It’s unfortunate that Rollin Stanley, the brash bad boy of Washington regional planning, will inevitably be remembered here mostly for one repugnant comment in a magazine interview.
Stanley, who is moving to a bigger job in Calgary after four years as Montgomery County’s planning director, derided opponents of his ambitious vision for the future as “rich white women” who were “spreading fear.”
Stanley was wrong to say it, obviously. He must have set a record for efficiency by needing just four syllables to offend on grounds of class, race and gender.
Nevertheless, Montgomery — and the rest of the region – will miss Stanley because he was so effective at selling a “post-sprawl” model for development that’s vital to improving our quality of life.
Stanley was the rare county bureaucrat widely described as charismatic. Fans and detractors alike said the wavy-haired Stanley, 53, was exceptional at wowing audiences with dynamic presentations at community meetings and walking tours.
“He brought some zip to it all, through his personality and style,” said County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). “He personally kicked things loose in a planning process that was pretty hidebound by tradition.”
Boiled down, Stanley’s agenda was simple: Close-in counties like Montgomery have to become denser and more urban. They need to grow vertically, with taller buildings, and add more apartments and townhouses. That’s the only way to absorb an expanding population without overrunning such treasured green space as Montgomery’s protected Agriculture Reserve.
“When you look at a map of the county, you realize that 49 percent is reserved for open space,” Stanley said in an interview Monday. “Folks in the county have to realize that if we want to preserve that 49 percent, we have to change how we grow in other places.”
Makes sense, right? It’s easy to endorse in theory.
In practice, though, planners run into trouble when they try to add tall buildings or denser development near established neighborhoods of single-family homes. Longtime residents worry about congestion, noise and what kinds of neighbors will move in.
Such resistance prompted Stanley’s nasty comment — for which he apologized — in the interview with Bethesda Magazine. Stanley was frustrated by persistent battles with a small group of activists who, in his view, were defending an unsustainable status quo at the expense of immigrants, young people, seniors and lower-income residents who would benefit from a more urban landscape.
“The face of the suburbs is changing. We haven’t been building a lot of product for this shift,” Stanley said. “One of the really big, important things is to start to get the message out about the new constituencies in Montgomery County.”
Stanley’s principal legacy will be at White Flint, midway between Bethesda and Rockville, where a new, urban mix of apartment buildings, offices and stores is going up. He leaves his mark in numerous other ways as well, in plans for the Great Seneca Science Center in Gaithersburg and for the (eventual) light-rail Purple Line.
His biggest regret, Stanley said, was not staying two more years to help complete an overhaul of county zoning rules to permanently enshrine the goals he pushed.
Stanley’s record has its share of blemishes, in addition to the one in the magazine interview. He seemed to relish stirring up controversy and baiting his critics. Some senior staff members left the Planning Department because he hogged attention, micromanaged and didn’t want to share credit.
Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), with whom Stanley tangled regularly, said the planning director was right to urge denser development but was too willing to encroach on established neighborhoods like Kensington.
“Rollin was good at articulating a vision,” Elrich said. “I hope we can find somebody who can do that but is more realistic about recognizing that whatever you do has to fit in the context of the place that you are.”
An energetic visionary with an abrasive style: Does it remind you of anybody? Rollin Stanley was Montgomery’s answer to former District schools leader Michelle Rhee. Both had the right goals but could be clumsy and impolitic about implementing them.
As Stanley leaves town, Montgomery should follow through on his message even if the messenger sometimes stumbled.
I’m taking a short break. The column returns May 17. For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.