Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Dan Reed

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

How can we reach out to more communities and people around the region?

Greater Greater Washington is a blog about places, but what makes it great are its people. I'm proud of the community of contributors we've built over the past seven years, but there are still many places and people we haven't reached yet. We need your help to do that.


Photo by Tom Raftery on Flickr.

Over 30 active contributors have become a part of Greater Greater Washington because they care about creating better communities. With their help, and with your contributions, we've become a regional resource for planning and transportation coverage.

Meanwhile, there are still many parts of the region we don't talk about very much, from East of the River to Fairfax County. Those communities' voices are an important part of the conversation we're having. Over the next year, we'd like to find new ways to incorporate them, whether through a speaker series, recruiting new contributors, or simply spending more time writing about those areas.

With your help, we were able to hire Jonathan Neeley as our new associate editor earlier this year. He hasn't been here for very long, but he's already become an invaluable part of our team. We'd love to keep him on board and make him full-time, giving us the capacity to reach out to new communities and recruit and train new contributors.

But we can't do it alone. With your support, we can preserve the high quality of GGW's writing and coverage, while bringing it to new parts of our region.

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Maryland's rural economy depends on its urban and suburban areas

Maryland's incoming Republican governor, Larry Hogan, says he wants to boost the state's economy by building roads instead of transit and focusing on the state's rural areas over urban ones. But starving urban areas of their needs will only bring the entire state down.


Rural Maryland depends on this, too. Photo by the author.

Ever since his election last month, Hogan has been noncommittal about the state's two biggest transit projects, the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and the Red Line in Baltimore. Maryland's transportation priorities are "out of whack," he told Post columnist Robert McCartney, adding, "Less than 10 percent of the people use mass transit. Most people in the state want the roads to be fixed."

That's an appeal to rural voters who elected Hogan based on a claim from him and his supporters that there's a "war on rural Maryland." But with the majority of Maryland's population and jobs, urban areas drive the state's economy, and public money spent there goes a lot farther than it does elsewhere.

The "war on rural Maryland"

Hogan's comments reflect the conflicting views rural Marylanders have of the state's urban and suburban areas, especially Montgomery, Prince George's, and Baltimore City, the three jurisdictions that voted for his opponent, Democrat Anthony Brown. On the one hand, rural counties depend on them. They go shopping at malls in Montgomery, send their kids to big state schools like College Park, or attend athletic events in Baltimore.

And it shows. Montgomery County alone had one out of every five jobs in Maryland in 2011, according to the Census Bureau. Add Prince George's and Baltimore City and you have 45% of the state's jobs. Add Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Howard counties, which voted for Hogan but are also urbanizing, and together they hold three-fourths of the state's jobs.

These areas are also leading the state's job growth. Of the 213,000 jobs added in Maryland between 2002 and 2011, 60% went to one of those six jurisdictions, and 28% went to Montgomery County. Montgomery County sends more in tax revenue to the state than it gets back because it's distributed to rural counties.

Yet rural lawmakers claim they're under attack from urban and suburban counties, with their liberal politics and diverse populations. Five counties in Western Maryland even tried to secede last year. Meanwhile, Carroll County won't allow its transit service to leave the county to keep out "criminals" from Montgomery.

Urban areas drive Maryland's economy

Larry Hogan is right about Maryland's transit use: statewide, just 8.8% of commuters use public transit, according to the 2012 American Community Survey. But that's because the state has built so many roads and so little rail transit. Just as you can't judge the demand for a bridge based on how many people are swimming across the river, you can't say we don't need transit because few people are using it.

Besides, 80% of Maryland's transit riders, or over 200,000 people, live in just three jurisdictions: Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. That's where most of the state's transit is, but they're also three of the state's biggest job centers.

There's a strong link between investing in transit and economic development. A study of over 300 metropolitan areas in the US found that expanding transit resulted in more employment and higher wages. It saves businesses and households money due to lower transportation costs, time savings, and increased access to jobs and employees. Overall, transit generates about $4 in economic returns for every $1 invested.


Low-density development costs more in taxes than it makes in revenue. Image from the Hogan Companies.

