Tuesday, December 21, 2010

closing ellsworth won't make more public space in downtown silver spring

Ellsworth Drive Is Alive (I Saw No Emo Kids)

It's ironic that the best and most vibrant public space in downtown Silver Spring is called Ellsworth Drive. Even if you don't like the chain stores that line it, it's hard to ignore that this street has become the place where our community gathers to celebrate, to remember, and even to protest. So it's not surprising that many people, including Sligo from Silver Spring, Singular, have called for it to be closed to cars altogether, not just on weekends:
"I'm not sure what the original rationale was for keeping this street open on weekdays, but I think that the last seven years have shown us that there’s a lot more demand for public space in downtown Silver Spring than there is for a single block of road."
Sligo is absolutely right. Many of the people I spoke to at last May's charrette talked about the need for public space in Silver Spring. Though pedestrian malls in the United States have often failed, there are quite a few examples of successful ones, like Main Street in Charlottesville, Pearl Street Mall in Boulder and Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Nonetheless, turning Ellsworth Drive into a permanent pedestrian mall may not be the answer, and there are two reasons why.

First off, successful pedestrian malls have pedestrians at all times. After all, stores need people passing by to get customers, and if there aren't enough people walking by, they'll close. Ellsworth may be crowded on a weekend evening but not the rest of the week. Are the sidewalks busy on a Tuesday morning? Or a Saturday night after 10pm? Ellsworth Drive does have shops and restaurants and movie theatres, but not enough to keep it busy at all times. Though thousands of new apartments have been built in downtown Silver Spring over the past ten years, there are still very few people living within a quarter-mile of Ellsworth Drive, meaning that the only people on the sidewalks are those who came intentionally.

Adidas, 3rd Street
Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica has a wide variety of stores and other activities taking place at all times.

Main Street in Charlottesville has a number of bars, including the one where Dave Matthews got his start. Like Boulder, Charlottesville also has a major university nearby, drawing tens of thousands of carless college students who have to walk everywhere. On Third Street, you can buy anything from today's newspaper to a coffeepot to a skateboard. You can also have dinner and a drink afterwards. Above are apartments, offices, hotels and a hostel, and a few blocks away are Santa Monica's famous beaches. Together, all of these amenities create places where the sidewalks are busy at all times, which justifies closing a street to cars.

Second, we shouldn't be asking why the sidewalks on Ellsworth are so crowded, but rather why sidewalks everywhere else in Silver Spring are so empty. Ellsworth Drive currently works well for cars and pedestrians. But most others in the downtown area, from big ones like Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road to little ones like Thayer Avenue or Fenton Street, have been designed to move cars, resulting in some pretty uninviting places to walk. The biggest reason why businesses along Georgia Avenue or Colesville Road may continue to struggle despite the ongoing revitalization is probably because nobody wants to walk there. Tight sidewalks and speeding cars are enough to encourage walkers to find safe places, like Ellsworth Drive, and stay put as long as they can.

Georgia Avenue is as wide as the Beltway!
The space given over to cars on Georgia Avenue is as wide as the through lanes on the Beltway.

How can we create more public space in downtown Silver Spring? Make the streets narrower. At its intersection with Silver Spring Avenue, Georgia Avenue is nearly 110 feet wide from curb to curb. That's as wide as the through lanes on the Beltway. Let's say you made the lanes on Georgia 10 feet wide, narrow enough to get cars going 30 miles an hour. (I don't know if that's the posted speed, but it should be.) Keeping the current set-up, with six lanes for through traffic and two for parking, you could make the road 80 feet wide, freeing up thirty feet of pavement for other uses, like wider sidewalks, a landscaped median, or space for cafe tables.

You could do this exercise with any street in the business district, giving space back to the pedestrian without changing traffic patterns. If we were really ambitious, we would change traffic patterns, giving over street space to bikes or transit vehicles, such as the D.C. streetcar, which may one day continue up Georgia Avenue to Silver Spring. These changes could allow our streets to move more people than a lane of cars ever could while making them much nicer spaces to be in.

Georgia Avenue Just Before Sunset
Georgia Avenue's a nice place to drive through, but a pretty miserable place to walk.

