Friday, August 26, 2011

MoCo condemns punk house in fenton village

The Corpse Fortress
We know that Silver Spring has long had a thriving punk scene, centered on do-it-yourself, all-ages shows in private homes. We know that there's serious anxiety about idle youth in downtown Silver Spring, but a dearth of hangouts for young people. And we had a venue right in downtown Silver Spring that despite its shabby appearance gives kids from Silver Spring and across the D.C. area a place for positive, albeit very loud, expression.

Until this month, that is. The City Paper reports that Montgomery County has condemned the Corpse Fortress (pictured above), a punk house on Philadelphia Avenue in Fenton Village. The article quotes this blog post from a Corpse Fortress tenant who suggests that neighbors' complaints brought the five-year-old venue to an end:

We saddened by this news, though it was not unforeseen. In fact, it was repeatedly foreseen due to the fact that our house was an “eyesore” (if you’re lame – actually, it looks cool) and some people have nothing better to do than complain to the state about the fact that their neighbors’ property offends their aesthetic sensibilities.

It is a shame and we are bummed / despondent / on a bender / nonchalant / etc. to see the end of the best venue in the area. We still have some slight hope that someone on our wavelength / one of us can snag the house when it goes on the market again. That’s not probable, though.

We're curious what neighbors there are to complain about this house, given it's practically in the middle of Silver Spring's around the corner light-industrial "Auto Row." Across Fenton Street is East Silver Spring, a mostly-residential neighborhood. I wonder what negative effects residents felt from the Corpse Fortress. Were they offended by the couch in the front yard and the paved-over driveway filled with old cars? Can the sound from a basement show travel across several houses and a busy commercial street? Are people attending the shows parking their cars/bikes in the surrounding neighborhoods? (This is a legitimate problem if it occurred, though I imagine there's plenty of parking along Selim Road and Philadelphia Avenue after all of the auto shops have closed.)

In an ideal world, the county might've approached the tenants (or more likely owners) of the house and sought a way to bring the place up to code. It's no Fillmore, but certainly a worthy member of the community. Punk houses like the Corpse Fortress are generators of authentic, local culture. They give kids an outlet for positive expression. They build community, as the kids who are coming out to shows here are probably more civic- and politically-minded than the ones filing into a Joe Jonas concert at the Fillmore. (In my adopted neighborhood in West Philadelphia, there's a punk-anarchist community center that's become a destination for more than just the spiky-haired set.)

Before moving to Philadelphia Avenue five years ago, the Corpse Fortress was preceded by the Death Star, a punk house on Cedar Street at Ellsworth Drive whose owner planned to turn it into a medical office before putting the building up for sale. (As far as I can tell, it's still vacant today.) I'm curious if the Corpse Fortress will rise again elsewhere in downtown Silver Spring, or if it'll be forced out of the community for good. And if that's the case, we'll have given up a lot more than an ugly house.

benches, bike racks installed outside fillmore music hall

Fillmore Sign
Passing by the Fillmore yesterday, I was shocked to see the new music venue's latest addition. It's not the recently-completed neon sign, the line of box offices along Colesville Road, or even the life-sized equalizer bars I first proposed in 2007.

There are benches and bike racks on the sidewalk:

Fillmore Benches
How thoughtful! In fact, I'm surprised they even appeared on a state highway like Colesville Road, given that Maryland highway planners seem reluctant to accommodate anyone other than drivers in downtown Silver Spring. (The county Department of Transportation isn't much better, unfortunately.) The benches will be a benefit to everyone, from concertgoers waiting for a show to senior citizens looking for a place to rest.

They also make the sidewalk a much friendlier place, suggesting to passersby that they're allowed to actually sit here and enjoy the scenery instead of being forced to move on. (Some might argue the benches will attract homeless people, but given that line of reasoning, we might as well not have anything in the public realm.)

