Greater Greater Washington

Would a Silver Spring arts center work?

A group of Silver Spring residents want to turn an old police station into an arts center modeled on the Gateway Arts Center in Prince George's County. However, building an artist community in Silver Spring will require something that's hard to find here: housing that artists can afford.


The police station today. Photo by the author.

The Gateway Arts Center is successful partly because it's located in a more established artist enclave, the Gateway Arts District, located along Route 1 in Prince George's County. Like downtown Silver Spring, it's one of 19 Arts & Entertainment Districts designated by the state of Maryland, making it eligible for grants to support the arts and arts-related uses.

But the district has also drawn artists for decades. Each year, it holds a yearly studio tour with nearly 120 local artists in 17 venues.

Not only that, but the Gateway Arts District has lots of old houses and warehouses that are cheap and easy to repurpose. There aren't a lot of buildings like that in Silver Spring anymore. Artists who lack places to work need affordable places to live as well.

Being in downtown Silver Spring less than a mile from the Metro, the 2½ acres the police station sits on are very valuable. Perhaps a better use for this site would be a mix of studio space and artist housing, not unlike Renaissance Square and the Mount Rainier Artist Lofts, two apartment buildings in the Gateway Arts District, or the Brookland Artspace Lofts, a building in Northeast Washington. All three buildings rent apartments and live-work units at subsidized rates to people who earn their living making art.

These buildings, which are each 100% occupied, offer artists who often have low incomes a quality place to live. According to the Census, the median rent in below-the-Beltway Silver Spring is $1206 a month, but actual apartment listings suggest that's only enough for a one-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, a one-bedroom in the Brookland Artspace Lofts with studio space rents for $970, while a two-bedroom is just $1,205.

We could turn the police station into an arts center as proposed, but also build low-rise artist housing around it. A smaller community garden could be built, or it could instead be located in any of the 46 other parks in below-the-Beltway Silver Spring and Takoma Park. The lawn in front of the police station could still become a small public space for the neighborhood.


The Mount Rainier Artist Lofts. Image from Google Street View.

This proposal would cost more to build and may require public money. The Brookland Artspace Lofts in the District, developed by the same company that built the apartments in Mount Rainier, received $11 million in construction funding and tax credits from the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. If a funding source is found, however, artist housing could provide more customers for local businesses while developing a more substantial and diverse arts scene.

When I suggested this to Karen Roper and Steve Knight, two of the residents leading the push for the Station Arts Center, they were skeptical. "It's a little more unstructured and bohemian," Knight says. "I know one of the artists we talked to, she's married and has a house and a family." He wants to know "how strong of a need" there is for artist housing in Silver Spring.

"My neighbors ... bought their houses cheap" decades ago, says Roper. "They're looking for studio space." She notes that "two, possibly three" buildings with subsidized apartments will be built on Fenton Street in coming years, while a developer wants to renovate the Eagle Bank building at Sligo Avenue and Fenton Street into "microlofts," or small apartments geared at single adults.

One of the reasons the county may support the current Station Arts Center proposal is because of their experience with the new police station in White Oak. Plans to sell extra land around the station to build a mix of affordable and market-rate housing in 2009 were met with intense community opposition before they eventually backed down. Whether the county uses the old police station property to meet its affordable housing goals or make money by selling it to a private developer, dealing with angry neighbors will be inevitable.


Floor plan of typical apartment at Brookland Artspace Lofts.

That's why Roper and her neighbors are trying to start the conversation about development. "We wanted to get out there and make our pitch before somebody came in and did the same old, same old," she says. "I would like to see some imagination in this county. It's not about how much you develop, it's about how you develop."

Roper wants the Station Arts Center to distinguish Fenton Village from the rest of Silver Spring, calling it the "only thing that represents us and who we are."

As I've written before, having spaces for making art makes our community stronger. Even if I don't agree with every part of the Station Arts Center concept, I'm glad that neighbors are being proactive about what they'd like to see in their community.

That said, Karen Roper might be okay with a few more apartments if they allowed the neighborhood to keep its artistic flair. "I'd rather live in a dense, crowded place with artists and musicians," she says. "When you take that character away, you just have a bunch of crap next to each other."

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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. 

Comments

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So am I correct in reading that Ms. Roper only wants housing (or denser housing) around the arts space if the residents are also artists? I understand that its cool to live in a community that feels a little more bohemian but I don't see how government housing policy is the best way to create that.

