As Purple Line construction resumes, the fight against gentrification is on


In 2013, four years before construction started on Maryland’s Purple Line, a group of academics, planners, nonprofits and elected officials began thinking about the economic development the 21 rail stations would bring — and the inequities likely to follow. State and local officials have said they hope the Purple Line […]

In 2013, four years before construction started on Maryland’s Purple Line, a group of academics, planners, nonprofits and elected officials began thinking about the economic development the 21 rail stations would bring — and the inequities likely to follow.

State and local officials have said they hope the Purple Line will transform aging, auto-dependent suburbs, particularly in Prince George’s County, into vibrant hubs of new apartment buildings, stores and restaurants — all within walking distance of light-rail stations.

But the public-private group known as the Purple Line Corridor Coalition, has long eyed cautionary tales from other new transit lines. Without intervention, the coalition says, rising land values around stations lead to higher rents and price out local businesses and residents, including lower-income workers most in need of faster, more reliable mass transit.

Without help, light-rail line will bring gentrification

The coalition, based at the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research, has analyzed how to preserve affordable housing and small businesses along the 16-mile rail alignment between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

As major construction on the long-delayed Purple Line resumes this fall under a new lead contractor, The Washington Post spoke with Gerrit Knaap, the coalition’s founder and the smart growth center’s director. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did the coalition begin focusing on gentrification issues in the Purple Line corridor so long before the light-rail line would open, and even four years before construction started?

Knaap: It takes a lot of lead time to change the urban fabric. Land market changes take a long time. Price changes occur more quickly. We’ve begun to see housing prices and rents rise in the Purple Line corridor already and have for a number of years. And obviously if you’re going to try to preserve affordable housing and small businesses, you need to do that before prices start to rise too quickly. Therefore you need to get a head-start on it, not to mention you need to have the policies and resources in places to help businesses and residents during the construction period.

Along the Purple Line, worries that new transit will bring higher rents

Q: What was it about the Purple Line corridor that prompted concerns about gentrification?

Knaap: I’d say two things: One is the Purple Line corridor is extremely diverse in terms of income levels and economic prosperity. There are some very low-income communities right on it. In fact, I give credit to [immigrant advocacy group] CASA for really beginning the conversation about addressing the gentrification threat, and we teamed up with them very quickly.

Obviously, Langley Park was a place where this vulnerability is certainly strong. Langley Park, Lyttonsville, Long Branch and Riverdale Park are some communities that are not as well-off as others and are communities of color. So there’s that vulnerability.

The other is that the Purple Line is going to connect four major Metro stops, and it’s going to provide access to places between those Metro lines. Between Silver Spring and College Park is probably the area with the greatest potential for changes in land market dynamics, and then between College Park and New Carrollton as well. So you have some very vulnerable communities, as well as pretty significant changes in transportation accessibility.

Q: What about more affluent areas along the Purple Line, such as between Bethesda and Silver Spring? Those aren’t necessarily vulnerable communities, but do you see them changing as well?

Knaap: I see them changing less. First of all, the change in [transit] accessibility is going to be slightly less there. It’s already a very highly accessible corridor. The difference the Purple Line is going to make is not going to be as large in those places that are already pretty heavily served by transit.

How the Purple Line’s new lead construction contractor plans to get it open by late 2026

Q: What development changes have you seen so far in the Purple Line corridor?

Knaap: The development on the ground is largely just beginning. We’re in the construction phase [of the Purple Line] so the construction disruption is happening now. I’d say we’re seeing probably the largest change at the New Carrollton Metro station. That place is really transforming rather dramatically because of the [station there for] MARC [commuter rail] and the Metro, as well as the Purple Line. A lot of stuff is happening now in College Park. In Silver Spring, we’re seeing continued activity, though how much of that is related to the Purple Line is a little hard to say.

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Q: A lot of us think about transit-oriented development as high-rise apartment or condo buildings with coffee shops and high-end stores at the ground level. Is that the kind of development you see coming along the Purple Line, or will it be different in these more suburban locations?

Knaap: No, it’s definitely going to be different. You’re not going to see high-rises at these Purple Line stations in between the Metro stations. That’s just not going to happen. The market isn’t there for it and even the regulatory environment wouldn’t allow it currently. It’s going to be more mid-rises, more smaller scale. We’re going to be thinking about strip malls. I don’t think it’s helpful to have strip malls near Purple Line stations. If we can get them to increase to two-, three- or four-story density, that might be a good thing. And, of course, you’d want them to be as mixed-use as possible. I don’t think anyone envisions the Manhattanization of the Purple Line corridor.

Q: Some activists, particularly in heavily Latino areas like Langley Park, worry that their communities could lose their international feel. How can those cultures be preserved amid new development?

Knaap: One of the new minors we’ve just created at the University of Maryland is called “placemaking,” and the coalition is going to work very closely with this placemaking initiative. Obviously being sensitive to the existing cultural assets of a community is where you start. Also engaging with residents who currently live there to identify their aspirations and their cultural preferences is key. As an organization, we’re making considerable efforts to make sure the placemaking efforts are culturally sensitive and will preserve the existing cultural assets along the Purple Line.

Suburbs seeking transit look for ways to prevent residents from being priced out

Q: How can lower-rent housing be preserved as demand to live near future rail stations increases? How difficult is that to do?

Knaap: It’s very hard and there’s not one answer. You have to be a bit opportunistic. One way is to preserve the existing affordable housing stock, which you can do by buying it or having rights-of-first refusal policies. … On one hand you’re trying to preserve the existing housing stock. On the other, you’re trying to increase the housing stock through affordable housing construction. Another way is to try to change the existing development regulations, either by upzoning [with more density] or by policies that enable middle-income housing to be competitive.

Montgomery, Prince George’s reach deal to preserve affordable housing along Purple Line

Q: How have the Purple Line stations’ suburban locations led to safety concerns about surrounding streets for cyclists and pedestrians?

Knaap: I’m glad you brought that up because that’s a major part of the work we’ve done under a Federal Transit Administration grant. We’ll be introducing a light-rail system into an urban environment and a transportation infrastructure that is really not well set up for it. Suburbs are largely built for cars. If you introduce a light-rail line fundamentally designed to promote a different kind of travel behavior pattern, there are a lot of changes that need to be made. We’ve identified a lot of places along the Purple Line corridor where the pedestrian and bike access really needs quite a bit of work.

In auto-centric Montgomery, planners seek data-driven ways to make walking safer

Q: What are some examples of road improvements needed around the future rail stations?

Knaap: We did something we call accessibility mapping to see how far and safely you could walk from a [future Purple Line] station into the neighborhoods. We found there are tremendous obstacles. You’ve got to cross six-lane streets in some places. You have fenced barriers in some places. Sidewalks have very little protection from the traffic. Some right-turn lanes allow cars to drive at high speeds and turn really quickly. There are just things in the design of the roadways near the Purple Line that need to be improved quite a bit to ensure people can get to the stations safely.

Purple Line stations need safer pedestrian access, Montgomery planners say

Q: What else should people be thinking about as the Purple Line is built?

Knaap: The Purple Line corridor is in for a change, and it’s really important that that 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 to account as to 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. That’s our mission.

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