Posts about Silver Spring
Across the region, cash-strapped churches are taking advantage of their property's development potential. The latest congregation is the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring, whose plans to replace their aging sanctuary with apartments, shops and a new church will go before the Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday.
First Baptist Church is at the corner of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, four blocks from the Silver Spring Metro and across the street from a future Purple Line stop. Built between 1927 and 1956, the church's buildings are showing their age and no longer fit the congregation's needs. It could cost $5 million to bring them up to code.
That's why the church has partnered with developers Grosvenor Americas and LaKritz Adler, who propose replacing the church (PDF) with a 6-story, 259-unit apartment building with 18,650 square feet of ground-floor retail space and an underground parking garage.
A new, 29,000-square-foot church, containing a sanctuary, classrooms and a day care center, would be built next door. Between them would be a mid-block pedestrian passage with landscaping and public art.
Redevelopment causes debate between congregations, preservationists
Whether due to declining attendance or growing ambitions, other area churches are doing the same thing, notably the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown DC, which partnered with a developer to raze their architecturally significant sanctuary and replace it with a new church and office building.
In Arlington, the Church at Clarendon sold the air rights above their church so an apartment building could be built on top. Meanwhile, the First Baptist Church of Wheaton sold their property to an apartment developer to relocate to Olney.
These projects often pit congregations against preservationists, who argue that the churches are historically or architecturally significant and should be saved. The Silver Spring Historical Society fought to have the First Baptist Church designated as a historic landmark; in response, the church hired a historian to argue that the building was nothing special.
It's a "dime-a-dozen church," Pastor Duncan McIntosh told the Gazette in 2011.
The Montgomery County Planning Board chose not to designate the building, opening it up for redevelopment. However, stained glass windows from the old church may be used in the new one, according to Jerry McCoy, president of the historical society.
Proposed design provides transition between downtown and neighborhoods
Site plan of the proposed First Baptist Church redevelopment. All images from the Montgomery County Planning Board.
Whether or not the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring is historically significant, it plays an important role in the community. Ironically, tearing it down will allow the church to remain in the community by giving it much-needed income and a new sanctuary that better fits their needs. Not only that, but the proposed design will encourage the further revitalization of downtown Silver Spring while creating a nice transition to surrounding neighborhoods.
The apartment building, designed by SK+I Architects of Bethesda, will have ground-floor retail along Fenton Street between Wayne and Bonifant Street, filling a large gap between the core of downtown Silver Spring and Fenton Village. Along Wayne and Fenton, the building will be 6 stories tall and have a modern fašade with metal and concrete panels and large expanses of glass.
In 2011, neighbors agreed to allow the building additional height along Fenton; in exchange, the developers have reduced its height to 4 stories along Bonifant, where it's adjacent to single-family houses. The exterior on that street is more traditional, with divided-light windows and brick cladding; instead of shops, there are ground-floor apartments with "real doors."
In response to concerns about through traffic, a chicane will be placed on Bonifant Street. It'll slow drivers down, but still allow them to pass through, making it a much better alternative than the "fake cul-de-sacs" placed in many areas around downtown Silver Spring that just dump more traffic on the main streets.
Public space mixes church and community
However, the most interesting part of the project might be its public open spaces, which take up two-fifths of an acre. It's here that apartment residents, shoppers and diners, and church parishioners will cross paths and mingle, creating an interesting mix.
The church's entrance on Wayne Avenue will face a small plaza, which also has tables and chairs for outdoor dining. On Bonifant Street is a playground for the church's day care center, which will be open to the public at set times. Connecting them is a mid-block passage between the apartments and the church, with benches and bioretention planters that hold and filter rainwater.
There will also be a 30-foot-tall public art piece dubbed "Wingspire." Frederick-based artist William Cochran designed a sculpture made of dichroic glass, which is embedded with thin layers of metal and can display a variety of colors. The glass will also be embedded in the passage's stone pavers, creating what Cochran calls a "river of light."
After years of debate, a design has emerged for the new First Baptist Church of Silver Spring that might make everyone happy. Not only does it allow a nearly century-old congregation to remain in place, but it allows downtown Silver Spring to continue growing while respecting adjacent neighborhoods. A church is often the heart of a community, but in a project like this, it's literal.
