The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


In Silver Spring, "mixed-use" means housing, shops & church

Across the region, cash-strapped churches are taking advantage of their property's development potential. The latest congregation is the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring, whose plans to replace their aging sanctuary with apartments, shops and a new church will go before the Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday.

Photo from the Silver Spring Historical Society.

First Baptist Church is at the corner of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, four blocks from the Silver Spring Metro and across the street from a future Purple Line stop. Built between 1927 and 1956, the church's buildings are showing their age and no longer fit the congregation's needs. It could cost $5 million to bring them up to code.

That's why the church has partnered with developers Grosvenor Americas and LaKritz Adler, who propose replacing the church (PDF) with a 6-story, 259-unit apartment building with 18,650 square feet of ground-floor retail space and an underground parking garage.

A new, 29,000-square-foot church, containing a sanctuary, classrooms and a day care center, would be built next door. Between them would be a mid-block pedestrian passage with landscaping and public art.

Redevelopment causes debate between congregations, preservationists

The Church at Clarendon with apartments above. Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

Whether due to declining attendance or growing ambitions, other area churches are doing the same thing, notably the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown DC, which partnered with a developer to raze their architecturally significant sanctuary and replace it with a new church and office building.

In Arlington, the Church at Clarendon sold the air rights above their church so an apartment building could be built on top. Meanwhile, the First Baptist Church of Wheaton sold their property to an apartment developer to relocate to Olney.

These projects often pit congregations against preservationists, who argue that the churches are historically or architecturally significant and should be saved. The Silver Spring Historical Society fought to have the First Baptist Church designated as a historic landmark; in response, the church hired a historian to argue that the building was nothing special.

It's a "dime-a-dozen church," Pastor Duncan McIntosh told the Gazette in 2011.

The Montgomery County Planning Board chose not to designate the building, opening it up for redevelopment. However, stained glass windows from the old church may be used in the new one, according to Jerry McCoy, president of the historical society.

Proposed design provides transition between downtown and neighborhoods

Site plan of the proposed First Baptist Church redevelopment. All images from the Montgomery County Planning Board.

Whether or not the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring is historically significant, it plays an important role in the community. Ironically, tearing it down will allow the church to remain in the community by giving it much-needed income and a new sanctuary that better fits their needs. Not only that, but the proposed design will encourage the further revitalization of downtown Silver Spring while creating a nice transition to surrounding neighborhoods.

The apartment building, designed by SK+I Architects of Bethesda, will have ground-floor retail along Fenton Street between Wayne and Bonifant Street, filling a large gap between the core of downtown Silver Spring and Fenton Village. Along Wayne and Fenton, the building will be 6 stories tall and have a modern fašade with metal and concrete panels and large expanses of glass.

Rendering of proposed First Baptist Church redevelopment from Wayne and Fenton.

View of the building from Bonifant and Fenton.

In 2011, neighbors agreed to allow the building additional height along Fenton; in exchange, the developers have reduced its height to 4 stories along Bonifant, where it's adjacent to single-family houses. The exterior on that street is more traditional, with divided-light windows and brick cladding; instead of shops, there are ground-floor apartments with "real doors."

In response to concerns about through traffic, a chicane will be placed on Bonifant Street. It'll slow drivers down, but still allow them to pass through, making it a much better alternative than the "fake cul-de-sacs" placed in many areas around downtown Silver Spring that just dump more traffic on the main streets.

Public space mixes church and community

Rendering of "Wingspire" sculpture and passage.

However, the most interesting part of the project might be its public open spaces, which take up two-fifths of an acre. It's here that apartment residents, shoppers and diners, and church parishioners will cross paths and mingle, creating an interesting mix.

The church's entrance on Wayne Avenue will face a small plaza, which also has tables and chairs for outdoor dining. On Bonifant Street is a playground for the church's day care center, which will be open to the public at set times. Connecting them is a mid-block passage between the apartments and the church, with benches and bioretention planters that hold and filter rainwater.

There will also be a 30-foot-tall public art piece dubbed "Wingspire." Frederick-based artist William Cochran designed a sculpture made of dichroic glass, which is embedded with thin layers of metal and can display a variety of colors. The glass will also be embedded in the passage's stone pavers, creating what Cochran calls a "river of light."

After years of debate, a design has emerged for the new First Baptist Church of Silver Spring that might make everyone happy. Not only does it allow a nearly century-old congregation to remain in place, but it allows downtown Silver Spring to continue growing while respecting adjacent neighborhoods. A church is often the heart of a community, but in a project like this, it's literal.

Check out this slideshow with additional images of the First Baptist Church proposal.

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. 


