Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Silver Spring

Places


Join us for happy hour in Silver Spring

With summer coming to a close, it's time to resume our regular happy hour series. Join us at Denizens Brewing Company in Silver Spring next Wednesday, September 10 from 6 to 8 pm.


Photo by Thomas Cizauskas on Flickr.

This month, we're headed to Denizens Brewing Company, the new brewery and beergarden in South Silver Spring, for drinks, food, and conversation on an outdoor patio within sight of the Red Line. You'll find Denizens at 1133 East-West Highway, one block west of Georgia Avenue.

One of the region's newest breweries, Denizens is the result of a new state law that allows microbreweries to sell to the public in Montgomery County without going through the county's Department of Liquor Control. They offer a couple of their own brews alongside a number of local favorites from breweries like Port City in Alexandria and Brewer's Art in Baltimore. BBQ Bus, the DC-based food truck, provides a selection of tasty picnic-style dishes.

Denizens is a short 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 one block away, at 1200 East-West Highway, and if you're driving, there's metered street parking and the Kennett Street Garage one block away.

In the past few months, we've met up at Metro-accessible bars Bethesda, Ward 3, and Tysons Corner. Where would you like us to go next? We're especially interested in suggestions for a future happy hour in Prince George's County.

History


How did Silver Spring get its boundaries? And how would you define them?

You could ask five residents what Silver Spring's boundaries are and receive five different answers, ranging from a neighborhood near the DC line to a city the size of the District of Columbia itself. But how did it end up this way to begin with? The answer involves a railroad, zip codes, and possibly Marion Barry.


Silver Spring, as the Census Bureau sees it. Image from Wikipedia.

Unlike northeastern states where every square inch of land sits inside a municipality, or western states where cities compete for territory to access natural resources or tax revenue, much of Maryland and Virginia are unincorporated. Part of the reason is that counties in these states can perform functions like zoning and schools, reducing the incentive for communities to become a town or city.

Silver Spring is one those places. As a result, most definitions of Silver Spring fall into two camps: one I call "Little Silver Spring," or areas near its historical center, or "Big Silver Spring," which comprises most of eastern Montgomery County. To find out which one is more dominant, local organization Silver Spring Inc. will have residents draw their own boundaries in an interactive event at Fenton Street Market this Saturday.

Big Silver Spring

Francis Preston Blair founded Silver Spring in 1840 when he fell off his horse and discovered a mica-flecked spring. It became one of several towns that grew up around the Metropolitan Branch railroad, which starts in DC and heads northwest. Meanwhile, the rest of eastern Montgomery County remained largely undeveloped save for a few suburban developments and small villages with names like White Oak, Colesville, and Norwood.

Silver Spring became the reference point for the larger area, and "Big Silver Spring" was born. In the 1930s, home builder R.E. Latimer boasted that his new subdivision Burnt Mills Hills was three miles "beyond the Silver Spring traffic light" at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. Ken Lubel, owner of Tires of Silver Spring and a longtime resident, notes that Silver Spring addresses once appeared as far north as Columbia.


"Big Silver Spring," or the Postal Service's definition of Silver Spring. Image by Christy Batta.

The invention of zip codes in the 1960s made Big Silver Spring official right as suburbanization took hold. The first three digits of each five-digit zip code referred to a larger region.

Naturally, Silver Spring got its own prefix, "209," and with it the rest of eastern Montgomery County. (This may have been due to then-DC mayor Marion Barry demanding that Silver Spring and Takoma Park give up the DC zip codes they were originally assigned.) New residents thus identified with Silver Spring and participated in activities there, like these students at then-new Springbrook High School marching in the 1970 Silver Spring Thanksgiving parade.

The US Postal Service assigns Silver Spring addresses to all of zip codes 20901, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 10, and parts of 20912, which is mostly in the city of Takoma Park. This definition stretches from the District line to the Patuxent River to the north, and roughly from Rock Creek Park and Georgia Avenue to the west to Prince George's County to the east, and even dipping into Prince George's in a few places. At its widest point, Big Silver Spring is about 12 miles long.

