Thursday, March 31, 2011

come out and fix burtonsville tonight with county planners (updated)

Eileena York At Table 6
Burtonsville residents and county planners at a community charrette in 2008.

Tonight, county planners are hosting a charrette, or community design workshop, about the future of Burtonsville. It'll be at 7pm at the East County Regional Service Center, located at 3300 Briggs Chaney Road.

As you may know, the Planning Department is developing a plan for the Burtonsville Commercial Crossroads, defined as the area around the intersection of Route 29 and Route 198. Businesses in the neighborhood have been struggling since the Burtonsville Bypass opened in 2006, while the new Burtonsville Town Square shopping center has brought new life resulted in a game of musical chairs as stores formerly located across the street move in.

It's hard to be optimistic about Burtonsville, especially after a charrette three years ago in which shopkeepers complained about sidewalks and residents protested against "undesirables" moving in. Even planning director Rollin Stanley, who usually has something good to say about a place, has trouble talking up Burtonsville when he comes for a visit on the Planning Department's own TV show, Montgomery Plans:

Plans Around Town - Burtonsville - MP 27 from M-NCPPC on Vimeo.

At the now largely-abandoned Burtonsville Crossing shopping center, he tries to talk up the remaining stores. "You've got assets here," he says. "You've got a Hair Cuttery. Everybody needs their hair cut. And two beer and wine stores, a little more than normal." Driving (not walking) down Route 198 (did he at least have a coffee at Soretti's?), he laments, "For the most part, what you see will be here a long time."

Finally, the host asks if Burtonsville Town Square is "similar" to "other Town Squares" in Montgomery County. The answer to that is kind of obvious:

2010 06 07 - 8008 - Burtonsville - Burtonsville Shopping Center
Burtonsville Town Square under construction. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Rockville Town Square, Saturday Evening
Rockville Town Square in 2007.

(Note the presence of an actual town square.)

It looks like Burtonsville residents are beginning to see the difference. Results from a meeting planners had with the East County Citizens Advisory Board last month (PDF!) seem promising. In that meeting, members of the board - which is composed of seventeen East County residents appointed by the County Council - suggest a number of improvements to Burtonsville. They include better landscaping along Route 198, creating a "mixed use zone" that would allow housing and offices in addition to existing shops, having "more entertainment venues" in the area, and improving pedestrian and transit access. That sounds like a place people might actually want to visit, which is more than you can say about Burtonsville now.

Going to graduate school three hours away will keep me from attending (is social media an appropriate substitute for participating in person?), but I hope those who support a better Burtonsville and not just the status quo will come out and say their piece. Unlike the 2008 charrette, which was focused on minor improvements, the Planning Department appears to be interested in more substantial changes.

Don't screw this up, y'all. If East County wants nice things like Rockville and Bethesda, it has to know what to ask for and how to ask for them. Now's your chance.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

as bethesda goes, so goes wheaton? (updated)

Update: Reader Dave sent us a link to B.F. Saul's Wheaton redevelopment website where you read about the proposed town square. It also includes this "massing model," created by Silver Spring-based architects Torti Gallas & Partners, of how the square might look during an event like Taste of Wheaton:

wheaton town square

Check out the Ferris wheel!

Elm Street Looking EastElm Street in Bethesda Row.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about concerns that a new town square in downtown Wheaton would not be owned by Montgomery County, which raises some serious issues about the public's right to public space. As most of you know, Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring was leased by the county to a private developer, though County Executive Ike Leggett says it is a "public forum" for free expression.

To get an answer, I reached out to [my former employer] Councilmember George Leventhal, who in turn asked David Dise, director of MoCo's Department of General Services. Dise is responsible for managing property within the county, from new libraries to public open spaces like Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring, and sent us this response:

There are no plans for private ownership of the Wheaton town square similar to that in Silver Spring. Plans will include active public space including a Bethesda Row type setting as well as lawn and plaza space. The intent is to plan for continued use of this area for highly successful events like Taste of Wheaton but also permit more programming as this becomes a more planned and versatile space.

