Thursday, July 10, 2008

still sick: how to grow an old town in no time

"The Turf" in Downtown Silver Spring (shown in 2006): it may be plastic grass, but the crowd says it's a first-class urban space.

Last week, Henry from Silver Spring Scene and I had a lengthy comment-debate about the mall-like attributes of places like the Downtown Silver Spring complex or Rockville Town Square. I got hung out to dry for "Downtown Silver Spring-bashing," which is a common sport among anyone who feels the place is fake or merely disagrees with its approach to urban design.

I've spent many an evening on Ellsworth Drive in Downtown Silver Spring - and, over the past year, in Rockville Town Square - admiring how well both spaces nurture the diversity and vitality that urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William Whyte say a city deserves. The Post's Marc Fisher calls "the Turf" at Ellsworth and Fenton "the venue for some of the best people-watching in the region," while Dave Murphy over at Imagine, DC wrote about just how well Silver Plaza works as a gathering space a couple of weeks ago.

But while they may get people together, Ellsworth and projects like it can't replace all of the functions of a city. If you want a book, an expensive dress, or some makeup, Ellsworth has you set. But if you're looking for quirky little shops, exotic restaurants, and underground music, do you go to Ellsworth Drive? No. You go to Fenton Village, just south of the redevelopment area; to Takoma Park, where big chains are all but run out of town; or to Wheaton, whose ethnic restaurants have earned it the title of "MoCo's Adams Morgan."

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Wheaton: small parcels mean individual ownership, diverse businesses, and a high risk tolerance.

What is the difference? Ellsworth is the creation of one developer, The Peterson Companies, on one giant block of land, assembled by Montgomery County ten years ago for redevelopment. Fenton Village, Takoma Park and Wheaton are a collaborative effort, built over decades by multiple owners on multiple properties. People complain that Downtown Silver Spring looks "new." Well, duh, it is new. But Takoma Park isn't the way it is because it's old, either.

A diversity of buildings - large and small; new and old - offer spaces at all price ranges, meaning a variety of uses (short of large supermarkets or department stores) can set up shop there. And that diversity exists because Takoma Park's business district consists of small parcels of land, platted over a century ago, that were bought up by individuals who each built their own buildings. It's a tradition that continues today in Takoma Park, Wheaton and Fenton Village.

Small lots and small buildings are cheaper to build and maintain, and with the right support, a local business can get off the ground with considerably less financing than a major developer. If the market changes, they can also respond more easily than a developer can, and with less risk. Peterson threw a lot of money into Downtown Silver Spring, and they don't want a poor return-on-investment, so they must take as few risks as possible. This negates some of the diversity that a city ideally provides.

Last week, I suggested that our county's strip malls are ripe candidates for redevelopment into dense, mixed-use centers to serve our neighborhoods and downtowns. One way to encourage this redevelopment may be to break them up - whether by turning the existing buildings into condominiums and selling off each individual store, or by clearing the site and re-platting it with smaller lots. Mixed-use zoning would allow each owner to build as he or she chooses, creating a lively and varied streetscape. To ensure that development happens in a timely fashion, properties will be sold with a five-year deadline to start construction.

Bonifant Street in Fenton Village: Small businesses feel the heat from redevelopment.

In Burtonsville, we've seen how slow and arduous the Burtonsville Shopping Center redevelopment has been, and with little to show for it. More often than not, large developments are met with resistance or at least skepticism from the surrounding community. Splitting up the job might be more palatable to the neighbors. It'll guarantee the smaller-scale retail community groups call for, within the timeline of a larger project, but without the feeling that everything "went up overnight." This is a way to create a place like Takoma Park without waiting a century for the charm to come around.

That being said, those quirky shops and exotic restaurants aren't going to exist on their own. Takoma Park has a culture that attracts small-scale retail and repels big chains, often with force. But Wheaton's awesome restaurants are in large part buoyed by traffic (or at least name recognition) from Wheaton Plaza, whose chain stores are just as big an attraction. And despite the renaissance on Ellsworth Drive, many smaller businesses in Downtown Silver Spring are getting pushed out - so much so that a University of Maryland study recommended Montgomery County should do more to retain them.

It remains to be seen how small businesses will fare in Montgomery County's downtowns, where changing demographics and a newfound interest in city living has drawn people to make their lives here. When at their best, cities are able to handle these changes effectively - the key is to make sure that they have the tools to do so.

Special thanks to John Massengale of New York's Veritas et Venustas, whose post "The Best Way To Develop Atlantic Yards & Hudson Yards" was the main inspiration for this post.


really said...

