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Toronto's "tower renewal" could point the way for East County high rises

During the 1960s and '70s, eastern Montgomery County experienced a high-rise building boom, with apartment towers sprouting up as far north as Burtonsville. A rough count shows there are over forty apartment buildings with more than eight stories in East County outside of Downtown Silver Spring, many of which are clustered in White Oak, Leisure World and along University Boulevard.

New townhouses surround a high-rise in Briggs Chaney. Photo by Dan Reed.

Today, these buildings designed for young professionals and small families fleeing the city are showing their age at a time when everyone's moving back downtown. Not only that, but forty-year-old high-rises aren't very energy-efficient. In Toronto, Canada, which has over a thousand such buildings, Mayor David Miller has launched a project to bring them into the twenty-first century.

Dense but often surrounded by generous lawns, these "towers in the park" can be isolating for their residents. Entire neighborhoods filled with these buildings and lower-density garden-style apartments are too diffuse (and often too poorly connected) to provide easy access to shopping and transit.

The Mayor's Tower Renewal initiative has two goals. First, make the buildings "green" with extra insulation and replacing obsolete materials. And second, to find new uses for the land around the buildings, whether it's as public parkland, vegetable gardens, or for amenities like rec centers, shops and restaurants, or even offices. This is how architect Graeme Stewart, who began developing this concept as a grad student at the University of Toronto, describes it:

Right now neighborhoods offer residential density, but they're employment and service deserts. The idea that to solve it, you would add more density seems sort of strange—and I think that's going to be the biggest point of contention to the neighboring areas—but at the same time, during early engagement with the communities, people are saying, "I'd like a grocery store," "I'd like to be able to open up a small business." It almost seems like a no-brainer. The fact that these neighborhoods have been ignored and stayed the same for so long is actually what's weird about them.
This seems like a proposal ready-made for East County's apartment towers. "Filling in the gaps" between high-rises would provide extra income for landlords and developers; reduce car trips by locating amenities where people already live; offer places for kids to hang out; and provide space for small businesses to locate (not unlike my "shop-house" proposal last year), generating jobs in a community that definitely needs them.

The above Census map depicts the average household income in White Oak by color, with darker green representing wealthier areas. It shows that residents of the Enclave and White Oak Towers, two 1960's-era high-rise buildings, are poorer than their counterparts in surrounding single-family neighborhoods. They are wealthier than people living in White Oak's more affordable garden-style buildings, but this may be because high-rise apartments are more expensive to maintain and thus charge higher rents.

Places like White Oak and Briggs Chaney have been maligned for creating congestion and "demographic shifts" in East County, while their residents are isolated from the larger community and even from people living in the next apartment complex. Tower Renewal, or whatever you'd like to call it, could transform areas like White Oak and Briggs Chaney into vibrant neighborhoods and "town centers."

We're already seeing elements of Tower Renewal in this area. Lofts 590, a new building in Crystal City, returned low-rise scale to a '60s-era complex of apartment towers in a park. And in Briggs Chaney, townhouses were built around the Waterford Tower on Castle Boulevard, giving existing residents an opportunity to "move up" into larger housing without leaving the neighborhood.

Neither of these projects go quite far as what's being proposed in Toronto. They're still isolated from the community and do nothing to address the issues of accessibility and energy use. Still, they show that developers and neighborhoods alike are open to the possibilities of recycling the "tower in the park."

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. 


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This is great stuff.

When I read the first paragraph, I The Enclave came to mind immediately.

by цarьchitect on Apr 29, 2009 9:40 am • linkreport

Looks like a good solution for a lot of areas with this kind of development. Areas like Alexandria could benefit from these kinds of renewal projects.

by Vik on Apr 29, 2009 9:58 am • linkreport

I'd be interested to hear if anyone has an opinion of Grosvenor Park (on Rockville Pike, at the Grosvenor - Strathmore Metro station on the red line)? It fits the description you've described ("towers in the park", so to speak). Normally, I don't care for this model of development, but, having spent much time there, I happen to really like this particular complex (however I think it may be different in that it is amazingly close to the metro station and the fact that there is a small grocery store in the complex).

