Posts about Silver Spring
It may be a few years until the Purple Line arrives in Silver Spring, but this past Saturday the Action Committee for Transit offered a fun preview by dressing up as a light-rail train in the Montgomery County Thanksgiving Parade.
ACT members and supporters marched in the 16th annual parade wearing Purple Line train costumes and blowing train whistles. Barbara Ditzler of Silver Spring designed a six-person Purple Line train costume, complete with Styrofoam plate wheels. And a fifth-grader at Clearspring Elementary School in Damascus made a train costume for her and her family out of painted cardboard boxes.
The group already has big plans for next year's parade, including even more train costumes and possibly a dance routine. If you have a costume or song in mind, feel free to visit ACT's website and get in touch with us. We have only 12 months to prepare for the 2014 parade!
The sidewalk on the east side of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring just got a makeover, with new brick pavers and street trees. But will it have enough room for everyone who wants to use it?
Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) managed the $650,000 project, which began this summer and lasted about five months. The agency's main goal was to level and lower the sidewalk to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It replaced the existing concrete sidewalk, built in the 1980s, with sturdier and more attractive brick pavers, and created large new bumpouts at some intersections.
The new sidewalk is very attractive and will hopefully encourage visitors and shoppers to stray from the Ellsworth Drive strip and check out the businesses on Georgia. But it also reveals the tension between different users on Silver Spring's often-cramped sidewalks.
DHCA also removed all of the mature Zelkova trees along Georgia, arguing that the sidewalk reconstruction would disturb the trees and kill them. The new trees are Princeton or Lacebark Elm trees, which will apparently improve the visibility of shops and restaurants from the street.
The old sidewalks had trees in tree grates, allowing room that businesses could put out tables and chairs and leave enough sidewalk for people to walk past comfortably. But the new trees now sit in long, wide planter boxes with little gaps in between for street lights or people getting out of parked cars.
This isn't the only place in downtown Silver Spring with new planters. The county's Department of Transportation (MCDOT) also installed the same planters along Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, except with three-foot-high hedges. Some planters, like one on Fenton Street, extend for most of a city block to discourage jaywalking.
In 2009, when planning on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk project started, county-hired arborist Steve Castrogiovanni recommended doing the same thing with the new trees to "strike a [balance] between the trees' needs and the needs of pedestrians." But officials endorsed the bigger planters, saying it would give the trees more soil and help them live longer.
Street trees have a lot of health and environmental benefits. They can provide a feeling of enclosure on a street or sidewalk, calming traffic on busy streets like Georgia Avenue, and making pedestrians feel safer.
However, these planter boxes seem to provide the wrong kind of enclosure. Crowded sidewalks can be a good thing, creating a feeling of excitement and vitality on a city street. But when you push pedestrians and outdoor dining tables into too small a space, it can feel uncomfortable, and people won't want to stick around and spend money.
That's why restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum, who owns Jackie's, Sidebar, and Quarry House Tavern, all on Georgia Avenue, didn't want trees planted on the narrow sidewalk outside her businesses. "THIS WILL ELIMINATE MUCH OF MY PATIO SEATING!" she wrote in a 2010 email to DHCA. "This is NOT an improvement and is unnecessary, even undesirable." In the end, DHCA agreed not to plant any there.
Having healthy street trees and vibrant sidewalks aren't mutually exclusive. DHCA could have still created a bigger soil pit for the trees, giving them room to grow, while putting tree grates or permeable pavers on top, ensuring that there's still enough sidewalk space.
Wider sidewalks mean ample room for walking, for dining, and for nature. Photo by Jim Malone on Flickr.
And if county officials really wanted planters, they could have at least used a more attractive design, like these low, stone planters in NoMa that provide space for trees and plants while staying out of the way. Or they could have looked at a bioswale that cleans and filters stormwater in addition to looking pretty.
The real issue isn't the planters, but that the sidewalks on Georgia Avenue aren't appreciably wider. DHCA's project was simply to make the sidewalks meet ADA regulations.
This sidewalk may not get rebuilt for another 30 years, meaning we've missed an opportunity to have a larger conversation about how Georgia Avenue works. Wider sidewalks mean we wouldn't have to decide between landscaping, walking space, and outdoor seating. They mean we could have added new features, like benches, or a "shared use trail" for cyclists similar to the Green Trail on Wayne Avenue.
Doing this would require taking space for cars, which today constitutes the vast majority of Georgia Avenue, and giving it back to people. While that would probably be bad for drivers passing through, it would ultimately be a good thing for downtown Silver Spring, whose historic main street would become a more attractive, pleasant, and safer place to walk and spend time.
