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It takes more than open space to make a great urban park

The Silver Spring Transit Center isn't finished yet, but there's already support for turning vacant land next to it into a big park. However, this really isn't a good place for a park. There are also lots of small, underused parks nearby, and with some alterations, they could help quench the demand for open space.


The unfinished Silver Spring Transit Center. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

County Councilmember Hans Riemer recently proposed building a two-acre park next to the Transit Center instead of an originally planned hotel. On his blog, he talks about the many "green urban parks" in downtown DC, like Dupont Circle. "Silver Spring deserves one too," he writes.

What makes a great urban park like Dupont Circle, or Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, or Union Square in New York? They all have grassy areas and trees, and are nice places to enjoy the outdoors. But they don't exist in isolation. What happens on the edges of great urban parks is what makes them successful.

Great urban parks need people and buildings, too

Parks like Dupont and Rittenhouse sit in the middle of very dense, busy neighborhoods with thousands of people living and working nearby. The surrounding buildings also create a frame around the space, making it an outdoor room. Most of the buildings that face Dupont Circle have a store or restaurant on the ground floor. On Rittenhouse Square, there are apartment building entrances and restaurants with dining terraces opening to the square.


What happens on the edges of Rittenhouse Square make it a great park. Photo from Google Street View.

Together, these things make a space that people are constantly using throughout the day, eating lunch, playing chess, making music, holding demonstrations, getting exercise, or just passing through.

Compare that to the Transit Center. Most of the surrounding buildings don't face the space Hans Riemer would like to be a park. At the street level, all you'll find are fast-food places, lots of blank walls, and loading docks, none of which do much to generate life on the sidewalk. Putting a park here wouldn't change that context.

We know that because there used to be a park next to the Metro station before the Transit Center was built. It was a popular skate spot, but it was also run-down and empty. It wasn't a good park.


A site plan of the proposed Transit Center park. Image from Montgomery County.

It would be different if we could build a park with shops and restaurants directly facing it, and lots of people in very, very close proximity to use it and pass through it all the time. In fact, that's what the Transit Center plans already call for: a smaller park, less than an acre in size but with some green areas, directly adjacent to an apartment building, an office building, and a hotel.

Unfortunately, those plans are on hold due to a breakdown in negotiations between developer Foulger-Pratt, which also built the Transit Center, and Metro, which owns the land. But that doesn't mean we should throw them away.

Silver Spring has lots of open space, but we don't use it

People complain that Silver Spring doesn't have enough parks, but we might actually have too many. In downtown Silver Spring, there are literally dozens of small pocket parks, the result of a requirement that new development include an open space that's accessible to the public.

Many of those spaces are poorly designed and go unused. County planners and residents have already been working to fix this problem.

In 2008, the Planning Board recommended eliminating the pocket park requirement and build big parks instead. Two such projects have already been approved. The redevelopment of the Blairs will include a big park, while the Studio Plaza development on Fenton Street will have one as well.

And last year, the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board suggested looking at ways to repurpose existing parks and county-owned properties. Evan Glass, chair of the board and a candidate for County Council, has proposed reusing the current Silver Spring Library as a recreation center and park space once the new library is built.


There's a big, grassy park a block from the Transit Center, but it goes unused. Photo by the author.

Some of downtown's pocket parks could be repurposed as well. There's already a big, grassy park exists a block from the Transit Center at the Discovery Channel headquarters. But it isn't really used and was closed for months after a gunman attacked the building in 2010. Across from the Transit Center, Montgomery County will turn a bus turnaround into another small park with trees and landscaping.

These spaces aren't perfect. But they exist, and if any community member or elected official is serious about improving open space in downtown Silver Spring, they should start here.

There's a better use for the Transit Center site

It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes, creating great parks in urban areas means more buildings. Silver Spring needs a critical mass of people and stuff to generate the activity needed to give our streets and parks life. Meanwhile, too many bad parks have instead created big, gaping holes in our downtown, sucking out activity and life.


The park we could have at the Transit Center. Image from Montgomery County.

The Transit Center is a bad place for a big park. But it's a good place for buildings.

Montgomery County and Maryland taxpayers have already spent upwards of $120 million on the Transit Center, on top of money spent decades ago to build the Metro station, and money we will soon spend to build the Purple Line. Where they converge will be one of the most valuable development sites in the region, and a significant opportunity to encourage transit use and generate tax revenue.

