Downtown Frederick, it seems, should be ashamed of itself.
By Matt Edens
“My Rent is Too Damned High.” That’s what the bumper sticker says on the car I often park behind on Klinehart Alley (as Court Street becomes after it crosses 4th Street). The proclamation, according to the URL in the sticker’s lower-right corner, comes courtesy of an organization called Unsettle Frederick.
An offshoot of the Occupy movement (yes, it’s still around, apparently), the group appears mostly concerne with foreclosures, the financial crisis and the cozy relationship between the U.S. Treasury Department and our nation’s biggest banks (please refer to Matt Taibbi’s reporting in Rolling Stone if you want to read up …). And their first newsletter did contain some fairly detailed — and, as far as I could tell, fairly factual — information on Maryland’s role in the 2012 relief settlement between the federal government and the nation’s five largest lenders.
Lenders aren’t the only targets of Occupy’s ire, however. The group also goes after gentrification, singling it out as the prime beneficiary of the sub-prime mortgage market, which supposedly spawned “a whole economy centered on Lowes, Home Depot, Restoration Hardware, Starbucks, art galleries and cute restaurants.” Downtown Frederick, it seems, should be ashamed of itself. (Although railing against “cute restaurants” didn’t stop the Occupiers from leaving a stack of newsletters in the foyer of Café Nola ….)
Personally, I’m not sure what was more unsettling. Was it suddenly finding myself — and a good many of my friends and neighbors — cast as the villains of the piece? Or was it realizing how much the Occupy rhetoric has in common with the sort of stuff tea partyers spout? Neither one is all that fond of the Historic Preservation Commission (but, in fairness, I don’t recall a tea party supporter going so far as denouncing the commission members as “dirtbags” — at least not in print). And both are worried about how “African people are dispersed further and further into decaying suburbs” (although perhaps for different reasons …).
But the thing that mystifies me most about all the rhetoric over the rich pushing the poor out is how, while anecdotes abound, downtown’s “gentrification” is barely a blip in the census data. A full generation after the 1976 flood generally reckoned as both the nadir and the turning point of downtown Frederick’s fortunes, median household income for the core of downtown, according to the most recent 2011 American Community Survey, has yet to break into the middle of the pack of city census tracts. Clocking in with a median household income of $56,010, the core of the Historic District between Carroll Creek and 4th Street (Census Tract 7502), has only just managed to nudge ahead of Hillcrest’s median of $55,907 (Tract 7505.05) but falls a good two grand short of Prospect Boulevard’s median of $58,843 (Tract 7651).
And the north end, where my car’s parked behind the one with the Unsettle sticker? Well, the area between 4th and 7th streets (Tract 7501) remains the second poorest census tract in the entire county. In fact, compared to earlier 2009 estimates, the area’s median household income has actually gone down slightly. And one reason may be that, while 100 units of new housing are being built around the intersection of Klinehart Alley and 6th Street, the first half to be built — and the first to be “occupied” — was 50 units of affordable housing.
By Matt Edens
“No out-of-control growth in sight,” wrote Board of County Commissioners President Blaine Young in a recent letter published in the Frederick News-Post. And unlike Friends of Frederick County, whose legal challenge of a plan to build 1,100 homes outside Monrovia prompted Young’s letter, I’m inclined to think he’s right. Like Young, I doubt approving the Landsdale developer’s request means “thousands of new homes are going to sprout overnight.”
But I’m also less than convinced all 1,100 of those homes will ever be built.
My reasoning has to do with something else Blaine states in his letter. “The homes will be built when the market dictates they can be sold,” he writes, hinting at how financing requirements mean that large projects like Landsdale are typically built in stages, often over years. (Natelli Communities’ Villages of Urbana project, for instance, is only now tackling its last phase, two decades after the initial groundbreaking.) But, where Blaine says “when,” seemingly confident that the demand will eventually be there, I’m beginning to wonder whether “if” might be more appropriate.
“Market demand for drivable suburban development, which has become overbuilt and was the primary cause of the mortgage meltdown that triggered the Great Recession, is on the wane,” says Christopher Leinberger, a real estate developer and senior fellow with the Brookings Institute. In a recent study of 43 “regionally significant, walkable urban places” within Washington D.C.’s metro region (a list that includes downtown Frederick), Leinberger predicts “walkable urban places will drive tomorrow’s real estate industry.”