The Good Life (Darrel Rippeteau)
What Georgia Avenue could be like. Drawing by architect Darrel Rippeteau.

The argument for making Ellsworth Drive a pedestrian mall is pretty similar to the one for building a bridge across Wayne Avenue to the new Silver Spring Library: drivers speed through downtown Silver Spring, so let's keep pedestrians far away where they can be safe. But doesn't this condone speeding? We should make all of Silver Spring safe and fun for walking, even if it means drivers have to slow down. In doing so, we'll help local businesses, improve traffic, and return public space to the people.


Patrick said...


You hit the nail on the head. Part of the reason that Ellsworth is so crowded at times is because it's the only place in Silver Spring that residents feel safe walking in. People clearly enjoy the experience, but it's the only place in the whole area like that. Our goal shouldn't be "how do we improve Ellsworth" but rather "how do we bring this experience to more places."

I live in the South Silver Spring area by East-West. Even though many restaurants and shops on Georgia are very close to me, I often go towards Ellsworth instead because walking on Georgia is a terrible experience. There are too many lanes of traffic, the cars move too fast, the sidewalks are too narrow, there aren't enough trees and parallel parking to provide protection for pedestrians, etc.

East-West suffers from some of the same issues too. There isn't enough traffic on the road to justify how wide it is, and down by where I am only one side of the street has a proper sidewalk. There also isn't enough parallel parking for businesses to take off. We simply dedicate too much infrastructure for moving cars through areas, rather than for people to enjoy areas.

Streets all over Silver Spring could benefit tremendously from a road diet. Are there any politicians talking about this?

I wonder what the issue is? How many of our elected leaders lead a lifestyle that doesn't require a car?

This is a serious problem. It will keep people from moving into the area, and it will cause people who do live in the area to go elsewhere for a more enjoyable experience. There is no justifiable reason why Downtown Silver Spring isn't more walkable.

~Patrick Thornton

jag2923 said...

I agree that huge chunks of DTSS aren't very pleasant to walk along, but I don't think walkability is a zero-sum game. I think closing Ellsworth to cars is a great idea and also think GA, Wayne, Colesville, Thayer, and Bonifant all need to be retooled to be pedestrian friendly (I actually enjoy walking along Fenton, so I left that off the to-do list).

GA, Colesville, and Wayne all need to employ some common sense traffic-slowing measures and Bonifant and Thayer need to redo and expand their sidewalks by getting rid of one side of the parked cars. That 8 feet would make all the difference in a pedestrian's world.

Sligo said...

The difference is you could close down Ellsworth today, whereas the process of modifying Georgia could take decades with MoCo's usual timeframe.

Thayer-D said...

Nice write up. If we let any issues difficulties hold us up, then we might as well throw in the towel. Georgia Avenue is the problem. Pedestrian love should be spread through downtown and not kept cloistered in on a fake street.

The Capital Region Pulse said...

Agree 100% with what Sligo said. The areas are quite different in how long it would take to shift their usage. But it would still be extremely beneficial IMO.

Dan Reed said...

Ellsworth Drive is a good public space next to the only other good public space in downtown Silver Spring, Veterans Plaza. Closing it may not take a lot of effort, but it wouldn't produce a significant change. Improving other streets in downtown Silver Spring may take a lot more work, but it would produce a much bigger change. We should be willing to shake things up, even if it doesn't provide instant gratification.

Big Bubba said...

I understand what you're saying and, I agree to an extent, that closing Ellsworth isn't the silver bullet to make pedestrian traffic the main means of travel in the area. However, I don't think closing it would be much of a deal since so few cars take the road.

I don't quite understand why people think walking Georgia Avenue is difficult. The sidewalks are wide enough to accomodate a Mack truck. It isn't narrow at all. Crossing is a little more difficult, but I do see advances being taken.

First, most of the area has no turns on red. I, also, see there are steps being taken to shorten the cross (not neccesarily across Georgia Ave., but across the street along Georgia Ave.)