This strikes me as a bit unfair, I'm fine with providing housing on income limits but by profession? I could use some studio space as well even though I work in an office and my interest in the arts remains technically a hobby. Why is this the best way to promote the arts?

Again, why does it seem to be like there should be studio space with the site as-is or to completely ignore that and just build housing. We can't we figure out a why to provide a mixed-use neighborhood with a special place for people who can use the studio?

by X on May 16, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

"When you take that character away, you just have a bunch of crap next to each other."

LOL, indeed. I'm not too familiar w/the availability of art space in DTSS, but doesn't Pyramid Atlantic+the new library (eventually)+the new civic center+the new arts center on Thayer (http://www.createartscenter.org/) cover the need? I guess not for everyone if this proposal exists, but by and large I've never really gotten the sense that there was a major lack of art space.

Ultimately, I feel like any re-purposing of the existing building is going to fall well short of the site's potential and (hopefully sooner rather than later) we'd see it fully redeveloped. Situating a couple of small new builds around this existing building is really, really ugly in my mind. Though maybe that's pessimistic of me and there's an architect out there that can pull it off.

by jag on May 16, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

@X

I can't speak for Karen Roper, but my point is that if neighbors want to create an arts scene in Silver Spring, an area with high land values, they'll probably need some subsidies, otherwise it won't work.

@jag

Pyramid Atlantic focuses on paper, while Create Arts Center is for kids. And the Civic Building has been mostly given over to Round House Theatre and whoever can afford the steep rental fees and onerous county rules (which nearly killed Fenton Street Market last year). There is room for something like the Station Arts Center.

by dan reed! on May 16, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

@Dan

You're probably right, but I doubt the county will see the distinction you do w/Pyramid focusing on paper. W/the county giving the basement and first two floors of the new library to Pyramid I'm sure they'll (rightly or wrongly) view that as a more than generous subsidy of the art community for the foreseeable future. The county might very well be open to leasing the current building for this purpose in the short term, but can't imagine they'd be open to considering any substantial $$ subsidy for an arts center or artist housing+workspace. Maybe I'm wrong, but I really can't envision any council or broad-based community support for the idea.

by jag on May 16, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

The Gateway arts areaway a great idea because they took empty car dealerships in a greatly underutilized area and made it a nice place to live and visit.

The police station is in an area that doesn't need forced development concepts. There is strong demand for housing and it shouldn't be limited to artists. There are plenty of other working class people (like teachers and civil servants) would need more diverse housing options in MoCo.

by Brian on May 16, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

@dan
I understand that, I guess my takeaway from the article comes back to

a. what's the best use for the land? Not just for a particular communnity.

b. what makes a successful arts district?

Ideally there is something that can be done the allows for both.

What Ms. Roper said though is that she wants a community of artists and that would be the condition for a denser design for residential. I'd be more comfortable with the gov't providing for a well designed neighborhood first and then looking at how to attract artists. Make the artist spaces fit within a larger framework rather than the other way around.

note: and none of this could necessarily involve any tear downs of the existing space. But this is also a great opportunity to enhance the other aspects of fenton street as well.

by X on May 16, 2012 1:49 pm • linkreport

Since we're talking MoCo and all redevelopment requires a set % of the land to be devoted to public use, maybe the county could set up a RFP for the site that requires the public amenity to be artist work space? No dumb pocket park as the public amenity, work space available for the artists that live in the surrounding residential areas, site redevelopment that adds property taxes to the county's coffers, the addition of much needed housing stock to combat rising rents, and hopefully an impetus for neighboring redevelopments to get off the shelf.

by jag on May 16, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

Ugh, I'm going to be harsh because it needs to be said... This entire proposal seems like long-time residents trying to recreate a youth that never existed.

I don't see what's so wonderful about some sort of arts district that makes it worth county subsidies, rather than using those subsidies for redeveloping Wheaton, White Oak, or to build more housing in Silver Spring.

"My neighbors ... bought their houses cheap" decades ago, says Roper. "They're looking for studio space."

This statement is extremely damning. It implies that Ms. Roper is very, very out of touch with how tough it is to be able to afford to pay rent on what is supposed to be a middle class salary in downtown Silver Spring. It reads like, "I have mine and now I want you to subsidize my hobby too! Never mind that you can't afford to pay rent simply because of when you were born."

