Greater Greater Washington

Public Spaces


Silver Spring strip mall could become new urban park

Downtown Silver Spring could get a big new park in an unlikely place: the parking lot of the Blair Shops, a 1960's-era strip mall across from the Silver Spring Metro station.


The Blairs today. Photo by the author.

According to a tweet from Evan Glass, chair of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, the Blair Apartments at East-West Highway and Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring will get a new urban park as part of a future redevelopment project.

The announcement came at a meeting of the advisory board's Tree and Neighborhoods committees, where staff from Montgomery Parks and the Montgomery County Planning Department led a conversation about open space in the area.

The Blairs were built in the early 1960's on the former site of Falkland, the mansion of Montgomery Blair, postmaster general under President Abraham Lincoln. A series of additions and renovations by owner Tower Companies followed in the early 2000's. Today, the 27-acre complex contains over 1400 apartments in 10 buildings, the Blair Shops, a 100,000 square foot strip mall, and a 67,000 square-foot office building.

A few years ago, county planners did a study of potential sites for new, large parks in the area, identifying the Blairs as a possibility. Their drawings of the site show how the site could be redeveloped, with a park measuring several acres in place of the Blair Shops parking lot and high-rise apartments above the shopping center. A street grid would connect the site to the surrounding area, while structured parking garages would make up for the lost parking lot.

Giant Food Parking Lot - Aerial

Giant Food Parking Lot - Potential
Top: Rendering of a potential park at the Blairs. Bottom: Rendering of how the Blairs could be redeveloped. Images from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

While there are currently no firm details about how and when the Blairs will be redeveloped, the Tower Companies' website suggests that they eventually plan to have 2800 apartments and 450,000 square feet of total development, nearly double the amount of space there today. It's also unclear whether the park will be publicly or privately owned, though ideally it would be owned by the county.

Glass's tweet says that public meetings on the project will be held early next year. Until then, the potential for a big new park in downtown Silver Spring is exciting. The availability of and access to open space has been a growing issue in the Downcounty in recent months, particularly with residents concerned about new development.

A few blocks from the Blairs, a group of South Silver Spring residents upset that a proposed apartment building on Newell Street will block their views are lobbying to have that property turned into a park. Meanwhile, residents in Wheaton successfully persuaded the county to buy a former art school for parkland instead of letting townhouses be built there.

Montgomery County will continue to grow, and new residents will need places to live, work and shop. They'll also need parks for gathering, recreation and enjoying nature. However, we've seen how poorly-designed, poorly-located parks can be underused, dampen foot traffic and even hurt nearby shops and restaurants.

We can't let that happen again, and the best way to do that is to plan for new parks, not just put them wherever someone doesn't want something built in their backyard. Building a park as part of redeveloping the Blairs means it can be designed as a part of the neighborhood as opposed to an afterthought or leftover space. And since the redevelopment will have to be reviewed and approved by the Planning Board, there will be many opportunities for community input as well.

A well-designed urban park can be a great asset for residents and businesses alike. Hopefully, a new park at the Blairs will do that for downtown Silver Spring.

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

Add a comment »

Looks great. Though it helps that all of the proposed buildings have flat facades.

by drumz on Nov 27, 2012 12:08 pm • linkreport

There would have to be at least 3 high-rise towers to get another 1,400 apartments on that site and still leave room for the center to be a dedicated park. I really hope that if the redevelopment happens, the center park space isn't just grass for playing, but a functional European style piazza/plaza, surrounded by outdoor cafes that will animate it 18 hours/day (no, I'm not talking about drunks stumbling out of bars at 3:00 AM...though a few would be welcome). With 2800 units and all the surrounding retail, this could be a fantastic space. So much potential.

by Woodsider on Nov 27, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

This makes so much sense it's unbelievable. Really hope The Blairs are interested in making the jump into the 21st century. Right now it's almost comical to have a 60s era strip mall and sea of asphalt next to the metro. It's the reason I've never come to considering The Blairs as a home. East of the tracks is, currently, far more interesting and lively. Make the jump, Blairs!

by jag on Nov 27, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

I couldn't agree more. I was one of those that helped organize the discussion, which generated a lot of heat as usual. The point that Dan alludes to and I wish would be implemented whole sale is the idea of 20% open space requirements in a central city like SS's CBD, ought to be eliminated in favor of putting money towards a central park of functional proportions and usable location. Right now, this out-dated suburban type zoning forced developers to create little unused pocket parks instead of creating strong street walls and providing for a public space like Veteran's Plaza, which is a huge hit. Right now, developers have an option for more density to put money into a fund, but it ought to be mandatory in downtowns.

