In August 2020, I presented my blueprint for a strategic vision to the Mayor and Council. It tries to mix the best parts of who we are with what science tells us makes for the happiest communities. And because how we are designed and who we are aligns so much with the science behind happy towns, we have a wonderful opportunity to create a vision for what Mount Rainier can be over the next 10-20 years.
What I’m going to try and do with this piece is boil down my presentation into written word for those who couldn’t make it. Apologies in advance for the length.
First and foremost, thank you to all the residents and past elected officials who put the hard work in over the years to get us to this point. It was their vision that enables us to think even bigger. Second, I have to credit Mr. Money Mustache with much of the inspiration for helping me piece together what I love about Mount Rainier with what is good city design policy. That said, here is my blueprint for a strategic vision . . .
If someone prefers the vast sprawl of suburbia, our narrow streets and closely placed homes may not appeal to them. For those folks, suburbs designed around the car in the second half of the 20th century appear superior to a place like Mount Rainier which was designed around a street car line. I think those beliefs overlook some real opportunities in how Mount Rainier is designed.
Let me pause right there and take a detour to talk about a Dutch guy named Rod Durks who designed the city of Houten, Netherlands, and whose work is now piquing the interest of urban designers worldwide. To summarize his design – you build dense single-family homes; create a small, downtown core of shops and apartments next to public transportation; and, while you have some streets and parking for cars, you really promote biking and walking as the way to get around.
The neat thing is Houten is suburb-like – smaller than a city with single-family homes and yards that make it a tad less noisy and more pleasant – but also carries with it the walkability of a big city’s downtown. And while the focus on walking and biking may sound unrealistic to some Americans used to getting around by car, the actual science behind designing space like this gives us a roadmap of what has the best chance to improve human well-being and happiness. And if that isn’t our core goal then, well, what are we doing?
So, why does designing a city for people to live closer to one another that promotes biking and walking over driving lead to well-being and happiness?
First and foremost, it promotes a physically healthier way of living. It should go without saying that traveling on foot or bike, as opposed to sitting in a car, improves your health and lessens the risk of diabetes (one of the top drivers of healthcare costs in America, especially for people of color). But, more importantly, when you are physically healthier, you increase the chance (read: this is not guaranteed) that you are mentally healthier (i.e., you’re happier and less anxious).
The other neat thing is that living in a dense city where more people walk about increases the likelihood of chance encounters with neighbors. And science has shown that these little bumps in social interaction also have a high likelihood (read: still not guaranteed) of increasing your happiness and mental health. That is, we as a species are hardwired to get a bit happier with more social interactions.
On top of the health benefits, a lifestyle built around walking and biking benefits you financially in two big ways – (i) getting around on foot or bike is immensely cheaper than a car; and (ii) being healthier lessens the chance of having costly health conditions later in life.
Last but not least, such living is waaay better for the environment. There is the obvious improvement to air quality with less cars on the road, but also the less obvious benefit of being able to use less impermeable pavement like concrete to accommodate cars, and more green infrastructure to better manage stormwater (which will only get worse with climate change).
So, how does this all get back to Mount Rainier and Mr.Durks’ design?
If you haven’t connected the dots yet, street car towns built at the turn of the 20th century (like yours truly) have dense single-family homes with yards that make it a bit more pleasant than city living. And in Mount Rainier, we have a downtown core with incredible access to public transportation. You can pretty much get anywhere in the city (and globe if you count getting to DCA, BWI, or Dulles) by way of the 83, 86, T14, T18, and B2. That is, we already have some of the building blocks that account for a happier city (which many of us have figured out judging by our shared love and happiness for living in Mount Rainier).
In addition, we also have some great buildings blocks unique to Mount Rainier: our celebration of diversity, our love of the arts, and our love of the environment.
Think of these building blocks like our structural advantages as a city. And just like your favorite sports team, we should play to our advantages. Towards that end, my blueprint (finally getting to the point) doubles down on our structural advantages and looks to three broad themes for the city to strategically align its resources over the next five years:
- Create an economically vibrant downtown core;
- Invest in our diverse people and businesses; and
- Invest in a sustainable way of living that promotes community well-being and happiness.
I have identified targeted projects that can move the city forward in each of these areas. In some instances, the good news is that some of those projects already have plans or are already-in-the-works. Here’s what these themes and projects look like if you are a visual learner like me.
The better news is that a lot of these projects impact more than one theme – which is what I’m trying to demonstrate by using a Venn diagram in the link above. This is important because it limits the scope of this vision to less than ten achievable projects and, by remaining focused, we increase the chance we can deliver.
Let me now talk more about each theme, and the projects that contribute towards achieving progress in each category . . .
