Monday, June 30, 2014

White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan: what it means for Four Corners Part 1: Intro

This is Part 1 of a series on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan and its impacts on Four Corners.  This is an intro providing an overview of the plan and its proposed changes to eastern Montgomery County. 
If you live in Four Corners, you've probably heard about the changes proposed for White Oak.  The Montgomery Planning department has drafted a comprehensive Master Plan for the White Oak area, dubbed the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan.  Over the next month, the Montgomery County Council will be holding several worksessions to dissect each element of the plan in preparation for a full vote on the Master Plan sometime later this summer.

The plan for White Oak is a bold one.  It imagines transforming White Oak from area with light industry, blighted commercial areas, and empty space into a new mixed use community with thousands of new jobs and new amenities, capitalizing on the presence of the Food & Drug Administrations consolidated headquarters.  I've read through the whole plan, and its hard not to get excited about all the new possibilities.

Planned activity centers in and around White Oak.  Image from the Montgomery Planning Department.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

And the winner is... the voter

Its that time of year again... well, sort of.  The Democratic primary was held yesterday (in case you missed all those lawn signs and stacks of campaign literature being delivered to your door every day).  This year was the first time the primary was held in June, which is a deviation from years past, when it was held in September.  The primary was moved up to accommodate those in the military serving overseas and other Americans abroad.  I think its odd that this required moving the primary up 3 whole months, since this is 2014 and not 1814, and we have this thing called an absentee ballot which can be transported around the world in an airplane in a single day, but I digress.

The June primary meant that voter turnout was especially low this year.  Many people go on vacation in the summer, and with schools out of session, many people are not in the swing of things when it comes to politics and local issues.  These conditions meant that those who did vote tended to be people who are already involved in local politics and informed on local issues.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means a fairly small group of people will ultimately determine who represents entire districts, counties, and the entire state.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Crossing the highway: a lesson in road design (video)

Colesville Road and University Boulevard define our community.  Aside from being the origin of our name, they also take us to where we want to go.  These two roads connect us to the rest of the region, and they get us to the places we visit for work, entertainment, and retail.  Even a visit to a business not on your "corner" of the intersection requires a short trip on one of these roads.  They are an undeniable asset to our community.

Unfortunately, that broader regional connectivity comes at a price of local division.  Had Colesville Road and University Boulevard been built with only Four Corners residents in mind, the intersection would be a quaint four way stop between two country lanes.  But the roads aren't just for us, they are for people all across the area, and they have been widened over the years to accommodate those who pass through.

This is the price of living in such a convenient place.

These widened roads have been designed for speed and maximum capacity.  The movement of motor vehicles is paramount, and any other use of the road must take a distant backseat to this functionality.  Motorists receive subtle and not-so-subtle signals that their speed and convenience is of the utmost importance.  Curves are made as gentle as possible to allow for drivers to navigate them with speed.  Grades have been smoothed out for the same reason (the shopping center with Red Maple and Kenny's Chicken wasn't always below the road surface as it is now).  11 and 12 foot wide travel lanes allow people to feel comfortable travelling at speeds of 40 or 50 miles-per-hour past homes and businesses.  Traffic lights are also timed for maximum speed and through capacity, even though it may not seem like it sometimes.  All of these road design factors send a clear message to drivers that their quick movement and convenience are priority one.

A victim of design.  The storefronts of this shopping center used to be at the same level as Colesville Road, before the highway was raised to a more gradual slope to facilitate faster vehicle movement.  These shops have seen much higher business turnover than other commercial properties around the intersection since the change. 

 When a local resident on foot or on a bike gets in the way of a motorist on one of these arterial roads, drivers not only feel immediately inconvenienced, but also, in an odd way; offended.

The entire environment of the road sends drivers a message of speed, and then these slow moving objects get in the way, causing even the kindest of drivers to feel frustration and anger within a few seconds.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Enjoying Northwest Branch Park

The Northwest Branch Stream Valley is a great place to enjoy the outdoors, especially in the warmer months when large trees offer shade from stifling heat.  The park is a great place for a hike or jog.  I'm sure most Four Corners residents have visited the park at least once, since it is easy to get to from Route 29 at the Burnt Mills dam.  The recent flood and its subsequent damage drew attention to this area.  The parking lots behind the two WSSC buildings provide a great access point to the Rachel Carson Greenway and the other trails that run through the park, and there are signs and visitor information for hikers at this location.

While the area around the dam is a nice spot, its a bit "touristy" meaning it's where most people go to access the trails.  On nice weekends, the trails on the east side of the creek which connect to these parking lots are often crowded with everyone from experienced hikers to families with small kids.  It's great that all these people are out enjoying one of Montgomery County's natural gems, but when the trails are crowded, it takes away from the rustic feel of the park.  The Burnt Mills dam area is the most popular spot to enter the park, but it is only one of several places where the trails of Northwest Branch can be easily accessed.  There are access points in all of the neighborhoods lining the park which lead to much less crowded trails, even on prime weekends when the parking lot by the dam is full.  

Trees on the Woodmoor side of the creek near the Williamsburg Drive entrance.
Here are three of those alternate access points.  I will include relevant details such as trail connections and difficulty.  The trails I detail here are feeder trails into the main two trails, so the difficulty ranking only applies to the access trail and not the mainline trails which parallel the creek.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Birds Eye Views of Four Corners

Hello all.  I was on vacation in Ireland this past week, which is why the blog and the Facebook page sat idle for several days.  The trip was great, and I met several of my extended family who still live in Ireland.  While I had a lot of fun, its nice to be back home again.  I flew back last Sunday on an Aer Lingus flight from Shannon to Boston, where I connected to a jetBlue flight to DC (landing at Reagan National Airport).  The flight path took me directly over Four Corners.   

As my flight left Boston for DCA (that's National's airport code) I checked the weather in DC to see what the wind was like.  The skies were calm, so I figured the plane would approach DC from the north (the standard River Visual approach), flying over Montgomery County and along the Potomac River to the airport.  I sat on the left side of the plane to be in position to get pictures of Four Corners and DC from the window, since the right side would face upper Montgomery County and Northern Virginia.  The flight roughly paralleled I-95 all the way from Boston to DC, and as the plane was over Laurel, it began to turn west to get in position for final approach.  My assumption proved to be correct, and I had a great views of downcounty from my window.  Here are some pictures I took of Four Corners and surrounding areas in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.                   

Looking south and west down Colesville Road through Four Corners.  The intersection is at the center, with the most notable building being Blair High School.  The Beltway can be seen running across the middle of the image.  All photos by the author.