Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Time to take a few days off (a few more days off) and get my house in order for the new year. But so long as we're talking about Lego, here's a photo of some bricks from way back in 1949, part of an exhibition on construction toys now on display at the Center for Architecture in Philadelphia.

1949 Legos, Center for Architecture

Look at all those crosswalks! I'll see y'all in 2011.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

new streetcar brings controversy to lego city

Or, how I spent my Christmas vacation.

Fifty years after they were first ripped out, streetcars returned to Lego City on Christmas Day. While they bring the promise of new jobs and increased mobility, fears of unwanted changes are building.

"I know this is what you've been looking forward to," said Dan Reed's mom, newly-appointed director of the Lego City Department of Transportation, as the twentysomething graduate student assembled the bright blue tram. "Look at him playing with his toys."

Brick Street, Lego City
The new streetcar running down Brick Street in Lego City.

The recently-opened Line 55, the first segment of a proposed citywide streetcar system, connects affluent Bricktown to Blocky Farm, a housing project in Southeast Lego City. Though they come every ten minutes, the seven-seat trolley is standing-room only throughout the day.

Nowhere are the effects of the new streetcar more evident than the Brick Street corridor, located near Lego City's main Public Transport Station. Since the trams started running Christmas Day, a skateboard shop, coffeehouse and gourmet pizzeria have opened. Hip minifigures sip wine in sidewalk cafes as bright young toys on red bikes click by. Massive new condominiums built from Duplo blocks tower over the neighborhood's iconic, multi-colored rowhouses.

Outside the Coffeeshop
New resident Ashley Lyman outside a coffeeshop on Brick Street.

Ashley Lyman just moved to Brick Street and says her favorite part of the neighborhood is the activity. "I used to live in [suburban] Blockville and just sit in my big, pink house after dark," she says. "Here, there's always something happening! And I'm embarrassed to say it, but I hear [big-box retailer] Blockmart is moving in and I can't wait."

Some established residents are frustrated by the changes, complaining that not every minifigure in Lego City benefits from them.

60-year-old Sarah Belk earned her nickname "the Mayor" for starting a neighborhood watch on Brick Street during the 1980's. "I've been a street sweeper, a doctor, and a pirate, but my taxes are so high, every brick I make goes right out the door again," she says. "What good is this new stuff for me? Lego City is trying to run us hard-working people out of here."

Outside the Pizzeria
Minifigures enjoy the vibrant sidewalks of a revitalized Brick Street.

Henry Floyd, columnist for the Lego City Post and a resident of Brick Street, is opposed to the streetcar. He says the overhead arms and hands that power the tram ruins the area's "historic" viewsheds, but more importantly, that the entire project is a waste of money. "There are lots of ways to get around Lego City, but we can't all give them each their own lane," he says. "What's next? A lane for horses? For helicopters and boats and spaceships?"

"Kids in Lego City are being failed by our nonexistent public schools," he adds. "When is Dan's mom gonna buy him something useful, like a police station set?"

Lego City from Above
New condos tower over Brick Street's historic buildings.

Some hope that minifigures on Brick Street will finally click the old and new together. Local blogger Alex Block has lived there for five years, rehabbing old houses covered in childish crayon graffiti. "People like to focus on our differences," he says. "Some of us carry around giant phones. Some of us wear race car helmets. Some of us don't have eyebrows or noses. But we're all yellow and plastic on the inside."

See more of the streetcar and Lego City in this photoset.

Monday, December 27, 2010

skating returns to veterans plaza (but not the kind I want)

Ice Rink, Veterans Plaza

I finally visited the new ice rink in Veterans Plaza yesterday and, while I have a long history of falling down while ice skating, I was excited to see all of the people there, even in yesterday's not-quite-a-snowstorm.

Looking Down on Ice Rink

Perhaps I'm being stubborn, but what exactly is the difference between ice skating in this space during the winter and skateboarding during the summer? The only one I can see is that the ice skating rink is an organized activity, with set hours and fees and a a contract with an ice rink company that produces money for Montgomery County.

