Greater Greater Washington

Issue with Silver Spring apartment plan is design, not height

Neighbors in downtown Silver Spring say a proposed 11-story apartment building is too tall for the area. But as the project goes to the Montgomery County Planning Board, whose staff recommend approving the project, there are still problems with the proposal. It's not the height, but the design of a single, long building instead of two.


Rendering of Studio Plaza. All images from Fairfield Residential Company.

In 2009, local developer Robert Hillerson proposed building a mixed-use complex with apartments, shops, offices and a hotel on most of a city block between Georgia, Thayer and Silver Spring Avenues and Fenton Street.

Community members supported that plan, but weren't as excited about a new design Hillerson and national apartment developer Fairfield Residential Company presented last summer. As I wrote in October, what was originally a pair of buildings surrounding Mayor's Promenade, a planned pedestrian passage between Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street, has morphed into one monolithic, block-long building with an underpass through it.

On Thursday, the developers will present a revised design (PDF) to the Montgomery County Planning Board, which is also holding a public hearing on the project. Neighbors, civic groups and even county councilmembers have written nearly 100 pages of letters to the board, mostly in opposition. They're mainly worried about the project's height and density, which one resident feels could turn Silver Spring into Crystal City.

While some good changes have been made since the summer, this project still isn't ready to go. It's not the height or density, both of which current zoning allows and which are in line with the rest of downtown Silver Spring. The real issue is with its design.

New design improves park, sort of improves building


Site plan showing phases 1 and 2 of Studio Plaza.

As before, Studio Plaza will be broken up into two phases. The first phase, which is going before the Planning Board now, is for one 11-story building with 415 apartments, including 61 Moderately Priced Dwelling Units and 10 Workforce Housing Units for low-income households, and 10,000 square feet of street-level retail space. A second phase, to be approved later, will could add up to 340 apartments, 26,000 square feet of retail, and a 78,000 square foot office building.

There's the aforementioned renovation and extension of Mayor's Promenade and a new street, which help break down a big block and will improve pedestrian connections between Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street. At the intersection of the two is a 13,000-square-foot park, which will be privately owned but open to the public. The park will sit atop a parking garage meant to replace the existing parking lot.

Designed by Alexandria-based landscape architecture firm ParkerRodriguez, the park is one of the plan's highlights. Before, it was just a bunch of blobs of lawn and pavement randomly thrown around. Now, there's a simple, rectangular lawn divided in half by Mayor's Promenade. It's big enough for picnics and playing catch, with room for some planters in a geometric pattern that provides visual interest.

Facing the park is retail space, which has a terrace for outdoor dining, a shaded "amenity terrace" for tenants of the apartment building, and 8 ground-floor apartments with "real doors" and porches. Local artist Dan Steinhilber will make 23 public art pieces out of tubular steel, including lampposts, bike racks and benches, that will be placed throughout Mayor's Promenade and the park.


Rendering of the building and the park.

The building, designed by WDG Architects of DC, is better as well. The old design used dark-colored brick and had narrow, relentlessly repetitive windows, which made the building feel large and heavy. That's been replaced with a mix of warm-colored bricks and bands of glass broken up with attractive teal accents. It's a more conservative design, but it helps the building feel less imposing.

Setbacks make the building now appear to be 9 floors tall on Thayer Avenue and 10 floors on Silver Spring Avenue. And on the new street, the building peels back ever so slightly at the intersection with Thayer Avenue, drawing visitors into the public park. Looking at the renderings of the building at night behind the low-rise storefronts on Georgia Avenue, I can start to imagine this building in real life.

Still a "very long building"


Rendering of Studio Plaza at night, with Mayor's Promenade lit up.

However, the biggest issue with the previous design remains: the first phase is still "a very tall, very long building," in the words of county planners, that bridges over Mayor's Promenade. Having a pedestrian passage that connects two streets and a park is probably the coolest part of the entire project, but this design choice turns it into an afterthought.


Rockville Town Square. Photo from Google Street View.