Check out this slideshow with additional images of the First Baptist Church proposal.
Neighbors in downtown Silver Spring say a proposed 11-story apartment building is too tall for the area. But as the project goes to the Montgomery County Planning Board, whose staff recommend approving the project, there are still problems with the proposal. It's not the height, but the design of a single, long building instead of two.
In 2009, local developer Robert Hillerson proposed building a mixed-use complex with apartments, shops, offices and a hotel on most of a city block between Georgia, Thayer and Silver Spring Avenues and Fenton Street.
Community members supported that plan, but weren't as excited about a new design Hillerson and national apartment developer Fairfield Residential Company presented last summer. As I wrote in October, what was originally a pair of buildings surrounding Mayor's Promenade, a planned pedestrian passage between Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street, has morphed into one monolithic, block-long building with an underpass through it.
On Thursday, the developers will present a revised design (PDF) to the Montgomery County Planning Board, which is also holding a public hearing on the project. Neighbors, civic groups and even county councilmembers have written nearly 100 pages of letters to the board, mostly in opposition. They're mainly worried about the project's height and density, which one resident feels could turn Silver Spring into Crystal City.
While some good changes have been made since the summer, this project still isn't ready to go. It's not the height or density, both of which current zoning allows and which are in line with the rest of downtown Silver Spring. The real issue is with its design.
New design improves park, sort of improves building
As before, Studio Plaza will be broken up into two phases. The first phase, which is going before the Planning Board now, is for one 11-story building with 415 apartments, including 61 Moderately Priced Dwelling Units and 10 Workforce Housing Units for low-income households, and 10,000 square feet of street-level retail space. A second phase, to be approved later, will could add up to 340 apartments, 26,000 square feet of retail, and a 78,000 square foot office building.
There's the aforementioned renovation and extension of Mayor's Promenade and a new street, which help break down a big block and will improve pedestrian connections between Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street. At the intersection of the two is a 13,000-square-foot park, which will be privately owned but open to the public. The park will sit atop a parking garage meant to replace the existing parking lot.
Designed by Alexandria-based landscape architecture firm ParkerRodriguez, the park is one of the plan's highlights. Before, it was just a bunch of blobs of lawn and pavement randomly thrown around. Now, there's a simple, rectangular lawn divided in half by Mayor's Promenade. It's big enough for picnics and playing catch, with room for some planters in a geometric pattern that provides visual interest.
Facing the park is retail space, which has a terrace for outdoor dining, a shaded "amenity terrace" for tenants of the apartment building, and 8 ground-floor apartments with "real doors" and porches. Local artist Dan Steinhilber will make 23 public art pieces out of tubular steel, including lampposts, bike racks and benches, that will be placed throughout Mayor's Promenade and the park.
The building, designed by WDG Architects of DC, is better as well. The old design used dark-colored brick and had narrow, relentlessly repetitive windows, which made the building feel large and heavy. That's been replaced with a mix of warm-colored bricks and bands of glass broken up with attractive teal accents. It's a more conservative design, but it helps the building feel less imposing.
Setbacks make the building now appear to be 9 floors tall on Thayer Avenue and 10 floors on Silver Spring Avenue. And on the new street, the building peels back ever so slightly at the intersection with Thayer Avenue, drawing visitors into the public park. Looking at the renderings of the building at night behind the low-rise storefronts on Georgia Avenue, I can start to imagine this building in real life.
Still a "very long building"
However, the biggest issue with the previous design remains: the first phase is still "a very tall, very long building," in the words of county planners, that bridges over Mayor's Promenade. Having a pedestrian passage that connects two streets and a park is probably the coolest part of the entire project, but this design choice turns it into an afterthought.
There are legitimate reasons for having one building instead of two, namely the ability to have one consolidated lobby, elevator core and service area for the entire complex. But as I've said before, breaking this building into two, or at least having a more delicate connection or bridge from one side to the other, would make the promenade a nicer space and assuage residents' concerns about the building's height and mass.
Fairfield and Hillerson should look to the apartment buildings at Rockville Town Square, which WDG also designed, for a better solution. They also bridge over pedestrian passages that connect the square to surrounding streets, but the bridges step back from the street so they're not as deep as the rest of the building, which allows light and air into to the passage.
