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You can help shape Silver Spring's urban future

Silver Spring isn't a city, but it faces the challenges of one. Its Citizens Advisory Board, which advises the Montgomery County Council, has eight empty seats. If you want to help shape Silver Spring, from how it grows to how people get around, joining the board is the best way.


The Silver Spring Civic Building, where the advisory board meets each month. Photo by the author.

After decades of decline, Silver Spring is booming. Thousands of new homes have been built in the past few years, and more are still coming. We're home to well-regarded local brewers, butchers, and ice cream makers. A new civic building, town square, and library have given this community places to gather and celebrate.

Yet this rebirth is fragile. Rising home prices have led to worries about displacement and gentrification. Years of Purple Line construction could disrupt local businesses. There are ongoing concerns about crime and homelessness. And there's a tension between the reality of an urban, diverse, and inclusive place and some neighbors who want it to be suburban and exclusive.

Silver Spring looks like and functions as a city, but like most communities in the DC area, it's unincorporated, meaning all local government takes place at the county level. We have a County Councilmember, Tom Hucker, who represents all of eastern Montgomery County. But downtown Silver Spring and adjacent neighborhoods don't have a mayor or city council to speak for them exclusively.

However, there are Montgomery County's five Citizens Advisory Boards, each of which are appointed by the County Council to be that community's voice to the county government. They're similar to the District's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in that they don't make laws, but they have some influence on issues you might care about if you read this blog, including transportation, economic development, housing, young people, and the environment.

However, unlike the ANCs, they're not elected, and they represent a much bigger area, sometimes as many as 200,000 people. Each board member serves a three-year term. They don't get paid, but they can get reimbursed for travel costs.


Montgomery County's 5 Regional Services Centers.

There are five Citizens Advisory Boards in Montgomery County: Silver Spring (which includes Silver Spring inside the Beltway, Four Corners, and Takoma Park), Bethesda-Chevy Chase (which includes Potomac and Rockville), Mid-County (Wheaton, Aspen Hill, and Olney), East County (White Oak, Colesville, and Burtonsville), and Upcounty (Gaithersburg, Germantown, and beyond).

The Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board has eighteen seats for people who live or work in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. Right now, there are eight empty seats. If you want to see this community continue to grow, attract new businesses, retain its diversity, and be a better place to get around, the board is an excellent way to get involved.

If you'd like to be on the Citizens Advisory Board, go here to learn more or send your application. You've got until August 1 to apply.

Once applications are in, Montgomery County executive Ike Leggett will appoint board members, and the county council will approve them.

Development


The peculiar fight over density at the Bethesda Metro

Clark Enterprises, a company that formerly owned the biggest road construction contractor in Montgomery County, is fighting against a new building planned atop the Bethesda Metro station.


The plaza above the Bethesda Metro station. The former food court is behind the fountain. Photo by the author.

Brookfield Properties owns a failed food court on a platform above the station's bus waiting area, which it wants to replace with a high-rise containing homes or offices. Brookfield would also bring more light and air into the bus bays by cutting into an underused plaza that occupies the remainder of the platform.

This site, in the center of Bethesda directly above the Red Line entrance and bus terminal, is ideally situated for transit- and pedestrian-oriented development. No new parking will be built. The downtown master plan now under review by the Planning Board recognizes the value of this location by allowing building up to 290 feet high.

Clark has opposed building here before

In 2008, Clark helped defeat a plan to build on the Metro station platform, and it has been fighting Bookfield's proposal since it emerged two years ago. A new structure would interfere with the view from the building where Clark's executive offices are located. As one of the building's tenants wrote, the new building would "obstruct views from our existing space." A second tenant acknowledged the same objection.

The construction firm, a relentless promoter of highway widenings elsewhere, has renewed its efforts over the last month with two mailings each sent to thousands of Bethesda residents. They call on the public to "protect open space" and suggest that the plaza could be expanded by demolishing the food court and turned into an attractive park.


Clark's first mailer.

The mailers' attractive photographs of grassy parks surrounded by trees have little in common with any possible upgrade of the plaza—tree roots can't grow on the platform—and even less with the dingy bus bays below. Indeed, Clark's proposal could make the bus bays even worse than now.

In their second mailing, the builders argue that the plaza should be made "street facing." What currently separates the plaza from the street is the one opening that penetrates the deck above the bus bays. Decking over that opening would further deprive transit riders of light and fresh air.


Top: The image from Clark's mailing opposing the new building. Bottom: The Bethesda Metro entrance. Lower photo by the author.

It's easy to laugh at a situation some have described as "builder turned NIMBY," and one might think Clark has little chance of success. But plans to build on this ideally located site have already been derailed once. Montgomery County's decision on the Bethesda Metro plaza will test its commitment to development near transit.