Though the county has given local developer B.F. Saul the rights to redevelop much of downtown Wheaton, it's a relief to know that they will own and maintain the area's most significant public space. Nonetheless, those who fear that revitalization will threaten Wheaton's character might jump at seeing a county official say they want to create a "Bethesda Row type setting" there. Does that mean East County will get its very first Apple Store? Probably not. It's more likely that Dise is interested in the urbanism of Bethesda Row: buildings close to the street, wide sidewalks with benches and dining tables, lots of activity throughout the day, and a mix of homes, offices and shops. That's a precedent worth repeating in Wheaton.

County Parking Lot 13, Wheaton
Parking Lot 13 in downtown Wheaton is slated to become a town square.

Ten years of discussion on revitalizing Wheaton has revealed a consensus for building up in the downtown while making the area more attractive. Residents are unhappy with the quality of recent development in the town center, but equally nervous about what redevelopment has done to Silver Spring or Bethesda.

By ensuring that Wheaton's town square is a public space, it appears that Montgomery County officials are listening to what the community wants. But it won't be until B.F. Saul presents their plans for the area that we know we've avoided past mistakes.

(Between Silver Spring's Veterans Plaza, and a new square for Wheaton, you wonder if people in Bethesda are green with envy. After all, the closest thing they have to a town square is the fountain outside Barnes & Noble.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

why food trucks make sense for silver spring

Portland Food Carts
Food carts, like these in Portland, can actually draw more customers to brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Sligo at the Singular worries that food trucks in downtown Silver Spring are taking business from restaurants in actual buildings. Is this a valid concern? Maybe not.

Like I wrote last spring, food trucks are a way to fill retail gaps, figuratively and literally. Successful food trucks are ones that offer something that brick-and-mortar restaurants currently don't. They're also ways to draw hungry customers to areas of downtown Silver Spring that haven't finished developing, which could help the restaurants already there.

Right now, Ellsworth Drive between Fenton and Georgia is the only block in Silver Spring that has shops and restaurants lining it uninterrupted from end to end and on both sides. If I'm an office worker looking for a place to eat lunch, where will I go first? Probably the block where I have as many choices as possible. I might go to Potbelly today, but tomorrow I'll want to try something new an d go to Chick-Fil-A, and so on. As a result, all of the restaurants benefit from the presence of other restaurants.

Wide Sidewalk In Front Of Discovery

Many downtown blocks, however, have only a handful of shops or none at all. Discovery Communications didn't include a cafeteria in their headquarters on Georgia Avenue so workers would support local restaurants, but their building doesn't have any retail on the ground floor, making the sidewalks dead. Meanwhile, popular restaurants like Jackie's have trouble drawing customers because they're too far away from other stores or restaurants for people to drop by on a whim. Sligo suggests Skew Works, the new restaurant on Wayne Avenue, could lose business to a food truck that's started parking outside. But there's only one other restaurant on that entire block! Skew Works isn't losing customers to the food truck. They're losing customers to streets with more dining choices.

Restaurants want to draw more customers. We want to create more street activity in downtown Silver Spring. Food trucks seem like a way to kill two birds with one stone. They're a relatively new addition to Silver Spring, and it's likely that they'll move around until finding locations that work well for them and for customers. But I don't think they'll hurt existing businesses. With thousands of people living, working and passing through the area each day, there's no shortage of hungry people looking for places to eat. They just need to know where to find them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

early drawings of "gritty smooth" pub in wheaton

Local architect Chuck Witmer of SCALEhouse design sent us these preliminary renderings of Eagle, a new bar in downtown Wheaton. "eagle is a neighborhood bar concept for Wheaton, MD that will serve great beer and wine along with a one of a kind gritty smooth menu," writes Witmer. I'm not sure what a "gritty smooth" menu is, but it sounds lovely. Witmer says that the new bar will be located on Elkin Street between Legends Billiards Cafe and the soon-to-open Limerick Pub, though it won't be built anytime soon.

Back in 2009, SCALEhouse designed a new clubhouse (scroll down!) for Sligo Creek Golf Course, though these plans won't be leaving the drawing board anytime soon. For a look at Witmer's built work, check out his furniture page, featuring items in his own home. (I especially like the coffee table: "+1 part steel, +1 part wood, +1 part light.")

