In an op-ed published in The Washington Post last week, reporter Phillip Rucker complained that his parents want to buy two units in a condo development near their local hospital.
Rucker called it a protest against the Bethesda Town Center project, which won zoning approval in January. His older brother is studying biomedical engineering at the University of Maryland and wants to come home, he wrote.
“I have one brother, and his girlfriend wants to move in with him,” he said. “But he doesn’t have any money saved up. It would cost a great deal to move all the way out there and figure out how to pay for it. What I want to happen is for them to get a lot closer to a medical center.”
The plea has drawn sharp reactions from readers who care deeply about the suburbs. Many — I’m among them — embrace the suburbs and complain about overdevelopment and the loss of farmland and open space.
But I understand where Rucker’s feeling is coming from. He can see his parents’ home with its sprawling yard, its lawn chairs and communal patio. His brother and girlfriend like that where they are living.
But I’ve seen these developments. I had friends moving in just last year. In both cases, it was a shock to move from a huge house on the cul-de-sac to living in a cluster of two-bedroom units around a courtyard — spaces that seemed smaller than the whole, before you’ve tried to figure out what you want.
This is a modern-day version of the debate about the suburbs that was popular in the 1970s. People who wanted to remain in the suburbs as they built out for higher and higher values built huge “ranches” and McMansions across the land. But the suburban counties couldn’t accommodate them, and so a strong counter-movement came to protest the encroachment. People built new neighborhoods in mixed-use centers, in urban areas and in the farmlands — everything short of Portland, Ore., or Santa Monica, Calif.
These days, the battle over the future of American suburbs is heating up once again, with proposals for hundreds of new units in some of the region’s most desirable communities. This is a populist issue that illustrates a fundamental paradox in American life: We love suburban sprawl but hate the growth that comes with it.
But this debate is misunderstood. The suburbs have provided jobs and affordable housing for millions of Americans, and need to remain important. Housing affordability has taken off since the recession, and it has emerged as one of the most pressing issues facing working-class households.
It’s not just families on the edge of the middle class. I once worked in a suburban community and talked to people on every rung of the income ladder. They were appalled by the thought of losing their beloved driveways and cul-de-sacs, and encouraged by visions of fresh landscaping, fine dining and public transportation in our new mixed-use neighborhoods.
This is a debate that involves land development and preservation, but it’s also about shaping the kinds of places that work for people in the suburbs, which is in the interests of working-class people in the outer suburbs who want quality schools, walking places and parks close to home.
In the current online debate, some people who support preserving suburban character seem to be trying to force people who want more density to drive hundreds of miles for convenience.
I understand the frustration. But let’s settle for a compromise. Developers who build developments that include affordable housing, can go ahead, but at this point, it’s all on us: We need to buy homes in the more desirable communities with fully serviced public transit options, and make sure our children have the best schools.
Because without that, we may be out there, driving our cars to get to the suburban office parks.