Democratic McMansion in Maryland

A newly renovated home in Maryland may just be a Democratic McMansion:

If you are a Democratic politician getting wined and dined in D.C., chances are you’ve spent an evening or two at the Norton Manor, a faux-Old European estate in Potomac, Maryland that arrived seemingly out of nowhere last year. After a six-year renovation, the extravagant Neoclassical McMansion on nine acres, owned by the Indian-American technology entrepreneur Frank Islam and his philanthropist wife Debbie Driesman, is now fêting guests like Vice President Joe Biden and the Afghan ambassador. Apparently all you have to do to get well-connected politicians at your dinner table is build a pastiche of a Gilded Age mansion, an 18th-century French chateau, and (of course!) the gardens of Versailles in a rich suburb of D.C. Fittingly, the couple says they built Norton Manor as a tribute to the American dream. The Washington Post recently profiled the house, unloading a slew of facts about the place. Here now, 10 of the most interesting details:…

10. This couple prefers Democrats. Just this year, they’ve hosted a dinner for Vice President Biden, a fundraiser for Senator Al Franken, and an event for Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, among other important left-leaning politicos…

6. $1.5M was spent on landscaping, and now there are 1,600 boxwoods, 11,000 outdoor lights, several artificial streams, waterfalls, and stone bridges. Also, there’s a backyard teahouse with a koi pond and a reflecting pool…

2. The house was built by GTM Architects, and decorated by DC interior designer Skip Sroka, who is known for his methods for hiding electronic appliances (so as to not detract from faux-Old European flourishes). He spent three years decorating this “American palace,” as he called it in the Washington Post.

Two quick thoughts:

1. This is definitely a mansion, not a McMansion. Given the costs, 40,000 square feet, and the extra features, this is beyond normal McMansion territory. Indeed, I suspect a normal McMansion would definitely not be up to par for hosting important politicians.

2. I thought McMansions were for conservatives? The headline may be playing around with these stereotypes by suggesting that Democrats with money also live in and visit such homes. Going further, I would guess the homes of wealthy Republicans and Democrats may not differ all that much.

McMansions vs. trees in Bethesda, Maryland

Here is how the community of Bethesda, Maryland is planning to save trees from an onslaught of McMansions:

County Executive Isiah Leggett last year introduced a Tree Canopy Conservation bill that would force private property owners in small lots to pay a still-to-be-determined fee for lost canopy into a fund that Montgomery would then use to plant new trees.

Now, the County Council is wrangling with both sides to find a compromise.

Members of the building industry say the county shouldn’t legislate tree protection on private property, that they already avoid removing trees because of associated costs and that existing stormwater management requirements make protecting trees extremely difficult.

Some conservationists say the bill doesn’t go far enough, that replacing mature trees with new ones still takes away from the canopy, which everybody agrees is important for environmental and economic reasons.

Sounds like a typical suburban debate: should green interests or building/economic interests win out? The article doesn’t say this but I imagine there might be some old-timer versus newcomer aspects to this debate. If you have lived in the suburb for some time, trees are a good thing. They are not only green, they look better, suggest neighborhoods have stability, and contribute to higher housing values. If you are a builder or involved in real estate or want to move into places like Bethesda, you might want to pay less attention to trees and introduce new housing options.

One interesting note in the debate: there was some conversation about what percentage of tree canopy is desirable in a community. One pro-housing advocate suggested Bethesda already has more tree cover than much of the county. Just how much tree cover is necessary? Is a certain percentage related to housing values?

A hard look at Washington, DC’s economic boom

In light of the recent fiscal cliff showdown, Annie Lowery at the New York Times writes a long profile on “Washington’s Economic Boom, Financed by You“:

Billions in federal spending, largely a result of two foreign wars, were pouring into the local economy by the early 2000s. Then came the housing bubble. But after it burst, a remarkable inversion occurred: as the country withered, Washington bloomed. Since 2007, the regional economy has expanded about three times as much as the overall country’s. By some measures, the Washington area has become the richest region in the country. It is now home to the three highest-income counties in the United States, and seven out of the Top 10.

The growth has arrived in something like concentric circles. Increased government spending has bumped up the region’s human capital, drawing other businesses, from technology to medicine to hospitality. Restaurants and bars and yoga studios have cropped up to feed and clothe and stretch all those workers, and people like [developer] Jim Abdo have been there to provide the population — which grew by 650,000 between 2000 and 2010 — with two-bedrooms with Wolf ranges.

Despite its recent success, however, the article suggests that “Peak Washington” is already here, that there is nowhere to go but down:

And yet there is a sense that the capital is headed for a slowdown. Among the Pentagon’s plans to cut nearly $500 billion over the next decade could be reductions not only in materiel but also to all manner of support staff. The homeland-security budgets look certain to see significant reductions, too. One recent estimate noted that more than two million jobs would be at stake if the sequester comes into effect.

Lowery suggests that a tempering of expectations in metro DC would, on balance, be a good thing:

There’s something unsavory about having a capital city doing outrageously well while the rest of the country is limping along — especially when its economy is premised in part on capturing wealth rather than creating it.