Creating a vibrant economy (here, again, you’ll see overlap with other themes):
- Density – Creating Demand for Business
- I’ve mentioned this before, but it is worth highlighting again. Developing a mixed-use site at the 3200 block of Rhode Island Avenue (Eastern and RIA) ASAP that includes apartment or condo living, is key to developing our downtown core.
- Bottom line, we just need more people who will wake up in an apartment, townhouse, or condo in our downtown core wanting a cup of coffee, some groceries, or a pint of beer to create the demand that can sustain current and new businesses.
- Streetscapes – Making People Want to Walk Our Streets
- Implementing both the redesign of the 3300 block of RIA (including Memorial Park and the Perry Street shared street concept) and the 2010 Mixed Use Town Center (MUTC) design for 34th Street would do wonders to beautify our downtown core.
- Last year, we created an Arts Commission that is now starting the hard work of identifying locations in our downtown core to invest in public art (e.g., murals on exterior business walls).
- Both of the investments above are affordable if built into our capital budget over a five-year time frame, and both would help create beautiful spaces that people want be in.
- Think about where you stop when you are on a road trip. It’s usually those cute little spots that you think to yourself, “Oh, this looks nice.” We need more of that in our downtown core where thousands of cars pass by daily without thinking much of our little strip of Route 1.
- Economic Incentive Fund (Part One) – Investing in Our Diversity
- According to Strong Towns, investing in a city’s current businesses is oftentimes the best bang for your back. That is why I want to earmark 50% of our $1 million Economic Incentive Fund for current businesses, many of which are owned by people of color.
- In many instances, our current business owners only need a few thousand dollars for key updates – e.g., better and more appealing signage, façade improvements, or updated electricity. These small investments go a long way because they are small dollar amounts (read: low risk) invested in businesses that have proven they can sustain themselves as a part of our community.
- Investing in our diverse business owners not only helps prevent displacement of these businesses by gentrification, but it helps keep a diversified business core. And it is a diverse customer base – people of all ages and cultures who eat and drink different things at different times – that can help sustain an equally diverse economy.
- Create a Destination – Invest in Music and the Arts
- Tacking onto that Strong Towns theme – i.e., that we should double down on our existing assets – think about two events that garner a net plus of economic activity that is not normally seen around town. The first is our Open Studios Tour, which pulls in customers from all over the DMV to visit our artists. The second, on a smaller scale, is the great work Alex Martin does at promoting live music at the Mediterranean Café. Rarely is the ground floor of the Café more crowded than on those nights.
- Taking the paragraph above into account, part two of my Economic Incentive Fund proposal is to use tax or other incentives to encourage new businesses (e.g., bars, restaurants) to set up shop in Mount Rainier and host musical acts or art work to show off our talents and attract clientele. If all the new residents over in Dakota Crossings want to sit in a restaurant with some good music or nice art work, I want them to think of Mount Rainier.
- Kaywood Theater – This is still an amazing opportunity for the city despite the cost of retrofitting it being north of $10 million. While this is too much for our city to take on, the County is interested in taking on this project. I think we should convince the County to take this on and create a music venue that sits 1,000 people right here in Mount Rainier. I am excited to see Councilmember Scott Cecil want to take a lead role on this project and support him 100% in that push.
The next theme I’ll cover is investing in our diverse community:
- Economic Incentive Fund (Part One) – Investing in Our Diversity
- I won’t repeat what I said up above as I think you get the point. We have great businesses here owned by people of color and they deserve an equal shot at investment from the city just like any new business pitching the city with an idea.
- For example, the owners of Sew Creative have a wonderful product with great potential. And in talking to the owners, all they need is some better signage and perhaps some façade improvements.
- In the grand scheme of things, the few thousands of dollars a business like Sew Creative may need is not much out of a $1 million economic incentive fund, but it can have a huge impact on a business who has demonstrated a positive impact on our local economy.
- Community Land Trusts
- This is a bigger idea that I’ve talked about before. The need to keep single-family homes within reach of lower- and middle-class families is important – both to our character and the region at large.
- How we do this is the harder question, which is why I’d like to continue the conversation with residents and outside entities to see if there is a potential for a third party – e.g., Gateway CDC, the County – to take a leadership role on this project.
- Budget to a Surplus
- This relates to my desire to ensure the financial health of the city can support the projects described above by ensuring we not only stay under budget each fiscal year, but wind up with a surplus to be invested.
- My idea here is that we take a surplus every year and start investing it in a low-cost index fund year-in and year-out. And, over the course of 20-30 years, the city should be able to build up a solid reserve or endowment fund.