Saturday, March 12, 2011

maryland same-sex marriage bill goes back to committee

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" Matthew 7:3

An amazing thing happened yesterday. Legislators from Baltimore and Prince George's County, from Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, put aside their struggling schools, their neighborhoods ravaged by the foreclosure crisis, their unemployed constituents, and (in the case of Prince George's) increasing crime to focus on whether two people deserve to have their love and commitment to one another accepted by the state.

Congratulations. I know it must be really hard to do your job while pushing ignorant, self-satisfied, bigoted crap, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices. I am [half-]black. I am Christian. But today, I'm ashamed.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

discovery's "secret garden" should be reopened to public

While we're deciding whether a developer should own a new town square in Wheaton, we should remember that the danger of public spaces in private hands is that they can cease to be public spaces entirely, especially when fears about crime or safety arise.

The Discovery Sensory Garden Is Never Open
Yesterday, I was hassled by a security guard at Discovery Communications' headquarters in downtown Silver Spring for taking this photo (above) of their Sensory Garden. The garden, dedicated to TV host Steve Irwin, is one of two spaces Discovery must make available to the public in an agreement they made with Montgomery County when the complex opened ten years ago. Though I was standing outside the garden on the sidewalk, the guard repeatedly told me to stop taking photos.

In the agreement (PDF), Discovery would keep the garden open seven days a week from 7am to 10pm during Daylight Savings Time and from 7am to dusk the rest of the year. They also agreed to create an "enclosure" to the Sensory Garden that would "minimize the visual presence of the fence" while "[reducing] the screening effect of the landscaping" in order to "[increase] the public sense that they were welcome and safe in the garden."

Yet for most of the past decade, the garden has been inaccessible, surrounded by a tall iron fence whose gates were open intermittently. Both the garden and a public plaza Discovery provided at the corner of Georgia and Wayne avenues have been aggressively patrolled by security, which is unusual compared to most "pocket parks" in downtown Silver Spring.

After a gunman entered Discovery Communications' offices and took hostages last September, the company shut the garden completely. It reopened "during daylight hours on weekends only" in November, but a month later, Discovery announced that independently-conducted security assessment recommended they build an eight-foot-tall fence around a playground within the garden.

Gated-Off Entrance, Discovery Sensory Garden
The Sensory Garden remains closed to the public. A new, eight-foot-tall fence will be erected inside.

Four weeks ago, the Planning Board approved the taller fence, which would require reducing the garden's area by 1,400 square feet. To compensate, Discovery offered to "provide an artistic, interactive design" for the fence that would "engage the public."

Though Discovery's actions completely violate their agreement to provide public space, county planners have been unusually lenient, calling security a "sensitive issue" for the company. Police say that the gunman, James Lee, was carrying a bomb that could have injured several people nearby.

Last year's hostage situation was a tragedy, and it's understandable that Discovery wants to keep their employees safe. That does not, however, allow Discovery to turn their offices into a fortress. They're located in a busy urban area, with thousands of people walking through or around their complex each day. To say that most of them are not a security threat would be an understatement. In fact, having so many "eyes on the street" makes Discovery's complex safer.

To bring Discovery to Silver Spring, Montgomery County cleared four city blocks and abandoned several streets to assemble a parcel of land big enough to build a corporate headquarters. The public space they agreed to provide already belonged to the public. Would the county let Discovery close a street for security purposes? Of course not. And they shouldn't give up the Sensory Garden, either.

ceci n'est pas une parcom├Ętre . . .

This Is Not A Parking Meter
Is what Magritte would have said: "This is not a parking meter."

Shepherd's Table, a a local non-profit catering to the homeless, uses these dummy meters to raise money. A similar organization does the same thing in Bethesda. While these are certainly good causes, you wonder if the fake parking meter is the best solution when people are stupid enough to park next to one located on a sidewalk.

Nonetheless, I saw no fewer than six cars park illegally on Ellsworth Drive, both at the dummy meter and elsewhere, in a fifteen-minute span yesterday evening. I understand that the people who do this are probably running into a restaurant to grab some take-out, and I could actually see a use for additional on-street parking throughout downtown Silver Spring. (There are lots of times when parking in a garage is not convenient, and parked cars do provide a nice buffer for pedestrians on really busy streets.) But I don't have a lot of sympathy for people unwilling to find and use the metered, on-street spaces currently available elsewhere on Ellsworth and on surrounding streets.

