Thursday, September 17, 2009

retrofitting suburbia in silver spring

On Tuesday, I gave a tour of Downtown Silver Spring to June Williamson, associate professor at the City College of New York and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, a book about recent attempts to redevelop older suburban places. Though it briefly mentioned the July 4 photo protest in DTSS two years ago, Prof. Williamson had never been to Silver Spring before, and was eager to learn more about our community's attempts to remake the place - and about the struggles over public and private space that ensues - for a presentation paper she's writing.

I tried to hit as many local landmarks as I could, from the Discovery Building and AFI Silver to Mayorga Coffee and the Mayor Norman Lane statue, all in yesterday's welcome-but-stifling heat. It's kind of hard to distill 160 years of history and 55 city blocks into a two-hour walk, but I think it worked out, and I have much, much more respect for Jerry McCoy's walking tour of historic Downtown Silver Spring, which he's been hosting monthly for quite a while now.

And of course, I should give a special thanks to one Chip Py, whose now infamous run-in with a security guard two summers ago led to the offer to do this today.


Thomas Hardman said...

Thanks for bringing my attention to this book and author, Dan.

If you have any such others to recommend, please let us know.

Aspen Hill, like many other places, was turning into a Slumburbia and to some degree it will remain one until some retrofit is done.

Some infrastructure maintenance is being done here, as part of the Wheaton Woods Renewal project, mostly under the auspices of Renew Montgomery. Yet this mostly is basic infrastructure maintenance, streets, curbs, and gutters. That just brings Aspen Hill up to generally acceptable levels.

Do we need any megascale development? Well, the Georgia Avenue Corridor improvement plans coming out of the Planning Board have a lot to be said for them, but one of the problems we have here is a lot of small businesses which are doing well-enough and have been in business for years. Any major "renovation" would probably inconvenience a lot of people and business owners and their employees, possibly put a lot of them out of business.

Still, there are things that could be done here. The Aspen Hill Library is almost perfectly sited, and there's lots of empty land there. But let's not plan any huge mixed-use high-rise development with a much bigger and better library on the ground floors.

I must go to this library and get that book, of course. And thanks again for pointing it out to us.

Casey A said...

Dan: I would be curious to know what Professor Williamson thought about Silver Spring. Did she mention anything that surprised her? I would love to hear what her recommendations would be for SS and the surrounding area.

Casey Anderson

Dan Reed said...

There weren't so many recommendations as there were observations. What I realized (in seeing DTSS through the eyes of someone who's been to a lot of places like it) that our problems aren't so different from those of suburbs all across the country going through the same process.

That doesn't mean that all solutions are the same, as I'm learning from the book. Some of the suburbs discussed had large public-private redevelopments like Downtown Silver Spring. But others made much smaller changes. One project outside Minneapolis turned an old strip mall into a park. Another strip mall in Phoenix became a hip dining destination as high-end grocers and restaurants moved in.

As for us . . . I'm not sure what Prof. Williamson would recommend. Hopefully her research will yield some insights about how to improve the quality of our public spaces in Downtown Silver Spring.

Thomas Hardman said...

I want to know what's going to become of 4115 Aspen Hill Road campus of BAE Systems (once it ws Vitro Labs), it's 230,000 square feet and when it is vacated in April 2010, it will be one of the largest unoccupied commercial real-estate sites in the County, which is already swimming in much more modern commercial office buildings. This one was built in 1967/1968 or so.

june said...

Hi Dan!
Thanks again for the great tour. You are obviously passionate about the past, present, and future of Silver Spring. All suburban areas facing the challenges of retrofitting (whether through redevelopment, reinhabitation, and/or regreening) need the input and energy of advocates like you.