Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Silver Spring

Development


Traffic fears tie up plans to revitalize White Oak

For decades, eastern Montgomery County has lacked the jobs and amenities the more affluent west side has long enjoyed. But plans to finally deliver those things, along with the transit to support them, could get hung up on concerns about car traffic.


LifeSci Village rendering from Percontee.

The White Oak Science Gateway plan would transform sprawling office parks and strip malls around the Food & Drug Administration campus near Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue into a town center and biotech hub. County officials say they've already heard from international pharmaceutical companies who want to be nearby.

With 8,500 new homes and over 40,000 new jobs, the plan would double what's on the ground today, and many are concerned about the traffic it might bring. County planners say that not doing anything won't get rid of White Oak's congestion, and that the real solution is to improve transit and bring people's daily needs closer to home. The County Council will hold a public hearing on the plan tomorrow night.

Traffic concerns stop development in East County

Once the inspiration for the idyllic family sitcom The Wonder Years, White Oak has long suffered from disinvestment, lagging the rest of the county in everything from shopping options to public school quality.

A promised rapid transit line on Route 29 was never built, and for decades, the area was under a development moratorium because of traffic on 29. Instead, growth and investment simply went further out to Howard County or west to Rockville and the I-270 corridor, meaning that people simply had to drive farther to get what they needed.

Anxious for change, residents have generally expressed support for the plan. County Executive Ike Leggett has made a proposed research park called LifeSci Village, to be built in partnership with local developer Percontee, a priority for his administration, and is already shopping the project around to Chinese business executives who want to be near the FDA.

However, the County Council rejected an earlier draft of the plan last fall because it didn't meet the county's "subdivision staging policy," which requires local roads to meet a certain congestion level, usually by widening them or building new ones, before development can go forward.

Planners say there's really no way to fix congestion in the area. There isn't room for new highways and much of the traffic on major roads like Route 29 comes from Prince George's and Howard counties, which Montgomery County has no control over.

The Planning Board decided that reducing the density wasn't an option, because it would take away the incentive for the development people want while forcing people to travel long distances for work or shopping. Instead, it proposed creating a new standard for measuring traffic, midway between that of suburban areas that are totally reliant on cars and urban downtowns like Bethesda where there is Metro service.

Plan relies on transit, but will it get funded?

The Board also tried to encourage the creation of more alternatives to driving. They also propose creating a Transportation Management District, which would help residents and workers find ways to get around without a car. There's a similar one in existence in North Bethesda. The goal is to have 25 to 30% of all trips made without a car by 2040, which is a little higher than the rate today.

To do so, the Science Gateway plan already proposes a new grid of streets with sidewalks and bike lanes. It also requires a more compact, urban form of development, with a mix of housing and commercial uses.

Planners also added language about the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, which would serve White Oak with lines on Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and on Route 29, calling it "essential to achieve the vision of this Master Plan." They propose that any impact taxes or fees the county collects from developers to go straight to BRT to ensure it gets built.

But the board also removed a requirement that the full amount of development not go forward if the BRT lines aren't funded or under construction. It's likely due to pressure from Leggett's administration, who are worried that the high cost of building transit and delays in development approvals could discourage investment.

Economic development shouldn't mean lower standards

White Oak's suburban built form, coupled with decades of leapfrog development to more distant communities, force its residents to travel long distances by car or transit. The area has become less desirable than other parts of Montgomery County, and without easy access to jobs, shopping, or other amenities, that will only get worse.

Traffic tests that tie new development to new highways won't work for White Oak, but residents still need some promise that there will be adequate infrastructure to support the growth they want to happen. Instead of eliminating staging requirements, county officials need to ensure that there's enough funding for transit.

Planners estimate that a BRT line on Route 29 would cost about $350 million, the same as three highway interchanges on the same corridor. While the interchanges would simply make it easier to drive to Howard County, transit would better support the creation of the town center everyone wants.

White Oak has waited decades to catch up with the rest of Montgomery County. While folks may be impatient for economic development, it's important we get this right.