Thanks, JUTP, for once again providing thoughtful commentary on development and quality of life in SOMOCO. Keep up the great work.

I have to say, however, that I don't agree with you othat the ugly eyesore that is much of Wheaton (your photo is a perfect example) is somehow preferable to the new development that has transformed downtown Silver Spring.

For all the silly complaints about noisy theater patrons and generic chain blandness, there is LIFE downtown that simply wasn't there before. Do you see any people in your Wheaton photo? Nope, just cars. You don't seem to value ``getting people together,'' but that is precisely why the new downtown Silver Spring works.

We do need to encourage diversity and do what can be done to help small business owners, but we do not live in a museum. Those seeking to preserve the past have forgotten how awful many of these places were before the big bad developers came.

Anonymous said...

Many excellent points here, especially about Takoma Park. I always do my gift shopping there. We must preserve Fenton Village. Developers are constantly trying to bust up its small-scale nature.
PS-The Ellsworth Drive area seems to concentrate noise, blinding sun, or rain. More trees are desperately needed. That Rockville Town Square is new, but has a much more shaded feel, even on hot days.

Anonymous said...

The county zoning code, at present, forbids mixed-use development on lots of smaller than 18,000 square feet. (I know of one exception to this, which happens to apply to two properties in downtown Bethesda and most of Wheaton Plaza, all owned by big developers; there may be some other small exceptions.)

This rule means that a small merchant is forced to sell out to a large developer if he or she wants to get the full value of a property in any of the county's downtowns. The developers don't like the rule; it is kept there by critics of urban-style development who insist that mixed-use projects must have 20% of their land area devoted "public use" spaces. This is the rule that creates those dead spaces in front of so many of the new buildings in Silver Spring, Bethesda, and elsewhere.

If you think (as I do) that our urban areas have too much of a "corporate" feel, these rules are urgently in need of change.

Ben Ross

Anonymous said...

I recently moved to downtown Silver Spring from a truely walkable place where there were 30+ non-chain or mini-chain stores within a 5 block walk of my house.

Silver Spring downtown really doesn't compare and I stay far away from most stores there, but each individual customer doesn't need to sample everything. There are about 3 restaurants (Lebanese, Thai, Morrocan) in the mall area where I've eaten and plan to go back and there's the wonderful Abol Ethiopian restaurant across Georgia Ave from the mall zone. The fountain is great for children.

While I'd love a downtown where I get to approve every store (or at least fewer bland chains), there is enough there to attract different groups of people and keep the place lively... which is the main point.

Anonymous said...

A lot of very good points. You definatley understand the importance of fine grained urbanism and the vitality it provides. I just don't want anyone to forget that the first an dmost important ingredient to vitality is to have vitas - people.
WHile Takoma Park is more picturesque, it is a snooz when compared to the Obamaesque vitality of DTSS. Pring on the people - Jane Jacobs

Anonymous said...

Regarding those "silly" complaints about noisy theater patrons: lively neighborhoods are fine, but obnoxious crowds are nothing to celebrate. DTSS has a wonderful theater in the physical sense, but just like a new car with a rotting fish inside it, the theater is all but unsuable for anyone who actually wants to enjoy a movie.

So far there have been a limited number of fights and crimes caused by the miscreants who make the Majestic such an unpleasant to be in or near, but I see no reason to be optimistic about that number going down, rather than up.

Anonymous said...

Nice Commentary...

With that being said. I totally disagree with using Takoma Park as a Possitive Example of how Downtown Silver Spring and other urban partss of Montgomery County should look like. I just only see that as another scheme to make the Maryland Suburbs to look like an Embarassing Joke compared to the Urban Areas of Northern Virginia.

I can NEVER Understand for the Life of me of what good does it have for the Urban Areas of Montgomery County to be releavced of Big Chain Upscale Retail Stores other than the fact that it would decrease economic and business and any Montgomery County Tax Paying Citizen and Supporter would not support any scheme that would DAMAGE Economic/Business/Revenue Growth in Montgomery County especially if Montggomery County doesn't have have a selection of Upscale Retail Large Chain Stores it will just force 90% of the County Residence to Patronize Upscale Chain Retail in DC and Northern Virginia. Maybe that is what the Maryland haters that claim to be from Takoma Park want to see happen to Maryland which is Transform the state into a Third World Enviroment that reaps Social and Financial Corrution........