Meanwhile, low-density development, like the strip malls and subdivisions Larry Hogan's development firm builds, requires lots of new roads and utility lines that serve a relatively small number of people. The taxes it generates can't even cover the cost of building the infrastructure, let alone maintaining it. A Florida study found that even small buildings in urban neighborhoods can generate 10 times as much tax revenue per acre as a typical Walmart.

More importantly, there's a demonstrated demand for transit and urban places. That's why most office space in the DC area is going in next to Metro stations and rents are at a premium. It's why areas around Montgomery County's Metro stations are growing faster than the rest of the county. And it's why Virginia Republicans fought to build the Silver Line through Tysons Corner, which is attracting a ton of private investment.

It's not about urban vs. rural, but what's best for our economy

Improving Maryland's economic competitiveness is something everyone can agree on, regardless of political party or location. But if Larry Hogan says we need to spend public money more wisely, shouldn't our limited resources go to the places where we can get the most in return?

Over breakfast last week, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett reminded Hogan that the county was the state's economic engine and that he should respect their priorities, including transit. That's a message rural Maryland should hear. As long as it depends on urban and suburban counties for its economy, the only "war on rural Maryland" is when Republican lawmakers shoot the entire statewide economy in the foot by starving metropolitan areas.

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We're heading to U Street for our next happy hour

Ring in the holidays with your favorite GGW contributors, commenters, and fellow readers at our next happy hour! Join us at JoJo on U Street next Tuesday, December 16 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm.


Photo by Robb Hohmann on Flickr.

This month, we're heading up the Green Line to JoJo, a bar that blends a "hip 1920s vibe with a contemporary flair," for drinks, food, and conversation. You'll find it at 1518 U Street NW, near the corner of 16th and U. They've got an extensive food and drink menu, and happy hour specials until 7 pm.

JoJo is three blocks from the U Street Metro station (Green and Yellow lines). If you're coming by bus, Metrobus routes 90/92/93/96/97 stop outside the bar, the S2/S4/S9 stop is around the corner at 16th and U, and the 52/53/54 stops two blocks away at 14th and U. There are Capital Bikeshare stations at New Hampshire Avenue and T Street, and outside the Reeves Center at 14th and U, both two blocks away.

This year, we've held events at Metro-accessible bars in Alexandria, Bethesda, Tenleytown, Tysons Corner, Silver Spring, and Eastern Market. Next month, we'll be returning to Northern Virginia. Where would you like us to go next? Let us know in the comments.

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Montgomery gets its first cycletrack, and lots of sharrows

Montgomery County took a big step towards better bicycling this fall with several new bike facilities, including a new cycletrack in White Flint and sharrows on several neighborhood streets in Silver Spring. The Woodglen Drive cycletrack won't open until next week, but cyclists are already taking notice.


The new Woodglen Drive cycletrack. All photos by the author unless noted.

The Montgomery County Department of Transportation began planning for the Woodglen cycletrack last summer. By narrowing the three vehicle lanes and removing parking on one side, engineers were able to add the two-way bike lane with a generous buffer from traffic.


Left: What Woodglen Drive looked like just last month. Photo from Google Street View.
Right: Woodglen today. Photo by the author.

It's only one-third of a mile long, connecting the end of the Bethesda Trolley Trail to Nicholson Lane, though it may get longer when Woodglen is extended to the White Flint Metro station. Even though it's short, the Woodglen cycletrack has really changed the feel of this street.

Until recently, Woodglen was still a big, wide suburban road despite being next to Montgomery County's tallest building, the 289-foot-tall North Bethesda Market, which has a Whole Foods and several outdoor cafes at the bottom. The cycletrack narrows the street, which not only slows drivers down, but also gives pedestrians a shorter distance to cross. It feels much more like the urban place Montgomery County envisions for White Flint.

Lots of sharrows in Silver Spring

Meanwhile, sharrows recently appeared on several streets in and around downtown Silver Spring, including Bonifant Street, Second Avenue, and 13th Street. Fred Lees, chief of traffic engineering studies at MCDOT, says that they're intended to connect the county's Capital Bikeshare stations to one another.

