Greater Greater Washington

New sidewalk shows tension between people and trees

The sidewalk on the east side of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring just got a makeover, with new brick pavers and street trees. But will it have enough room for everyone who wants to use it?


New brick sidewalks and street trees on Georgia Avenue. All photos by the author unless noted.

Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) managed the $650,000 project, which began this summer and lasted about five months. The agency's main goal was to level and lower the sidewalk to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It replaced the existing concrete sidewalk, built in the 1980s, with sturdier and more attractive brick pavers, and created large new bumpouts at some intersections.

The new sidewalk is very attractive and will hopefully encourage visitors and shoppers to stray from the Ellsworth Drive strip and check out the businesses on Georgia. But it also reveals the tension between different users on Silver Spring's often-cramped sidewalks.

DHCA also removed all of the mature Zelkova trees along Georgia, arguing that the sidewalk reconstruction would disturb the trees and kill them. The new trees are Princeton or Lacebark Elm trees, which will apparently improve the visibility of shops and restaurants from the street.


The old sidewalks on Georgia last year.

The old sidewalks had trees in tree grates, allowing room that businesses could put out tables and chairs and leave enough sidewalk for people to walk past comfortably. But the new trees now sit in long, wide planter boxes with little gaps in between for street lights or people getting out of parked cars.

This isn't the only place in downtown Silver Spring with new planters. The county's Department of Transportation (MCDOT) also installed the same planters along Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, except with three-foot-high hedges. Some planters, like one on Fenton Street, extend for most of a city block to discourage jaywalking.

In 2009, when planning on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk project started, county-hired arborist Steve Castrogiovanni recommended doing the same thing with the new trees to "strike a [balance] between the trees' needs and the needs of pedestrians." But officials endorsed the bigger planters, saying it would give the trees more soil and help them live longer.


A corner bumpout at Georgia and Silver Spring avenues.

Street trees have a lot of health and environmental benefits. They can provide a feeling of enclosure on a street or sidewalk, calming traffic on busy streets like Georgia Avenue, and making pedestrians feel safer.

However, these planter boxes seem to provide the wrong kind of enclosure. Crowded sidewalks can be a good thing, creating a feeling of excitement and vitality on a city street. But when you push pedestrians and outdoor dining tables into too small a space, it can feel uncomfortable, and people won't want to stick around and spend money.

That's why restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum, who owns Jackie's, Sidebar, and Quarry House Tavern, all on Georgia Avenue, didn't want trees planted on the narrow sidewalk outside her businesses. "THIS WILL ELIMINATE MUCH OF MY PATIO SEATING!" she wrote in a 2010 email to DHCA. "This is NOT an improvement and is unnecessary, even undesirable." In the end, DHCA agreed not to plant any there.

Having healthy street trees and vibrant sidewalks aren't mutually exclusive. DHCA could have still created a bigger soil pit for the trees, giving them room to grow, while putting tree grates or permeable pavers on top, ensuring that there's still enough sidewalk space.


Wider sidewalks mean ample room for walking, for dining, and for nature. Photo by Jim Malone on Flickr.

And if county officials really wanted planters, they could have at least used a more attractive design, like these low, stone planters in NoMa that provide space for trees and plants while staying out of the way. Or they could have looked at a bioswale that cleans and filters stormwater in addition to looking pretty.

The real issue isn't the planters, but that the sidewalks on Georgia Avenue aren't appreciably wider. DHCA's project was simply to make the sidewalks meet ADA regulations.

This sidewalk may not get rebuilt for another 30 years, meaning we've missed an opportunity to have a larger conversation about how Georgia Avenue works. Wider sidewalks mean we wouldn't have to decide between landscaping, walking space, and outdoor seating. They mean we could have added new features, like benches, or a "shared use trail" for cyclists similar to the Green Trail on Wayne Avenue.

Doing this would require taking space for cars, which today constitutes the vast majority of Georgia Avenue, and giving it back to people. While that would probably be bad for drivers passing through, it would ultimately be a good thing for downtown Silver Spring, whose historic main street would become a more attractive, pleasant, and safer place to walk and spend time.

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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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Looks like each property owner got their own way. This is normal process round here, but why not remove parking from the street? There is ample parking in local garages and on surface parkgin lots.

Why not create cycle tracks and even wider sidewwalks in lieu of parking? This would be more modern than what has been done.

Problems for bicyclists moving north on Georgia Avenue?

by jz on Nov 21, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

@jz: I believe the main reason that can't happen is that Georgia Avenue is a state-maintained road, and the MD SHA could never imagine getting rid of on-street parking or a travel lane. The business owners would of course also freak out if anybody proposed removing parking, since they're convinced that most of their customers must park in the spaces right in front of their businesses and can't be bothered to park around the corner or walk/bike/take transit to them.

by Gray on Nov 21, 2013 2:32 pm • linkreport

Dan,

As @jz pointed out, the problem is in not widening the sidewalks in the first place. Given that fixed width, we either have wide sidewalks with no shade, or narrower sidewalks with shade. Street trees cannot thrive for long with tiny tree boxes. Or, their roots will start busting up the sidewalk. Personally, I like the idea of larger trees providing more shade on Georgia; it gets kind of grim in the summer. But, obviously businesses that use the sidewalk in the evening would be less into larger shade trees.

by EMD on Nov 21, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

In the bumpout picture, the obvious failure is the massive traffic signal pole, right in the center of the sidewalk.

