Greater Greater Washington

After 3-year fight, work starts on Silver Spring townhouses

In 2010, local builder EYA made a deal with a private school to buy their Silver Spring campus and build townhouses there. After a three-year battle with the neighborhood association, construction has finally begun.


Bus ad for the new Chelsea Heights development in downtown Silver Spring. All photos by the author.

Workers are busy clearing the five-acre site on Pershing Drive, four blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station. Eventually, there will be 63 townhomes, including 8 moderately-priced units for low-income households, and a restored, 150-year-old farmhouse, which will be sold as a single-family home.

Over the past week, ads for the new development, dubbed Chelsea Heights, appeared on bus stops around downtown Silver Spring. It's named for the Chelsea School, a special-needs institution that sold its home of 36 years and recently moved to Hyattsville. But getting here wasn't easy.

Long and contentious history

Chelsea first announced their plans to sell the school to EYA in 2010 and move closer to their students in Prince George's County. But a group of neighbors in the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association (SOECA) were unhappy with EYA's proposal, then called Chelsea Court.

They claimed that townhomes didn't belong in a neighborhood zoned for single-family homes. The County Council allowed EYA to build townhouses if they reduced the number of units from 77 to 64.

Neighbors persisted, suing the county and later hiring a consultant who claimed that the project would violate state and county environmental laws. Both claims were dismissed, and the Planning Board approved the project in April with requirements that EYA provide more parking and restrict turns into the development to discourage through traffic.

It's about time this got built

It's not unusual for new development in existing communities to be controversial. Writing about the lost battle against a new apartment building on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney recently noted, people generally like their neighborhoods the way they are, and are often suspicious of plans to change it.


Construction at the Chelsea Heights site.

But there are so many reasons why infill development in Silver Spring is good for those neighborhoods and for the region as a whole. Chelsea Heights will place 64 new households within a short walk of transit, local shops and restaurants, and other amenities, reducing their need to drive and bolstering the local economy.

It reduces the pressure to build on the region's fringe, while providing housing where it's most wanted. These $700,000 townhouses aren't affordable to most people, myself included, but they'll help make the area more affordable by growing the housing supply.

This project has been a long time coming, and I'm glad to see it finally come to fruition.

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. 

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Detached single-family homes have their place, but not that close to a Metro. It's a shame the number of units were reduced from 77.

by Fitz on Oct 8, 2013 3:23 pm • linkreport

Dan or anybody else in the know: has there been any word on how the SS police station site will be zoned once the station moves? I would hope it's at least zoned for dense townhouses, given that there are some a block away. But it would be much better to see something of four stories or more, perhaps with ground retail or a restaurant.

by Gray on Oct 8, 2013 3:33 pm • linkreport

Townhouses might make more sense than single family homes there, but the idea that this rather small number of new units will ultimately increase the number of affordable units is without any evidence. If there's a market for expensive townhomes in DTSS, it going to draw more of the same and it's not going to make anything nearby cheaper, although that kind of market may make the nearby single family homes more prone to becoming tear downs and depress their value a little compared with those a block of so away--but that's not creating affordable housing. The market argument might hold water in some very broad (metro-wide) aggregate over a long period of time, but on a local basis, it's much more doubtful.

by Rich on Oct 8, 2013 4:15 pm • linkreport

@Rich: What do you mean by "the market argument"?

And would your counter-proposal be to restrict supply as much as possible as a way of keeping prices down?

by Gray on Oct 8, 2013 4:20 pm • linkreport

Re: The police station. The local citizens group is lobbying to make it into an arts center, but I'm not sure where that stands. As for putting retail there, it's off the main street, so besides not being ideal retail frontage, the neighborhood might have something to say about it, especially since the site stradles the commercial and residential zone.

by Thayer-D on Oct 8, 2013 7:57 pm • linkreport

@Thayer-D: Yeah, I had assumed that the "arts center" stuff had been dismissed for being silly on its face. But I wasn't able to scrape up anything one way or another.

It is on Sligo, which has plenty of commercial even east of Fenton. I would assume that it will end up being entirely residential though. Perhaps I can succeed in making my voice heard in "the neighborhood," since I live a block away. But the ESSCA seems completely afraid of change, so...

by Gray on Oct 8, 2013 8:12 pm • linkreport

This seems like a decent enough project -- certainly one that density advocates would applaud...and hte Planning Board seems to have taken some prudent steps (notwithstanding the recent "anti-parking" vibe that has consumed this site of late).