Big Silver Spring has over 306,000 residents, comprising 30% of Montgomery County's population, and covers 62.4 square miles, almost as large as the District of Columbia. If it were an incorporated city, it would be larger than St. Paul, Minnesota or Buffalo, New York. The Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce likes to use a version of Big Silver Spring.

Little Silver Spring

"Little Silver Spring" usually refers to what's now downtown Silver Spring, where Blair fell off his horse, and other areas inside the Capital Beltway. The Census Bureau generally uses this definition, claiming the area from the Beltway to the north to the District line and Takoma Park to the south, and from Rock Creek Park in the west to Prince George's County in the east.

Little Silver Spring has about 71,000 residents in just under 8 square miles. (Incidentally, this definition includes an area between Grubb Road and Rock Creek Park that has a Chevy Chase address.)


Sean Emerson's map of the "Real Silver Spring."

Proponents include the Planning Department and the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, which also counts Four Corners as part of Silver Spring. Local bloggers Silver Spring, Singular and Sean Emerson of Around the Corners argue that a narrow definition of Silver Spring protects its identity while encouraging other communities to distinguish themselves as well.

And communities in Big Silver Spring are doing just that. Citizens associations in Colesville and Glenmont erected signs to set themselves apart. Montgomery County has worked hard to brand Wheaton as a distinct place from Silver Spring.

What do boundaries mean, anyway?

However, many people still identify with their mailing address. Landlords on Craigslist are more than willing to claim Big Silver Spring. And earlier this year, a concertgoer showed up at the Fillmore with a Silver Spring sleeve tattoo. All of the familiar landmarks were there, like the Lee Building and Chompie the shark, but so was the sign for Snowdens Mill, a subdivision 6 miles away in zip code 20904.

Jarrett Walker writes about the "emotive power" and "resonance" of a place name that often transcends boundaries. Silver Spring has historically been one of the DC area's biggest cultural and activity centers, and by drawing boundaries, you're commenting on how much that destination "resonates."

In other words, Silver Spring could be whatever "feels" like Silver Spring to you. I tend to believe in Big Silver Spring, if only because I went to Blake High School, a full 10 miles from downtown Silver Spring in a place once called Norwood. But we hung out in downtown, and its diverse student body looked way more like Silver Spring than it did Olney, which was much closer.

What does your Silver Spring look like? Join me and Silver Spring Inc. and draw your boundaries this Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm at Fenton Street Market, located at Veterans' Plaza in downtown Silver Spring.

Public Spaces


This could have been the Silver Spring Transit Center

Though it remains unfinished, the Silver Spring Transit Center has been in planning since 1997. But 20 years before that, architecture students created this proposal for a giant box stretching across downtown Silver Spring.


A 1970s proposal for the Silver Spring Transit Center. All images courtesy of Neil Greene.

Silver Spring is one of the region's largest transportation hubs, bringing together Metro, commuter rail, local buses, intercity buses, and eventually the Purple Line and the Capital Crescent Trail. Fitting all of those pieces presents a pretty interesting design challenge, and naturally attracts architecture students. When I was in architecture school at the University of Maryland, I saw more than a few thesis projects reimagining the transit center.


A section drawing of the proposed transit center, which would have also contained stores, offices, a hotel, and apartments.

Recently, Action Committee for Transit's Neil Greene found this proposal for the Silver Spring Transit Center produced by a group of architecture students at Catholic University in the 1970s, right before the Metro station opened in 1978. Like the most recent plans for the transit center, which have since fallen through, they surrounded the transit center with buildings containing apartments, offices, a hotel, and shops. Except in this proposal, they'd all be in one giant superstructure surrounding the station platform.

In their design, Metro trains would pull into a giant, skylit atrium, surrounded by shops and restaurants, with apartments, offices, and hotel rooms above. That was a really popular idea at the time, pioneered by architect John Portman, though I don't know of any atria that included a train station.


Metro trains would have passed through a giant atrium.

Directly below the platform was the B&O Railroad, the precursor to today's MARC commuter rail. Below that were buses, taxis, and a kiss-and-ride, as well as an underground parking garage for commuters.

