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Public Spaces

Skybridges and voids return in Silver Spring library designs

Back in February, when this blog had recently launched, the issue that generated the most comments was... skybridges. This 1960s design fad, which segregated pedestrians into elevated crossings from building to building, made streets less safe and damaged the pedestrian character in cities like Des Moines and Denver.

New library site. Photo by the project consultants, RKTL.

The Washington area has another proposed skybridge, reflecting all the outmoded urban design thinking, in Silver Spring. The library is moving to the corner of Wayne, Fenton, and Bonifant, right at the border between the commercial downtown area and the adjacent residences and literally in the path of the proposed Purple Line. The most recent presentation calls this a "unique opportunity" to create a vibrant pedestrian streetscape, especially along Fenton Street.

Unfortunately, the project's consultants seem to feel that they can best ensure a vibrant streetscape by building a bridge over Wayne Avenue. According to a letter resident Colleen Mitchell sent to Montgomery County,

During the presentation at the October 21st meeting, the consultants actually stated that the only way to safely cross Wayne Avenue is to construct a pedestrian bridge. Frankly, this is archaic thinking and runs counter to current planning concepts which consistently emphasize designing "complete streets" with roadways that are equally safe for all modes of transportation. Pedestrian bridges reduce street life and activity, create dark, unwelcoming places underneath, present security issues, and allow roadways to become a higher speed facility with reduced safety for pedestrians.
This project also seems to have too much parking. The proposed skybridge would connect to yet another parking garage, across the street. Downtown Silver Spring has lots and lots of parking; we don't need more for every new use.

Left: Option 1a ground floor plan. Right: Option 3 perspective drawing.

Many of the designs include the skybridge and few retail entrances along the street. Look at the ground floor plan for the first option, 1a (left). It doesn't engage the street very well at all. There's this strip of park separating the entrances from the street, and people then have to cross the train tracks to go in and out of the building. I know that the Purple Line will run at-grade and people and trains can share the same space, but we still shouldn't try to make the tracks a sidewalk at the same time, where there will be especially high pedestrian volumes going in and out of the building.

An option like #3 (right, above) looks quite a bit better, with retail and library entrances right out to the sidewalk. Still, all of these designs remind me of Rob Goodspeed's excellent Ballston essay and the "structure of voids." Why do we need open space at all on this site? Almost every building built in urbanizing suburban areas like Silver Spring and Ballston seems to involve some open space. I know that many residents ask for it, and in many areas, the zoning requires it.

But such open space rules usually create small and underutilized plazas that break up the flow of buildings and isolate pedestrians. Real urban neighborhoods have little open space on private property, except a small landscaped buffer, and no large gaps in the streetwall. The street and sidewalk itself is the public space. Larger parks within walking distance provide the opportunities for recreation, sitting outside, dog walking, etc. Silver Spring should strive for a similar design, instead of the motley constellation of random triangular green spaces that sound so good but end up so unsatisfying.

Want to weigh in on the library? There's a meeting tonight at 7 pm, at the current library, 8901 Colesville Road.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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The parking garage to which the proposed library connects (on Wayne Avenue) already exists and was built as part of the revitalized area four years ago. I agree that additional parking in the library itself is too much, though the skybridge seems like a nice amenity for families with children who might park upstairs and might be going to a higher floor in the library. It's ironic, though, because I've been studying some 1970's-era master plans for Silver Spring and they are all about skybridges; thankfully, only one (crossing Fenton Street between City Place Mall and a parking garage) was built.