I'm personally excited about the bike racks. After all, if we're trying to draw hip, young kids to the Fillmore, we should assume that some of them will come by bicycle. Not to mention that it's pretty hard to find bike racks in downtown Silver Spring. Living in the District this summer, I would bike up from Petworth to Silver Spring and get frustrated by how few accommodations for bicyclists there are here, whether it's racks or useable bike lanes.

The Fillmore isn't even open yet, but already it feels like it's been here forever. Having an empty department store for thirty years can do that to you, I guess. Now, how about that office and hotel development behind the Fillmore we were promised?

Fillmore Sidewalk

Thursday, August 25, 2011

community members debate, seek alternatives to proposed teen curfew (updated)

Last night, community members on both sides of County Executive's proposed youth curfew spoke out at a contentious meeting hosted by the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board in the Silver Spring Civic Building.

Though county officials outlined several changes to the bill, which now make it a civil, not a criminal offense to break curfew and have exceptions for teens attending sports or entertainment activities, opposition remains strong.

Abigail Burman and Leah Muskin-Pierret, high school students and cofounders of the group Stand Up to the Montgomery County Curfew questioned the effectiveness of curfews. Studies of curfews nationwide, including those already in effect in the District and Prince George's County, show they haven't reduced crime. "We need to look at the facts, look at the alternatives and give the police a real tool, not a broken one," said Muskin-Pierret.

Lt. Robert Carter, deputy commander for the police department's Silver Spring District, played videos from the night of July 1, when cops in downtown Silver Spring broke up dozens of fights, one of which resulted in the stabbing of a 17-year-old girl. The footage shows a group of 38 youth between 16 and 22 years old "walking away from a fight" along Colesville Road, near the Silver Spring Metro station. A police officer drives his cruiser onto the sidewalk, attempting to corral the kids and get them to walk to the Metro, but some of the kids duck into an alley.

Many residents pointed to this incident as justification for the curfew. "I feel that there's an increase in gang violence," said Tony Hausner, chair of Safe Silver Spring, a civic group that supports the curfew. He cited the fatal shooting of 14-year-old Tai Lam three years ago, which was connected to gang members. He said that officials in Philadelphia recently extended their curfew to 9pm in certain neighborhoods after a series of violent attacks because it had already been "so successful."

"I recognize no one likes to have their freedom restricted," Hausner added. "[The curfew] helps the kids who are good kids . . . to get them out of harm's way late at night."

"I guess you consider me to be one of the good kids who needs to be protected," Burman replied. "But we're the majority."

Ellsworth Drive Is Alive (I Saw No Emo Kids)
Downtown Silver Spring at night.

Ron Ricucci, police chief for the City of Takoma Park, said youth crime wasn't a problem in his community. "Most of our kids are in Silver Spring" at night, he said, "and they come back to Takoma Park eventually. Do we have a problem? No. We have control of our kids." Chief Ricucci added that the Takoma Park City Council and residents "probably are opposed" to the restrictions, but the curfew would apply to all of Montgomery County's municipalities unless they chose to opt out.

Board member Darian Unger noted a "dissonance" between law enforcement professionals, noting Chief Ricucci's ambivalence to the curfew and opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police, who believe it would turn cops into "babysitters." "If there's no data from places that have curfews that this is worth taking liberty away, I don't see a need," Unger said.

Brad Stewart, provost of Montgomery College and a former criminal justice professor, explained that most youth crimes are caused by a few "chronic offenders," which the curfew would help police apprehend. He pooh-poohed concerns that the curfew would infringe on the rights of youth. "There's a lot of talk about teenage civil rights. Well, the rest of us have rights too," he says. "We're fiddling while Rome is burning."

It's at that moment that I challenged Stewart and curfew supporters. "It's hard to have a civil discussion about an issue that makes everyone emotional, but also one that's borne out of fear," I said. "Like Brad said, this is a problem with a few isolated incidents involving a few 'chronic offenders,' yet you've blown it up into something that harms a county of a million people . . . Why can't we put our minds together and find actual, effective solutions rather than giving into this irrational groupthink?"