Skaters and Construction

I still think the ban on skateboarding in Veterans Plaza and the way it was handled was sloppy at best and quite harmful at worst. If we can organize ice skating, why can't we organize skateboarding in Veterans Plaza? We charge for people to skate at the Olney Manor Skate Park, so it's not like the county can't make money off of this. Ice skating and non-ice skating aren't that different, but it's surprising that one is socially acceptable and can be done in a public space in the middle of downtown, but the other is wrongly associated with a "bad element" and has to be done in a controlled setting far away from other people. To me, this represents a lack of imagination on the part of our county's leaders.

Of course, ice skating is the only thing that will take place in the plaza until next spring, so we have plenty of time to find a way to make this work - or sit on our thumbs and complain when the humble clack-clack of skate trucks returns to downtown Silver Spring once again.

By the way, I've found that the website for finding information about the ice rink can be difficult to locate, but easy to remember once you do: It's silverspringiceskating dot com.

Friday, December 24, 2010

it's christmas eve in washington

Another year, another chance to hear "Christmas Eve in Washington," my all-time favorite Christmas time. Can you believe this is the fifth one we've shared? Thanks for another year of reading and supporting me, and I hope y'all have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Now, with feeling:

It's snowing tonight in the Blue Ridge
There's a hush on the Ches'peake Bay
The chimneys are smoking in Georgetown
And tomorrow is Christmas Day

The Tidal Basin lies quiet
The tourists have found their way home
Mr. Jefferson's standing the mid-watch
And there's a star on the Capitol Dome

It's Christmas Eve in Washington
America's hometown
For it's here that freedom lives
And peace can stand her ground

It's Christmas Eve in Washington
Our joyous wish to you
Is for peace, love and laughter
to last the whole year through

Snowmen peeking through the windows
It's warm with love inside
'Round the tree the children gather
Awaiting Santa's midnight ride

Mom and Dad are counting their blessings
Reflecting on all they've done
So thankful for another
Christmas Eve in Washington

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.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

why you'd want to live in college park (don't knock it until you've tried it)

Stormy Skies Over Plato's

It's hard to believe that the University of Maryland was facing a severe housing shortage just three years ago, where students were kicked out of off-campus housing protested by camping out in front of the library. According to an article in the Diamondback earlier this week, a slew of student apartment buildings currently under construction will result in some six thousand new beds.

I'm not sure what this actually means for College Park because of how sloppy the article's writing is. (Forgive me for being nitpicky with a student newspaper that I once wrote for.) Writer Alicia McCarty includes a quote from an SGA representative that the Board of Regents wants to increase undergraduate enrollment by 45,000 students by 2020. Of course, that refers to the entire state university system, but the way McCarty writes it implies that College Park alone would gain 45,000 students, nearly tripling its current enrollment.

But the worst quote of all belongs to SGA President Steve Glickman, who explains that we don't really need housing for non-students in College Park because no one would live there after graduation:
Student Government Association President Steve Glickman agreed, adding that students simply don't view College Park as a place to live after graduation because, unlike surrounding areas such as Silver Spring, it lacks adequate job opportunities.

"It would be very hard to live here," he said. "It's certainly not a place where you would want to raise a family or a place where you would develop a career, either."

"It's not an extraordinary city, just a livable community, and that's unfortunate," he added.
The sad thing is that Glickman is a senior, which means he's had four years to live in College Park and get to know the place instead of spouting ignorant crap like that. Apparently, he hasn't realized that the city has over 27,000 permanent residents, many of whom are adults who chose to raise families and build lives there. Or that the University System of Maryland the state's second-largest employer, with over 35,000 workers, most of whom are in College Park.

Perhaps Glickman meant that College Park doesn't have much to attract a new graduate. I can count at least a half-dozen of my friends who spent their first years out of school living in College Park or nearby in Hyattsville, Mount Rainier or Greenbelt. There may not be as many nasty underage bars in town, but there's still a lot of amenities in the area that draw people there - decent schools, nice, quiet neighborhoods, and quick access to Metro and the Beltway all for much less than you'd pay in other places.

During my four years in College Park, I had to endure constant complaints from my fellow students about what a terrible place it was. Some of these kids, like Steve Glickman, are from outside of the area and might deserve forgiveness. The rest, who hail from places as distant as Bethesda or Bowie, should know better. As members of the University of Maryland community, we need to portray our school and the city it's located in the best light possible. It reflects poorly on us to do anything otherwise. Sure, push to make College Park better. But at least see it first.