To the extent that DC’s economy is indeed “premised in part on capturing wealth rather than creating it,” I agree.  Nevertheless, Lowery cites plenty of evidence that “creative” (as opposed to “capturing”) work is being done in metro DC (“Google has opened an outpost….LivingSocial owns a huge, hiply decorated space….Audi, Intelsat, Hilton Worldwide and dozens of other firms have opened up offices or moved their headquarters to the region”).  Presumably, every urban area “captures” some of its wealth and “creates” some.  How much “capture” is too much, thus making a whole region “unsavory”?

Along these lines, I’m also intrigued by the quote from Virginia Congressman Jim Moran (D), who observes that “Maryland got the life sciences [centered around the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD], and Virginia got the death sciences [centered around the Pentagon in Arlington, VA]….Of course, NoVa [Northern Virginia], given the two wars, it’s done even better than suburban Maryland.”  Does this suggest that DC’s Maryland suburbs are less “unsavory” than DC’s Virginia suburbs?  Or does it only matter that the National Institutes of Health and the Pentagon both spend tax revenue, making them equally offending because they “capture” the country’s wealth?

Improving suburban roads in Montgomery County

The suburbs are full of roads. But, as many have noted, these roads are primarily built for the fastest automobile speeds between Points A and B. Montgomery County, Maryland has put together a plan to improve their roadways:

As a result, Montgomery has actually been in the business of “retrofitting” or “repairing” the suburbs (very gradually, to be sure) since before planners began to call it that. Now, it has undertaken a pilot study on two stretches of roadway in the county to evaluate the use of green infrastructure – strategically placed vegetation and other methods that reduce polluted runoff by using or mimicking natural hydrology – along with measures to better accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. One is an arterial road that goes through residential areas, the other a wide commercial street. Both showed there was much potential, and Montgomery is now planning to integrate more environmental features into its streets…

Note that the changes are not extensive, for the most part, but incremental: subtle narrowing of traffic lanes to slow auto speed; plantings in medians, along sidewalks and in parking lots to capture and filter rainwater; bike lanes and wider sidewalks to accommodate non-motorized users; striping to mark a people-first pedestrian lane where a sidewalk may not be feasible…

There’s a lot to like about Montgomery’s initiative, including that it brings together three relatively new and successful – but often independently successful – lines of sustainability thinking and planning: redesigning suburbs; green infrastructure; and “complete streets” that accommodate all types of users. It reminds us that the greatest potential for sustainable communities lies with the integration of ideas and purposes. I hope this kind of initiative continues to catch on.

This seems to include a number of techniques New Urbanists have talked about for years.

What I like best about this is that it is hard to argue against these changes. Generally, busy roads are either nondescript or unattractive so these changes help improve the aesthetics. Runoff is a common suburban problem and no one likes having to drive through big puddles. Carving out space for other users of the roads would appeal to a lot of people (as long as the bikers and drivers can get along – not a guarantee in some places). And this should be safer as we know that narrower roads tend to slow drivers down.

The only problem that I could envision: how much do these subtle but helpful changes cost? It might be a good amount of money upfront but then reduced costs (and perhaps even savings?) down the road (fewer accidents, fewer cars on the road so less road maintenance, etc.). Are taxpayers willing to pay to improve already pretty good roads (generally defined as very drivable and fast)?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and how much they expand the program.

Septic tanks and McMansions

A commentator in southern Maryland discusses how the construction of McMansions in more rural areas is related to septic tanks and social class:

Public sewer might have caught up to the suburbs, but now the suburbs are leapfrogging public sewer. Although it has been slowed by the national housing crisis, the trend has been toward rural ridge tops bristling with “McMansions” like plates on the spine of a stegosaurus. These homes have problems that transcend septic. They generally gobble up land 5 acres at a time, not to mention their associated energy and transportation inefficiencies. It is indeed hard to feel sorry for these developments when cracking down on septic systems.

But at the same time big and rich developments are being scrubbed, it would be a mistake to throw country people out with the wastewater. In rural counties, lawmakers have been merciless in their attacks on anti-septic proposals, which they view as a job killer and an assault on private property rights. One Frederick County, Md., delegate called the proposed Maryland ban the worst bill he’d seen in 25 years.

There is hyperbole involved, naturally, but the danger is that septic bans, if too harsh, could make country life unaffordable for people of limited means. That’s the economics of reduced supply. Land prices in many areas have already made it difficult for people raised in rural locations to stay there. It’s proper that all sources of pollution, including septic systems, be controlled. It’s also proper that country life be protected at. The goal should be inclusive of both ideals.

Sounds like a case of competing interests: being greener (and the story suggests that a quarter of the homes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have septic tanks leading to a pollution issue) versus keeping more rural homes affordable.

This discussion reminds me of Adam Rome’s book The Bulldozer in the Countryside which addresses the history of septic tanks in suburbia. In the suburban boom after World War II, it was often cheaper for builders to include septic tanks as suburban communities struggled to provide sewers and sewage treatment plants. In my own research into the development of local suburbs, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that communities began to see the importance of sewers and treatment plants. Eventually, many communities found ways to help pass the costs on to developers and builders through sewer hook-up fees but these were originally contentious.