The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A smart plan for growth in Montgomery County would turn parking lots into places

People wait to board a train at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Station along Metro's Red Line in 2017 in North Bethesda. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Hans Riemer, a Democrat, is an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council.

The Montgomery County Council today will consider whether to override County Executive Marc Elrich’s (D) veto of the More Housing at Metro Act, a smart-growth plan adopted by the council on Oct. 6.

The legislation addresses a problem you may have observed: Montgomery County’s nine Metro stations lack development. They are long on parking but short on opportunities to live or work.

Metro station properties shape perceptions about the communities that surround them, serving as a focal point for those who work or live nearby and those who visit. Unfortunately, a quick scan of Montgomery County’s Metro stations is all it takes to see the missed opportunities.

At Metro stations in D.C. and Northern Virginia, high-rise buildings are the focal points of vibrant neighborhoods with a diversity of housing types, recreation and entertainment options, retail experiences and economic growth. Here in Montgomery County, our Metro stations properties are uniformly unimpressive:

  • The White Flint Metro Station, where the county has sought high rises since at least 1997 (23 years!), home to acres of shrubs and vines.
  • The Grosvenor Metro Station, at the gateway to North Bethesda, showcasing a concrete deck. High rises planned there have been stalled since 2013.
  • The Wheaton Metro Station, where any high rise starts more than $40 million in the hole because of the cost of covering the bus bay, lacks any development.

We can do better, and we must. Many of the goals and objectives that we have as a county simply cannot be achieved unless we are able to maximize the potential of our most strategic assets: our Metro stations.

Existing demand for housing in the region is substantial and will grow in the decade to come. Last year, the Metro Washington Council of Governments projected that the region needs 320,000 new housing units over the next decade. Without it, housing problems will become more like California’s. In response, the County Council — under the leadership of then-Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) — committed to increasing the county’s housing target by 10,000 additional units by 2030. That would require nearly doubling our current rate of production.

This can only be achieved by using all the tools available, including incentives for transit-oriented development and funding for affordable housing programs. We need to use these tools, as other jurisdictions in the region are, to maximize our Red Line stations and meet the growing demand for housing that our residents and employers need.

Montgomery County struggles to compete with nearby jurisdictions for investment and economic opportunities. The county’s competitive position in the region is threatened by the ascendancy of D.C., the continued success of Arlington and Alexandria, and future growth along the Silver Line. We need to maximize the county’s Red Line corridors and complete the Purple Line to achieve our economic development potential and compete for talent, investment, and employers.

The act that Elrich vetoed would gather all of our Metro stations together into one package. The incentive would invite the private sector to the table at scale to invest in our future. The county could market the entire Red Line corridor as a transit-oriented location for the life sciences companies and technology workers we need to power our future.

Montgomery County has long been a leader in the region when it comes to environmental policies and climate change. Today, the climate crisis is more urgent than ever before. The situation demands bold efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. We need to maximize the county’s Red Line corridors to achieve those environmental objectives.

The council has a plan — supported by experts in the field — to address the unmet housing demand, to get our local economy moving and to do our part in reducing the impact of climate change. The legislation, authored by myself and Montgomery County Council member Andrew Friedson (D-District 1), is a path toward the essential smart growth our county needs. The bill would provide a highly targeted property tax abatement exclusively for high-rise developments on nine properties owned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as a way to transform these parking lots into places.

None of the housing, economic development and environmental benefits will happen without this financial partnership from the county. We need stronger and bolder action if we are going to be able to push against the head winds. We need change because the status quo — households not housed, economic opportunities lost to surrounding jurisdictions and climate change continuing unabated — is simply not acceptable. If it takes an investment by the county to make it happen, then let’s do it.

The executive’s veto is regrettable if unsurprising given his decades-long pattern of opposing new housing. Yet this plan is intended to make us a more prosperous, inclusive and resilient community. The council must override the veto.

Read more:

Letter to the editor: Montgomery County needs to pass this tax break to meet its housing goals

Marc Elrich: Montgomery County lives in the real world of affordable housing

Nancy McDonald Ladd and Robert Goldman: Mongtomery should plan now for more affordable housing later

Letter to the editor: Montgomery County is working to make affordable housing happen