The entire structure would have stretched over multiple blocks from Colesville Road and East-West Highway, where the NOAA buildings are today, up to Wayne Avenue, where the current transit center is. Existing streets would go through the transit center in underpasses, while skybridges would allow visitors to travel through the rest of downtown Silver Spring without touching the street.


Skybridges would have connected the transit center to the rest of downtown Silver Spring.

Of course, this was just a student proposal, and was never carried out. But Montgomery County did propose skybridges in downtown Silver Spring as early as 1969 and, by the 1970s, had drawn out an entire network of them, most of which were never built.

This was in keeping with the prevailing wisdom of the time, that cars and pedestrians should be kept separate. But as we've seen in places where this actually happened, like Rosslyn or Crystal City, this doesn't work very well, and those communities are getting rid of their skybridges.

Of course, had we actually pursued a design like this, the Silver Spring Transit Center might have actually opened by now. Repair work on the current facility is currently underway and Montgomery County officials say that it could open next year, just seven years after groundbreaking.

Transit


More households near transit mean more transit riders

Pop quiz! Can you name the 5 Metro stations that have the highest number of households within a half-mile walk?

Here's a hint: More riders walk to those 5 stations each morning than to just about any others in the system.

It's not a coincidence. According to WMATA's PlanItMetro blog, "the more people can walk to transit, the more people do walk to transitand data across Metrorail stations prove it."

But there's at least one surprise: 3 of the 5 stations with the most households in a half-mile walkshed are in Maryland or Virginia, not the District.


Households and walk ridership per Metro station. Image by WMATA.

Columbia Heights has by far the most households within walking distance. That makes sense. It's one of DC's densest neighborhoods, and the Metro station is right near its center.

But the second most household-rich Metro station is Arlington's Court House. Rounding out the top 5 are Ballston, Silver Spring, and Dupont Circle.

All 5 of the most household-rich stations are also among the top 10 stations with the most riders who walk to the station each morning. The rest of the top 10 walking stations are Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Bethesda.

More riders may be walking to jobs from the downtown stations, or from Rosslyn, but those are the destinations, where riders in the morning are getting off. The origin stations are the more residential ones.

All in all, Metro's stations fit neatly along a trendline that shows a strong correlation between more households nearby and more riders arriving to stations by foot.

Even the outliers tell a story. U Street and Mount Vernon Square have the 6th and 7th highest number of households nearby, but they underperform on walking Metro ridership. One might speculate that Mount Vernon Square is so close to so many offices that more people simply walk. U Street is a little farther away, but it's still close enough to downtown that buses and bicycles may be better options for a large portion of riders.

What else pops out as interesting?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Roads


After a crash, a dangerous Four Corners intersection could become safer

Where Colesville Road (US-29) passes through the Montgomery County neighborhood of Four Corners, it's a six-lane divided highway, but residents need to be able to cross the street on foot to access homes and businesses. Unfortunately, that can be very dangerous, as Greater Greater Washington contributor Joe Fox found out recently.


The crosswalk. All photos by the author.

Fox was crossing the road with his four-year-old daughter. Fox had just picked her up from daycare after a severe thunderstorm knocked out power. With a light rain falling, they approached this crosswalk, which has no traffic signal, to get to the bus stop on the other side of the road.

After waiting for several minutes and seeing no gap in traffic, Joe waved a book in the air to try to catch the attention of passing drivers. As one slowed to a stop, Joe stepped gingerly into the crosswalk, carrying his daughter tightly.

Fox wrote,

A large SUV (a Yukon or Suburban) in the left lane had stopped, and a small SUV following it rear-ended it with enough force that it folded its hood, and pushed the larger SUV more than 50 feet straight ahead."

If I had been crossing either the middle or left lane (I would have, at a normal walking pace after the right lane car stopped, but I waited, seeing what might happen), one or both of us would have sustained very serious injuries.

Because I had my daughter still holding on, I could not cross (again) back to the northbound lanes to see if she (the driver) was okay. I did not see her emerge from her car for the several minutes I was there. All I could do was call the MCPD and ask them to help.