If you want to learn more about this great study done by the Montgomery County Planning Staff, here it is.
http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/ssgreenspace/index.shtm

by Thayer-D on Nov 27, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

Sweet plan. All of that asphalt less than a quarter mile from one of the busiest metro/bus stations never made sense to me. Although I guess it was there first.

by Nick on Nov 27, 2012 1:51 pm • linkreport

This could be huge for South Silver Spring and Silver Spring as a whole if done correctly.

The Planning Department's proposal would be a home run, and would give South Silver Spring its own Ellsworth/Veteran's Plaza. The key here is to make sure the park is well designed, central and ample. We have plenty of pocket parks in the area, most of which are poorly designed and little used. A good urban park right near the metro is exactly what we need.

I agree with others that developers should pay into a fund instead of developing pocket parks, except where appropriate. The large pocket park between The Veridian and The Silverton is large because it is a combined park between two buildings and is well used because of this (it is a bit over programmed, however). It's location also works well. Others actually hurt our community by making things farther apart and making it harder for people to see retail.

Putting a park in where all that asphalt sits would be huge for Silver Spring, and a much better idea than building a park a half mile from the metro on the DC border. We really need to make sure this happens.

by Patrick Thornton on Nov 27, 2012 1:56 pm • linkreport

Maybe I've been there at the wrong times of day (usually after 6PM), but the stretch of 410 between the Metro and Georgia Ave has always felt dead dead dead to me.

Apart from the Blairs, there's been a ton of new development there that has completely failed to enliven the streetscape in any way whatsoever.

I guess it doesn't help either that the block is isolated by the tracks on one side and the Giant on the other), which also has the odd effect of making it one of the longest uninterrupted city blocks in the DC area.

The walk from the Veridian to the Metro is theoretically quite short, but feels like an eternity because the streetscape is so dead and boring.

We hear a lot about heights and density, but it's definitely odd that Silver Spring's "downtown" is one of the least dense parts of the city.

by andrew on Nov 27, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

@ andrew

I completely agree with andrew's issues with east-west highway being dead between the Metro and Georgia avenue. The biggest break in that walk is the Canada dry building not being street oriented, and the Blairs tower that fronts east-west being very 'suburban' with the kiss and ride like front and the big trees (though I do love those big trees, i'd hate to see them lost). The retailers know this dead zone exists too, evident by the lack of retailers in the bottom of the three highrises around acorn park that have retail space (i'm optimistic Scion will be the start of a new chapter). I think redeveloping the Blairs property, and having the buildings that will replace the CVS/Giant have a street activating presence on both East-west and the new park space is a must. The grade would allow two levels of retail/lobby space, a lower level facing the park and a second level facing east-west. I do think it's a bit odd that Silver Springs 'downtown' is away from the Metro and less dense, although that's no different than Bethesda Row as Bethesda's lower density 'downtown', the Rockville Town Square and it's lower density than the government complex and what will become of the new hotel and apartment building in front of the theater, and Clarendon being the lowest density feeling of the Arlington Orange Line corridor, but effectively serving as the entertainment downtown. I'm not sure if Silver Spring can support two downtowns, except in a case where one becomes more upscale than the other, attracting different clientele (I'm thinking of Bethesda again with Bethesda Row vs the Woodmont Triangle).

by Gull on Nov 27, 2012 4:49 pm • linkreport

I do think it's a bit odd that Silver Springs 'downtown' is away from the Metro and less dense, although that's no different than Bethesda Row as Bethesda's lower density 'downtown', the Rockville Town Square and it's lower density than the government complex