There are legitimate reasons for having one building instead of two, namely the ability to have one consolidated lobby, elevator core and service area for the entire complex. But as I've said before, breaking this building into two, or at least having a more delicate connection or bridge from one side to the other, would make the promenade a nicer space and assuage residents' concerns about the building's height and mass.

Fairfield and Hillerson should look to the apartment buildings at Rockville Town Square, which WDG also designed, for a better solution. They also bridge over pedestrian passages that connect the square to surrounding streets, but the bridges step back from the street so they're not as deep as the rest of the building, which allows light and air into to the passage.

This project is as long if not longer than Studio Plaza, and it's only 5 or 6 stories tall. Why doesn't it make sense to do the same thing for an 11-story building?

Studio Plaza has its merits: it provides housing in an area where it's in high demand, and is close enough to transit, jobs and shopping that residents won't drive as much or at all. It'll improve connections in downtown Silver Spring with two new streets and give people a new park for hanging out in.

However, the Planning Board still shouldn't approve it. We can't do much about its height, nor should we. But we can improve the way this building looks and relates to its surroundings. There have been a lot of less-than-great buildings in downtown Silver Spring, but this is a substantial project in a very prominent location. It deserves the best design possible.

Check out this slideshow of Studio Plaza, including the 2012 and 2009 plans.

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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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To be fair, the problems (now actively being fixed as well I might add) with Crystal City don't actually have anything to do with the height either.

The park does look nice though I'll quibble and argue that a functioning bike rack (or a lamp) isn't art if we get utility out of it. It just happens to be a really well designed bike ramp.

Also, lets hope that its actually useful as a bike rack rather than a bunch of awkwardly shaped steel that confuses people on how to best hitch their bike to it.

by drumz on Feb 19, 2013 1:53 pm • linkreport

The problems with Crystal City is that it was a collection of soulless buildings with soulless landscaping.

by SJE on Feb 19, 2013 2:09 pm • linkreport

I actually don't mind the design. I understand the concerns with the massing, but the facade is broken up in a way so that it doesn't look too visually imposing and the somewhat interesting design keeps it from looking too generic.

Frankly, there are tons of more monolithic-looking buildings in DC of similar height that don't offend (for the most part, many definitely do). I also don't believe that the design is too high (even for Fenton Village); 10-12 stories seems about right.

by King Terrapin on Feb 19, 2013 2:22 pm • linkreport

"____ will turn _____ into another Crystal City" is about as insightful as "_____ will turn ____ into another Adams Morgan."

by Alex B. on Feb 19, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

I've read through this several times, and I still don't understand what your counterproposal would be. Making the hole in the building two stories tall rather than one? Something else? You suggest setting it back from the street, but this project already does that.

The link you provide doesn't go to the article containing comments from a concerned neighbor who lives over half a mile from Studio Plaza fretting about SS turning into Crystal City. That article is here:

http://www.gazette.net/article/20130110/NEWS/130119821/0/gazette

My favorite part about that line is that the concern came from someone who moved to SS in May. If you bought a house in May and are seriously claiming to have no idea that dense development was planned near the SS metro station, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

by Gray on Feb 19, 2013 2:41 pm • linkreport

I think the biggest problem with this building is it'll be a bit on it's own until other projects build in Fenton Village. Once other buildings go up, I don't think this plan will stand out so much (although, it may always be obvious from Georgia Avenue as those retail shops along Georgia may not change for a long while. I don't see what the huge opposition is to two separate towers, or just make the connection on floors 2 and 3, and have two towers rise above the lobby level.

by Gull on Feb 19, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

@Gray

Thanks for the correction! I don't know I let that slip.