Clearly this area of Ellsworth is for pedestrians, not cars. That's why the curbs are dropped and the brick pavers go across the entire street. It's a shame that some drivers are too lazy and too inconsiderate (and, in this case, too stupid) to take notice.

(For more about Rene Magritte and surrealism in East County, visit the White Oak Sears for his work "This is not a door.")

Monday, March 7, 2011

wheaton town square should belong to the public

County Parking Lot 13, Wheaton
It looks like Wheaton's getting a town square after all. Last week, the Gazette wrote about developer B.F. Saul and their plans to turn Parking Lot 13 (above), located at the corner of Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue, into a town square:

A town square will feature community events, much like Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring. B.F. Saul prefers to own and program the space, but the task will likely end up in the hands of the county, [representative Robert] Wulff said.

Great urban places need great public spaces, but they can be expensive to build and maintain. Montgomery County can't afford to give every community a space like Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring. As a result, the task will have to fall on developers for whom a plaza or square can be an amenity, drawing tenants, shoppers and residents to their projects. One example of a successful privately-owned public space is the Piazza at Schmidt's in Philadelphia, which draws people from all over the region for shows, markets, and just hanging out.

Yet it's important to ensure that the public has a right to these spaces other than as customers. Saying that Montgomery County will "likely" own and program the town square in Wheaton is not an option. Didn't we learn a lesson from Ellsworth Drive, which Montgomery County leased to a private developer who banned photography on the street until the ensuing outcry required the county to defend the people's right to free speech? I find fears that redevelopment will turn Wheaton into Silver Spring complaints irritating, but this is one mistake from Silver Spring we shouldn't repeat.

Montgomery County has essentially handed the keys to downtown Wheaton to B.F. Saul by giving them the right to build on several properties in the area. Nonetheless, the community should be assured that the most significant public space in this revitalized neighborhood will belong to them, even if they don't hold the title. It should be made clear what B.F. Saul's and the county's roles in the town square will be as soon as possible.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

will the ICC keep the status quo in east county?

The State Highway Administration is running radio ads for the InterCounty Connector, presumably because a half-century of debating whether to build the highway had most people convinced it would never open. In the ad, a woman says the ICC will allow her to sleep in later and spend more time at home with her family because she'll spend less time in traffic.

ICC eastbound, approaching Georgia Ave
Going east on the ICC towards Georgia Avenue. Photo courtesy of Dan Malouff at BeyondDC.

I was thinking about this when one of my old friends from high school who currently lives in Olney, sent me this tweet: "Do you think Olney will become more popular because of the ICC?" she asked.

Before the ICC, Olney was a relatively isolated part of Montgomery County. It was seven miles from the nearest Metro station and nine miles from the nearest highway exit. Back in 2009, I wrote that the ICC would drag Olney "kicking and screaming" into the rest of the county and the D.C. area.

That doesn't mean people will start flocking to Olney now that they can get there from Gaithersburg in eight seven minutes. Really, it's the other way around: people in Olney, or Colesville, or Burtonsville will leave (or continue leaving) East County for the things they want or need: jobs in Gaithersburg, shopping in Rockville, restaurants in Bethesda.

If you follow the ICC to I-370 (as far as I'm concerned, they're the same highway), you'll end up at Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg, where big-box stores and white-tablecloth eateries alike huddle around a little Main Street and an artificial lake. Developed by the Peterson Companies, the same folks who brought us Downtown Silver Spring, Washingtonian taught Montgomery County how to walk around outside after decades cooped up in shopping malls. I remember going there when I was thirteen and being mesmerized by it.

Washingtonian Center used to be an hour's drive from my parents' house in Calverton. Last Friday, I got there in twenty-five minutes. Will East County still be interested in fixing up Burtonsville when it's just as easy to spend your time and money elsewhere? I mean, it's not like the last highway we built here did anything for local businesses.

The ICC has opened up a lot of opportunities for Montgomery County, as I wrote last week. Yet there's a potential danger. Highways make it easier to go from one place to another, but they don't automatically make those places better. The woman in the ad wants more time with her family, but couldn't she also save time if her daily needs didn't require a trip by highway?