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Public Spaces

Good public space can make good retail

Take a walk around downtown Silver Spring and you'll notice a lot of empty shops and empty parks. As it turns out, the two are related.

Empty stores line the pocket park at the Veridian Apartments. Photos by the author.

Just look at The Crescent condominium on Wayne Avenue, which has seen a rotating cast of retail tenants since it opened in 2006. Or the newly-completed United Therapeutics headquarters, which has several empty retail spaces at the intersection of Cameron and Spring Streets.

Around the corner, developers of an apartment building called The Cameron placed tables and chairs in front of their ground-floor retail space in anticipation of a restaurant, but they got an outpatient surgery center instead.

Why aren't these spaces filled with successful shops and restaurants?

Retailers in an urban area like downtown Silver Spring rely on foot traffic, not car traffic. They need lots of shoppers walking in front of their windows, because a few of them will actually come inside. But new storefronts in the area are often too far from the sidewalk or each other to let that happen.

SurgCenter, Cameron & Fenton
Developers placed tables and chairs outside The Cameron assuming a restaurant would locate there, but an outpatient surgery center opened instead.

Each of those three projects, like most new buildings in downtown Silver Spring are required to have a pocket park. Some are more successful than others, but most create gaps in the street wall, the part of the building that faces the street. Street walls need to be continuous, and they need lots of storefronts to work well.

Renowned Danish urban designer Jan Gehl notes that successful shopping streets have storefronts about 25 feet wide. This means that a pedestrian walking at normal speed will see something new about every 5 seconds, keeping their attention.

In addition, pocket parks placed directly in front of a building separate the shops from the sidewalk, discouraging pedestrians from wandering over because they can't see what's going on inside. If that pocket park is intentionally or unintentionally designed to repel people, no retailer can survive there.

If you don't believe me, just look at any successful retail street in Greater Washington, from M Street in Georgetown to Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda to Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood. The shops all have narrow storefronts, there are few gaps between them, and they're close to the street. As a result, these streets can keep stores in business.

Empty Retail, Spring Street
A little plaza breaks up the street wall between empty storefronts in the United Therapeutics headquarters on Spring Street.

Not surprisingly, retailers moving to downtown Silver Spring are finding spaces next to the sidewalk. At the Veridian, an apartment building on East-West Highway, there's a small grocery store and a Papa John's on the sidewalk, but two other spaces facing a large and well-landscaped park have been empty since the building opened three years ago.

Of course, that doesn't mean that any space on a sidewalk will immediately get filled, especially if they're off the beaten path. Most of downtown Silver Spring's shops and restaurants are east of Georgia Avenue and south of Colesville Road; naturally, that's where the most activity is. Shoppers may be reluctant to wander even a few blocks away from that area, which in turn makes retailers reluctant to open there. That's a large part of why there are so many vacancies along East-West Highway and Cameron Street.

The key to making retail work in those places is to create a destination, even for people living in the immediate area. One way to do that is with a well-used park. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Eitan Gutin, who lives with his family in the Galaxy, a new apartment building on 13th Street.

Its pocket park, which is shared with two other buildings, "gets plenty of use," he wrote. "People often sit at the tables in the shade to eat or do work, and on the weekend the playground has at least one or two families for a good chunk of the day."

Photosynth of the public space at the Galaxy by JimmyO.

This is the kind of public space a shop wants to be next to. All three of the surrounding buildings open onto the park, meaning there's lots of foot traffic going through it. And the space is used for a variety of activities throughout the day—Gutin says a Jewish prayer group even has potlucks there—meaning it's busy at all times. Unfortunately, most of the Galaxy's ground floor is a parking garage, which was a missed opportunity for good retail.

How can create more successful retail space and public spaces in downtown Silver Spring? For starters, we should concentrate our open space. Instead of requiring that every building have a little park where nothing happens, we should encourage the creation of a few larger parks where lots of activities can occur. Fortunately, the county is already exploring ways to do this.

In turn, we need to concentrate retail activity. New retail space should be located near existing stores and restaurants, so they can form a more substantial destination. We should also make sure that existing shops aren't displaced by buildings with no stores in them, which puts gaps in the street wall.

In an urban area like downtown Silver Spring, successful retail and successful public space can go hand in hand. The key is making sure that they're both designed and located to get people using them.

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 think this is part of the story. This is something that should be discussed with the development of 8001 Newell. Right now a pocket park is scheduled to go in front of the retail there, but can we do better?

