Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Laurel 2015: Urban or Suburban

The following article is also available in our enhanced Laurel Connections Podcast format. My thanks to Karen Lubieniecki , Marlene Frazier, Councilman Mike Leszcz, Jim McCeney, and Michael Dyer for participating in our podcast.

There was a meeting tonight at city hall to discuss a new development called Hawthorne Place. Please see the Leader’s excellent coverage of Hawthorne Place here.

update: Please also see Keith's take on the meeting at the Laurel2020 blog here.

Tonight’s meeting was typical in many ways. About twenty people attended. The group included bedrock members of the Laurel community. They listened as developers described their dream for Hawthorne Place. The community listened carefully and asked polite questions.

But in many ways I think the tonight’s meeting was far from typical. I think we will remember tonight as an important moment in the history of Laurel.

I say this because I think Hawthorne Place represents the first step towards a new Laurel. The profound question our community must answer is as follows:

In 2015 will Laurel’s commercial core be primarily suburban or urban?

Today Laurel is a suburban town with a suburban feel. We have Main Street and a commercial core along Route 1. Route 1 has a handful of commercial strip shopping centers, a mall undergoing massive revitalization, big box retail stores, and a couple of car lots. Today Laurel is very much like thousands of other suburban towns across America.

Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville are examples of town centers with a more urban feel. They have more intense development, high rise buildings, and parking garages. While not Washington’s K Street, or Manhattan’s East side, Hawthorne Place has more in common with them than with say … Columbia or Bowie, or Laurel as it is today.

Hawthorne Place will bring about 2000 residents and 150 thousand square feet of office space and plant it all on 11 acres. It will obviously bring traffic, but also an awesome new tax base to fuel the city.

Most importantly, Hawthorne Place will cause similar development. You can bet that if Hawthorne Place is approved as explained tonight, the market will drive Laurel to a more urban development pattern in the future.

The questions at tonight's meeting reflected these concerns. People asked the developers about the density stemming from 20 and 16 story apartment buildings.

While people seemed to focus on traffic and building height, I think the real debate is about coming to a community agreement on a vision for Laurel’s future. Will Laurel remain suburban or should we become more urban?

This is an important moment in Laurel’s history. We must continue this conversation. However, I suggest we focus our conversation on the fundamental question of wanting a suburban or urban feel in Laurel's commercial core. Building heights, density, or traffic at Hawthorne Place are all leading indicators of a more profound decision. I suggest we look past these specific decisions about the Hawthorne Place project to focus more broadly on Laurel’s future.

Please share your comments about Hawthorne Place and the future here.

Click here to hear voices from tonight’s meeting. I’m also looking for feedback on the podcast format. Please let me know if you find it useful. -rick


Anonymous said...

As a 20707 resident and a transportation engineer, but technically not a city resident, this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. I would love to have some input on this whole thing. I could write a tome on how Laurel City can take advantage of its enormous commercial base (for its population) and perfect existing street-grid network to build an envious urban mixed-use core, yet still remain suburban in nature. In a way, it's happening by default - Larger houses off Van Dusen and Contee, with higher density housing around Route 1. The most important thing is to change the mindset of Route 1 as a car-friendly place into a pedestrian friendly corridor. Right now with low-slung strip malls and large parking lots on both sides of Route 1, well, it screams suburban. But with higher density coming, the commercial aspect of the city needs to become pedestrian oriented. Multi-story commercial properties; less parking; obvious pedestrian routes from housing to commercial. Longer crossing times for Pedestrians across Route 1. A lot of people aren't going to like these changes, particularly existing businesses that currently depend on car traffic. But making an urban commercial core pedestrian-friendly is the single most important ingredient in having a thriving urban core area. Which is great for the long-term appeal of the City of Laurel. Just my 2 cents. If you'd like me to expand, I could write a fair bit more, but I think the answer to the original question is...BOTH. Urban in the center and suburban in the city's outer ring.

Rick Wilson said...


I like your ideas. Urban and suburban. Move the cars off or under the route 1 commercial core.

Big challenge will be connect walkers to MARC and then onto Main Street. I wouldn't want to abandon Main Street, for a new urban route 1. Please feel free to add your ideas here.



Anonymous said...

I’ll ramble some more if you’ll let me:
You are right on the money, that there should be an obvious and continuous streetscaping “theme” from the Route 1 core to both Main Street and the MARC stop.
However, as destinations go, Main Street and Laurel’s new urban core will be 2 different animals that will serve two different clientele. While they should be physically connected with homogenous streetscaping, they will never have similar retail options. Due to its historic designation, Main street has a lack of density of both retail and residents to make it a widely-used pedestrian artery. Main Street is still sustainable and likely always will be, but its growth potential as an urban corridor has peaked, unless major changes are allowed. But for the current business owners drastic changes may not be necessary, if they currently have a steady income. And if they do, why change a good thing?

There are two types of pedestrian crowds: lunchtime and after-work. Main Street barely caters to either. And that’s fine; there is no job-density there. However, the “new urban core” will see 10x more pedestrian and vehicle traffic than Main Street, if they can cater to one or both crowds. In order to do that though, you need bodies working in the core area. They will need lunch at lunch time and a drink/dinner after work. And they will stay and walk to both.