Add a comment »

A. The church in Clarendon is really nice all around and is a unique feature to the community.

B. Historic Preservationists should remember that utility is a protestant ethic (these are people whose ancestors ripped down art work in churches because of its extravagance). So reconfiguring space to accomodate a number of uses while fitting in with the aims of the church fits in historically as well.

by drumz on Feb 26, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

First Baptist DC is in the process of building a similar project near the Dupont Area:

And it's getting a new organ!

by Ben on Feb 26, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

Christ Lutheran Church in Bethesda (Old Georgetown Road at Glenbrook) has proposed a similar redevelopment of their site, but has had trouble getting zoning approval.

by Frank IBC on Feb 26, 2013 10:51 am • linkreport

Okay, so that means the First Baptist Church of Washington, the First Baptist Church of Wheaton, the First Baptist Church of Clarendon (since renamed), and the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring are all getting into real estate. I don't know what it is about Baptists! (I was raised Methodist, for what it's worth.)

by dan reed! on Feb 26, 2013 10:51 am • linkreport

I think everyone could pick at individual elements of this plan all day, but I really like this as a whole. It'll continue that curve of Fenton Street so that when coming up the hill from Veterans Plaza and passing whole foods, soon we'll have a new library framing us on the right and this on the left, and the library side then takes us into those lofts. It'll also help 'finish' Wayne avenue and encourage more people to walk along Wayne, providing foot traffic to the new restaurants we've seen on the south side of Wayne.

by Gull on Feb 26, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

It's great to include churches in the urban/urbanizing fabric. They're too often not a part of the mixed use vision.

As far as aesthetics go, there are a lot of synagogues in cities that occupy a portion of the ground floor of an apartment building - nothing fancy, but a place of worship.

Next, try to get some of the larger suburban churches at end of the line Metro stations so they don't have to build on greenfield sites in the exurbs for all their parking needs (plus, the churches can get transit access for younger members who live inside the Beltway)!

by jnb on Feb 26, 2013 11:04 am • linkreport

Nice article.

I would like to see them go higher than six stories but I guess it makes sense as a step-down to a single family neighborhood.

by H Street LL on Feb 26, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

@ dan reed -- not only are all those churches Baptist, but they also all claim to be "First." Maybe they are all getting into real estate in an attempt to stay in First place? :-)

by Mike on Feb 26, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

Doing a quick Google search, guidelines for church square footage range from 10 to 15 square feet per person. Taking the conservative estimate, if First Baptist is planning for a 29,000 sq ft church, they could be planning for a maximum attendance of over 1,900 people. That is a small megachurch imo (I am mainline Protestant and I've never been in a true megachurch, so I could be off here). Of course, they are also planning for daycare and classrooms. But at first glance, it does sound like they are planning for a large church, which may or may not get filled.

Either way, this is not a public problem, but First Baptist does need to ask itself if it is planning on accommodating too many people. The present buildings "no longer fit the congregation's needs" is typically a code for most of the pews are empty. They're betting, then, on lots of development in Silver Spring AND on more of those folks coming to attend. They may be right. Or they may have an empty church, whose maintenance costs will then be spread over a small congregation.

A lot of downtown churches are facing problems with too low attendance, because the original attendees left for the suburbs, and then attendance was low for a long time, and now younger adults are moving back into the city but they aren't really interested in attending church as much. I once attended an Episcopal church in DC at Metro Center - not a residential neighborhood, and most of us drove in (and certainly if you were at an early service, you might have to drive as Metro might not get you there on time).

by Weiwen on Feb 26, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

Funny how the "traditional" congregations are more forward thinking than preservationists (who often enough seem to be NIMBYs with a more sophisticated facade).

by Alan B. on Feb 26, 2013 11:18 am • linkreport

The local civic group actually bargained with the developer to reduce the scale as it approached the homes, break up the facade into many, and introduce the traditional styles in the mix. The developer told the architects to follow suit because we gave him more density than the zoning allowed as long as it was adjacent to the downtown. They went along with it not only because of he added density, but because we were able to convince him that there was more profit to be found in designing the building in a humane way, in other words, not neglecting the pleasure of the passerby. This is something that has to be fought for every time given an opportunity. The developer deserves a lot of credit for telling his architect to submit to the communities wishes, even though he had a strong incentive.

by Thayer-d on Feb 26, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport


As far as I can tell, the current church is about the same size as what's proposed, and as I wrote it'll include a day care center and classrooms. It's not like the whole space will be one big sanctuary. The church shares its space with Haitian and Spanish-speaking congregations, but I don't think the attendance is particularly high - and even if people were coming from far away, there are several public parking garages and lots nearby that are free on Sundays.

If you wanna talk about a megachurch, you should visit Evangel Cathedral, across from Six Flags in Prince George's County. Their parking lots are so big and congested they have people directing traffic - and a garage inside the building for the clergy's Benzes. (In keeping with the theme of this post, they also have a mortgage lender and have an apartment building for senior parishioners.)

by dan reed! on Feb 26, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

Interesting project.

