Housing & Land Use

While the Action Committee for Transit is primarily focused on how we move, the places we move to and from are equally important to our lives as how we get there. ACT has a vision of a Montgomery County where it is both easier to travel and is a more place pleasant to live. A series of communities in a county built for people and not for their automobiles.

Years of overreliance on the automobile have created an environment of unsustainable car-centric suburban sprawl in our county and throughout the region. Strip malls and mammoth shopping malls replaced community main streets. Big box stores and chains replaced local small businesses. Uses like office, retail, housing, and leisure were forcibly separated. A charming array of housing types and styles were forced to give way to overly spread out copy/paste detached single-family houses. And all of it was isolated from its surroundings by oceans of parking. 

Trains, light-rail, buses and road/street design changes are critical to fixing these problems, but they alone will not automatically create the kind of neighborhoods we want. Our communities' land use and zoning policies also need to change. Tract housing, strip malls, and office parks must give way to transit/pedestrian-oriented communities in which land uses are harmoniously mixed, creating spaces which people are able to live and thrive in, not just travel through.

Prioritize Infill Transit Oriented Development

Most Metro stations throughout Montgomery County were originally designed to be "park and ride" stations, with the train station being surrounded by parking lots and garages. This isn't inherently a bad thing. Studies have shown that these are an effective way of boosting ridership for transit service which are adjacent to the lots, and help reduce the number of vehicles making their way downtown to the District. However, park and rides are a very commuter centric set up which, even before the Covid-19 Pandemic upended traditional working patters, can actually decrease overall transit ridership, isolate high capacity transit from pedestrians, and waste what might otherwise be some of the most valuable real estate in the area.

This has begun to shift, as WMATA works with partners to develop dense, mixed-use, housing developments in their parking lots. ACT applauds these efforts (and has actually been involved in helping to make a few happen.

ACT supports a continuation of these efforts at Metro Purple Line, MARC, and other transit hub stations. These sites are ideal for walkable, mixed use, dense, communities. Doing so helps to reconnect transit stations with their surrounding existing communities while at the same time limiting sprawl and growing the region's economy and population. 

Abolish Parking Minimums 

In Montgomery County, every 1,000 square feet of office space requires at least 2 off street parking spaces. 1,000 square feet of retail space requires at least 5 spaces off street. Every 1,000 square feet of restaurant space requires at least 4 to 10 off street spaces. A church needs 1 off street parking space for every 4 fixed seats. Every single family house needs at least 2 off street parking spaces, and any apartment building needs at least 1 space, plus another .25 spaces per bedroom. 

How were these numbers set? While the writers of these rules may cite one reason or another, by and large, the reasons are largely arbitrary, or are based on presumed peak demand levels (which either rarely pan out, or only pan out because of the self-fulfilling nature of parking).

Here's an example of this in action. A typical suburban grocery store is 40,000 - 60,000 square feet. That means that it would need at least 200 to 300 parking spaces. Each parking space is required to be around 153 square feet, so the grocery store will need around 30 - 46 thousand square feet for car storage. Since there must also be space for the vehicles to drive to and from the spaces, the total amount of space needed to facilitate car parking will most likely be greater than the amount of space for grocery shopping! This is not just a space issue, its an issue of cost. A single parking spot in a sprawling surface parking lot costs anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. If the builder were to try to conserve real estate by put the parking into a stacked structure above or below ground, this price jumps to $25,000 to $50,000 per space! So in the example of the grocery store, the current laws add anywhere from $1 to $15 million to the cost of development. And these costs are recouped in the form of higher prices for all of us. Mandatory parking minimums therefore drive up the cost of goods, services, and housing.

But setting aside the economic issue, it is the fact that one of the biggest ways which car dependence is enforced is through the mandatory provision of parking.

The easier it is to park close by to your destination, the more likely you are to drive there. Parking however can only be used by one car at a time, so to allow more people to drive and park at a destination, ever larger amounts of space are needed for parking (as was shown in the example of the grocery store). This in turn creates spaces which are quickly filled by people who might not have driven before, but now will because it is easier to park, which in turn starts the cycle over again.

And the kind of land uses this often results in will often isolate the use of the space from its surroundings, an island in an ocean of parking. Think of Tysons Corner, Rockville Pike, or any number of strip and shopping malls. The larger these islands get, the more isolated they become. The more isolated they become, the harder it is to service that place with transit or to walk or bike there. This in turn will feed back into the cycle, as it means more people HAVE to drive, because they have no viable alternatives, further fueling the demand for more parking.

The result of all of this? Ugly and repetitive spaces which favor big chains over local businesses, higher prices for everything, and a forced dependence on cars. What then is to be done?