by rockville on Apr 29, 2009 10:10 am • linkreport

A friend of mine lived in one of the Grosvenor towers for awhile. She liked the complex- the park-like setting and Metro accessibility were nice, but grocery and other shopping trips were challenging in the Rockville Pike corridor without a car. It really seems designed around a Metro for commuting, drive for everything else model. As part of a Rockville Pike replanning, it would be ripe for adding some pedestrian-oriented retail.

by RichardatCourthouse on Apr 29, 2009 10:53 am • linkreport

Seriously, are you advocating here that nice green landscaping be changed into buildings? Sigh.

by Jasper on Apr 29, 2009 10:57 am • linkreport

Jasper wrote:

>> Seriously, are you advocating here that nice green landscaping be changed into buildings? Sigh.

For someone who comments on this blog as often as you it's astonishing that you're missing the point. Dan doesn't merely want to change nice green landscaping into buildings. However to revitalize the area into mixed-income walkable urbanism the towers in the park land use needs to change. The current land use is autocentric. Short of leveling everything and starting over, which is not feasible, repurposing some under utilized green space can be the fastest path to changing land use. Hopefully with some of these projects the parking lots can also be developed.

by Paul S on Apr 29, 2009 12:20 pm • linkreport

A giant lawn that no one uses except for dogs to poop on is not nice green landscaping. It doesn't get you out walking or stimulate activity.

by NikolasM on Apr 29, 2009 12:35 pm • linkreport

@ Paul S: I know about such autocentric surroundings having lived there myself. I just don't believe the same answer applies everywhere. You can make these areas a lot more livable without taking the green out.

First thing: Narrow the roads, make space for continuous bike lanes, and widen sidewalks.

Second: Force complexes to create interconnections for bikers and pedestrians, but increase the private garden feel of the green areas. Place grills and benches.

Third: Get some quality transit in there. Once the transit is established, transfer excess parking into more green.

Fourth: Force the complexes to include some retail on their ground level. Get a small supermarket in one building, some restaurants in another, etc.

What I am rebelling against is this notion that the world will be perfect if we all live in "mixed used urban town insertyourownhipwordhere centers". The world does not need to be one big Rosslyn-to-Ballston or Pentagon-to-Crystal City. What those places lack more than anything is green quiet space.

I guess I have never understood there can't be mix of the good things of suburban life (space, green, quiet) with the good things of high rises (density, retail, transit). I figure that if you put two midrises on top of each other, you get a nice free garden on the place where one was standing. Better: put three on top of each other, and get an even bigger garden. If you want mixed income use, make larger and smaller apartments in those high rises.

My ideal living surrounding would be high rises with retail in the ground floor, with large garden like parks for inhabitants between them. It would even be better if you could get some office space in the high rises too.

However, I am allergic to anybody who wants to take a single blade of grass away from urban areas. You get density from building up, not from reducing the spacing between buildings. And nothing good comes from reducing green in cities.

by Jasper on Apr 29, 2009 12:59 pm • linkreport

I was originally going to talk about the Grosvenor-Strathmore area, too. I think the three biggest differences between that area and "towers in the park" in East County or Alexandria are that

a) there's a relative proximity to shopping and jobs in Rockville or Bethesda, even if it's not walkable, because of the Red Line/270/355 - meaning residents here aren't as "isolated"

b) these buildings were built and marketed as luxury properties and have remained so. East County apartments may have been considered high-end at one time but cater to a significantly different demographic now

c) the Grosvenor buildings have a direct relationship to Rockville Pike, making it considerably easier to form an urban "spine" there. Route 29/Columbia Pike is basically a highway, so not only do buildings not orient themselves towards it, but any attempt at incorporating them into an urban fabric will be much more difficult.

This is as much a demographic issue as it is one of urbanism. The City of Toronto probably wouldn't be able to do what they're trying to do in wealthier neighborhoods because people there already have what they need and would resist any attempts to change that.

by dan reed on Apr 29, 2009 1:02 pm • linkreport

>> Fourth: Force the complexes to include some retail on their ground level. Get a small supermarket in one building, some restaurants in another, etc.