As for the potential oversupply of student housing: back in October, I wrote that current student housing in College Park is either ridiculously dangerous or incredibly expensive. A glut of beds will mean lower rents, hopefully encouraging some of the 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students who commute to make the move to College Park. That'll make for busier shops and restaurants, more eyes on the street and a safer, more vibrant community. I can't think of a better outcome.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

silver spring's long-lost twin

After living in Philadelphia for three months, I've been anxious to find places that remind me of home. In Upper Darby, located immediately west of the city, I've found a time machine back to Silver Spring in the 1980's and 90's, when I was a kid.

Plastic Bag on 69th Street
Upper Darby's business district is strung along 69th Street.

Like Silver Spring, Upper Darby Township had a spectacular rise and fall. Rail and trolley lines from throughout the region converged at 69th Street Terminal in Upper Darby during the early 20th century, making it a logical place to develop. The area became a second downtown to Philadelphia, attracting amenities like theatres that once required a trip into the city to enjoy. Yet suburban expansion wasn't kind to Upper Darby, which was eclipsed by newer and more fashionable areas by the 1930's.

Though the area hasn't deteriorated as badly as some parts of adjacent West Philadelphia, Upper Darby's downtown definitely has a lot of unfulfilled potential. It remains the fifth-largest municipality in Pennsylvania (behind Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown and Erie) and has substantial Korean and Sikh communities, among others.

Hoagie Sign

Upper Darby still has a substantial shopping district. The stores aren't high-end, but you can take care of a variety of needs here, including hoagies. (This charming, hand-painted sign reminds me of one in Silver Spring, though the guy who runs that store is a total jerk and should never get your business.)

Terminal Square Food Court

A block from 69th Street is Terminal Square, a Korean shopping mall. On the bottom floor is H Mart, a supermarket whose Glenmont location we reviewed last year, while upstairs is a group of shops selling everything from TVs to eyeglasses and a nice food court.

101 Trolley at Terminal Square, Upper Darby

Unlike Silver Spring, streetcars still run in Upper Darby. Most of the trolley lines have since been converted to buses, but three routes remain. Two of them, the 101 and 102, serve outlying suburbs and run in the street, like this one.

Sidewalk, Ludlow & Copley
Ludlow Street in Upper Darby.

Jim Dandy, Bonifant Street (cropped)
Bonifant Street in downtown Silver Spring.

There's just something that feels so familiar about the 69th Street area. Walking around, I can't help but reminded of the older parts of downtown Silver Spring. Is it the signs? The mix of people? The worn-around-the-edges but still charming buildings? I don't know. The excitement of living in a new place is, you know, finding places that are different than the one you came from. Yet when homesickness creeps up on me, I'm eager to seek out any comparisons I can.

Check out this photoset of Upper Darby.

Monday, December 13, 2010

the [street] name game

Bottleworks Lane Sign
Montgomery County has over two hundred years of historic people, places and events that deserve recognition. Meanwhile, new streets and neighborhoods are being laid across the county as it grows, and they need names. Why can't we think of more creative titles for them?

Back in September, county officials and developers Washington Property Company celebrated the groundbreaking of 1150 Ripley Street, a new apartment building in downtown Silver Spring's Ripley District, which is bounded by Georgia Avenue, Wayne Avenue and the train tracks. Silver Spring, Singular often makes fun of the "Ripley District" name, which for now is just a marketing term. This logo found at the developer's website doesn't help their case:

The new development will include a new street between Ripley and Bonifant streets. TBD suggested it would be called "Ripifant," a portmanteau of the two streets that left a few people, including myself, scratching their heads. Though County Councilmember George Leventhal says that it'll just be called Ripley Street, I started thinking about how we name places and streets in Montgomery County.

Often, you can tell how old a place is by what things are named after and how meaningful they are. A map of Montgomery County reads like a history textbook: Generals Sherman, Lee and Grant have avenues named after them in Takoma Park, which was first laid out after the Civil War. In the 1930's, we named the county's first regional high schools for Lincoln's postmaster general and a Revolutionary War hero. Even minor figures, like businessman William Thayer, were memorialized in street names.

Meanwhile, in the five-year-old subdivision of Woodcliffe Park in Germantown, you can go to the corner of Northern Dancer Lane and Dark Star Way. In Clarksburg Town Center, still under construction, Granite Rock Road crosses Rainbow Arch Lane. And in Poplar Runa new development at the former Indian Spring Country Club in Layhill that hasn't even opened yet, there's a Moonlight Trail Drive and Autumn Sage Lane.