Brad Stewart, sitting in front of me, leaned back and whispered, "I hope you aren't a victim, because it'll change your whole world."

"I don't live in fear," I replied.

Sitting next to him is Jane Redicker, head of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, which supports the curfew. "Neither did I until I was a victim," she said.

A few minutes later, as the meeting is still going on, Stewart offered me "an internship" to meet with the "victims of crime" and learn what they're going through.

"I'm sorry, Brad, but that's patronizing," I said.

Jim Zepp, a member of the Montgomery County Civic Federation speaking on his own behalf, urged community members to step back and understand the problem before seeking a hasty solution. "People do these things for a reason," he said. "You need to find out what that reason is." Zepp passed out a chart listing a variety of solutions other communities have used to combat late-night crime, including Nighttime Economy Management studies like this one for San Jose, which examine the social, economic and environmental factors that create safer areas.

Lt. Carter agreed, calling the proposed curfew "is one ingredient in the cake mix." He rattled off a long list of additional crime prevention strategies, including:

Anti-gang public service announcements.
Enhanced penalties for offenders.
More funding for gang prevention, more officers, and additional investigators in Silver Spring.
Bike cops in the downtown area.
Security cameras, and people to watch them. (The Peterson Companies, which manage the downtown Silver Spring complex, already have security cameras but the footage is only recorded and can be watched later.)
"Tweaking" the county's anti-loitering law, which was struck down for being unconstitutional.
A police substation right on Ellsworth Drive, so cops could respond more quickly to any problems.
Partnering with the management of the Majestic 20 movie theatre, which draws young people.
More Silver Spring Service Corps, the so-called "red-shirts" who keep the streets clean and tidy.
Opening Ellsworth Drive to cars on weekends.
Closing Veterans Plaza late at night.

While not all of these tools may be the solution for crime in downtown Silver Spring, they give lawmakers, law enforcement officials and community members a broader set of options. And together, they're arguably more effective than a curfew, which Lt. Carter said would probably take care "half, most likely a quarter" of area crime. Lt. Carter also admitted that the curfew would do nothing to prevent the majority of youth crimes that take place earlier in the day. Yet unlike a curfew, many of these strategies cost money, which in budget-strapped Montgomery County is difficult to come by.

After the meeting, I asked Lt. Carter if there were ever foot patrols in downtown Silver Spring. As part of former County Executive Doug Duncan's attempt to revitalize the area in the 1990's, he explains, there were as many as 28 cops on foot, scooters and bikes there. At the time, downtown Silver Spring wasn't as busy as it is today, and most of those officers were eventually assigned to other parts of the county where they were needed more. Yet as downtown became a bigger destination, the police force "never caught up with the growth," Lt. Carter said. Today, there are just 6 cops on bikes in the central business district, along with another 2 officers in cars who patrol downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

The curfew, Lt. Carter said, is necessary because Silver Spring has a thinner police presence than he'd like. "Give me 24 more cops and I'll make Manhattan at Christmastime," he says. "You know how much that would cost? 6 million dollars."

It's clear that community members share a concern about crime in downtown Silver Spring and are anxious to find a solution. Unfortunately, County Executive Leggett has overlooked costlier but far more effective solutions in his eagerness to find a quick fix. Had he proposed a package of tools similar to those described by Lt. Carter, it's unlikely that the community would be as divided as it is today. A curfew alone might give a few residents of Montgomery County a false sense of security, but without the means to understand why destructive behavior happens and respond appropriately, it won't actually make us safer.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

meeting on proposed curfew and silver spring crime tonight

From friend of JUTP Darian Unger:

Dear friends and neighbors,

All are welcome to participate in a meeting tomorrow (Wednesday) night to discuss both crime and the proposed curfew in Silver Spring. The public meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Silver Spring Civic Building.

The meeting will be a chance to learn and hear from advocates and experts on several sides of the issue. County officials, police, and several community advocacy groups will all provide background information and offer their different positions. As a public committee meeting of the Silver Spring Advisory Board, there will of course be opportunities for you to ask your questions and share your opinions.