It's not the downtown that's away from the Metro station, it's the Metro station that's away from the center of downtown. Unlike in downtown DC where stations were placed in existing centers of commerce/pedestrian concentrations, these stations were quite suburban at the time of their planning, with the exception of Silver Spring. Metro took the easy way out and placed the lines/stations along existing rail rights-of-way rather than spend to tunnel to put the station where it should be. In the case of Silver Spring that would probably be a subterranean station at Georgia & Colesville (or Georgia & Wayne). IMHO :)

by Woodsider on Nov 27, 2012 4:56 pm • linkreport

Having lived at the Blairs, what that area needs is more affordable apartments. $1800 for a two bedroom is unfeasible for federal families.

by Redline SOS on Nov 27, 2012 5:05 pm • linkreport

I live in the neighborhood and like this concept but have concerns. Does Dan or anyone else who was at the meeting last night know how the Giant and other existing business owners feel about this? They would probably take a big hit during the years of construction. Where would the entrances and exits from the underground parking for cars and pedistrians be, and would the parking be free? If it is not free or is too hard to access, the hit that the businesses take could be peramnant, even with the additional housing nearby.

Based on the drawings, the new park still appears to be pretty cut off from the surrounding areas. Right now there are three entrances for automobiles and pedestrians into Blair Plaza, and additional pedestrian entrances for Blair residents. The drawings appear to only have one more entrance to the site, which would go through the Blair property, which means it might not be public. Are there additional entrances I am missing or that aresn't in the drawing? Would it be a good thing or a bad thing if the new surface streets became popular with motorists passing through the area?

by Scott S. on Nov 27, 2012 6:19 pm • linkreport

I completely agree that any new development needs to front East-West and the existing parking lot (hopefully to be a park). East-West doesn't have much going on, despite being so dense, largely because of bad development and planning. The whole strip on East-West between Collesvile and Georgia should be mixed use. Almost none of it is.

Scion could be a new chapter for South Silver Spring, as someone else mentioned. It could be a big boon for the street. The Veridian also has more potential and has been filling in over the last two years. Making a new Blairs complex that fronts East-West would be huge for South Silver Spring. Add in some parallel parking on East-West, and we'd have a real urban street.

by Patrick Thornton on Nov 27, 2012 6:23 pm • linkreport

Scott,

This drawing is years old from the Planning Department. We'll find out what will actually be proposed next year. It could be much different than this. This is just an idea that the Planning Department had, and it's a starting point for conversations.

The businesses all have leases; none of them own their buildings. They'll have to accept whatever their contract permits and what the property owners wants. Perhaps they'll be compensated for disruptions in business. Overall, a more modern, walkable development would be good for businesses and everyone.

by Patrick Thornton on Nov 27, 2012 6:31 pm • linkreport

I don't think Silver Spring can hold two downtowns, but there's nothing wrong with multiple centers for adjacent neighborhoods. No matter what get's built here, it will surely be better than what's there, and the added density will only make all of downtown Silver Spring more vital. I would love to see a bridge connection over the tracks from Silver Spring Avenue, which goes straight to the tracks and is aligned with an alley on the East West side of downtown.
That would really knit the whole downtown together.

by Thayer-D on Nov 28, 2012 7:01 am • linkreport

This project is a great idea, and would be 1000x better than what is there now. However, when/if this actually happens, the designers need to be very careful when designing the building(s) between East-West Highway and this open park space. It will be important to design the building to have active frontage on both the open space and along East-West Highway. As others have said, walking East-West between Colesville and Georgia feels like an eternity because although the streetscaping is pretty decent, there is nothing of interest along the way. A well-designed pedestrian crossing over the train tracks (perhaps at either Sligo or Silver Spring Aves.) is desperately needed to connect the residential buildings along East-West and the restaurants/bars along Georgia Ave.