Not taking advantage of this would be a colossal waste. So would ignoring all of the open spaces Silver Spring already has, as well as the opportunities we do have to create new and better ones.

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

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I didn't enjoy the article because you didn't acknowledge that I wrote an important piece on this general topic wrt Silver Spring 18 months ago... There is a world of blogs beyond GGW...

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-layering-effect-how-building-blocks.html

If GGW is to be the "go to" "leading" urbanism blog for Greater DC and DC proper, shouldn't it be held to a higher standard for acknowledging other sources?

by Richard Layman on Feb 19, 2014 10:58 am • linkreport

Agree - there should not be a park next to the Transit Center. In addition to the reasons cited in the article, putting a park here would this be a waste of prime real estate next to the Metro. More importantly, the Transit Center is hideous and needs to be screened by buildings. Personally I would prefer to see them tear the POS down and just start over, but I'm not holding my breath. Hopefully MoCo doesn't eff up the Wheaton redevelopment plans the same way they've done with the Silver Spring Transit Center.

by Rebecca on Feb 19, 2014 11:11 am • linkreport

@Richard Layman: Why do you think yours was an "important piece," given that it garnered no comments? You might be more likely to be linked to if you could edit your posts down to fewer than 2800 words.

by Gray on Feb 19, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

A pure park there is a terrible idea. There is plenty of green space in SS and no demand for more.

by Richard on Feb 19, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

It's good and reasonable to incorporate a park/public space into the design. Could be a bit greener but otherwise the drawing looks solid.

by BTA on Feb 19, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

I fully agree that the vacant land adjacent to the transit center should not be used (exclusively) for a park for a number of reasons:

1. The land is far too valuable to be used as a park, and is practically screaming for high-density mixed-use, especially hotel/residential.

2. WMATA wouldn't forgo all the guaranteed $$$ (which they desperately need) and give away one of their most valuable pieces of land to the county anyway. After the Transit Center debacle, it was pretty clear that Foulger-Pratt wouldn't be developing the property. WMATA will likely find another JDA partner after the transit center is actually up and running.

3. Wasn't the land in the center of the huge Blairs residential/retail complex supposed to be Silver Spring's new urban park? As far as I know, the developers have actually started working on that project are will be breaking ground by fall on the first phase.

Replacing a huge asphalt parking lot with a park makes way more sense than trying to squeeze one in between a very busy intersection and even busier transit hub.

by King Terrapin on Feb 19, 2014 11:25 am • linkreport

@King Terrapin:
Wasn't the land in the center of the huge Blairs residential/retail complex supposed to be Silver Spring's new urban park?
Dan mentioned this in the article above:
The redevelopment of the Blairs will include a big park, while the Studio Plaza development on Fenton Street will have one as well.

by Gray on Feb 19, 2014 11:28 am • linkreport

Wow, soo much talk for the transit oriented mix use thing they keep trying to push in the MD suburbs. SMDH...

by tom on Feb 19, 2014 11:30 am • linkreport

Rebecca is right. Combine these parcels and have a developer scrap the current transit center and come up with a replacement that integrates into a new mixed-use development.

by dcmike on Feb 19, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

Everyone saying a park here is a bad idea why is that so ?

Couldn't the issue with the park near the Discovery building be that people think its private property ?

A park near the Metro station would get more use than others simply due to having people walk pass it from basically 4:30 am to 1 or 2 am when the last Metrobus leaves Silver Spring.

All parks around the world aren't just for "eating lunch, playing chess, making music, holding demonstrations, getting exercise, or just passing through." some are for viewing and to be around nature, others for animals, meeting spot, etc. In many places that making music and holding demonstrations would get you in jail.

To say that those are the basis of what a park should be are wrong. The use of parks differs with all people and cultures and varies around the world take a look at parks in other countries for a second.

by kk on Feb 19, 2014 11:36 am • linkreport

All parks around the world aren't just for "eating lunch, playing chess, making music, holding demonstrations, getting exercise, or just passing through." some are for viewing and to be around nature, others for animals, meeting spot, etc.

On a relatively small parcel in the middle of a fairly dense downtown area, any park is going to primarily be the outdoor lunch/demonstration park than any attempt to preserve nature a la Rock Creek Park. It's not really suited for anything else. There are many different types of parks and park uses but the context here is already established.

