MARC Train Edge Cities-They Don’t Exist, Yet

We splash cold water on our early morning faces before heading to Baltimore’s Penn Station in the dark where I  drop my wife to catch the 5:50AM MARC (Maryland Area Regional Commuter) train departing Baltimore Penn Station for Washington Union, where she will then transfer to the DC METRO and arrive at her work site by 7:30. Based on time and cost, this is a better choice than driving through AM and PM rush hours in two cities, which she has also experimented. I work in Baltimore, but have meetings in DC’s Maryland suburbs.  Right now, we are a couple straddling the Baltimore/ Washington region. We are not alone.

It is not surprising that corporate offices and sprawling suburbs are consuming the green fields between the beltways. By being in the middle, families and businesses can access the employment, cultural, airport and other benefits of both metros.   It is also not surprising that traffic is terrible and there is pressure to use tax payer dollars to widen or create roads. (ICC)

Corporate sprawl 2

Image: Corporate sprawl between Baltimore and Washington alienates transit riders

The status quo development (above image) between the cities is comprised of both corporate and residential sprawl a few miles from MARC stations, but useless to arriving train passengers. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) and its LEED rating system need to play a role.  USGBC should not be giving isolated land gobbling sprawl producers green credentials for energy efficiency when  these same buildings require inefficient commuting.

What is surprising is there is nary a sprout of an urban cosmopolitan edge city that is oriented around a MARC train station between Penn and Union Stations.  Arlington, Rockville, Bethesda, and Silver Spring are small cities that have grown up around Washington Metro Stations. Kaid Benfield has covered the Arlington success story and Chris Leinberger has described the growth of what he calls “walk up” development that is becoming so prevalent in the Washington Metro Area. By contrast, all seven MARC Penn Line stations between Penn and Union or “stations in the middle” (SIM), lie in a desert of surface parking lots (there is a garage at BWI). It is difficult to even get a cup of coffee at most of these outposts. What is also important to note, that MARC trains can deliver a passenger from these SIMs to the center of Washington (and Baltimore) roughly as fast and more comfortably as the Washington Metro (or car) from the aforementioned edge cities’s metro stations.

MARC Stations 2

Image: Lots of urban development opportunity at the underdeveloped MARC stations between Baltimore and Washington. Bowie State University and BWI stations shown.

While this author advocates for infill development inside the beltways, he acknowledges the demand for development in between.  It is time to start urban mixed-use development along the MARC Penn and Camden Lines. MDOT proclaims they are open for business partnerships and have a transit-oriented-development (TOD) underway at Odenton.  Private sector developers have made lots of money building urban product at Washington Metro Stations, particularly in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There is potential for similar opportunity adjacent to MARC stations.

So why has scattered growth continued between the two cities while MARC stations remain the nucleus of constellations of barren commercial-less surface parking?  I speculate the issue is structured parking.  With cheap available green fields, why build the more expensive structured parking for more urban development patterns?  The reason for change is this.  There are an increasingly large number of consumers and employees who operate between Baltimore and Washington that prefer a hassle free train ride complemented by a short walk to an office, a restaurant, a hotel, or a residence on both ends, especially in a cosmopolitan urban environment. There is a premium for this in Bethesda and Arlington, and there will be at MARC stations.

BethArl

Image: Arlington (left) and Bethesda (right) are among several edge cities that have grown around their train station-each about 30 minutes from the center of Washington-the same as many MARC stations

Arlington TOD corridor

Image:  Arlington is being developed like pearls on a string with the densest development nearest the train stations. This is a model for MARC.  Source: Switchboard NRDC (left) and familypedia.wikia.com

To get on a roll at MARC stations, the public sector may have to help build and finance structured parking to open land adjacent to stations for development.  Stu Sirota, Principal of TND Planning Group, says there needs to be an overarching vision coupled with marketing. Stu  continues –  “A real regional planning effort  or charrette will show how all these station areas could become cool transit villages (or bigger) and what an incredible impact that could have on the Baltimore-Washington corridor.” Once there are a few hot spots along the line, the SIMs will be coveted real estate. It is time to get started.