The answer is simple: abolish parking minimums for cars. Let the individual builders decide what they feel is amount of parking their development needs to be successful. For some developers, this may mean the same amount of parking as they provide now. But for others, they may decide that helping people to walk, bike, or transit to them may make more sense.

Montgomery County has already begun to move in this direction by removing parking minimums within half a mile of the Metro or Purple line, and a quarter of a mile from certain bus lines. This is a great start which we applaud.

ACT is calling on the county, and the state, to take the next step and remove all parking minimums for cars across the board. Doing so will reduce car dependence, bring down the cost of living, and allow for the creation of vibrant and economically beneficial spaces which the current rules make impossible.

Mix Uses

Much of Montgomery County's zoning ordinance's are based on the long-discredited concept that different land uses need to be separated from each other. The county began to move away from this idea decades ago, but rather than repealing harmful laws, they kept them on the books and used master plans to counteract their bad effects. Progress is being made to fix this, but more remains to be done. In most of the county, uses are still kept rigidly separated. No corner coffee shops, technically, no lemonade stands, even home offices can be interpreted to be forbidden under the existing codes. This rigid separation of uses serves no reasonable purpose. It's one thing to keep polluting factories far away from communities, but a local small business isn't hurting anyone. If anything, their loss might be hurting people more, as forcing uses apart is part of what results in greater sprawl and increases car dependence.

ACT supports a shift from the traditional use based Euclidian zoning towards a form based zoning code. A form based zoning code is less concerned with the use of the land than it is with the form of the structures built on it. Rather than permit only a few uses and forbid all others, form based codes do the opposite. They forbid a few specific uses and permit all others. This means you don't need to worry about structures which are out of scale with its surroundings being built, while still providing much greater flexibility of uses. So long as the building is physically within the guidelines, one can have it be a corner mixed use coffer shop with a home above it, a home office for a new business, or any other non-prohibited use.

As most of Montgomery County's zoning is set at the county level, this means that there can be a greater harmony of forms across our communities, creating a smooth and flowing sense of place where uses are allowed to mix and people feel welcome.

ACT is pushing for the county to overhaul its zoning and land use laws in line with form based codes as soon as possible.

Permit Missing Middle Housing

One of the biggest challenged facing regions across the country is a shortage of housing. Much of this is down to overly restrictive zoning and land use codes, which have made it difficult to build anything other than detached single family housing. People often oppose changes which allow for greater density because they envision massive skyscrapers being built next to their one to three story home. These fears stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of density, and this is where missing middle housing comes into play.

Missing middle housing is a typology of housing which is similar in scale and form to existing single family housing. It tends to not be more than two or three stories tall, often includes on site parking, and is made from similar materials as most single family homes. In many instances, one could mistake a missing middle home for a traditional single family home. However, their configurations are such that even the least dense version of missing middle housing provide about 15 homes per acre, which is widely accepted to be the minimum density required to properly support transit and other government services.

Missing middle housing is also fairly cheap and easy to build. This means that it can be used to add lots of lower price housing units at a fast pace. This helps to make housing more affordable to people looking to buy their first home or renters looking for somewhere they can live without needing to drive long distances to reach work.

It should be noted that missing middle housing wouldn't be something new in our communities. Many of the older homes we identify as giving places their charm are forms of missing middle! We only stopped building them because the zoning codes made anything other than detached single family housing difficult if not impossible to build. The suppressed popularity of missing middle should be obvious by the number of townhouses which have begun to spring up in new developments, creating locally walkable communities which people quickly fill up. 

ACT is calling for missing middle housing to be allowed, by right, in any zone which currently permits single family housing. This does not mean banning detached single family housing or tearing down existing homes on mass. Instead it means that if the owner of a piece of property wishes, they can replace a single family home with a missing middle home, or build them on a new subdivision. Or, they can build a single family home. The choice should be left up to them.

Rethinking the "Growth Policy"

In the last two decades, the county has tried to encourage clustered development around Metro stations, but these efforts have achieved only partial success. Sprawl development continues in much of the county, and even near the Metro stations we have too many sterile suburban towers and too few lively urban streetscapes. Much of the blame for this situation must be assigned to the rules imposed by Montgomery County's zoning ordinance, its Master Plans, and the so-called “Growth Policy,” which still often reflect the failed sprawl-creating theories of the 1950s.

The Growth Policy is a failed attempt to prevent traffic congestion by building more roads. It incentivizes developers to build roads by tying new development to the level of nearby congestion. The consequence is often to favor scattered development that consumes more land and requires more and longer car trips, and in the end makes traffic congestion worse rather than better. ACT calls for a fundamentally different policy that directs developers to reduce car travel rather than build more roads. While under the leadership of the planning board much has been done to improve the Growth Policy, its basic flaws remain. ACT believes that the the growth policy needs to be replaced with a test that limits motor vehicle travel.