Monday, May 16, 2011

community support grows for townhouses at former chelsea school

Local developer EYA wants to build townhouses across the street from downtown Silver Spring. Some say it’s just what the business district needs, while neighbors are afraid it’ll bring noise and traffic closer to their front doors. Next Thursday, the Planning Board will vote to approve a rezoning that could make the project a reality.

Clarendon Park Townhomes
Townhomes in Clarendon Park, an EYA development in Arlington.

EYA offered to buy a five-acre property on Ellsworth Drive currently owned by the Chelsea School, a private, special-needs school that announced last year that they would leave their campus in Silver Spring because most of their students commute from outside of Montgomery County. EYA would like to build 76 townhomes there, which would require changing the zoning of the property from R-60, which allows single-family, detached houses, to RT-15, which allows townhouses.

The development, dubbed Chelsea Court, would require demolishing most of the existing school buildings, save for the historic Riggs-Thompson House, which would be restored as a house. EYA would then create a new street parallel to Springvale Road. Homes would be located in six rows perpendicular to the street, creating intimate, shared courtyards between them. As a result, only six end houses will actually face Springvale. They’ll be disguised to look like single-family homes, helping them blend in with the existing houses across the street. The project, which is located across the street from Ellsworth Park, will also include two acres of public parkland.

Supporters of the project, dubbed Chelsea Court, say it would be a positive addition to the area, putting people within walking distance of the shops and amenities in downtown Silver Spring. Of twenty-seven letters sent to the Planning Board regarding the proposed development, twenty-one were in favor of it.

Many of the letters compared it to EYA’s previous projects in the area. “Based on EYA’s National Park Seminary,” located a mile away on Linden Lane, “I am convinced this new development will be attractive – just as attractive as our existing neighborhood and perhaps even more so,” writes Leslie Downey, who lives a few blocks away.

Chelsea Court Plan
Site plan courtesy of EYA.

Meanwhile, the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens’ Association (SOECA) has come out in opposition to Chelsea Court, arguing that townhouses will destroy the separation between downtown Silver Spring and their neighborhood. “If EYA’s proposed change in zoning is approved . . . it creates a dangerous precedent that can be used to justify further zoning changes in our neighborhood,” resident Anne Spielberg told the group at a meeting in February.

Montgomery County Planning staff disagrees, recommending that the Planning Board approve Chelsea Court as it’ll provide a “transition” between the high-rises of downtown Silver Spring and the single-family homes in Seven Oaks-Evanswood. A map included in their report (PDF) shows the site bounded on one side by the Springvale Terrace retirement home and the twelve-story Colesville Towers apartment building on the other.

Aakash Thakkar, senior vice president of EYA, says that if people like the shops and restaurants in downtown Silver Spring, they should support new development that brings more customers to those businesses. “People always want [stores like] Cakelove in their neighborhood, but aren’t willing to have the density they need to survive,” he says.

Housing density in/near downtown Silver Spring
Map showing housing density in and around downtown Silver Spring. Courtesy of the Planning Department.

Thakkar argues that placing housing near the amenities in downtown Silver Spring means more people walking, not more traffic. The typical buyer of an EYA home, most of which are close to Metro, is one who frequents public transit. “Those who buy here will likely work in downtown Silver Spring or take the Metro,” he says. Estimates provided by EYA show that the number of car trips generated by Chelsea Court will be half that of the 88-student Chelsea School today. It would be one-sixth the amount of traffic created by a larger school, which could locate on the property without a zoning change.

However, Spielberg notes that homes at Chelsea Court will either have one- or two-car garages, encouraging buyers to drive and thus increasing traffic congestion. “Such an increase in density would result in three times more traffic, trash, waste water, noise and congestion than if the site remained zoned for single-family homes,” she says.

Montgomery County doesn’t require garages in new homes, but the market demands it, Thakkar says. Homes in Chelsea Court will likely sell for upwards of $600,000. At that price point, he says, “People want the option of having two cars, even if they don’t always use them.”

Pocket Park, Clarendon Park
A courtyard in Clarendon Park, an EYA development in Arlington.

Neighbors who support the project seem to agree. Many houses in Seven Oaks-Evanswood have garages, but they wrote to the Planning Board about the benefits of living in a walkable neighborhood. Alice Meyer lives in the neighborhood with her partner and is considering moving to a smaller house like those in Chelsea Court. “We love the proximity to all that is happening in downtown Silver Spring, especially the restaurants and movies,” she wrote in a letter to the Planning Board. “We would have to give that up if we were to downsize to somewhere else.”

I’ve written before about the benefits of well-designed, infill development in Silver Spring and other established communities. What’s especially exciting about the Chelsea Court proposal is that the neighbors see those benefits as well. With real estate trends increasingly favoring smaller, denser homes, we’d do well to encourage more projects like this.

For more information on Chelsea Court, visit EYA’s website for the proposal or read the Planning Department staff’s report. The Planning Board will hear testimony on the rezoning application at 11am Thursday, May 19 at the Park and Planning Commission, 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.


jag2923 said...

This is going to be such a great development (unlike those nasty, oversized new builds along Woodside Parkway). Here's hoping I win the lottery and can afford the EYA price tag!

Patrick said...

This would be such an incredible assest to Silver Spring and is the perfect transition from the high rises to SFHs. I work by the Clarendon townhouses, and they are really nice. The small courtyards are also really nice. This would be a huge addition to Silver Spring.

I currently live in a condo with my wife, but if I ever have kids, I may need some more room. I don't really want to deal with a SFH or live far enough out to have one. A townhouse would be perfect, but Silver Spring is very low on that type of building. Young professionals aren't looking for SFHs nearly as much as our parents were, but if projects like this can't go through, people will look elsewhere.