This project is as long if not longer than Studio Plaza, and it's only 5 or 6 stories tall. Why doesn't it make sense to do the same thing for an 11-story building?
Studio Plaza has its merits: it provides housing in an area where it's in high demand, and is close enough to transit, jobs and shopping that residents won't drive as much or at all. It'll improve connections in downtown Silver Spring with two new streets and give people a new park for hanging out in.
However, the Planning Board still shouldn't approve it. We can't do much about its height, nor should we. But we can improve the way this building looks and relates to its surroundings. There have been a lot of less-than-great buildings in downtown Silver Spring, but this is a substantial project in a very prominent location. It deserves the best design possible.
Check out this slideshow of Studio Plaza, including the 2012 and 2009 plans.
With 1400 apartments, a strip mall and an office building around a huge parking lot, the Blairs are a suburban relic in the middle of downtown Silver Spring. Over the next 15 to 20 years, it could become a city in its own right, with new housing, commercial space, and a network of new streets and parks.
The Rockville-based Tower Companies showed me their long-term plan for the redevelopment of the 1960's-era 27-acre complex bounded by Colesville Road, East-West Highway, Blair Mill Road and Eastern Avenue on Wednesday before presenting it to the community that evening at the Silver Spring Civic Building.
The project, which could cost $625 million, would double the amount of housing and triple the amount of commercial, which is already allowed under current zoning. The shopping center, office building, and older apartment buildings would be replaced with acres of new parks, courtyards, and buildings with green roofs.
Canadian architect Bing Thom, who designed the new Arena Stage in Southwest DC, developed the plan with landscape architect Alan Ward of Boston-based Sasaki Associates, who designed Reston Town Center. "As an architect, it's such a joy to work with [Tower]," says Thom. "Here's a private property owner that says 'We want everyone to walk through our property!'"
Plan proposes new street grid, network of parks
Thom describes the Blairs Master Plan as a "transition from suburban to semi-urban to urban." The tallest buildings, located closer to East-West Highway and the Silver Spring Metro station, would reach 200 feet in height, stepping down to 140 feet and then 40-foot tall townhouses across from the single-family homes on Eastern Avenue.
Each of the 10 new apartment, office and hotel towers sits atop a podium of structured parking, which is capped by a private courtyard or roof deck and wrapped by either townhouses with ground-floor entrances or ground-floor retail. In Vancouver, where Thom is based, this type of building is called a "point tower."
Not only do the townhouses lend the high-rises a more human scale, but they provide a type of housing that isn't very common in downtown Silver Spring. "It's a house in the city," says Thom. "For young families and households with pets, they'll be very popular."
A new street grid with extensions of Draper Lane and Portal Drive NW, new streets, and pedestrian passages, breaks up the existing superblock. The new streets tie the site into the surrounding community and make circulation easier, but are designed to discourage through traffic. Meanwhile, a series of open spaces totaling over 4 acres creates a connection between the Silver Spring Metro station and Rock Creek Park.
"What was once one block is now more permeable," says Ward. "We worked as a team to shape the blocks and make this interesting network of public spaces."
Draper, which exists today as a parking ramp, will become a real street with sidewalks and bike lanes. It divides the site, which has a 25-foot drop between the east and west sides, into what Thom calls the "upper and lower escarpment."
The "upper escarpment," closer to East-West Highway, replaces the existing shopping center and the office building on Colesville Road with a "lively," mixed-use district with shops, offices, a hotel and about 700 new apartments. It's centered on Blair Park, a one-acre, oval-shaped park oriented to guide people to and from the Metro. Ward envisions it as a major gathering space that can host festivals and concerts, but can still feel comfortable for everyday activities.
Surrounding the park are shops, a new grocery store, and restaurants with outdoor seating. It's lined by a street that is "designed for pedestrians, but cars happen to go through it," says Ward.
Closer to Eastern Avenue is the "lower escarpment," with a more "relaxed, residential" character. Blair Towers, 257 apartments in 4 mid-rise buildings constructed in 1959, would be replaced by roughly 1000 apartments and townhomes in four new blocks. They'll be allowed to remain until their leases expire throughout the next year, though the Tower Companies says they'll allow residents to move to vacant apartments elsewhere in the complex and help pay their moving costs.
