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Scarred by urban renewal, Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood gets a second chance

Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood has a rich history, but urban renewal nearly destroyed it. With the Purple Line coming, this historically-black community could get a second chance, but not everybody looks forward to it.


Urban renewal nearly destroyed Lyttonsville in the 1970s. Photo by Alan Bowser.

Located west of the Red Line tracks from downtown Silver Spring, Lyttonsville is one of Montgomery County's oldest neighborhoods, founded in 1853 by freed slave Samuel Lytton. The area could soon be home to a Purple Line station if the light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton opens as scheduled in 2022.

Over the past two years, Montgomery County planners crafted a vision for a small town center around the future Lyttonsville station, bringing affordable housing and retail options the community lacks. Some residents are deeply skeptical of what's called the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, though it could restore the town center Lyttonsville lost long ago.

A rough history

During the early 20th century, a thriving main street developed along Brookville Road, including schools, churches, and a cemetery. As surrounding areas became suburban neighborhoods exclusively for white residents, the black Lyttonsville community lacked public services like running water and paved roads. For decades, its only connection to Silver Spring was a wooden, one-lane bridge that remains today.

In the 1970s, the county seized much of the area, destroying Lyttonsville's main street and replacing much of it with an industrial park, a Ride On bus lot, and storage for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Many of the older homes were replaced with large garden apartment complexes.


This wooden bridge was once the only way in and out of Lyttonsville. Photo by the author.

Today, Lyttonsville is a racially diverse community, and sought-after for its location between Silver Spring and Bethesda and being in the vaunted Bethesda-Chevy Chase school catchment. But one out of ten residents lives in poverty, compared to 6.9% of residents countywide. Lyttonsville is hard to access by any form of transportation, isolating its residents from nearby jobs.

Some residents claim the county's plan will continue a legacy of destructive planning decisions. They're worried about traffic and density, about getting redistricted out of the B-CC cluster, and that the area's affordable apartments could get replaced with luxury housing. Others are wary of the Purple Line after fighting off plans to locate a storage yard in the neighborhood.

Charlotte Coffield, who grew up in Lyttonsville during segregation and whose sister Gwendolyn fought to bring services to the area (the local community center is named for her), has emerged as one of the biggest critics. "All [Purple Line] stations do not need to be town centers," she wrote in a letter to the county planning board. "The proposed density would destroy the stable character and balance of our ethnically diverse neighborhood." Last week, the Lyttonsville Community Civic Association, where she is president, voted to accept no more than 400 new homes in the area.

New development in Lyttonsville

Bethesda-based developer EYA, which is currently building townhomes next to the future Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line station, has an alternate proposal for Lyttonsville that could address residents' concerns. The biggest land parcels in the area are owned by several different property owners, including multiple government agencies, each with their own plans. Some want to build lots of new homes, while WSSC has a large site that they intend to leave alone.


EYA's vision for Lyttonsville.

EYA has reached out to several landowners about coordinating, allowing development on a combined 33-acre site to happen together. First, they would partner with WSSC to build several hundred affordable apartments and townhomes on their property. Residents of existing apartments could move there first without getting displaced. Then, EYA would partner with the two non-profits who own the affordable apartments to redevelop them with market-rate townhomes. The county would restrict building heights to 70 feet.

Next to the Lyttonsville station itself, EYA envisions a plaza surrounded by market-rate apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space (about half the size of a Giant supermarket), and a small business incubator modeled on Baltimore's Open Works that would offer job training to local residents.

Public art would promote the area's history, while Rosemary Hills Park would get a small addition. Local streets where drivers speed today would get traffic calming and new pedestrian and bicycle connections.

The $500 million proposal addresses most of the neighbors' concerns. EYA seeks to build 1200 new homes on the land, compared to the nearly 1700 the county would allow there. (What Montgomery County wants to allow in Lyttonsville is still less dense than plans for other Purple Line stations, including Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake.) One-third of the new homes would be set aside for low-income households, and every existing affordable apartment would be replaced.


Lyttonsville's future Purple Line station. Image from MTA.

"The county can leave a legacy for how you can build Smart Growth," says Evan Goldman, VP of Land Acquisition and Development at EYA, stressing that the private development could help pay for the public amenities neighbors want. "There's only so much [public benefits] this can afford," he adds. "If you reduce the units so you can't pay for the benefits, the public benefits won't come."