All are welcome.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or concerns about the meeting, you're very welcome to email me or give me a call at 301-588-3499.

Hope to see everyone there. As y'all know, the only thing I want to hear about the curfew is that we've abandoned it in favor of actual solutions, but perhaps this meeting is the first step to getting there.

(It's to be seen whether fears of "teen crime" in Silver Spring and elsewhere will dissipate next Monday, once The Youth are back in school and not looting and pillaging, but I'd bet that the urgency with which County Executive Leggett wanted to pass a curfew will die soon after.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

catch JUTP on facebook, twitter

With the school year (and my return to Philadelphia) fast approaching, it's hard for me to write full posts for JUTP. Not for a lack of material, however: when I find a link or story of interest to You, The Reader and I'm pressed for time, I usually post them to our Twitter or Facebook pages, links to both of which can be found in the right-hand column of the JUTP homepage.

Follow either page and you can get links to JUTP posts as they're published, see what else I'm reading online, find out about East County news and join the conversation by clicking "Like" or leaving your own comments. Don't have Twitter or Facebook? That's okay. You'll still be able to read both pages, but you won't be able to comment.

I don't have any plans to move the blog entirely to Facebook as Rockville Central did earlier this year, but I've definitely embraced both Facebook and Twitter as ways to keep blogging on a busier schedule.

I'm packing and moving this week, but expect regular posts to begin again within the next day or two.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

demographic changes mean greater demand for walkable, transit-served communities

Mix of Housing and Building Types, King Farm
Walkable, suburban neighborhoods like King Farm in Rockville are what new homebuyers want, say real estate experts.

New research shows that a growing number of homebuyers are interested in walkable, transit-served communities, and are willing to sacrifice a bigger house for a better neighborhood.

Last night, Joe Molinaro, director of Smart Growth and Housing Opportunity at the National Association of Realtors, and Shyam Kannan, director of research at real estate consultancy RCLCO, gave a talk on "Polls, Demographics and Demand for Smart Growth" hosted by the Coalition for Smarter Growth at the National Capital Planning Commission. They presented recent studies that reveal several trends related to a growing preference for so-called "Smart Growth" communities:

There's lots of demand for housing in walkable, transit-served communities, but not enough supply.

The NAR study, which surveyed 2,000 people nationwide last February, found that 47% of respondents would like to live in a downtown, an inner-city residential neighborhood, or a suburb with shops and amenities within walking distance. Meanwhile, Kannan's research found that 23% of Americans surveyed want to live within walking distance of rail transit.

While that may not seem like a lot, this population is still underserved by existing housing options in most of Greater Washington, where only 14% of residents live within a half-mile of Metro. 22.8% of District residents can walk to Metro, but in Northern Virginia, defined as Fairfax and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria, just 13.3% of all households live within a half-mile of Metro. In Montgomery County, that falls to 10%, while in Prince George's County, with fifteen Metro stations, it's 7.7%. Regionwide, it would take 170,000 new units within walking distance of transit to accommodate the estimated demand for such housing.

Though the real estate market slowed down considerably due to the recession, there will be a pent-up demand for new housing, and new kinds of housing when the economy improves. In 2005, 2.1 million building permits were issued nationwide, about 38% of which were for multi-family homes. In 2011, only 597,000 permits were issued, but nearly half were for multi-family homes. Given the demand to live in walkable, transit-accessible communities, and buyers' willingness to consider attached homes, trends suggest that we'll need to build many more townhomes and apartments in the coming years.

There's public support for Smart Growth and better transit.

After decades of urban disinvestment, Americans are interested in fixing established communities and providing alternatives to driving. When asked what type of development state governments should encourage, 57% said they should improve existing places, with another 32% endorsing new development in older communities. 50% said better public transit would reduce traffic, and another 30% endorsed creating places that required less driving. Molinaro said these results are pretty consistent around the country, with the opinions of people in mostly-rural states like Idaho and Montana mirroring those nationwide.

