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New building raises Silver Spring's urban design standard

Former Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey once said, "there are so many bad buildings in Silver Spring, it's a hard place to do good." Yet some architects and developers are trying to do better here.

One of Silver Spring's many examples of poor urban design. Image from Google Maps.

Last month, ground was broken on Eleven55 Ripley, a new residential complex in the Ripley District, located west of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring. With a mix of housing and shops, buildings that engage the street, and thoughtfully-designed public space, it makes an effort to enhance the surrounding neighborhood.

Eleven55 was designed by Georgetown-based architects Shalom Baranes and is being built by national apartment developer Home Properties, who have also teamed up to redevelop the Falkland Chase apartments at East-West Highway and 16th Street. It will have 385 apartments and townhomes, including 49 subsidized units for low-income families as required by law, and 5,500 square feet of ground-floor retail space, about the size of a Red Lobster.

The residential component comes in three parts:

Ripley Street North (Ripley Street at Dixon Avenue)

A 20-story apartment tower with studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units. Home Properties claims it will be the tallest building in Silver Spring, but at 200 feet tall, it's actually just the tallest apartment tower, because there are four taller office buildings in downtown Silver Spring. The tallest building in Montgomery County, meanwhile, will be this 300 foot tall apartment tower in White Flint.

Not everyone will love the sleek, modern design, though one of the commenters on the Just Up the Pike Facebook page called it a "watered-down" version of The Standard Hotel in New York, which is encouraging.

The long strip windows are an interesting break from the typical window-balcony-window rhythm of many residential buildings. It's not totally clear from these images what materials will be used on the building's exterior, but it looks comparable to the metal cladding used on Cityline, a building Shalom Baranes designed in Tenleytown.

Rowhouses (Ripley Street west of Dixon Avenue)

At the tower's base will be 7 row houses with rooftop decks. This is a variation of the "Vancouver point tower," which is basically an apartment tower with townhouses on the bottom. It kills two birds with one stone, providing the density of a high-rise building above while creating a low-rise, human-scaled experience at the street level.

Not only does this put people on the sidewalks, but it gives them something interesting to look at, not just driveways like some other downtown Silver Spring buildings.

Loft Building (Ripley Street at Dixon Avenue)

A 5-story "loft-style" building with apartments and retail space. The Planning Department says this building will be about 80 feet high, suggesting that there will be some nice, tall ceilings inside. I'm not sure if storefront retail would be successful here, as it's currently a little off the beaten path. Improving the site's connections to the surrounding area will be important.

New Site Plan

That's why the project also includes an extension of Dixon Avenue, which currently ends a block north at Bonifant Street. Home Properties will build the portion of the new street that passes through their site. Eventually, Dixon Avenue will continue south to Silver Spring Avenue.

Along with another new street connecting Ripley and Bonifant, Dixon Avenue will connect Eleven55 to the Metro and the rest of downtown Silver Spring. This will require tearing out part of the massive public parking garage on Bonifant or removing it completely, which may not happen for a long time.

Perspective, Proposed Open Space

Finally, the developer will build a quarter-acre pocket park at the with public art commemorating the life and works of environmentalist Rachel Carson, who wrote the book Silent Spring from her house in nearby White Oak.

Many of downtown Silver Spring's pocket parks are poorly designed and seldom used, but this one looks pretty good. For starters, placing it at the end of the block allows the new buildings to cozy up to the sidewalk, exactly as buildings in urban neighborhoods are supposed to do.

It's hard to imagine it today, but one day this park will be surrounded by a new Silver Spring Transit Center, several new buildings, and a partially elevated Purple Line. It'll be a valuable green oasis in the midst of the city, ensuring that people will want to use it.

Eleven55 isn't the only cool new building going up in the Ripley District. The Solaire apartments, being built across the street, will have live-work apartments that allow residents to run small businesses from home. At Ripley and Georgia Avenue is the new headquarters of translation company ALC, which placed a striking modern addition above a 1920's-era shop building.

The Ripley District may be a "made-up" neighborhood, but it's shaping up to be a pretty nice place. It's encouraging to see that architects and developers alike are beginning to embrace good urbanism, rather than settling for suburban-style buildings with huge driveways, as was once proposed for this site. Hopefully, Eleven55 will set the standard for new construction in downtown Silver Spring.

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. 


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I have to ask, because I can't tell from the photo- are those non-opening windows? I really don't want them to be because I really want to like this building.

by Cbishop on Jan 31, 2012 10:12 am • linkreport

I like this.