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Administrator and writer for Comeback City

5 Responses to MARC Train Edge Cities-They Don’t Exist, Yet

  1. Trips to DC on the MARC caused me to coin the term PLOD (Parking Lot Oriented Development). Even when Maryland suburbs do “TOD,” they don’t get it. They will undoubtedly still require too many parking spaces, too wide roads, and not enough pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure despite MDOT’s massive TOD effort.

  2. Malindi says:

    I ride the MARC and watch people exit the train, get in their cars and an immediate traffic jam ensues in MARC lots. It would be better if the nearby development could be an easy walk to the the station and have restaurants and shops.

  3. Part of the problem with the Maryland version of Transit Oriented Development around MARC Stations (and otherwise) is that it does not include any affordable housing, and MDOT does not insist upon inclusion of units for a range of incomes. Aside from the social equity issues, that narrows the market for TOD around MARC stations. Its completely contrary to the philosophy of TOD and “Smart Growth.” But that’s Maryland.

    • There is very little new multi-family product of any kind adjacent to MARC Stations stations between DC and Baltimore. There are affordable older rowhouses within walking distance of Penn Station in the Greenmount West neighborhood and row houses are affordable near the West Baltimore MARC Station.

  4. Gull says:

    Late to the conversation here – I think the problem is a mix of cost for the developer, and desire from the consumer.

    As a developer, they are only going to build what they see as profitable. Sure, there is a market to live near transit that connects to downtown – however to create a MARC fueled edge city there needs to be a network of urban streets, structured parking and a mix of uses. The biggest problem I see is the structured parking affordability issue. Garages are expensive, even more so when they are under ground. With MARC being the transit note and not something like a subway line, most residents still will need a car and would live a car-lite lifestyle. Maybe a 2 bedroom unit only needs one parking space instead of two, but it still probably needs that parking space. A developer’s first reaction is to build a surface parking lot because it’s cheap and keeps the rent down. Of course, that’s a terrible waste of space and a quick way to kill an urban neighborhood, so we want to structure and hide the parking. This gets expensive, quick, and can quickly drive up a – the cost of rent, b – the cost of renting parking – making these developments at a MARC station look a bit less desirable.

    Places like Arlington and Bethesda have regular Metro trains that can take you downtown, or to other train stations, with regularity. These other stations have amenities around them that diminish the need for a car to run errands or have fun on the weekend. There are also substantial bus transit services available further spreading the reach to surrounding areas. As a consumer i’m more willing to spend a premium for regular 7 day a week transit service that takes me to amenities, than I am willing to pay for a commuter rail service, that even with weekend service still only comes once every 90 minutes and only really takes me to one of two downtowns.

    I think there could still me an edge city build around MARC – but it almost needs to take the form of a much larger redevelopment plan, on the scale of a Columbia downtown, or a Konterra Town Center – where the development is big enough to provide a wide range of neighboring amenities, and becomes a destination for the region.

    The BWI station has a lot of land, but a deceptive amount is wetland and would be environmentally protected, keeping it awkwardly removed from the developable areas. Odenton may have some success, but the development so far has still had a suburban quality to it, and there are a lot of individual land owners to deal with. Ideally the station would be relocated north of 175 where it could be next to the large still undeveloped parcel of land between 175, 32 and the train where plans have been on and off for a town center. The stations on the Camden line are generally in a more industrial area and would be more difficult to attract investors in, and the train service is sparser and slower than the Penn line. Almost all of the train stations were afterthoughts and are located along roads that can get the commuter to/from the park and ride lots and have land ownership issues associated with any hope of expanding development beyond the extend of the existing parking.

    Sure – it sounds like a lot of excuses, but it’s just a small list of all the real, or at least perceived (and may as well be real) obstacles that keep a large MARC city from forming between the two urban centers.

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