Driven by millennials and baby boomers, a demographic shift is remaking Montgomery County, morphing suburbs into cities. It’s part of a national transformation that some say signals a whole new way of life.
When they moved to Rayburn Road 18 years ago, Leslie and Bruce McNair found everything they wanted from a home in the suburbs. The spacious colonial was close enough to D.C. for Bruce to drive to work, and to downtown Bethesda for Leslie to volunteer. Over the next two decades, the family room would fill with kids sleepovers. The big backyard would host lacrosse practices and, eventually, a nephew’s wedding rehearsal dinner. When their two sons attended the nearby Landon School, friends would crawl through the bedroom window to shower after soccer games.
The boys are grown now. Their bedrooms are empty. The backyard games are over. So, in addition to the American flag waving over the front porch, a “Sold” sign hangs next to the front walk of the white brick home as the couple prepares to embark on what they call their “next adventure.”
The McNairs bought a luxury town house under construction in downtown Bethesda, a place where they can walk for coffee, dinner, a movie or groceries. They’ve already started using the corner dry cleaner nearby. They’ve mapped out the Bethesda Circulator routes. The Chippendale sofa, the Louis XV parlor chairs and the antique dining room table are heading for storage.
“We’re kind of at a stage in life where the suburban life—the large lot, the room to spread out—is less important,” Bruce, 60, says as he sits in the couple’s living room, where built-in shelves are lined with hardcover books, china plates and ceramic vases, all looking so tidy that it’s hard to imagine them packed away in boxes and moved to a new home.
The McNairs are part of a demographic shift that is remaking Montgomery County. Driven largely by millennials on one end and baby boomers on the other, the change has morphed downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring—areas that once were seen primarily as suburbs of Washington, D.C.—into cities in their own right. Meanwhile, areas that were largely car-centric suburbia a decade ago—think White Flint, Rockville and Gaithersburg—are seeing strip malls, shopping centers and suburban landscapes being reimagined as urban-style, mixed-use neighborhoods with the rise of such developments as Pike & Rose and Gaithersburg’s Downtown Crown.
“Montgomery County is not the bedroom community it once was,” says Bonnie Casper, a real estate agent in Bethesda and president-elect of the Maryland Association of Realtors. “People are working here, not just living here. There are big industries here. It’s becoming much more urban. I tend to think it’s a good thing.”
Not everyone agrees. Some bristle at the high-rises blocking out the sky, and worry about increased traffic and congestion. Others are concerned that an urban sameness will leave these communities looking like Any City, USA—overpriced places with more wine bars than parks and grocery stores. But boosters say the changes are good for the communities, for their residents and for the planet. They’re creating towns that are walkable and lively, where neighbors meet, shop down the street and leave the car at home.
The changes are rising out of the ground all over Montgomery County. But it isn’t just happening here. It’s part of a national transformation that some say signals a whole new way of life.
“It’s the end of a certain kind of suburb, and it’s definitely the end of the suburb as the end-all, be-all pillar of the American Dream and of American culture,” says Leigh Gallagher. An assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, Gallagher wrote the 2013 book The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving, which chronicles the nation’s shift from suburbia to the city.
Many car-centric suburbs are emptying across the country, Gallagher says. Meanwhile, small cities from Greenville, S.C., to Sioux Falls, S.D. are thriving, as are urbanized suburbs such as White Plains, N.Y., and Bethesda, as baby boomers downsize and millennials shun the traditional burbs.
“Moving to a small city is the new moving to the suburbs,” Gallagher says. “You get a nicer quality of life. You can often get a house and a yard if you want one. You can have all the urban accoutrements that you want, but you don’t have the prohibitive price of Washington, D.C., or San Francisco.”
That’s partly because many small cities have seen their quality of life rise and crime rates fall in recent decades, Gallagher says, and partly because, as commute times have risen, the appeal of the traditional suburb is fading.