And then to top it off they added a secondary pole for the pedestrian light.

by JJJJ on Nov 21, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

We don't take away space from cars uber alles in our roads in this part of the country because, regardless of the fact that Maryland, DC, and NoVa vote Democratic, they are inherently small-c conservative areas. Truly progressive transportation policy is anathema to most local transportation departments.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 21, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

Yeah, GA ave between spring and burlington does not need to be 3 (wide) lanes + a parking lane.

Check out these pedestrians enjoying lovely, walkable, downtown silver spring!

http://goo.gl/maps/4JCbo

by Nick on Nov 21, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

Thank you for this great post. It's a shame they cut down the ability to have out door seating for the sake of some degrees in a sidewalk when the walk just to get here from the metro is much higher. Someone had to point out how anti street life this project is. Knowing Montgomery County, they'll re-build it soon enough like the cross walks.

by Thayer-D on Nov 21, 2013 2:56 pm • linkreport

Looks like a classic example of a solution in search of a problem.

by NFA on Nov 21, 2013 2:59 pm • linkreport

An advantage of planters and a row of parked cars is there's a larger buffer between pedestrians and vehicles driving by. That buffer is particularly important when large construction vehicles and trucks drive by.

For example, you can feel suffocated by vehicle exhaust walking here due to the lack of a buffer from parked cars:

http://goo.gl/maps/LbZmQ

by Falls Church on Nov 21, 2013 3:26 pm • linkreport

Clearly, the solution is to rebuild the shopping strip and move the outside walls back a couple of feet.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Nov 21, 2013 3:47 pm • linkreport

Falls Church,
Your right about that one. Having little ones, I do appreciate the buffer, but there are other ways to do that, like on street parking for most of the stretch. A shame to screw something up so obviously.

by Thayer-D on Nov 21, 2013 3:58 pm • linkreport

That picture of the corner bump out makes it look like there was plenty of room to widen the sidewalk, keep on street parking, and keep all of the travel lanes, just reducing them slightly in width.

Indeed, this is a missed opportunity. I could understand the desire not to change the curb line if the reconstruction did not want to take on the expense of moving storm drain catch basins and so on, but still - the execution here could have been much better.

There is also no reason that the stoplight pole needs to be right in the middle of he sidewalk.

by Alex B. on Nov 21, 2013 4:30 pm • linkreport

@JJJJ Good observation on the new signal pole and pedestrian pole blocking the sidewalk. I wonder if having a pedestrian pole so close to a curb ramp is even ADA compliant.

by fit882 on Nov 21, 2013 4:37 pm • linkreport

The problem I've had with the rebuilt tree boxes on the narrow sidewalks of 17th St NW, and can forsee here, is not so much the size of the box itself but the little fences which not only prevent you for stepping into the box if need be, in a crowd, but also get in the way of shopping bags that I am carrying. If I am walking right against the tree box, to make way for other pedestrians, or to get past a sidewalk cafe (there is a least one enclosed patio on 17th St which has windows that swing out into the sidewalk area, also making narrower) - the little fences are just high enough that the grocery bags have to be lifted over them, rather than just hanging over the box areas. (The example from NOMA photo would be an ideal approach.) I know this sounds like a very small thing, but to the older and more infirm, like me, these things combine to make a narrow sidewalk feel even less welcoming.

by 17th Street on Nov 21, 2013 5:08 pm • linkreport

A road diet would've done wonders. Ga Avenue is entirely too wide.

by h st ll on Nov 21, 2013 5:46 pm • linkreport

From the bumpout photo, it looks like the most important criterion was not what worked best for the pedestrians or the shops, but leaving the utilities in place. Streetscape improvements on the cheap. Leaving aside the missed opportunity to improve the environment here, I wonder if increased tax revenue from sales in sidewalk cafes, increased rents, etc would have offset the cost of dealing with utilities over time.

by Ron Eichner on Nov 21, 2013 8:40 pm • linkreport

They could have put bumpouts for the trees, or maybe for every other tree. You would have lost some parking spaces, but you would have regained a lot of sidewalk space.