Can the proposal actually work?

Residents I've spoken to like EYA's proposal, but are skeptical if it can happen. This project could have a transformative effect on Lyttonsville, but only if all of these partners agree to it. Recent experience in Shady Grove suggests finding new locations for the Ride On bus lot or WSSC's facility may be difficult.

"If EYA can execute its plan, there are more upsides," says resident Abe Saffer, "but since they don't have any letters of intent or partnerships firmly in place, I remain nervous."

The Montgomery County Council will hold two public hearings on the Lyttonsville Sector Plan next week in Rockville. Here's where you can sign up. If the plan is approved, the county would then have to approve EYA's proposal, which could then start construction in 2020 and take 10 to 15 years to get built.

Places


Silver Spring doesn't have actual boundaries. So we asked residents what they were.

As an unincorporated place, Silver Spring's boundaries aren't really defined. So I asked people what their Silver Spring looks like.


What Silver Spring residents say are Silver Spring's boundaries. The darkergreen areas are where people agree. Image by Christy Batta.

Since its founding in the 1840s, Silver Spring has been an unincorporated community, meaning it's not a town or city with official boundaries and local government. As a result, there's disagreement over where the boundaries are. Some only include downtown and neighborhoods inside the Beltway, or what I call "Little Silver Spring." Others have a broader definition that covers much of eastern Montgomery County, or what I call "Big Silver Spring."

Two years ago, local graphic designer Christy Batta and I, working with local marketing company Silver Spring Inc, created this map, which represents all of the Silver Spring zip codes assigned by the US Postal Service. We went to different community events across the area, from Fenton Street Market to a food truck event in Wheaton, and asked people to mark up the map with their personal definition.

We received 66 responses, and Christy merged all of them together to create the image above. (Here's a folder with all of the individual responses.) The darker areas are where more people agree on the boundaries. Most responses fell into four camps:

23 people defined Silver Spring as being entirely inside the Beltway, which includes downtown and adjacent neighborhoods like Woodside Park and East Silver Spring. Some people included Long Branch and Lyttonsville, which are both inside the Beltway but across major barriers like Sligo Creek Park and the Red Line. Others included part or all of the City of Takoma Park. This is basically the Census Bureau's definition of Silver Spring, and includes the oldest parts of the area, built before World War II.

Another 15 people defined Silver Spring as everything south of University Boulevard, which adds Four Corners, Forest Glen, and Wheaton.

A third group of 13 people included everything south of Randolph Road, which includes Glenmont, Kemp Mill, Colesville, and White Oak.

A final group of 15 people basically colored in all of East County, out to the Prince George's County and Howard County lines, including semi-rural places like Burtonsville and Cloverly. A few of these people threw in parts of surrounding counties and even DC.

The maps suggest a couple of different themes. One is that people use major roads or natural features like Sligo Creek and Northwest Branch as "mental" boundaries. Another boundary might be changes in the built environment. North of University Boulevard, Silver Spring becomes much more suburban and spread-out in nature, which looks and feels very different than the older, more urban neighborhoods closer in. You can feel it driving north on Colesville Road, which goes from a downtown main street to basically a freeway in just a few miles.



These places are 15 miles apart and very different, but some say they're both Silver Spring. Photos by the author.

A place isn't necessarily defined by what's on a map

Even where places have official boundaries, our idea of that place varies. British researcher Alasdair Rae asked people to draw the boundaries of several cities around the world and found very different interpretations, like maps of New York City that include huge chunks of New Jersey's urban areas.

Of course, New York has actual boundaries. But places like Jersey City or Hoboken might feel "enough" like New York that people include them in their "conception" of New York. Likewise, Silver Spring residents define their boundaries based on what they "see" as their community, whether it's based on physical barriers, look and feel, people, preferred hangouts, or anything else.

How would you define Silver Spring's boundaries?

Arts


Seeking cheaper space and new audiences, DC artists head to MD and VA

Rockville might seem like an unlikely place for a queer punk show. But for artist and curator Eames Armstrong, hosting a show is a way to connect to local kids who need creative outlets. It's also a sign of how DC's art and music scenes are expanding into Maryland and Virginia.


A not-so-unlikely place for a punk show. Photo by the author.