“We engineered all this livelihood out of our communities,” she says.
The shift comes at a time when the two biggest population bulges of the past century are converging on the same city streets.
“We’re in a substantial transformation period all over the country,” says Bruce Leonard, a managing principal at Streetsense, a Bethesda-based branding, marketing and design firm that often works with developers. “It’s dramatic. You’re seeing a lot of reinvention of public space responding to what I think the market forces are: boomers and millennials.”
Millennials, people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, constitute one-third of the population, making them the largest generation in the country. With the oldest millennials in their 30s now, they’re on the ascendancy in the workforce, Leonard says. At his firm, about 85 percent of the 110 or so employees are millennials, he says, and most live in urban places like downtown Bethesda or downtown Silver Spring.
Most millennials, he says, would rather walk or take the Metro to work than sit in traffic. They’d rather hang out at the corner café than over a backyard barbecue. They’re having families later or not at all.
“They don’t really buy into the suburban dream,” Leonard says. “They want to live in the urban core.”
That’s true for Toby Rowell, 38, and Megan Ivankovich, 34, huddled over steaming mugs at Kaldi’s Coffee Bar in Silver Spring. Their suburban dream is affordable, diverse, dog-friendly and close to the Metro. They like living in walking distance of this popular hangout and other neighborhood coffee shops, bars and farmers markets.
“It’s funny because we often debated whether this is suburbia or not,” Rowell says. “It’s like we’re in the city but we’re not in the city.”
Meanwhile, millennials’ parents and grandparents, baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 who once headed to the suburbs to raise families, are becoming empty nesters and retiring. Many, like the McNairs, are fleeing the traditional suburbs in search of active lifestyles they can enjoy without getting behind the wheel.
“I want more of a New York life,” says Leslie, 57.
The McNairs grew up here—she in Bethesda, he in Chevy Chase—but they became enthralled by the idea of city life while visiting their older son when he was working in Manhattan. It wasn’t just the idea of shops and restaurants within walking distance. It was the liveliness that came with sidewalks bustling with ordinary people doing everyday things on foot.
“We just fell in love,” Leslie says.
As suburbanites like the McNairs move to urbanized areas, new high-rises are rising up to greet them. According to Delta Associates, the real estate research firm, 2,058 apartments are scheduled to come on line in Bethesda in the next three years in 10 mid-rise and high-rise buildings. In addition, 432 condominium units are in the works at eight new projects. Many of these buildings boast high-end amenities: There will be an outdoor television with a fire pit at 7001 Arlington Road, a rooftop pool at Gallery Bethesda, and 24-hour concierge service at The Darcy.
Silver Spring is seeing new residential projects, too, at places such as the 21-story luxury apartment complex Eleven55 Ripley, which boasts a fitness center and swimming pool.
Manuel Majano, property manager at the 235-unit luxury apartment complex Gallery Bethesda, says his building was 93 percent full 10 months after opening last year.
“You have empty nesters, you have millennials, you have young professionals,” Majano says. There aren’t a lot of families, he says, but there are a lot of dogs. At Gallery Bethesda, 80 percent of the residents have pets. It’s one thing they have in common, Majano says. Another thing is where they come from. Most, especially the empty nesters who fill all but one of the penthouse units, moved there from within a 5-mile radius.
“I have people selling their $4 million houses to come live here,” he says. “We were getting people who lived in their home for 15 years in Chevy Chase who wanted to come live here.”
For would-be urbanites who aren’t moving to the city, the city is coming to them, with tall, mixed-use developments moving deeper into the suburbs. Follow the Red Line to White Flint, where the $500 million Pike & Rose project is bringing luxury apartments, condos and retail. Continue on to the Twinbrook stop, where developers including Federal Realty, The JBG Companies and B.F. Saul Co. are bringing a similar transformation. Downtown Rockville has reimagined itself as a denser, taller urban center with projects such as the Palladian and Fenestra apartments at Rockville Town Square. And on to Shady Grove, the last stop on the Red Line, where the six-story Bainbridge Shady Grove apartment complex is rising.