Little Mews Thing, Bright Plume Terrace
Does this street in Germantown look like a Bright Plume Terrace to you?

These names are sweet and poetic, but what do they really mean? Do they actually have any significance to the communities they're located in? Street names in the planned community of Columbia don't always have a local tie, as entire neighborhoods have street names derived from Shakespeare's plays, for instance. But having themed street names can result in a memorable place, even if they can be embarrassing to the people living on, say, Satan Wood Drive.

It doesn't have to be this way. Names should reflect the people, events and history of the places they serve. A few blocks from Silver Spring's Ripley District is a new street called Bottleworks Lane, named for the former Canada Dry bottling plant nearby. And in the Tanterra neighborhood of Olney there's a street called Considine Drive. It's named after Andy Considine, a former cop who walked the streets around the Park and Planning Commission in Silver Spring during the 1970's. Andy was my driving instructor in high school, and one day during my on-road lesson he directed me to the street named for him.

"A builder came in with a plan for a subdivision, but he didn't have names for all the streets," he told me. "So one of the planners said, why don't we just name it after Andy?" It's a small gesture, but one that gives a place added significance and character.

Unveiling Praisner Library Sign
Re-dedicating the Praisner Library in Burtonsville in 2008.

We already do that with the naming of parks and some public buildings. After County Councilmember Marilyn Praisner passed away two years ago, we named a library and recreation center after her. She helped get them built and funded, and now every kid who reads a book or plays basketball in East County will know who she is. There's a playground in Kensington dedicated to recently-passed civic activist Wayne Goldstein and a park in downtown Silver Spring for current Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson - dedicated after he retired the first time thirty years ago.

There's no shortage of potential namesakes for the Ripifant Streets and Moonlight Trail Drives of Montgomery County. Instead of going with a derivative name, we should pick one that commemorates our local history and heritage. Otherwise, we stand to lose them amidst a word salad of place names that could be anywhere else.

Friday, December 10, 2010

why wheaton will never be the next bethesda

After The Rain In Wheaton
Of course, the Wheaton blogs have been all over this article from the City Paper on the ongoing discussion over downtown Wheaton's future, which is mainly concerned with the future of its many small businesses. But I'm still smarting from this snark from my homie at Wheaton Calling:
Don't get me wrong, the development is Silver Spring is a success in many ways. But other than the restoration of the AFI, the rest of Silver Spring is a pretty generic place that could have been plopped down in just about any town in America. I think Wheaton will be worse in the long run if we lose the unique businesses that define our community.
Maybe you should read my "Open Letter to Anyone in Wheaton Who Has Ever Said 'We don't ever want to be 'fake' like Silver Spring,'" because you didn't ask a question, but I have three answers:

1) Jackie's Restaurant, Joe's Record Paradise, Piratz Tavern, two of the winners in our Great Peruvian Taste Test, Veterans' Plaza, Bonifant Street and, of course, the Sushi Girl. Look past the Red Lobster and the Borders and downtown Silver Spring has quite a culture of its own and certainly is not a generic place. Seriously? I know you're smarter than that.

World Cup Fever On Ellsworth
Generic? Girl, please.

2) What we're talking about in Wheaton now is probably what they said in Silver Spring ten years ago and Bethesda ten years before that. Yet the very first time I ever had Peruvian pollo a la brasa, my most favorite of favorite foods, was buried among the shitty Irish bars and middle-aged-trendy clothing stores of Bethesda. An urban environment has enough people and enough diversity to sustain just about any kind of business, so perhaps it's premature to worry if Wheaton's small businesses will be killed by revitalization.

and 3) no matter what "the community" says they wants, the actual community ("the market") determines what gets built, as a representative from developer B.F. Saul explains:
“If the market doesn’t want to be here, then nothing happens. Nothing,” says Wulff, adamantly. “We can’t build it unless the market’s going to reward us... So it really does come down to what the marketplace wants.”
You wonder why there's been such a push to bring Costco to Wheaton Plaza? Because our county officials are convinced that people from Bethesda and Olney and even Kensington would not come to Wheaton otherwise.

El Pollo Rico
Good food won't be enough to make Wheaton the next Bethesda.