From Wednesday until October 16, Armstrong will present Noise Body Music, an exhibition of queer and gender non-conforming visual artists and musicians, at VisArts, a non-profit arts center in Rockville Town Square. Next Friday, September 16, there will be a free concert in collaboration with electronic music promoters Select DC featuring musicians from around DC and the nation. The show features what Armstrong calls a "really huge range of sounds," from the "queercore punk" of DC's Homosuperior to Fire-Toolz, a Chicago band they describe as "20 different genres put together." (A closing concert October 16 will bring in Scottish artist FK Alexander.)

The show is part of VisArts' Emerging Curator Program, which pairs budding artists with mentors to craft an exhibition. Armstrong, who recently received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Studio Art at George Washington University, wanted to create the kind of show they would have wanted to see as a teenager growing up in Bethesda ten years ago. (Armstrong uses they/their/they're pronouns.)

Montgomery County has long been an extension of the DC punk scene, hosting concerts in church basements and group houses. "I did go to shows and it was such a crucial part of my weekends," says Armstrong. "Occasionally I'd go into the city to Warehouse Next Door, or other venues which have now closed."


Dreamcrusher, one of the artists performing in the Noise Body Music opening party. Photo from http://mwashphoto.tumblr.com.

Going to shows helped Armstrong embrace their queer identity. "As a person who wasn't particularly out in high school, having a queer narrative in visual art and music I didn't know about helped," Armstrong says. "I was wanting to bring those things together."

As part of the Emerging Curator Program, Armstrong led a workshop with local teenagers whose work appears in the show, and was surprised at how progressive they were about LGBT issues. "It sounds really corny, but it's remarkable how much times have changed," says Armstrong.

The Emerging Curator Program, and by extension Noise Body Music, is supported by a grant from the Windgate Charitable Foundation. But as space in DC gets more expensive, artists and musicians are increasingly migrating to Maryland and Virginia, where there's lots of cheap, underused space for people to make things. Last year, developer Federal Realty offered up its vacant office space in North Bethesda to an experimental art festival, while the Artomatic unjuried art festival took over a vacant office building in New Carrollton.

"It's probably inevitable that artists are moving ahead of the general population into more affordable areas...it's so expensive," they say, laughing. "I know a lot more folks who are moving to PG County, with the Hyattsville Arts District, and Mount Rainier."

Shows like Noise Body Music also help connect artists and musicians with kids who can't always travel to DC to visit a gallery or see a show. "I hadn't been in Rockville in years...it had changed so much," says Armstrong. "It was really crucial to address in some way my experience growing up there."

"I really want high school students to come," they add. "I've been reaching out to all the [student] newspapers."

Noise Body Music opens Wednesday, September 7 through Sunday, October 16 at VisArts, located at 155 Gibbs Street in Rockville. The opening concert is Friday, September 16 from 7 to 11pm. For more information, visit the VisArts website.

Places


The dilemma for young people in Montgomery County

You're a Millennial working in Montgomery County. You want to be close to work, but you also want to be close to the action. Can you find both here? Sort of.


If you're a Millennial in Montgomery County, you might want to live in North Bethesda. Photo by the author.

That's something county leaders have been working on. Three years ago, Montgomery County began its Night Time Economy Initiative to bring in businesses by attracting the Millennial (or young adults born between 1982 and 2000) they wish to employ. Noting studies saying Millennials want to live in urban (or urban-lite) settings, the county has been redeveloping its town centers, building bike lanes, and revising liquor laws.

While the nation's largest generation isn't a monolith, there's some truth to the narrative. The county's young professionals tend to live near its job centers, transit lines, and favored hangouts. That generally means Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville.

That said, for those who want the urban experience, the county has serious competition from other parts of the region, especially the District and Arlington. And if you work in Montgomery County, particularly outside the Beltway, you're forced to choose living in an urban neighborhood far from work or a more suburban area with a shorter commute.

I was thinking about that reading this recent email from Sky, a young teacher moving to Montgomery County and wondering where a Millennial should live.


Hello Dan (or Co.),
I recently read an article about millennials in Moco and am wondering if you would give me some advice about where to live.

I will probably be moving to the area to teach [in Gaithersburg] and would love to know where young singles live around the area.

Like your article said, I certainly want to be close to work, but I also want to have a thriving personal life.