This crosswalk gets frequent pedestrian traffic, as it is the only convenient way to walk between the neighborhoods of Indian Spring and North Hills of Sligo. To reach the closest signalized crossing, someone would have to walk a half mile out of the way.


The area, from Google Maps. The blue dotted line shows the route to cross the street with a detour to the nearest signalized intersection.

The bus stop which Fox was trying to reach is served by six heavily-used bus routes which travel to and from the Silver Spring Metro. The crosswalk also connects residents with community facilities and parks such as the Silver Spring YMCA, Indian Spring Recreation Center, and the popular Sligo Creek Park.

The crosswalk is a few hundred yards south of the Beltway interchange, along a stretch of Colesville Road with 40 mph speed limits. Here is a video of one attempt to cross. Note how drivers in some lanes do not stop even once I am in the roadway.

Making it even more dangerous, the road crests a hill just south of the crosswalk. That means a driver headed north coming over the hill may not see a pedestrian with enough time to stop.

A HAWK signal would make this intersection safer

This would be a good location for a HAWK signal, which stops traffic when a pedestrian asks to cross. This can let pedestrians cross safely without affecting drivers as a regular signal would.

There are pedestrian-activated signals on nearby University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue, so there is ample precedent for one on a six-lane highway like Colesville Road.

Those signals are less-efficient "firehouse style" signals. The below video shows one in operation. Notice how a car runs the red light 10 seconds after it turns red, and just before a grandmother and her grandchildren cross the road.

If officials agree to use a HAWK signal here, as activists are requesting, this would be the first on a Maryland state-maintained road.*

Thanks to the efforts of Joe Fox and elected officials he reached out to, this dangerous crosswalk on Colesville Road may get fixed before anyone else is injured. According to local activist Jeffrey Thames, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), which controls this road, is currently studying the idea of a pedestrian-activated signal at this location, and expects to propose a solution within 90 days.

* The original version of this post said that a HAWK would be the first in the state. There is a HAWK on Gude Drive in Rockville, for example, but this is a county road. The State Highway Administration (SHA) has not installed any HAWK signals to date.

Public Spaces


"Let's use this space!" say mysterious signs around Silver Spring's unfinished transit center

While repair work continues on the Silver Spring Transit Center, the entire block around it remains roped off. On Friday morning, big signs appeared asking to turn the space into a temporary park.


Photo by the author.

Six black-and-white posters hang from the fences around the transit center on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue, reading "Move the fence? Let's use this space." They sport photos of different activities that could happen there, like outdoor movie screenings, musical performances, and festivals. In the bottom-right corner is the hashtag #DTSS, meant for people to respond on social media.

Two Silver Spring residents placed the signs early Friday morning. They asked not to be identified to keep the focus on the message, not the act itself. "The Montgomery County election has just happened; people have gotten reelected," they said. "This is an issue a lot of people ran their campaigns on, but not a lot has happened."

They added, "We wanted to do this to bring back the bigger discussion…which is: what is the future of the transit center? What are the short-term uses of the site?"

Montgomery County broke ground on the transit center in 2008, which was supposed to tie together local and regional bus routes, the Red and future Purple lines, and MARC commuter rail. Work stopped in 2011 after workers discovered serious structural defects within the $120 million complex.

After some disagreement between the county and builder Foulger-Pratt about who was responsible and how to fix the building, repairs began in June. County officials say the transit center could open next year.


The transit center in 2012. Today, the space around it is covered in grass. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Recognizing that the fence is necessary because the transit center is still an active construction site, the sign-hangers say they hope WMATA, who owns the land, would be willing to move it away from the sidewalk. "We talk about Silver Spring being this urban, vibrant place, but our biggest asset, our front door, is horrible," they said. "What is a chain-link fence for us to be presenting to the region when we're trying to attract people to live here, to work here?"

Moving the fence even 20 feet away from the sidewalk, they argue, could still keep people out of danger while creating space for aesthetic improvements or other activities. "This can significantly improve the experience of people who use the transit center," they say. "You could add some trees and planter boxes, so you could move them easily."

This isn't the first time community members have discussed the land around the transit center. Earlier this year, Councilmember Hans Riemer and former Planning Board chair Gus Bauman proposed turning it into a park.