If people want to see more higher-end establishments take hold on Ellsworth and have it be less of a teen hang out, development like this is are key. People who live in these townhouses would spend a lot of time downtown, more so than people living farther away in SFHs or perhaps even more than people like myself living in South Silver Spring.

The kinds of people who want to live in townhouses don't drive nearly as much people living in detached homes. Add, while townhouses may require more services than SFH per acre, they bring in several times more tax revenue per acre than detached homes.

~Patrick Thornton

boyd said...

$600K for townhomes in this area? Seems a little high priced when you can get a house with a lawn (and I'm guessing there will be association fees there) for a bit less.

jag2923 said...

The Courts at Woodside townhouses are currently selling for between 600-700K and that's right along GA Ave. traffic/noise. So the EYA townhomes going for 600K is likely very optimistic. I'd expect 650-700K, assuming the usual EYA quality.

Dan Reed said...

Keep in mind that EYA will have to provide 12.5% Moderately Priced Dwelling Units per MoCo law, or about nine houses for low- to moderate-income families. So while most of the houses will be more expensive, some will be available to those who can't afford a $600k house.

Patrick said...

I don't know if I'd say they'd be worth more than the Woodside townhouses. These will be much farther away from the metro, and that's worth quite a bit. The Woodside townhouses have easy access to the metro, DTSS, the restaurants right around Woodside, South Silver Spring and it's not that far of a walk to Rock Creek Park.

So, yes, while the new townhouses would be quieter and more residential, part of the allure of townhouses is to be in the town. If the two were the same stock and build quality, I'd have to think that Woodside is worth more, especially once the new transit center is in and the area by the McDonald's eventually gets redeveloped into something better.

~Patrick Thornton

Jean said...

Just a reminder, the area by the McDonald's is developed, and does have an EYA development right behind it, the narrower, more compacted kind that RT-15 zoning allows, the kind that will be constructed on the Chelsea Property. So, don't think Clarendon or Seminary Park when you think of the proposed Chelsea Park. Think more about the type by the McDonald's.

Dan Reed said...


I looked up the zoning for Clarendon Park (located at N. 11th St & Danville on this map), and it's zoned R-15-30-T. The the requirements for the zone (PDF!) sound similar to our RT-15 zone, which is what EYA would like to have on the Chelsea School site. So Clarendon Park might be a fair comparison. At the same time, zoning isn't the only determinant of how a development looks. There are a lot of other factors which have to be considered.

(BTW: If anyone knows where I can find the full text of the MoCo zoning code online, I'd appreciate it! I'm amazed at how hard MoCo's zoning code is to find vs. Arlington's, which took like 30 seconds to pull up.)

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for your blog, Dan! I believe this link will give you the full text for the Montgomery County Zoning Ordinance. I recommend the "frames" option.

Montgomery County Zoning Ordinance

jag2923 said...

Patrick, actually Chelsea is closer (albeit .1 mile) to the metro than Courts at Woodside and certainly is much closer to Ellsworth, Fenton Village, etc. That said, I certainly will be hoping you're right that EYA will price lower than CaW, though I can't imagine why they would.

Patrick said...


I think I may be mistaken. I'm referring to the townhouses behind McDonalds, right by Mi Rancho. Those should be worth more than the new townhouses coming up.

I can't see paying 600-700k for townhouses as far away, while still on Georgia, as the Woodside ones.

~Patrick Thornton

jag2923 said...

Ah, yeah, I'm talking about these, further up GA Ave.

It'd be an interesting choice between the older EYA townhomes by the McDs and these new ones.

Patrick said...


Since the EYA townhouses by Mi Rancho are now going in the upper 500s and not 600 or 700k, the new townhouses could be somewhat reasonable. The housing market isn't going to get hot anytime soon. It could largely remain flat from today's prices for another 5-10 years.

My guess is that since the market has imploded, EYA should be able to get the Chelsea land for a reasonable rate, allowing them to sell these townhouses at lower values than existing townhouses in the area.

~Patrick Thornton

Robert said...

Dan, I think your description of the site is inaccurate. You said: "A map included in their report (PDF) shows the site bounded on one side by the Springvale Terrace retirement home and the twelve-story Colesville Towers apartment building on the other."

Take a look at the aerial photo. The retirement home only faces a very small portion of one side of the development; most of that same side is R-60 single family homes. The other side is more accurately described as the library, which is zoned R-60, and a small triangular park. The apartment building is farther away. So all four sides are zoned R-60 and as far as the land use is concerned, one side is the back yard of R-60 detached houses. Across the street on one side is mostly detached houses with the retirement facility sort of across one corner of that side. Across the street on the third side is all R-60 single family homes, and across the street on the fourth side is the library and triangular park.

The real issue for me is density. I wouldn't object to RT-6 or RT-8 townhouses, which would approximate the density of the surrounding properties. But RT-15, the maximum possible townhouse zoning, seems inappropriate to plop down in the middle of an R-60 density area if our goal is to preserve the existing stable neighborhoods around the CBD.

Clearly there is a market for less dense townhouses or even new single family homes in the area. Chelsea and EYA could make money with less density. I can only assume the reason they want the maximum density they think they can get is to maximize their profits.... at the expense of their neighbors who have long suffered from having a school next door and will now apparently suffer from out-of-character high density redevelopment.

Dan Reed said...


Apparently, the Planning Board felt otherwise, as they approved the rezoning this morning. And judging from house prices in Silver Spring, I doubt people really "suffer" from being near a school or tall buildings or townhouses or all the shops/restaurants/etc. in downtown Silver Spring, or the Metro, or people who are different from them. Suffering is in the eye of the beholder, I guess.