People will sacrifice a larger house or yard for a shorter commute.

NAR's survey confirmed common assumptions that Americans want to live in detached, single-family homes. 80% of respondents in the NAR survey said they'd prefer to live in a single-family house, which is in line with other studies. 87% said the most important thing they look for is privacy.

Yet when asked to choose between a neighborhood of large-lot single-family homes where you had to drive everywhere, and one with smaller homes but amenities within walking distance, 56% chose the latter. 58% said they'd pick a walkable neighborhood over one where driving was a necessity, and 59% said they'd take a small house and a shorter commute over a big house with a longer commute.

Homebuyers are willing to give up space for a close-in location, but those surveyed seem ambivalent about living in attached housing. When asked to pick between a single-family house and a long commute, and an apartment or townhome with a shorter commute, just 38% chose the latter.

These places aren't just desired by young singles but by a wide cross-section of Americans.

Both surveys explored who the typical Smart Growth homebuyers are and found that they're not just limited to young professionals, as is the common wisdom. In the NAR survey, respondents who said they preferred an auto-oriented, suburban community were more likely to be politically conservative, married, middle-aged, white men. Meanwhile, a broad range of people expressed preference for Smart Growth communities, including women under 40, low-income earners, and individuals with post-graduate degrees. Though each of these groups has different reasons for wanting to live in these places, they all find benefits in them.

Kannan's research looks at interested market segments in greater detail using psychographic variables, which groups people based on similar personality traits, occupation, or cultural outlook. People who'd be interested in living near transit include the "Laptops and Lattes," affluent liberal professionals, but also "Boomburbs," suburban dual-income households, or "Urban Villages," large, middle-class Hispanic families.

From this, Kannan concludes that the demand for transit, coupled with buyers who either currently live or want to live in suburbs, will result in a mismatch between where people live and where transit is available. "Are we undercounting the overall demand for transit-oriented environs?" he asks. "I don't know if we're seriously thinking about our regional, fixed-rail transit."

Despite demographic trends favoring homes in walkable communities, not all future homebuyers and renters will flock to the inner city, meaning that there will continue to be demand for housing in the suburbs. And though people may want to live near public transit, they won't use it unless it's fast and frequent. Yet it's not feasible to cover an entire sprawling metropolitan area with high-quality rail and bus service. This can be seen in Montgomery County's study of a 160-mile Bus Rapid Transit system, which was revised to reflect higher estimated costs and fewer projected riders.

If we're going to meet the demand for Smart Growth communities, we'll have to make significant changes in the way our region's structured. Building new transit is expensive, so we'll have to place a greater emphasis on building housing around the system we have, even when there's local opposition to doing so. We'll also have to make walking and biking easier, through the provision of sidewalks and bike infrastructure, but also through top-notch urban design that creates environments where people actually want to walk and hang out.

Those who want to live in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods may be a minority, but they're underserved by our existing housing stock and the communities we live in today. As Generation Y enters the workforce, we'll see a greater demand for these kinds of places, not just for swinging singles but for young families as well. And all this can happen while relieving development pressures on auto-oriented, suburban areas, allowing the majority of people who enjoy those places to continue enjoying them.

Smart Growth doesn't mean that everyone has to live in an apartment. In reality, the NAR and RCLCO studies reveal that most people don't want that. But it's a tool to create communities where people have a greater breadth of choices, from how they live to how they get around. In the coming years, we'll have a chance to give people in Greater Washington the choices they deserve.

Crossposted, sort of, on Greater Greater Washington.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

whole foods coming to prince george's? (updated)

Cafritz Rendering

That's what I'm writing about today over on Greater Greater Washington. Whole Foods plans to locate at the Cafritz Property in Riverdale Park (between College Park and Hyattsville on Route 1), but the development as proposed could be way better.