Public Spaces


Topic of the week: Where we live

Our contributors all roughly share similar views on ways the city could be built and operate, yet we all chose to live in different places across the region. So we asked them, "where do you live, and why did you choose to live there?" Here are some highlights:


Logan Circle. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Andrew Bossi, Logan Circle: When I moved here from Laurel in 2010, I saved money on taxes, utilities, and transportationeasily making up for the increase in rent. I live by Logan Circle, a 10-15 minute stroll from every Metro Line, Chinatown, and the 9th, 14th, and U Street corridors, and there are buses that fill in the subway's gapsgetting me to Georgetown, Columbia Heights, and Adams Morgan. Still need to find a decent way to Capitol Hill... but I often just go by foot; even that is an easy walk.

My 50-minute commute to work consists half walking, half railand I love it. My commute is my exercise. In my spare time I find a delight to going on a stroll that takes me past major world landmarks, always with my camera in hand. Lastly, I'm surrounded by four grocery stores (so many of my friends aren't even near one) and enjoy a quiet neighborhood with a great view of the Washington Monument and National Cathedral from my roof. I just wish I could actually afford to own a place in my neighborhood.

Veronica Davis, Fairfax Village: In 2005, I was living with my dad in Potomac. I was perfectly happy being a freeloader, but the commute to L'Enfant Plaza was killing my time and my wallet. It was time to start looking for my own place. (The real reason I was motivated to move: my dad was selling the house). I wanted to live in a condo and I didn't want to drive for any portion of my work trip. The minute I saw Fairfax Village I knew this was the place for me. The selling points were:

  1. 1 seat bus ride to L'Enfant Plaza for $2.50 round trip (2005 bus fares)
  2. The crime was relatively low, which was important as a single woman in my mid-20s.
  3. Older neighbors who knew everyone and everything in the neighborhood gave my mom comfort that I'd have people checking in on me.
  4. A suburban feel without being in the suburbs. It's a quiet neighborhood with manicured lawns and plush trees.
  5. Skyland Town Center was "coming", promising new amenities less than a mile from my condo.

Mount Rainier. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Brent Bolin, Mt. Rainier: I moved here in 2002 and ended up in Maryland because I couldn't afford DC and the MD politics were a good fit. We looked in a lot of different places before we discovered Mount Rainier and fell in love with the sense of community and the overall vibe. A historic streetcar suburb right on the DC border, the city has great fabric and great architecture that promotes front porch culture and close ties with neighbors.

I live a block from Glut Co-op, a funky progressive food store that's the heart of our neighborhood and a good lens on the diverse, progressive, working class values that have defined the community. We have incredible bus service from our town center down Rhode Island Ave in addition to the West Hyattsville Metro station on the north side of town. We are very near the Anacostia Tributary Trail network to get out by bike or on foot to great park amenities.

Topher Mathews, Georgetown: I moved to Georgetown from Arlington in 2003 because my roommate and I found a ridiculously cheap two bedroom apartment overlooking Montrose Park on R St. The unique juxtaposition of the bucolic charm of the park with the dense neighborhood was enough for us to break our lease on a drab garden apartment in Courthouse. I've stayed and started a family here because I love the history, the dense walkability, the parks, and of course the close proximity of over 500 shops and restaurants.

I also love that I can quickly get to all the other great central DC neighborhoods with a short bus or bike ride. I look forward to raising my daughter in such a beautiful and multifaceted neighborhood, but with a mind towards emphasizing to her the need to foster the literal and figurative connections between Georgetown and the city it belongs to.


Falls Church. Photo by Thomas Cizauskas on Flickr.

Canaan Merchant, Falls Church: I live in downtown Falls Church. I moved there in August where I traded proximity to the metro in Arlington for a little more space in my apartment but without sacrificing overall walkability. Regardless, I'm well within a 1/2 mile of a hardware store, music shop, bowling alley, dry cleaner, barber, several restaurants, and even a major music venue.

Bus service is pretty frequent on routes 7 and 29 which allows me to function very well without a car of my own. And I can still walk to East Falls Church Metro if I need to. Falls Church is a great example of how being a suburb doesn't automatically mean one must have a car to get around and how good principles of urban development can work at several different levels of density.

Dan Reed, Silver Spring: When I finished graduate school in Philadelphia, I was unemployed and moved back in with my parents in Silver Spring. I knew that whenever I moved out, I wanted to have what I had in West Philly: a grocery store, coffeeshop, and bar within walking distance, the ability to get to work without driving, saving my time in the car for fun trips; and chill, friendly neighbors with a strong sense of community. And I wanted to live in Montgomery County, where I'd already gotten my hands dirty in blogging and activism for several years.

