Monday, January 26, 2009

bonifant street: the anti-ellsworth

A developer proposes replacing these stores on Bonifant Street with a nine-story apartment building.

If you were on Bonifant Street around 2:30pm last Friday, that kid you saw counting his steps on the sidewalk with his head down was me. Three of my friends/classmates and I are designing a mixed-use building for a student design competition sponsored by AARP, and we chose the parking lot of the Chevy Chase Bank at Bonifant and Georgia as our site. On Friday, we had to pace out the lot's dimensions.

Were I on Ellsworth Drive, I would have been quickly and efficiently carted away by security, but just two blocks away, I was nothing more than a mere curiosity. "Interesting," one woman said a little-too-loudly as she walked by. A man in a green knit cap who seemed to work for the bank snapped a picture of me with a disposable camera and ran off. Jim Dandy, of the dry cleaner across the street that bears his name, pulled my friend and I aside and had a long conversation with us.

This street embodies everything I love about Silver Spring - this "quirky grit" that you can't get rid of, no matter how hard you try to clean it up as has been done on Ellsworth Drive. Bonifant Street resident and musician Lisa Null calls it "micro-neighborhood" in a 2007 guest blog for JUTP, listing dozens of businesses here and on neighboring that you'll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in this area.

The proposed Bonifant Plaza would replace the block of shops shown above.

We should be celebrating this kind of vibrancy in Downtown Silver Spring, but instead we've been stifling it - with apartment towers like The Crescent, The Portico or The Veridian, whose vapid "pocket parks" and miserable (or nonexistent) retail offerings kill street life, or with "urban renewal" projects like the Silver Spring Library project, which allowed the County to buy and raze several businesses at the corner of Bonifant and Fenton with eminent domain years before the library will even be finished.

The biggest threat to Bonifant Street has yet to arrive. A proposed apartment building, Bonifant Plaza would rise just east of Georgia Avenue, on a site currently home to the dry cleaner, a nail salon, a karate school, an art gallery, and quite a few other businesses I failed to mentioned. The plans have been kicked around for the past couple of years due to worries about accessing the adjacent alley and the Purple Line, but according to the blog DCmud, Bonifant Plaza could come before the Planning Board next month.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

With paltry retail offerings and unnecessary pocket parks, new buildings like the Crescent on Wayne Avenue make the business district less vibrant.

Developer Theo Margas says that his new building won't include retail because the zoning "doesn’t allow for ground floor retail," which sounds questionable given he's displacing several retail and office spaces. The site (like the site we're working on) is currently zoned CBD-2, which requires at least 5% retail or service uses, which for Bonifant Plaza would be less than 6,000 square feet, the size of a 7-Eleven. So not only are we knocking out a considerable portion of the retail space that gives Bonifant Street its character, convenience and street life, but we aren't replacing it at all.

Silver Spring, Singular made it very clear that the Ellsworth urban renewal project did not displace any local businesses, a standard we should keep to in future development. I would say that Ellsworth's glitz and bustle is an effective counterpoint to the grit and warmth of Bonifant Street and, together, they one cool effing place to be. Why would anyone come here if it was just glitz or grit? There are plenty of suburban town centers that can outdo Ellsworth's carefully planned excitement and plenty of D.C. neighborhoods that would make Bonifant's quirkiness look downright staid.

Outside the dry cleaners, Jim Dandy (at left) gestures to the his picture in last year's Gazette pasted to the window of his store. "I looked pretty good when I was younger," he says, laughing. 93 years old, Jim Dandy has been here a long time, he says, and he's happy. "You can make yourself happy. People claim what they don't want . . . why don't they claim what they do want?"

I claim Bonifant Street. Our group's got a challenge in designing a mixed-use building for this street, but we're going to do what MoCo and the development community should be: taking an approach to redevelopment that seeks to preserve what currently exists while also accommodating additional growth. The businesses along Bonifant would, I'm sure, welcome the additional traffic that came from new apartments or library patrons or Purple Line riders. That is, if they remained to see any of it.


Matt L. said...

I moved to Fenton St. because I thought Ellsworth was a nice place to be near... turns out I love Bonifant a hundred times more, thanks to Kefa Cafe, Quarry House, and Thai Derm. They have character that chains can't duplicate.

It feels a little like comparing Bethesda Ave. vs. the Woodmont area in downtown Bethesda... Bethesda Ave. is shiny and new... but I tend to pick Woodmont almost every time I go there.

Sligo said...

On what other street in Silver Spring can you can buy guns, tats, and (allegedly) whores?

Thomas Hardman said...

So, I see that Dan is having somewhat wistful feelings. Mixed-use/high-density, or a neighborhood with soul?

Tough call. Do you flip a coin or go with your heart?

Well, you know how it is with Modern Urban Planning. By sticking to the criteria that all agree is best -- densification into mixed-use beehives near transit hubs -- you have to remove what makes the place a living human streetscape and a worthy destination characterized by both uniqueness and long history.

We only kill the ones we love, because that's what school teaches us to do.

Silver Spring: Then and Again said...


The Silver Spring Historical Society would like a copy of your finished project for our archives.

Thomas Hardman said...

And a lady walked by and declared the Humble Blogger to be "interesting", just a bit loudly. Of course, that's Montgomery County Street Code for "investigate these bozos, you guys, I'm late for a meeting or I'd do it myself".

Clearly the Humble Blogger hasn't yet learned that with a laminated card on a neck strap and with a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other, you can fade into utter anonymity and remain unnoticed by all but fellow clipboard-carryers.

The laminate could be an all-day pass to Chuck E. Cheese and the clipboard could be a stack of printer-jam ultimately destined for the recycle bin, the passerby don't look too closely because if it was real, it'd probably be mind-wrenchingly boring, and if it was fake, they probably couldn't tell the difference from what is real.

Clipboard, checklist, camera, and if you really want to seem employed and officious, a cellphone is obligatory. A Blackberry is even more useful. Texting your imaginary friends is the best way known to deflect conversation. ;)

Mortis Olaf said...

I think this building sucks, hopefully the board will agree.

jen said...

I agree about Bonifant and the need to preserve some of the quirkiness of Silver Spring. Wasn't much of the justification for Ellsworth that it was supposed to bring traffic to the existing neighborhood businesses and therefore help preserve them? I bought that, but now it is starting to sound like that was bull and Ellsworth was just the first step in Bethesda-fying SS.

How can they even get funding for more apartments/condos in this real estate market anyway? There have to be hundreds if not thousands of empty units in the area.