According to the study, 38 percent of the new office space built in the Washington, D.C. area was constructed in these walkable places from 1992 to 2000. Between 2000 and 2008, the number increased to 49 percent. Since 2009, it’s gone up to 59 percent. And the same trend applies to rental apartments, with the percentage of new construction built in walkable places climbing from 12 percent in the 1990s to 42 percent since 2009.
And while Young may decry what he sees as efforts by the state to “force more and more of us to live in already congested urban areas,” the trends suggest there’s little need for force. Since 2000, the District of Columbia’s population has grown by more than 45,000 people, with 16,000 of those moving in within the last two years. Not only has the District’sthis phenomenal growth reversed the decades-old trend of out migration, growth within D.C.’s urban core is actually outstripping its suburbs. The Brookings Institute reports D.C. enjoyed a 2.43 percent growth rate from 2010 to 2011, compared to a 1.54 percent growth in its suburbs.
The District’s population isn’t all that’s growing, either. According to RealEstate Business Intelligence (RBI), the median sale price for homes in the District is up 14 percent from last year. And in neighborhoods like H Street NE, Trinidad and Eckington, bidding wars have not just become common, they’re going to extremes.
Just the other day, I read a Washington Post piece about a bidding war that erupted over one 2,800-square-foot town house a few blocks from H Street. A bit of a fixer-upper, it went on the market at what, for the neighborhood, was the bargain basement price of $337,000. Two weeks and 168 bids later, it sold for $760,951.
By Matt Edens
There’s no quick and easy explanation for recent acts of violence downtown – no product to pull from the shelves or songs to ban.
I’m not sure exactly when Classic Cigars and British Goodies took on its recent Trainspotting vibe, but I’d become pretty accustomed to the shuffling crew of regulars who gathered just north of the Square Corner, waiting for the shop to open so they could get their daily fix. And I can’t say that I’ll be sad to see them go now that Frederick city has banned the sale of synthetic marijuana, the substance they were queuing up to buy [see “Designer Drugs Debacle,” October/November 2012 Frederick Gorilla].
The fact that the Board of Aldermen voted to ban the stuff, ostensibly sold as “potpourri” and “incense,” isn’t all that surprising. It was a fairly easy action to address a particular problem, was supported by both concerned parents and downtown merchants, and mirrored similar bans by other jurisdictions.
Other crime problems, on the other hand, won’t be so easy to deal with.
I’m talking, of course, about the concerns some have expressed about downtown’s public safety after a series of incidents over the past year. Most recently, there was the September murder of an Urbana man in Mullinix Alley and the bizarre late afternoon brawl that broke out on South Street two days later. This incident ended with shots fired and a man suffering from a stab wound who was flown to Baltimore’s Shock Trauma unit.
What are we to make of these acts of violence? Has downtown become unsafe? As someone who lives downtown and walks its streets on a daily – and nightly – basis, I’m a little dubious. After all, while that September homicide was a tragedy, it was also Frederick’s first murder in roughly 15 months (and the previous homicide, in July 2011, happened outside downtown).
Then there’s the theory some have advanced attributing the violence to the fact that a few downtown bars have started hosting dance nights that play hip-hop music. If that’s true, I’m curious how the South Street brawl, on a weekday several hours before sundown, fits into the pattern?
In truth, there’s no quick and easy explanation: no product to pull from the shelves or songs to ban (if such a thing were even possible).
However, there is one odious online comment on an article about the September shooting. The poster laments the demolition of the Hansen-Taney housing projects, a commentary that may have come close to identifying some of the root causes, however inadvertently. According to the post, herding the poor into a single location was the solution because then, at least, “the police could keep an eye on them.”
Contrary to the post, breaking up such concentrations of poverty was precisely the idea behind the Hope VI grant that funded the Hansen-Taney’s demolition. What’s not as well known is that that there are still some two dozen public housing units on the site, plus a similar number of rent-controlled apartments mixed in among the new market rate housing. Despite that reality, as someone who lives in the immediate vicinity, I can attest to the fact that things remain relatively quiet.