"It was siting the stations, looking at the routes between them, and looking at what we could do to enhance the routes between them," says Lees.

MCDOT has also placed sharrows around Bikeshare stations in Shady Grove, and is planning to install more in Bethesda and Friendship Heights next spring. Transportation planners are also studying whether they can extend the Cedar Street bike lane in Silver Spring, which is currently one block long, along Cedar and Spring streets as far as 16th Street.


Sharrows on Newell and Kennett streets in South Silver Spring.

Places like Silver Spring and Bethesda have the county's highest rates of walking and biking to work, and bike commuting in Silver Spring increased by one-third last year. These sharrows help form a bike network by taking advantage of streets that may be too narrow for bike lane, but are generally slow and quiet enough that potential bicyclists should feel comfortable using them.

That's a contrast with the new sharrows on Georgia Avenue, a Maryland State Highway Administration project. While the sharrows send a message to drivers that they should expect to see bicyclists, Georgia is still a wide, fast road that many bicyclists are reluctant to use.


The intersection of Silver Spring Avenue and Grove Street, both of which have sharrows now.

In Montgomery County, getting good sidewalks and bike lanes can sometimes be a struggle. While these additions to the bike network are small, they're a promising sign that things are changing.

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Making room for transit can make better streets for everyone

Many proposed transit projects in our region, from streetcars to bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, involve vehicles running in the street. Giving transit a place on our busy streets can be a hard sell, especially when it means displacing cars. But a recent trip to Minneapolis shows how it can create better places for everyone, including drivers.


The new Green Line runs through the University of Minnesota. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

Minneapolis finds a compromise on the Green Line

While presenting at Rail~Volution last month in Minneapolis, I had a chance to ride the Green Line, a new light-rail between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. The 11-mile line bears a striking similarity to the proposed Purple Line here in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Like the Purple Line, the Green Line faced resistance from a Republican governor and concerns about gentrification and neighborhood disruption from nearby large immigrant communities.

But it's how the Green Line interacts with the University of Minnesota, and how community leaders came together to make it a success, that might be the biggest lesson for our area. Like the Purple Line, which would pass through the University of Maryland, the Green Line travels on Washington Avenue, the main street at the University of Minnesota.


Washington Avenue before and after. Photos from Google Street View.

The University of Minnesota, also known as the U, opposed banning cars from Washington Avenue, a busy commuter route into downtown Minneapolis, and turning it into a transit mall. Scientists in the over 80 labs along the street worried that vibrations from light rail trains would disturb their research.

Officials preferred a more circuitous route that went north of the campus, which would inconvenience fewer drivers but also reduce transit access to campus. The U sued to block the project, but after negotiating with the regional Metropolitan Council, officials eventually came to an agreement. The council would pay to reduce vibrations and electromagnetic interference, while the U would move some labs away from the line.

A busy road becomes a place

Since then, the U has worked to make the Green Line as successful as possible. It distributed over 6,700 special passes to students, faculty, and staff that allow them to ride between the three on-campus stations for free, and rerouted campus buses to divert more traffic away from Washington Avenue.


A plaza runs down the middle of Washington Avenue, with light rail and bus/bike lanes on the sides. Photo by the author.

The U's cooperation with the Metropolitan Council meant that the Green Line could transform Washington Avenue from a traffic sewer to a gathering place. Today, the street feels like a natural extension of the campus. Trains run down the middle of the street, and there are shared bus and bike lanes on either side. The sidewalks are wider, and the crosswalks have special paving materials to make them more visible.

There's also more green space than there was before. Since the Green Line stations are in the center of the street, there's a space between the tracks. It would have been easy to just make it a grassy median, or find a way to squeeze in a car lane. Instead, it's a plaza with tables, chairs, and lush landscaping.


Bikes, buses, and transit share the reconfigured Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota. Photo by the author.

A significant amount of development is happening around the Green Line as a result. Over 2,500 apartments have been built around the U's three Green Line stations, with another 2,000 in the pipeline. New shops and restaurants have opened along the tracks to cater to the influx of students.