How are you taking an existing 1960's residential building and forcing it to put a grocery store on the ground floor? Where will the residents and the grocery store patrons park? That approach for reuse is not going to happen.

For you to maintain all your green space and add density & retail everything would have to be leveled and rebuilt taller. That's something entirely different and drastically more costly than what I believe Dan is suggesting. It's also a model that sounds like old failed urban renewal strategies only taller.

by Paul S on Apr 29, 2009 1:22 pm • linkreport

Now I regret not posting my Grosvenor article here...

by Dave Murphy on Apr 29, 2009 3:24 pm • linkreport

@ Paul S: In Europe, there are many, many downtown areas with only buildings that are hundreds of years old. Yet all those cities have founds ways to keep retail in their city centers. From small stores, to large wahehouse, and supermarkets. I am sure you can figure out some things for a building that is a mere 50 years old. I am not an architect, but I am sure that if you knock down some walls and perhaps combine the first two floors, you can get pretty far.

It might not end up looking like your average 28 register Giant in an autocentric ugly strip mall, but that's not the model we're looking for here anyway, is it?

People can park on the parking lot. Furthermore, supermarkets, I guess I should say grocery stores, have been surviving for centuries in Europe with little or no parking. Quite frankly, so do some supermarkets in DC.

I am surprised that you now are using an autocentric argument against me. Why would you need a car, if you live on top of, or next to a supermarket? If we want to live somewhere that's not autocentric, we're also gonna have to find retailers that don't want to be autocentric.

It's not impossible. It is happening right now. In Europe. In Asia. In South-America. All over the world. The US is the autocentric outlyer. Not the frontrunner in novel car-unfriendly design.

by Jasper on Apr 29, 2009 4:19 pm • linkreport

@Jasper - "Not impossible" does not equate to financially viable or remotely realistic. Consider these sites Dan has highlighted such as "the Enclave"? Why on earth would a grocer want to go to all the extra effort stuff themselves into the ground floor of those X-shaped towers? They might have such motivation in a built out dense downtown area but not this site. Also, a grocery can exist with little to no parking in Prague, Hong Kong or Manhattan but what relevance does that have to Rt 29 in suburban Maryland that has no walkability and limited transit?

I feel like your playing Sim City rather where extending transit or redeveloping a property happens instantaneously a click of the mouse rather than considering what realistically could be tenable financially and politically for these sites.

The Enclave

by Paul S on Apr 29, 2009 4:39 pm • linkreport

Nice vision you have there, Dave.

by NikolasM on Apr 29, 2009 4:43 pm • linkreport

So if a supermarket can not survive under three towers full of clients who have never lived so close to a supermarket, why would any other neighborhood redevelopment be realistic and economically viable? It's an argument against the original plan as well.

People will not loose their carcentric lifestyle if nobody is willing to show them that you really can do without, and in a more pleasant way. Somebody has to invest in the first step. If nobody does, we can stop this discussion.

by Jasper on Apr 29, 2009 5:08 pm • linkreport

Correction to your first paragraph. The first highrise to be built in Leisure World was not until the late 80's. Yes, Leisure World was started in the 60's; but not highrises.

by Bob Force on Apr 29, 2009 8:26 pm • linkreport

The trading area needed to support a real super market is far larger in population than the largest of these White Oak places and residents probably don't want to have their space turned into a parking lot for a super. Ground floor supers in high rises work in walking neighborhoods like Lincoln Park in Chicago or Yonge St in Toronto which have many people withion walking distance. They make no sense in White Oak. A better solution might be to demolish these places and build something new that offer a more viable kind of environment.

by Rich on Apr 29, 2009 8:28 pm • linkreport

There's a Giant roughly 1,500 ft across New Hampshire Ave (in a highly unwalkable suburban shopping center that's been shedding businesses for over a year) and a Trader Joe's 3/4s of a mile down US 29.

Additionally, there are 2 Safeways, 2 Giants and a Superfresh within 2.5 miles.

by Desk Jockey on Apr 29, 2009 11:48 pm • linkreport

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