But to get that active use, you need more than just one destination (in this case, metro). You need variety and a mix of residential and commercial uses achieves that.

by drumz on Feb 19, 2014 11:46 am • linkreport

A park near the Metro station would get more use than others simply due to having people walk pass it from basically 4:30 am to 1 or 2 am when the last Metrobus leaves Silver Spring.

Just being near people isn't of much use if they are not the right people wanting the right things.

Few people are going to want to use a park at 4:30-6:00 am or after 8:00pm, in fact most parks are closed these hours . A hotel, apartments, ground level retail would be used at hours past 8:00pm and when there is less than perfect weather.

From SS if you walk in just about any direction you get to another grassy park. If you take the red line in either direction you get to another grassy park. If you take the purple line in either direction(after it is built) you will get to another grassy park. It is questionable how much demand there is for just a grassy park.

by Richard on Feb 19, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman

I sympathize with your point. I like your writing, and your comments here and much of your other work. But your blog is REALLY hard to read because of its design. It's way too narrow, pictures cut off paragraphs, and the sidebar is almost as big as the main content. If you went with a different layout, it would be much easier to read (for starters, maybe something with a white background).

Also, this is more the way I operate, but lately I've been reading blogs through Twitter rather than RSS. I've tried to find you on their before, but with no luck. Do you have an account?

by LowHeadways on Feb 19, 2014 12:30 pm • linkreport

@drumz

There are small parcels like this that are parks in almost every single country and they don't function the same. In many countries playing or making music outside is strictly forbidden, in other places people dont exercise outside due to the environment, etc.

I have been to many parks in the 5 inhabited continents and everything stated here does not pertain to all cultures around the planet. The use of parks and what is in parks of similar size to this differs in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, Mideast, North America and South America due to the cultures of the people, religious views and the environments.

Parks could be grouped such as

Grass and seating, Grass, seating and fountains, all plants no seating, fountains and no plants, flowers everywhere, fountain, sand and trees, unique architecture surrounded by trees or grass and parks that design to resemble nature with no paved paths/sidewalks and have just dirt paths around grass and plants

by kk on Feb 19, 2014 12:33 pm • linkreport

In many countries playing or making music outside is strictly forbidden, in other places people dont exercise outside due to the environment, etc.

Ok, but that doesn't really have bearing on whether or not to build a park here in Silver Spring does it?

Dan's thesis is that we have plenty of evidence already in Silver Spring of what conditions create a successful park and his conclusion is that the area is better off improving its existing parks and improving access to them than by adding one more to the mix.

by drumz on Feb 19, 2014 12:37 pm • linkreport

Metro would be extremely foolish to let this parcel go for any purpose that fails to generate long-term revenue for its operations. Mixed use is the way to go, with developers paying the agency to lease (not buy) the land on which offices/commercial/residential buildings will be built, thus guaranteeing revenue for the system for decades. In the interest of protecting taxpayers, Metro should strive to be as financially independent as possible and should be forbidden by law from selling its land for a park or any other purpose.

by caryoreilly on Feb 19, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

The Express had a brief note on this yesterday that explicitly compared the idea to "The Turf" that was popular in Silver Spring a few years ago. It seemed obviously wrong to me; I remember the Turf and it was good for what it was specifically because it was faced by carryout restaurants, at a very pedestrian-heavy street corner (with narrower, slow-moving streets, not a highway like Colesville Road) and, perhaps most importantly, it was a good place to meet up and wait around before your movie starts at the theater across the street. The spot next to the Metro station has none of those advantages -- it's a place that people pass through, while the former spot of the Turf is still a place where people naturally linger.

by iaom on Feb 19, 2014 12:59 pm • linkreport

There are tons of common sense reasons why this is the exact wrong place for a park and I think Dan hit most all of them. Not the least of which is there's zero chance the county will spend ten million+ buying this land after the county/state spent hundred million+ on a transit center to free up this valuable parcel for a higher (i.e. great tax revenue) use.

There's the very large Discovery garden, there's now the two sizeable pocket parks for the new Ripley St. buildings, and the future park in the triangle space that are all adjacent to the transit center. If someone wants to eat their lunch outside or chill waiting for a friend there are hundreds of options in dtss, including plenty right next to this parcel. If all those parks and pocket parks don't fit the need then obviously the issue isn't the need for more parks, it's the need for better parks. Spend money on improving current park space, not on taking this prime real estate off the tax rolls.