Correction: The initial version of this post referred to Clark Construction as the company opposing the building. Clark Enterprises, the parent company, sold Clark Construction to its executives in January 2016. However, as of this article's initial publication, the Clark website still listed Clark Construction as a subsidiary (but it was subsequently updated after this article ran).

Public Spaces


Silver Spring could get a big, new, temporary park

Downtown Silver Spring could get a big new park as part of a massive redevelopment of the Blairs, an apartment complex across the street from the Metro. The park will be temporary, but eventually several larger parks will take its place.


Plan of the new park from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

First built in the 1950s, the Blairs are a complex of apartments, offices, and a strip mall across from the Silver Spring Metro station. Owner Tower Companies will redevelop the 27-acre superblock over the coming years, replacing a massive parking lot with 1400 new apartments (there are 1400 there now), new retail, and four acres of new parks.

The first new apartment tower, called the Pearl, is under construction, but much of the new stuff won't arrive for a decade. In the meantime, Tower wants to create a park over one acre in size on the site of a future apartment building.


The Pearl under construction. The temporary park would go in front of it. Photo by the author.

Located near the corner of Eastern Avenue and Blair Mill Road, the new park would have a big lawn and a wood stage for performances. A playground and adult-sized fitness equipment would let people of all sizes work out, while a "fitness trail" would loop around the entire site. The park would also include a community garden and a temporary building that might house a leasing center.

While the park is set to go on private property, it would be open to both Blairs residents and the surrounding neighborhood. The park would be a welcome addition for neighbors who have clamored for more open space in the past. Silver Spring doesn't lack for parks, but many of them are either too small or designed to be unusable.


One of several new parks that will eventually come to the Blairs. Image from Tower Companies.

This wouldn't be the first temporary park in downtown Silver Spring. Over a decade ago, residents and visitors alike fell in love with "the Turf," an artificial grass lawn on Ellsworth Drive, and protested when it was removed to build Veterans Plaza. Possibly hoping to avoid the same result, Tower Companies will place signs at "visible locations" around their temporary park "informing both residents and visitors that the temporary green is the future location of a residential building, and that it is not permanent."

Development


Nobody wants these school buses in their backyard. But moving them is worth it.

Montgomery County wants to move a school bus lot away from the Shady Grove Metro station to make room for new houses there, but residents of other neighborhoods don't want the buses in their backyards. But the move is worth it if it means more people can live walking distance to the train.


The Shady Grove bus depot across from new townhouses being built. All photos by the author.

This week, the Montgomery County Council could vote not to sell off a school bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville, next to the Shady Grove station. Montgomery County Public Schools has outgrown the lot, and the county wants to move it to make room for a new neighborhood around the Metro station that would have 700 new homes, parks, a school, and a library.

The move is part of a decade-long effort that County Executive Ike Leggett calls the Smart Growth Initiative. Until recently, the Shady Grove Metro station was surrounded by government warehouses and depots storing everything from Ride On buses to school cafeteria food. The county's been able to move nearly all of the facilities, many of them to a new site in Montgomery Village. In their place, construction has already begun on an adjacent, 1500-home neighborhood, called Westside at Shady Grove.

The school bus depot needs to stay near Rockville, since its 400 buses serve schools in that area. But neighbors fought attempts to move the buses to a nearby school, an empty parking lot at the school system headquarters, and a gravel lot in a historically-black, working-class neighborhood. At each location, neighbors have raised concerns about traffic, pollution, or reduced property values.

Naturally, councilmembers are nervous about proposing to move the buses anywhere else. Councilmember Marc Elrich has suggested that the best option may be to keep the buses where they are.

But even if the depot stays, the county still has to find more space to store buses. And in an urbanizing county, those buses are likely to go in somebody's backyard.

Councilmember Craig Rice notes that there are already school bus depots next to houses in Glenmont and Clarksburg, and those residents haven't had any problems with them.

Jamison Adcock, one of the bus lot opponents, told me on Twitter that existing communities' needs should come first. But what about people who want to live here but can't afford to because there aren't enough homes to meet the demand, driving up house prices? Or what about people who either can't or don't drive and would like to live near a Metro station? The county is responsible for their needs too.

Moving the bus depot has serious benefits for the county and the people who could live on that land. There are only thirteen Metro stations in or next to Montgomery County, and they represent some of the most valuable land around. We know that lots of people want to live near a Metro station, and that people who already do are way more likely to use transit and have lower transportation costs.

It's increasingly expensive to live near Metro because the demand outstrips the supply of homes near Metro stations. So if the county's going to build new homes, we should prioritize putting them there.