Also everytime I read someones comments about Wheaton being diverse with independent Retail Restaurants I scratch my head wondering what the heck is their definition of Diversity because In my experiance of traveling to other regions My view on Diversity is seeing Restaurants that are not only catered to Mexican-Central American but Also African American Southern Soul Food, West Indian Roti Shops, African Eateries of different countries, Italian Pasta Eateries, Greek Eateries, etc. I have yet to find a African American Operated Southern Soul Food, Carribean-West Indian, or any African Restaurants in Wheaton except Mexican-Central American Restaurants. With that being said it is TOTALLY FALSE to claim that Wheaton is diverse when it is only catering to a specific Race/Culture Demographic.........

Silver Springer said...

Dan, to continue the conversation from the previous post. You said “I don't want to touch the surrounding neighborhoods (THOUGH many of the houses immediately west of N. Washington Street are all law offices and are either exceptions or zoned commercial anyway)” Even if they are law offices… again, the City of Rockville will not let them get torn down. Most of those law offices are in single family homes that I would even say have some historic merit. Rockville’s core has quite a bit empty parking spaces but to become a live, work and play area they would have to at least get to Optional Method, CBD-2 heights of 143 ft for it be worthwhile which isn’t that tall at all IMO.

You cannot try to create a “units per acre rule” and believe that it can be applied universally; it depends on the geographical location. If a range of between 160-175 units per acre is adequate for a neighborhood in Boston it is inadequate for one in New York City. Likewise if 15/units per acre is good enough to support a bus route on Route 29 it is inadequate for Rockville Pike. Not to mention the housing types that are built. 125 units per acre is applied to downtown Silver Spring but Fenton Village ain’t hopping with people although there are other factors to take into account as well.

Now I am not sure what the units per acre range is adequate to turn Rockville Town Center or even Rockville pike into a vibrant 24/7 urban hub of activity where people would rather walk than drive but I know it ain’t 40 units per acre. Not for what was called the largest conglomerate of retail in the Country. How would 40 units per acre support Rockville Pike all the way to Grosvenor if it can’t support Rockville Town Center.

Luckily the County and planning sees RTC heights and density as inadequate for what they control on the Pike. North Bethesda already boasts some of the tallest buildings in the County. Now it will get the tallest building in the County. Having all the buildings on Rockville Pike the same height as RTC would be a significant inefficient use and waste and a failure for the retail and offices there and metro. It would also create a dull skyline indefinite of Montgomery County. Neighborhood retail in such a developed region like the D.C. area cannot survive without a certain density. To get to those intricate secondary uses that specialize like science and gadget stores or local toy shops in this area you need more than 40 units per acre especially with all the competing larger retail.

But like you are indirectly saying the problems of development in the County fall on the shoulders of the Government and planning. Zoning laws in CBD’s allow optional method of development only on parcels at least 18,000 square feet. What do can you do on anything smaller. Planning and the County can tell you how tall to build a building, to add MPDUs/affordable housing, setbacks, public use space, it goes on and on. The development problems in the County is not an issue of the “big bad developer” it’s a problem of the planning and the County still living in a suburban world.

Silver Springer said...

They lack detail so what they have to say holds very little weight.
Dan you have to admit that the more common tactic by many has been to attack the Downtown Silver Spring project. It is singled out for attack as if it is somehow significantly worse off than any other recently built shopping district. Richard Layman, from “urban places and spaces” doesn’t write a very convincing report at all, he lacks the details needed to make a convincing argument. While chain filled DC USA is little talked about he constantly bashes DTSS. His one-liners are ill-conceived.

I totally disagree with what little assessment he even has. To some up his report he is basically saying “I don’t like the way downtown Silver Spring looks, its ugly end of story”.

He loses credibility with me when he uses a picture of the NOAA buildings as an example for bad urban design. It is one of the most well done blocks in the entire region IMO and Dan, you yourself have proclaimed your appreciation for it. So I find it kind of odd as to how you would continuously quote this guy as if what he has to say holds any merit.

What negative things people say about DTSS would hold weight if it actually read like they did their research and conducted a valid comparison. Instead of saying DTSS is fake or has too many chains end of story; why not communicate to us why that really means in detail; and especially how does it compare to other places in the region. How many chains are in DC USA, Bethesda Row, RTC, Pentagon Row etc? Compare component by component, does Bethesda Row incorporate any historic buildings?

Is the office building in Bethesda Row more urban in architecture than the one in Downtown Silver Spring?

What special uses do these places have, an AFI type venue? Roound House Theater?

Why is DTSS worst than these places is what I want to know, is it factual reasoning or is it simply personal preference?

Silver Springer said...

Ellsworth drive was never meant to replace anything; it was suppose to fill a void in Silver Spring.