DC will start a one-year study of a north-south transit corridor from Southwest DC to Takoma or Silver Spring. While it's too early to tell what officials will decide, it's clear that Silver Spring's jobs, amenities, and other transit connections make it the most logical terminus.
This new corridor, which could operate as BRT but more likely a streetcar, will be one of the largest transit expansions in the District. This study, which is the first step in a longer planning process, will analyze alignments and modes through the entire study corridor to produce no more than three alternatives.
Historically, streetcars ran up 11th Street, 14th Street, and 7th Street/Georgia Avenue, spurring the development of commercial nodes along the way. You can see the vestiges of those lines today at their former termini: the Trolley Turnaround Park at 11th & Monroe Street NW, the streetcar terminal at Colorado Avenue, and downtown Silver Spring, just beyond the Georgia Avenue line's end at Eastern Avenue.
According to project manager Jamie Henson, DDOT has not committed to any exact alignment, but the study will consider corridors from 16th Street NW to as far as a quarter-mile east of 7th Street or Georgia Avenue. The original 2010 plan for the 37-mile network depicted a line running from Buzzard Point through downtown on 7th Street SW/NW and F Street NW, then along 14th Street NW, U Street NW, and finally on Georgia Avenue NW to Takoma. The plan described Silver Spring as a future extension along Georgia Avenue.
Though DDOT will study BRT and a wider range of alignments, the original alignment is still a possibility. The agency just announced that its preferred alternative for the Union Station-Georgetown transit line is a streetcar on H Street NE/NW, New Jersey Avenue NW and K Street NW, mirroring the original mode and alignment in the 2010 streetcar plan.
DDOT will compare streetcars to BRT, but not entirely
This phase of the study will consider modes such as BRT and streetcars, assessing the travel time, reliability, level of service, access to jobs, and types of trips served. The study will consider the trade-offs and desirability of running the line in dedicated lanes versus mixed traffic. DDOT will also contemplate whether the new service should prioritize speed and install fewer stops, or increase the number of stops to reduce walking.
Henson said the study will consider construction and operating costs of BRT versus streetcar, but Henson dismissed the differences in real estate development each mode sparks, saying development along the north-south corridor will happen regardless of mode. The Office of Planning's 2012 Streetcar Land Use Study, however, clearly favors streetcars' development potential for the District:
Although well-designed BRT systems attract some development, their impacts are typically much less than those for railWeighing the costs of construction and operation without accounting for land value appreciation misses an important part of financing the eventual project. DDOT recently announced that the District government will finance the streetcar, while contracting to a private firm to design, build, operate, and maintain the system.
— and the BRT systems that have generated the strongest development response operate on exclusive rights of way at all times and not in mixed traffic, as the District streetcar would. In cities without the potential to attract much development investment, implementation costs and other factors give buses a clear advantage. In the District, however, streetcar service appears very likely to attract significant real estate investment.
The District has not decided whether it will finance the full streetcar network through TIFs, general tax revenue, or special bond programs, but one thing is clear: bonds will have to be paid off through some stream of tax revenue, either a special account or the general fund. It's essential to compare the new tax revenue each mode generates, but this will likely wait for a later phase.
Extending the corridor to Silver Spring is in DC's interest
While keeping the north-south streetcar entirely in DC would be politically easier, there are many compelling reasons why terminating it at the Silver Spring Metro station would benefit the District and the region as a whole.
One of the main lessons our region learned from constructing the Metro is that all parts of the region thrive when everyone cooperates on transportation planning. The streetcars provide a valuable opportunity to further knit together the region's many vibrant walkable urban places both socially and economically.
When connected with urban-oriented transit infrastructure, urban places make each other more desirable because people in one location enjoy the benefits of all the other urban places. Even though it's on the other side of Eastern Avenue, District residents will more easily enjoy all that Silver Spring has to offer with more robust transit access via the north-south streetcar.
Silver Spring is a regional jobs center with 40,000 jobs and more to come. DC's northernmost neighborhoods would have an easy, quick reverse commute just across Eastern Avenue to a major regional jobs center. And unlike the Takoma Metro Station, Silver Spring is a major transit hub connecting not just the Red Line, but also MARC, the future Purple Line, and numerous bus lines to places throughout DC and Maryland.
It's also a regional shopping and entertainment hub, home to the Fillmore music hall, the American Film Institute Silver Theater, a public outdoor ice rink as well as free concerts at Veterans' Plaza, a farmers' market, and some regionally notable bars and restaurants. Not surprisingly, the 70/79 Metrobus, which serves the 7th Street/Georgia Avenue corridor between Southwest DC and Silver Spring today, is one of the most popular bus lines in the system.