This is a better use of land next to a Metro station than a bus lot.

Meanwhile, there are roads all over the county, and the trucks that carry things to and from the county's warehouses can go pretty much anywhere there's a road. That's why ten years ago, county leaders decided that it made more sense to put homes near the Metro, and warehouses and bus depots somewhere else.

That won't make everybody happy, but it's the right thing to do.

Bicycling


Some Silver Spring residents are against bike lanes that haven't even been proposed yet

Big plans for bike routes in Montgomery County are underway, and Silver Spring is a focal point. When one group of neighbors learned that the county is studying the possibility of a new bike lane near their homes—a far cry from considering any actual plans in detail—they immediately voiced vehement opposition that overstates the downsides and understates the benefits of bike lanes.


Sharrows at the intersection of Silver Spring Avenue and Fenton Street. Bike lanes on Fenton could make the area even more bike-friendly. Photo by Dan Reed.

Silver Spring has been designated as a Bike and Pedestrian Priority Area, meaning it's getting extra funding for bike infrastructure improvements. So far this has resulted in plans for separated bike lanes on Spring and Cedar Streets, with construction set to begin this year.


Planned Spring/Cedar Street bike lanes. Map from MCDOT.

In addition to these and other planned lanes, Montgomery's department of transportation has examined important downtown Silver Spring corridors. For example, there has been mention of studying possible bike lanes along Fenton Street, which could conceivably be implemented in conjunction with a massive PEPCO dig project on Fenton Street that will take place in the next several years.

But even with the study not underway yet, some nearby residents expressed loud opposition to any possible bike lanes. They created a petition with the following claims (all the capital letters are part of the original):

  1. Not necessary because there is CURRENTLY A DESIGNATED COMMUNITY BIKE ROUTE—"Grove Street Bike Route"—THAT PARALLELS FENTON STREET along Cedar Street, Bonifant Street, Grove Street and Woodbury Drive.
  2. A Fenton bike lane REMOVES PARKING and DELIVERY TRUCK LOADING AREAS from the Fenton Village businesses.
  3. A Fenton bike lane INCREASES MORE UNWANTED PARKING ON NEIGHBORHOOD ROADWAYS (Bonifant Street, Easley Street, Thayer Ave, Silver Spring Ave and Grove Street) because Fenton Village customers will seek parking on the neighborhood roadways adjacent to Fenton Street instead of in parking structures.
  4. A Fenton bike lane FORCES MORE UNWANTED LARGE DELIVERY TRUCKS, INCLUDING 18 WHEELERS, ON NEIGHBORHOOD ROADWAYS adjacent to Fenton Street for loading / unloading to businesses in Fenton Village.
  5. A Fenton bike lane INCREASES TRAFFIC ON THE NEIGHBORHOOD ROADWAYS, particularly on narrow Grove Street, a neighborhood roadway outside the Silver Spring CBD.
This level of vehement opposition is out of proportion to any impacts of possible bike lanes. Many of the concerns are also misplaced. To address all of them:
  1. The current bike route goes through minor neighborhood streets and consists almost entirely of sharrows since it would never have enough bike traffic to warrant protected lanes. Lanes on Fenton would serve as a much better connector for the Downtown Silver Spring bike network and would also make it easier to get to shops and residences along Fenton.
  2. There are four public parking decks and three public lots within a block of this route, in addition to adjacent private lots for shoppers. We should definitely work to develop strategies to better direct people to parking if that is a concern, but there is no shortage of parking. Moreover, MCDOT plans to carry out a parking study to identify any issues with parking in and around the Fenton Street corridor, with any findings informing the ultimate proposal.


    Public parking garages (in green) and lots (in orange) along Fenton Street. Image from Montgomery County.
  3. Parking in nearby residential neighborhoods is easily addressed with neighborhood parking permits, which Montgomery County seems to enforce quite well. East Silver Spring already has such a system, and it seems to work smoothly.
  4. We should definitely have a discussion about how best to accommodate delivery trucks, but there's no need for that to start with "NO BIKE LANES!!"
  5. Fenton is already quite congested at rush hours, and it's not at all clear how bike lanes would divert more traffic. More importantly, MCDOT plans to carry out a traffic study before making any proposal. And finally, a wealth of previous research has shown that well-designed bike lanes don't cause congestion.
In many cities both in the US and abroad, merchants have been shown to overestimate both the proportion of their customers arriving by car and the negative impacts of removing street parking spaces. In city after city, researchers have found little evidence of any negative effect of new bike lanes, and in some cities they have found significant increases in sales.

