of the light rail system, or is it really the walking access to local shops, the architecture, the diversity of housing types and sense of community?
The transit piece is SO loaded with political correctness, especially among the early adopters of the "new" urbanism, that nobody would say that the transit piece isn't important - but maybe it isn't really why people buy into these developments? Maybe some of the King's Farm people have discovered that they don't need light rail because the van pool and walkable access to daily activities are already reducing their driving as much as possible?

In the long run, even if light rail only captures a tiny fraction of daily trips, it does support a shift toward shared transport resources and concentrated development. (We all know the drill) But the walking access to everyday erands - if they can get that to happen - captures more household trips than any transit system ever will. Even without light rail, King's Farm can still be very effective at auto trip reduction.

I'm comparing the power of walkability over transit - especially in sprawling places like King's Farm, where the transit system will only hit a limited number of destinations, because the 80/20 rule suggests that it's actually NOT the light rail here, but everything else about King's Fam that's doing the bulk of the work to make good new urbanism.

Therefore, New Urbanists needn't hang their hats on transit. These projects aren't failing if the light rail doesn't happen or get much ridership. The mass transit is gravy (in suburbia), compared to the meat, which is the walkable access to everyday activities and housing diversity and sense of community that projects like this are creating, with or without light rail.

I hate to see projects like this attacked because many of their residents still drive to work when in fact, these places can effectively capture the majority of houshold errand and activity trips *the majority of trips) without any transit at all because it's the walking that solves the lion's share of trips, or can, if we keep that in mind. Kaid, your blog is great!

Alan S. Kaplan M.D.Feb 3 2011 07:24 PM

You have missed the point. When I first moved to King Farm we were told it would be buses. NOW we are told not only light rail, BUT THEY WILL BLOCK OFF 8 OF THE 10 CROSS STREETS AND DRIVEWAYS, DIVIDING KF INTO NORTH AND SOUTH WITH OUR OWN VIRTUAL BERLIN WALL. THE TRAIN WILL BLOW IT'S HORN AT THE CROSSINGS EVERY 6 MINUTES FROM 5 AM UNTIL 12:30 AM - THAT'S THE PRIMARY ISSUES. You know we already have buses on KF Blvd without any complaints - it's not the train, its what is coming with it.

JasonFeb 3 2011 11:20 PM

To echo the point above, the original proposal was for bus. If the author wants to hold the residents to the "sacred" original plans, hold them to that.

Several comments have missed the point. The KF residents live near the last metro stop and are heavy users of mass transit thanks to the shuttle service to the metro that they pay to operate within their community. This whole mass transit proposal is a cludge to deal with the fact that the DC metro system is inadequate and poorly operated. It is a mechanism to get other people in the county to the nearest stop on the metro in an efficient manner. It does not have any inherent benefits to the residents of KF as they are already efficiently getting to the stop through their HOA fees.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 4 2011 09:23 AM

Fenno, you raise some good points. I couldn't agree more about the importance of walkability, and I also think that constructing that median as a park-like space was misleading to residents. That had the effect of attracting residents who liked having an undeveloped space there, instead of the kind of residents that actually like light rail or rapid bus.

I think there are some real flaws in building something around "planned transit" instead of real, actual transit, and this circumstance is exposing one of those flaws.

Mark TurowFeb 4 2011 12:52 PM

These NIMBY's knew (or should have known) darn well that this was slated to be a transit corridor. It has been on the books for at least a decade. To come back now and claim they were misled or misinformed is disingenous, at best. The only mistake that the developer and the gov't officials made was to not put up huge signs all along the corridor announcing "FUTURE TRANSIT CORRIDOR RIGHT-OF-WAY". Somehow they were able to do this for the ICC, but didn't have the foresight here.

C StromFeb 4 2011 01:24 PM

Please be aware that it is a vocal minority of KF residents that are voicing their opinion to the CCT. I am a KF resident who is strongly in support of the CCT, not only to provide improved access to the Metro but also to provide access to other destinations in the area. Opponents are attempting to quash the development by inciting fear among KF residents (light rail is noisy, intersections will all be permanently blocked, horns will sound night and day). Better education to residents should help improve the situation.

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