And the sliver of green space that occurs on the library site was proposed as a replacement for the wildly popular "Turf" a block away (at Ellsworth and Fenton), which is being rebuilt as a paved plaza. There are a lot of useless "pocket parks" in Downtown Silver Spring, but like the well-used (at least, among card players, skater kids, and the occasional homeless person) terrace over the Metro, one at the library and a Purple Line stop could become a lively space.

by dan reed on Nov 6, 2008 6:14 pm • linkreport

What about the skyways in Minneapolis? They're not so bad, and they make a lot of sense in a place that gets really cold.

by Steve on Nov 6, 2008 7:00 pm • linkreport

Steve: Several urban designers recommend removing them. And Alex B wrote about their problems on the original skybridge thread (though some other Minneapolitans defended them).

by David Alpert on Nov 6, 2008 7:03 pm • linkreport

David, I quite agree with you about skybridges in warm climates. In a place like Washington, without a real winter, they're a bad idea. Having read the article you linked to I'm not persuaded they're an actual problem in Minneapolis. I noticed a great deal of pedestrian amenities on the skyway levels of buildings, banks, restaurants, retail etc. Also, Wikipedia says:
The Twin Cites has a hotter all time record high temperature (108 F) than the entire state of Florida, despite being located nearly 1000 miles further from the equator. Conversely, temperature during the winter months are colder in the Twin Cities than in any other major metropolitan area in the United States. The Twin Cities can also experience droughts, floods and on average is windier than The Windy City, Chicago, Illinois
I think, given the city's erratic climate, urban-designers should respect the city as a sui generis situation and avoid comparing it to New York City which is about 15 degrees warmer in January or Copenhagen which is 20 degrees warmer. (There is also significant snow accumulation, which is another barrier to pedestrian life.) I'd hope that designers could examine an urban area and build upon its strengths, rather than try to force conformity to a one-size-fits-all theory of urban life. Capitol Hill without tunnels would be lousy, downtown Minneapolis in January without skyways could be awful.

by Steve on Nov 6, 2008 9:12 pm • linkreport


It might be desirable in terms of climate for Minneapolis, but it's lousy for streetlife in general.

by SG on Nov 6, 2008 10:27 pm • linkreport

How do Skybridges compare to underground tunnels both serve the same purpose once it noticable and the other is not. How would the parking lot connected via skybridge be any different than a parking lot connected via tunnel to anybuilding in dc or though out the area.

Metro Center is connected to the Hyatt and Macy's downtown, Pentagon City connected to the Fashion Centre, Friendship Hgts connected to about 2/3 buildings or the Skybridge in Balston connecting buildings and dont forget Crystal City

by kk on Nov 6, 2008 10:53 pm • linkreport

Colesville Road lacks of a pedestrian refuge or median. Georgia Avenue is six lanes wide with no street parking despite ample store frontage. The last thing that town needs is a reason to make Wayne Avenue or Fenton Street any less pedestrian suitable, to include another skybridge. Slow the traffic, beef up the crosswalks, do whatever needs to be done to make Fenton and Wayne suitable for pedestrians.

PS- doesn't the high investment Purple Line LRT option have the train running underground at that intersection? I thought it was supposed to surface at Cedar and Wayne...

by Dave Murphy on Nov 7, 2008 2:15 am • linkreport

Skyways in Minneapolis are certainly unique, but they hurt the city overall. For example, there's a ton of retail on the second floors of buildings, but because the skyways are private (and often closed on weekends) these kinds of places are closed at night and on weekends. Had that retail been on the street, it would be easier to access at all times and far more likely to be open and doing business at other hours. The skyways reinforce the office ghetto feel that much of Minneapolis' downtown has, and fights against trying to change that.

Additionally, planners in Minneapolis ignored the streetscapes for too long. People in Minneapolis are hearty and love the outdoors - Minneapolis' excellent park system is a testament to that - but planners gave them no reason to do so downtown. Streets there are for cars. The one exception - Nicollet Mall - actually has substantial street level retail and pedestrian traffic. Imagine if they had implemented complete streets from the get - go. It's not the weather that keeps pedestrians away.

kk, the tunnel connections to Metro are different, as they all connect directly to a transit system.