You mention Fenton Village but you fail to mention South Silver Spring with Mayorga, Gallery and very intricate specialized businesses. An Ethiopian Bakery, Barber shops, Hat stores, Blair Mansion Inn, and whether you like it or not even Porn stores, Gun shops and tattoo parlors. You fail to mention City Place Mall and the Jemal Douglas owned block right around the Corner. You fail to mention all the retail North of Colesville in the CBD. Can Wheato stake claim to a Rock School for kids? Silver Spring can improve but can definitely hold its own against Takoma Park and especially mega mall Wheaton. It is larger than both combined.

You need BOTH the chains and locals. The chains draw in a crowd and calls attention to an area that wasn’t getting any. This is what DTSS has done. It is up to the County on how they want to take advantage of this success, do not blame the developers for that. Particularly when residents oppose everything under the sun and zoning laws favor suburban Greenfield development and large block development.

Wheaton does not hold any weight against downtown Silver Spring; it is a conglomerate of decaying strip malls oriented for the car, practically all if it is pushed back from the street with parking in front as your picture shows; far from the picturesque neighborhood retail.

I am inclined to agree with the last poster about the diversity in Wheaton, what does that mean? The area is predominantly Hispanic how does that speak to diversity? If Wheaton is so great, how many places in Wheaton can I grab some Nigerian Moi Moi? Where can I get some Japanese daifuku cakes. Where are the local Asian/Indian, Middle Eastern, and African Grocery markets and Bakeries?

Hell, where are the Dutch markets, French Bakeries and other European restaurants and grocery stores? I would pose the same question whether it was predominantly African, Asian and Caucasian etc.

What does diversity mean to people in this County? It is an often abused word IMO.

Why is Wheaton so much better than Silver Spring when it is predominantly one group and Silver Spring has a wide array representing all groups (or at least most with more than just one store)?

Same with Takoma Park, MARYLAND not D.C. The Maryland side has NO SUBSTANTIAL DEVLOPMENT going on so how can the tradition continue? By pushing one shop out for another?

I remember an old antique shop in Old Town Takoma Park I used to go to when I was little, it is no longer there. I see dry cleaners, empty spaces and common uses in that entire block now. So much for tradition right? YOU NEED TO REPLENISH YOUR STOCK WITH NEW BUILDINGS, NEW DEVELOPMENT FOR THE FUTURE OTHERWISE THE AREA WILL FAIL IN THE LONG RUN.

IMO downtown Silver Spring is the most balanced urban node in the region, by racial makeup and by new and old. Everyone is somewhat fairly represented; we could use a more diverse stock of African American restaurants and more Asian businesses though.

Wheaton and Takoma Park lack any office market worth mentioning which does not bode well for them and partly why more crime happens in these places. They are not mixed use in the truest form. Not like Silver Spring.

Dan Reed said...

Really: you're exactly right. The big difference between Downtown Silver Spring and just about every other similar downtown in Montgomery County (save for Rockville Town Square) is that there is a major gathering space, and that's what sets it apart. For all the success that Bethesda Row's had, they still don't have a public plaza or square. Wheaton comes close with Lot 13, which will hopefully become their town square in a few years.

Henry: I think you're really missing the point. Like, really really really.

I have no interest in bashing Silver Spring, or saying that Silver Spring is the be-all, end-all for urban places, because it isn't. I love Silver Spring, I grew up there, I go there all the time. I think it is, as Marc Fisher said, one of the best spots for people-watching in the region, which says a lot.

But I am frustrated that people from outside the area think that Downtown is just Ellsworth Drive, which I think save for its people is a lousy representation of Silver Spring, or at least the Silver Spring I grew up in. I am frustrated that the roads are too wide and still congested, and that the sidewalks are never wide enough, and that the blocks are too long to encourage people to take their lazy asses south of Wayne or north of Colesville.

I'm disappointed that those shops on Fenton Street are losing business - and the ones on Bonifant are closing altogether - but I'm even more disappointed that we have to wait on big projects like the Transit Center, the Lee development behind the Fillmore, or the Silver Spring Gateway, all or some of which end up disappointing you in the end.

The little developments are where the meat is. They are more flexible and they take less time while making a big impact, one block at a time. This is how you build an urban place, one piece at a time, not all at once, and I want to learn how to encourage them.

I think in making Silver Spring better we have to learn from other areas. Nowhere do I say that Wheaton or Takoma Park are the ideal, but I want to learn from their example, or to understand why they're different from Silver Spring.

Yes, there are other issues - the lack of office space in Wheaton and Takoma Park, for instance. And you're completely right; without office space, there are fewer people in those downtowns, meaning there are fewer eyes-on-the-street for a potential crime.