- When the reserve grows large enough, the city should be able to rely on the interest from these investments to fund tax breaks for senior citizens or lower-income residents, helping to ensure senior citizens can age in place and low-income residents don’t get priced out.
- The dream here is to one day make the city as self-sustaining and financially independent as possible. A big dream, yes. But there is little else more powerful than compound interest. If we invest now, future generations will thank us.
Let me now address the theme of making Mount Rainier even more sustainable. I took the liberty of borrowing a bit from Elizabeth Warren’s “I’ve got a plan for that” theme and, as you go through these, keep in mind how investments in walking and biking in places like Houten increase people’s happiness and well-being:
- Make it more walkable...
- We’ve got a plan for that - the 2010 MUTC Plan and 3300 Block of RIA redesign - let’s implement it!
- Same argument I made for the streetscapes above. Let’s make our downtown just a little more pleasant to walk in.
- Make it more bikeable...
- We’ve got a plan for that - the Bike Master Plan - let’s implement it!
- We already have such a great asset in the Bike Co-op, that the relatively small cost of painting bike arrows (or “sharrows” as they call them) and installing bikeway signs makes this a no-brainer.
- Just like Houten, let’s take advantage of how densely we were designed by making it more of a bikers' town.
- Make it more sustainable...
- Stormwater Management - we will have a plan for that - let’s implement it!
- I’ve talked about this a lot before. This could be one of the best ways for us to have a positive impact on our global environment and prepare for climate change.
- Towards that end, I am pleased to announce that we were awarded $75,000 from the Department of Natural Resources to fund the creation of a stormwater master plan this year, which aligns with the Stormwater Management Vision I laid out almost two years ago. Now we just need to take the recommendations that come out of that plan and implement them.
- Native Plant Way - we already love native plants, so let’s take it to the next level!
- I propose that we make a west-east Native Plant Way from Rogers Park to the 31st Street Pocket Park to Brentwood to the Northwest Branch Greenway.
- The idea would be to plant native forests in those two parks, and make targeted efforts to educate the households that sit in between those parks on the benefits of native plantings. We could then try to do the same thing with homes that would connect from the 31st Street Pocket Park to some of our neighbors in Brentwood who are also investing in native plants.
- This is a new idea, and one that I think could catch fire in some of our neighboring jurisdictions.
- Here is what a map showing what a Native Plant Way in Mount Rainier would look like (note – I ran it along a path that incorporates some yards that already have many native plants).
I know that walking through all these themes and projects is a lot to digest. But, when you step back and realize there are less than ten core projects at play, many of which have already gone through the planning phase, then none of this seems out of reach.
In fact, if you put aside Community Land Trusts and the Kaywood Theater (both of which are big money items that are most likely better served by finding outside partners), and set aside the sale of 3200 RIA (which does not cost anything), this vision whittles down to seven projects that are achievable and affordable:
- Streetscape improvements?
- As indicated earlier, we already have the plans to redesign the 3300 block of RIA and 34th Street.
- While we have already applied for grant funding to help with the 3300 block redesign, we can also appropriate a reasonable amount for both these improvements into our capital budget - e.g., allocate 33% of our streets and sidewalks budget to these projects.
- While it may take several years to complete the entire vision, it is entirely doable.
- Economic Incentive Fund?
- We already allocated the money out of reserves and have a partnership with an outside bank to review the applications and provide recommendations to the Mayor and Council. We just need to implement it.
- Bike Master Plan?
- We’re implementing it through a bikeways grant as we speak.
- Plus, painting sharrows and installing bikeway signs is not expensive.
- Native Plant Network?
- We could either build this into our parks budget, raise funding from the community, and/or seek grant money.
- Stormwater Management?
- We already received funding from the state to spend the next year creating a master plan. We will just need to allocate the recommended stormwater retrofits that come out of that plan into our budget or seek grant funding, which we have been successful at getting in the past.
- We can take a fine-tooth comb to the budget, budget to a surplus, and diversify our tax base by developing the 3200 block into a mixed-use building ASAP.
- What is left over can be invested.
As stated above, since most of the planning is already in place, much of this just comes down execution. And that is where I’d like to spend my time over the next two years – executing on a larger vision for the city.
Finally, to bring this full circle – back to a conversation about what science tells us makes for a happy city – I’ve asked a lot of people what they like about Mount Rainier. Many say the diversity. Others say the arts. Some say how accessible it is to everywhere. Still others say they just love to be able to walk to Glut on a Saturday morning. But one common theme permeates it all – by and large, we seem to like who we are, what we stand for, and what we believe in. And that’s what I want to invest in – how we are designed and who we are. That’s believing in our community.
As always, please send me your feedback as I'd like to hear what you think of all this.