Such success, coupled with the recent rash of incidents on downtown’s south end, is one reason I’m convinced that diluting such concentrated poverty remains a valid strategy. Because if all downtown’s recent acts of violence have anything in common, it’s that they occurred within or immediately adjacent to the single poorest census tract in all of Frederick County.
by Matt Edens
A big chunk of the Jefferson Tech Park property owners’ taxes will go towards paying off $40 million worth of bonds.
“The park will be self-sustaining.” That’s the party line on Jefferson Tech Park, the 173-acre development that, thanks to some generous intervention on the part of Frederick County government, promises to bring 825 homes, a 250-room hotel, almost a quarter million square feet of retail space and up to 2 million square feet of research and development space to the corner of U.S. Route 15/U.S. Route 340 and Jefferson Pike.
The bit about how it’s supposed to be “self-sustaining” first cropped up back in July, courtesy of a congratulatory press release. This announcement came after the Board of County Commissioners inked the deal to issue up to $40 million in bonds for infrastructure expenses related to the development, primarily a bridge across U.S. Route 15/U.S. Route 340 and its associated interchange. Citing how property owners within the development will pay a special tax levy that goes toward paying off the bonds, similar to the financial arrangements that helped fund infrastructure in developments like Brunswick Crossing and the Villages of Urbana, the release trumpeted how the project “is also a good example of growth paying for itself.”
Technically, that may be true. But comparing the complicated financing package behind Jefferson Tech Park to Urbana and Brunswick Crossing is a bit deceptive. And it has to do with how those $40 million worth of bonds are being financed.
In the Villages of Urbana and Brunswick Crossing, property owners within those developments are subject to an additional Community Development Authority (CDA) tax dedicated to paying off the bonds that funded infrastructure improvements within the development. But, like the rest of us, they also pay regular property taxes into the county’s general fund.
By comparison, Jefferson Tech Park property owners will pay a CDA tax just like people in the Villages of Urbana and Brunswick Crossing — but the majority of their property taxes won’t go into the general fund. Instead, a big chunk of their property taxes will also go towards paying off the $40 million worth of bonds. It says so right in the press release: “The county’s only commitment with this development is to pay the debt service from incremental property tax and special assessment taxes received from Jefferson Tech Park owners.”
“Incremental property tax” is an oblique reference to Tax Increment Financing. Unlike the CDA payment, it’s not an additional tax because it takes a portion of the property taxes that would typically go to the general fund and diverts it for debt service.
It works like this: Let’s say you have a currently undeveloped piece of property that, for sake of simplicity, prior to being developed had generated $100 in property taxes for the local government. When fully developed and built out, let’s say the property will generate $1,000 in property tax revenue, a theoretical gain of $900 to the local tax base. In a tax increment financing arrangement, a government body issues bonds to finance debt associated with the development (usually to pay for infrastructure like a bridge and its associated highway interchange). The $100 in tax revenue that the property originally generated will continue to be collected by the governing body as before, but that extra $900 (the “increment”) goes towards paying off the bonds.
So, technically speaking, that’s an example of “growth paying for itself.” But since the net gain to the general fund from property taxes is essentially zero, it isn’t paying for much of anything else.
By Matt Edens
“We Built Way Too Many Cultural Institutions During the Good Years.” That was the headline on a recent blog piece at The Atlantic magazine chronicling how communities across America are struggling to keep the lights on and the staff paid in the 725 arts facilities built or expanded between 1994 and 2008 — a building boom that blew through more than $15 billion, according to a recent University of Chicago study.
Frederick was no exception, expanding The Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center and transforming the old downtown McCrory’s dime store into the Cultural Arts Center in that time period. Luckily, the sums Frederick spent were small, leaving the local arts community in far better financial shape than places like Roanoke, Virginia.
In 2008, that midsize city in the Shenandoah Valley cut the ribbon on a $66 million downtown art museum that’s a curvy, metal clad knockoff of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim. And they’ve been desperate to pay the debt service and keep the doors open ever since.
What startled me about all this, however, wasn’t so much the money involved as the rationale that boosters used to justify spending it. According to the researchers that produced the study, the local leaders who were surveyed repeatedly mentioned the work of economic development guru Richard Florida. Author of The Rise of the Creative Class and a regular contributor to The Atlantic, Florida rose to prominence when he pointed out how the quality of life and a rich, diverse culture are critical components in attracting the new knowledge economy jobs that cities lusted after the past two decades. As a result, according to one of the study’s authors, city boosters figured “that if we have cultural amenities, we’ll have better, more creative populations.”
