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Charrette participants embrace Silver Spring's new urbanity

Yesterday, we talked about the issue of "style vs. character" at last week's Fenton Street Market charrette. That was just one of the concerns raised by the residents and stakeholders who came out to offer their thoughts on the future of Silver Spring.

Writing comments at the charrette. Photo by Dan Reed.

Charrette participants gave us their thoughts on large easel boards. Reading those, you could see the split between those averse to change and those excited about recent and future changes in Silver Spring. For every "No Purple Line" or "Too Much Density," there were calls for more housing, more shopping, and more transit.

"Build The Hell Out Of It!" one person directed. "It's An Urban Area—Accept It!" said another.

While those who were uncomfortable with new development tended to be older, those in support of it were of all ages. Take Florence and her husband. They're retired and live just across the DC line in Takoma, a neighborhood with history to spare.

They come to Silver Spring "every weekend," for dinner, a movie, and a walk along Ellsworth Drive, Florence says. Her husband was an architect, as is her son now. But they don't have much complaint about "fake" buildings. "We love the vibrancy, the people," she says of Silver Spring.

Angela, meanwhile, notes that Silver Spring doesn't feel as "old" as other cities she's lived in, like Boston. But she's worried about the lack of places for her tweenaged son and his friends to go skating.

"We break all the rules to let him go out," she says, clutching a longboard. (Is it for her or her son? I wasn't sure.) "Otherwise, I'd be chasing him around downtown."

She points to a picture of the National Institute of Dyers and Cleaners at Georgia and Burlington avenues. It's been abandoned for decades, but there are plans to turn it into condos. "I tell myself that when I strike it rich, I'm gonna buy that place and turn it into a skate park," Angela says.

One concern almost everyone I spoke to raised was pedestrian safety. Jonathan lives in nearby Seven Oaks and walks to Fenton Street Market. He knows that a denser, busier downtown Silver Spring will require more people to be able to walk places - but "Silver Spring is quickly becoming unwalkable," he laments.

Wayne & Fenton Intersection (Dan Reed)Colesville Road Section (Dan Reed)
Left: redoing the intersection of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street.
Right: A median strip for Colesville Road. Drawings by Dan Reed.

Foot traffic has grown in recent years, but pedestrians are often no match for wide roads designed to move lots of cars. In the CBD and surrounding neighborhoods, many sidewalks have no buffer from traffic, giving pedestrians as little as three feet of concrete between them and cars whizzing by at 50 miles an hour.

The suggestions are simple: Street trees to buffer walkers from traffic; raised crosswalks at busy intersections to slow cars down; and swapping the reversible lanes on main roads like Georgia and Colesville with landscaped medians.

These changes are expensive, and it's often more palatable for county officials to install cameras to ticket speeding drivers instead. But pedestrian improvements could be done while building the Purple Line, which will require redoing many downtown streets. That's already happening H Street in DC, which is being rebuilt with new streetcar tracks.

This kind of pragmatism is a great outcome for any planning workshop, but organizers Hannah McCann and myself were hoping to spark some creativity as well. I was excited by the guy who said Silver Spring "could really use some flying cars," and by our architects, who by the afternoon had turned to their markers and trace paper and sketched out their own visions for downtown.

Vision of Fenton Village (Darrel Rippeteau)Fred and Ginger (Laurence Caudle)
Left: Darrel Rippeteau's vision for Georgia Avenue.
Right: Laurence Caudle's Fred and Ginger-inspired building on Fenton Street.

Dan Morales, who lives in nearby East Silver Spring, broke downtown's superblocks with a new street grid. Laurence Caudle from Hickok Cole drew buildings on Fenton Street that resembled Fred and Ginger, a building designed by Frank Gehry in Prague. And Darrel Rippeteau of Rippeteau Architects imagined Georgia Avenue as an elegant urban promenade, "as good as Boulevard Saint-Michel" in Paris, he said.

These seemingly fanciful ideas were welcome after the often-contentious discussions that took place throughout the charrette. It's easy to get lathered up over your favorite issue, but harder to take a step back and remember that, at the end of the day, we're all trying to make a better community.

I'm hoping to take all of the notes and drawings we generated at last Saturday's charrette and, with some help, organize an exhibit to be displayed in the Silver Spring Civic Building when it finally opens in July. It's a chance to capture a moment in history when we had so much to remember, but much more to look forward to as well.

Here is a slideshow of the Fenton Street Market charrette.

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. 


This kind of exercise is terrific, but it reminds me how
critically important it is to get the State and County DOTs involved in this kind of placemaking enterprise as well, and advocates need to focus on how to do this. It's got to be a priority for County Council members and State Legislators so that they're asking County and State transportation agencies to deliver this kind of product.

Placemaking as a tool that DOTs use and can use needs to find a place as part of these organizations' transportation missions. Agency staff have to find that it's strategic for them to be involved in this new kind of exercise in terms that they understand -- slowing the rate of growth of VMT, increasing safety, reducing the backlog of unbuilt projects, maximizing throughput (person, not vehicle), in other words, traditional transportation goals achieved through a new set of tools.

There's a lot more to this thought, but I feel a sermon coming on so I'll just wrap it up here...

by jnb on May 28, 2010 4:07 pm • linkreport

Why no mention of City Place mall? That place needs some thought. It has been not only left behind by the revitalization, but actually hurt by it. It's a terrible useless mall.

@jnb, personlly, I think this shows the reason that MoCo should have more incorporated cities. If Silver Spring were an incorporated city there could be a city council who focused on developing Silver Spring to the betterment of Silver Spring, while county officials only see it as part of MoCo, and state officials hardly see it at all. A county agency will only view East-West Highway in the context of moving people to Bethesda, instead of paying attention to the local effects. There are already jurisdictional problems, when all the street lights were out outside my complex it was difficult to find out if the county or state was responsible.

by Brian White on May 30, 2010 8:26 am • linkreport

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