2. personally, I prefer the Bonifant elevation to the Wayne elevation and wonder why the Wayne elevation isn't more prominent (it could have also been a floor or two higher still).

3. what would be really interesting (I am an atheist myself), if the First Baptist Church would take the time to rethink its method for engaging with the community given its renewed presence and more prominently urban presence.

e.g., I think it's the Fifth Ave. Presby Church in Manhattan, that on Saturdays when the choir is practicing, encourages people to come in and listen.

Similarly "the Theater Church" (I've written about it, is focused on reaching new audiences that we could and would call "urban."

by Richard Layman on Feb 26, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

Oh, a big church in Montreal does tours/people pay a small charge to get in. Some churches, like on G St. downtown, have music recitals at lunchtime. When traveling around xmas time, we've dropped into churches (Savannah, San Francisco) that have promoted their holiday service or Christmas hymns program, etc.

THe church where GGW contributors Geoff and Jaime got married in the events hall had a great set of historic interpretation boards (they organized the narrative according to particular ministers).

by Richard Layman on Feb 26, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

In Korea, churches often occupy the same building as shops, apartments and offices. I really don't see anything wrong with a church financing itself this way, otherwise once you build a church you would likely be stuck with that church forever.

by Richard Bourne on Feb 26, 2013 12:56 pm • linkreport

The new building seems as generic as the old one. Even as mid-century modern the old search doesn't gave much uniqueness or obvious significance.

by Rich on Feb 26, 2013 1:40 pm • linkreport

Maybe I'm missing something. Where is the new church in the proposed development? All I can see is generic office/retail space.

Be a shame to see Christ Lutheran in Bethesda go under the knife.

by Chris on Feb 26, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

Here's a church that got "promoted" - Fourth Presbyterian Church, on 13th Street at Fairmont Street NW, became Greater First Baptist Church.

by Frank IBC on Feb 26, 2013 2:04 pm • linkreport


In the site plan above, the church is on the right; in the rendering of the nighttime scene, you can see the spire on the left.

The approval going before the Planning Board is mainly for the apartments and retail; I'm not sure how far along the design of the church is (hence why we don't see it in great detail), and besides, RLUIPA probably gives them a lot of leeway about the church's design.

by dan reed! on Feb 26, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

It's barely visible on the left in one picture, Chris. There is nothing else in the linked pdf. I was wondering about that too.

by selxic on Feb 26, 2013 2:11 pm • linkreport

Sorry, I didn't refresh and see Dan's comment before my last comment.

by selxic on Feb 26, 2013 2:12 pm • linkreport

Thanks Dan. Well, it's hard to pass judgement on the plans when they barely make the church visible. Seems like that should be sorta a key feature.

If the spire is the tower-like structure I'm thinking of, it looks like the entrance to a 70s shopping center.

by Chris on Feb 26, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

Any word from the developer on when they hope to break ground, assuming the review and approval process proceeds smoothly? The biggest hurdles are long over so let's start diggin!

by Woodsider on Feb 26, 2013 4:26 pm • linkreport

@ Chris -

Here is an article on the Christ Lutheran Church proposal. However, it's three years old, I'll see if I can find something more recent.

by Frank IBC on Feb 26, 2013 4:52 pm • linkreport

Thanks Frank. I'm not sure I could call that church design pretty (looks like a small convention center), but at least it has a separate building. Too bad the current building has to go. It has much more character.

by Chris on Feb 26, 2013 5:58 pm • linkreport

Looking forward to seeing this go up. Great infill project. 100:1 it gets built before the county's 11-story workforce/senior housing apartment building across the street, seeing MoCo's incompetence with the Library and Transit Center projects.

Hopefully 8621 Georgia Ave also gets approved next month.

by King Terrapin on Feb 26, 2013 8:51 pm • linkreport

@King Terrapin

About the library: part of the reason why the project has taken so long is that underground utilities on the site had to be relocated before construction began (presumably because of the future Purple Line station). Construction started for real last month and the county says it'll take 24 months to finish.

In 2011, we were told that the library would be open by January 2014. So far, they're a year behind. Behind schedule, yes, but there aren't any signs (as far as I know) of an impending quagmire as with the Transit Center.

by dan reed! on Feb 26, 2013 9:35 pm • linkreport

@ dan reed

I was actually speaking more to the nearly decade long planning process (I remember first seeing plans for a new library in 2006), but yeah, I'm trying to remain optimistic that it'll be finished by the end of next year. The nearby Civic Center seems to have went up over night.

by King Terrapin on Feb 27, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

Is there any affordable housing proposed? That was a major component of the Clarendon project.

by beegirl on Feb 28, 2013 8:46 pm • linkreport


As in most new developments in Montgomery County, this project is required to set aside 12.5% of its apartments for low-income households. That comes out to about 33 units.

by dan reed! on Feb 28, 2013 8:54 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)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

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.


Support Us