Before the mid-1970s, Washington and its suburbs had no rapid transit option. The construction of the Metro, a light-rail system that runs underground through much of the DC area and above ground in a lot of the rest, changed all of this (as an amusing aside, much like in our famous Boston-area song "Charlie and the MTA", the Metro has exit fares, and rates are steep!). Due to the famous building height regulations in the District, that is, no building can be taller than the Capitol and building heights, like in Paris, are further restricted by the width of the street frontage, there are no high-rises in DC proper. The construction of the Metro allowed walkable mixed-use urban centers with a vibrant street life to spring up around transit stops in the suburban area. For example, Rosslyn, in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Georgetown, looks like a sizable downtown - of course, it also has excellent highway access, so we can't credit the train entirely. Similarly, continued congestion on the Beltway and other roads has pushed the DC area to implement further urban villages, for example, the affluent unincorporated area of Bethesda, Maryland, and new growth in Rockville, Maryland and even a new master-plan for suburban-hell Tyson's Corner, Virginia based around the coming Metro stops. There is even talk about connecting some of the outer stops on the Metro system with each other using a ring line...much like we need between the Harvard Square area and the outer Green Line in Boston. Some of the complaints, apparently, are focused around this allowing poor people from one outer line to access a wealthier outer area more easily. Again, sounds familiar. Furthermore, last year (when I was also visiting DC), Virginia created new connectivity requirements allowing for narrower streets through subdivisions and essentially banning cul-de-sacs: addressing two primary complaints of smart-growth urban planners.
So, what does this have to do with Lowell? I don't think a whole lot directly, honestly. We can see some comparisons and contrasts, however with the time I spent in Bethesda in particular. Draw your own conclusions:
- Parking in Bethesda is tough, like Lowell. But none of the streets I saw are one-way. I was getting very frustrated with finding on-street or surface lot metered parking and was about to push for going somewhere else entirely, but then it turns out the parking garages are ONE-DOLLAR an hour! Lowell, pay attention here: People will stop to spend money in your downtown if the parking is cheap. If it's expensive or hard to find, they will leave and go elsewhere.
- The streets are narrow, like Lowell. You can't park near intersections and crosswalks have sidewalk bump-outs, like Lowell. This is a very good thing. People who complain Lowell is not friendly to pedestrians I feel don't walk much in suburbs. The crosswalk crossing lights in Bethesda are far superior, however.
- Bethesda has 60,000 residents and a median family income of $167k. A house can easily cost three-quarters of a million. Lowell...yeah, no. This is a reality Lowell needs to face head-on. This is not a wealthy city. There is a delicate balance we are yet to achieve (IMHO) between bringing in people with expendable income who appreciate $5 lattes and organic markets and having a downtown that works for Lowell's famously blue-collar population.
- Similarly, the average person you see on the street in Bethesda is young and affluent. Lowell...yeah no.
- There are a lot more people on the street in Bethesda, and everything is open on Sunday!
- Bethesda has jobs - a lot of them. They are in high-rises that don't detract from the cuter and quainter brick-and-storefront look much of the neighborhood has, more like Boston. There are pedestrian-only areas. Lowell, while it has some slow-traffic streets like Middle, has no pedestrian malls, few high-rises (none commercial), and very little remaining commercial economy. A 24/7 city requires not just a "critical mass" of yuppie residents, but a daytime population of workers. Lowell does a lot of talk on the "creative economy" which includes "knowledge workers" like myself (I'm in software) - but there are precious few opportunities for people like me to work in downtown Lowell.
- Lowell has housing - a lot of it. Lowell is very dense. Yet it is practically a bedroom community. This is a huge problem.
- Bethesda is less than 10 miles outside of downtown Washington. Lowell is over 25 miles from downtown Boston. Walking a few blocks in Bethesda and getting on the Metro, having a train show in under five minutes, and popping up in either another urban village or downtown DC is a very different experience from hiking up and over the Lord Overpass, waiting 30 minutes, and paying $8 to ride through scenic villages like Wilmington and Anderson RTC on your way to North Station.
- Bethesda looks almost new - Lowell doesn't need "New Urbanism" because it's a real live city with a lot of character, history, and a fantastic existing built environment.
- Neither city is overloaded with chain restaurants, etc. This is awesome.
So...if the likes of Jeff Speck want to help communities the likes of Lowell embrace the functional urbanism a place like Bethesda represents, that's great. There is just a very, very fine line between having the gall to have a vision and work towards it, and blindness to reality. I don't know what side of that line we fall on.