Maybe the pocket park requirement needs to be amended. What if new buildings could instead choose to pay into a fund to build larger parks elsewhere? It can be hard to fit in a pocket park and retail in the same location, and many of these pocket parks are largely unused and don't serve the community. The pocket park on 13th works really well because it sits at the nexus of three buildings and provides a way to cross the block. But pocket parks designed with only one building in mind tend to be much worse (see 8045 Newell and The Crescent). The Verdian/Silverton pocket park is fairly well used by people in the community, but it does obscure the large retail space behind it.

I think the other major part of the story is needing more foot traffic and people in South Silver Spring and other parts of Silver Spring. South Silver Spring is still growing, and as more people move into the area, the easier it will be for businesses to be successful. Papa Johns, the market and Fajita Coast are all doing well, despite a broken line of retail. With more people, more businesses will be able to thrive down here.

You are correct that ones hidden by pocket parks will struggle. I gather that destination retail can do well in these locations, but retail that relies on people walking by to discover it won't be well served.

by Patrick Thornton on Aug 31, 2012 1:29 pm • linkreport

Eh, I would attribute "south" SS's pickup to the anchor stores like Whole Foods, AMC theatre, DSW Shoes, Borders, etc that drew people to that street. But there is a sidewalk element after that, noticable by how few people enter Noodles from the mall versus from the street.

There is really little reason "north west" Silver Spring couldn't develop a little more. The diner, Mexican and Cuban places do seemingly good business.

But let's not forget Jackie's, QuarryHouse, etc do just fine separated from the street. So it's a complex dynamic.

by T11 on Aug 31, 2012 2:52 pm • linkreport

Not every place can be great. While all public spaces should be great, e.g., E-W highway between Georgia Ave. and Colesville isn't going to be great because it isn't a place for pedestrians.

It's in part about density, the other part is about the requirements for successful retail, restaurant, and service establishments.

There is only so much demand, and the way people consume retail and food is different than it used to be, making the places you mention less likely to be successful even if great places.

by Richard Layman on Aug 31, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

while people in comments here frequently chide me for citing my own stuff, you really should have acknowledged my blog entry on the integrated public realm network specifically discussing Silver Spring.

It makes the point that many of these spaces that are failing--the ones you are talking about--aren't integrated into a system, unlike the spaces around the Civic Building, although as T11 would likely comment, having the conglomeration of attractive retail like Whole Foods, the restaurants, and the movie theaters also centers that area.

by Richard Layman on Aug 31, 2012 3:10 pm • linkreport

Now you've done it. You've summoned the Layman.

by charlie on Aug 31, 2012 3:24 pm • linkreport


South Silver Spring is usually considered west of Georgia, along the East-West highway corridor. It largely borders DC.

The areas you are describing are Downtown Silver Spring. But, in many ways, a lot of people would consider all the urban areas of the 20910 zipcode to be Downtown Silver Spring.

by Patrick Thornton on Aug 31, 2012 4:37 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman,

I think the chiding isn't for you "citing" yourself. It's the implication that anyone here who makes a point somewhat related to one you've made before "should" have "acknowledged" your specific blog post, whether or not they've ever read it.

Not everyone reads your blog. And for many of us that do sometimes read it, we don't necessarily see every post.

I don't know of any journalistic (or "blogalistic") ethic that requires an author to have read every other related article ever written on the subject (and to "acknowledge" it) prior to publication.

If you were to say, "I've recently thought something similar, and wrote about it HERE," and then discussed the topic as opposed to crucifying the author for not linking to it himself, no one would "chide" you.

by Joey on Aug 31, 2012 4:53 pm • linkreport

The pocket park requirement has got to be the biggest impediment to the successful urbanization of DTSS and other areas of MoCo. It's a flat awful idea. I understand what the council was thinking, in theory, but they have got to open their eyes and freakin get rid of the requirement already. It's such an obvious street-killer.

I can't stand that we're requiring this huge burden on developers for something that almost always does 10x more harm than good. Make them pay into the general parks & planning fund. The "real" park next to me looks ghetto as hell and has playground equipment that's a complete joke. Take the money and fix/create real parks instead of forcing developers to go out of their way to ruin their developments w/these pocket parks, a.k.a. dead space (no, "ruin" isn't an exaggeration when it comes to the likes of the Crescent and Cameron).

by jag on Aug 31, 2012 5:00 pm • linkreport

I am the "Gutin" quoted in the post. A couple of more things about the Galaxy:

- While I like the convenience of having the public garages right in my building, I fully agree about the negative affect they have on the street-scape.