Most urban projects are centered around Metro stops, where it’s easy for residents to hop a train to work, to a Nats game or to dinner. But some are taking shape off the Metro line. Near Gaithersburg’s Washingtonian Center, Downtown Crown is emerging as a high-end, mixed-use development of more than 2,200 homes and apartments. Off North Frederick Road in Gaithersburg, Paramount is opening with luxury apartments above and retail below.
Welcome to Montgomery County’s future.
“It’s going to be a series of emerald cities popping above the tree canopy of 20-, 30-, maybe 40-story buildings at each of the Metro stations, and then a spine of high-density housing up and down the Rockville Pike,” says land use strategist Christopher Leinberger, a George Washington University professor and president of Locus, a national network of developers and investors interested in creating sustainable, walkable communities. Locus members include such local developers as Federal Realty, JBG and The Meridian Group.
That trend will only increase if the proposed Purple Line connecting Bethesda to New Carrollton goes through, Leinberger says. The $2.45 billion light-rail line, scheduled to break ground this year, would bring 21 stops in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, including well-heeled locales such as downtown Bethesda and Chevy Chase, and less affluent neighborhoods in Silver Spring and Long Branch. The Purple Line would revitalize neighborhoods around the stops, Leinberger says, just as is happening along the Red Line. A proposed bus rapid transit system throughout the county could help, too, he says, although bus routes haven’t delivered the same impact on development as rail lines.
Is this the end of the suburbs for Montgomery County? Not quite, Leinberger says. Winding streets lined with tidy homes won’t vanish from most of the county. But for about 10 percent of the land along major corridors, he says, change is coming.
And not everybody is thrilled about it.
“It could be good, but it’s probably going to be bad,” says Pat Baptiste.
A lifelong Chevy Chase resident and vice chair of the village’s board of managers, Baptiste has been an outspoken critic of urbanizing Montgomery County, prompting Rollin Stanley, the county’s former planning director, to dub her and like-minded critics “rich, white women…spreading fear” in a story in the March/April 2012 issue of Bethesda Magazine. Stanley later apologized, and Baptiste started wearing an “RWW” badge, a gift from her son, to make light of it.
Baptiste chooses to meet at Le Pain Quotidien in downtown Bethesda, the kind of place urban-style developers look to as a model. She likes Chevy Chase because homes and shops are in easy walking distance. And she loves cities like Washington, New York and Paris for the walkability that planners are trying to replicate in new developments in the Montgomery County suburbs.
But she also loves them for their less tangible qualities, she says: parks, museums and beautiful architecture that make them not just dense, mixed-use developments, but some of the world’s greatest cities. In contrast, she says, the new developments in Montgomery County feel artificial.
“Just because you can walk to a restaurant and have a really nice meal doesn’t mean you’re having an urban experience,” she says.
Where are the parks in Montgomery County’s new developments, she asks? Wine bars are fine if you’re young and single, but will you be able to find a grocery store? Who can afford to live in these places, anyway? And who says Montgomery County needs to keep growing in the first place?
“I don’t have all the answers,” she says. “Just a lot of questions.” Baptiste calls the urbanizing movement “a planning fad.”
If it’s a fad, supporters of the concept say, it’s one that isn’t going away anytime soon. “What we must do is reduce consumption,” says former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. “The way to reduce consumption is to go back to what worked through most of human histories, and that is walkable, mixed-use communities.”
As president of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute, an anti-sprawl organization, Glendening works with state and local governments to plan for this type of growth. Dense developments eat up less land, he says, use less energy and causes less damage to fragile waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
They also can make for nicer places to live, supporters say.