Also, watch the 5 or 6 o'clock news (I'm not sure which) on NBC 4 this afternoon. I was interviewed on MoCo's proposed youth curfews. I also don't have a TV, so let me know how it goes.
(Of course, it'll also be posted online and I'll post the clip once it's available.)

UPDATE: And here's the interview. Check it out.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

blast from the past: before it was "silver sprUng"

The Town Square Garage on Ellsworth Drive under construction in 2003. Photo courtesy of . . . Montgomery County? I think.

After talk of stores closing and youth curfews and terrorism fears, it's easy to feel down about the current state of downtown Silver Spring, and hard to remember that not long ago things were much, much worse. I forget when I stumbled on this post from Spam-O-Matic, a sort of proto-blog written by Silver Spring resident Andrew Lindemann Malone, about the very first Silverdocs film festival way back in 2003. Well before "Silver SprUng" took hold, visitors flocked downtown to see pro skater Tony Hawk (the subject of a documentary in the festival) perform on a half-pipe in the middle of Georgia Avenue:

As Tony Hawk glided with tricky steps and a total, subconscious awareness of momentum and gravity across the surface of a temporary halfpipe to execute a 540 Ollie two weeks ago, and as a crowd packed tightly into the available space on a closed Georgia Avenue erupted in cheers at the sight, Silver Spring had never seemed so much like a real city . . .

Almost as fun as watching the Hawkites do their thing was just wandering around and watching people wander around. After the concert, the Combo Ocho, which seems to get hired often by Silver Spring to play municipal concerts, was playing a lively set; some people were dancing on the hot blacktop to the salsa. There were food booths set up, with lines befitting a street festival; I've never seen so much interest in Manny & Olga's pizza before in my life.

The Discovery building was open to the public, which mainly meant that we could all see a cool machine full of wacky mechanisms to transport brightly colored rubber balls from…well, somewhere to somewhere; the journey is the destination in these kinds of machines. Various other tents pitched Discovery shows and networks; a small, assured woman from Animal Planet draped a huge snake across her shoulders and answered all questions patiently, and at another tent I entered my sister to win an enormous basket of Trading Spaces promotional crap. Bonhomie ruled; the mood was appropriately festive, on a beautiful day with interesting stuff to see and do and explore, and as diverse a crowd as I've ever seen in any Silver Spring public space was enjoying itself.

Skaters in downtown? A Discovery Building that actually invites the public in? A diverse crowd of people having a fun, incident-free day out? Surely, we can't have fallen that far in just eight years.

In all seriousness, read the rest of Andrew's post. It's interesting that a lot of the concerns he raised then - fears of gentrification, established businesses shutting down, lack of nightlife options - are still things we talk about today. I wonder if we'll still worry about downtown Silver Spring "making it" as a desirable urban neighborhood in eight more years, or if we'll have moved on to new problems.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

the myth of the color-blind county

Music Man, Fenton & Ellsworth
Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring in 2009.

Montgomery County police officer Robert Carter doesn't want you to worry about racial profiling if a proposed teen curfew is enacted, because like Stephen Colbert, our cops don't see race:

"I understand that some cops of yesteryear judged a “book by its cover.” The good news is today’s Montgomery County police are part of one of the first generations of Americans to have grown up “color blind,” or for that matter, blind to all bias. They’ll judge these kids based on something else, something they have learned quickly on this job."

Though I'm not convinced that the curfew represents a "war on black teenagers," as Post columnist Courtland Milloy describes it, I cannot believe that Montgomery's police are all "color-blind," even the younger officers who like me grew up around diversity. After all, a curfew in Frederick County was struck down because police were using it to target black kids. As a black male, my experiences with racial profiling tell me I should be skeptical of statements like Officer Carter's that our cops can serve without ever displaying bias.

After all, prejudice is still present even in liberal Montgomery County, even if it shows up in subtle ways: the community meetings where neighbors equate low-income people with drug dealers or use coded language like "undesirables." Or the diner that kicks a black gay couple out for embracing in public.