It wasn't easy, but I found it all one mile from downtown Silver Spring, and I plan to stick around, if only to give my DC friends an excuse to visit and learn that yes, there is life beyond Eastern Avenue, and better food too.

Aimee Custis, Dupont Circle: In the 6 years I've lived in the District, I've lived in 3 separate neighborhoods, but my current neighborhood, Dupont Circle, is my favorite. I love being in the middle of things in central DCgoing out for froyo or picking up a prescription at midnight on a weekday.

In Dupont I've always felt completely safe, even living alone as a 20-something single woman and walking home from a service industry job late at night. Also, it's surprisingly (to me) affordable and a great value for what I do pay. In my price range, with the amenities I want, I've been able to find lots of choices in Dupont, when I've been priced out elsewhere.

David Versel, Springfield: When I returned to the DC area 2011 after 10 years away, I was met with sticker shock when I tried to find a 3-4 bedroom home for my family near my job at the time in the Fort Belvoir area. We ended up renting a townhouse in Springfield; later, we bought a 47-year old fixer-upper and got to work.

As far as suburbs go, you could do a lot worse. I am a short drive from the Franconia-Springfield Metro, and can walk or bike to several Metrobus and Fairfax Connector lines. I have also found this area to be very diverse and interesting in terms of the people and the ethnic dining options, and my neighborhood is also one of those rare places where kids still play outside with only occasional glances from parents. And the schools really are great in Fairfax County.

All that said, I am still largely car-dependent, and no matter how I get to my current job in Arlington, it still takes an hour each way. When my youngest kid finishes high school, my wife and I will be returning to the city.

These are just a few of the responses we got. There were so many, we couldn't fit them all in one post, but we could fit them on a map.


Click for interactive map.

What about you? Where do you live and why?

Events


Events roundup: Butchers, bikeshare, and budget hearings

Enjoy an opportunity to socialize with your Greater Greater pals this week, learn about bikeshare in Fairfax County, and tell Metro how to spend its $3 billion budget at events around the region.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

A new bar and another Greater Greater happy hour: Meet fellow readers and contributors face to face this Wednesday, January 29 for our monthly Greater Greater happy hour, from 6 to 8 pm. This month's event is at Urban Butcher, a new restaurant/butcher shop/coffee shop in Silver Spring. Located at 8226 Georgia Avenue at Ripley Street, it's just two blocks from the Metro, several Metrobus routes (including the 70/79 and S2/S4), and one block from a Capital Bikeshare station. We'll be in the front room.

After the jump: WMATA budget meetings, housing and transportation in Montgomery County, bikeshare in Reston, hearings on the DC zoning code update, and improvements to the I-66 corridor in Virginia.

WMATA budget hearings: Metro's proposed FY15 budget will invest $3 billion in our transit system. The public has an important opportunity to comment on the proposed budget through an online survey or at multiple meetings being held throughout the region this week and next. You can learn more about WMATA's current work and discuss any other issues not on their agenda.

For more information, to register to testify, or submit written comments, visit Metro's website. All six meetings begin at 6:30 pm. Here's a list:

  • Wednesday, January 29: Greenbelt Marriott, 6400 Ivy Lane in Greenbelt. There's a free shuttle to and from Greenbelt (Green Line).
  • Thursday, January 30: Hilton Springfield, 6550 Loisdale Road in Springfield. There's a free shuttle to and from Franconia-Springfield (Blue and Yellow lines) after 7:30 pm.
  • Monday, February 3: Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, 2616 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in DC, two blocks from Anacostia (Green Line).
  • Tuesday, February 4: Montgomery County Executive Office Building, 101 Monroe Street in Rockville, two blocks from Rockville (Red Line).
  • Wednesday, February 5:Arlington Central Library, 1015 North Quincy Street in Arlington, three blocks from Virginia Square (Orange Line).
  • Thursday, February 6: Metro headquarters, 600 5th Street NW in DC, two blocks from Gallery Place-Chinatown (Red, Green, and Yellow lines).
Learn about I-66's transit future: Virginia's looking at ways to add transit on I-66 in Fairfax and Prince William counties, and they're holding two meetings this week and next to tell the public about it. You can hear from state transportation officials about the alternatives they're looking at, which include light rail, bus rapid transit, or extending Metro or VRE along the corridor. You'll also be able to offer your thoughts on how best to move people through the area.