Also, another commenter mentioned the lost revenue of the Giant during construction. Wasn't the large retail space in the Veridian originally intended to be a grocery store? I'm sure it's not as large as the current Giant, but maybe it would suffice as a temporary location. Or it would make a great Trader Joe's if the Giant were to disappear completely.

by Rebecca on Nov 28, 2012 11:28 am • linkreport

Thayer-D,

I wouldn't look at it as multiple downtowns, but rather as multiple public destinations. The true downtown of Silver Spring will always be on the other side of the metro from South Silver Spring. That's where the businesses are and all the cultural stuff. Ellsworth and Veteran's Plaza really work well, and my guess is that the county will put even more public amenities over there and consider making Ellsworth a full-time promenade.

But as it is, the urban part of Silver Spring has these destinations: DTSS and surrounding streets, the Georgia corridor between QHT and Jackie's and Fenton Village. South Silver Spring has a ton of residents, but it's not a destination yet (even less so than Fenton Village, which needs a lot of work in its own right). A large part of this is from poor, anti-urban development. Redoing this shopping center could give South Silver Spring a destination that attracts people from the area. South Silver Spring should at least be something that residents from other parts of South Silver Spring want to walk to.

I frequently walk over to DTSS, the Georgia corridor and Fenton Village. How many people in those areas can say the same about coming over to South Silver Spring? We have a 1960s strip mall that is a mess to both walk and drive to (and is highly unattractive and doesn't really support outdoor seating or activities) and Fajita Coast. We are getting Scion, which could finally give this area a bar that attracts people but Scion and Fajita Coast can't carry an entire neighborhood.

I look at this potential redevelopment as a chance to give South Silver Spring some life. It'll be good for property values, good for people's quality of life and good for Silver Spring and Montgomery County. But only if done well.

by Patrick Thornton on Nov 28, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport

A well-designed pedestrian crossing over the train tracks (perhaps at either Sligo or Silver Spring Aves.) is desperately needed to connect the residential buildings along East-West and the restaurants/bars along Georgia Ave.

It's taken a decade and we still don't have funding to build the simple extension of the Metropolitan Branch Trail over Georgia Avenue. Can you imagine how long it would take to get pedestrian/vehicular connections across the tracks between E-W Hwy and Georgia? Probably so far in the future that "where we're going we won't need roads"

by Woodsider on Nov 28, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

This is a very promising project that unfortunately won't break ground anytime in the near future. It's been in the works for ages and those renderings are years old.

South Silver Spring has seen a ton of residential development, but hardly any retail, which is why East-West is an empty canyon. Hopefully this project provides a net gain in retail space. Also, replacing the last sea of asphalt in South Silver Spring with a park is an excellent idea.

by King Terrapin on Nov 28, 2012 5:54 pm • linkreport

@ Patrick,
I completely agree as I tried to say that every neighborhood in downtown Dilver Spring ought to have it's center, and this could be South Silver Spring's. I think it ought to have a face on East West ave, if only to activate that main thuroughfair, but to really improve that street, they need on street parking. Maybe the Blair redevelopment could handle a parking lane taken out of it's hide to improve the frontage, now that would be a good urban move.

by Thayer-D on Nov 28, 2012 9:31 pm • linkreport

If you have large retail establishments in the area such as a Giant supermarket or CVS then you better have enough parking spots available for vehicles. The Giant and CVS get a substantial part of their business from customers who travel from DC by car. It's not like there are a ton of food shopping options in the Shepherds Park neighborhood of DC. These folks have to hike to Silver Spring for their groceries.

Where would the planners find the space for garage parking (above or below ground)?

I have doubts about large green space areas and large retail properties. I don't see a future for Giant if the plans call for more foot traffic and less available parking. If Giant leaves the Blairs property then there is no guarantee that a Trader Joe's or some other boutique grocery chain will move in. The Blairs would have to work out a deal with a grocery chain before construction begins on new buildings and green park space. A grocery retail anchor is a must here. If you cannot land a grocery store in such a high-density, highly-populated neighborhood then you hurt the nearby residents with fewer shopping options. Not everyone finds Whole Foods or Trader Joe's with their sky-high product prices, thick crowds, tight shopping aisles and sparse parking spots as an appealing option.