I know that's not what she means but this entire idea is just poorly informed, impractical, and wishful thinking. Artist communities are good. However, they're not worth the subsidies and the opportunity costs such needing to relocate the police station, not being able to fund housing for non-artists, not being able to fund other revitalization initiatives.

by Cavan on May 16, 2012 2:25 pm • linkreport

@Cavan

I agree that there's an unmet need for housing in Silver Spring, and I'm frustrated when neighbors (including many who signed the petition for the Station Arts Center) insist that there's "enough" housing in the area. And I'd personally be fine with regular, market-rate housing at the police station site, but I wanted to explore what it would take to make an arts scene as well.

I wouldn't downplay the relevance of arts in a community. What sets Silver Spring and Takoma Park from Bethesda (in my opinion) is what I call "user-generated culture." Silver Spring is a destination for skateboarders. There's a culture of house shows, both from folk musicians and punks. I don't know as much about the visual arts, which seem to cluster along Route 1 in Prince George's. But I do think these kind of activities should be encouraged. They create local culture, support the local economy, and provide a draw for people who might then choose to live/shop/work here as well.

Whether they need government subsidies is up for debate, of course. Many venues do exist without them.

by dan reed! on May 16, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

I basically agree with Cavan,

The county should have some impetus to provide space (both display and creation) for artists of all mediums. When it comes to housing then Montgomery County should focus on solid urban design principles rather that will contribute to silver spring as a whole rather than a particular profession. So put in arts spaces but put it in a bigger context.

The county should also look at providing more arts spaces in its existing facilities as well. That means making it easier to book shows (going back to the DIY-punk article) rather than having to go through a lot more hoops.

by X on May 16, 2012 2:52 pm • linkreport

@Cavan

I agree and well stated.

I would add Ms.Roper is a self appointed Chair,Committee on Planning,Zoning,and Public Works for Downtown Silver Spring.

by Who Dat? on May 16, 2012 3:53 pm • linkreport

The downcounty has a acute shortage of luxury townhouses. They are virtually impossible to find. A mix of housing is esential in creating a vibrant real estate market in Silver Spring. This site is perfect as it is a transition from lower density to higher density residential. The county should sell the site along with the old Silver Spring library to private developers and use proceeds for other important community improvements

by Cyrus on May 16, 2012 11:31 pm • linkreport

cyrus: there are luxury townhouses in downtown silver spring;
-Cameron Hill Courts,Colesville @ 2nd ave (behind mcdonalds)
-Woodside Courts(former church site), Ga Ave & Noyes Dr

I think the site should be developed in ALL MPDU townhouses.
To get an efficiency in dt SS it is 1206! I think it i better to pay 41206 as a mortage for a 3bed, 2 1/2 ba townhouse with basement.

by lilkunta on May 17, 2012 3:03 am • linkreport

KAREN Roper wants the Station Arts Center to distinguish Fenton Village from the rest of Silver Spring, calling it the "only thing that represents us and who we are."

Really [deleted]? The neighborhood ISNT doing a good job as I dont think of Fenton Village as being artistic or full of artists. I think that of Takoma Park.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

__"My neighbors ... bought their houses cheap" decades ago, says Roper. "They're looking for studio space."__
...[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] The neighborhood bought homes years ago for what, 75k? 100k? 200k? Now with all the dt SS development your property value has appreciated greatly so you are able to afford to pay for a studio BUT JUST DONT WANT TO!

use pyramid, or go to rockville studios or hyattsville art studios.

by lilkunta on May 17, 2012 3:49 am • linkreport

I don't get this proposal at all. If I'm reading it correctly, Karen wants the county and taxpayers to subsidize a work studio for her and her friends, even though they own houses? Is she saying that she can't afford to have a living room, family room and and an art studio all in one house?

The only way that I would support this is it were for live-work artists only. This would typically be young, full-time artists. Not part-time artists, and certainly not people who already own their own homes.

Also, artists like to be inspired. I can't think of a less inspiring place to try to produce art than that old police station. I'm a writer, a kind of artist, and you couldn't pay me to work out of that building.

Others have suggested making part of a new development into studio spaces for artists, instead of a stupid pocket park. Now that's an idea.

This area is too close to the downtown core to be a suburban building and parking lot for people who already own homes.

by Patrick Thornton on May 29, 2012 6:29 pm • linkreport

@ patrick: EXACTLY ! Karen's comment means to me that her neighborhood owns their homes(bought years ago when prices were reasonable and now have appreciated due to dtss redevelopment) and want the county to subsidise their leisure.

by lilkunta on Jun 4, 2012 3:01 pm • linkreport

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