Seriously. Businesses need people to survive. Either they have a small, devoted group of customers, like the folks who sing Spanish karaoke while knocking back a few beers at Telvis Restaurant, or they need to appeal to people from a broader area, like Wheaton Plaza reaching out to kids from Potomac. And as long as people in Bethesda and Olney and Kensington find Wheaton "scary and multi-ethnic," nothing will happen. Why? Because big companies and developers are followers, and they'll follow people to places they'll willingly go.

In the past twenty or thirty years, where has stuff (defined as people, jobs and general investment) landed in Montgomery County? In Bethesda, Rockville or Gaithersburg: established places with affluent populations, easy highway (and later on, Metro) access, and available, valuable land.

Even in Silver Spring, it took some extreme arm-twisting to convince investors that this was a place worth sinking their money into, even with the kind of stable neighborhoods and accessibility that lured businesses to other parts of the county. Witness Choice Hotels moving from Silver Spring to Rockville. To them, Silver Spring just wasn't a desirable address for a corporate headquarters anymore. (Though I believe that if Steve Silverman had worked at it a little more, they might've had a change of heart.)

View From 14th Floor Balcony, Gallery at White Flint
Rockville Pike isn't pretty, but it's currently more attractive to investment than Wheaton is.

Wheaton is physically and psychologically isolated from the more "prosperous" parts of MoCo - the so-called "favored quarter" - by Rock Creek Park and a lack of good road connections. (Just look at the intersection of Knowles and Connecticut avenues in Kensington at rush hour.) It has a Metro station but, as Good Eatin' pointed out today, Wheaton is a long distance for people commuting into D.C. for work or fun. It has a population that is poorer and more diverse than Silver Spring's was in the 1990's yet, as the City Paper points out, their business district is also much stronger. The downtown lacks any of the historic charm that remains (in spades) in Bethesda or Silver Spring, because Wheaton didn't really develop until the 1950's.

Given these circumstances, you can see why potential investors might see Wheaton as a little risky, which will influence the kind of investment that will come there. Even Silver Spring continues to struggle with a negative perception from people who have yet to make it to the other side of Rock Creek Park. If businesses, retailers, shoppers and homebuyers can be convinced that Wheaton is a legitimate alternative to Bethesda, redevelopment will look one way. If they can't, it'll look a different way. Or it won't happen at all. This is a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.

All that said, I really hate it when people complain that Bethesda or Silver Spring look "fake" or "generic." If that's how you feel, you're really not looking hard enough, which is a shame, because you're missing out on two great places that make Montgomery County great. To me, that's no better than people who are afraid to come to Wheaton. Over the next few years, we'll see who's willing to take a chance on the place - though it's too early to see what they'll do with it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

fun with fonts at the silver spring library

existing font

Last week, we talked about the new design of the Silver Spring Library, set to rise at the corner of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street. While I wrote about the proposed building's aesthetics and changes to the layout, some of the commenters on Greater Greater Washington took issue with the font of the sign at the corner, which spells out "Silver Spring Library" vertically. "Please, for the love of Gutenberg, do not despoil the facade of this wonderful new building by setting the 40-foot "Silver Spring Library" sign in Arial," pleaded commenter Brad.

The font of a sign certainly isn't the most important detail on a library that won't even open until 2014. But it does raise the question of the role fonts play in how we perceive the world.

For instance, sans serif fonts (the letters don't have "serifs," or tails) can make something appear fresh and modern. In East County, you'll find sans serif fonts on the entrance sign for Hammond Wood, a mid-century modern neighborhood in Wheaton, this sign at the Praisner Library in Burtonsville, and on Northwood High School's new sign, which uses Futura to make its dated 1960's-era campus feel fresh and forward-looking.


Here's the library in Futura (above) and in Helvetica (below), another popular sans serif font.

Serif fonts, in which the letters do have tails, can create a historic or refined air. this sign at the Courts of Woodside development, where century-old houses mingle with new construction. Compare that font to this one used to sell new homes in Arts District Hyattsville. The homes may be similar, but in they're in very different locations and the developers may be reaching out to different buyers. It's unlikely, for instance, that buyers in Woodside want to live in a place that's comparable to U Street, hence a more traditional-looking font.

The library in Georgia, a serif font.

