Posts about Silver Spring
This week, the Montgomery County Council reduced planned development in Chevy Chase Lake and recommended the same for Long Branch, both home to future Purple Line stations. Residents say new development will lead to traffic and, in Long Branch, gentrification. But making it harder to build around transit may make those issues worse.
Now that Maryland has a new transportation funding source, work on the $2.2 billion Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton could open as early as 2020 if the state can get matching funds from the federal government. Naturally, people will want to locate near the line, so Montgomery County's working on plans for neighborhoods along the corridor to accommodate new residents, businesses, and public amenities.
This week, they passed a plan for Chevy Chase Lake, while the council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee gave recommendations on a draft of the Long Branch Sector Plan, which the council will vote on this fall. Both plans call for turning the neighborhoods' 1950's-era commercial cores into compact, urban neighborhoods, with taller, mixed-use buildings, new public spaces and streets that accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders, not just drivers.
Neighbors in Chevy Chase Lake fought their plan, saying it would exacerbate traffic. In Long Branch, residents worry that redevelopment will push out the area's large immigrant community and destroy local landmarks, like the historic Flower Theatre. So councilmembers have scaled back both plans in the name of reducing traffic and preserving affordable housing.
Council backs down on taller buildings in Chevy Chase Lake
The Planning Board endorsed the Land Company's "compromise" for a handful of buildings around a Purple Line station.
The Chevy Chase Land Company, a major landowner that first developed Chevy Chase Lake over a century ago, originally sought to build nearly 3,000 new homes in buildings up to 200 feet tall, or about 19 stories, around a future station on Connecticut Avenue. Neighbors said it was too much and county planners generally agreed.
The Planning Board offered a compromise, allowing buildings between 100 and 150 feet tall next to the station and buildings no taller than 55 to 80 feet surrounding it, providing a transition to surrounding single-family homes. They also called for staging requirements to ensure that the Purple Line was in place for major redevelopment could occur.
But a group of neighbors called "Don't Flood the Lake" pushed for even less. And the County Council gave in, setting maximum heights of 150 and 120 feet for 2 buildings next to the station, followed by 90 feet for adjacent buildings, and 50 feet in surrounding areas. Still, not everyone was happy. Councilmember Marc Elrich, the only one to vote against the plan, said the Council and Planning Board had "utterly . . . [disregarded] the wishes of the community."
Committee allows new development in some parts of Long Branch, but not others
Councilmembers also decided not to upzone 3 garden apartment complexes in Long Branch for higher-density development, saying it would preserve affordable housing. Groups like CASA de Maryland worry that the Purple Line, which will have 3 stops there, will price out the local immigrant community.
Last May's Long Branch Super Block Party. Councilmembers voted to rezone the shopping center in the background, but not the apartments. Photo by the author.
Today, a 3-bedroom apartment rents rents for $1471 a month, less than the cost of some studios in downtown Silver Spring. But the Planning Board felt that redeveloping the apartments was the best way to preserve affordable housing, both by increasing the overall supply of housing and because the county requires new buildings to set aside units for low-income households.
It's true that new apartments in Long Branch will be more expensive than what's there now. But not building them means that landlords in old buildings will just raise the rent when the Purple Line opens because there will be more demand to live there.
Fortunately, the PHED committee did endorse taller buildings in the Superblock, an area bounded by Flower Avenue, Arliss Street, and Piney Branch Road that's home to 3 strip malls. The Planning Board called for buildings 65 or 75 feet tall, or about 6 to 7 stories, but property owners said that wasn't enough to build an economically feasible project. Instead, the councilmembers recommended buildings up to 120 feet tall.
The committee also voted 2-1 to only designate the facade of the Flower Theatre, a vacant Art Deco movie house, as historic. Preservationists want to preserve the entire building and adjacent strip mall, arguing that new development can work with old construction, like CItyline at Tenley, a condominium built atop a former Sears in Tenleytown.
But Stacy Silber, representing owner Harvey Companies of Bethesda, says that the strip mall's layout and structure can't accommodate future redevelopment, like apartments or structured parking. Councilmembers Leventhal and Nancy Floreen, which voted to save just the facade, agreed.
"If it were financially viable to run a theatre here, there would have been a theatre here a long time ago," said Leventhal. "What is there today is not desirable." But councilmembers did get to look at some proposals for repurposing the theatre from the Flower Theatre Project, a group I co-founded last year, and decided to add language calling for "some kind of performing arts use" there, even if redevelopment occurs.
Doing nothing is not an option
Next up, county planners are working on a plan for Lyttonsville, a historically black neighborhood between Chevy Chase Lake and downtown Silver Spring. The council already approved a plan for Takoma-Langley Crossroads that Montgomery and Prince George's counties worked on together.
The Purple Line will have a huge impact on the communities it serves. Many of them will be positive, but there's also potential for displacement and disruption. However, keeping things as they are isn't an option. Not creating more opportunities for people to live in close-in, transit-served neighborhoods like Chevy Chase Lake or Long Branch will push up housing prices and make traffic worse because more people have to commute from far away.
Even with the DC area's extensive transit network, land near transit stations is a limited and precious resource. We can't afford to waste it.
As Montgomery County has become more diverse, it also faces new challenges with poverty. A new mapping tool shows just how much the county's changed over the past 30 years.
Where poverty is in Montgomery County. Each dot represents 20 low-income people. Blue dots are whites, yellow dots are blacks, green dots are Hispanics, and red dots are Asians. Original image from the Urban Institute.
The Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank that looks at social and economic issues, made this awesome mapping tool that shows where very low-income people lived between 1980 to 2010. The Atlantic Cities notes that the maps show dramatic demographic shifts across the country, notably the suburbanization of poverty.
That's especially evident here in Montgomery County. 30 years ago, the county's only significant concentration of poverty was around close-in Langley Park and Long Branch, which had established themselves as immigrant gateways by the late 1970s.
But today, you can also find clusters of poverty throughout East County and the Upcounty, in Wheaton and Aspen Hill, in White Oak and Briggs Chaney, and even along I-270 in Gaithersburg and Germantown. Many of them have only emerged within the past decade.
Meanwhile, communities that have historically been affluent, like Bethesda or Olney, appear to have stayed the same. The area along Rockville Pike between Rockville Town Center and White Flint, where a considerable amount of new, high-end development is happening, seems to have actually become less poor.
We know that people increasingly desire urban neighborhoods, whether that's places like Columbia Heights in DC or downtown Silver Spring. But the flip side of that revitalization is that the poor often move or are pushed out into suburban areas. While these communities offer more space or better public services, they aren't always well-equipped to help low-income people.
Groups like IMPACT Silver Spring, which helps low-income people and immigrants connect with community groups and social services, began working in and around downtown Silver Spring in the 1990s. Today, IMPACT does outreach at garden apartment complexes in Gaithersburg and Briggs Chaney. Unlike close-in Silver Spring or Long Branch, these areas don't have easy access to shopping, jobs, public services or transit.
Instead of working to combat the problem, more affluent neighbors fight any attempts at change or build fences in a lame attempt at keeping "undesirables" out. Meanwhile, kids growing up in these neighborhoods are often blocked from the high-quality public schools Montgomery County is known for.
The challenges that suburban poor face aren't necessarily different than those of their inner-city counterparts. But they're compounded by the built form of suburbia, which was designed under the assumption that everyone would have money and a car and does little to accommodate those who lack both.
Initiatives like the county's BRT plan or the White Oak Science Gateway will help bring transit, jobs and other amenities to these neighborhoods and improve residents' quality of life. But it'll be important to ensure that they aren't pushed out again into even more remote areas.
Georgia Avenue between 16th Street and Forest Glen Road in Silver Spring's Montgomery Hills neighborhood is currently a dangerous mess of a suburban arterial. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is looking at ways to transform it into an urban boulevard.
At a meeting last week at Woodlin Elementary School, SHA planners presented 7 alternatives to improve pedestrian, bike and transit access on Georgia Avenue. This stretch of road has the most vehicle collisions of any state highway in Maryland, as the reversible lanes make drivers confused. There's no median and the lanes are all at least 12 feet wide, making Georgia incredibly dangerous to cross on foot.
But this stretch of Georgia Avenue also has a number of notable small businesses in early 20th-century buildings close to the street. The popular Y and Q route Metrobuses stop here, and it's also within walking distance of the Forest Glen Metro, though few make that walk due to safety concerns. This area is ripe to convert to an urban boulevard.
SHA has produced 7 alternatives for this portion of Georgia Avenue, including not doing anything at all or using Transportation Systems Management, basically reworking the traffic lights but not actually building anything.
Alternative 3 is based on the North and West Silver Spring Master Plan. It includes 13.5 foot wide sidewalks but no specific bike facilities. A 16 foot grass median would replace the existing reversible lane. SHA also proposes narrowing each intersection to make it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross the street.
Alternatives 4 and 5 build on the Master Plan option by including a 14 to 16 foot curb lane that could accommodate a striped bicycle lane. It would also close the off-ramp from southbound Georgia Avenue to southbound 16th Street, which encourages motorists to drive as if they were on an interstate highway. It has no place in a dense residential area that's in walking distance of two Metro stations.
Alternative 6 would place 2 Bus Rapid Transit lanes in the median and room for a station at Seminary Road. The Planning Board is currently considering a countywide BRT network which would include a route on Georgia Avenue.
Alternative 7 would build a tunnel underneath Georgia Avenue between the Beltway and 16th Street. Not only would it be the most expensive choice, but it would move Montgomery Hills in the wrong direction in the Whirlpool of Induced Demand.
All 5 of the alternatives that involve building things would require widening the road, meaning that businesses may lose some property or even their entire building. Everyone I talked to at the meeting preferred Alternatives 4 and 5, with its median and bike lanes.
Most agreed that Alternative 7 was not a good choice. Not only would make the pedestrian experience even worse, it would cause more driver collisions due to its confusing nature. Where the tunnel ended at the Beltway, drivers would have to merge across three lanes to get to the on-ramps.
It's surprising how different SHA's work in Montgomery Hills is compared to what the Montgomery County Department of Transportation's proposed redesign of Old Georgetown Road in White Flint, which encourages speeding and has few accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists. While Montgomery County transportation planners have chosen to ignore the county's vision to turn White Flint into an urban area, SHA planners have embraced an urban future for Montgomery Hills.
SHA's urban boulevard alternatives for Georgia Avenue are a step in the right direction. Hopefully, they'll find a solution that can make this street a place worth spending time in, not just a traffic sewer.
The Federal City Council, an association of business leaders, wants DC to ease driving in and out of the city. At the same time, it wants walkable, livable neighborhoods. But what about when these two conflict?
The group took a survey of its members, mostly business CEOs and presidents and the like. 68% say that traffic congestion is a "significant" problem facing DC businesses (though, actually, I'm surprised 32% don't think it's a problem!) and 71% say car-driving commuters are "very important" in making decisions about where to locate businesses.
99% want a more modern signal system "to ease the flow of traffic," which usually means timing signals for commuters, though 89% also want to see "active neighborhoods that provide a variety of amenities and services for all residents within a 20 minute walk."
This is, essentially, the decision planners are wrestling with in the MoveDC citywide plan: should transportation policy favor driving in and out of the city, or work to make neighborhoods more livable? The problem is that, in many situations, the two forces are in diametric opposition.
On arterial roadways through DC, like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania Avenues, immediate residents want a road with slower-moving traffic, shorter crossing distances, longer light cycles on cross streets, and maybe medians. Commuters want the exact opposite.
Which kind of places will Tysons, Bethesda, Silver Spring be?
It's easier to think about this in places that are on the tipping point between walkable urban place and suburban office park, like Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, or Tysons Corner as Fairfax County envisions it. There's a strong consensus behind these being places where you can live and/or work; arrive by car, transit, bike, or foot; and while there, walk to enjoyable restaurants and shops, buy groceries, and so on.
But there's an obstacle to Silver Spring being even more of a walkable place where people both live and work: Colesville and Georgia. Both are very wide "traffic sewers" that take a long time to cross on foot, creating a barrier. Wisconsin and Old Georgetown do this, though a little less fiercely, in Bethesda.
Routes 123 and 7 will form massive barriers at Tysons, especially since the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is widening the already-huge Route 7 even more, and the signal timings will force people to cross in two separate phases. All of this is because their priority is to move cars most efficiently.
And traffic is bad in these places even today. As they grow, officials can focus on walkability and livability and not worry so much about worsening traffic, or they can keep commuters happy and sacrifice the goal of creating the next Dupont Circle or Columbia Heights or Clarendon. Traffic in Columbia Heights can be really frustrating, and it's a great place.
Congestion pricing, anyone?
There is, indeed, a solution to this conflict of congestion vs. walkability: congestion pricing. Keeping the roadways free of choking traffic only requires wider and wider roadways if you hold constant the assumption that everyone can use that road, anytime they want, completely free.
DC could charge each driver heading into downtown, and dedicate that revenue to expanding bus and rail options that give people an alternative to driving. Traffic could be lighter for people who do need to drive, and people who have an option not to drive will find their choices more appealing.
The biggest obstacle to this has always been that people perceive it as unfair. It's good for the business leaders who could easily pay the tolls, and even good for people like contractors for whom time is money. It's good for the poorer residents who don't have cars anyway, and who struggle with sub-par bus options.
But there are a lot of people in between who drive, don't want to pay any more for it, and would rather just deal with congestion (or lobby for wider roads or mythical magic timed signals). In the District, not only would the DC Council have to get past the politics, but Congress would likely interfere unless Maryland and Virginia representatives were supportive.
Barring that, DC, and Silver Spring, and Bethesda, and Tysons, and every other walkable or potentially walkable place will have to wrestle with whether to put placemaking first or high-speed driving. It's not a surprise that the CEOs of the Federal City Council want both, but until and unless they can help make congestion pricing happen, the survey still does not really help prioritize between the two.
Late this summer, Capital Bikeshare will expand into Montgomery County with 51 stations and 500 bikes. County officials have released maps of where they hope to put the stations, and they will hold meetings later this month to talk about the new service.
30 stations will go in the downcounty area, including Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Bethesda and Friendship Heights. In conjunction with the City of Rockville, the county will also place 21 stations in Rockville and the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center as part of a pilot program to see whether bikesharing can work in suburban areas, especially for carless low-income residents and reverse commuters.
County Department of Transportation officials will hold 3 meetings later this month where residents can learn how Capital Bikeshare works and offer feedback on the proposed stations. For more information, visit the county's new bikesharing website.
All 3 areas where Capital Bikeshare will go already have higher-than-average bicycling rates, like downtown Bethesda, Takoma Park, and even Rockville Town Center. That's not surprising, as these communities have an older, urban built form that easily lends itself to bicycling.
Bikeshare stations will also serve major employment centers, like NIH and the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, along with local schools, like Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park and both the Rockville and Silver Spring campuses of Montgomery College. This will make bikesharing a real option for residents who live too far to walk, while helping students who either can't or don't drive.
However, the maps also show the need for improved bike infrastructure. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association and MoBike have proposed a network of new bike lanes to compliment the CaBi stations, but it'll be a while before the county actually builds some.
In addition, it looks like some of the stations are spaced too far apart to be useful. The station at Flower and Piney Branch in Silver Spring, for example, is over a mile from any other station and at the top of a hill. That means users are likely to bike from there and not come back, creating a rebalancing problem.
What do you think of the station locations?
Thanks to everyone who came to our resurrected happy hour Wednesday night! Still hungry for more conversation? Over the next 2 weeks, you can learn about pedestrian safety in Montgomery County and DC, talk about the future of Prince George's and Tysons Corner, and hear about the intersection of food and smart growth.
Take it outside in MoCo: Tomorrow, join the Action Committee for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth for an al fresco discussion of pedestrian safety and transit at Fenton Street Market. We'll promote ACT's new website, SafeWalktoSchool.com, let kids draw their favorite ways to get to school, and chat about ways to improve county transit, like the Purple Line and BRT. Join us from 10 am to 12:30 pm at the market, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in Silver Spring.
After the jump: events in Bloomingdale, Tysons, Montgomery Village, College Park, Anacostia, and Trinidad.
Mobile design workshop in Mid-City East: If you spend time in Bloomingdale, Eckington, LeDroit Park, or Truxton Circle, DDOT and the Office of Planning want to hear from you. They've rented a ZipVan and will move around the area hosting "design on the fly" sessions all day on Saturday and Wednesday as part of a study on ways to improve pedestrian and bicycle access.
You'll find the workshop at a variety of locations, including the Bloomingdale Farmers' Market, along the Metropolitan Branch Trail, and outside Dunbar and McKinley high schools. For more details and times, visit the Mid-City East study website.
Evolving transportation in Fairfax: Learn about how the county's transportation network has changed over time at an event hosted by Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, and the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations.
It's this Wednesday, June 12 from 7:30-9:30 pm at the (very swanky) Angelika Film Center at 2911 District Avenue in Merrifield, not far from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station. For more information or to RSVP, visit the chairman's website.
The return of M-83: No, the French electronic band isn't playing here, but Montgomery County has restarted work on Midcounty Highway Extended, also known as M-83, a proposed highway between Montgomery Village and Clarksburg. The Department of Transportation and Montgomery Village Foundation are hosting a public meeting on the controversial highway next Thursday, June 13 from 7:30 to 9:00 pm at the North Creek Community Center, located at 20125 Arrowhead Road in Montgomery Village.
Get schooled on Prince George's future: Planners in Prince George's County want to encourage more walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development, and they'd like to talk to you about it. They're holding a town meeting next Saturday, June 15 at the University of Maryland from 9 am to 1 pm and will serve free breakfast. You can register here or visit their website for more information.
This month, contributor John Muller will give 2 tours of Old Anacostia with a focus on the life of Frederick Douglass, who made his home there. The tours are this Saturday, June 8 and Saturday, June 22 from 11am-12:30pm, and tickets are $25. For more info visit the event's website.
Planners and developers in Tysons Corner will give an update on ongoing development and transportation projects at an open house this Tuesday, June 11 from 7-9 pm at Westbriar Elementary School, 1741 Pine Valley Drive in Tysons Corner.
The Historic Anacostia Block Association will hear presentations from the Office of Planning on future development in that area, including St. Elizabeth's East Campus and the Big K site, this Thursday, June 13 at 7pm at the UPO, 1649 Good Hope Road SE.
DDOT's studying ways to improve pedestrian and bike safety along Florida Avenue NE. They're hosting their first public meeting Wednesday, June 19 from 7 to 9 pm in Chapel Hall at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Avenue NE.
Join food critics and restaurateurs for "Food in the City," a panel discussion hosted by Smart Growth America on the intersection of smart growth and DC's growing food community. The event's on Thursday, June 20 from 6-8 pm at Union Market, 1309 5th Street NE. For more information, visit their website.
For years, the White Oak area north of downtown Silver Spring has struggled with disinvestment. Last week, residents, community leaders and major landowners endorsed a vision to bring jobs and people back.
Montgomery County planners recently finished a draft of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, a proposal to turn the 1960's-era suburb that inspired The Wonder Years into an urban hub for scientific research. The centerpiece would be LifeSci Village, a partnership between developer Percontee and Montgomery County to turn a 300-acre brownfield into a mixed-use community.
During last Thursday's public hearing before the Planning Board in Silver Spring, all but a handful of the 35 speakers spoke in favor of it, highlighting the need to bring more investment to East County, which has lagged behind the rest of Montgomery County for decades. Many White Oak residents travel to Bethesda or the I-270 corridor for jobs or shopping, while some neighborhoods in the area grapple with crime and blight.
Many speakers highlighted the potential to make White Oak the "Silicon Valley of health care," using the FDA's presence to draw companies from around the world. Bringing more jobs and amenities to the east side of the county, they said, would relieve the county's east-west jobs-housing imbalance, reducing the need for long commutes. Other speakers stressed the need for alternatives to driving, like improved bike and pedestrian infrastructure and the 3 Bus Rapid Transit lines proposed for White Oak.
Meanwhile, a handful of representatives from local civic and homeowners' associations expressed concerns about the potential for traffic. Some residents opposed the plan's recommendation to rebuild and reopen a shuttered bridge on Old Columbia Pike, which planners say could help improve traffic circulation.
Over the next several weeks, the Planning Board will discuss the plan during a series of worksessions before voting on it later this summer. If it passes, it'll go to the County Council, which will hold another public hearing this fall, followed by a vote next spring.
I live-tweeted the hearing and compiled the best tweets in this Storify:
50 years ago, White Oak was a prosperous suburb that inspired The Wonder Years, but today the community north of downtown Silver Spring struggles with disinvestment. Montgomery County planners say an urban approach to redevelopment can bring new life to the area.
While White Oak has several historically affluent neighborhoods, today it has no majority racial or ethnic group, and renters make up over a third of the population. There are abandoned office buildings and a reputation for crime, whether real or perceived. Residents have to go long distances to Bethesda, the I-270 corridor or DC for work, shopping, and more.
Planners found that residents are frustrated with the status quo. "There is great interest in seeing 'things happen'," they write in a draft of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, a proposal to transform White Oak's strip malls and office parks into a "vibrant, mixed-use, transit-served" research and technology center.
Plan calls for three urban nodes, new parkland
Planners envision creating three new "activity centers" clustered around the Food and Drug Administration, whose 9,000 employees began moving here in 2009, and Washington Adventist Hospital, which wants to move here from Takoma Park.
The largest would be LifeSci Village, a partnership between local developer Percontee and Montgomery County to build a planned community for bioscience research and technology behind the FDA campus. Today, it's a 300-acre brownfield site containing a shuttered sludge treatment plant and a concrete recycling facility.
"We have to create a compelling reason for people to come here," says Jonathan Genn, executive vice president at Percontee. Bioscience workers "tend not to [have] your normal 9-to-5 week," he adds. "They're working nights and weekends. They want that vitality."
Designed by New Urbanist architecture firm Torti Gallas and Partners, the $3.2 billion project would contain a research campus with several "world-renowned" academic institutions, along with offices and labs, a hotel and conference center. There would be a commercial district with shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, and up to 5,300 new homes, including apartments, townhomes and some single-family homes.
Another "activity center" would be at 40-acre White Oak Shopping Center at New Hampshire and Route 29 would give way to apartments, offices and shops in buildings up to 200 feet tall surrounding an "urban plaza" and a "neighborhood green" for community gatherings. The plan encourages redeveloping the 1960's-era garden apartments behind the shopping center, but only if the new buildings set aside at least 15% of their units for affordable housing.
The third would be in Hillandale, where both Georgetown University and Montgomery College have expressed interest in buying the former National Labor College campus at New Hampshire Avenue and the Beltway.
Meanwhile, residents would get a larger open space network, including neighborhood parks, a recreational park and a proposed, 130-acre expansion of Paint Branch Park into the FDA property, the vast majority of which is unused.
Planners seek new approach to congestion
The Science Gateway plan is a 180-degree turn from previous plans for White Oak and East County, which sought to keep the status quo. Planners say that old solutions won't fix White Oak's real issues, and that improving transit and bringing amenities closer to where people live is the best way to handle traffic.
"Creating a really vibrant, mixed-use community ... is a mitigating factor," says Genn. "People can walk to work, bike to work, people can do other activities after work. All of those things mitigate traffic impact at rush hour."
In total, the Science Gateway plan allows up to 8,500 new homes and 13 million square feet of new commercial space containing up to 43,000 new jobs. That's more than double the amount of homes and commercial space here today, and nearly triple the amount of jobs.
Planners hope that new transit and improved local street connections will help reduce the Science Gateway's traffic impacts. Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit network would connect the three centers to each other and to the rest of the region with lines along Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue, and Randolph Road.
BRT lines currently under study (in blue) and an extension to LifeSci Village (in green). Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
The plan also calls for connecting dead-end streets where possible and building a new street grid at the White Oak Shopping Center and LifeSci Village. Planners recommend rebuilding a bridge that carries Old Columbia Pike over the Paint Branch, which was closed to cars 30 years ago, and creating a network of "green streets" with bike lanes.
By giving residents, workers and visitors alternatives to driving, the plan's goal is that 30% of all trips will be made without a car by 2040. That may seem unrealistic, but 25% of White Oak residents already commute to work by foot, bike or transit today. The Metrobus K and Z lines, which serve White Oak, are some of the most-used routes in suburban Maryland.
Strict staging requirements would ensure that new development wasn't occurring without the public infrastructure needed to support it. Under the plan, most of the development wouldn't occur until after the Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 29 and New Hampshire were funded and built. The Planning Department would have to submit reports every 2 years showing that infrastructure has caught up to development.
Science Gateway could improve jobs-housing imbalance
While the Science Gateway could help fix the region's jobs-housing imbalance by putting more jobs on the east side, closer to where the most affordable housing is, reducing the need to commute to the I-270 corridor or Northern Virginia for work.
There are no fewer than 5 plans each calling for a similar amount of development as in the White Oak plan along I-270, like the the Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, which both residents and smart growth advocates criticized for putting too much development in an isolated area.
Many of them suggested that White Oak was a better location for it, and East County residents agree. In 2009, the East County Citizens Advisory Board demanded more jobs and investment in the area, while visitors to a 2010 open house advocated for more density and transit.
Improving pedestrian, bike and transit connections could help traffic in White Oak. Photo by the author.
Nonetheless, most of the Science Gateway isn't allowed under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which discourages new development in congested areas based on the assumption that everyone will drive everywhere no matter what.
But "even if Montgomery County limited development," planners note, "regional and local traffic will continue to congest the highway network." To make White Oak eligible for new development, planners simply recommend not including regional highways like Route 29 and the Beltway in traffic counts, which would lower the area's traffic counts, making it eligible for new housing and job growth.
Not everyone's convinced, however. "This just means we're going to suffer from more traffic," said Alison Praisner Klumpp, Calverton resident and current member of the East County Citizens Advisory Board, said at a presentation on the plan earlier this month. Carole Ann Barth, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation and a resident of Four Corners, called the plan "shallow, simplistic and ultimately impractical" while claiming it would force people to live in apartments against their will.
Plan needs transit, some industry to succeed
As someone who currently lives and bikes in White Oak, I'm excited by the Science Gateway plan. Having more jobs, shopping and housing choices in East County will encourage hopefully make this area a destination of choice once again.
However, this plan can't happen without good transit, especially a direct connection to LifeSci Village. While the staging requirements require BRT to be funded and built before major development occurs, the county's current plans call for buses without dedicated lanes on much of New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29. Without fast, reliable transit, people will continue to drive, placing an undue burden on area roads.
In addition, planners may want to reconsider preserving some of the light industrial uses in the plan area, like at the Montgomery Industrial Park on Industrial Parkway. Just 1% of Montgomery County is zoned for industrial activity, and there aren't many other places where it can go. There may not be enough of a market to rezone all of it for mixed-use development, as the plan recommends.
Studies show that a majority of Americans across racial and generational lines want to be close to transit, jobs, shopping, dining and entertainment, and communities across Montgomery County and the region are responding. If White Oak wants to reclaim its former prosperity, it can and should follow suit.
The Montgomery County Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan this Thursday at 6:30pm at the Planning Department, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To sign up to testify or send written comments, visit their website.
Standing inside City Place Mall, it's as if the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring never happened. After multiple attempts to revive the half-empty mall, the answer could be opening it to the street.
Representatives from Annapolis developer Petrie Ross Ventures presented their plans for the 21-year-old mall at the corner of Colesville Road and Fenton Street last night at the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board's monthly meeting. They want to create several new entrances to the street while reorganizing the mall's interior to draw larger, upscale retailers. Construction could begin this year and the mall could reopen in 2015.
The mall will also get a new name: Ellsworth Place, building on the success of the revitalized Ellsworth Drive next door. "We think it's time for the name to change and the branding to change to send a signal that things aren't the same as they were for 25 years," said partner Walt Petrie.
Mall will get new entrances, national retailers
Unlike White Flint Mall, which is being redeveloped as an outdoor shopping center, Ellsworth Place will remain an indoor mall. "It wants to be a mall," said Terry Richardson, president of Petrie Ross. "The retailers who want to be here want a mall experience, just friendlier and more pedestrian-oriented than City Place was."
To that end, Petrie Ross will improve the mall's connections to the surrounding streets, which already have lots of foot traffic. They'll renovate the three existing entrances to draw people in and place new cladding on the mall's newer section, closer to Colesville Road. Signs, lighting and video screens will hang from the existing metal framework that wraps around the building's older portion, originally built as a Hecht's department store in the 1940's.
The developer also plans new entrances on Ellsworth Drive and Colesville Road with escalators leading directly to the mall's upper floors or into a store. Along Fenton Street, there will be a new outdoor dining terrace suspended above the sidewalk to serve a sit-down restaurant. Meanwhile, new signs on the mall's blank rear wall will beckon people standing on the Metro platform two blocks away.
Inside, Petrie Ross will replace the existing 1990's Art Deco decor with "more of an industrial, clean look," said Petrie. The mall will get new lighting, a new elevator and new escalators. They also plan to rearrange the layout to improve circulation and combine smaller stores into larger, "junior anchor" spaces for national retailers.
Petrie said he seeks to bring retailers serving the "moderate and up" crowd, with a focus on entertainment venues, restaurants and clothing stores. Some establishments will stay, like McGinty's Public House, Blue Pearl, and the restaurants facing Ellsworth Drive, along with a "refreshed" Burlington Coat Factory. But the food court, which has just one restaurant, will go away, along Galaxy Billards, which will make way for a new entrance.
Several major chains and one "locally owned, regional chain" restaurant have already signed letters of intent to open here, and Petrie Ross is about to sign a lease with one of them. "You're going to recognize this tenant, and be happy to hear who it is," said Petrie. There was no word on what the new stores would be, but attorney Gus Bauman hinted that one of them might be the arts and crafts store Michaels.
On the fifth floor, a 10-screen movie theatre that's been closed since 2004 will be turned into an entertainment venue with "high-end bowling." Petrie compared it to Lucky Strike. "It's a large venue with a lot of activity that will draw a lot of people," he said.
Concerns about local businesses, historic preservation
After Hecht's closed in 1987, Montgomery County sought a way to bring shoppers back to downtown Silver Spring, but City Place struggled soon after it opened in 1992. When the Downtown Silver Spring complex opened in 2003, the mall had become an afterthought.
As a result, residents were cautiously optimistic about the mall's future. "I'm personally excited about this and I know people want things to go into this building," said Evan Glass, chair of the advisory board. "But this is the fourth iteration y'all have showed us. So why now? Why this?"
Terry Richardson, president of Petrie Ross, said that after years of recession, shoppers are ready to start spending again and retailers want to serve them. "National retailers . . . hit the pause button" in 2008, he said. "But year by year, sales are increasing."
Residents talked about stores they'd like to see in the new mall, like a bookstore or other "third places" where people could hang out without having to spend money. Board member Praj Kasbekar asked if there could be more local businesses in the mall. "Not everyone is looking for another national chain in Silver Spring," she said.
Historic preservation was another concern. The Hecht's wing is a historic landmark, and any changes to the outside will require approval from the county's Historic Preservation Commission.
Bauman called the proposed exterior alterations "modest," saying they won't drastically alter the fašade. Instead of cutting a hole over the new Ellsworth Drive entrance to put a display window there, Petrie Ross will attach a new sign and glass "shadow box" to the exterior. "Without those entrances, tenants will not come here," Bauman added. "This is what tenants tell us will bring them to Silver Spring."
Groundbreaking could happen this year
Representatives from Petrie Ross are already talking to the Montgomery County Planning Department about getting permits. If they get them this fall, Petrie said, construction could start by "the end of the year" and the mall could reopen within 2 years.
There's no word on when work will start on a 9-story, 210,000-square-foot office building above the mall, which was approved with the original project in 1988. The infrastructure needed for the office building is already in place and "we could get the permits tomorrow," said Petrie.
The past failures of City Place shows that malls don't always work in an urban setting. But with over 30,000 people working in downtown Silver Spring and thousands of apartments being built, there's bound to be demand for new places to shop, eat and hang out. The key is making sure that they're not walled off, but connected to the larger urban realm.
Check out this slideshow of renderings of the new Ellsworth Place.
Montgomery County has lots of empty parking garage roofs with great views, but they're closed to the public. We could take advantage of this wasted space by turning them into event spaces.
Last week, a map of rooftop bars in DC made by Petworth resident Tom Allison circulated on social media. Produced with the help of contributors on Reddit, the map shows several lofty watering holes in the District and Arlington, but just one in Montgomery County, at the Doubletree Hotel in Bethesda.
There have been some rooftop parties in the county, like Sky At Five in Rockville Town Square and one hosted by the apartment building formerly known as Georgian Towers with a model-turned-sushi bar. But how can we do more? On Twitter, reader Joshua Gorman joked about having a speakeasy on the top floor of a parking garage in downtown Silver Spring.
It sounds far out, but it might actually work. Montgomery County is blessed with a number of above-ground public parking garages in the downtowns of Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton. Their rooftop levels have great views, but outside of a few events each year, most of them are empty.
Our parking garages may not be as pretty as the Herzog and de Meuron-designed garage in Miami Beach which doubles as an event space. But since many of our garages are intended for commuters, they're usually next to Metro stations or bus stops, meaning you don't have to drink and drive.
People and cars are forbidden from using the top floors of many public garages in Montgomery County.
Unfortunately, most parking garage roofs in Montgomery County are blocked off with chains when they're not being used for parking. County police threaten to arrest anyone who tries to go up there.
In 2011, photographer Chip Py attempted to do a photo shoot of a popular go-go band atop a parking garage in downtown Wheaton. He'd been detained by police for taking pictures there before, so he decided to contact the Department of Transportation, which manages the garages.
"It was 13 people, lights and everything. And I didn't want to risk going in there and getting it shut down," Py said. But officials from the county said he'd get arrested for trespassing. "You can't do anything in there except park a car," he remembers being told.
Of course, people go anyway. One Saturday afternoon last year, I decided to visit the top floor of every parking garage in downtown Silver Spring. As with any forbidden-but-accessible place in the urban realm, I also found teenagers. On one garage roof, I walked into a stairwell to leave and stumbled on two kids sketching and listening to music on a little boombox. The smell of pot wafted through the air. I wanted to ask, "Why are you here?" but before I could, they freaked out and packed up.
To me at least, the answer is obvious. I remember sneaking onto the roof of the Town Square Garage on Ellsworth Drive with my friends from high school before it opened in 2004. There's the thrill of breaking the rules, yeah, but there's also the great view and the feeling like you're in the middle of everything and completely alone at the same time.
That's not too different from being in a great urban park or plaza. Public parking garages belong to the public, and we should think about them as part of the public realm. In other words, Montgomery County should take advantage of all this empty space they have, especially since it's not being used for parking. Of course, not all parking garages are engineered to actually hold people, like this one in Phoenix that violently shook when Arizona State University students held a dance party on top. We'd have to make sure that our garages were up to the task.
In recent months, there's been a lot of talk about growing the county's nightlife scene. However, it's primarily been about street-level drinking, or in the case of the Quarry House Tavern in downtown Silver Spring, subterranean drinking.
Not only would rooftop events on parking garages be a good use of wasted space, but they might be unusual enough to draw people here for a night out. The DC area may have a lot of rooftop bars, but definitely not one like this.
For more examples, check out this photoset of views from parking garages in downtown Silver Spring.
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