Another open space, called Terrace Park, provides a transition between the upper and lower escarpments with a gentle sloping lawn criss-crossed by ramps and a water feature that collects and recycles rainwater. At the bottom is Montgomery Square, which has outdoor seating and a children's "imagination playground." Throughout the lower escarpment are a series of smaller pocket parks leading to Eastern Avenue and Rock Creek Park, including a "fitness park" or outdoor gym, and two dog parks.
When finished, there would be 2,800 apartments and townhomes, 1,700 of which would be new; 200,000 square feet of office space; 125,000 square feet of retail space, including a new grocery store; and a 125-room hotel. With the exception of Blair Towers, all of the other apartments in the complex, which were either recently renovated or newly built to LEED standards, would remain.
Murn says he hopes to file a project plan with the Montgomery County Planning Department in March and anticipates that the entire approval process should take between 16 and 18 months. If everything goes as scheduled, work on the lower escarpment would begin in the fall of 2014 and occur in 4 phases. Later, the shopping center and office building would be redeveloped in 3 additional phases. Since Giant's lease doesn't end until 2024, it may take 15 to 20 years for the entire project to be completed.
Residents concerned about parking, open space and displacement
Reaction to the project at Wednesday's presentation was generally positive, though several concerns were raised.
Residents of Shepherd Park, located across from the Blairs in the District, say the redevelopment will exacerbate an existing parking shortage. The Blairs Master Plan proposes 3300 parking spaces, nearly twice what's there today.
Ed Murn, director of development for the Tower Companies, says he intentionally "overparked" the site, providing more parking than tenants are likely to use. This may be due to the county's zoning requirements, or demands from retailers.
It's likely that some parking will go unused. The Blairs are across the street from one of the region's largest transit hubs and a short walk to major employers and shopping and should attract people who don't want or need to drive. Most people living in downtown Silver Spring already get around by foot, bike or transit. Structured parking is really expensive to build, especially if it won't be used. If it's possible to reduce the amount of parking on site, the developers should go for it.
Blair Towers tenants say they're worried about displacement and not being able to find affordable housing in the area. Rents continue to rise in Silver Spring despite an apartment building boom, though low vacancy rates suggest there isn't enough housing to meet demand.
As many as 210 apartments will be set aside as Moderately Priced Dwelling Units for low-income households. Murn argued that adding new housing while keeping some of the old will provide more affordable options. "I'm gonna have older buildings at lower price points than the newer buildings at higher price points," he says.
Private ownership of public spaces allows programming like this performance depicted here, but are they truly public?
There's also a growing desire for open space in the area, raising the question of how public the Blairs' open spaces will be, since they are all privately owned. In 2007, Montgomery County determined that Ellsworth Drive, which was leased to a private developer, was a public forum where people have the right to free speech.
Murn stresses that the public spaces will be "open and inviting," though he didn't say what restrictions may be placed on them. "Without private ownership, it's impossible for Tower Companies to provide programming our tenants and neighbors would want," says Murn, adding, "The activity doesn't come without the public."
The Blairs Master Plan will breathe new life into a section of downtown Silver Spring that's seen a lot of residential and office development but little else. Even residents who were worried about the project had good things to say about it and praised the detail of the developer and design team's presentation. Many asked for them to hold more community meetings so others could learn about it and offer input.
"This project is so large and so important to the future of Silver Spring that it demands more public comment," says Evan Glass, chair of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board. "An open process is usually a good process."
Check out this slideshow with detailed images of the Blairs Master Plan.
Neither Montgomery County nor construction company Foulger-Pratt will take responsibility for ongoing delays at the Silver Spring Transit Center. And until outside consultants release their findings, which were supposed to come out last month, it's unclear what's wrong with it in the first place.
Last month, Foulger-Pratt filed a claim against Montgomery County, saying the county was responsible for delays in the Silver Spring Transit Center, a 3-story building which will have bus bays for Metrobuses, Ride On, commuter buses, UMD shuttles, intercity buses and more, along with space for a future Purple Line station.
The project has now been stalled for over a year because concrete was poured too thin or too thick in certain areas, raising concerns about its structural integrity.