One thing I might suggest to the author -- it's seemed for some time that he has political aspirations, so I would caution against needlessly belittling residents with story tags like "anti neighbors." That stuff will come back to bit you, as it should.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Oct 8, 2013 11:38 pm • linkreport

Why on Earth does everything have to be a fight? What could possibly be “wrong” with people living in townhomes on a blighted site near the center of a dense area? I’ll be generous and not put a word to it.

by AndrewJ on Oct 9, 2013 5:26 am • linkreport

AndrewJ - What makes you call the site blighted? It's got a significant amount of green space in a good, well-kept neighborhood. Kids will be losing a great sledding hill and I've never thought it looked that bad in the 14 years that I've walked by it. Have you ever walked the area?

by SP on Oct 9, 2013 7:04 am • linkreport

Kids will be losing a great sledding hill . . .
Won't someone think of the children?!?

I wouldn't call the site blighted, but it's certainly been an obvious place to redevelop, since it's so close to the metro and everything else that DTSS has to offer. The plot has clearly been underutilized, yearly use for sledding notwithstanding.

The neighbors have quite a bit of public green space within easy access, making it hard to argue against developing privately held green space in ways that benefit the wider community. There remain multiple parks within a half mile, not to mention Sligo Creek about a mile away.

by Gray on Oct 9, 2013 7:31 am • linkreport

Sledding? You are anticipating that we might see snow again, perhaps even once or twice a year? That might not be realistic, much less a reason not to build housing.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Oct 9, 2013 9:06 am • linkreport

Dan,

I agree that this plot of land was/is being grossly underutilized, notwithstanding the comment about use as a snow hill on the 2-3 days per year that we actually get snow here.

But, this development is, to me, another example of how the MC planning board is failing. Here's why: The residents surrounding the Chelsea school have a valid point that dropping a dense cluster of townhomes in a plot that is surrounded by SFHs is senseless, although I think the plan is better than simply doing nothing. I do, however, believe that SS is lacking adequate park space and that would've been a better use of the land if the County was willing to buy the land. Nearby Ellsworth Park has little open space for kids to run around and it's abutting Colesworth Highway which is dangerous for kids - yes I used Highway to illustrate that road for what it really is since it has about 6+ lanes and functions as such.

Now if EYA could've bought up the SFHs on Cedar St, then I could see how the TH development makes more sense as the density around DTSS would gradually move from the new Citron apartments, to these THs, followed by a transition to SFHs. Perhaps EYA and the County attempted to do this and could not for legal reasons, but this would've made much more sense to me.

I've been living in SS just shy of 4 years now and don't have any formal training in urban planning, so I don't have the knowledge that you do about how the MC planning dept functions but being a world traveler and student of cities I can spot good urban planning when I see it. And to me SS shows little resemblance of good urban planning. Here are just a couple of examples that come to mind:

1) Cameron Hill THs - wasted opportunity to provide dense development next to a metro station. Instead, about 30 families live there and have 2-car garages.
2) DTSS - Instead of Metro dropping you off in the center of DTSS, you are left off the intersection of Colesville Highway and E/W Highway. I don't have any idea why MC decided to build DTSS on Ellsworth Road about 3 blocks away from the Metro, but it shows lack of planning to me.
3) Parking lot for Panera, et al - Two blocks from a Metro station this commercial strip sits and there is a mini parking lot that is senseless. This is prime real estate in the heart of DTSS.
4) Lack of suitable sidewalks - I live in the residential part of DTSS within walking distance of Bullis and Nolte Parks, yet many of the streets lack any sidewalk whatsoever. Another example of the County prioritizing cars over peds and bikes. And many of DTSS sidewalks are barely wide enough for a stroller.

Well that's probably enough examples for now, but, to me, this development is just another example how the MC planning department is failing. I've not so naive to realize that much of DTSS was developed long b/f Metro arrived, but that's about 40 years of poor urban planning in the interim so I'm reluctant to give MC the benefit of a doubt. MC needs to rethink it's model of development to make better choices for the future rather than just taking the first development it can get to increase its tax coffers.

by TC on Oct 9, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

@TC

Many of the single-family homes on Cedar Street are now used for commercial activities. I don't think their presence automatically invalidates the Chelsea Heights development. Eventually, they may go as well and be replaced with something that fits the new context better.

There's a lot of parkland in the area now, including dozens of neighborhood parks, Rock Creek Park, and Sligo Creek Park. To me, the issue is really how well we use that park space. If people don't like being in a park next to the noise and congestion on Colesville Road, we should address the noise and congestion, not build a park next to it.

I generally agree with the problems in Silver Spring you identified, but they're not all the Planning Board's fault.

