Greater Greater Washington

Pedestrians


New York, San Francisco "instant plazas" could inspire East Silver Spring

Two American cities recently gave streets back to the people, turning space once restricted to cars into plazas. Last weekend, New York turned Broadway around Times Square into pedestrian space, and last year transformed a chaotic intersection in the Meatpacking District into a successful public square. Just two weeks ago, San Francisco put out IKEA chairs and cardboard bollards to turn some underused asphalt into a temporary piazza. I'm still in shock looking at photos of people dancing and playing catch on what was once four lanes of downtown traffic. Why not do the same here?


New Gansevoort plaza in New York. Photo by Streetsblog.

New York's and San Francisco's projects received praise for creating open space in the crowded city. The intersection of Sligo, Chesapeake and Chicago Avenues in East Silver Spring could similarly use public space. East Silver Spring is a former "streetcar suburb" bordering Downtown Silver Spring. Sligo is the local "Main Street," lined with apartment buildings, schools, and locally-owned businesses. This corner is a community gathering place; when school buses stop there, kids pour out into the street, stopping to chat or heading into Iva's Beer and Wine for a snack.


The corner store at Sligo, Chesapeake and Chicago avenues in East Silver Spring. Photo by Dan Reed.
"This is where we went to scream after the Supreme Court said Bush won," civic leader Karen Roper said in 2006. "It's like our barbershop," where everyone comes to meet.

Chicago and Chesapeake are both residential streets with considerably less traffic; in fact, Chesapeake is only a block long. The three streets meet in an awkward cross shape, and both Chicago and Chesapeake intersect with Sligo Avenue, barely thirty feet apart from each other. Two intersections mean more turning movements on and off of Sligo, holding up traffic. It also means two more places where cars and pedestrians conflict with each other. Worst of all, it's a lot of asphalt that isn't being fully utilized.

On his website Montgomery Sideways, pedestrian advocate William Smith has posted a plan he's working on with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation and East Silver Spring community to make Sligo Avenue safer for walkers. The Sligo/Chesapeake/Chicago intersection is one of the spots his Sligo Avenue Accessibility Project studies. There, he proposes curb bump-outs, wider sidewalks and a pedestrian refuge island in the middle of Sligo Avenue.


William Smith's proposal for pedestrian improvements at the Sligo/Chesapeake/Chicago intersection.


My proposal for a plaza on the currently underused portion of Chesapeake Avenue between Sligo and Chicago. View larger map.

If we want to make the intersection more pedestrian-friendly and take advantage of its local significance, we could make part of it into a plaza. We could close the fifty feet of Chesapeake Avenue between Sligo and Chicago to vehicles. Cars coming from Chesapeake would have to turn right at Chicago before turning onto Sligo. There would be one fewer intersection and one fewer street for pedestrians to cross.

In the new plaza, tables and chairs could provide places for people to sit, eat and mingle. Planters and bollards could be used to define the space and make it clear that cars do not belong here. The market's parking is on the street and in a lot on Chicago Avenue, so they wouldn't lose any vehicular access to the project. But they do have a new amenity - public open space, a rarity in a neighborhood of apartment buildings and homes with private yards.

The best part about this proposal is that we could try it out easily and temporarily. Like New York's and San Francisco's, it'd be an opportunity to see how well these spaces work and how they could be better. San Francisco created the 17th Street Plaza by painting the asphalt yellow; New York closed parts of Times Square with a few well-placed Jersey barriers. It's not pretty, but it's a quick and dirty way to create and "troubleshoot" a public space.

Silver Spring is, after all, the place that laid out 35,000 square feet of plastic grass four years ago and turned it into a people-watching paradise. If we could do that, it's worthwhile to look at other simple ways to improve and expand the pedestrian realm.

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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It's not Piazza Navona, but still a great idea.

by Thayer-D on May 28, 2009 8:30 am • linkreport

I like this idea. Use those cement "planters" that are replacing the fug jersey barriers downtown to create walkable spaces to encourage foot traffic. The advantage being that they're portable; if the walkers don't come, or the neighborhood changes, move them to where they do congregate. A much more flexible solution than blocking off streets permanently to traffic to create a plaza that might attract nothing but vagrants.

by monkeyrotica on May 28, 2009 9:57 am • linkreport

It's a reasonable traffic control idea, but I think you are overselling it by linking it to the NYC and SF projects. This is not a dense urban area with a lot of foot traffic. Putting a small plaza in front of a liquor store or perhaps even building space for another business would be nice, but saying this is like what's happening in the bigger cities is just silly.

