Greater Greater Washington

Studio Plaza shows how "too big" isn't always about height

Containing apartments, shops, offices and a public park, the proposed Studio Plaza development could be the next big thing in downtown Silver Spring's revival. Literally: it's one block-long building with minimal details that turns a pedestrian street into a tight underpass.


Sketch of Studio Plaza. Image from WDG.

Joint developers Robert Hillerson and Fairfield Investment Company have made an ambitious proposal for a five-acre site taking up most of a city block between Georgia, Thayer and Silver Spring avenues and Fenton Street. A preliminary plan approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board in 2009 shows over 600,000 square of apartments, shops, offices, and a potential hotel.

Studio Plaza has been well-received by neighboring residents and business owners, partly due to the developers' commitment to providing several public amenities.

Their plan includes a substantial park, a garage to replace an existing public parking lot, a new street, and an extension of Mayor's Promenade, a short walkway off of Georgia Avenue home to the bust of former "Mayor" Norman Lane.

They've offered to set aside 15% of all apartments as Moderately Priced Dwelling Units for low-income families, while half of the apartments would be set aside as Workforce Housing for middle-income families. The project will also seek LEED certification, a measure of efficient energy and material use.

Mayor's Promenade Looking Towards Georgia
Mayor's Promenade today. Photo by the author.

studio plaza sections
These sections show Mayor's Promenade passing beneath the proposed building.
Image from the Montgomery Planning Department.

Recently, Hillerson and Fairfield submitted more detailed plans to the Planning Board of the project's first phase, containing a 12-story building with 410 apartments and 10,000 square feet of retail, a parking garage, and the park. (They can be seen in this slideshow.) They've also swapped out their original architect, SK&I of Bethesda, for DC-based WDG Architects, who's designed other apartment buildings in downtown Silver Spring, like the Veridian and the Cameron. According to their website, the building was designed "with the animated and eclectic spirit of the Fenton Village area in mind."

Whether they've actually accomplished that is questionable. While the original design placed a building on either side of Mayor's Promenade, the current design has one big building with the promenade going through it. Instead of a pedestrian street celebrating the neighborhood's "quirky and unique character," there will be an underpass, part of which will be just one story high.

Complaints that new development in Silver Spring is "out of scale" are common, whether it's for townhouses or a much smaller apartment building. But a rendering of the building behind the two-story shopfronts on Georgia Avenue, shows that it really is oversized. Its height isn't the problem, as there are plenty of taller buildings nearby. It's that this building is 400 feet long.

central green rendering
The 2009 proposal shows buildings with different materials and greater setbacks.
Image from the Montgomery Planning Department.

studio plaza render
The current proposal shows one large building with repetitive details and fewer setbacks. Image from WDG.

Stretching the building out across the entire block defeats the purpose of breaking it up in the first place. The exterior is also very repetitive, with a few simple elements used over and over again. Good urban streets give pedestrians something new to look at every 5 seconds, or every 25 feet. That's why a block of identical 18-foot-wide rowhouses can still look and feel great, but on a building this size, excessive repetition just emphasizes how massive it is.

However, the public park, designed by Alexandria-based landscape architects ParkerRodriguez, is more promising. Approximately 16,000 square feet in size, it's bigger than most developer-provided public spaces in downtown Silver Spring. The same paving materials used in the park will be extended into the new street, making it feel even larger.

A raised terrace will run along the edges of the park, where several ground-floor apartments will have entrances and private patios, similar to those at the Silverton condominiums on East-West Highway. This will help make a very large building feel much more personal: instead of walking past anonymous windows, you'll pass front doors. That will make the park feel more like a neighborhood gathering place, as opposed to a space like Veterans Plaza, which is more of a regional destination.

That said, the bulbous shape and location of the green areas in the new site plan seem arbitrary, and it's unclear what they're meant to be used for.

detailed site plan
Site plan of the proposed building and the public park.
Image from the Montgomery Planning Department.

How could Studio Plaza be better? For starters, the building could be broken up into two, which would bring it closer in scale with other high-rises in Silver Spring while providing more visual interest. Each half could use different materials or even have a different style, giving each its own distinct character. And while the building already steps down one story closer to low-rise Fenton Street, there may be more opportunities for other setbacks to make it look less bulky.

If a connection between the two buildings is necessary, it shouldn't be as deep as the rest of the building, and it should be higher off the ground, so Mayor's Promenade can still get light and air.

Union Row, 14th & W (1)
The Flats at Union Row shows how to bridge over a street without being imposing. Photo by the author.

You can see a really good example of this in the Flats at Union Row, a condominium off of U Street in the District designed by SK&I. Like Studio Plaza, it bridges over a pedestrian street, but the opening is large enough that the building doesn't feel so massive and the street still feels like an outdoor space. (Not surprisingly, a bridge in the SK&I-designed 2009 proposal looks quite similar.)

Meanwhile, the park should have as big a lawn as possible. We've seen from the past success of "the Turf" and the current push for a park in South Silver Spring that downtown residents want green space, and this one is big enough to accommodate it. This is a great opportunity to provide a large grassy area, as proposed in the 2009 plan, that could be used for everything from picnics to recreation to even live performances.

Studio Plaza has the potential to make a big impact on downtown Silver Spring, but only if its designers and developers focus on the small stuff. By opening up Mayor's Promenade, making the park more usable, and putting more detail into the building's exterior, they can truly make this project a reflection of its neighborhood.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also 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. 

Comments

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Other buildings in DTSS provide an even greater span. Ellsworth, for example, has over 500' of continuous structure facing to a very pedestrian-oriented street, whereas Studio Plaza's main length faces into a service alley.