The sign-hangers say that's not their goal. "It's a prime development site, not a future long-term open space site," they say. "But we can enjoy it while it's here, and help inform what happens here in the future."

So far, the two signs immediately outside the Metro station have been taken down, but the other signs on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue remain.

Parking


Shepherd Park neighbors tell car2go users to stay out

While car2go is mostly limited to the District, more and more users live in surrounding areas, and often leave their cars at the edges of the city. One resident of an adjacent DC neighborhood warned car2go drivers to stay away in this note:


Photo by George Branyan.

Reader Roya Bauman found this handwritten note on a car2go in Shepherd Park, a DC neighborhood that borders Silver Spring. It reads:

This street is NOT a garage for these ugly little cars! Be more considerate. Do not park in front of a private home. It is rude and a breach of residential etiquette. We do not care what the owners of this car company tell you. You Silver Spring transients are ruining our neighborhood.
Car2go users can can park the vehicles anywhere within the "home area," which includes all of the District (except the National Mall) and two small areas outside of DC, at Tysons Corner Center and National Harbor. As a result, many people who live in neighborhoods just across the District line, like Friendship Heights, Silver Spring, and Mount Rainier, often park their cars in DC and walk home.


Map showing car2go vehicles lined up along Eastern Avenue between DC and Silver Spring. Screenshot from the author's phone.

It's not illegal to park in front of someone else's home, but whether it's "rude" varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. In denser parts of the region, where the number of residents exceeds the available parking spaces, cars belonging to other people might constantly occupy the curb in front of one's own home. In low-density areas such as Shepherd Park, on the other hand, many people have come to expect that except for the occasional party, only their own family and visitors will park in front of their own houses.

Residential parking regulations stop residents of Silver Spring and similar border communities from parking private cars for long periods near the border, but car2go creates a new legal use that doesn't fit into the established etiquette as residents of those neighborhoods see it.

The ideal solution would be for car2go to expand its home area to include these surrounding communities. Company representatives have previously said they're planning to expand into Arlington and Alexandria. Expanding to closer-in parts of Maryland as well would allow car2go users to leave the cars in their own neighborhoods, and maybe even in front of their own houses. That's something that neighbors on both sides of Eastern (and Western and Southern) Avenue could agree on.

Bicycling


A gap in the Met Branch Trail slowly closes

The Metropolitan Branch Trail, which runs along the Red Line's eastern segment, still has a number of large gaps. The largest stretches from the Fort Totten trash transfer station to the Maryland line. DC officials recently announced they are moving ahead with preliminary engineering and design to close this gap.

WABA made an infographic showing the trail's progress:

According to WABA's post, officials from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) told the Bicycle Advisory Council that the firms RK&K and Toole Design are now working on the project. It will get the trail segment to the 30% design stage; after that, more as-yet-unscheduled work will be necessary to get the design to 100% and ultimately build the trail section.

There are also other gaps in Silver Spring and in Brookland. A bridge to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station is under construction now, and in NoMa, DDOT is adding short cycletrack segments to get riders all the way to Union Station.

Parking


It's a little harder to pay for parking in Montgomery County

Montgomery County's limited options for paying for parking, besides using piles of quarters, shrank some more yesterday, as the county announced it will not longer support popular Parking Meter Cash Keys.


Photo by the author.

These keys allow drivers to load and store value on the key at a county parking office. When parking, the driver can insert the key into the meter, which will then deduct money every 15 minutes at short-term meters and 3 hours at long-term meters. There is no charge other than a refundable deposit for the keys.

Many people use the cash keys instead of having to carry about $5.50 in quarters to park for a full day. But Tuesday morning, the county's Division of Parking Management announced in a press release that the program will be discontinued. The keys will continue working in meters, but people will not be able to get new keys or add value to existing keys after Monday.

County spokesperson Esther Bowring stated that she does not have information about how many cash keys are in circulation, but estimated the number to be in the tens of thousands.

Bowring said the sudden discontinuation came because of a software glitch that the manufacturer of the cash keys (Duncan Technologies) was not willing or able to fix. As a result, the county is transitioning to a new contractor for all of its payment-related services.