"This transit center could have and should have been open months ago for the good of this community," said Bryant Foulger, managing principal at Foulger-Pratt, in a brief phone conversation. "We're not the only ones who're frustrated. We're all waiting."
The transit center was first proposed 20 years ago. Costs for the project have more than tripled since money was first set aside in 1999, to $112 million. Originally scheduled to open in 2009, the transit center should open this fall, according to Patrick Lacefield, spokesperson for County Executive Ike Leggett.
Montgomery County has hired KCE Structural Engineers to prepare a report on the status of the transit center, which was supposed to be delivered at the end of January. "They know we want to get started, but we asked them to give it a very good look," Lacefield said in another phone conversation.
Foulger says they offered to help fix the problem, but haven't received a response. The county hasn't allowed their engineers to meet with Foulger-Pratt's engineers.
In the meantime, Foulger-Pratt has filed 35 separate delay claims, some of which the county has acknowledged and paid for, said Judah Lifschitz, a lawyer representing Foulger-Pratt. He claims that the county has yet to pay for "millions of dollars" in changes they've requested to the transit center. According to the Washington Post, Foulger-Pratt says they're entitled to over $7,500 a day in payments if work is delayed past February 26.
Lacefield wasn't able to immediately confirm how much the county owed Foulger-Pratt, though Leggett recently proposed setting aside $7.5 million to pay for needed improvements.
"What we'd really like to do is sit down and let's discuss this," said Foulger. "We get the right people in the room, we get the right experts, and we move forward. That's how we do it in the private sector."
The county is waiting until the report is released to make any further statements. "We're not going to respond to that until we get the final report," said Lacefield. "Depending on those findings, we may be advancing claims of our own on the behalf of taxpayers."
Whenever the report does come out, Lacefield said there are no plans for a public forum on the transit center, as requested last month by Action Committee for Transit, a Montgomery County advocacy group. (Full disclosure: I sit on ACT's board.) "Great, let's have a forum, but let's have something to talk about" first, Lacefield said.
Until then, Foulger stands by the quality of their work. "The building's safe," said Foulger. "It's not a matter of safety. The only thing that's left is what you want done and you won't tell us what to do."
The county, meanwhile, is willing to take its time to ensure a good product. "Nobody wants to get this done quicker than we do," Lacefield said, "but we also want to get it done right."
Economists say one of the best ways to provide more affordable housing is through filtering, a theory that as expensive new homes age and decline in value, they'll become low-cost homes tomorrow. But this requires building enough housing to keep up with demand. Is that possible?
I analyzed trends in downtown Silver Spring, where over 600 new apartments and condominiums were built last year. Another 1,300 apartments are under construction as we speak. Almost all of them are high-end, luxury rentals.
While there are more affordable alternatives, the area as a whole has become more expensive in the past 10 years. Persistently low vacancy rates suggest there's a lot of demand for housing as well, further pushing up rents. It appears that for filtering to take effect, the area may need even more housing than it already has.
I looked at 32 market-rate (as opposed to entirely subsidized) apartment complexes within a mile of the Silver Spring Metro station, which includes downtown Silver Spring, South Silver Spring and East Silver Spring. I found their advertised monthly rents and unit sizes on the landlords' websites and sites like apartments.com, apartmentguide.com and rent.com, and used everything from Historic Silver Spring to aerial photos from the 1950's to find out when each building was built.
Rents varied dramatically across the 32 complexes, and as predicted, age appeared to be a factor. Apartments at the Solaire on Ripley Street, which opened last year, rent for an average of $2.87 per square foot, more than twice the $1.36 rent per square foot at Hillbrook Towers on Thayer Avenue, built in 1961. Typical 2-bedroom units at both buildings rent for $3,023 and $1,250 a month, respectively.
It's said your annual income should be 40 times the monthly rent for an apartment to be truly affordable. Thus, you'd have to make $120,000 a year to live at the Solaire, or $50,000 to live at Hillbrook Towers.
Next, I plotted each building's age and its average rent per square foot and found a trendline. As it turned out, each year since a building was built takes off about 1.19 cents in monthly rent per square foot, or $11.90 for a 1,000-square-foot 2-bedroom apartment. That may not seem like much, but over time, it adds up to a $595 difference between a unit built this year and one built in the 1960's.