The first meeting is Thursday, January 30 at Oakton High School, located at 2900 Sutton Road in Oakton, followed by a second meeting at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, located at 10800 Vandor Lane in Manassas. Both meetings are from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. For more information, visit the Virginia Department of Transportation's website.

Talk about Bikeshare in Reston: Fairfax County's first bikesharing program could come to Reston. There will be a meeting about it this Wednesday, January 29 to gather public input on a potential system, and provide an overview of the bicycle sharing program, bicycle operations, infrastructure needs, and potential station locations. The event starts at 7 pm at Lake Anne Elementary School, located at 11510 North Shore Drive in Reston.

Whither DC's housing market? This Thursday, January 30, Montgomery County's Planning Department kicks off its Winter Speakers Series with a discussion on the critical connections between housing and transportation. Lisa Sturtevant, a real estate researcher at the National Housing Conference and Center for Housing Policy, will explore the land and property cost impacts of transit, and talk about some tools to preserve and create affordable housing.

The event, which is free and open to the public, starts at 6 pm, and will be held in the Planning Board auditorium, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

See Clybourne Park with us: And on Sunday, February 9, we're going to see the Arlington Players' production of Clybourne Park, an award-winning play that explores gentrification and racial issues in Chicago. Afterwards, we'll have an open discussion with the director, cast, and some of your favorite Greater Greater contributors.

The show starts at 2:30 pm at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center, located at 125 South Old Glebe Road in Arlington, a little over a mile from both the Ballston and Virginia Square Metro stations. It's also accessible by Metrobus routes 10B, 23A, 23C, and 4A as well as ART route 41. For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Arlington Players' website.

Last chance to speak out on the DC zoning update: The DC Zoning Commission is holding one last round of meetings for public input. Residents who wish to testify in person must do so at the meeting for the ward where they live. Lucky for you, the Coalition for Smarter Growth has set up a handy sign-up center to streamline the registration process. Here are the dates:

  • Wards 1 & 2: Thursday, February 13 at 6:00 pm, DC Housing Finance Authority building, 815 Florida Avenue NW.
  • Wards 3 & 4: Tuesday, February 11 at 6:00 pm, Wilson High School Auditorium, 3950 Chesapeake Street NW.
  • Wards 5 & 6: Saturday, February 8 at 9:00 am, Dunbar High School Auditorium, 101 N Street NW.
  • Wards 7 & 8: Wednesday February 12th at 6:00 pm, Dept. of Employment Services, 4058 Minnesota Avenue NE.

Events


Join us for happy hour in Silver Spring

For our next Greater Greater Washington happy hour, we're returning to Silver Spring! Join us Wednesday, January 29 from 6 to 8 pm at Urban Butcher.


Urban Butcher. Photo by the author.

Join contributors, editors, and readers for some drinks, snacks, and lively conversation. Now one month old, Urban Butcher is a restaurant, butcher shop, bar, and coffeeshop that's opened to solid reviews not only for their meat, which is all cured in house, but their drink selection.

You'll find Urban Butcher at 8226 Georgia Avenue at Ripley Street in downtown Silver Spring, two blocks from the Metro (Red Line) and several Metrobus routes, including the S2/S4 and 70/79. There's a Capital Bikeshare station at Ripley and Bonifant streets, one block away. We'll be in the front room.

Our happy hour moves to a different part of the region each month. So far, we've been to downtown DC, Silver Spring, Arlington, and Penn Quarter. Next month, we'll be back in Northern Virginia. Let us know in the comments where you'd like us to go!

Pedestrians


This bill could make Montgomery's streets better for walking

Montgomery County's urban areas are growing, but their wide, fast streets, designed to prioritize drivers over everyone else, are holding them back. A new bill going before the County Council could level the playing field for pedestrians and cyclists.


Pedestrian-unfriendly Colesville Road. Photo by the author.

Last month, Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Hans Riemer introduced several amendments to the county's Road Code, notably to reduce the "target speed," which is usually the speed limit, of new or rebuilt streets. All streets in urban areas would be designed for speeds of 25 mph, or between 30 and 40 mph on suburban arterials. On smaller residential streets, the target speed would be 20 mph.