All neighborhoods are made up. Anyone who uses that term in the DC area isn't really thinking about where they are.

by x on Jan 31, 2012 10:22 am • linkreport

Looks great! There are about 6-8 apartment buildings currently under construction in downtown Silver Spring and all of them seem to "get it." Very good news for the area.

by jag on Jan 31, 2012 10:47 am • linkreport

While this looks ok, my big complaint is that it adds to the 2 or fewer bedroom stock of apartments in the area and barely addresses the lack of affordable larger places. The 7 row houses are going to be in a completely different price league than the rest of the building. Why couldn't they include another 10-20 three bedroom apartments. Those would give more apartment-living options for middle income families and apartment sharing for singles would also make the area more affordable. When we first moved to the area & looked for places, the older Falkland Chase, Blairs, & Summit HIlls were the only complexes with 3 bedroom apartments. I guess that isn't significantly changing in the near future.

by Dan H on Jan 31, 2012 10:49 am • linkreport

@Dan H

The market for such large apartments isn't nearly as strong as you think.

by Alex B. on Jan 31, 2012 10:54 am • linkreport

Good urbanism doesn't necessarily make for good urban architeture, one of who's atributes is that it should be interesting to look at while walking. Unfortunatley this latest Shalom building misses the mark. The facade is a completely undifferentiated grid of strip windows without relief, a fine design off a busy suburban highway but ultimatley deadening at street level, see K Street. While the ground floor is comendable, why not break up the facade a bit. I wish they had taken a que from the United Therapudics building also in DTSS. Instead we get another "cool" building that will look dated in about five years and contribute little to a distinct Silver Spring identity.

by Thayer-D on Jan 31, 2012 11:02 am • linkreport

Dan H, a 3br in this building would be exorbitantly expensive and certainly wouldn't be something for "middle income families" anyways.

by jag on Jan 31, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

I wonder if thats not an issue with the "we need OLD buildings" disequilibrium effect? IE folks who can afford a NEW 3br apt in TOD can also afford an older TH in TOD, or a newish TH not too far away (and can afford high auto ownership) while those who really need affordable 3BRs, really need them to be in older buildings to be affordable enough to trump the appeal of older THs.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 31, 2012 11:08 am • linkreport


There's also the issue of filtering. I know in DC at least many of the larger housing units are taken up by people who are renting a share or just a room - a group house, essentially. While there's a certain appeal to this in many cases, I'd also imagine that many of those people would also be willing to rent a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment if there were more supply available.

So, it's entirely plausible that building a tower with many 1 and 2 bedroom units will reduce some market pressure on existing 3 bedroom rowhouse/townhome type units.

by Alex B. on Jan 31, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

This doesn't look like it adds great design or integration into the landscape. SS (esp. the high rises) is like a catalogue of really blah takes on the vernacular architecture of the 50 years. This won't correct that.

by Rich on Jan 31, 2012 11:25 am • linkreport

There is a SB project in Arlington called Odyssey that does a better job of the tower-with-townhouses-at-the-base idea.

by spookiness on Jan 31, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

The design looks pretty good. It looks like the cladding is brick, though.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 31, 2012 1:30 pm • linkreport

Some nice looking buildings. Thanks for the post.

by H Street Landlord on Jan 31, 2012 1:31 pm • linkreport

Great post Dan. I was shocked at the progress of the new developments at Cameron and Spring, have you done a post on those?

It's nice to see these new buildings in Silver Spring are learning lessons from other cities in terms of urban design. But, I was surprised to see so much glass on the ground floor row houses. It gives them a storefront feel, but maybe that is the longer term expectation for the space?

by eozberk on Jan 31, 2012 1:36 pm • linkreport

Alex B, I don't know what the total 3 bedroom demand is, but I do know a lot of people who looked for larger apartments in this area and eventually went elsewhere because it didn't exist or was in bad shape. It wouldn't make sense to make an entire building 3 bedrooms, but 5% of the building seems reasonable and would sell.

@jag, I've known many happy apartment livers in D.C. who were priced out of D.C. when they needed a 3rd bedroom for family. They could have afforded and enjoyed living an a SS apartment, but the stock is mediocre and limited. The people I know were probably at the higher end of middle income (70-80th percentile incomes?), but could afford the prices & valued living in a walkable area.

@Awalker, Just because someone can afford a car doesn't mean they want to use it every day. There is a premium to be within walking distance of shops and metro and that premium isn't being paid by people who can't afford a car.

by Dan H on Jan 31, 2012 2:14 pm • linkreport

@most people

Though my last post about housing focused on the need for smaller units, I wonder what the demand for larger apartments would be. I grew up in an apartment building in DTSS and I went to school with lots of kids who did the same, albeit in 1 and 2-bedroom apartments. And when I worked in Rockville Town Square, I knew a family who lived in one of the four-bedroom "penthouse" apartments above the shops.

I think the demand exists, both from families and group shares, but only because apartments are perceived as the best way to get into a close-in neighborhood. When THs and SFs exist in those areas (like just outside DTSS), those people can just live in one of those and have the same amenities. As the area builds out, I imagine there will be a greater need for large apartments.


I also like the townhouses at the Odyssey in Arlington, especially since you can see kids playing on a stoop in the Google Street View, though I'm curious: why do you think they're better than the ones proposed at Eleven55?

