Friday, May 28, 2010

silver spring charrette: "it's an urban area. accept it!"

Yesterday, we talked about the issue of "style vs. character at last week's Fenton Street Market charrette. That was just one of the concerns raised by the residents and stakeholders who came out to offer their thoughts on the future of Silver Spring.

Dan & Laurence With Participants
Architects Dan Morales (left) and Laurence Caudle (right) talk to a resident.

We had charrette participants give us their thoughts on large easel boards, and reading those you could see the split between those averse to change and those excited about recent and future changes in Silver Spring. For every "No Purple Line" or "Too Much Density," there were calls for more housing, more shopping, and more transit.

"Build The Hell Out Of It!" one person directed. "It's An Urban Area - Accept It!" said another.

While those who were uncomfortable with new development tended to be older, those in support of it were of all ages. Take Florence and her husband. They're retired and live just across the D.C. line in Takoma, a neighborhood with history to spare.

They come to Silver Spring "every weekend," for dinner, a movie, and a walk along Ellsworth Drive, Florence says. Her husband was an architect, as is her son now. But they don't have much complaint about "fake" buildings. "We love the vibrancy, the people," she says of Silver Spring.

Angela, meanwhile, notes that Silver Spring doesn't feel as "old" as other cities she's lived in, like Boston. But she's worried about the lack of places for her tweenaged son and his friends to go skating.

"We break all the rules to let him go out," she says, clutching a longboard. (Is it for her or her son? I wasn't sure.) "Otherwise, I'd be chasing him around downtown."

She points to a picture of the National Institute of Dyers and Cleaners at Georgia and Burlington avenues. It's been abandoned for decades, but there are plans to turn it into condos. "I tell myself that when I strike it rich, I'm gonna buy that place and turn it into a skate park," Angela says.

One concern almost everyone I spoke to raised was pedestrian safety. Jonathan lives in nearby Seven Oaks and walks to Fenton Street Market. He knows that a denser, busier downtown Silver Spring will require more people to be able to walk places - but "Silver Spring is quickly becoming unwalkable," he laments.

Wayne & Fenton Intersection (Dan Reed)
Colesville Road Section (Dan Reed)
LEFT: Redoing the intersection of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street. RIGHT: A median strip for Colesville Road. Drawings by Dan Reed.

Foot traffic has grown in recent years, but pedestrians are often no match for wide roads designed to move lots of cars. In the CBD and surrounding neighborhoods, many sidewalks have no buffer from traffic, giving pedestrians as little as three feet of concrete between them and cars whizzing by at 50 miles an hour.

The suggestions are simple: Street trees to buffer walkers from traffic; raised crosswalks at busy intersections to slow cars down; and swapping the reversible lanes on main roads like Georgia and Colesville with landscaped medians.

These changes are expensive, and it's often more palatable for county officials to install cameras to ticket speeding drivers instead. But pedestrian improvements could be done while building the Purple Line, which will require redoing many downtown streets. That's already happening H Street in D.C., which is being rebuilt while new streetcar tracks are laid.

This kind of pragmatism is a great outcome for any planning workshop, but organizers Hannah McCann and myself were hoping to spark some creativity as well. I was excited by the guy who said Silver Spring "could really use some flying cars," and by our architects, who by the afternoon had turned to their markers and trace paper and sketched out their own visions for downtown.

Vision of Fenton Village (Darrel Rippeteau)
Darrel Rippeteau's vision for Georgia Avenue.

Fred and Ginger (Laurence Caudle)
Laurence Caudle's Fred and Ginger-inspired building on Fenton Street.

Dan Morales, who lives in nearby East Silver Spring, broke downtown's superblocks with a new street grid. Laurence Caudle from Hickok Cole drew buildings on Fenton Street that resembled Fred and Ginger, a building designed by Frank Gehry in Prague. And Darrel Rippeteau of Rippeteau Architects imagined Georgia Avenue as an elegant urban promenade, "as good as Boulevard Saint-Michel" in Paris, he said.

These seemingly fanciful ideas were welcome after the often-contentious discussions that took place throughout the charrette. It's easy to get lathered up over your favorite issue, but harder to take a step back and remember that, at the end of the day, we're all trying to make a better community.

I'm hoping to take all of the notes and drawings we generated at last Saturday's charrette and, with some help, organize an exhibit to be displayed in the Silver Spring Civic Building when it finally opens in July. It's a chance to capture a moment in history when we had so much to remember, but much more to look forward to as well.

Check out this slideshow of the Fenton Street Market charrette.


MT said...

Why does so much (negative) attention get focused on the Fenton-Wayne intersection? I walk all over downtown Silver Spring, and that one just does not stand out at all in my mind. Just about any time I have to cross Georgia, Colesville, or East-West Hwy, it's nerve-wracking. Fenton and Wayne seems like a whole different category - no big deal for me, even with kids and shopping bags and a stroller. Any thoughts on this?

WashingtonGardener said...

Totally Agree, MT - compared to every point I cross Georgia or Colesville, this one is no problemo. Actually there are much worse Fenton crossings - at Sligo in particular and Wayne crossings at Georgia and at Dale.