When I visited, Washington Avenue was bustling with students walking to class, cyclists headed downtown, and light rail trains gliding down the street. It was a nice place to be, but it was still a transportation corridor. In fact, the transition was so seamless that it wasn't until I flew home and I looked at a map that I even realized cars were banned from part of the street.

Better streets make better transit

The development around the Green Line, coupled with the dramatically improved walking and bicycling environment, supports and reinforces the use of transit, making the Green Line more successful. Even before the line opened, 20% of faculty and staff and 40% of students used transit. But since the Green Line opened, it already has over 40,000 riders each day, higher than the projected ridership in 2030. The three University of Minnesota stations are the line's busiest.


Passengers wait for a train on Washington Avenue. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

And diverting drivers away from campus hasn't created the traffic congestion that some people feared. In 2011, there was an average of 18,800 cars on Washington Avenue through campus each day. According to the state's traffic counts, some of those cars have shifted over to nearby University Avenue, which had an increase over 8,000 cars since then.

But on other nearby streets, traffic increased by a very small amount, or even decreased. It's likely because some drivers chose to take the Green Line instead, opening up street space for others.

The Green Line required leaders to accept that, in order for transit to be successful on Washington Avenue, it had to be seen as a place for people, not just for cars. This is standard operating procedure in other countries, where transit usually gets top priority, but here it requires some persuasion. Hopefully, the success of projects like the Green Line can be a guide for leaders in the DC area as they try to build transit that not only moves people, but creates stronger places.

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Sharrows tell drivers to share the road with cyclists, except when that road is a state highway

Sharrows are great for streets where there isn't room for a traditional bike lane. But sometimes, they're used as a way to avoid putting in a bike lane, which is bad for bicyclists and drivers alike.


New sharrows on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. Photo by Paul Meyer.

Last week, sharrows appeared on Georgia Avenue between Wayne Avenue and East-West Highway in downtown Silver Spring. It's one of eighteen state highways in Maryland where cyclists are allowed to take the full lane, and the sharrows let drivers know to look out for them.

Reader Paul Meyer tweeted this photo of the lane markings and wrote, "Sharrows on Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring?!? A start."

Sharrows are a start for Montgomery County, which has embraced bicycling without always committing to the infrastructure needed to support it, like bike lanes. The county has had Capital Bikeshare for just over a year, including in downtown Silver Spring, but due to a lack of safe places to bike, it's gotten off to a slow start.

Georgia Avenue is a big, wide street, with six lanes of traffic, turn lanes, and parking lanes. Though the signed speed limit is 30 mph, the lanes are wide, which encourages speeding. This is the kind of street that only the hardiest cyclists would ride on, and sharrows won't change that. Cyclists will continue riding on the sidewalks where they feel safer, but they're already barely wide enough to accommodate pedestrians in some areas.

Sharrows are ideal for streets that are too narrow for a bike lane. Because of the amount and speed of traffic on Georgia, cyclists need their own space. This street would be a good candidate for bike lanes with a buffer or even cycletracks, where a physical buffer would give cyclists additional separation from vehicle traffic, which benefits drivers too.

Obviously, that would require taking lanes from cars, and in the case of cycle tracks, redesigning or even removing parking spaces. County and state transportation officials have traditionally been reluctant to do that, most recently with Old Georgetown Road in White Flint. And so sharrows are sometimes used as a substitute for a bike lane where the political will to build one isn't there.


Sharrows are great for narrow, slow streets like Illinois Avenue in Petworth, but not for big, fast streets. Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

But if there's any community that should have the will to give cyclists a place on its streets, it should be downtown Silver Spring, where a majority of residents walk, bike, or take transit to work. Nearly a third of all households don't even have cars, and 40% of its public parking spaces are usually vacant.

The new sharrows on Georgia Avenue tell drivers to pay attention to cyclists. But as long as Georgia remains a big, fast street that prioritizes driving over everything else, drivers won't have many cyclists to watch for.