Sometimes, fonts can be used playfully, like on this sign for Fenton Street Market, which uses Rosewood. It's an old-looking font that still looks playful. Here it is on the library:


Of all of the new buildings going up in downtown Silver Spring, the library will probably see the most use, as people go there to check out books, surf the web and hold community meetings. As a result, it bears the most responsibility of any building in the business district to present itself the right way. What font do you think is appropriate for a new library? (Or should we just set this aside and go back to complaining about that gosh-darn pedestrian bridge?)

guest blog: revisiting the filbey building

The Filbey Building (Postal Workers Union)

Over two years ago, we wrote about the Francis Filbey building at Route 29 and Industrial Parkway, which was home to the American Postal Workers Union until they moved to Glen Burnie several years ago. Today, the building sits abandoned but hasn't really received any attention despite its prominent location. (Six of the top ten hits for "francis filbey building" on Google are posts I wrote.)

Daniel Jordan, who worked under Francis Filbey as general counsel for the American Postal Workers Union, wrote me yesterday to make a few corrections to my post and about the history of the Filbey Building and the union:

I happened to stumble upon the piece you wrote in July, 2008 about the Francis S. Filbey Building on Columbia Pike. Even though it is of no importance, I felt the need to correct some of the factual errors it contained and add a personal note. By the way since that was two and a half years ago I have no idea what has happened to the building since then.

I am the former general counsel of the American Postal Workers Union having become one of the union's lawyers when it was formed. Contrary to what you stated, APWU was not formed by mergers over the 60's and 70's. Rather, as you did say, there was a postal strike in 1969 which was settled early in 1970 and that settlement was embodied in the Postal Reorganization Act which was passed by Congress. That led to the merger of five postal unons at one time in early 1970. The largest was the United Federation of Postal Clerks. That union, and several of the others had existing health plans. The UFPC plan was continued as the APWU plan and established its offices at the Columbia Pike location. That was done long before the 1981 construction date you mentioned which I know because I went there on fund business all through the 70's and had severed my connection with APWU in 1980.

As you stated Francis S. Filbey became the first President of APWU when the merger took place and remained in that poistion until his death in 1977. He was one of the finest men I ever knew. He was intelligent, gentle. thoughtful and perceptive. These traits were not so easy to find in other labor leaders I knew over the years.

Thanks, Daniel. And for You, The Reader: as always, if you've ever got something to say about East County, say it here. Leave a comment or shoot an e-mail to justupthepike at gmail dot com.

Monday, December 6, 2010

what's up the pike: teen center re-cap, no rest in leisure world

The Skater Mob, Ellsworth Drive
Last weekend, local youth worked with designers from the Washington Architectural Foundation to brainstorm ideas for a much needed teen center in downtown Silver Spring. Silver Spring Patch contributor Dhenuka Ganesh has a re-cap of the event and the ideas generated:

The recurring theme was "basketball courts" and all things free—"free food," "free Wi-Fi," and so on. There was also a request for shuttle services from schools or ensuring that there was some form of public transport available to the youth space.

The responses to the kind of activities, indoor and outdoor, brought a plethora of ideas to the table, from perceived risk activities (such as rock climbing) and skating, basketball, outdoor gardens, and outdoor concerts and barbecues to a "teenage bar," showing movies and games minus the alcohol.

(Forget skateboarding! The new cool thing to do in Silver Spring is finding ways to smuggle booze into the teenage bar.)

Community activist Tony Hausner posted these photos of the event, including a few drawings of what appears to be the soon-to-be-former Silver Spring Library, one of the proposed sites for a downtown youth center. He sent these points out in an e-mail to attendees of the workshop, outlining a plan to make this project a reality:

1) There will be a need to develop a political organization to lobby for the SS library. This group needs to be as broad based as possible including school based groups, like student organizations, and ptsas, etc. I will be glad to work with you all on such an effort

2) There is public space that is available, such as at schools, libraries, rec centers, and community centers. There will need to develop strategies to access that space, either through school auspices, such as ptsas, or by using the political organization to lobby for such. Again, I will be glad to work with you all on this.

3) Safe Silver Spring, the Regional Center staff (SSRC), SSCAB, and a number of other community leaders have been discussing creating an inventory of public and private space that is available either free or at low cost. Right now, we need volunteers to help survey space for that inventory. The volunteers would survey churches, businesses, apartment complexes, and other potential sources of space in the SSRC service area. Please help us identify volunteers among the groups that participated in the charrette and other organizations and let me know the names of volunteers.

