South Silver Spring residents split over proposed apartments
South Silver Spring residents aren't sure what should replace a self-storage facility at Newell Street and Eastern Avenue, where developer Comstock Homes wants to build a seven-story apartment building. Some would prefer a park, while others just want a shorter building.
With architects, landscape architects and lawyers in tow, Comstock hosted a meeting at the Silver Spring Civic Building last night to discuss their proposal, dubbed the Boulevard at Newell. It includes 187 apartments, 3,100 square feet of "neighborhood-serving" retail space, a pocket park and 206 parking spaces for residents and visitors.
Over 60 residents from South Silver Spring and the adjacent Shepherd Park neighborhood in the District came out to voice their opinions on the project. While most were unhappy with the proposal, a few expressed support. Steve Schmitz from Comstock stressed that he wanted to hear everyone's opinion. "We'll stay here until midnight if need be," he said.
Though their proposal is already allowed under current zoning, Comstock is pursuing what's called an optional method of development, which allows them to build at higher density in exchange for public amenities, such as the pocket park, and a more stringent review process by the county.
Comstock has been talking with the community since February, even convening a group of residents to discuss design issues. Schmitz ran down a list of changes to their original design, like increasing the amount of open space on site and reducing its height along Eastern Avenue, where the building faces single-family homes.
The proposed building could be similar to the Ellington, also designed by Torti Gallas. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.
Architect Sherief Elfar of Torti Gallas and Partners noted that the Boulevard at Newell could make the walk to the Silver Spring Metro, less than a half-mile away, safer and more pleasant. "You have more people coming in and out, you have eyes on the street," he said, which could deter crime.
A pocket park at the corner of Newell and Eastern with a small lawn and patio would take up nearly a quarter of the one-acre site. "In our view, we think it should be mostly green," said landscape architect Trini Rodriguez of ParkerRodriguez. Her firm is designing the open spaces around the property, including a small courtyard behind the building that would buffer it from adjacent properties. Elfar pointed out that the Boulevard at Newell would be 33 feet away from Eastern Village Cohousing and 59 feet from 8045 Newell Street, the two buildings bordering the site.
Schmitz promised that Comstock will charge "one-quarter market rates" for the retail space, which would face the pocket park, to ensure that it wouldn't stay vacant like other would-be shops in South Silver Spring. He saw it being an independent business, like a coffee shop. "Whatever the community feels it needs, we can attract that tenant," he said.
While the building's design is far from finished, Elfar pointed to other Torti Gallas projects, like the Ellington on U Street, as an example of how it could look. One goal is to break the building up into multiple façades, giving "the impression . . . that it's one or two buildings as you walk by," he said.
Eastern Village's roof garden. Residents of this building say the seven-story Boulevard at Newell would block their views.
However, some neighbors weren't impressed. They warned that the building didn't have enough parking, would block their views, and that the retail space would attract "undesirables." One Eastern Village resident said that apartments facing her building shouldn't have patios, saying that her future neighbors could have "barbeques and parties" on them while "smoking and drinking."
Another resident living in 8045 Newell who didn't give her name railed against the "density and brutalistic architecture" of the proposal. "I won't say it was dishonest, but your presentation was disingenuous at best," she said, claiming that she and her neighbors were promised that new buildings in the neighborhood would be condominiums, not apartments.
Others lamented that the building was too tall, noting that most buildings along Eastern Avenue had less than four stories. One resident suggested taking out the pocket park if it meant the building could be shorter. "I will only consider four stories if I can get the same number of units," Schmitz replied, arguing that the project needed a certain number of apartments to be financially viable.
Supporters said the project was appropriate for the neighborhood. "This is a site that is maybe eight minutes from Metro in a major city," said one South Silver Spring resident, who asked that her name wasn't used. "Density can be expected."
"The county has appropriately designated certain areas as business districts and that is where the higher density should continue to take place," wrote Jessica Evans, who lives on East-West Highway and serves on the Silver Spring Urban District Advisory Committee, in an e-mail after the meeting. She hopes that other building owners in South Silver Spring would follow Comstock's lead and lower the rents for their vacant storefronts.
Comstock hopes to file their plans with the Planning Department next month, with a public hearing to follow in the winter. If everything goes smoothly, they expect to start construction on the Boulevard at Newell in 2014.
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