Urbanism in the public realm: the Silver Spring library
Last Thursday, I attended the public meeting on the new Silver Spring Library. As David already posted, the consultants, RKTL, have proposed a variety of options for discussion. Only four options remain: 1b, 1c, 6a, and 6b. The others had to be disqualified, as some were impractical for the library, while others wouldn't attract a private developer to build the residential and commercial portions of the project.
While none are perfect, all of the options fit with the fundamental walkable urban character of Silver Spring, and specifically this site at Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street. The consultants continually stressed how the concepts need to positively interact with their surroundings. No one in the room seemed to question that fundamental goal. I personally see that as a little bit of progress in the big picture.
I wasn't sure why the concepts all showed surface Purple Line tracks. This seemed to be jumping the gun, since the High Investment LRT option calls for a tunnel in that area. However, the project team explained that it would be much easier to account for a potential surface Purple Line alignment and then later take it out, than the opposite. Fair enough.
Most options contain a pedestrian bridge from the second story of the Wayne Avenue parking garage to the library. I personally think this is a dumb move, since the Wayne Avenue garage already has elevators and is ADA compliant. However, I don't feel the bridge will kill street life in the area. It will just turn into a waste of money, underused and forgotten until the city has to sink more money into repairing or demolishing it.
I predict that once this project is complete, most people will want to enter the library at street level to check out the retail and street life in the plaza/small park at the entrance of the library. Most who park in the Wayne Avenue garage will never even notice the bridge. Bridge proponents insist that it will be better for families with small children, the elderly, and the handicapped. This might sound harsh, but I personally am sick of seeing people hide behind these groups as they push their anti-urban, suburban/modernist views on the rest of us. The bridge is a bad idea but a largely harmless bad idea, in my view. Either way, I will send a letter opposing the bridge to the feedback email address, email@example.com. I urge you to do the same.
The Silver Spring library has less floor space than the Germantown, Rockville, and Wheaton libraries, even though Silver Spring is both denser, and more populous. I can understand Rockville being bigger, since Rockville is the Montgomery County seat and therefore the flagship. However, Wheaton? Germantown? Olney?
The options being discussed follow two strategies to developing the site into a mixed-use place. One is to mix the different uses in the same physical building. This strategy is complicated if a private developer builds the office, retail, and residential portions of the project. Building anything that is a part of an existing building is politically problematic and expensive. Alternately, the county could build the library as its own unit, the have the private developer build the residential, retail, and office portions on the site, but in an adjacent building. The meeting seemed lean towards the second course of action, because of the realities of attracting a private developer.
Finally, the topic that seems to be the big hot-button topic in urban planning today: parking. The consultant and the citizens at the meeting acknowledge that the library could easily use the existing Wayne Avenue garage for its parking. Hence the idea for the pedestrian bridge. According to the consultant, options 6a and 6b both could allow for the construction of two stories of underground parking, in addition to separate underground lots that would supply one space per residential unit.
I understand including the option to build one space per residential unit, to to be palatable to a private developer who might be cautious about building housing without parking. But as for the lot under the library, exclusively for the library, I see this as a waste of money. Underground parking structures are the most expensive kind of parking to build. The Wayne Avenue garage has plenty of spaces, even at peak usage. The library will be used by many, many people who will arrive on foot. Also, many people will get there on the Purple Line, with its adjacent station. I don't think that the county should spend lots and lots of money on an underground garage that will become DC USA II, just to satisfy the car-loving tendencies of anti-urban thinkers, especially when there is already a huge garage right across the street. Once again, I see the redundant underground garage as a bad idea, but a largely harmless bad idea in the view of viable, vibrant walkable urbanism. I will make sure to mention it in my email to the planners as well.
Overall, developers on the new Silver Spring Library have been largely positive. Most of the meeting centered around the practical concerns of providing library services. And I do applaud the county for only considering concepts that fit in with the existing walkable urban character of Downtown Silver Spring.
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