As Purple Line construction resumes, the fight against gentrification is on
But the public-private group known as Purple Line Corridor Coalition, has long watched the cautionary tales of other new transit lines. Without intervention, the coalition says, rising land values around stations are driving up rents and prices on local businesses and residents, including low-income workers who most need public transit. faster and more reliable common.
Without help, the light rail line will bring gentrification
The coalition, based at the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research, analyzed how to preserve affordable housing and small businesses along the 16-mile rail route between Prince George and Montgomery counties.
As major construction of the long-delayed Purple Line resumes this fall under a new prime contractor, The Washington Post spoke with Gerrit Knaap, coalition founder and director of the Smart Growth Center. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why did the coalition start focusing on gentrification issues in the Purple Line corridor so long before the light rail line opened, and even four years before construction began?
Knap: It takes a long time to change the urban fabric. Land market changes take a long time. Price changes happen faster. We have already started to see house prices and rents increase in the Purple Line Corridor and have been for several years. And obviously, if you’re trying to preserve affordable housing and small businesses, you need to do that before prices start to rise too quickly. Therefore, you need to be a step ahead, not to mention having the policies and resources in place to support businesses and residents during the construction period.
Along the Purple Line, there are fears that new public transit will lead to higher rents
Q: What was in the Purple Line hallway that raised concerns about gentrification?
Knap: I would say two things: First, the Purple Line Corridor is extremely diverse in terms of income levels and economic prosperity. There are very low income communities right next door. In fact, I give credit to [immigrant advocacy group] CASA for really starting the conversation about fighting the threat of gentrification, and we partnered with them very quickly.
Obviously, Langley Park was a place where that vulnerability is certainly strong. Langley Park, Lyttonsville, Long Branch and Riverdale Park are less affluent communities than others and are communities of color. So there is this vulnerability.
The other is that the purple line is going to connect four main subway stations, and it’s going to provide access to places between those subway lines. Between Silver Spring and College Park is probably the area with the greatest potential for change in land market dynamics, and then between College Park and New Carrollton as well. So you have very vulnerable communities, as well as quite significant changes in transportation accessibility.
Q: What about richer areas along the Purple Line, like between Bethesda and Silver Spring? These are not necessarily vulnerable communities, but do you see them changing as well?
Knap: I see them changing less. First, the change of [transit] accessibility will be a little less. It’s already a very accessible corridor. The difference the purple line is going to make won’t be as big in places that are already quite heavily serviced by public transport.
How the Purple Line’s new construction prime contractor plans to open it by the end of 2026
Q: What development changes have you seen so far in the Purple Line Corridor?
Knap: Field development is just beginning. We are in the construction phase [of the Purple Line] so the construction disruption is happening now. I would say we see probably the biggest change at New Carrollton tube station. This place is changing quite dramatically because of the [station there for] Mark [commuter rail] and the metro, as well as the purple line. There’s a lot going on now in College Park. In Silver Spring, we see continued activity, although it’s a little hard to tell how much of that is related to the Purple Line.
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Q: Many of us think of transit-oriented development as high-rise apartment or condo buildings with high-end cafes and shops on the ground floor. Is this the kind of development you see coming along the Purple Line, or will it be different in these more suburban places?
Knap: No, it will definitely be different. You’re not going to see any skyscrapers in these purple line stations between subway stations. It just won’t happen. The market is not there for that and even the regulatory environment would not currently allow it. It will be more mid-rise buildings, on a smaller scale. We are going to think of strip malls. I don’t think it’s useful to have shopping malls near Purple Line stations. If we can get them to a density of two, three, or four stories, that might be a good thing. And, of course, you would want them to be as versatile as possible. I don’t think anyone is considering the Manhattanization of the Purple Line corridor.
Q: Some activists, especially in heavily Latino areas like Langley Park, worry that their communities are losing their international sense. How can these cultures be preserved in a new development?
Knap: One of the new minors we just created at the University of Maryland is called “placemaking,” and the coalition will be working closely with this placemaking initiative. Obviously, being sensitive to the existing cultural assets of a community is the starting point. It is also essential to engage with the residents who currently live there to identify their aspirations and cultural preferences. As an organization, we go to great lengths to ensure that placemaking efforts are culturally sensitive and will preserve existing cultural assets along the Purple Line.
Transit-seeking suburbs are looking for ways to keep residents from being overpriced
Q: How to preserve low-rent housing when the demand to live near future stations increases? Is it hard to do?
Knap: It is very difficult and there is no single answer. You have to be a little opportunistic. One way is to preserve the existing affordable housing stock, which you can do by buying it or having right of first refusal policies. … On the one hand, you try to preserve the existing housing stock. On the other hand, you are trying to increase the housing stock through the construction of affordable housing. Another way is to try to change existing development regulations, either by [with more density] or by policies that allow middle-income housing to be competitive.
Montgomery and Prince George reach agreement to preserve affordable housing along the Purple Line
Q: How did the suburban locations of Purple Line stations raise concerns about the safety of surrounding streets for cyclists and pedestrians?
Knap: I’m glad you brought it up, because it’s an important part of the work we did with a grant from the Federal Transit Administration. We are going to implement a light rail transit in an urban environment and a transportation infrastructure that is really not well equipped for that. Suburbs are largely built for cars. If you are introducing a light rail line that is fundamentally designed to promote a different type of travel behavior, many changes need to be made. We have identified many places along the Purple Line corridor where pedestrian and bicycle access really needs a little work.
In auto-centric Montgomery, planners are looking for data-driven ways to make walking safer
Q: What are some examples of road improvements needed around future stations?
Knap: We’ve done something we call accessibility mapping to see how far and safely you can walk from one [future Purple Line] station in the neighborhoods. We found that there are huge obstacles. You have to cross six-lane streets in some places. You have fenced off barriers in some places. The sidewalks are very poorly protected from traffic. Some right-turn lanes allow cars to drive at high speeds and turn very quickly. There are just things in the road design near the purple line that need to be significantly improved to ensure people can get to stations safely.
Purple Line stations need safer pedestrian access, Montgomery planners say
Q: What else should people be thinking about while building the purple line?
Knap: The purple line corridor is about to change, and it is really important that this change is managed to promote equitable development and that we do our best to try to prevent displacement in the corridor. I think one of the real underlying themes of the Purple Line Corridor Coalition has been equitable development. Hold us accountable for whether we can foster transit-oriented development that increases ridership and does all the good things that transit ridership does while preserving the existing vulnerable communities in the corridor. This is our mission.
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