Even though Silver Spring is just outside DDOT's jurisdiction, it would obviously win out over Takoma if transit projects followed economic, not jurisdictional, boundaries. Furthermore, two Montgomery County Councilmembers have asked DC Mayor Vincent Gray to consider Silver Spring as a terminal.
Share your views with DDOT next week
The District is hosting four meetings to kick off the study next week. In this first round, the agency is interested in learning your views on the eventual plan's features. Do you prefer faster travel times to frequent stops? Do you think the new line should run in its own dedicated lane at all or only in certain places? What impacts on street parking would you consider unacceptable? Do you prefer Takoma or Silver Spring as a northern terminus?
- Buzzard Point to Downtown: Monday, November 4 from 6:30 to 8:30pm, St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, 600 M Street SW.
- Downtown to Petworth: Tuesday, November 5 from 6:30 to 8:30pm, Reeves Center, 2000 14th Street NW.
- Businesses (entire study area): Wednesday, November 6 from 2pm to 4pm, Reeves Center, 2000 14th Street NW.
- Petworth to Silver Spring: Thursday, November 7 from 6:30 to 8:30pm, Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.
In 2010, local builder EYA made a deal with a private school to buy their Silver Spring campus and build townhouses there. After a three-year battle with the neighborhood association, construction has finally begun.
Workers are busy clearing the five-acre site on Pershing Drive, four blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station. Eventually, there will be 63 townhomes, including 8 moderately-priced units for low-income households, and a restored, 150-year-old farmhouse, which will be sold as a single-family home.
Over the past week, ads for the new development, dubbed Chelsea Heights, appeared on bus stops around downtown Silver Spring. It's named for the Chelsea School, a special-needs institution that sold its home of 36 years and recently moved to Hyattsville. But getting here wasn't easy.
Long and contentious history
Chelsea first announced their plans to sell the school to EYA in 2010 and move closer to their students in Prince George's County. But a group of neighbors in the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association (SOECA) were unhappy with EYA's proposal, then called Chelsea Court.
Neighbors persisted, suing the county and later hiring a consultant who claimed that the project would violate state and county environmental laws. Both claims were dismissed, and the Planning Board approved the project in April with requirements that EYA provide more parking and restrict turns into the development to discourage through traffic.
It's about time this got built
It's not unusual for new development in existing communities to be controversial. Writing about the lost battle against a new apartment building on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney recently noted, people generally like their neighborhoods the way they are, and are often suspicious of plans to change it.
But there are so many reasons why infill development in Silver Spring is good for those neighborhoods and for the region as a whole. Chelsea Heights will place 64 new households within a short walk of transit, local shops and restaurants, and other amenities, reducing their need to drive and bolstering the local economy.
It reduces the pressure to build on the region's fringe, while providing housing where it's most wanted. These $700,000 townhouses aren't affordable to most people, myself included, but they'll help make the area more affordable by growing the housing supply.
This project has been a long time coming, and I'm glad to see it finally come to fruition.
Montgomery County's newest skate park in White Oak doesn't have any skaters, due to poor design and an isolated location. A "skate plaza" in the center of the community could give skaters and non-skaters alike a better place to hang out.
The 6,000-square-foot White Oak skate spot, a sort of mini-skate park, is located at at the end of a cul-de-sac off of Lockwood Drive next to a new recreation center, both of which opened in the summer of 2012. Built by the county's Department of Recreation, the facilities cost $22 million to build, a very small portion of which went to the skate spot.
The recreation center is usually busy, along with the basketball courts and soccer fields. But I've dropped by the skate park at least dozen times this year, at different times of day, on different days of the week, in winter, spring, and summer. And I've never seen anyone using the skate spot.
"There's no flow"
28-year-old Mike Rious of Colesville visited the skate spot a few times, but he quickly got frustrated with it. Instead, he goes to the Woodside skate spot in Silver Spring or to skate parks in Prince George's County. "It seems as though no skatepark designers or anyone with knowledge of skateboarding was consulted before putting it together," he wrote in an email.
The skate spot is laid out in a way that makes skating almost impossible. I showed some photos of it to my friend Jordan Block, an urban designer and skater who used to work for Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that builds skate parks. "There's no flow," he explains.
Normally, skaters would do a trick on one side, then go over to the other side to do another one, building up momentum along the way. In order to do that, you need a clear, straight path with no obstructions. But officials at the Department of Recreation simply dropped pieces like ramps and rails around the site randomly. As a result, Block says, there's always something in the way.