Laurel’s main problem is that its white-collar workers are off in the Sweitzer Lane business park (among other places), which has absolutely zero retail services. Meanwhile, all the City’s retail and food options are on Route 1 – a minimum of three miles away. From a planning perspective, it’s actually pretty confounding. Who in the world set it up like that? If the two corridors were adjacent, Laurel would already be the most desirable and prosperous suburb outside of Bethesda.

Ideally, I would love to see Laurel annex the commercial areas on the east side of Route and produce a somewhat-homogenous streetscaping theme on both side of Route 1 from Contee road all the way north to the Howard County line. Obviously that takes a fair bit of cash, but that kind of project has private-public partnership written all over it, since both stand to benefit (i.e. increased property values).

Throwing up only residential housing at Hawthorn will be the death of Laurel City as a desirable urban core (which is loosely-defined as having a large daytime and night-time pedestrian population). Further, making the units rent-only would be a devastating blow to the city’s long term future. Laurel is super-saturated with affordable housing. Half of the residents rent. That is a far higher percentage of renters than the nation or the county as a whole. And since Laurel doesn’t have an extremely high job base (particularly in the white-collar sectors), adding more renters will be a very bad thing for the city. I’m not trying to come off as snobby, just realistic. Any development that brings in jobs and high-end residential units should be welcome. Those that don’t should, should be denied outright. The City can do its’ share to make the former more likely by redirecting as much money as it can into increasing pedestrian traffic right now between existing residential and commercial destinations. In particular, those new luxury apartments behind the mall – there should be an inviting, attractive, wide, well-lit crosswalk (with countdown timer) across Cherry Lane where it T’s with 4th street. This would connect wealthier renters with Laurel’s “Restaurant Row.” Plus, it’s a cheap improvement. I’m sure the business community would love to go halfsies with the City on it. If I owned a business there, it would be a no-brainer. Simple things like this would go a long way toward attracting more business to the City, would which make it easier to absorb addition people (even renters).
Thanks for letting me speak my mind,

Keith said...

Good stuff, Bryon. A couple of thoughts to add: Hawthorne Place shouldn't be "only residential housing", as their current plan is to start with the office buildings that would be along the borders of the property. They don't seem overly interested in placing much retail on their site, but Hawthorne is just a small piece of all the land available for redevelopment on the Route 1 "Eastside". If/once they get started, it's not hard to imagine the sites west and south of Hawthorne getting the conversion treatment pretty quickly.

mike sarich said...

One quick Hawthorne point: In thier initial presentation to the Council, they indicated that they intend to build in phases. All of the intitial phases will be apartments and then the last phases will be office.

This makes me undestandably nervous as we all can recall plans that start out grand and then get modified as time goes on. This is one of the reasons the City advised the developer to have a town hall meeting and to more fully explain their proposal. I think that based on citizen and Council input, we'll see offices (read:jobs)as well as residential in the early phases.

As an aside: Part of my vision for our hometown is to have a trolley line style bus running in a loop from the Main St. area to the mall area(s). This would make it easier to connect the different parts of the city.

For instance, while I know Rick prefers to walk, in the interim time until we can get a top-notch bakery on Main St. he could hop on the trolley and enjoy the fantastic gourmet breads and rolls the crew at the Laurel Lakes Safeway create every morning...

Anonymous said...

That’s an interesting point about Hawthorne putting up residential first and then (maybe) office. I really hope Laurel can convince them otherwise. The risks are too great and they all fall on Laurel’s shoulders. Maybe the City can provide monetary penalties in the contractual agreement for failure to produce adequate office.

Another thought: the real-estate market DOES change. Just because we are in a renter’s market now, doesn’t mean we will be in 5 years. Besides, all market all local and all local market are micro-local. I would still like to see Laurel press for more owner-occupied units. Laurel has nothing to gain from more renters, sorry.

One thing is for certain, in the DC area – if you’re not growing, you’re dieing. This area is very competitive between jurisdictions and it’s important to not fall behind, because downward spirals are hard to reverse. Proper planning, and strict adherence to that planning, is critical. See any number of inner-beltway communities in Prince Georges for an example of what happens when you don’t (and most of them have better infrastructure than Laurel).

MWCOG (of which, oddly, Laurel City is not a member) predicts that PG will gain more jobs by 2030 than any other county in MD. Further, these jobs are going to be largely in the route 1 corridor (Laurel, Beltsville, college park, Greenbelt, and Largo.) It seems likely that 2 or 3 of those cities will become a BIG retail/commercial area. Think Rockville, Bethesda; 50,000+ people; dense commercial and retail, parking garages (hidden and set back from the main thoroughfare, of course). It is practically unavoidable, given the projected job growth along the sector. Going back to Rick’s original question: Does Laurel want to be that City – that big urban dense city on the east side of the region that everyone in the surrounding area goes to to find what they need? I hope so. Because if it ain’t Laurel, it’ll be some other city stepping up, and Laurel might find itself in the have-nots category. But…it should be Laurel City, with access to Route 1, 95, 295, 198. With many of the corridor’s best restaurants. With 2 Marcs (including Muirkirk). I think that the leaders of the Laurel believe that Laurel will be come the next juggernaut; I just hope the residents are not too resistant to the forthcoming change. Because the changes will be BIG.


Keith said...

Re: Hawthorne's phases...By the time of the town meeting, they seem to have changed the contents of their phases from what councilman Sarich says they initially presented. At the town meeting the two major apartment buildings were part of the final phase. They also made Bryon's point about changing real estate markets and said there would be an option to consider selling units as condos if market conditions allowed.