The opposition to these potential bike lanes also ignores that if the proposal were well-designed and implemented in conjunction with the PEPCO project, the benefits of the bike lanes could come at very low cost, with concerns about parking and congestion mitigated.

But we're never going to get that far if we allow loud opposition to shut it down before MCDOT even has the chance to make a proposal.

How to get involved

If you live in downtown Silver Spring or one of the nearby neighborhoods, you will have likely opportunities to hear from MCDOT representatives and provide feedback. Keep an eye out for meetings of your local civic associations and, should the process move forward, meetings hosted by MCDOT.

Montgomery County residents can also join the Action Committee for Transit (ACT), or sign up to receive the agency's email alerts—ACT advocates for bike and pedestrian improvements in addition to transit. Another way to stay informed about land transportation options, such as bike lanes, is to sign up for updates from the Coalition for Smarter Growth to hear about improved bicycle facilities in Silver Spring and elsewhere in the region.

Architecture


Pike + Rose is an experiment in modern ornament

The Pike + Rose development on Rockville Pike is a surprisingly experimental collection of buildings. It's contemporary in style, but also filled with architectural ornament. The result upends the common architectural conceit that ornament cannot be "of our time."


All photos by the author.

Pike + Rose is one of the region's most ambitious attempts to retrofit an aging suburban place to become more urban. It gets far more headlines for its planning than for its architecture.

But although Pike + Rose isn't flashy enough to find itself on the cover of Architect Magazine, it's fascinating and instructive for what it tells us about how architecture can interact with urbanism.

Ornament doesn't have to be historic-looking

In the world of architecture criticism, ornament is taboo. Buildings should be "of their time;" they must not rely on historic styles to look good. Since so much ornament is either historic or kitschy faux historic, the world of architecture has turned its nose up at it for decades.

But many laypeople prefer buildings with little flourishes, because, well, little flourishes are pretty and people like pretty things. Those flourishes are particularly important on urban buildings, where people walking along a sidewalk need human-scale things to look at.

Pike + Rose attempts to rectify that mismatch by providing the sort of small-scale ornamental flourishes that pedestrians crave, but using unabashedly contemporary styles and materials.

Mixed but instructive results

No doubt about it, Pike + Rose is an experiment with mixed results. Its designers tried a lot of things, and failed as often as they succeeded. But failure teaches as much as success, and future architects can learn much from what happened here.

The most successful attempts are those that fully embrace their modern manufacturing, using carefully-placed materials to create repeating abstract patterns of factory-produced detail. These are unmistakably both contemporary and ornamental, and look great.

The same effect thrives on fences and other urban accoutrements.

Less successful are the more literal decorations. These are individually beautiful, but on buildings they're awkward and kitschy.

Least successful of all are the murals, particularly this cartoonish fake advertisement for a baking machinery factory that never existed:

Other murals are more honest about what they are, and thus aren't so bad.

It's easy for architects to retreat to glass boxes and pretend they're bold, and it's easy for laypeople to point at old buildings and say "do that," but neither is a satisfying way to build modern cities.

The architects of Pike + Rose, WDG, deserve praise for pushing an envelope that needed to be pushed. Contemporary ornament can work, but it's going to take talented designers willing to try controversial things to build on and refine these early results.

I hope this continues. Our cities will be more beautiful and more livable for it, even if it takes a while to figure it out.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Places


Join us in Silver Spring for happy hour with Montgomery County's planning board chair

It's time for the next Greater Greater happy hour! This month, join us in Silver Spring with special guest, Montgomery County Planning Board chair Casey Anderson, who will tell us about challenges and opportunities facing the county and how to get involved.


Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The Planning Board oversees Montgomery County's departments of Parks and Planning. It is responsible for approving new development, crafting master plans that shape how and where new development gets built, deciding where new roads and transitways go, and managing the county's parks and open space. If you're interested in any or all of these things, the Planning Board is where you can give feedback or input.

Tuesday, June 21 from 6 to 8 pm, join us at Bump 'N Grind, located at 1200 East-West Highway. While it may look like a coffeeshop, it's also a record store and one of the Washington Post's most underrated bars.

Bump 'N Grind is a five-minute walk from the Silver Spring Metro station (Red Line). If you're coming by bus, it's a few blocks from the 70/79 stop at Georgia and Eastern avenues, or the S2/S4/S9 stop at Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road. There's also a Capital Bikeshare station right outside the bar. If you're driving, there's free parking both on the street and in the public parking garages on East-West Highway and Kennett Street.

This year, we've held happy hours in Adams Morgan, H Street, and Edgewood. Stay tuned for happy hours in Prince George's County (at long last!) and Northern Virginia.

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