There are also safety issues. The skate park uses prefabricated modular pieces bought off the rack. Skateboarding advocates like Skaters for Public Skateparks discourage using them instead of permanent, concrete pieces, because prefab fixtures often deteriorate faster than permanent ones, and they have exposed seams that can trip and injure skaters.
The skate spot's location is an issue as well. In 2008, county planners noted that 10,000 people live within a 3/4-mile of the site. But the street network is so disconnected that someone living on Carriage House Way, 1,000 feet away as the crow flies, would have to travel over a mile to reach the recreation center.
"If I were younger and didn't have my own transportation," wrote Rious, "I would probably still be skating the same places I had before these skate spots were built."
Location, design affect skate spot's use
Compare this to the Woodside skate spot, which the parks department built itself after consulting with local skaters. It also has prefab fixtures, but they were made flush with the ground, reducing tripping hazards. And it's in downtown Silver Spring, a short walk from buses and Metro, places to eat, and other hangouts. Not only is the Woodside skate spot popular with skaters, but it's become such a fixture in the local skating community that they even hold barbeques there.
In its current form, the White Oak skate spot is basically unusable. We could rebuild it to be safer and more attractive to skaters, but the location remains a problem. What if we moved the skate spot to the center of White Oak, instead of the fringe, and made it a destination for skaters and the larger community as well?
Last month, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the Science Gateway plan, which envisions creating a research and technology hub in White Oak. Planners also envision turning the run-down White Oak Shopping Center at New Hampshire Avenue and Lockwood Drive into a "town center" with shops and housing in taller buildings around a two-acre park.
That park would be a great location for a skate spot: it's across the street from the White Oak Transit Center, an important bus terminal, and is a short distance from thousands of homes and apartments, along with shops, restaurants, and the Food and Drug Administration campus. This is an accessible location for skaters, but it's also surrounded by a good mix of uses that could make it a unique public draw.
"Skate plazas" bring skaters to the center
Communities around the country are building so-called "skate plazas," a cross between a public plaza and a skate park. Franklin's Paine, where my friend used to work, opened a skate plaza in Philadelphia last May called Paine's Park. Designers call it a "not just a skatepark...a park for all that's made to skate."
To the naked eye, Paine's Park looks like an ordinary plaza: there are benches, stairs, ramps, and rails. These all happen to be things skaters like to use, but here they won't get chased away for doing so. And everything's made from cast-in-place concrete, which can take lots of abuse and are still affordable.
Planners often build skate plazas alongside other uses, inviting skaters into the center of the community. Portland is building a big skate plaza in the middle of downtown. The Lafayette Park Skate Plaza in Los Angeles is part of a larger park complex with a library, amphitheatre, and even food carts.
These are spaces you'd go even if you weren't skating, and non-skaters can hang out in skate plazas as well, so long as they don't mind the thumps of skate trucks on concrete. But if skateboarding ceased to exist tomorrow, the community would still have a great public space.
Skate plazas aren't just better for skaters. They create more interesting, attractive public spaces for everyone. It's clear that this thinking went into the White Oak skate spot, which is next to a recreation center, but the design of the skate spot and its isolated location sends a message to skaters that they should be kept out of sight.
Montgomery County wants White Oak to become an innovative urban community. What better way to do so than by embracing the athleticism and spectacle of skateboarding?
To power the Purple Line, Maryland will have to build power-converting substations along the 16-mile route. Transit planners plan to help the structures blend into existing neighborhoods by disguising them as single-family homes.
"Houses" like this one in Toronto could appear along the Purple Line. Photo from MTA.
According to a recent Washington Post article, the Purple Line will require multiple support structures and buildings, including 14 signal bungalows, or small buildings with radio and signal equipment, and a nine-story ventilation tower in Bethesda. There will also be 18 of what the Maryland Transit Administration calls traction power substations, which would feed power to the electrified rails.
Spaced at one mile intervals, these facilities house equipment to convert alternating current carried along high voltage transmission lines to the direct current used by trains. The buildings would be about 50 feet long and 14 feet wide.
Recently, people living along Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring got their first glimpses of the substations. Because they have the potential to introduce visual and noise impacts into quiet residential areas, some neighbors are concerned. In an interview with the Post, resident Anne Edwards described one substation proposed for the corner of Wayne and Cloverfield Road as an "industrial monstrosity."
Because the Purple Line is a federally-funded transportation project, MTA was required to prepare an environmental impact statement. According to the document, which is open for comments until October 21, the line's preferred alternative along Wayne Avenue is a highly sensitive visual corridor. The proposed substations would be visually intrusive, according to the MTA analysis, and the equipment housed in each is expected to emit "transformer hum" sounds.