Look at the "Making Space" example from San Diego half way down on this web page: http://www.pedestrians.org/topics/obstruction-gallery.htm

by John Z Wetmore on Nov 21, 2013 9:40 pm • linkreport

The streetscape difference between Fenton Village last year and this year is like night and day. The new sidewalks, pedestrian bumpouts, and some actual mulch and green along the street is awesome. Would it be great to steal a lane from Georgia? Sure, but realistically it's a clogged vehicle artery, buses use the right-most lane constantly, and there isn't a massive amount of pedestrian traffic on Georgia anyways. We're not talking about an insanely cramped King Street here; there's still enough room for pedestrians+outdoor seating as-is. This is a logical balance - as much as I hate wasting space on vehicular thru-traffic - that includes some awesome pedestrian and quality of life improvements.

by jag on Nov 21, 2013 10:58 pm • linkreport

I cannot tell from the pictures, but did they use sand or mortar between the bricks, and is the layer under the bricks concrete or earth? If sand and earth, as in Georgetown, then rain water will pass between the bricks and reach the roots, and the trees will be fine.

The amazing street trees of Georgetown have nothing to do with the size of the tree box, and everything to do with the gaps between the bricks.

by DavidG on Nov 22, 2013 5:22 am • linkreport

Can someone explain to me how Jackie Greenbaum is any different than the church on M St NW?

Admittedly I don't spend much time in SS but I have met friends for drinks at Quarry House or stopped in to the Sprint store on Fenton for example. Each time I've used the Metro station and walked along Georgia and other streets. I have never found the sidewalks to be crowded. But I do strongly agree the parking lane should be eliminated in favor of cycle tracks and other pedestrian friendly improvements. GA is two lanes in all of DC, it could definitely stand to be narrowed south of Spring St.

by dcmike on Nov 22, 2013 8:09 am • linkreport

@dcmike: It's a misnomer to say that Jackie's is on Georgia Avenue. It actually fronts Sligo. It's not clear from what dan wrote whether Jackie was talking about the space in front of Jackie's, but if so see the linked picture above, or google maps street view:

http://goo.gl/maps/AindY

Since Quarry House definitely doesn't have any patio seating, I guess the sidewalk in question would have to be there. This would actually be a great place to get rid of on-street parking on that side and expand the sidewalk into Sligo Ave., but apparently the state doesn't consider that to be an option.

by Gray on Nov 22, 2013 8:32 am • linkreport

@davidg:

If it is anything like the other new brick pavers in the area, sand.

by gooch on Nov 22, 2013 10:13 am • linkreport

Why do people love brick sidewalks they are horrible when they come lose and become a tripping hazard that will never get repaired in a timely manner

by kk on Nov 22, 2013 10:45 am • linkreport

@DavidG

The layer under the bricks is concrete, but I don't know what's between them.

@Gray, dcmike

I was being a little unclear. I was referring to the sidewalks in front of Jackie's and Sidebar, which are on Sligo but still part of the sidewalk reconstruction project. They used to look like this. I would be opposed to street trees too if that's all the sidewalk I had, and most of the side streets in Silver Spring look like that. It's probably time to put Sligo (along with Thayer and Bonifant) on a "road diet" or at least do some bumpouts for plantings or outdoor seating.

by dan reed! on Nov 22, 2013 10:50 am • linkreport

h st ll, the same could have been done with a road diet to Wilson Blvd., Lee Highway, Jefferson Davis Highway, 14th Street, Constitution Avenue, and Independence Avenue but we all know that it will do harm for business and economic growth in Downtown and Arlington...

by steve on Nov 22, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

"h st ll, the same could have been done with a road diet to Wilson Blvd., Lee Highway, Jefferson Davis Highway"

Im pretty sure ArlCo would love that on Jeff Davis, but its controlled by VDOT, not Arlco. Im not sure if its been discussed for Wilson or Lee. Arlco IS pursuing a road diet on Hayes Street right near Pentagon City. And my understanding is they have looked at road diets elsewhere in Arlcon, and even FFX has done a couple and is looking at more.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 22, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

AWalkerInTheCity, Hayes street does not count since it is not a busy road....

by steve on Nov 22, 2013 11:51 am • linkreport

Great article. Most folks missed the point that was made about the sidewalks being designed this way. It was to make the sidewalks ADA compliant. The initial grade was way too steep to keep a 15-20 foot sidewalk width without having a 12" curb from the parking lane.

Yes, in a perfect world, we could have bike lanes, parked cars, 20 foot sidewalks with room for tables and chairs, but retrofitting to existing conditions is a challenge in any urban area.

by spec1 on Nov 25, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

The thing about ADA compliance that makes no sense here is that the grade from the street to the building wall was too steep, yet that's not how a person on the sidewalk would ever approach the buildings, they would approach by the side. There's this technical approach that while well intentioned, doesn't account for individual scrutiny where the model of usage doesn't conform to all applications, and in this case eliminates the possibility for street side tables. Silver Spring will continue to get density and all the good that it implies, but it's frustrating when technicalities miss the forest for the trees. Great urban streets are activated by outdoor seating, and we just took a bunch of it away. While DC is talking about widening their sidewalks, MC is shrinking them.

by Thayer-D on Nov 28, 2013 4:14 pm • linkreport

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