Parroting Florida’s “Creative Class” to validate blowing millions of dollars on museums and performing arts centers shows just how clueless civic boosters can be — latching onto the latest buzzword without bothering to understand what it means or, for that matter, even making an effort to read the book it came from.
“The Creative Class,” writes Florida, “is drawn to more indigenous street level culture … typically found not in large venues like New York’s Lincoln Center or in designated ‘cultural districts’ like the Washington, D.C. museum district.” Instead, it’s found in neighborhoods with “a multitude of small venues … some of which offer performances and exhibits along with food and drink.”
Sometimes, all it takes is one venue. Consider the Bottletree in Birmingham, Alabama, profiled in another recent Atlantic blog post. A music venue, nightspot and vegetarian café rolled into one, the six-year-old space has made Birmingham “an Indie Rock destination,” hosting acts “that would have most likely skipped a show in Birmingham only a few years ago in favor of going directly to Atlanta, New Orleans or Nashville.”
Even more interesting is how the Bottletree’s success spawned spin-off development in the surrounding neighborhood, becoming the anchor of an entertainment cluster that includes “the Avondale Brewing Company, the Parkside Café and the Spring Street Fire House, an all-ages venue that also hosts bands, visual art exhibits and community events.”
And that’s where prestige project places like Roanoke’s art museum really miss the boat. Because, at their heart, thriving arts and music scenes share a similar entrepreneurial ethos to the “Creative Class” start-ups that cities hope to attract.
By Matt Edens
“Inferior building materials, incompatible buildings and the possibility for McMansion-type homes ….”
That’s what the exclamation point-studded flyer stuck in my door a few weeks back warned would be coming should Nexus EnergyHomes succeed in its proposal to secede from the Downtown Frederick Historic District.
According to the leaflet’s authors (a group styling themselves as The Friends of Historic Preservation), removing the roughly 60-lot development would “imperil our beloved Frederick City Historic District.”
In the end, the flyer — and all those exclamation points — were for naught. Nexus withdrew their proposal, and the new homes being built around Bentz and Sixth streets will remain within the historic district. But the brief kerfuffle did get me thinking, and not just because our house — which also sits in the designated zone — backs up to the new development.
The handout had it right; for the most part, people do love downtown’s historic district. In the press and at the planning commission hearing on the proposed rezoning, lots of people professed their affection for the 40-block district (including some who actually live there …).
But is history why we love the historic district?
It’s part of it, certainly. Like a lot of folks, I’m fond of the architecture — from the Federal and Italianate to that lone Art Deco sitting at the corner of Second and Market. Others love the fact that, among other things, George Washington literally slept here. And, while that particular building where the Father of Our Country snoozed may be long gone, there are still scores of buildings downtown that serve as touchstones to significant events in the city’s — and even the nation’s — past.
However, these things don’t entirely explain why people love coming downtown and walking around on First Saturdays, or why my neighbors and I chose to live where we do. Texture, context and the patina of age: all these are important, but underpinning them all is the fact that downtown Frederick is a pretty nice piece of urban design. We like walking around these city blocks in large part because the arrangement of buildings and streets work together to produce a walkable environment of human-scaled spaces.
But is good urban design necessarily historic? Sadly, in America, that’s largely the case. Suburban critic James Howard Kunstler sums up why pretty well in his book The Geography of Nowhere, in a passage about Disneyland’s Main Street, USA.
For all its authenticity, downtown Frederick is essentially the sort of place Disney sought to re-create.
But, more importantly, it’s the sort of place America spent more than 50 years trying to make illegal. Americans, writes Kunstler, would “walk down Main Street (the Disney version) and think, ‘Gee, it feels good here,’ then they’d go back home and … pass zoning laws that forbade grocery stores in residential neighborhoods and
setback rules that required every new business to locate on one acre lots until things became so spread out you had to drive everywhere.”
The fact that downtown Frederick is a special place is partly a matter of policy. Luckily, those policies are starting to change — for the better. Because, while all the things that make a place “historic” take time to accumulate, the only requirements for good urban design are an understanding of what it is and the willingness to do it.