In 1998, the Charles County Board of Commissioners banned construction of all townhouses, including projects on the verge of receiving building permits. The rationale: The county already had too many non-upscale, cheaply built townhouses occupied by middle-income families. Townhouses were considered fiscal drains requiring public services whose costs exceeded townhouse-generated tax revenue.
Single-family houses were seen as fiscal winners, which has proved not to be the case if all costs are accounted for. In fact, the county’s fiscal imbalance was primarily attributable to lack of adequate business, commercial and industrial real estate development, which produces significantly more tax revenue than public service costs. The townhouse ban lasted only six months.
Fiscal concerns weren’t the only thing playing out in Charles County. The council worried about density, traffic and schools, but it also desired to alter the county’s socioeconomic and ethnic makeup. Pricier detached homes, they reasoned, would attract more affluent households.
Now project opponents have fewer legal options, relying instead on organized citizen opposition, negative public advocacy and advertising, and persistent political pressure on government officials. And flawed reasoning persists, manifested by emotional resistance to change and fear that a project’s uses, size, density and demography will produce adverse impacts.
People worry that new development will compromise the traditional character of their neighborhood or street. They prefer that anything new defer to and replicate, in scale and style, what already exists. Poorly composed, awkwardly inharmonious development should be avoided. But with wise planning and sensitive design, over time the new can enhance the old.
Arlington residents once feared that dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented development in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, atop Metro’s Orange subway line, would be detrimental to residential neighborhoods flanking the corridor. Happily, development did the opposite.
Traffic impact, probably the most prevalent growth angst, is justified in some instances. But bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion is not inevitable. It can be mitigated if road network capacity and state-of-the-art traffic management are improved; if transit is available; if walking and biking are desirable options; and if proposed uses generate reduced automobile trips.
Propose new housing and many people envision overcrowded public schools, perhaps overlooking various housing types, development phasing and school capital budgets affect school enrollment. Some homes — small apartments and senior housing — yield virtually no school-age children. But residential development generating students should be synchronized with a phased school expansion.
Some housing project opponents share an unspoken but commonplace feeling: not wanting new neighbors who are ethnically different, less affluent and of lower social status. Along with security concerns, the desire for physical and social separation spawned gated communities. Proposals to allow accessory dwellings in Montgomery County have provoked similar feelings.
Such feelings have historical origins linked to a time when governments built large, unattractive public housing projects, occupied by mostly impoverished citizens. These crime-ridden, operationally dysfunctional projects threatened and devalued nearby, privately owned residential and commercial properties.
Consequently, proposing even limited numbers of affordable housing units in a neighborhood will upset some prospective neighbors. They should look at the success in Arlington and Montgomery County of interspersing affordable housing within mixed-use, mixed-income developments.
Some opponents worry about reduced property values caused by a new development’s presumably adverse impacts. But others worry about the opposite. They foresee property values, property assessments and therefore property taxes increasing substantially as a result of high-end projects and neighborhood gentrification. In reality, although property assessments change, they tend to change much less and more slowly than people believe.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for citizens is accepting change. Designers, developers and responsible public officials are not just building to solve today’s problems or satisfy today’s voters. Most new projects are built to accommodate future growth and generations yet to come.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland. His cartoons may be seen at www.washingtonpost.com/realestate.