Places like Kaldi’s are part of the resurgence of Silver Spring, Casey Anderson says as he takes a seat in the coffee shop, surrounded by a 30-something studying for a French test, another working remotely on her laptop, and retirees chatting with friends. Better planning, he says, is making the city a friendlier, more walkable place.
The new head of the Montgomery County Planning Board, Anderson has gained attention as a cycling advocate, but bike riding was secondary, he says. “The reason I come back to bikes is not because I like to ride my bike around,” he says, “but because it’s a good test to see if a place is healthy, safe and attractive to people. A place that’s good for bicycles is almost by definition a good place for people.”
For Anderson, that means a place where cars share the road with pedestrians and cyclists, where shops and restaurants are close enough to reach by pedal-power, and where public transit is nearby.
When he moved to Silver Spring in 2001, that wasn’t the case, he says. But it’s changing. “It’s about giving people more options,” he says. “The fact that housing prices go up in places convenient to transit, in some cases dramatically, shows that there’s a demand for it.”
Real estate agents have seen the change, as well. “There’s probably not a better time to buy a home in Potomac,” says agent Marc Fleisher. Lots of homes are going on the market as empty nesters leave Potomac for urban areas, Fleisher says, creating “an inventory glut” that’s keeping prices low. Homes that once sold for $3 million may go for $2 million now, he says, or they may linger on the market for months in a staring contest between sellers who won’t budge and buyers demanding deals.
In the January through November time period in 2014, the median home price in Bethesda’s 20814 ZIP code was up 2.21 percent over the same time period in 2013, while the median sale price in Potomac’s 20854 ZIP code fell 1.77 percent. The average downtown Bethesda home sat on the market 42 days; in Potomac, the average time on the market was 65 days, more than 50 percent longer.
Those numbers don’t include would-be sellers who gave up and pulled their home off the market, says Bethesda real estate agent Jane Fairweather. Young families that used to move upward and outward to Potomac addresses for the “panache” are choosing to move upward and inward in places like Bethesda, she says. “They care about their environmental footprint and they don’t want to spend a lot of time in their car guzzling gas.”
At the same time, a simpler life in the city is attracting baby boomers like her. Fairweather downsized a decade ago from a five-bedroom home near Suburban Hospital to an Edgemoor condominium with about half the square footage.
“It’s just so easy to live your life once you’re living urban,” she says. “You have enormous time because you don’t spend it in the car. You don’t spend it parking. You don’t spend it mowing the yard.”
Royce Hanson is about to experience that firsthand. When he looks out the window of his colonial on a Montgomery Village cul-de-sac, he sees a classic suburban development. He helped plan this development when he was head of the Montgomery County Planning Board from 1972 to 1980. Then he left for teaching positions in Minnesota and Texas. When he and his wife returned in 1998, they were drawn to this subdivision, a place where they could walk and ride bikes along the concrete paths that wind through it.
“I have an affection for the place,” says Hanson, 83.
Hanson says he wishes planners had thought more about walkability back then, not just paths for strolling, but ensuring that shops and restaurants could be reached easily on foot. Still, he’s proud of things they did think about. The so-called “wedges and corridors” plan set the stage for today’s Montgomery County as a place of towns linked by corridors and surrounded by land preserved as farms and parks. About a quarter of the county remains off-limits to development.
Hanson headed up the planning board again from 2006 to 2010 in a vastly changed place. Montgomery County had nearly doubled in size and become much more diverse.
“I had kind of a Rip Van Winkle experience,” he says.
In his second stint on the planning board, Hanson helped set the stage for urbanizing Montgomery County. Now he plans to enjoy it. Widowed, he doesn’t need the big house, he says, and one day he’ll have to stop driving. So he’s looking to sell his home in the suburbs and move to an urban enclave along the Red Line.
His own story reads much like the county he lives in and loves.
“I grew up on a farm,” Hanson says. “I’ve lived in a small town. I’ve lived in the suburbs. I’ve enjoyed all those experiences. Now it’s time for me to move to a more urban place.”