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This dying strip mall could be the next Mosaic District

Over the past few years, retail developer Edens has transformed a gritty wholesale market and a suburban multiplex into trendy retail destinations. Their next redevelopment project, a dying strip mall in Burtonsville, might be a little more challenging.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Burtonsville Crossing, on Route 29 in eastern Montgomery County, has been hemorrhaging tenants since a highway bypass was built behind it in 2006 and is now 70% vacant.

This week, Edens, which has owned the strip mall since 2003, signed an agreement with the county to explore ways to redevelop it and a six-acre park-and-ride lot behind it.

Montgomery County seems to expect big things from the developer. Their press release states that Edens is "known locally for the popular epicurean mecca Union Market" in Northeast DC, and describes "conceptual plans" for restaurants, retail, housing, and a movie theatre, which sounds like the Mosaic District, the mixed-use development Edens is building next to the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station in Fairfax County.

Burtonsville, a mashup of farms, subdivisions, and apartment complexes next to the Patuxent River, has been economically struggling for years. Office buildings built during the 2000s still sit empty, while a new shopping center across from Burtonsville Crossing continues to have vacancies. While some neighborhoods remain relatively affluent, local schools are experiencing white and middle-class flight, and some areas now have poverty rates exceeding 20%.

County leaders see the park-and-ride lot as key to the area's resurgence. A 2012 master plan for the area identifies it as the location of a mixed-use neighborhood, with up to 600 homes alongside shops and offices.

But Giant, which used to be at Burtonsville Crossing before moving across the street, still owns their former store and is allowed to block new tenants who could compete with them, effectively blocking redevelopment. Building on the park-and-ride allows Edens to go around Giant and bring in an anchor store who could attract other businesses.


The Mosaic District. Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

While the details are still sketchy, this project could give this aging suburban community a new center, much in the same way that Edens has done for the Mosaic District. Ten years ago, Mosaic was a multiplex in a sea of parking. Today's it's becoming a walkable neighborhood, with an art-house movie theatre, a Target, and locally-owned shops and restaurants surrounding a public plaza. New townhouses there sell for upward of $700,000, while thousands of apartments are popping up nearby.

The circumstances in Burtonsville are a little different. For starters, it's a relatively spread-out, low-density community that doesn't seem to have the critical mass to support the retail that already exists.

Unlike Union Market, which is in an area with little retail, a 2007 market study found lots of retail competition for Burtonsville, like Maple Lawn, a walkable retail district three miles north in Howard County, and the new Towne Centre at Laurel lifestyle center a few miles east. Unlike Mosaic District, there's no Metro station nearby, though there are plans for a Bus Rapid Transit line between Burtonsville and Silver Spring.

But after years of bad news about Burtonsville, the county's press release suggests a hint of confidence about what could happen there. County officials will start negotiations with Edens shortly, meaning we'll probably see more details in the months to come.

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Join us for happy hour in Silver Spring

With summer coming to a close, it's time to resume our regular happy hour series. Join us at Denizens Brewing Company in Silver Spring next Wednesday, September 10 from 6 to 8 pm.


Photo by Thomas Cizauskas on Flickr.

This month, we're headed to Denizens Brewing Company, the new brewery and beergarden in South Silver Spring, for drinks, food, and conversation on an outdoor patio within sight of the Red Line. You'll find Denizens at 1115 East-West Highway, one block west of Georgia Avenue.

One of the region's newest breweries, Denizens is the result of a new state law that allows microbreweries to sell to the public in Montgomery County without going through the county's Department of Liquor Control. They offer a couple of their own brews alongside a number of local favorites from breweries like Port City in Alexandria and Brewer's Art in Baltimore. BBQ Bus, the DC-based food truck, provides a selection of tasty picnic-style dishes.

Denizens is a short walk from the Silver Spring Metro station (Red Line). If you're coming by bus, it's a few blocks from the 70/79 stop at Georgia and Eastern avenues, or the S2/S4/S9 stop at Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road. There's also a Capital Bikeshare station one block away, at 1200 East-West Highway, and if you're driving, there's metered street parking and the Kennett Street Garage one block away.