If you have any suggestions, the would be much appreciated.

Thank you!

Awesome blog btw!

Here's how I responded:
Thanks for writing me and for the kind words! You've presented an interesting challenge: you work in Gaithersburg, but you want to be near the action. Those two things are (mostly) mutually exclusive, as much of the region's nightlife is in DC, 20 miles away. That said, this isn't an impossible situation. Of the 20- and 30-somethings I know who work in Montgomery County, they generally do one of three things:

  • Live in DC, and do the reverse commute. You'll have your pick of hoppin neighborhoods with lots of things to do and people to meet, and you won't have to drive home after the bar. You will, however, have to drive to work, though you'll mostly be going against traffic on your way out of the city. Consider neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan, which are both filled with young people and things to do, but also near major roads like 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue that you can use to get out of the city. This might be the most expensive option, since you'd be paying higher DC rents and paying for the cost of transportation.
  • Live in Gaithersburg. You'll be really close to school, and while Gaithersburg is a lot quieter than DC, there are a couple of areas with restaurants and bars. Kentlands is a nationally-famous neighborhood where you can walk to shops and restaurants. Old Town Gaithersburg has a growing number of Latino and African restaurants that are pretty great. And Rio/Washingtonian Center has a lakefront that's great for hanging out on weekends. The rents are generally cheaper than DC, though transit service is limited (there's no Metro station) so you will be driving a fair amount.
  • Live somewhere in the middle. The Red Line connects Montgomery County to DC and the rest of the region, and stops in several walkable neighborhoods in Montgomery County with lots of things to do and a large number of young people. You'll still get that reverse commute, though you'll pay a premium to live next to a Metro station. Three areas you might want to consider: Bethesda's more expensive, but has lots of places to hang out; Silver Spring (where I live) is more affordable, way younger, also has lots going on, and is closest to DC; Rockville is also more affordable and closer to Gaithersburg, but has less nightlife.
A few weeks ago, Sky let me know that she's moving to Rockville, which offers the best of both worlds: it's close to work, but also has a real downtown and access to the Metro.

For years, Montgomery County has encouraged the creation of more downtowns and town centers in places like White Flint, Germantown, and White Oak, while promoting the ongoing development of urban places like Silver Spring or Bethesda. That's great for people moving to the area like Sky, because it gives her more, and more affordable, choices for where to live. However, we still have lots of work to do in making these places attractive to new, younger residents, from creating more walkable and bikeable streets to streamlining our liquor laws to make it easier for restaurants and bars to open here.

We'll have to follow up with Sky once she gets settled in. But in the meantime: What would you tell a young person interested in moving to the county?

Arts


This suburban house is big, cheap, and ripe for innovation

Suburban building types like McMansions and strip malls are often derided for being cheap and disposable. But those things also make them great place for innovating in food, music, or even technology.


A not-so-unlikely place for innovation. Photo from Google Street View.

Last year, the federal government hired a secret startup called Marketplace Lite to rebuild Healthcare.gov, the failing website where Americans could buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. As they were working under a tight deadline, the team of young programmers needed a cheap place to work and, ideally, sleep.

They found it in this rented house on a cul-de-sac in Ellicott City, in Howard County, which the Atlantic wrote about last summer. The story shrugs off the vinyl-sided Colonial house as "forgettable," but you could argue it was actually tailor-made for a project like this.

Why? For starters, the house was close to the Centers for Medicaid and Medical Services, the government agency responsible for Healthcare.gov. Like many big government agencies in the Baltimore-Washington area, CMMS has a big, secure suburban office campus.

The house itself lent itself to the effort too. Most newish suburban builder homes have an open floorplan with few interior walls, which makes a good space for several people to work and collaborate. Designed for large families, the house also has several bedrooms and bathrooms, meaning it could sleep several people comfortably.

A quick search on Craiglist shows that similar houses in Ellicott City rent for about $2800 a month, suggesting that it was also much cheaper than the alternative: renting a block of hotel rooms.

There's no shortage of media saying that young people are moving to urban environments. And not long ago, people seeking cheap, functional space to make websites or music or art or anything else might seek out an old warehouse, a loft, or even a rowhouse in a down-and-out inner-city neighborhood.

That's no longer really an option in the DC area, with its high prices and lack of old industrial buildings. Ironically, the things that people deride about suburban buildings (cheaply built, cookie-cutter, excessive space) also make them great, affordable incubators to do or make things.