It seems the concern isn't so much with the size of the building but with, as was noted, the lack of exterior aesthetic variation?

Also worth thinking about is how critical is it to have such variation facing a service alley as opposed to focusing on the plaza or along Mayors Promenade -- or is there an argument to be had for aesthetic design even on its utility side?

by Bossi on Oct 8, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

I agree that this building misses the mark. Ecpecially unfortunate considering the large nimby population in Silver Spring that can justifyably rail against this proposal. Nothing wrong with the density, and considering it's by-right, best not to spend ammunition fighting something that you can't win. But that's what the nimby's will do if history is a guide. While the gargantuan scale and singular archtiectural style are something we might be able to do something about the way Dan's pointed out, my guess is we'll have another several debates about the height and parking, both of which are dictated by law.

by Thayer-D on Oct 8, 2012 12:08 pm • linkreport

@Bossi

That's a good point, and I actually hadn't thought about Ellsworth Drive. It works well, though the architecture isn't great. That said, it's a lot shorter than the Studio Plaza proposal, and it's generally surrounded by other large-scale buildings, whereas Studio Plaza is directly behind the storefronts on Georgia Avenue.

Like I said, the height isn't so much an issue as exterior variation and how the building's mass is manipulated. And even if one side of the building is a service alley, it's still surrounded by 2- and 3-story buildings and will be for a while, meaning it'll be visible for blocks and blocks. Thus, it might as well be treated with care.

by dan reed! on Oct 8, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

Nice post - and I definitely agree with you. However, as a Prince George's resident, I can't help being a tad envious of this development. I'd gladly look forward to the time when these are the types of TOD issues that our county faces at its Metro stations!

by Bradley Heard on Oct 8, 2012 1:30 pm • linkreport

The Union Row alley has never been very inviting, it's basically a purely functional design like you might see at a century-old factory.

It always seems dead (few pedestrians, even though it's the main entrance to the building?), has little greenery, and is in shadow almost all of the time.

While I agree the Studio Plaza plan looks worse, higher standards please.

by Matt C on Oct 8, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

@Matt

I agree that Union Row isn't perfect. Do you have a better precedent in mind? I was thinking of Cady's Alley myself, though the buildings are much smaller than what's proposed here.

by dan reed! on Oct 8, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

Perhaps there should be a maximum street length so that buildings can not be so long. There are many street long buildings, as well as blocks of streets that are just too damn long.

by kk` on Oct 8, 2012 3:42 pm • linkreport

@Dan -- Euclid Mews in Adams Morgan is my favorite alley in DC, although it isn't accessible and doesn't actually connect streets. A few stairs are just enough to keep vehicular traffic and loiterers out.

Cady's Alley and the Georgetown stretches of the canal are also good examples.

San Francisco also has some really nice connector alleys (especially its famous stairways).

by Matt C on Oct 8, 2012 5:11 pm • linkreport

kk - Montgomery County has a policy that says all blocks must be at least 600 feet long. This doesn't come from the Planning Board, but from the county Department of Transportation. The aim is to prevent traffic from backing up past an intersection. Maybe the police could just enforce the law against "blocking the box" -- it is a violation that drivers seem to commit with impunity here.

by Ben Ross on Oct 8, 2012 7:05 pm • linkreport

arcades are another treatment, and Melbourne's laneways, although there can be issues of people not wanting to live above such places if they are open beyond normal store hours.

why did you not consider the road/alley, lined with stores in that Bethesda Row housing section that abuts Arlington Road?

Yes, it's much wider, but it's still somewhat comparable. I guess it's called Bethesda Lane.

- http://ww2.gazette.net/stories/02162011/nortnew205535_32548.php

- http://www.koitzgroup.com/blog/another-success-in-downtown-bethesda.html

by Richard Layman on Oct 9, 2012 5:55 am • linkreport

oh and the issue with "too big" isn't mostly about height, although in places like DC or Portland, with very strict height limits, I guess it is.

I argue, as does your post, that it's mostly about design: urban design, massing, treatment of the ground floor, the way the building connects to and extends the vitality of the street, verve, etc.

by Richard Layman on Oct 9, 2012 5:57 am • linkreport

Bethesda lane would be lovely, but look at the difference in height of the two projects. It's about the street section, which at the Studio Plaza would make the Bethesda Lane project feel like a strip mall at 5-6 stories. At 11 stories and a narrower street, it's all the more reason to break up the mass. Also, the Bethesda Lane archtiecture has a lot of articulation with scalable details from traditional architecture, all the easier to "feel" comfertable while walking there.

by Thayer-D on Oct 9, 2012 9:03 am • linkreport

I'm glad that we're getting more housing in Silver Spring. Our businesses could use a larger customer base and we need to do something to fill in the dead zones created by all the parking lots behind the Georgia Avenue storefronts. In the bigger picture, we simply need more housing supply as demand is seemingly insatiable around Metro stations.

Dan has a good point that the building could be more architecturally pleasing. While the current proposal won't ruin Silver Spring or anything, there are clearly better things that can be done without increasing the cost.

by Cavan on Oct 9, 2012 10:34 am • linkreport

Dan, can you do a piece on workforce housing? This is the first I've heard of it and it needs more visibility.

by Redline SOS on Oct 9, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

I'm in favor of the development but I agree the Ga Ave facade needs more articulation, reduced scale and break the elevation into three masses. This could be easier said than done since the lot is fairly narrow and of course the developers would like to maximize the project. I would be in favor of less color change in the masonry and paneling. There is too much of this alternating color in material in DTSS. Less is more.

by r5DG on Oct 9, 2012 5:32 pm • linkreport

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