I'm excited to see the community working together to create this space, especially in the center of downtown, which has already become a major destination for kids throughout East County. Hopefully, a new teen center will not only give our youth a place to hangout but a real stake in the community as well.


- Today's the inauguration for the new Montgomery County Council, and the Examiner has a little Q-and-A session with new at-large councilmember Hans Riemer, who says he enjoys going to album release parties at the Velvet Lounge, and hanging out at Saint-Ex on 14th Street. I know Hans (a longtime friend of JUTP) campaigned on being a new, younger pol - but even I feel old reading that!

- It sounds like something out of a movie, but it isn't: the developer of Leisure World is threatening legal action if the retirement community doesn't pay them for using the name "Leisure World." Says resident and veteran Roy Rosfeld: "If we have to pay for it, tell 'em to stuff it. We'll get some fancy new name." Right on, sir.

- Over in College Park, developer Cordish Companies hosted an open house to discuss the proposed East Campus redevelopment, which is going back to the drawing board after years of discussion.

Friday, December 3, 2010

new, cheaper silver spring library design an improvement

On Tuesday, Montgomery County unveiled a revised design for the Silver Spring Library, to be built at the corner of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. While the plans aren't too different from the "final" drawings we saw last fall, officials say the new scheme will actually be a better building while saving the county money.

Wayne-Fenton Night Perspective

Library From Wayne and Fenton
The Silver Spring Library design today (above) and last year (below). Images courtesy of the Lukmire Partnership.

“I think we’ve gotten to the point where the design where it now stands is actually an improvement over the initial design, and at the same time has gotten us much closer to the budget as to where we need to be,” architect Greg Lukmire of the Arlington-based Lukmire Partnership Lukmire Partnership told TBD.

The $29 million, 65,000-square foot building will still contain an art gallery and studios, community meeting rooms, county government offices and a Purple Line stop, not to mention a library. What's changed is how those uses will interact with each other. On the ground level, there will still be a coffee shop and an art gallery sponsored by Pyramid Atlantic, but studios associated with the gallery have been moved from the second to sixth floors, freeing up room downstairs for community meeting spaces.

Four Color Schemes
Four proposed color schemes for the Silver Spring Library. Image courtesy of the Lukmire Partnership.

The three-story library, with separate levels for young-adult books, adult books and children's books, remains much as it was before. Even the renderings (PDF!) on the County's website show the same interior drawings as last year. And a proposed pedestrian bridge connecting the library to the Wayne Avenue Garage across the street remains in discussion. But a suite of government offices on the seventh floor, meant to contain the non-profit African-American Health Program, Asian-American Health Initiative and Latino Health Initiative, has been downsized from 16,000 to 10,000 square feet and may be eliminated altogether.

Outside, however, the library looks far sleeker than before. Last November, Lukmire presented the exterior design as a metaphor for an open book. The idea was compelling, but the result was a big, heavy box, albeit one covered in glass, that seemed to overwhelm the street below. Now, the architects have turned that big box into a little lantern holding just the library stacks and reading rooms, which will glow at night when all the lights are on. Getting rid of the angled canopy in the original design, which Lukmire referred to as the book's "cover," helps the Purple Line station underneath feel larger and brighter.

White on Black
The new library, shown in elevation, has masonry in addition to glass. Image courtesy of the Lukmire Partnership.

The so-called "service spaces" of the building, like staff rooms and service closets, are tucked behind a masonry wall, which contrasts with the glass walls and helps the complex blend in with its brick- and stone-clad neighbors. Perhaps it's a little too familiar, as the grey stone resembles that already used on the District Court building at Second and Apple avenues, the Civic Building at Ellsworth and Fenton, and even the Crescent condominiums next door. Thankfully, Lukmire has presented four different color schemes for the stone and metal used on the library's fa├žade, which will hopefully assuage the fears of people, myself included, who weren't too excited about the bright orange we saw last fall.

My favorite feature of the new design is the "Silver Spring Library" marquee at the corner of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue. Throughout the years-long design process, residents have complained that the new complex shortchanges the library for a bunch of other uses. Putting the word "library" on a big sign outside the building will hopefully emphasize that, despite all of the different things happening there, this place is still one where you can borrow and read books.