To achieve those lower speeds, in urban areas like Silver Spring, the bill would allow lanes no wider than 10 feet, tighter curb radii at intersections, and curb bumpouts, which reduce the distance pedestrians have to cross a street. It also lets developers work with the county to put bikeshare stations or car charging outlets in their projects.

"The overarching goal of this bill is to…facilitate the implementation of pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, walkable, livable urban areas as envisioned" in county plans for areas like White Flint and Wheaton, write Berliner and Riemer in a memo to the council.

Bill 33-13, as it's officially called, is an update of the county's Road Code, which was approved in 2008 as an attempt to create "complete streets" that accommodate pedestrians and cyclists in addition to drivers. To offer recommendations, County Executive Ike Leggett convened a 24-member task force, including representatives from groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, as well as AAA. Many of the bill's progressive features fell by the wayside due to AAA pressure to allow wider roads and remove street trees, which spokesperson Lon Anderson called a hazard to drivers.

Berliner and Riemer's amendments will help the Road Code fulfill its original purpose. Whether in emerging urban places like Wheaton or older communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring that were built before cars became common, wide, fast streets are unpleasant to walk on at best, and at worst, a danger to pedestrians. This bill will make those streets safer by slowing traffic and forcing drivers to pay attention.

But complete streets are also better for the county's economy. More people want to live in a walkable community, which translates to rising home prices in places like Silver Spring.

Streets that are nicer to walk or bike along mean more foot traffic, which means more customers for local shops and restaurants. And studies show that pedestrians and cyclists spend as much if not more at businesses than drivers do. That's especially good news for the county's Nighttime Economy Initiative, which seeks to encourage nightlife in its urban areas.

As in 2008, this bill could face resistance both now and if it's passed. The county's Department of Transportation has been reluctant to create more pedestrian-friendly streets in White Flint or even in school zones. Despite efforts to promote pedestrian safety, county police still side with drivers even when those on foot aren't breaking the law.

Berliner and Riemer's bill deserves all the support it can get. But for it to be successful, we'll need a change of attitude towards pedestrians and cyclists. Some will call lower speed limits and curb bumpouts an inconvenience to drivers, but they remove barriers to making Montgomery County a better and more prosperous place to live.

The County Council will have a public hearing about Bill 33-13 Thursday, January 23 at 7:30 pm at the Council Office Building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. To sign up or for more information, you can visit the county's website.

Transit


Purple Line pulls into Silver Spring Thanksgiving parade

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.


Photo by Daniel Dancis.

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.


Dressing up as the Purple Line. Photo by Ralph Bennett.


ACT members and supporters march on Ellsworth Drive. Photo by Ralph Bennett.

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!

Public Spaces


New sidewalk shows tension between people and trees

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?


New brick sidewalks and street trees on Georgia Avenue. All photos by the author unless noted.

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 on Georgia last year.

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.


A corner bumpout at Georgia and Silver Spring avenues.

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.

Transit


DC studying streetcar to Takoma or Silver Spring

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.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

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.


Image by the author, based on a DDOT map.

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 railand 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.
Weighing 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.

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.
All project studies involve trade-offs of some sort and the agency is interested in hearing what the public's priorities are. Everyone is welcome to attend any meeting, regardless of residence. For more information, visit the study website.

Development


After 3-year fight, work starts on Silver Spring townhouses

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.


Bus ad for the new Chelsea Heights development in downtown Silver Spring. All photos by the author.

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.

They claimed that townhomes didn't belong in a neighborhood zoned for single-family homes. The County Council allowed EYA to build townhouses if they reduced the number of units from 77 to 64.

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.


Construction at the Chelsea Heights site.

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.

Public Spaces


"Skate plazas" can invigorate public space

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.


Paine's Park, a "skate plaza" in Philadelphia. Photo by JacGebhardt on Flickr.

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 White Oak skate spot is always empty. Photo by the author.

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.


Skaters at the Woodside skate spot in 2010. Photo by Chip Py.

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?

Skateboarding is a social activity, often drawing spectators. In downtown Silver Spring, crowds of people formed to watch skaters in Veterans Plaza and on Ellsworth Drive before the county banned it.


A redeveloped White Oak Shopping Center could be home to a two-acre park. Photo by the author.

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."


Paine's Park. Photo by CJD on Flickr.

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?

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