Montgomery County looks to get hip


People sit under trees in Silver Spring. Montgomery County officials will study ways to enliven the county’s nightlife scene. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
February 16, 2013

Montgomery officials are under no illusions about the county’s image among the Washington region’s young: boring.

“We’re a little sleepy,” said County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda). “We go to bed early.”

For all its prosperity and family-friendly suburban appeal, Montgomery is in the throes of a midlife crisis. That angst has led to a new item at the top of the public policy agenda: a yearning to be hip.

County Executive Isiah Leggett wants to make Montgomery more competitive with the District and Arlington County for the coveted millennial demographic, or “Generation Y” — roughly defined as those between ages 18 and 34. Plans include a revised set of policies that officials hope will spawn the next U Street corridor, Adams Morgan or Clarendon — dynamic, walkable communities where the young will not only play but also live and work.

Leggett (D) is expected to announce the formation of a “Task Force on the Night Time Economy” to study ways to enliven the bar, music and after-hours dining scenes in communities including Bethesda, Rockville and Silver Spring.

The panel, whose members are still being recruited, will consider everything from loosened liquor laws and noise ordinances to relaxed regulations covering urban amenities that connect people: food trucks, cafes, outdoor movies. “You have to make the county more appealing,” Leggett said. “You have to make sure that sense of vitality is there.”

This is similar to the theory of change promoted for the past decade by University of Toronto urbanist Richard Florida, who says cities can regenerate economically by attracting a robust “creative class.” That means young professionals in technology fields along with musicians, artists, gay people, writers and creative elites he calls “high bohemians.”

Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who with council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) is a principal advocate of the task force, said the county needs more of a return on its enormous investment in its public school students.

“After we spend, what, $150,000 in this county to educate them?” asked Riemer (actually closer to $180,000 from kindergarten through 12th grade, schools officials estimate). “And where do they go? They move to Clarendon. They move to D.C.”

The county’s concern is reflected in the data. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 36 percent of Arlington’s population is between ages 20 and 34. Montgomery’s proportion is 19 percent, trailing the District (31 percent), Prince George’s County (23 percent) and Fairfax County (20 percent).

The county’s share of residents ages 25 to 34 grew just 4.6 percent between 2000 and 2010. Montgomery also has the highest percentage of seniors among jurisdictions in the capital region. The number of residents ages 55 to 64 grew by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2010. And the 65-to-74 bracket is up 24 percent in the past decade, a threefold increase from 1990 to 2000.

“We are aging faster than we probably anticipated,” Leggett said. The traditional, suburban Montgomery will not disappear, he said, but for the tax base to grow — and to help support a burgeoning aging-in-place population — a new county has to take root alongside the old.

Montgomery’s quest for hipness began with Lilly Qi, Leggett’s manager for special projects, and her college-age son, Andrew, a Richard Montgomery High School graduate who is now a junior at Tufts University in Boston. She doubts that Andrew will return permanently after graduation.

When he comes home on holidays, “I watch him struggling to find different places to hang out,” said Qi (pronounced “Chee”). One recent favorite: the Quince Orchard library branch in Gaithersburg. “We need more places for people to hang out,” said Qi, who began to develop the nighttime-economy task force at Leggett’s behest, part of what has been dubbed the “New Montgomery Initiative.” It’s not just spaces for the young, she emphasizes. The goal is to make Montgomery — already a multicultural county that has turned “majority-minority”— truly multi-generational.

“We want to create opportunities for the young and hip, and the older with hip replacements,” she said.

But the immediate focus is likely to be the millennials, and it will start with night life. Although the redeveloped Silver Spring is a success on many levels, Riemer said it is “not even close” to being a hipster magnet.

“It’s the best we’ve got, but we’ve got to take it to the next level,” he said. That means more music venues like the Fillmore, along with practice space for musicians. New hotel options would also help. Riemer said he has heard that bands playing the Fillmore won’t stay in Silver Spring because they turn their noses up at the hotels.

“They don’t want to trash a room that Keith Richards trashed in the ’60s,” he said.

Dale Rodman, a Silver Spring musician and Montgomery native, said a major music festival with mainstream bands “would generate some good energy.”

“It’s tough when you’re next door to D.C.,” said Rodman, 24, whose rock-reggae group, Dale and the ZDubs, plays all over the region. “It takes a lot of the cred and a lot of the hype.”

Then there are the millennials themselves, who find the county “brand” sedately suburban, or at best “urban-lite.”

“Montgomery County is . . . Silver Spring, right?” asked Bianca Blomquist, 24, a lobbyist who lives in Columbia Heights. “Went up to eat there a couple of times. Wasn’t bad. Seemed all right for a suburb . . . It’s kind of cookie-cutter. At least I perceive it to be that way a little more.”

Would she consider living there?

“Maybe after 35, but I’ve never perceived myself as an in-betweener. I either want an urban setting or a rural setting. But the in-between? I don’t like it that much.”

Officials also want to take a look at liquor laws that have left Silver Spring and other parts of the county “under-barred,” as one planner put it, meaning a shortage of places for people to meet and drink.

One issue is a law requiring establishments to maintain an even split in their food and alcohol sales.

“The ratio has probably outlived its usefulness,” said Kathie Durbin, a division chief for the county’s Department of Liquor Control. She explained that the measure probably dates to the end of Prohibition, when drinks were 50 cents. In the era of the $12 martini, a 50-50 split makes less sense. Durbin is also working on a plan that would allow certain businesses to sell “growlers,” the half-gallon jugs of craft beer patrons can fill at breweries and take home.

The county has great hopes for hipness in the massive White Flint redevelopment along Rockville Pike. While developers envision high-rises and high-end stores, there are also plans for smaller, moderately priced living spaces, with walkable streets and coffee shops, yoga studios and casual dining in the Busboys and Poets mold.

“What we’re hoping for is that this will be the alternative downtown,” said Lindsay Hoffman, executive director of Friends of White Flint, the nonprofit group of developers, residents and other stakeholders supporting the project. “We’re hoping that this will be a good alternative with a variety of housing options at a variety of price points.”

Last week, the Rockville-based Tower Cos. announced that it would overhaul its Blairs apartment complex in Silver Spring according to new urbanist specs, with new units, wide walking trails and green space. “This is a suburb that’s becoming a city,” said Bing Thom, one of the architects hired by Tower to design the makeover.

To fully realize the vision of becoming a millennial magnet, the county faces formidable hurdles, none bigger than mobility. Without transit-friendly neighborhoods, the area will probably never draw the kind of young energy and talent it desires.

Montgomery is still looking for the billions it will take to pay for three major projects that have been on the boards for years: the light-rail Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, the Corridor Cities Transitway to connect upper Montgomery with the Shady Grove Metrorail station, and a network of express bus lanes to link commuting corridors.

Some millennials see moving to a place like Montgomery at some point, just not while they’re young.

“If you’re in your early 20s, it’s probably not a great idea to move to Montgomery County if you can avoid it,” Matt Lyons, 24, a business consultant who grew up in Columbia and lives near Thomas Circle. “But I think once you hit that certain age where you’re ready to start calming things down, then I think it’s a great place to be.”

Farah Mohamed contributed to this report.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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