MTA plans to mitigate the substations' visual and noise impacts with insulation to prevent equipment noise from leaking out and by camouflaging the buildings to make them appear like single-family residences. According an MTA flyer on the substations posted at the Purple Line website, "The substations can be screened with fencing, landscaping and, as appropriate, the MTA will identify further measures to minimize their presence or make them blend in with the environment."
Typical light rail substations are basic windowless boxes. They have all the architectural appeal of a cargo container or a construction trailer. That's why the MTA will make Purple Line substations look like single-family homes instead.
In an April email to a Silver Spring resident that was posted on various community listservs, Purple Line project manager Mike Madden noted that these substations can be found in residential neighborhoods around the US and the world. The MTA can design the buildings to "be more square in shape," making them look more like houses, and give them landscaping and lawns in front, just like a normal house.
The substation designs MTA distributed include a brick veneered building that looks a lot like the ranch houses or ramblers common in Montgomery County neighborhoods developed after World War II. Utilities and transportation companies around the world have used tricks like this for more than a century to minimize the visual impacts of unsightly infrastructure.
Photographers love engineering simulacra like the proposed Purple Line substations. Historic building facades conceal massive substations built to power New York City's subways. Some of these were captured in Christopher Payne's 2002 book, New York's Forgotten Substations.
In 1987, Canadian photographer Robin Collyer began documenting transformer houses, also called "bungalow-style substations," throughout Toronto. Each one was built "in a manner that mimics the style and character of the different neighborhoods," Collyer wrote in 2006.
Closer to home, Pepco built transformer houses in residential neighborhoods in the Colonial Revival style popular at the time as early as the 1930's. According to a 1954 Washington Post article on Pepco's program, the company identified neighborhoods with increasing electricity demands and then went to work designing the faux homes. Pepco employees photographed existing homes surrounding the proposed sites, then a company architect designed compatible substation buildings.
Efforts to conceal infrastructure in the Washington metropolitan area weren't limited to power substations. Today, telecommunications facilities disguised as pine trees, dubbed "monopines," or as flagpoles and building bulkheads are found throughout the area and the nation. There's even a monopine at Mount Vernon.
One of the earliest examples of concealed telecommunications infrastructure in Washington is the 1947 Western Union Telegraph Company microwave terminal in Tenleytown. Architects and engineers went through several designs to minimize the tower's visual impact to the established neighborhood.
One design that included a clock mounted in the façade was discarded and the plain limestone clad tower that still looks out over 41st Street NW was completed with no apparent complaints from neighbors. The former Western Union tower was designated a District of Columbia historic landmark in 2003.
The Western Union Telegraph Company building in 2002. Photo by the author.
It's far too soon to know whether the Purple Line's faux home substations will inspire future generations of photographers or if at some point they may be considered historic. It is fair to say that once they are completed, they may be better neighbors than occupied "real" homes.
MTA will mow the lawns and keep the exteriors neat. Neighbors can rest assured that there won't be any wild parties or competition for street parking. And it's not likely that the new neighbor will be coming over asking to borrow a chainsaw or generator the next time a storm rolls through.
Last week, Montgomery County officials announced that they've picked developers to build on four publicly-owned sites in Silver Spring and Wheaton. Residents worry that the process isn't more inclusive, but are cautiously optimistic about the potential for new investment.
StonebridgeCarras and Bozzuto will get to redevelop two public parking lots and the Mid-County Regional Services Center on Reedie Drive in Wheaton, along with the 3.24-acre Planning Department headquarters on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. In return, they'll build a new regional services center, offices for the Planning Department and another county agency, and a town square in Wheaton.
In July, county officials put out a Request for Proposals to develop all four sites together, rather than put them out to bid separately. The county previously had plans with developers to build on the four sites and had received substantial community input on how to do them, but the deals fell through.
The development team is locally-based and has some experience working on large, mixed-use projects. StonebridgeCarras is finishing the massive Constitution Square project in NoMa, while Montgomery County recently picked them to to build a new police station in Bethesda. Bozzuto has built dozens of apartment and condominium buildings in the region, including two in downtown Wheaton.
Residents want a say in redevelopment
Residents in both Silver Spring and Wheaton say they're anxious about the county's announcement and whether the community will get to provide input after having lots of opportunities to do so in the past.
Bozzuto was also part of the development team for SilverPlace, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's plan to replace the Planning Department and Department of Parks' 1950's-era headquarters in downtown Silver Spring. The agency invited neighbors to participate in a design charrette, or workshop for the site, which resulted in a proposal to build new offices alongside 300 apartments, a grocery store and other shops, and a public park.
