I live in an unusual community, the Village of Friendship Heights, which is part of Chevy Chase MD. If the name suggests an idyllic place with cute cottages, a church, a pub, and maybe a green space with grazing sheep, think again. My Village is a densely populated community of high-rise buildings within a dynamic and growing metropolitan area very close to the nation’s capital, Washington DC.
The Village is home to about 4,800 residents, most of them highly educated and relatively affluent. It is a “Special Taxing District” that enjoys considerable autonomy within the State of Maryland and Montgomery County. Because it receives tax revenues, the Village is governed by a local Council of seven members, elected by residents every other year.
I joined the Council in 2014. As a professional historian I have enjoyed working on the Village’s archives. There are days, however, when I wish I had specialized in the fields of organizational behavior and psychology.
The Village is an urban and diverse community with many human and physical assets. At its founding four decades ago, it was the prototype of a successful “urban village,” an innovative and attractive alternative to suburban lifestyles. Initially, most buyers and renters were adults near retirement or retirees who wanted to be near Washington’s cultural resources and venues, yet feared the social and political turmoil that accompanied the struggle for Home Rule in the capital city
Today, the Village is home to a significantly younger and more diverse population. And it is one of many “urban villages” that have been built throughout the Washington metro area since the 1990s. The Village faces a major challenge: how to transition from a successful founders’ organization to one that understands how much the internal demographics and the external environment have changed since the 1970s and 1980s.
A greater number of residents from various age groups and backgrounds are paying attention to what’s going on. A good thing. Some are commenting on the fact that the governing Council of the Village is not holding itself accountable for timely and effective execution of projects — even projects that are neither controversial nor particularly difficult to execute. Others note that self-appointed spokesmen “for the community” pursue personal agendas, spend time on trivial issues, and sometimes disseminate bad information while Council remains silent.
Any organization that wants to make a successful transition from the legacy of its founders to plans for its future must begin with substantive and structured conversations based on facts. At the most basic level, Village residents should have a grasp of the following factors:
1) who lives in the Village in 2017? Statistical data as well as qualitative data from Village staff, condo boards, and building managers tell a story of continuity and change over the past 25 years or so;
2) in terms of infrastructure, services, and amenities, how does the Village compare with more recent versions of itself? Although the Village lacks in-house expertise on this topic, help is readily available from practitioners and scholars of urban planning;
3) what kinds of investments in infrastructure and programs will ensure a high quality of life in the decades ahead, and thus keep the Village competitive among similar communities? Again, insights and data from experts are available for the asking — from residents, county planners, and private firms;
4) what is happening on the periphery of the Village? The competitive advantages the Village enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s — a major transportation hub and an array of retail businesses — are eroding.
The deterioration of the Metro system, with no end in sight, is an existential threat to the Village, as it is not to other parts of Chevy Chase. The Chevy Chase Land Company is struggling to replace exiting tenants at the high-end shopping center known as The Collection. County approval of planned site amendments to this property means little if new retailers are not signing leases. The situation is even worse at Mazza Galleria, where many stores lie empty. These developments somehow never make it onto the Council’s agendas.
4) is the governance structure of the Village, developed in a different era and heavily influenced by the failed political ambitions of a high-profile leader, still viable and effective?
For example, does it make sense for the Mayor to control the agenda, yet not chair Council meetings? Does it make sense to list standing committees that, for the most part, do not meet and do not facilitate and expand residents’ participation in discussion of issues and formulation of projects?
None of these issues are being addressed and discussed among the elected members of the Village Council; they are certainly not discussed with residents. Far from filling the void, in its most recent incarnation the Community Advisory Committee gets bogged down in discussions of mundane issues that the paid staff of the Village is quite able to address and (mostly) resolve.
The result? While the D.C. metro area and southern Montgomery County continue to grow, evolve, and plan for the future, our Village remains frozen in a time warp.
In a few weeks registered voters who live in the Village again will have an opportunity to elect their governing Council. All or most incumbents plan to run again, untroubled and perhaps unaware of the work left undone. Unless several challengers come forward, engaged residents will have to find other ways to generate the ideas, discussions, and specific plans that will enable the community to remain viable and competitive.