In the past few months, we've met up at Metro-accessible bars Bethesda, Ward 3, and Tysons Corner. Where would you like us to go next? We're especially interested in suggestions for a future happy hour in Prince George's County.

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How did Silver Spring get its boundaries? And how would you define them?

You could ask five residents what Silver Spring's boundaries are and receive five different answers, ranging from a neighborhood near the DC line to a city the size of the District of Columbia itself. But how did it end up this way to begin with? The answer involves a railroad, zip codes, and possibly Marion Barry.


Silver Spring, as the Census Bureau sees it. Image from Wikipedia.

Unlike northeastern states where every square inch of land sits inside a municipality, or western states where cities compete for territory to access natural resources or tax revenue, much of Maryland and Virginia are unincorporated. Part of the reason is that counties in these states can perform functions like zoning and schools, reducing the incentive for communities to become a town or city.

Silver Spring is one those places. As a result, most definitions of Silver Spring fall into two camps: one I call "Little Silver Spring," or areas near its historical center, or "Big Silver Spring," which comprises most of eastern Montgomery County. To find out which one is more dominant, local organization Silver Spring Inc. will have residents draw their own boundaries in an interactive event at Fenton Street Market this Saturday.

Big Silver Spring

Francis Preston Blair founded Silver Spring in 1840 when he fell off his horse and discovered a mica-flecked spring. It became one of several towns that grew up around the Metropolitan Branch railroad, which starts in DC and heads northwest. Meanwhile, the rest of eastern Montgomery County remained largely undeveloped save for a few suburban developments and small villages with names like White Oak, Colesville, and Norwood.

Silver Spring became the reference point for the larger area, and "Big Silver Spring" was born. In the 1930s, home builder R.E. Latimer boasted that his new subdivision Burnt Mills Hills was three miles "beyond the Silver Spring traffic light" at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. Ken Lubel, owner of Tires of Silver Spring and a longtime resident, notes that Silver Spring addresses once appeared as far north as Columbia.


"Big Silver Spring," or the Postal Service's definition of Silver Spring. Image by Christy Batta.

The invention of zip codes in the 1960s made Big Silver Spring official right as suburbanization took hold. The first three digits of each five-digit zip code referred to a larger region.

Naturally, Silver Spring got its own prefix, "209," and with it the rest of eastern Montgomery County. (This may have been due to then-DC mayor Marion Barry demanding that Silver Spring and Takoma Park give up the DC zip codes they were originally assigned.) New residents thus identified with Silver Spring and participated in activities there, like these students at then-new Springbrook High School marching in the 1970 Silver Spring Thanksgiving parade.

The US Postal Service assigns Silver Spring addresses to all of zip codes 20901, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 10, and parts of 20912, which is mostly in the city of Takoma Park. This definition stretches from the District line to the Patuxent River to the north, and roughly from Rock Creek Park and Georgia Avenue to the west to Prince George's County to the east, and even dipping into Prince George's in a few places. At its widest point, Big Silver Spring is about 12 miles long.

Big Silver Spring has over 306,000 residents, comprising 30% of Montgomery County's population, and covers 62.4 square miles, almost as large as the District of Columbia. If it were an incorporated city, it would be larger than St. Paul, Minnesota or Buffalo, New York. The Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce likes to use a version of Big Silver Spring.

Little Silver Spring

"Little Silver Spring" usually refers to what's now downtown Silver Spring, where Blair fell off his horse, and other areas inside the Capital Beltway. The Census Bureau generally uses this definition, claiming the area from the Beltway to the north to the District line and Takoma Park to the south, and from Rock Creek Park in the west to Prince George's County in the east.

Little Silver Spring has about 71,000 residents in just under 8 square miles. (Incidentally, this definition includes an area between Grubb Road and Rock Creek Park that has a Chevy Chase address.)


Sean Emerson's map of the "Real Silver Spring."

Proponents include the Planning Department and the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, which also counts Four Corners as part of Silver Spring. Local bloggers Silver Spring, Singular and Sean Emerson of Around the Corners argue that a narrow definition of Silver Spring protects its identity while encouraging other communities to distinguish themselves as well.

