Thirty years ago, the rallying cry in this country was to save America's cities. Many municipal governments were bankrupt. Once-proud downtowns were decaying and blighted. Time magazine wrote cover stories about the death of the American city, chronicling the exodus first to the suburbs and then to the "exurbs," the then-rural fringes of suburban America.
Today our cities are making strong recoveries from their near-death experiences. The real estate market has rediscovered urban life. But now the country needs a new rallying cry: to save the "innurbs" -- the older, declining, inner suburban areas built after World War II and in the 1950s and early '60s. Our outer suburbs and inner cities are booming, but our first-tier suburbs -- caught in the middle -- are suffering.
The best evidence of this is close to home, where neighborhoods throughout the District show signs of revitalization and the city has a healthy surplus. To be sure, the District still faces serious challenges, but many trends are upward, proof that the best antidote to crime is often bold real estate investment.
Meanwhile, for some of the close-in Maryland suburbs, the city's renaissance has been a suburban headache, with many neighborhoods facing the same urban ills that have plagued the District.
This phenomenon is not unique to our region. Bill Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis and now mayor of Chevy Chase, has written a thoughtful examination of the challenges of the older suburbs in "Halfway to Everywhere: A Portrait of America's First-Tier Suburbs," which examines challenges faced by older suburbs, including Camden, N.J., and East St. Louis, Ill. This year, two researchers at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), Bernadette Hanlon and Thomas Vicino, produced a thoughtful and highly readable report, "The State of the Inner Suburbs: An Examination of Suburban Baltimore: 1980 to 2000."
Their study describes aging housing stock, an older population, white flight, eroding median income, declining school performance, increases in free and reduced-price lunches for students, and a significant increase in households headed by single parents.
The UMBC report could have been written 20 years ago about most major U.S. cities, but it was written about the close-in Baltimore County suburbs. Yet Baltimore County is doing something about its inner suburbs. County Executive James T. Smith ran on a platform of revitalizing older neighborhoods, and his innovative "Renaissance Program" is targeting public and private investment in parks, schools and older neighborhoods.
Renewing older suburbs can be even more challenging than saving the cities. A "Save the Innurbs" campaign lacks some of the elan of the "Save the Cities" movements of the past. Inner suburbs typically lack the kind of organized business support that downtown boosters provide. They don't have major newspapers or TV stations located there, and Time magazine is unlikely to put them on the cover. Many inner suburbs lie in unincorporated areas, just one constituency of a sprawling county government.
All of these attributes apply to the Maryland innurbs, but Montgomery and Prince George's counties have faced the challenge differently. Montgomery's revitalization of downtown Silver Spring, while still not complete, has exceeded all expectations and is a model of suburban renewal. Prince George's has had some successes in Suitland and Mount Rainier, but the county's inner suburbs need a broader, more sustained public-private partnership.
Unlike the rest of the region, Prince George's hasn't been able to persuade the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to use county Metro sites to attract quality development, but that may finally be about to change. The county's revenue authority has yet to use its condemnation powers to encourage urban revitalization. Prince George's has had some successful condominium conversions, but there are more opportunities in today's market.
In this real estate market, there's a lot more the county can do to renew its inner suburbs. One starting point might be the county's own offices. When the District located its Reeves municipal building at 14th and U streets NW in 1986, it was considered a risky move, but the real estate market caught up. Mayor Anthony Williams has the right idea in proposing to move WMATA's headquarters to Anacostia.
In sharp contrast, in 1992 the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission moved out of Hyattsville, an inner Beltway neighborhood, to Laurel, where it built a $37 million headquarters. Laurel didn't need the traffic; the inner Beltway could have used a $37 million office project. It was a lost opportunity and a classic example of "dumb growth."
Similarly, Prince George's County puts many of its government offices in high-rise buildings owned or leased by the county in an office park in Largo, not exactly a high-risk real estate move. Relocating some of these offices to inner Beltway Prince George's as part of a targeted effort to help older business districts would be a good start, and a strong signal to the real estate market that the county is putting its money where its mouth is.
These are bold actions. They would upset the status quo and appall some in the bureaucracy. In short, it is exactly the kind of thing the county needs to do to show it is serious about the crisis facing its older suburbs.
The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, served for 16 years as a Democratic member of the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is email@example.com.