Completed in 2008, the plan had public buy-in, but fell through when the development team disagreed about financial terms. At a June presentation by county officials in Silver Spring, neighbors worried that their previous input won't be included in the new deal.
"Back in 2008, there was a more inclusive process," said Darian Unger, who was chair of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board when the charrette occurred. "There was a discussion, public input was valued."
Meanwhile in Wheaton, the county made a deal with developer BF Saul in 2010 to build several million square feet of apartments, shops, and offices in downtown Wheaton, along with a town square. BF Saul had a website and public outreach team to gather feedback, but the deal collapsed when the County Council balked at the $39.5 million price tag of building a platform over the Wheaton Metro station so BF Saul could build office towers on top.
Instead, councilmembers agreed to instead fund the construction of a new town square and Planning Department headquarters, which the new development team will build. At the time, resident Henriot St. Gerard called the decision a "show of disrespect" to the public.
Now chair of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee, St. Gerard said he first heard about the decision via an email blast from county officials last week. "The county was pretty silent about things and I respected that," he wrote in an email. "I wish we were at least told that a decision had been made and an announcement would be made soon."
County officials emphasize "quality" of new proposals
At the meeting in Silver Spring, Jacob Sesker, who advised the County Council on the BF Saul deal, argued that this process would be more inclusive than had the county just sold off the land. "This is likely to result in more input from the community than the disposition of property would," he said. "It's very important that this community voice its concerns, but to understand that 2013 is not going to be the same as 2008."
The architects who helped craft both SilverPlace and the BF Saul plan offered to work with the county and the new development team. "We would be interested in working with developers that are interested in having that . . . memory, if you will, of community involvement," said Tom Gallas, principal of Silver Spring-based Torti Gallas and Partners, at the July meeting.
County officials say they'll show the developers the previous designs, but won't hold them to it. Al Roshdieh, deputy director of the Department of Transportation, noted that the county used a similar development process in the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring. "The bottom line is the quality of the proposal," he said. "I hope that one day we're proud of whatever the result of this is."
This week, the county will hold two more public meetings to discuss their announcement and where they'll go from here. Tonight, they'll meet at the
Planning Department at 8787 Georgia Avenue Silver Spring Civic Building at One Veterans Place in Silver Spring. On Wednesday, they'll be at Wheaton High School at 12601 Dalewood Drive. Both meetings will be at 7pm.
Community leaders are cautiously optimistic about the new process. "All of us on WUDAC, including myself have some [skepticism] about the process. The best thing we can do as a group though is stay on top of developments and react accordingly," wrote St. Gerard. "It is only fair we approach redevelopment with an open mind as oppose to a place of confrontation and/or bitterness."
The Purple Line is necessary to finish the Capital Crescent Trail, which currently ends over a mile west of its planned terminus at the Silver Spring Metro station. But if CSXT doesn't agree to give up the land where the trail would go, Maryland may simply give up on it.
Finishing the trail requires CSXT's cooperation
Last week, the Maryland Transit Administration released its final environmental impact study (FEIS) for the Purple Line, explaining in detail how the light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton will work and what impacts it will have. MTA will collect public comments and give them to the Federal Transit Administration, which will then issue a Record of Decision on whether to continue design development and acquiring land.
The FEIS raises a major issue about completing the Capital Crescent Trail into downtown Silver Spring that has not drawn much attention before. Today, the trail runs between Georgetown, Bethesda and Lyttonsville, 1.5 miles west of the Silver Spring Metro station, with an interim trail along local streets for the rest of the way. Current plans call for building the Purple Line alongside the trail between Bethesda and Lyttonsville, then extending the trail to Silver Spring along the east side of the Red Line tracks.
Planned route of the extended CCT with the Purple Line "Preferred Alternative." Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.
Most of the land required for this is already publicly owned, but there are a few sections where it would need to use CSXT owned right-of-way. However, CSXT's general policy is to not allow trails in its right-of-way. MTA sent CSXT a letter last November requesting that they make an exception for this project, but CSXT has still not granted one to date. The FEIS says that if CSXT doesn't want to let the state use the right-of-way, the CCT won't be built.
According to the FEIS, if the two parties can't reach an agreement by the time construction on the Purple Line begins, MTA would simply rebuild the existing Capital Crescent Trail between Bethesda and Lyttonsville and keep the interim bike route on local streets. MTA and Maryland appear ready to give up on working with Montgomery County to complete the CCT into downtown Silver Spring if it cannot get CSXT's land for the trail.