And communities in Big Silver Spring are doing just that. Citizens associations in Colesville and Glenmont erected signs to set themselves apart. Montgomery County has worked hard to brand Wheaton as a distinct place from Silver Spring.

What do boundaries mean, anyway?

However, many people still identify with their mailing address. Landlords on Craigslist are more than willing to claim Big Silver Spring. And earlier this year, a concertgoer showed up at the Fillmore with a Silver Spring sleeve tattoo. All of the familiar landmarks were there, like the Lee Building and Chompie the shark, but so was the sign for Snowdens Mill, a subdivision 6 miles away in zip code 20904.

Jarrett Walker writes about the "emotive power" and "resonance" of a place name that often transcends boundaries. Silver Spring has historically been one of the DC area's biggest cultural and activity centers, and by drawing boundaries, you're commenting on how much that destination "resonates."

In other words, Silver Spring could be whatever "feels" like Silver Spring to you. I tend to believe in Big Silver Spring, if only because I went to Blake High School, a full 10 miles from downtown Silver Spring in a place once called Norwood. But we hung out in downtown, and its diverse student body looked way more like Silver Spring than it did Olney, which was much closer.

What does your Silver Spring look like? Join me and Silver Spring Inc. and draw your boundaries this Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm at Fenton Street Market, located at Veterans' Plaza in downtown Silver Spring.

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This could have been the Silver Spring Transit Center

Though it remains unfinished, the Silver Spring Transit Center has been in planning since 1997. But 20 years before that, architecture students created this proposal for a giant box stretching across downtown Silver Spring.


A 1970s proposal for the Silver Spring Transit Center. All images courtesy of Neil Greene.

Silver Spring is one of the region's largest transportation hubs, bringing together Metro, commuter rail, local buses, intercity buses, and eventually the Purple Line and the Capital Crescent Trail. Fitting all of those pieces presents a pretty interesting design challenge, and naturally attracts architecture students. When I was in architecture school at the University of Maryland, I saw more than a few thesis projects reimagining the transit center.


A section drawing of the proposed transit center, which would have also contained stores, offices, a hotel, and apartments.

Recently, Action Committee for Transit's Neil Greene found this proposal for the Silver Spring Transit Center produced by a group of architecture students at Catholic University in the 1970s, right before the Metro station opened in 1978. Like the most recent plans for the transit center, which have since fallen through, they surrounded the transit center with buildings containing apartments, offices, a hotel, and shops. Except in this proposal, they'd all be in one giant superstructure surrounding the station platform.

In their design, Metro trains would pull into a giant, skylit atrium, surrounded by shops and restaurants, with apartments, offices, and hotel rooms above. That was a really popular idea at the time, pioneered by architect John Portman, though I don't know of any atria that included a train station.


Metro trains would have passed through a giant atrium.

Directly below the platform was the B&O Railroad, the precursor to today's MARC commuter rail. Below that were buses, taxis, and a kiss-and-ride, as well as an underground parking garage for commuters.

The entire structure would have stretched over multiple blocks from Colesville Road and East-West Highway, where the NOAA buildings are today, up to Wayne Avenue, where the current transit center is. Existing streets would go through the transit center in underpasses, while skybridges would allow visitors to travel through the rest of downtown Silver Spring without touching the street.


Skybridges would have connected the transit center to the rest of downtown Silver Spring.

Of course, this was just a student proposal, and was never carried out. But Montgomery County did propose skybridges in downtown Silver Spring as early as 1969 and, by the 1970s, had drawn out an entire network of them, most of which were never built.

This was in keeping with the prevailing wisdom of the time, that cars and pedestrians should be kept separate. But as we've seen in places where this actually happened, like Rosslyn or Crystal City, this doesn't work very well, and those communities are getting rid of their skybridges.

Of course, had we actually pursued a design like this, the Silver Spring Transit Center might have actually opened by now. Repair work on the current facility is currently underway and Montgomery County officials say that it could open next year, just seven years after groundbreaking.

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