Some would argue that class, not race is the biggest divider in today's Montgomery, especially with a black County Executive and three minority Councilmembers. But we're still far from being a color-blind society. At Saturday's community roundtable on youth issues, I talked to Joey, who lives in Four Corners and said he'd support a curfew. He won't take his family to Silver Spring at night because of "thug-looking kids" hanging out there. "And I'm not just talking about black and Latino kids," he quickly added. If we don't see race, is that statement necessary?

For years, Montgomery County has been proud of its [progressive politics. Now that we're a majority-minority jurisdiction, we actually have to show our progressive values. After all, it's easy to be open-minded when the only minorities you see are the token black family on your cul-de-sac. It's harder when your kids go to a school that's 25% white and the signs in your neighborhood are all in Amharic or Spanish.

Some people are comfortable with that. The rest struggle each day to negotiate a world that doesn't look like it did just twenty years ago, unsure how to respond. Usually, they go with fear. And that can make even the most staunch liberal consider things normally offensive to their principles. Like trusting that police can pick out "bad" kids on a busy downtown street, even before anyone's done anything illegal, and not wrongfully accuse someone based on vaguely-defined characteristics.

The perennial debate over youth behavior and crime in Silver Spring has been going on for years. It's a reflection of how committed people are to ensuring that this community, once lost to disinvestment and urban decay, can remain vibrant and safe. Yet the discussion rarely touches on the elephant in the very diverse room and, as a result, can never be fully resolved.

Friday, August 5, 2011

community roundtable on youth at fenton street market tomorrow (for real this time)

Kids On Ellsworth Drive
Teens engaging in non-gang-affiliated activities in downtown Silver Spring.

Don't forget! I'm hosting a "community roundtable" at Fenton Street Market tomorrow afternoon (originally scheduled for last month on the issue of young people in Silver Spring and throughout the county, including the proposed teen curfew, which would ban youth under 18 from being out in Montgomery County after 11pm during the week and midnight on weekends. Youth issues are never far from public debate in downtown Silver Spring, particularly during the summer months, and I'm looking forward to talking to whoever stops by to talk about it.

Come on by from 12 to 1pm tomorrow afternoon to Fenton Street Market (which, as always, is open from 9am to 3pm) in Veterans Plaza at the corner of Ellsworth and Fenton.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

"youth cafes" could provide a hangout and a learning experience

Montgomery County's proposed curfew and ongoing concerns about crime in Silver Spring have resurrected the age-old debate over how to keep young people occupied.

County Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-Colesville) and local non-profit IMPACT Silver Spring are trying out one solution, so-called "youth cafes" that provide an informal, supervised hangout for teens. In April, the first of three planned "youth cafes" opened at the East County Recreation Center in Briggs Chaney, long one of the area's crime hot spots. There are snacks, video games, and music and art competitions, all organized by Recreation Department staff. However, the cafe is only open afternoons one day a week, meaning some kids may not be able to go because of school or work commitments.

The "youth cafe" reminds me of an experiment at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia twelve years ago, in which teachers found a way to give students business skills while creating a cool after-class hangout and filling a vacancy in an adjacent shopping center all at once. The school-run Wilde Times Cafe became a local institution, drawing teens from across the county. Though it didn't last long, it shows us that we can give young people a place in East County while teaching them to care for it as well.

Quad, Wilde Lake Village Center
Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia.

Wilde Times Cafe occupied a space rent-free in the Wilde Lake Village Center, which had been struggling to fill vacancies for years and will soon be redeveloped. When it opened in 1999, the Washington Post noted that it also filled an important role in the community in an article titled "Students Strive To Open Business; Wilde Times Cafe Takes Much Work":

The idea is to be Al's from "Happy Days," Central Perk from "Friends" and the Peach Pit from "Beverly Hills 90210." It's something that exists on screen but rarely in real life: the single cool, see-and-be-seen gathering place for all the kids in a community.

"Don't make fun of me, but I always see it as the school hangout on 'Saved by the Bell,' " said Shayna, 17. "But a 1990s version, not the 1985 one."