Cameron Hill was built in 1997, when the market for residential development in DTSS was untested and only 2 apartment buildings had been built in 30 years. If built today, it would be an apartment tower, but at the time it didn't make financial sense, and the county couldn't change that.

The Ellsworth Drive development happened because that was the historical core of downtown Silver Spring. It's the Metro that's in the wrong place, and it's where it is because in laying out the system, WMATA sought to use existing infrastructure, which in this case means a rail line that skirts DTSS.

The shopping center at Colesville and Georgia was declared a historic landmark, which involves the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board. That doesn't mean they had to save the parking lot, but the building can't go anywhere.

And the Department of Transportation handles sidewalk construction. On major streets, like Colesville Road, they tend to favor moving cars over people. On residential streets, neighbors often fight attempts to build more sidewalks. The Planning Department has nothing to do with this, though of course they would support better sidewalks.

While mistakes are made, the Planning Department isn't the only agency that has a say in local affairs, and don't deserve all of the blame. While I agree that the sidewalks are pretty lousy in Silver Spring, I also recognize that our community is a national model for how to revitalize older neighborhoods, and that's a testament to everything we've done right.

by dan reed! on Oct 9, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

@TC:
I live in the residential part of DTSS within walking distance of Bullis and Nolte Parks . . .
I was just about to comment on how there are lots of parks within a short distance of this site, but you beat me to it. So why, then, do you say that what this site really needs is to be turned into a park? Even if you hate Ellsworth park because it doesn't have enough unused open space, both of those parks have that.

If the problem is that you can't walk on a road without a sidewalk, why not focus on campaigning for sidewalks instead of insisting that the county put a park on every block?

But mainly I don't understand this statement, and would love to hear more about why you feel this way:

. . . dropping a dense cluster of townhomes in a plot that is surrounded by SFHs is senseless . . .
I've traveled a bit as well, and I've seen plenty of places where townhomes and condos manage to coexist with SFHs next door. You don't even have to travel that far: there are plenty of examples in DC and SS. Yes, we can do better than a lot of those developments, but we should learn from them and not simply make the claim that it couldn't possibly work.

by Gray on Oct 9, 2013 11:30 am • linkreport

Dont forget that about 8 of the townhouses will be affordable to households at 65% of area median income, or $75,000 a year for a family of four per the county's Inclusionary Zoning program (called the Moderately Price Dwelling Unit Program).

by Cheryl Cort on Oct 10, 2013 11:59 am • linkreport

@Dan

- Agreed that the SFHs on Cedar St don't invalidate the Chelsea development, but it's merely illogical.
- There are some nice parks in SS, which is one of the factors for me living here. But there is not lots of green space around DTSS, especially after the loss of greenspace at Vets plaza.
- Your point about Cameron Hill illustrates my point precisely. Instead of approving this development the MC planners should've worked with MC leaders and developers to increase density. Otherwise, wait until the market changes b/f committing to changing the land to something that will now never be changed.

I agree that SS is changing for the better, but, like many of the development signs I see for years around here - the pace is very slow.

@Gray

I'm not insisting that MC put a park on every block, but DTSS is mostly a concrete bunker. Other than a few pocket parks, there isn't a lot of green space. I do agree that a strong sidewalk campaign is necessary, especially after having a kid and trying to get around with a stroller.

Yes I can agree that THs and SFHs can co-exist, but such co-mingling might bring down real estate values for SFHs. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I'm guessing this might have been an unmentioned reason that locals fought the Chelsea development.

While the Chelsea development will be executed well and look spectacular (as EYA often does), there are many other awful examples around SS where SFHs are mixed with apartments - see Thayer Av.

by TC on Oct 10, 2013 12:41 pm • linkreport

TC,
You should compare the amount of park space around Bethesda vs. Silver Spring. Dosen't mean SS couldn't have more parks, but does show SS isn't on the loosing end of that scale. Also, many towns and neighborhoods in DC show single family houses and townhouses can co-exist quite nicely.

I'm doing a job in a Woodley Park townhouse that has both types of houses around it. I certainly don't see it as an aesthetic problem. If anything, having the some density brings amenities that most people in SFH's would love to be able to walk to, so from that stand point, it actually enhances property values, assuming they are done right.

If they build a "complex" that turn their back on the street, then it's a different story. In fact, this project almost does that with it's ends only addressing the street. I know EYA do good work and that they are trying to create a more single family streetscape with the ends looking like the singles, but I think they could have faced the street just as well. It looks more neighborly.

by Thayer-D on Oct 11, 2013 9:02 am • linkreport

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