According to the 2007-2011 American Community Survey, 25% of the apartments in and around downtown Silver Spring were built during the 1960's, and another 33% before that. This period was the first big apartment boom in Silver Spring, with even more units constructed than during the 2000's. Shouldn't this mean that there are lots of cheap apartments like at Hillbrook Towers? Not quite.
Low vacancy rates in and around downtown suggests that the market is absorbing any new apartments that get built. According to the 2000 Census, just 2.5% of the then-8,200 apartments in the area were vacant. In 2009, that rate had doubled as several new buildings opened. By 2011, with 9,100 apartments in the area, the vacancy rate fell back to 3.35%. In Census Tract 7025, which contains several recently-built apartment buildings in downtown and South Silver Spring, just 1.67% of all apartments were vacant in 2011.
For filtering to work, there have to be enough new apartments to soak up the demand for new housing. Without it, landlords will upgrade their older buildings to draw those potential tenants.
That's what happened at the Blairs, the massive 1960's-era apartment complex across from the Silver Spring Metro station, whose owners recently completed a major LEED-certified renovation. While it's made the complex more environmentally sustainable, it's also resulted in higher rents. A renovated 2-bedroom apartment was recently advertised on their website with rent of $3,060 a month, comparable to new construction.
A combination of new, high-end buildings and old buildings that are essentially being made new means that rents overall continue to rise. In fact, rents in and around downtown Silver Spring have increased by 75% since 2000, 3 times faster than inflation.
In 2000, the median rent for all apartments in the area was $808 a month, which would be $1,042 today. In 2011, it was $1,410 a month, which suggests that apartments like the one at Hillbrook Towers are the exception, not the rule.
It's true that downtown Silver Spring has grown a lot in recent years, so much so that some residents say they've had enough. But the area isn't even growing as fast as did a half-century ago, and even after a global economic recession, the demand to live here remains strong.
Silver Spring prides itself on its diversity, but that's threatened by rising rents. Filtering isn't the only tool we have to protect affordable housing, but it's one we should take advantage of. Especially given opposition that crops up to most new apartment buildings, we will see whether Silver Spring can build enough housing to gain the benefits of filtering, or if it will soon move out of reach for many people and families.
Houses have their perks: a yard, a private entrance, and a sense of individuality. Apartments have theirs as well: they're affordable, low-
What are "real doors"? Basically, it's when a multi-family building contains ground-floor apartments or rowhouses with private entrances opening directly to the street. Instead of walking by blank walls or loading docks, you'd pass doors, stoops, porches and more importantly, people.
This is by no means a new idea, but "real doors" have become especially relevant as a way to give large buildings human scale. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl notes that our field of view doesn't go far above eye level, so most pedestrians only pay attention to details at the street level. You might think you're walking by a block of rowhouses, but they could just be the base of a high-rise.
"Real doors" also make streets safer by providing more "eyes on the street." They give residents the privacy and individuality of a house with the communal amenities and low maintenance of an apartment. And they allow architects and developers to provide so-called "missing middle" house types that could accommodate families, like rowhouses, in areas where land values are so high that they're not economically feasible.
I got to see the benefits of "real doors" firsthand in Philadelphia, where for two years I lived on the ground floor of a 100-year-old house that had been turned into apartments decades ago. My roommate and I had affordable rent, just enough space and a doting landlord. We could also walk out from our living room to the front porch, out to the street, and around to the back yard, which made it feel like a house.
"Real doors" have become part of the design culture in places like Vancouver, where former planning director Brent Toderian jokes that they're great for trick-or-treating. Residential projects across Greater Washington have started including them as well, especially in White Flint, where it supports the urban design goals of its Sector Plan. Two projects being built there, Pike + Rose and Archstone Old Georgetown Road, will include them.
However, not all "real doors" are created equal. Done poorly, they can look like an afterthought, feel anonymous and compromise privacy. Let's look at some examples from around the area and the country:
These are "real doors" at Halstead Square, an apartment and retail complex being built in Merrifield. (Check out some more pictures.) These doors belong to single-story, one-bedroom apartments, and each one has a little stoop and an address number. The floor-to-ceiling windows are nice, but they're so close to the ground that people walking by can easily look in.