Other alternatives to quarters are limited

The county's press release touts a "Smart Meter Debit Card" as a replacement for the cash keys, but these smart meters are only available in Bethesda. That means that the only non-coin option in the Silver Spring and Wheaton garages is a monthly "Parking Convenience Sticker" (PCS) that costs $113-$123 per month. This is not a valid option for residents that mostly use transit, but may need to drive occasionally.

New meters that accept credit and debit cards will be on street in Silver Spring "later this year," according to the press release. It does not mention whether the credit card meters will also go inside the garages.

Cell phone payment is available in some garages, but not all. That's because enforcement officers were not able to get a reliable wireless signal in underground garages, preventing them from verifying whether someone has parked with pay-by-phone or just has an expired meter.

When the county rolled out pay by phone, to great fanfare in 2011 and 2012, I tried to park in a Silver Spring garage, but noticed the sticker denoting the space was missing. A parking services manager on the phone blamed this on homeless people vandalizing the meters (which seemed odd for a garage that was 3 stories below ground level.) But the "Go Park Now" (Now "MobileNow") application did not recognize the number, meaning that, in fact, the county had not programmed it to work with those meters.

Officials could extend cell phone service inside the garages with "PicoCells" or "Network Extenders." Residential versions are available from the mobile phone companies for approximately $250, and act as miniature cell towers that connect to a land line.

According to Bowring, county officials did examine this option, but initially ruled it out as each floor of each garage would need a separate unit for each mobile carrier. But now that the meter keys are not an option, she said that the county will revisit the possibility.

Though units suitable for garages plus maintenance will cost more than the $250 a resident would have to pay, it would be worthwhile for the county to spend some of its parking revenue to make the phone-based payment system work while Silver Spring residents wait for their transit center, Purple Line, Metropolitan Branch Trail, Bus Rapid Transit, longer VanGo hours or other long-promised alternatives to driving.

Architecture


To turn this Silver Spring street around, one building owner put in fake stores

For years, the ground-floor shops at the Guardian Building in downtown Silver Spring have sat empty. To lure new tenants, the building's owner brought the space to life with fake storefronts.


All photos from Devin Arkin.

The Arkin family has owned this six-story office building, located at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street, for decades. But as owner Michael Arkin's health declined and he wasn't able to keep the building up, many of the retail tenants moved away, retired, or passed away. After a stroke a few years ago, his sons took over management of the building. "We had our work cut out for us," said son Devin Arkin, who grew up in Silver Spring but now lives in Chicago.


The Guardian Building before.

The sons renovated the building and commissioned an sculpture for the lobby of 1950s-era hardware they found in the basement. But they weren't sure what to do with its nearly 7,400 square feet of empty retail space until they read about towns in Northern Ireland who disguised their empty shops with murals depicting open, lively businesses.

Arkin's advertising firm Huckleberry Pie crafted scenes of busy stores, like a men's wear store and a bakery, and fitted them over the empty windows. Workers toil away behind the counter as ducks and chickens peer out from door frames. Discrete "For Lease" and "Build to Suit" signs appear between images of food and goods.


The fake storefronts seen from across the street.

Cameron Street is a few blocks away from the shops and restaurants along Ellsworth Drive, and as a result there isn't a lot of foot traffic. The Guardian Building isn't alone in having an empty first floor. The Cameron, an apartment building across the street, lost one of its two ground floor tenants, an outpatient surgery center. And two blocks away at Cameron and Spring streets, there are ground floor spaces at United Therapeutics' new headquarters that have been vacant for nearly four years.

If all of the storefronts on Cameron Street were filled, it might actually become a compelling destination that could draw shoppers and diners from other parts of downtown Silver Spring. But since most of them are empty, nobody wants to be the first to take the risk. (Other than Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the first floor of the Cameron, which as a chain can draw customers on name recognition alone.)

Hopefully, the Guardian Building can buck the trend. Its fake storefronts may not convince anyone, but it does look better than it did before. Hopefully, they'll catch the eye of potential tenants soon. According to this marketing brochure, the space is still vacant.

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