Designed by Boston-based architecture firm Machado and Silvetti Associates, the building and adjoining plaza put a fresh, modern face on two very traditional functions - a community hall and town square. On a visit Saturday evening, it's clear that Silver Spring residents have taken to the space as they had to "the Turf" before it was ripped up in 2008 to make room for the plaza.
Instead of plastic grass, people lounge on fresh sod covering the wide steps that lead down from Fenton Street. I saw couples and friends alike eating on concrete benches with wooden slats matching the Civic Building's cladding, and walking down an allee of nice, leafy trees. Little kids run across the ice rink with its striking canopy just as they did on "the Turf" five years ago. (Of course, the rink has been decked over for the summer months.)
Up on an elevated walkway between Fenton Street and the Whole Foods parking lot, a row of shoppers-turned-spectators admire the whole scene. Their eyes are fixed on the Civic Building, where a dozen teenage boys are making the skatepark Silver Spring has yet to give them. They line up in the wide portico holding their skateboards, taking turns as they did jumps off a couple of steps a hundred feet away.
"Looks like they've already turned it into a skatepark," I hear a middle-aged couple grumble as they walk past.
A block away on Ellsworth Drive, it's business as usual: people are crowded around a stage for the weekly summer concert series, and a security guard is lecturing a kid on rollerblades. Except ten minutes later, I see him in Veterans Plaza, making a slalom course out of a line of benches.
The Downtown Silver Spring complex on Ellsworth Drive has always had a tortured relationship with skaters, who flock to the street despite being harassed by security guards. Are they directing skaters off their property and into the public plaza? If so, would Montgomery County kick them out as well?
"Definitively an issue," writes Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, in an e-mail to JUTP. "It is a balancing act between how to be welcoming of all activity that brings the Plaza alive with the charge to keep it clean, safe, and in good condition." He notes that he's seen a "very positive reception" to skaters from other people in the plaza.
The need for a skatepark in downtown Silver Spring has been known for years. Kids are often kicked out of otherwise-unused pocket parks and on Ellsworth Drive and elsewhere, though planning for a temporary skate spot in Woodside Park is underway. It's not surprising that they've taken to Veterans Plaza with their skateboards. The question is how they'll get along with everyone else who'd like to use the space and how to handle potential conflicts between them.
On his blog, Rodriguez has drafted a "code of conduct" for the plaza - what he calls a "statement of our desires, expectations, and commitment for public behavior." He's looking for suggestions from the community to make it better.
For now, at least, the county wants to make everyone welcome in Veterans Plaza. "I am in conversation with the skaters - and many others - to see that we do this in a way that is respectful of all," writes Rodriguez.