This could be devastating to the CCT and regional trail network. There would be no off-road trail connection to downtown Silver Spring, no continuous off-road trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda, and no connection to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, forming a complete off-road "bicycle beltway." The off-road CCT extension that has been promised in every Georgetown Branch Trolley and Purple Line concept study and planning document for more than two decades would be no more than a broken promise.
There is an alternative way to finish the trail
The FEIS presents a false choice: either get CSXT cooperation for the preferred trail alignment entirely in the corridor, or give up on building any off-road trail and dump the CCT onto local streets at Talbot Avenue. But it is possible to complete an all off-road CCT into downtown Silver Spring without CSXT cooperation.
A "Plan B" trail would be as safe and nearly as direct as the trail would be on the preferred alignment, and could be less expensive to build. Since most of the preferred route is already on public land, small adjustments could move it out of the CSXT right-of-way completely.
This aerial map shows that it is possible to bring the CCT down 4th Avenue, just a few feet east of the CSXT right-of-way, and behind the Woodside Mews townhouses to Lyttonsville Road. Lyttonsville Road is a dead-end street and extra-wide for the little traffic it carries. It can easily have a "road diet" width reduction to free the space needed for an off-road CCT while still leaving room for traffic lanes and on-street parking.
After turning south onto 16th Street, the trail can descend below the overpass This would give us the much desired grade-separated crossing under 16th Street, but may require "taking" approximately 12' of land from the Park Sutton and a few feet of right-of-way from CSXT on the west side of the street. The 16th Street Bridge must be rebuilt for the Purple Line, so the state must engage CSXT in right-of-way and construction issues at this location regardless of the trail.
If that doesn't work, another option is to cross 16th Street at a new light at Lyttonsville Road, then go down the east side of 16th Street to the CSXT. This would stay well clear of any CSXT right-of-way at the 16th Street Bridge, and would require little or no additional space along 16th Street. An at-grade trail crossing of 16th Street would be much safer at Lyttonsville Road than the existing on-road trail crossing at Second Avenue, because this crossing would be shorter, would have very little turning traffic, and could use the wide median for a "safety refuge".
From there, the trail could join the publicly owned 3rd Avenue right-of-way, which is continuous from 16th Street to Fenwick Place and is already part of the preferred route. There is other private and public right-of-way that can be used for the trail from Fenwick Lane to the Metro Plaza Building at Colesville Road.
The trail does appear to need a small amount of CSXT right-of-way at Metro Plaza, but the Purple Line will already be using this area to cross over the existing rail tracks in a structure shared with the trail. It is unlikely CSXT would try to block putting a trail here.
This avoids the only portion of the CSXT corridor where their "cooperation" is essential to building the CCT's preferred alignment, a small section behind the Park Sutton condominium at Lyttonsville Road and 16th Street. The preferred route would be relatively isolated behind the building, built behind a high retaining wall and a crash wall for trains.
By placing it on street for a short segment, "Plan B" would be only a few hundred feet longer, and it can be more inviting, more visible, and more accessible over most of its length. The cost to build the bypass route should be lower than the cost of the preferred trail route, because less retaining wall would be needed and the CSXT crash wall would be eliminated.
Looking down Lyttonsville Road from the Woodside Mews Townhomes toward 16th Street. Photo by the author.
"Plan B" has already won community support
The CSXT bypass route is a key part of the off-road "interim" trail planned years ago and described in the M-NCPPC report "Facility Plan for the Capital Cresent & Metropolitan Branch Trails," approved by the Planning Board in January 2001 and available online on the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail website. Representatives from nearby communities, trail user groups, Planning Department staff, and professional trail design group Lardner and Klein developed the plan.
At the time, plans for the single-track Georgetown Branch trolley, proposed to run from Bethesda to Silver Spring, had fallen by the wayside and it appeared that no transit would built along the corridor anytime soon. But shortly after this study was approved the movement for transit came to life again as the Purple Line. The "long term" part of "interim trail" went away, and with it the support for spending millions to build it.
David Anspacher, trail planner for the Planning Department, has recently begun to examine the "Plan B" bypass concept. He has circulated this and other alternative CCT route ideas among planning staff for comments, and has asked trail design consultants Toole Design to include this in an evaluation of CCT alternatives they are doing for the department. This work becomes ever more important as CSXT continues to withhold its cooperation on the trail.
"Plan B" needs to become a feasible option for the CCT
If we allow MTA to give up so easily on the Capital Crescent Trail and it proceeds to build the Purple Line with no consideration for a possible "Plan B" trail, we may get no trail at all. What can trail advocates do?