P.S. I'm not convinced the transit center isn't going to have to be bulldozed and we ultimately just go back to a sea of asphalt on this site for a decade.

by jag on Feb 19, 2014 1:31 pm • linkreport

I don't think I'd really want to go to a park next to a really busy road filled with cars and a giant bus depot. Frankly, surrounding the transit center with building so it can't be seen or heard is my preference. I think we can find better places for a park.

I would suggest that Montgomery County council members spend more time in great urban parks, such as Dupont Circle to understand why they work. They are surrounded by restaurants, businesses and office spaces and the traffic isn't bad. none of that applies to this parcel of land in Silver Spring.

by Patrick Thornton on Feb 19, 2014 1:54 pm • linkreport

@Patrick Thornton

"I don't think I'd really want to go to a park next to a really busy road filled with cars and a giant bus depot. Frankly, surrounding the transit center with building so it can't be seen or heard is my preference. I think we can find better places for a park."

How is that different from any park in downtown DC which has buses and sometimes cars parked all around it ? Farragut Square, Lafayette Square (northside with Metrobuses or before when Penn Ave and the side streets were open ), Eastern Market (some people use the area next to the Metrorail Station as a park), the area between North Moore Street & North Lynn Street next to the Rosslyn Metrorail Station, Arlington Gateway Park (next to many busy drives, streets and highways) Franklin Square come to mind.

Busy streets, buses etc do not stop people from using a space, it is the environment, demographics (race & ethnic origin) and society of the people which determines whether or not they use it.

On a separate note since you mentioned surrounding the transit center with buildings if you surround it with stuff so that it can not be seen how will people know its there or even where it is ? Same problem with the Bethesda Metro's Elevator, if you are in the bus bays there is one elevator and it does not go to the station thus how would one know where it is. Are you gonna place signs ?

by kk on Feb 19, 2014 2:32 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman--OK, I'll bite.

I went back and re-read the piece you link to, all of it, and I'm not really seeing anything that self-evidently calls for a link. Your piece very generally starts with a discussion "layering" as promoted by the Project for Public Spaces, and then you use several locations in Silver Spring--and elsewhere--as examples of where the success or failure of these places can be understood via layering, and spend the last bit of the article discussing ways the forthcoming library could be great. By contrast, this piece is about a specific proposal, made by Hans Riemer, for a park, at a specific location, adjacent to the transit center. Your piece was written before Riemer's comments and only mentions the transit center once. In the course of the discussion, this piece goes over some material about the success and failure of urban parks that more or less dates back to Jane Jacobs, but which has been reiterated by numerous subsequent urbanists. The "house style" of GGW is such that one shouldn't need to be familiar with that background to follow the present article. I suppose Dan Reed could have discussed the most appropriate use for the transit center space and the extant small parks in a "layering" framework, but I don't think it's necessary, and in any case, the links in that case would have gone all the way back to the Project for Public Spaces.

by thm on Feb 19, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

@kk,

I work in downtown DC, right south of Dupont Circle. I regularly go there and Farragut Square.

Neither of those parks has a road like Collesville near it, which is essentially a six-lane highway (a road badly in need of traffic calming). In addition, while both of these parks in DC have buses that drive by and stop nearby, neither has one of the largest bus depots in the country next to it. There will be buses idling in the transit center constantly. We're not talking about a few buses. We're talking about a huge, multi-level bus depot attached to above-ground rail and freight (who wouldn't love to be in a park right next to a big freight train spewing exhaust?).

Dupont Circle in particular is surrounded by active buildings with restaurants, workers, housing and businesses. This is what keeps it lively all day long. There isn't much near the transit center in Silver Spring right now, and this lack of people and places is what makes this location so poor. This is why putting a park in the Blairs shopping center, already a very active area, makes so much sense.

I go to Farragut Square at least once a week. It is surrounded by office workers and is now ringed by food trucks every day. Until these food trucks came around, however, Farragut Square was very underutilized. Again, a park next to the transit center couldn't have this.