@Gull

I agree, and the planning staff report said much the same thing. Studio Plaza will be on its own for a while, as there isn't a lot happening east of Georgia and south of Wayne right now, other than 900 Thayer Avenue and the new library and apartment building, both of which won't be finished for a few years.

by dan reed! on Feb 19, 2013 3:39 pm • linkreport

Just build it. No more waiting, no more public weigh-in BS. I thought ya'll wanted more supply ASAP to help keep prices down?

by H Street LL on Feb 19, 2013 3:59 pm • linkreport

Agreed with H street. It's not a beauty queen, but it's by right, meaning they are building with-in the allowable zoning laws. There are several other projects though, one at the corner of Fenton and Wayne and the Safeway is in the works to be redeveloped.

by Thayer-D on Feb 19, 2013 8:13 pm • linkreport

I keep being surprised by neighborhoods think they have a right to say anything about the private property that was legally acquired and fits within the zoning code. Surely nobody wants the entire neighborhood voting and arguing over the arrangement of their yard, and the color of their curtains? Then why this paternalistic oversight on new buildings? I just don't get it.

by Jasper on Feb 19, 2013 8:24 pm • linkreport

Very good analysis! Yes, instead of one monolithic block-long building, two separate structures seem more appropriate.

by Sage on Feb 19, 2013 8:50 pm • linkreport

@Thayer-D

The one at the corner of Fenton and Wayne has long been stalled since the developer went bankrupt. The bank that took receivership has so far been unable to sell the property. Like the Giant at the Blairs I don't see the Safeway being redeveloped anytime within the next 5 years.

There are two other smaller projects on the other side of Fenton that have been approved, but have yet too break ground: a small 4-story apt building at your namesake street and a 5-story hotel/office/retail/apt complex at Silver Spring Ace.

@ Jasper

If you think Silver Spring is bad, you should try building anything in the hub of NIMBYism: Chevy Chase DC/MD. They'd borderline riot if the swingsets in the neighborhood park weren't the right shade.

by King Terrapin on Feb 19, 2013 9:03 pm • linkreport

I agree with H Street LL and Thayer-D. Maybe not the most spectacular building, but we definitely should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If the planning board can get them to modify a few things, great. Otherwise, I say let's go for it. Have we not heard about how there needs to be so much more development/density in Silver Spring? And, if the buildings can't be Ripley District height, and we want green space, and light, and air (not like they're proposing a bubble over the area), then the bulding itself will have to be as compact as possible. Just like many buildings in DC are compact (blocky) because of the height limit.

I walk by that area most weekends with my 2-year old (excepting when the weather is too cold or wet). Frankly, I'd much rather walk down a street that's more activated than one with surface parking lots and weedy gravel lots.

by EMD on Feb 19, 2013 9:28 pm • linkreport

if it is all as of right, why is it going before the planning board for approval?

If there is a legal basis for review, the board can suggest improvements. That should not mean endless delays. It should be done reasonably. And improved design could head off opposition to the density, which I take it is Dan's point.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 19, 2013 9:57 pm • linkreport

King Terrapin said The one at the corner of Fenton and Wayne has long been stalled since the developer went bankrupt

Not sure if you are meaning another property, but the development on Fenton and Wayne is close to approval from the Planning Board, hopefully on February 28 when the developer Cafritz-Adler has its site plan review for 259 multi-family units, a new (relocated) first baptist church and about 19,000' of retail.

by Woodsider on Feb 19, 2013 10:00 pm • linkreport

@ Woodsider

My mistake, I meant the SW corner of Fenton and Thayer (adjacent to the Studio Plaza project). Yeah, the First Baptist Church project looks like it'll be approved next week if the Board follows the staff recommendation.

by King Terrapin on Feb 19, 2013 11:46 pm • linkreport

@ King t:If you think Silver Spring is bad, you should try building anything in the hub of NIMBYism

Oh, don't worry. I work in Georgetown. I know all about NIMBYism.