by dd on May 28, 2009 10:07 am • linkreport

This could possibly be a good idea. My only concern is that the density of the area is so low, and that there is(comparatively) little pedestrian traffic here. The plaza could easily turn into a dead zone. Jane Jacobs warns against the desire to turn all underutilized spaces into parks (no the same as a plaza, but still an apt comparison). You need to make sure that there is enough activity to support a public space. NY's Broadway needs very little in the way of programed space because of she sheer number of people in that area. Because the area in Silver Spring is much less populated, the space would need to be programmed for some sort of use (playground, etc.).

by JP on May 28, 2009 10:08 am • linkreport

I live right down the street and walk through this spot on my way to work. Crossing Chicago and Chesapeake is not a big deal -- these are quiet streets. This is a residential neighborhood with big yards and several parks nearby. I wouldn't be opposed, but I'd rather see more open space preserved closer to downtown Silver Spring. I think the now-defunct turf was a much better example of the SF/NYC type projects. I miss the vibrance of that space.

by Elizabeth on May 28, 2009 10:21 am • linkreport

Sandwich a playground between a liquor store and a high traffic intersection. Great idea! :)

by dd on May 28, 2009 10:24 am • linkreport

In Zachary Schrag's book about Metro, he mentions off-hand that DC closed traffic on bits of F or G Street downtown for a few years, but re-opened the streets again. Does anyone know more about that experiment? I presume it "failed" because DC's downtown residential population was so low in the 1970s, but it could certainly come up again, either in the hearings for this Silver Spring project, or on its own merits as something DC would want to try again.

by tom veil on May 28, 2009 10:50 am • linkreport

@tom veil; Yes, before the Monaco and the Spy Museum came along, those closed streets (F and 8th) were pretty grim. They tried to use them for street vendors, but few people wanted to make that a destination. The Portrait Gallery was still there of course, but the boarded up Tariff Building and the bombed-out 800 block of F were hardly inviting.

by Paul on May 28, 2009 11:06 am • linkreport

I'm not familiar with this specific intersection but I suspect that Elizabeth's comments are on the money. I no longer live in Silver Spring, but I would agree that there is a need for a space like what the turf area used to provide.

by DC_Chica on May 28, 2009 11:20 am • linkreport

dd,

I wasn't suggesting putting a playground there, just pointing out that there needs to be some sort of use for the space other than some benches. The fact is, there really aren't any practical uses for the space because of its size and location.

We need to be careful which streets we reclaim and where we put public plazas. If we aren't careful, some of these spaces will fail and make it that much harder to make positive changes in the future.

by JP on May 28, 2009 11:21 am • linkreport

If we aren't careful, some of these spaces will fail and make it that much harder to make positive changes in the future.

Well, the point of instant parks, or "Janettes," is that they are easily set up and easily removed. That's not to say that you start making parks randomly, but that you make an educated attempt and see what works. If it doesn't work, you get rid of the park cheaply too.

Making a few errors and being a little cheap in the short term is a lot better than waiting around and going through design committees and hearings to make some place perfect.

by цarьchitect on May 28, 2009 11:57 am • linkreport

You need to walk through a quarter mile of single family homes in order to reach anything that might be said to be a 'main street,' Fenton Street, and the pedestrian life isn't exactly thriving on that part of Fenton either.

The pedestrian face of Sligo Ave may be reasonably busy for a neighborhood arterial - orders of magnitude more so than where I grew up - but it's still orders of magnitude less than is needed for a successful "urban plaza" or "city park" type area like the Turf.

There's no reason it couldn't be cordoned off for special events or weekly block parties or some type of temporary neighborhood-scale gathering - but there's also no reason that these things couldn't happen instead at Silver Spring Park, a thousand feet south of here.

My fear is that the confluence of retail, entertainment, transit, and parking at the Turf cannot be duplicated in any less-developed lot in the area, but if you want to try you should certainly start a few minutes away rather than a mile away. Buying up part of a block of the single family homes off Wayne, Bonifant, Pershing, or Ellsworth (wherever the Purple Line hits), setting up provisions/funding for frequent civic events there, and rezoning the surrounding area for high-FAR, mixed-use small-lot development should do it.

by Squalish on May 29, 2009 12:34 am • linkreport

The redundant intersection could be put to better use. Intriguing idea. With several large apartment buildings right there, you'd probably get a lot of takers for an outdoor commercial space.

by Hans Riemer on May 29, 2009 12:59 pm • linkreport

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