On Bonifant and Georgia, where the Quarry house is, the crossing point has been expanded. Thus, the walker only has to cross 2 short lanes of traffic, instead of could be 3 or 4 lanes. Take a look at it and you'll see what I means. The other crossing have a bunch of markups where it looks like similar work will be done.

And, just to add a little about making things more walkable. I'd add real median strips on Fenton from Wayne to East-West Highway. Or I'd just take away the middle lane altogether.

The Capital Region Pulse said...

Agree with you there, Dan. It's like an investment - might not pay off immediately but if you're a little daring it can be extremely good in the end...even if it is a little ways down the road.

jag2923 said...

The main problem I have with GA is that cars are moving so fast that the noise is absurd. I hit up Fire Station 1 probably every other week over the summer and sitting outside is nice, but it really is almost comical trying to have conversations across the table. Walking along GA is anything but leisurely and no one that isn't deaf would find it appealing to stop and window shop or look at a restaurant's menu.

Anonymous said...

Good Story...

The only issue is that blaming Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road for the lack of pedestrian attraction is not the way to go. Its just another excuse to make Silver Spring look like old town Takoma Park. Business in Taknoma Park is nowhere near as Beneficial as Falls Church, Old Town Alexandria, and Arlington which all have 6-8 Lane Roads.

The problem with Silver Spring is the people that try to stop Upscale Chain Businesses from locating in Silver Spring.

Anonymous said...

"The problem with Silver Spring is the people that try to stop Upscale Chain Businesses from locating in Silver Spring."

Agree! The "diversity and uniqueness" hippies trickle in with their Takoma Park mindset that SS will look like Every Other Town in America if we don't protest revenue earning development. More pocket parks, right...sheesh. Walking down Georgia is not bad at all. I'd stop to window shop if there were any decent establishments to stop at...unfortunately, I don't need a wig or a corset.

jag2923 said...

"The problem with Silver Spring is the people that try to stop Upscale Chain Businesses from locating in Silver Spring."

I must be missing something...what upscale stores are people railing against? I've never, ever heard a single person say they like Shitty Place the way it is....Some examples would be helpful, thanks.

Anonymous said...

jag2923, lets see here, Downtown Silver Spring does not have a shopping center at the scale of Pentagon City Mall and Potomac Row which both triple the population size of people visiting Downtown Silver Spring.

When people visit Washington, DC the last place they would think of visiting in Maryland is Takoma Park and if Silver Spring Continues to block Upscale Chain Retail from locating in Downtown Silver Spring by the way of making driving difficult in Silver Spring then Silver Spring will look worst than Takoma Park and more people will continue to go to Virginia and spend money....

Maybe thats the long term goal for the anti-Chain and anti-Road people which is reduce population, reduce revenue, and reduce tourism (especially Middle Class) in Silver Spring while Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church(including Tysons Corner) continues to increase population and Washington, DC tourism with their mix of Upscale Chain Retail and wide 6-8 Lane Roads and Multiple Metro Rail Stations and Rapid Bus Lines.

jag2923 said...

Right...but who, specifically, is blocking these retailers? Which retailers are being blocked? Why is "Upscale Chain Retail" capitalized in your head?

I'm confused.

Anonymous said...


jag2923 said...

Thanks, Pablo. Exactly - Sligo and everyone who comments is fine with chains (even the crappy ones, so long as that's not everything). City Place is fully of crappy non-chain stores and everyone in the world hates the place. I've never heard someone say "I really like that piece of crap card store in City Place - thank goodness it's not a Hallmark!" I've never seen a protest against "Upscale Chain Retail" and can certainly assure you landlords aren't turning them away.

Anonymous said...

jag2923, I am confused as to why do you care if I capitalize "Upscale Retail Chain"...

Anyways, City Place if they were soo serious about attracting upscale chain retail to city place it would have been done within the past 15 years...

If Ballston Commons, Pentagon City, Landmark, and Crystal City Underground can maintain Chain Retail then City Place can do the same....

jag2923 said...

I agree that City Place should be able to attract better stores, but the fact that you think the new owners (or any of the previous owners) or any of us that live in DTSS are striving to keep the mall shitty and empty is pretty insane and an entirely baseless claim.