At Citron, an apartment building under construction in downtown Silver Spring, "real doors" help it relate to the single-family homes across the street. The ground-floor units are high enough to be private, which would've been a nice opportunity to expand those stoops into porches.
These ground-floor rowhouses at the Market Common in Clarendon each have different-colored doors, giving them their own identity. The building as a whole has similar materials and detailing as the actual rowhouses at the end of the block, helping it blend in.
These "real doors" at the Silverton in South Silver Spring are set back from the street, which provides room for a semi-private, gated patio with enough room for a table and chairs. Though they have big, low windows like Halstead Square, the trees help give shade and privacy. I might have made the doors themselves more distinctive, perhaps with a different paint color or frosted glass panels.
The best "real doors" I've found are on the West Coast. This is the Eliot Tower in downtown Portland, a tower with two-story rowhouses at its base. Each house has a front deck raised several steps above the street, and you can see how each deck has a tree or some leafy plants for privacy and visual impact.
At the Meriwether, a tower in Portland's Southwest Waterfront, there are ground-floor rowhouses set behind little yards. Not only do they provide a buffer from the street, but they appear to be part of a bioswale that collects and filters runoff water before it heads to the Willamette River, a few hundred yards away. You can see each house has decks on multiple floors, giving it plenty of outdoor space. And residents have them their own, judging from these hot pink Adirondack chairs.
Believe it or not, this is the entrance to two ground-floor condominiums at Lofts 24, also in downtown Silver Spring. Other than the welcome mat outside the door on the right, there's no indication that people actually live here.
Rather than a house, this feels like the entrance to a storage unit. There are no street numbers, no individual open space, and no buffer from the street. The only landscaping are bushes that cover the windows.
While these examples aren't perfect, they show the opportunities and challenges of providing "real doors." The scale of development in many urban neighborhoods has gotten bigger, but humans generally remain the same size, so we still have to design to that scale.
Not only can "real doors" make otherwise big buildings feel more comfortable, but they can make safer and more visually attractive streets and offer people a desirable mix of house and apartment living. That is, if we do them right.
This content was originally developed for the Friends of White Flint blog.
Trees are an important part of any urban environment, providing shade, oxygen, and even calming traffic. Of course, they're also great to look at. As a result, protecting and expanding Montgomery County's tree canopy has been a growing issue in recent months.
A study by the University of Vermont for the Montgomery County Planning Department found that while half of the county is covered by trees, the county's urban areas have a much smaller tree canopy.
Just 19% of White Flint is covered by trees, while downtown Silver Spring has a 14% tree canopy. The smallest tree canopy is in the Montgomery Hills business district south of Georgia Avenue and the Beltway, which has just 8% coverage. Urban areas should have at least a 25% tree canopy, planners say.
One of the best ways to expand our tree canopy in places like downtown Silver Spring or White Flint is by planting more street trees next to sidewalks and in medians. Trees can provide significant health benefits and can even be an economic windfall for places with more of them.
A 2001 survey of Wheaton residents found they overwhelmingly preferred streets with trees for downtown Wheaton. According to urban designer Dan Burden, spending between $250 and $600 to plant a tree can yield up to $90,000 in economic benefits for the surrounding area.
For decades, transportation planners saw street trees as a safety hazard because they blocked drivers' vision. For that reason, County Executive Ike Leggett actually recommended removing street trees from busy roads in 2008. However, we know now that trees can "reduce the 'optical width'" of a street, slowing drivers down and making it safer for everybody.
Today, there are multiple efforts to add more street trees in Montgomery County. This fall, the Planning Department introduced a program called Shades of Green that provides free shade trees and two years of care to eligible property owners in downtown Silver Spring, downtown Wheaton and Montgomery Hills. 30 trees have already been planted under the program in those three areas.
Nonprofit group Conservation Montgomery has been organizing tree plantings of their own. Last month, they teamed up with Casey Trees, a forestry organization based in the District, to plant in Montgomery Hills. They've also received grant money in partnership with fellow nonprofits Safe Silver Spring and Uno Granito de Arena to plant trees in Long Branch.
Unfortunately, these efforts are undermined by poor maintenance of our existing tree canopy. After heavy storms last year, Pepco began trimming trees in earnest before falling branches could take down power lines. According to their website, Pepco uses nationally-recognized standards and practices for tree trimming, but residents complain they're being too aggressive, mangling trees and trespassing on private property.