The extremity of the phenomenon keeps surprising me. Mu impression may be slanted because the news only reports about problem cases, but there seem to be few building projects that are not massively delayed by all kinds of activists. This is an enormous cost to society, and a huge waste of time and money in all the suits.

by Jasper on Feb 20, 2013 6:49 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity

The project has to go before the Planning Board because the CBD Zone requires all projects go before the Planning Board for Site Plan review. Yes, the height, density and setback as proposed do meet the requirements of the zoning code, and the Board will not comment on those issues, but the Board does have authority to comment on aesthetics, circulation, landscaping, and public amenities and art.

by Gull on Feb 20, 2013 9:03 am • linkreport

Without some degree of NIMBYism any trace of architectural character and variety would soon be eliminated (see Crystal City). If you buy property in a nice, charismatic area, I imagine you would like to keep it that way.

I wonder where the residents of these new buildings are going to shop. Silver Spring remains a relative dead zone for retail.

by Chris on Feb 20, 2013 9:59 am • linkreport

Without some degree of NIMBYism any trace of architectural character and variety would soon be eliminated (see Crystal City).

I'm not sure how this applies here. The location is currently a parking lot. What sort of architectural character and variety is that providing?

by Gray on Feb 20, 2013 10:16 am • linkreport

That was more of a general response to the comments questioning why NIMBYs do what they do.

Regarding this particular Silver Spring development, I agree that a parking lot is no great loss. I just hope these encroaching high-rises don't wipe out the old school shops along Georgia Ave.

by Chris on Feb 20, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

Chris, you'll see in the redering that the new building will be behind the early 20th century storefronts on Georgia Avenue. Also, I wouldn't call Silver Spring a retail dead zone. Retail tends to cluster in a main street in a downtown area. In Silver Spring that cluster is the Fenton/Ellsworth development. The retail density tapers off from there.

Of course, we could use more retail and Silver Spring feels sort of empty because it's apparent that there *could* be so much more. That's where the new customers from the new residential development comes in.

It's actually a pretty good mixture of retailers, with national chains in the newest buildings and local retailers a block or two off that main strip in older buildings. The new block has H+M, DSW, Whole Foods, City Sports, Starbucks and other national businesses and the next block over has local businesses CD/Game Exchange, comic book store, local Ethiopean-American owned coffee shops, a used book store among others. Pretty good stuff that stands up to any main street in the region except Downtown D.C. which is the "main street of the whole region.

by Cavan on Feb 20, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

I can see in the rendering that there are still single-story storefronts along Georgia, but I wasn't sure if those were meant to represent the current storefronts or if they plan to remodel the facade.

I confess to not being an expert on Sliver Spring retail. Perhaps I just haven't looked around enough. When I was there for dinner a couple of weeks ago though I walked past the City Place Mall on Colesville Rd and it looked like the place was a much less than vibrant retail environment with low-rent businesses and empty storefronts.

I hope the small businesses you mentioned like the coffee shops and book store will survive the development surge.

by Chris on Feb 20, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

@Chris

The stores on Georgia Avenue will all remain. They're separated from Studio Plaza by an alley. As for City Place, it's been struggling since it opened in 1992 - but the rest of downtown Silver Spring has been doing well, as Cavan pointed out. Of course there could always be more retail, but we're doing much better than we were 10 years ago.

by dan reed! on Feb 20, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

If the Planning Board gives its blessing do we know what the timeline would be for groundbreaking?

I agree the design could be better (and also agree it's a huge improvement from the last iteration), but this lot has been the worst eyesore in DTSS for many years now. Redevelopment cannot come soon enough.

by jag on Feb 20, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

How is it an eyesore? Not the most inspiring design, but looks fairly well maintained. There are other parts of Silver Spring that are much sketchier looking.

by Chris on Feb 20, 2013 5:22 pm • linkreport

Chris, I don't think you read my comment correctly. Or maybe you don't know Silver Spring very well - the lot currently consists of broken up concrete, half-mangled fences, and rat dens. Groundbreaking needs to have happened yesterday (x1000).

by jag on Feb 20, 2013 11:10 pm • linkreport

Jag- Oops! My mistake. I got this thread mixed up with the other one about developing the Silver Spring Blairs property.

Yes, I agree that this development, done right, seems like a positive step for the community.

by Chris on Feb 21, 2013 12:11 pm • linkreport

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