Fenton-Bonifant Perspective
The library, seen from the corner of Fenton and Bonifant streets, will incorporate a Purple Line station. Image courtesy of the Lukmire Partnership.

The rooftop terrace outside the sixth-floor art studios also sounds exciting, especially the views. I'm worried that this space may not be as accessible to the public as it would've been in the original design when community rooms opened onto the terrace, especially after the controversy last summer over space given to Round House Theatre inside the Civic Building. Ideally, the rooftop could become something like the one atop VisArts, a similar art gallery-and-studio adjacent to the Rockville Memorial Library, though I wonder if any rap videos will be filmed there.

Fortunately, another year of waiting has yielded an even better design for the new Silver Spring Library. While some work has begun on its site at Wayne and Fenton, we'll have to wait at least another year for the project to be completed, as Don Scheuerman from the county's Department of General Services says you won't be checking out any books here until January 2014.

Thanks to friend of JUTP Alex Hutchinson for the heads-up. Check out this photoset with more renderings, drawings and plans.

speak out on youth space this weekend

Kids On Ellsworth Drive

Tonight and tomorrow, local youth can give their two cents about what kind of spaces they'd like to have in Silver Spring at a charrette, or design workshop, hosted by the Washington Architectural Foundation, a non-profit that spreads awareness of design in the community.

Kids will work with architects, among them Silver Spring's own Jon Lourie, to craft ideas for a new "Youth Space" somewhere in the downtown area. WAF will hold two charrettes tonight from 6:30 to 9pm and tomorrow from 1 to 4pm, both at the Civic Building, located of course at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street. The event's also sponsored by IMPACT Silver Spring and Silver Spring Town Center, Inc.

I wish I'd gotten a chance to write about this sooner - or could even attend - because it's something I've been interested in for a long time. I certainly hope they get a good turnout and a lot of ideas. I imagine that skateboarding in downtown Silver Spring will probably be a big issue, as will finding space for youth groups like the Gandhi Brigade.

If you go to either of the charrettes this weekend, I'd love to hear how it went. Leave a comment or shoot an e-mail to justupthepike at gmail dot com.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

silver spring vs. portland: bookstores

What does downtown Silver Spring and Portland have in common? They both know the power of a good bookstore. It's not just about literacy and education and having places for teenagers to loiter hang out after school. It's also about making urban space a little brighter and more interesting.

Sunny Days & Starry Nights
Here's the Borders on Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring.

Powell's Books, Portland
And here's Powell's Books in Portland, perhaps the best bookstore you or I will ever go to. The selection is extensive (many, many floors), the staff knowledgable, and the prices reasonable - as everything is in Portland, despite the city's reputation for being trendy.

At both Powell's and Borders, the big, lighted windows connect inside and outside, giving people on both sides something to look at. Both places are open late, keeping the areas around them busy in the evenings. And they each attract their own kind of street life. You'll usually find teenagers hanging around outside the Borders in downtown Silver Spring, it being one of the few places (outside City Place Mall) that's not a restaurant and has things someone in high school can actually afford. When I visited Powell's last winter, I noticed a lot of homeless youth around the store - again, because it's open late and a fairly cheap place to "earn" time inside.

It's not necessarily a bad thing for these stores to attract young people. After all, they provide an amenity for everyone else - and the presence of more people, regardless of status, makes their respective areas safer and more enjoyable. I know I'd rather spend a day poking around Powell's than visiting Borders' store at Columbia Crossing in Howard County, a typical big box:

Borders, Columbia Crossing

The Borders in downtown Silver Spring is, of course, a chain. Unlike Powell's, it isn't a unique local resource (though Powell's does have a website and delivers goods nationwide) and the money made there may not stay in the community. But I'd bet that its urban form earns it the status of Neighborhood Bookstore for more people than the Borders in Columbia Crossing. For a chain store, that kind of relationship is worth its weight in gold.

Certainly, this kind of post would earn me some hackles from folks who prefer to patronize locally-owned businesses for exactly the reasons I state above, so to appease them, I'll also mention Silver Spring Books on Bonifant Street, a real-life local bookstore just a block away from Ellsworth Drive and favored shop of local crime writer George Pelecanos, who complains that dumb kids like me and others under 25 are "programmed" to visit chain stores exclusively.