Downtown Silver Spring resident Gull sent us some photos of Pepco workers cutting down trees along 16th Street and Spring Street last month. In an email, he called it a "serious quality of life issue" for him and his neighbors. "It's very easy to see into communities, houses and apartments that were once obscured from view," he wrote. "I see it as a big problem that instead of planting more trees in our urban areas, we're removing them and making above ground utilities the primary thing visible to us."
Last spring, County Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich drafted a bill that would set higher environmental standards for tree trimming and require power companies to ask homeowners' permission before doing any work on their property. However, the bill was deemed unconstitutional and set aside after the derecho storm in July brought down power lines and knocked out power to thousands of residents.
A felled tree next to a house under construction in Chevy Chase. Proposed legislation aims to help protect or replace trees like this.
Since then, the council has introduced two new pieces of legislation aimed at protecting trees. Bill 35-12 would require property owners cutting trees down on smaller lots to pay into a fund dedicated to replacing those trees. The county's Forest Conservation Law already requires this on lots over an acre in size. Another, Bill 41-12, would require a permit to do work in a public street that might damage a tree. They've set a public hearing later this month to hear testimony about both bills.
The legislation has support from Conservation Montgomery and the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, but has gotten a lot of pushback from local home builders. Renewing Montgomery, a group of small home builders, argued that the original bill proposed last summer restricts the rights of property owners.
As our urban areas grow, there's an inevitable tension between the built environment and the natural environment. However, protecting our tree canopy has many benefits for people as well. Whether by planting new trees or preserving old ones, we can make our communities healthier, stronger and more prosperous.
The County Council will hold a public hearing on both bills Thursday, January 17 at 7:30pm at the Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. For more information and to sign up to testify, visit their website. You can also sign Conservation Montgomery's petition supporting both bills. And if you'd like to learn more about the tree canopy in your neighborhood, check out the Planning Department's tree canopy explorer.
Capital Bikeshare will expand into Montgomery County next year, but bicycling advocates say the infrastructure isn't ready for it. If the county's serious about making bikeshare work, they need to make bicycling safe and comfortable as soon as the first bikes are out.
Bicycling has become more popular as a form of transportation in Montgomery County in recent years, but there are very few bike lanes, and the county's wide, busy roads deter all except the most fearless cyclists. As a result, bikeshare users might be tempted to ride on the sidewalk, which could be dangerous for pedestrians.
Proposed Montgomery County bike lanes. Blue represents bike lanes and separated paths, while orange represents sharrows. Click for interactive version.
In this report, the two groups suggest a network of bike lanes in Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Bethesda and Friendship Heights. They proposed having dedicated bike lanes on major roads like Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring and business district streets like Arlington Road in Bethesda.
Streets that were too narrow or too congested for bike lanes, like Elm Street in Bethesda, would get sharrows, which help drivers and cyclists share the road.
They also asked the county to complete major regional trails, like the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which currently stops half a mile short of its proposed terminus at the Silver Spring Metro station.
The proposed lanes make a lot of sense, focusing on compact downcounty neighborhoods where everything's already within biking distance. I've written before that more on-street bike routes can make bicycling more practical as a form of transportation by bringing riders to shops, jobs and other activities. And bikes take up a lot less space than cars, meaning we can fit more bicyclists on a congested street than we can drivers.
Some of the proposed routes, like Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, may face resistance from the Montgomery County Department of Transportation and the State Highway Administration, which have been reluctant to take away space from cars. But WABA and MoBike weren't the first to propose bike lanes for them: earlier this year, County Councilmember Nancy Floreen asked that the state paint lanes on several major roads that they're scheduled to repave anyway next year.
Creating a countywide bicycling network will take a lot of time and planning, but there are things we can do to improve the biking experience sooner rather than later. As more people take up bicycling, they may find that they don't have safe places to ride. As a result, Capital Bikeshare could help build a constituency for bike lanes that doesn't exist now.
Capital Bikeshare is ready to expand into Montgomery County. The question is whether our streets will be ready for Capital Bikeshare.
It's hard to notice change occurring on a daily basis. But looking at photos of downtown Silver Spring over the past 7 years, it's clear how dramatic the transformation has been.
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