Is the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan bad planning?

Residents who will be impacted by a new master plan proposed for a part of Montgomery County, Maryland, asked me to testify at a hearing before the Montgomery County Council. This post contains the testimony I submitted for the official record. A substantially abbreviated version was presented in the hearing session held September 29, 2016.

Montgomery County Council
Public Hearing on the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan
Testimony of Dr. David Rotenstein
September 29, 2016

Good Evening. My name is David Rotenstein. I am a professional historian, a Silver Spring resident, and a former chairman of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. I am here to speak against the proposed Greater Lyttonsville Area Sector Plan because of fatal deficiencies in a key area of the plan before you: its treatment of lyttsonville-signhistory and historic resources.

Last Sunday the Washington Post published an article about the Talbot Avenue Bridge. Relying heavily on my work, the reporter interviewed several Lyttonsville residents, two of whom spoke here Tuesday evening, about the bridge’s history and its importance to the community. They told the reporter, and me two months earlier, that the bridge was an important artifact that conveys significant information about Lyttonsville’s past as an African American community segregated from Silver Spring, a community that excluded African Americans from buying property and living there for most of the twentieth century. Lyttonsville was Silver Spring’s other side of the tracks. The Talbot Avenue Bridge, as longtime Lyttonsville residents told me (and the Post), does much more than carry traffic over a railroad. It connects communities and it is a palpable reminder of the Jim Crow segregation that defined Montgomery County social and economic life for a significant period of time.

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

The community’s attachment to the bridge, which residents mentioned to me within minutes of starting recorded interviews with them last July, was easy to see and understand within the community’s historic context. Yet, it appears that Montgomery County Planning Department planners and the historians and architectural historians working on behalf of the State of Maryland before them in studies associated with the proposed Purple Line, failed to recognize that attachment and historical significance despite what Planning Department staff describe as unprecedented community outreach efforts.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge is one of several failures to identify important historic places and spaces in the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan area. Others include significant multi-family housing properties built in the 1950s and 1960s that became some of Montgomery County’s first affordable and integrated housing. As an example, I would like to cite the Rosemary Village apartments, completed in 1953. The complex, now known as the Barrington apartments, was hailed in a 1970 Washington Post article as “an experiment in racially integrated living in an essentially white area.” Though it opened as an all-white complex, under new ownership in 1964 it rapidly integrated and “remained unique in the area until Montgomery County’s open housing law became fully effective in August, 1968,” the Washington Post reported.

The Washington Post, March 25, 1970.

The Washington Post, March 25, 1970.

Montgomery County has many apartment communities that local preservationists and the Montgomery County Planning Department have identified as historically significant. Some of these, including Silver Spring’s Montgomery Arms [PDF] and Falkland Apartments [PDF], enjoy recognition and protection as properties designated in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation. These apartment communities were established as racially segregated properties where African Americans were denied access until after Montgomery County enacted an open housing law in 1967. Their preservation today, while places like Rosemary Village are ignored or recommended for redevelopment, may be seen by some as monuments to a white supremacist past not unlike Rockville’s Confederate statue.

Rockville Confederate monument. Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett ordered the statue removed in 2015.

Rockville Confederate monument. Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett ordered the statue removed in 2015.

Through the eyes and life experiences of Montgomery County’s African American residents, celebrating such places continues a pattern of discrimination by privileging one view of history while ignoring or minimizing others. These views by Montgomery County’s African Americans were expressed in Master Plan for Historic Preservation hearings on such places as the Falkland Apartments and Silver Spring’s Little Tavern restaurant.

April 5, 1966, Washington Evening Star report on the difficulties African Americans faced finding apartment housing in the Washington suburbs.

April 5, 1966, Washington Evening Star report on the difficulties African Americans faced finding apartment housing in the Washington suburbs because of racial discrimination.

At this point, the Montgomery County Council does not have sufficient information to approve a plan that will irreversibly change a historically significant Montgomery County community. As you heard the other evening and you can read in the plan before you, there is great interest by transit activists and new urbanists in placemaking in Lyttonsville. I offer for your consideration that Lyttonsville is already a place with an established identity. The placemaking language used here this week and in the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan document and process, I suggest does great violence to a community that all agree is an important part of Montgomery County’s past, present, and future.

Modernist homes and a romanticized vision of African American history dominate the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan's discussion of historic preservation.

Modernist homes and a romanticized vision of African American history dominate the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan’s discussion of historic preservation.

The Montgomery County Council has an obligation to treat Lyttonsville as it would any other community in our great county. That includes an equitable treatment of Lyttonsville’s history and the people there today. If you approve this sector plan as written, you are continuing in a pattern of environmental racism, racial segregation, and marginalization begun by your predecessors in the last century. Lyttonsville demands a greater standard of care in planning decisions because of its long history as “the other side of the tracks.” The bar is higher in Lyttonsville because of the long history of discriminatory and damaging policies. Lyttonsville also deserves the same standard of care and consideration that places like Chevy Chase, Bethesda, and Takoma Park receive when considering history and historic places in land use and urban planning decisions.

After this hearing, I recommend sending the sector plan back to the Planning Department for substantial revisions. Additional work must be done to fully understand Lyttonsville’s history from the perspective of the residents. That history likely will change recommendations for historic preservation goals, including perhaps a recommendation to list the Talbot Avenue Bridge in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation. Also, redevelopment plans for areas subsequently identified as historically and culturally significant should be re-evaluated in light of new information. The proposals to commemorate Lyttonsville’s history through public art and banners are insufficient mitigation proposals that are insulting to some longtime Lyttonsville residents. Longtime area residents like Charlotte Coffield, Patricia Tyson, and Loretta Argrett deserve more than memorials to a rich and meaningful past; they deserve the same opportunities that Montgomery County’s white residents have to experience history through objects, buildings, and spaces that retain a strong connection to the past.

The city of Decatur, Ga., razed and redeveloped an African American community a lot like Lyttonsville. No historic buildings remain and the only way community surivvors and their descendants can experience the Beacon Community's history is in antiseptic, white-mediated space.

The city of Decatur, Ga., razed and redeveloped an African American community a lot like Lyttonsville. No historic buildings remain and the only way community survivors and their descendants can experience the Beacon Community’s history is in antiseptic, white-mediated spaces.

Montgomery County takes great pride in its diversity of people and ideas. And, our county has established a reputation as a national leader in planning. With the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, Montgomery County has an opportunity, and indeed an obligation, to produce the best possible plan that respects and benefits all Montgomery County residents.

Thank you for your consideration this evening.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein