Sunday, March 18, 2007

should college park go "silver sprung"?

NEXT WEEK: The County Government Head-to-Head Tour finally comes to an end, including chats with Marc Elrich, Roger Berliner and Duchy Trachtenberg.

LOCAL COLOR IN SILVER SPRING: A few kids make off with a shopping cart full of goodies last December. Clearly, no one thought to swipe a belt . . .

Last week, Rethink College Park giddily reported that the University of Maryland has selected developer Foulger-Pratt to remake East Campus, a collection of service buildings and dormitories past their prime at Route 1 and Paint Branch Parkway in College Park, with two million square feet of apartments, shops, and offices, completely alter the landscape of a town whose economy seems to run on cheap beer.

While the Diamondback, the on-campus newspaper, eagerly held up Foulger-Pratt's work in Silver Spring as an example of what College Park could be (as opposed to the worst perceptions of what it currently is), not everyone's so happy that there could be a new "East Silver Spring."

Last summer, one blogger called Silver Spring "decidedly vanilla," but this time, it's Richard Layman from Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space leading the charge against Downtown, saying "it would be a shame if this becomes the model for development on a big chunk of land in College Park, Maryland, on land that could be used to create a true center at the heart of the city."

Unlike Bethesda Row, Layman says, Silver Spring fails to mix uses and create "vibrant" urban spaces. (Rethink College Park says the same, but for different reasons.) Has Layman ever been to "the Turf" on a Saturday night, or to College Park on a Saturday night, during the 2 A.M. "drunken rush hour" from the bars on Route 1 to the dorms on campus? Both places prove that you don't need sidewalk cafes serving twenty-dollar tapas to put people on the street.

Silver Spring Metro Plaza, Trizec Properties. Sleek and modern, this pedestrian street screams "skater's paradise," but that's been prohibited. Not that anyone's welcomed here: even the office workers five floors above don't show up here at lunch time.Downtown Silver Spring, Foulger-Pratt. Twenty years of bad design have finally yielded Ellsworth Drive, a street lined with flashy chain stores and fake building fronts. Sure, it's fake, but at least there's other people around, and we're pretty sure they're real.

I mean, let's not forget that Bethesda Row, developed by Federal Realty, is no more a real downtown than the Silver Spring is really silver. Layman's right in saying that Colesville Road's no pedestrian paradise, but I would blame that more on the Discovery Channel headquarters than Foulger-Pratt's work at the Silver Spring Metro Center. They seem to have done a good job in Downtown Silver Spring, if only for a couple of blocks. So what if it doesn't look authentic? I bet someone looked at the newly completed U.S. Capitol in 1811 and said, "man, they totally ripped off those Roman temples."

There doesn't seem to be much holding up Layman's argument other than elitism. Bethesda Row's well-heeled shoppers and diners photograph much better than the skaters and rappers battling for space on Ellsworth. And for some reason, scenes like that seem to be missing from the discussion about whether or not Silver Spring is a "real" place.

On the surface, it's all chain stores - just like Clarendon, or Rockville, or Bethesda. But underneath that is where you'll find the local flavor, and you'll still see that in College Park, even after revitalization takes hold. After all, no amount of gentrification will stop the 2 A.M. drunken rush hour.


Richard Layman said...

It's not elitism, it's about urban design. I admit that the Foulger-Pratt experience isn't so bad for what it is, "commodification of public spaces", but it isn't about placemaking so much as it is about making money off place.

The urban design of Bethesda Row is much different than that in Silver Spring. And the various lifestyle centers in Pittsburgh or Columbus don't feel any different than that street in Silver Spring...

Going to a bunch of chains on a street is still going to a bunch of chains on a street rather than to a mall, "The Turf" notwithstanding.

Might I suggest these:

1., go to the publications page, and select "Urban Design Compendium"

2. this piece I wrote about some of these issues --

Richard Layman said...

Oh, and it is because College Park is gross -- 2 AM drunks, riots after UMD wins a game -- and has no substantive center in the city that this really matters.

And note that part of my reaction to F-P has to do with the forthcoming abomination of the Silver Spring Transit Center. Compare what you'll get to something like Union Station, and you'll begin to understand why I am likely to be disappointed.

Silver Springer said...

The only reason why Richard Layman is complaining is because he fails to understand the physical environment that is downtown Silver Spring, the economics of development and it doesn’t meet his “demographic”. That’s really the only reason anybody criticizes it. Anybody with eyes can see that Bethesda and Pentagon Row are super block designs as well.

I find Bethesda and Pentagon Row to be very bland; dry is perfect word for them. There are no creative focal points, not to the level of Downtown Silver Spring.

Perhaps they could have broken it up but how many decades do you think it would have taken to get the authentic feel? Georgia Ave is the major artery; Bethesda Ave is not for Bethesda. If Bethesda Row was built on Wisconsin Ave you would end up with the same thing instead of a nested 4 lane road (at most) in that area you would have six; not very pedestrian friendly.

Maybe if we had an apple store and Tiffany’s people would feel more at home, because there is plenty of uncommon independent businesses in Downtown Silver Spring, no less different a ratio than Bethesda Row and especially Pentagon row which is littered with chains.

What does he have to say about DC USA?

thecourtyard said...

Mr. Layman: in your article "Lifestyle Centers vs. Traditional Commercial Districts", you say that shopping centers like Downtown Silver Spring will "never achieve organically the authentic feel of a place," but do the buildings alone create a "sense of place"?

Princeton, New Jersey, is known for its "college town" feel, due in large part to Palmer Square in its downtown, but Palmer Square is just a shopping center built in 1937. It's just as fake as Silver Spring is now, but it's had a few years to grow into itself. Give it some time!

thecourtyard said...

The center of College Park, most would argue, would be the blocks of Route 1 between College Avenue and Calvert Road. I think that's pretty obvious to anyone who's ever been there.

And I remain a big proponent of the 2 A.M. drunken rush hour, riots notwithstanding. What could say "college town" more?

Terry in Silver Spring said...

A couple of things. Is that top photo REALLY of guys stealing a cart full of stuff?

My major point: For God's sake, don't make Silver Spring like Bethesda. If I wanted to live like that, I'd be over on the other side of Rock Creek Park. Bethesda has some lovely restaurants, a few nice shops, a whole bunch of shops I can't afford, high rents, and the most freakin vanilla bunch of people you ever want to meet. I mean that in the nicest way possible.

Silver Spring is comfortable, more affordable (although this is changing), ethnically diverse, and, yes, a little gritty in places. With a big dollop of help from the State and County (bless 'em!), we're tidying up right now. Give us time. It's like looking at a lawn that just had sod laid and complaining that you can still see the lines.

College Park. I went to UMd from 1980 - 1984. College Park is MUCH better now. Of course, I was part of the problem back then, stumbling out of the Vous and Grill in a beer induced haze, eating pizza with a whiff of pepper gas over my head, loading up on snacks at the High's, and seeing Rocky Horror at midnight at that old theater on Rt 1 with the crummy seats that would occasionally rip your pants. The shopping and restaurants are MUCH better there now (although I mourn the changes to Bentley's). I suspect the change in drinking age helped.

It would be nice if the Rt 1 strip could have more of the "college" feel that places like Princeton and Amherst do. Then again, if you put in expensive clothes and brickbrack stores, who is going to shop in them? UMd has fewer trust fund babies that some other schools, despite the rising tuition. The facades along the strip need to be vastly improved, but the type of businesses still need to be in the range of things accessible and of interest to the UMd crowd.

urbannomad said...

I'm as much an urban elitist and "into" urban design as the next guy, but I also understand the need to balance that with reality and what the average Joe in America wants. And this is what I feel Silver Spring does a good job accomplishing. I love Dupont circle for example, but you don't see near the diversity there as you do in Silver Spring. They are two totally different beast.

In Silver Spring it's not uncommon to see yuppies, thugs, blue-collar workers, families, and teens all sharing the same space. This is something you don't really see in the true "urban development" that we all love, but for it's all short comings, this diversity is something Silver Spring achieves very well. It truly is what most people want and a pretty good balance with urban development even if it's not Dupont circle. And I would argue that in America (like it or not) there is only so much depend for the true urban development you find in the core of cities.

urbannomad said...

Make that "DEMAND" not depend in my last sentence. It was too early to start commenting on blog post I guess.

Richard Layman said...

Layman does understand the economics of urban development. And he knows the difference between urban renewal and urban revitalization.

Yes, it is all about superblocks and superbuildings. Clarendon is becoming just like Silver Spring, or much of Bethesda.

Fundamentally, the scale of the buildings and development at Bethesda Row--yes, which is about commodification--is at the walkable scale, while a lot of Silver Spring isn't.

Therefore, using F-P as a model for College Park, which shouldn't be about superblocks and superbuildings, seems worrisome to me.

I don't know Princeton but I do know Ann Arbor as that's where I went to school.

The physical environment--just the buildings, not the uses, and people in this thread are overfocused on the uses it seems like to me--of Bethesda Row, is much more comparable to the feel of buildings in Ann Arbor, and the intensity of the experience on the street as well.

I know that you have to take what you get, and you can be happy with it (hey, I like Baja Fresh as much as anybody, but the chain "Irish" bar is pretty average, and Borders is Borders even though yes, I went to Borders before they ever had a second stsore) but I think it would be a shame to have in College Park the kind of outdoor lifestyle center experience that makes Downtown Silver Spring not a whole lot different than South Side Works at the end of East Carson Street in Pittsburgh.

I think that is a real danger, and increasingly likely given the winning developer.

I meant to blog about this in December, but I never got around to it. Having a not very public process for selection of the master developer, which is what UMD did, makes it that much harder to yield "greatness" or even merely something somewhat decent.

Richard Layman said...

Oops, I forgot to respond to the query about DC-USA. I am not impressed. And I think it's an abomination to use $42 million of Sec. 108 HUD funds to build a parking garage _immediately adjacent to a subway station_!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Terry in Silver Spring said...

"Fundamentally, the scale of the buildings and development at Bethesda Row--yes, which is about commodification--is at the walkable scale, while a lot of Silver Spring isn't."

You're right, particularly about some of the new development. This was my biggest disappointments with the Discovery Building. It's neat looking from a distance. Even zooming by in a car, the mural and glimpses into the lobby are interesting. Walking, though, it's largely a huge thing you have to walk around.

7smash said...

It would be ok with me if they stretched the ersatz building fronts up and down Georgia Ave to clean up the avenue- let 'em start with that miserable shopping center near Dale Dr with the adult porn shop and Tropical Lagoon. That place is UGLY and the billboard is a nasty gateway to downtown Silver Spring.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

"I know that you have to take what you get, and you can be happy with it (hey, I like Baja Fresh as much as anybody, but the chain "Irish" bar is pretty average..."

McGinty's isn't a chain.

It's also pretty much what a pub is, except that they don't usually have their backsides stuck in a mall.

C4bl3Fl4m3 said...

Excellent article. Truly. I'm an avid reader of Richard's blog, and it's nice to get another viewpoint.

To Richard himself, though...
"Oh, and it is because College Park is gross -- 2 AM drunks, riots after UMD wins a game -- and has no substantive center in the city that this really matters."

Richard, come now. Stop hating on college life. I'm dead serious.

I find drunken frat boys as distasteful as you do (honestly... eww), however I recognize that for many people, that's an integral part of the college experience. I'd never presume to take that away from anyone. Rather, I want more alternatives to that for the young adults that would rather stumble home a little drunk and a little wired at 2 am from drinking espresso and microbrews at the local alternative coffeehouse/hangout.

And as for the riots... am I the only one who doesn't see them as necessarily a bad thing? Practically, when it comes to destruction of property, yes, it's bad. I agree on that hand. And if you're going to say people get hurt... well, they usually don't, until the cops show up, start shooting pepper balls or bean bags at people, and people get scared and flee. But, honestly, it's a Maryland tradition. And they don't riot after they win any game. Rather, they have, on average, 1 riot every couple of years. If they win a championship game (or lose it), they'll riot. But in the 2 or 3 years I was active at UMCP, there was never a riot (there was one the year before I was active, though). (And I refuse to blame that on the whole ridiculous "Act Like You Know" campaign.) But, seriously, rioting is part of the MD college experience, it's something that you look upon, shake your head, and smile at.

Richard Layman said...

i'm not having a good day, am getting sick... but we're gonna have to disagree reasonably on this one. I.e., riots are not good, ever. Granted cops overreact, but they are trained to act in very specific and limited ways. Force is one of the only tools they have.

I am fine with drunks, etc. I don't think I wrote that original line, I was just quoting someone.

The only thing I don't like about College Park is the lack of a decent community commercial center comparable to what I was fortunate enough to experience in Ann Arbor. Drinking etc. is fine, just so long as I don't have to do it, which I don't.