Take Rainbow Mansion, the group home for tech workers in Silicon Valley. Or the DC area's many strip malls filled with immigrant businesses, from Falls Church to Langley Park.

Or punk houses. In many cities, but especially the DC area, the punk scene is really a suburban scene, centering on affordable, modest houses in untrendy locations where people can make loud music and be left alone. The recent book (and blog) Hardcore Architecture sought out the houses where 1980s punk and metal bands operated, and found them in split-level houses in places like Rockville and Annandale.


Old suburban houses like this one in Colesville are a draw for artists and punks. Photo by Andrew Benson on Flickr.

As urban real estate becomes more expensive and the tide of suburban sprawl moves out, the people who want to make things get pushed out too. In the 1990s, local punk institution Teen-Beat Records set up in this Ballston bungalow, but it's since been razed and replaced with a bigger, $900,000 house. Today, you'll find punks and artists in places like Colesville, a community in eastern Montgomery County known for sprawling lots and big, 1960s-era houses that have become relatively affordable as they've aged.

Of course, these places weren't intended for punk houses and Internet startups. Creative types may face major barriers, like restrictions on running a home business, or difficulty getting permits to use a building for something it wasn't designed for. (Naturally, many people just go and do it anyway.) Of course, these farther-out suburban places can be hard to reach without a car.

Most suburban counties tend to focus on attracting big businesses, like Marriott. But they may also want to look at the start-ups, immigrant businesses, musicians, and makers who have already set up there. They're already contributing to the local economy, but they also help create local culture and a sense of place.

Bicycling


These detours will help you bike during Montgomery County's SafeTrack closures

As part of Metro's sixth SafeTrack surge, trains are single tracking between Silver Spring and Takoma. To help those who use those two stations as well as the ones north of Silver Spring, Montgomery County has laid out a bike route that takes riders to the West Hyattsville Metro station, where trains are operating normally.

Metro's sixth SafeTrack surge is the first to take place in Montgomery County, and on top of the single tracking, trains up to Glenmont and down to NoMa are only running 25% as often as usual. Officials are encouraging the 94,000 riders affected by this surge to seek alternatives like taking the bus or riding a bike, as well as teleworking.

As part of the effort, Montgomery County's bike planners designed a route that directs people from the Red Line stations affected by the current surge toward the Green and Yellow Line's West Hyattsville station.

At the Glenmont, Wheaton, Forest Glen, Silver Spring, and Takoma stations, MCDOT designed and placed large wayfinding signs to guide people on bikes around the track work and along the route it designed.


Dennis Avenue at the Sligo Creek Trail. Photo by the author.

From Forest Glen, Silver Spring, and Takoma, the route runs almost directly to the Sligo Creek Trail, a trunk route whose end is near the Northwest Branch Trail, which runs next to the West Hyattsville station. Signs direct riders along a slightly more complex route from Glenmont and Wheaton.


Map from Montgomery County.

The signs, designed by MCDOT just for this period, are the size of a political campaign sign, in bright colors, and placed conspicuously anywhere there is a turn in the route. They are temporary (and not made to withstand serious weather), so they'll be gone at the end of the surge.

Anecdotally, the signs have been helpful to occasional and first-time bike commuters on Monday morning, filling in known gaps in the permanent wayfinding signs on both county and park property. Also, one person I spoke to wished there was additional information on the sign, or a link to it, such as a web site or QR code.

There aren't directions west along the Georgetown Branch Trail to Bethesda because service is still slightly reduced on the western portion of the Red Line, but the bike route from Silver Spring to Bethesda is already marked with permanent signs.

For Surge 7, which will mean single tracking between Shady Grove and Twinbrook starting August 9th, the signs will highlight a single route from Shady Grove, through Rockville, and on to Twinbrook, where normal service will resume.

Elsewhere in the region, Greater Greater Washington contributor Joanne Pierce noted that she recently saw this handmade sign directing people toward the Huntington Metro Station:


Photo by Joanne Pierce.

It's not totally accurate—only the Yellow Line runs there—but it still lets people know how to get to the Metro.

Have these signs helped you? Are there upcoming events where similar temporary wayfinding for people on foot and bike would be helpful?

Politics


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.

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