by Craig on Nov 30, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

The Blairs are planning for the future. Why go crazy on building parking when you could build more units or a nicer amenity park, knowing that Shepard Park will probably be serviced by development on the old Walter Reed site. Silver Spring and the whole of Georgia Avenue will continue to densify, so why not favor the increased pedestrial traffic that Silver Spring's build-out will engender.

by Thayer-D on Dec 1, 2012 8:40 pm • linkreport

Altogether I believe a park in on this side of SS would be a failure. Who would want to sit in a park and hear grocery carts rolling across cement all day? And with a small population of dogs in the area, during the night, a park nearby would certainly be convenient for those who do not want to poop the scoop. This would eventually turn away the public from using the park. I think the answer would be to follow the formula used for the newly revised DTSS. It is a big success. If you can maintain the focus to provide something for people of all ages where folks can just come for a breath of fresh air or to enjoy just being outside, I think this community would embrace it, i.e., I think taking away that patch of grass for a skating rink was not a good idea. Ever compare the number of people who use the rink to the number of people who used to sit on the grass chatting and eating lunch, and waving at their neighbors? What did the people who used to sit on the grass get in exchange? I used to love that patch of grass. I think that a fountain park would be wonderful, with a walking path throughout the park for those who need a morning run, then catching a bite to eat and meeting friends later. You can catch a bite to eat, do a little shopping all in the same area, without having to catch a bus or use the metro. Alone this type of convenience would be invaluable to all. People are willing to spend for “convenience”. The beauty of nature would be invaluable in this area as it tends to provide a very soothing and calm effect to your spirit which is needed frequently as the DTSS traffic become more congested. Then surround the park with Art and science venues, along with shops and boutiques (like Georgetown) and music for every generation for people of all ages,

The water spout in for the kids in DDSS is still a big hit because its something that families and passerbys can watch and enjoy. I think a large fountain would do the same for the adults. WATER and MUSIC are always a good combination. If you can build around that then everything else should fall in to place; sort of like Central Park in NYC; a café here, a boutique there, and then something unique to keep the young people interested. I find that when you give a little (a fountain!!), the public is willing to give back.

by calmspirit on Dec 2, 2012 4:40 pm • linkreport

Altogether I believe a park in on this side of SS would be a failure. Who would want to sit in a park and hear grocery carts rolling across cement all day? And with a small population of dogs in the area, during the night, a park nearby would certainly be convenient for those who do not want to scoop the poop. This would eventually turn away the public from using the park. I think the answer would be to follow the formula used for the newly revised DTSS. It is a big success. If you can maintain the focus to provide something for people of all ages where folks can just come for a breath of fresh air or to enjoy just being outside, I think this community would embrace it, i.e., I think taking away that patch of grass for a skating rink was not a good idea. Ever compare the number of people who use the rink to the number of people who used to sit on the grass chatting and eating lunch, and waving at their neighbors? What did the people who used to sit on the grass get in exchange? I used to love that patch of grass. I think that a fountain park ( a large fountain like the one at the art museum downtown) would be wonderful, with a walking path throughout the park for those who need a morning run, then catching a bite to eat and meeting friends later. You can catch a bite to eat and do a little shopping all in the same area, without having to catch a bus or use the metro. Alone this type of convenience would be invaluable to all. People are willing to spend for “convenience”. The beauty of nature would be invaluable in this area as it tends to provide a very soothing and calm effect to your spirit which is frequently needed as the DTSS traffic become more and more congested. Then surround the park with Art and science venues, along with shops and boutiques (like Georgetown) and music for every generation and for people of all ages, a stage perhaps for plays and other activities.

The water spout for the kids in DDSS is still a big hit because its something that families and passerbys can watch and enjoy at no cost (so to speak). I think a large fountain would do the same for the adults. WATER and MUSIC are always a good combination. If you can build around that then everything else should fall in to place; sort of like Central Park in NYC; cafés and shops all around and then something unique to keep the young people interested. I find that when you give a little (a fountain!!), the public is willing to give back.

by calmspirit on Dec 2, 2012 11:03 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or

Support Us