@Neil Flanagan

Noted. Brick could look pretty cool, too, and less chance of the "death ray effect."


In 2010, I wrote about UniTher's HQ at Spring and Cameron, though I haven't written about the newest phase (on the north side of Cameron, still under construction) or the Cameron, the new apartment building next door. I really like UniTher, but I don't care for the Cameron. The "pocket park" required by the county is just a big driveway and is shaded by the building most of the day, making it useless. There are storefronts, which is good, but they'll be hard to fill 'cause there's so little other retail nearby. It's an okay building, but we could've done much better.

by dan reed! on Jan 31, 2012 2:25 pm • linkreport

I would have to see better detail on the Eleven55 TH's but to me they seem flat, and I don't like the recessed entry doors so much. Upon looking at the Odyssey link, its not as nice as my memory of it. A little more yard depth, and some more deeply articulated window bays would make a difference, but overall I think its a decent transition to a residential street like that. My memory was also wrong because I thought the window bays had more variation in color.

I worked near the Odyssey during the construction and was always watching it. I also took an NBM construction tour at the time. It was a challenging site, with a steep grade, odd lot shape, and the zoning around it was different in all directions. The curtain wall on the tower is unique for a residential project, and the north facing views, especially from the rooftop pool area, are spectacular. However given the time and market when it was built, I would probably not want to be an owner there now because I imagine it may not be a good investment for awhile.

by spookiness on Jan 31, 2012 3:26 pm • linkreport

We've owned a house in Silver Spring (Woodside Park) since 1997, and have been thinking it would be nice to move to a condo in a few years, once our kids have finished college and we are at least semi-retired. Ideally we'd like to stay in Silver Spring, but I agree with comments here that large-enough condos seem to be scarce. Of course, the main reason to build more 3BR condos and apartments is to expand the pool of affordable housing for families; but I bet there would also be a market among retired baby-boomers who need a little more space than a small 2BR place can provide (for visiting family and friends, especially the grown kids and future grandkids - and also for our accumulated furnishings and hobbies), but who want the ease of one-floor living, no yard to maintain, and easy walkability to shops, movies, AFI, etc.

by Mary on Jan 31, 2012 5:43 pm • linkreport

Dan -- Keep in mind that what actually ends up getting built is often very different than what is shown in some architectural drawings. Your photo showing "poor urban design" is a perfect case in point -- that's the Portico apartments, which were originally supposed to be condos, and if you dig out the original photos, you'll see that what was built looks almost nothing like what was designed.

by N on Jan 31, 2012 7:08 pm • linkreport

Found a picture of what the Portico was supposed to look like:

Bears minimal resemblance to what got built.

by N on Jan 31, 2012 7:17 pm • linkreport


You're right: the renderings of the Portico look better than it does as an actual building, but that's not saying much: other than having balconies and some larger windows, the rendering still shows a big, gray slab with nothing to activate the street.

While we don't know what Eleven55 will look like when completed, I feel a little better about it. They've made the right moves to start - shopfronts and front doors on the street, buildings at the lot line - which puts it head and shoulders over so many other buildings in DTSS, existing or imagined.

by dan reed! on Jan 31, 2012 7:18 pm • linkreport

While the demand for 3bd apts isn't so great now, when Oboe's predicted collapse of the suburbs arrives, familiez will need affordable old 3bd apts so they can escape the Mad Max like dystopia of more traditionally suburban areas.

PS - only some of comment is sarcastic.

by Falls Church on Jan 31, 2012 10:16 pm • linkreport

The stripping down of the Portico was due to the economy/housing collapse. That said, of course renderings look different than the actual product. I don't think there's any doubt that these Ripley builds will be better than most of the buildings in downtown Silver Spring (not that that's saying much, but taking a jump in the right direction is still great).

by jag on Jan 31, 2012 10:34 pm • linkreport

Nice write-up! It's refreshing to see a positive piece involving Montgomery County.

Really looking forward to seeing this new addition to the Silver Spring skyline. I love downtown SS. There's far more culture and diversity here than anywhere else in Montgomery County, more so than even anywhere else in the Balt-Wash Metro Area outside of DC and Baltimore proper. Hopefully the White Flint Sector redevelopment can take some cues, and not turn into another Bethesda (a soulless, urban playground for the wealthy), but it probably will.

It really pisses me off that the contractor screwed up the Transit Center indefinitely delaying the opening. The design is actually uglier than I thought it would be, it's definitely a necessity. It's like Silver Spring's own mini version of the 42nd St Port Authority Terminal. Now we need to make sure the two towers proposed to adjoin it will actually be built.

by King Terrapin on Feb 2, 2012 11:44 am • linkreport

Looks like a really nice apartment! Too bad I won't be able to afford the $2,000+ rent for a 1 bedroom. Maybe next lifetime...

by CJ on Feb 23, 2012 9:44 pm • linkreport

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