For starters, you can submit comments on the Purple Line FEIS, pointing out that there are options for an off-road CCT that bypasses the CSXT right-of-way, should it refuse to cooperate on the trail. Ask MTA to commit to designing and building the best feasible off-road CCT extension into downtown Silver Spring, in coordination with Montgomery County, consistent with the promises it has made to the community for over two decades.
Also, you can contact the Montgomery County Executive, Council, and Planning Board and let them know there are options for completing a good off-road CCT that do not require CSXT right-of-way. Ask them to accelerate study of "Plan B" options to be ready in case CSXT blocks the preferred CCT alignment. Tell them that we expect them to keep the promises they have given to us for many years to complete the CCT, and this trail is much too important for them to give up so easily.
A version of this post appeared at Silver Spring Trails.
Last year, drivers hit nine people walking to school in Montgomery County, and residents are agitating for change. With classes starting this week, the county's Department of Transportation has taken a few small steps toward making the walk there safer, but it's not enough.
Tracy Simmons walks her two kids a mile to Bethesda Elementary every day. She says it's simply not safe, citing sidewalks too narrow to walk on, poorly-timed stop lights, and drivers who speed and don't yield to small children crossing the street. "Drivers need to stop thinking about their destination and be aware of what's going on around them," she says. "The streets are for everyone and everyone has the right to be safe while on them."
The Action Committee for Transit, a transit and pedestrian advocacy group, joined with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and area parents to launch the Safe Walk To School campaign last spring, asking MCDOT to make small improvements that could make walking to school safer.
According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, nearly half of all children between 5 and 14 walked to school in 1969. 40 years later, just 13% did. Studies show that kids who walk or bike to school are healthier, more independent and even learn better. But many parents won't let their kids walk to school due to fears about safety. Fast, wide streets that favor drivers can make walking to school quite dangerous.
Last year, a student died while walking to Seneca Valley High School in Germantown. Photo from Google Street View.
However, students at 2 county schools got a safer walk when classes started on Monday. At Bethesda Elementary in downtown Bethesda, MCDOT has lowered the speed limit on adjacent Arlington Road from 30 to 25 when school is in session. In February, a driver of an SUV hit a baby in a stroller in a marked crosswalk in front of the school.
Yesterday morning, members of ACT and local parents handed out flyers and balloons outside Bethesda Elementary to raise awareness about their campaign. Safe Walk to School's list of recommended safety improvements are small: they include a maximum speed limit of 20 and banning right turns on red in school zones, higher fines for speeding violations, more visible crosswalks, and changing traffic signals to give pedestrians more time to cross. But together, they could have a big impact on pedestrian safety.
ACT board member Ronit Dancis says one parent told her that he's physically pulled kids out of the intersection in front of the school to avoid cars making illegal right turns at a red light. "I've spoken with parents throughout Montgomery County who want their children to be able to walk (and bike) safely to school," says Dancis. "They are frustrated by how difficult it is."
And at Galway Elementary School in Calverton, MCDOT added new bumpouts and crosswalks, slowing cars down and making it easier for students to cross. Many students live within walking distance of Galway, which is one of the county's largest elementary schools with over 800 students, almost 2/3 of whom come from low-income families.
The school is located on a busy neighborhood street with other things kids might walk to, like a park, a church, and a swim club. But even those who live 4/5 of a mile away like my brother, a former student, rode the bus there instead.
Montgomery County is finally beginning to take pedestrian safety seriously. County police held a sting for drivers who didn't yield to walkers last spring, writing 72 tickets in 2 1/2 hours at one crosswalk on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton. MCDOT is also doing community outreach, hosting events to raise awareness about safety issues.
The improvements are a small step in the right direction, but more work needs to be done. As recently as last year, MCDOT recommended that the school system bus students living across the street from Clarksburg Elementary to school so the agency wouldn't have to install a crosswalk.
And the agency has been reluctant to accommodate walkers outside of school zones as well. Traffic engineer Bruce Johnston told residents at a meeting in White Flint in June that if they want "complete streets" designed for pedestrians and bicyclists in addition to drivers, they should tell the governor.
Downtown Bethesda resident Wendy Leibowitz notes that walking to school isn't as new or foreign an idea as some make it sound. "I challenge [transportation officials] to think back to their own trips to school when they were young. Can we provide a similar safe walk to our kids?" she says.
"Or do we have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bus children small distances so the kids can be home by 3:30 in front of a screen of some kind?" adds Leibowitz. "Then we hear lectures about childhood obesity and screen addiction."
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