I think we agree on most parts, but you can't keep brow-beating me on the details. This is all hypothetical. You're good at crunching numbers, but I'm not built that way, so forgive me if they don't all add up at the end.

Dan Reed said...

I repeat: Ellsworth is the catalyst. It was absolutely necessary and Downtown as we know it wouldn't exist without it. But I think the future of Silver Spring comes in little projects.

Silver Springer said...

Dan, I apologize if I am coming off as an attacker to your comments but I am really just speaking to the general accumulated negative comments that we often read about Silver Spring, not directly to you per se. You just happen to be the one to bring up the topics for discussion, which I find interesting.

I’ve been told I can be aggressive in my posting but I’m not going to sugar coat anything, I’ll call it like I see it. Unfortunately for others it’s often a different perspective than what they are used to reading.

Believe me when I say I am glad there is someone like you who not only has a positive interest in Silver Spring, but is constantly thinking about ways to improve it and offers solution instead of just criticism. It’s refreshing to know that I’m not the only one out there on a similar wavelength.

But I have no deference for people who criticize places without doing any research and offer no solutions.

That’s why I think it’s a disservice to Silver Spring and your site to quote people like Richard Layman, that constantly have nothing but bad things to say about Silver Spring. He really takes it personal.

We need solutions, not self proclaimed critics who offer us nothing and excuse my language but act like their shit don’t stink. Many of the things he complains about I will be able to find in D.C. proper, does it somehow become appropriate once you cross the “magical” D.C. line?

Trust me; I fully understand what you are saying from the beginning but you will gather more bees with sugar than vinegar. I never said that DTSS was the end all be all of anything. What you said is what I am saying, it is a catalyst. But I think we diverge on pre-DTSS era and Post DTSS era. Let me make this clear, I believe there is room for improvement, if you know anything about me than you should know that. But I would never go back to the pre-DTSS era. I’ll take my chances with today trying to fix what’s wrong, which is a whole lot less than 10 years ago.

I believe that if you had more information on the projects in the region, you would know that the same issues you feel are happening in Silver Spring are happening in the places you hold highly as examples. Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle developments will be a greater tragedy than anything going up in its equivalent in Silver Spring: Fenton Village. They will lose a substantial amount of bars, clubs and retail. A intricate group of businesses will be lost, they will not be able to afford the new building rents. Basically Bethesda will trade its night life and vibrant streets for residential. Wasn’t part of the point of the residential to have those new residents enjoy what’s already there?

I totally get your point though, I just think we need to look at the glass half full instead of half empty. Constantly putting a negative spin and talking about the mistakes of DTSS, the "shoulda,woulda, couldas" isn’t going to solve or change anything. The DTSS project is mostly done they are not going to demolish it and start over anytime soon, we need to make the best of it and there are many positive aspects to build upon, it could have been much worst. Why don’t we talk about its positive attributes and use that build off of?

For decades Silver Spring was the laughing stock of the region, so much negative publicity on crime, failure and decay that we still have to deal with to this day. I don't want to play any part in that. It's a part that we don't have time to deal with.

Finally we have assets that rival, Arlington, Bethesda, and even D.C. proper some that they can’t even match. We have come a long way and I would rather build on that than continue to look back at mistakes and criticize everything as if it is some lost cause or the greatest failure of the region. I want to go onwards and upwards using the positive things I find in Silver Spring to entice others.

While I am not excusing the mistakes of Silver Spring, If you want to show people that Silver Spring is more than just Ellsworth than you need to talk about the positive attributes of the other parts in the CBD not just how much better Wheaton or Takoma Park is which they are not. For all of Silver Spring’s faults those areas are secondary to it and have a bigger hill to climb, you can thank Silver Spring for whatever positive attributes they have as well.

Why the hell would I as a developer (large or small) invest in Silver Spring when nobody has anything good to say about? Why don’t I just go to Wheaton or Takoma Park if “its done right over there”. You want to encourage smaller scale development in Silver Spring but the way people talk about it why would I take the economic risk (which is greater at the smaller scale)? People fail to see the economics of this development situation and putting a negative spin on Silver Spring all the time will just make your task that much harder.
We need to be more thankful for what we have in Silver Spring and push to make it better. You’ve got the later right but you’re not going to get anywhere by referencing it as what not to do all the time.

Now that we have the anchors in place in the CBD it’s time to make the connections in-between. That’s it in a nut shell. It’s like people don’t realize Silver Spring’s revitalization isn’t done yet, there is still more to come.