If you were to spend time in some of the great public spaces of DC and think about why they would work, you would quickly see why putting a park next to the transit center is a poor idea. Veteran's Plaza and Ellsworth in downtown Silver Spring show exactly what makes for great public spaces. Notice how different they are than the transit center location.

I'd go as far to say that this idea is potentially catastrophic for Silver Spring's future. Silver Spring needs more people and businesses to activate what is already there. Mixed-use buildings accomplish that. A park that people don't want to use won't.

As to your question at the end, the transit center is connected to the metro, which is above ground in Silver Spring, unlike Bethesda. It is unmissable. The CSX and Amtrak tracks are all right there too. Again, unmissable. There is no way to fully screen the transit center as it is constructed, so missing it won't be an issue, but we can do our best to minimize it as an eyesore.

by Patrick Thornton on Feb 19, 2014 3:18 pm • linkreport

A park in this spot would become a dead zone people would walk by quickly to avoid getting mugged or something. That bus depot sucks all the oxygen out of the place. I can't imagine a more depressing spot for a park. A guaranteed failure.

by Steve on Feb 19, 2014 3:54 pm • linkreport

@Patrick Thornton

Everything you listed as a reason for why a park shouldn't go somewhere I could pull up a park that has those exact issues and is still thriving.

Your mention of parks and the surrounding should also stop outside seating from restaurants at some spots in DC, Arlington, NYC, LA, London, Paris, Cairo, New Delhi, Tokyo, etc but doesn't

I have been to parks in many US cities and foreign cities that still get lots of people despite their surroundings so having a dangerous street, railroad tracks, or bus depot does not always matter.

It may not work there at that spot by what people are staying on here but that does not mean it doesn't work at all.

by kk on Feb 19, 2014 4:18 pm • linkreport

Beyond whether a park is a good idea of this specific site, it is readily apparent that many urban parks have poor urban design.

Not all grassy parks are good or well utilized. Architects will always draw people in renderings, but they don't turn out that way.

As Dan says, good urban parks usually are framed with street retail/reasonably dense residential. Parks should have compelling reasons to visit like recreation, a restaurant (Bryant Park NYC), places to eat outside, a zoo, chess, ping pong, playing field, water features, a playground, something....

by JL on Feb 19, 2014 4:39 pm • linkreport

DTSS suffers from too much functional segregation and poor integration of different functions. A mixed use structure that capitalizes on access to the Metro would make more sense than a park. This the general area that should have hotels rather than where they built the Hilton and Hampton. Restaurants might work as ground floor retail for such a complex and a mix of offices and hotel would provide day long pedestrian traffic. Hotel plus residential might be another good combo--having more residential on this side of the Metro would capitalize on the nearby office structures.

Other than a Metro stop, this site doesn't have much in common with Dupont.

by Rich on Feb 19, 2014 8:52 pm • linkreport

This is a great post - but I am not sold on the previously planned park. I think the site could be denser, and the parks more oriented toward passing through.

Also, where do all the skaters from Silver Spring go now?

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 19, 2014 10:17 pm • linkreport

Good article, Dan. I agree, this isn't a good place for a park. Furthermore, if Metro leases the land to a developer who pays tax revenues -- the monies can benefit both WMATA and the County. I hope and pray the Transit Center will open this year. It's ugly to look at and this prime land adjacent one of the largest transit centers in the state should be revisioned into something active and inviting.

by Tina Slater on Feb 19, 2014 10:58 pm • linkreport

I work near here, watched the construction of the SSTC and will probably be around for its eventual demolition. It's a prime location that has been squandered. The site is ringed by office buildings, including four NOAA buildings on the other side of the Metro. You know what would be great for that spot? Food trucks. Metro should take the down the fences, set up some picnic tables, and invite food trucks in. The thousands of people who work near the site would appreciate a break from Potbelly.

by Joe Flood on Feb 20, 2014 10:23 am • linkreport

OF COURSE Richard Layman is complaining about being ignored.

by yeah on Feb 26, 2014 9:26 am • linkreport

I worked in downtown Silver Spring years ago and found it a difficult place to walk around with few pleasant places to linger. It's interesting to see smart people wrack their brains to figure out how to make it a little more liveable. @Patrick Thornton, you are right that Colesville Road's hugeness and speed make it a really unpleasant place up against which to abut a park.

by Crae on Mar 14, 2014 8:57 am • linkreport

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