- I would not say the pocket park is full, but people use it. The playground was a smart move on the developer/designer's part.

- There is one retail space at the corner of the building on 13th St that is right next to the car wash. I can not imagine what or who would want to move in there.

One small correction - the prayer group, called Segulah, has had one potluck in the park, but I heard from a few people that they enjoyed having it there. The tables being covered by the overhang from the building was a good design move.

That having been said, the park is a perk of living here, as is the garage, but neither was an essential part of why we decided to move in here.

by Gutin on Aug 31, 2012 5:14 pm • linkreport

I like the idea of paying into a fund for the creation of a separate park. I've thought of something similar for my hometown that has a two acre lot minimum (to protect the rural character of the county) to be amended to instead create a greenbelt between neighborhoods.

Anyway, that's an issue worth exploring since a. It defrays capital costs for parks and b. allows buildings to max out and not sacrifice financial viability

by Drumz on Aug 31, 2012 5:14 pm • linkreport


The Quarry House is at the corner of Georgia and Bonifant, both of which have continuous retail frontages on one or both sides, and Jackie's is also on Georgia Avenue, albeit a less busy part. They're not perfect, but they're closer to the ideal than other streets in DTSS.

That said, they're both destinations, which alludes to what Patrick was talking about. (The Quarry House doesn't even have a sign, so you have to know it's there before coming.) And that also speaks to what Richard Layman (!!!) talks about in his Rules for Restaurant-Based Renewal - that places like Quarry House, and Jackie's, and hopefully Scion which will soon open at 1200 East-West Highway, can help revitalize an otherwise struggling retail district.

by dan reed! on Aug 31, 2012 5:19 pm • linkreport

Covering new ground is fine, and so is making old ground more accessible to a wider audience, but it's nice to know which it is that you are doing.

I don't insist on footnotes on every sentence, but if GGW's bloggers kept "Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space" on the shelf by their desk it would benefit GGW's readership.

by Turnip on Aug 31, 2012 7:44 pm • linkreport

It reminds me of New York pocket parks, a concept that began (I think) with Mies Van Der Rohe's Seagram's Building in New York. Break the streetwall to create a mini park for your tower and for more light and air. Problem is without any intelligent reason to have a park there, the surrounding fabric won't support the life it's designers may have intended. I though as progressive as MoCo was, they'd have learned this lesson by now. Instead you had Rollin Stanly praising starchitecture density with out regard to the qualities that make a street great. Hopefully, his replacement will be a bit less about showmanship and more about scholarship.

by Thayer-D on Aug 31, 2012 9:03 pm • linkreport

jag/drumz -- it's not that the pocket park "requirement" is bad, just that it isn't fully developed. That's the point about planning for an integrated public realm framework, and not just planning for it, but managing it.

Then the second point, one that Dan doesn't adequately capture, but jag does, is that not all places can have successful public spaces, especially if other "layering" elements aren't in place andcan't really be achieved.

E.g., Downtown Silver Spring captures non-immediate residents as patrons, not just people in the immediate area, and the critical mass impact further attracts other patronage--even those of us from upper NW in DC.

Neighborhood areas, just as neighborhood commercial districts typically lack enough local residents to provide adequate patronage, typically don't have enough residents usually to support other things too.

That doesn't mean not provide services, but the issue is to concentrate activities, provide the right level of assets (smaller neighborhood facilities), and MANAGEMENT-programming, which most private properties aren't likely to be very good at independently, or for which they certainly are going to need help and assistance.

the "privately owned public spaces" thing is a big issue (e.g., Zuccotti Park and Occupy movement, etc.). A lot has to do with access. But equally important concerns whether or not the spaces do what they are supposed to do.

by Richard Layman on Sep 1, 2012 5:21 am • linkreport

Dan - Many of the problematic situations you describe are the result of a misguided zoning requirement - that every building have a percentage of the site available as "public open space". This requirement drives building fronts back from the sidewalk, creates unused small 'seating areas' and locations for questionable public art.

Some coming changes in the zoning code address this, but you describe the unintended consequences of misguided public policy.

Keep up your great work.


by Ralph Bennett on Sep 1, 2012 11:18 am • linkreport

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