The best comparative example to Minneapolis would be the Crystal City tunnels (and that's not exactly a sparking example of great streetscapes), but the downtown DC tunnels merely offer a direct connection to the subway, rather than a means of completely bypassing the sidewalk pedestrian network for all walking trips (instead of just those to the subway), as you have in Minneapolis.

by Alex B. on Nov 7, 2008 10:41 am • linkreport


I wondered that myself. The library has had all this consulting and community feedback when it's not official yet what the alignment of the Purple Line will be. I'm a little confused by the timing. It seems a little premature. However, the renderings are usage configuration concepts, not architectural drawings. Most of the issues that were considered in making the drawings had to do with the practical concerns of running a library that is adjacent to offices/residences. Those drawings also all have and FAR of 3.0. I feel like it was a political decision to go forward with civic input because the county executive wanted to start the process for some reason.

As far as skybridges... no no no no! I can think of plenty of better ways to waste money. The people I talked to last night who were in favor of them were obsessed with how "dangerous" Wayne Avenue is to cross. This is the same person who told me that she can't walk up Fenton St. anymore to go to the Ellsworth corridor because "there's too much crime". Nice person, but wrong, in my view. I really question how much benefit they'll bring for their cost, both monetary and opportunity. If Wayne Ave is "too dangerous" then do something about it. Improve the signaling, narrow the lanes, plant trees, put more interesting stuff there so there's more pedestrians so motorists expect to look for them. That kind of thinking is what led to sixty years of urban abandonment in favor of those bright shiny new oil-soaked car-slave suburbs: Why improve our community when we can just discard it?

by Cavan on Nov 7, 2008 11:23 am • linkreport

You obviously haven't been to any of the recent meetings on the subject as the concepts posted have long been discarded. For those of us who have been present throughout the process and have attended all the meetings, the planners have been very responsive to all of the concerns of the community -- many of which have to deal with parking and pedestrian traffic. I think the community is divided equally as to whether parking should be included. If it is not, the county the pedestrian is an option for accommodating those with accessibility needs, including families with children. For the one option with parking suggested, it is minimal -- handicapped and a small number of retail/library only slots. But all of this is basically moot, as Cavan mentioned, this is an exercise in identifying usage options, not a design for the library or surrounding buildings.

And as far as the purple line issue, it is a bit crazy that these conversations are happening before the final decision, but as the planners point out, it will be a lot easier to modify the plan NOT to include the purple line rather than having to add it later. And Silver Spring has been waiting for the library for a very long time. I applaud the county for making it a priority and not stalling while the purple line issue wages on.

The real cause for indignation is why are we being offered a library that is significantly smaller than other county neighborhoods when we serve a much larger population. The county insists that demographics/population are irrelevant.

by Lynn on Nov 7, 2008 2:02 pm • linkreport


I agree that it is somewhat odd that Silver Spring has such a small library. It's even smaller than my library in Wheaton. Silver Spring is larger than Wheaton, too. I can see the frustrations on that front. Last night I was glad to see that so much of the questions were directed at practical issues of the operations of the library. The vast majority seemed to be in agreement on the fundamental point that it should fit in with the walkable urban character of its future location.

I don't like the pedestrian bridge because the Wayne Ave. garage has plenty of wheelchair accessible elevators. I just don't see what good such a bridge will do other than take pedestrians off the street and mitigate vibrancy on the street.

by Cavan on Nov 7, 2008 3:43 pm • linkreport

I don't think comparing the Minneapolis skyway system (or the larger St. Paul system) to the DC area is a valid comparison. The Twin Cities exist in a very different climate than DC. I am a big fan of the sykway systems in Minnesota, but I don't think that model should be adopted here.

Having lived in Minnesota for many years, I disagree with many of the skyway critics, most of whom have never lived or worked in a skyway system. Yes, there are problems, particularly in Minneapolis where they are privately owned, but overall they make downtown a better place in a lot of different ways.

by Stanton Park on Nov 10, 2008 2:40 pm • linkreport

As a Minneapolis native, I concur with Stanton Park's comments.

by Froggie on Nov 11, 2008 10:56 am • linkreport

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