In suburbs like Columbia, there's a ton of stuff for teenagers to do, and at the same time nothing at all. There's bowling, movies, dinner, jaunts to Baltimore or the District, and getting chased from the Wawa off Hickory Ridge. "If we sit there and list them," said Kim, 17, "there's lots of things to do, but we've exhausted them." Been there, done that, need a new scene.

Wilde Times was open weekday afternoons and Friday evenings until 10pm; lacking a proper kitchen, they sold only prepackaged drinks and snacks. The cafe was staffed by Wilde Lake students who received class credit for their efforts. They served customers, selected what items to sell, and handled finances. An adult was always present to ensure that nothing got out of hand. And it was successful, drawing hungry students during the day and hosting concerts and open mike nights at night. Community leaders embraced the cafe, which was highlighted in Howard County's winning bid for All-American City in 2001.

Meanwhile, neighboring shopkeepers complained that the cafe's teenage patrons were running their customers away, and Wilde Times closed temporarily in March 2001 after a fight following a Friday night concert. It reopened with a sold-out battle of the bands a year later before closing permanently once Kimco, the shopping center's owner, found a paying tenant.

I'm curious how the Wilde Times Cafe model could be applied to the county's nascent "youth cafes" program. We may not be able to run restaurants out of community centers, but there's certainly no shortage of vacant retail space in East County that could be repurposed. It's also worth exploring how the "youth cafe" could have programming at different times - to be open afternoons some days, and evenings on other days. With parents in Briggs Chaney afraid to let their kids outside due to fears of crime, having safe activities throughout the day is important.

Of course, youth programs at the rec center are only part of the solution, and the county certainly can't afford to entertain teenagers all the time. But I hope we can explore creative ways to engage young people - and teach them a few skills while they're at it - rather than just sending them home in front of the TV.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

rebranded city place mall uses michael jackson to "sell" silver spring

Silver Spring Promo from Telecam Films on Vimeo.

Promotional video for The Outlets at Silver Spring.

Twenty years after it first opened, City Place Mall has fallen on hard times. This winter, it'll get a new name and several new stores as the shopping complex's owners seek to reposition it as an outlet mall, creatively dubbed The Outlets at Silver Spring.

Developer Petrie Ross, who purchased City Place in 2007 and sought approval from the county to make a variety of major renovations, has formed a team to reposition the ailing shopping center with new owner Hutensky Capital Partners and EW+B Development, a subsidiary of real estate firm CBRE who renovated the Perryville Outlet Center in Cecil County.

I wonder how effective a new name will be. Wheaton Plaza changed its name in 2005, but you rarely see "Westfield Wheaton" outside of news articles. On the other hand, the town of Riverdale Park changed its name from Riverdale due to that name's bad reputation, and now they're getting a Whole Foods.

Not surprisingly, the developers are capitalizing on the existing success of the Downtown Silver Spring complex, which despite its undeserved association with gangs, remains a pretty neat place to go.

City Place Mall in 1992. Photo from ACG Architects.

And that brings us to Michael Jackson singing over a montage of store signs and little kids playing in the fountain on Ellsworth Drive. Watching the video, I felt like we'd all forgotten how great Silver Spring really was. "Well-Connected to the Suburbs and the City!" screams one page on The Outlets' website. "They have affluence. Education. Status," boasts the home page of people in Silver Spring. "Fronts a thriving pedestrian scene," notes the brochure (PDF). Almost every page on their website has a picture of people having a great time on Ellsworth Drive.

If that doesn't convince retailers to set up shop at The Outlets (and it doesn't make sense that the kind of upscale places popping up around every other Metro station in Greater Washington haven't come here already), at least those who already live and do business in Silver Spring will feel a little better. Even if The Outlets at Silver Spring doesn't nudge us a little closer to being Bethesda (or even Columbia Heights!), hopefully it'll give people more reasons to come here.

(Thanks to Silver Spring, Singular for the heads-up.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

"several hundred signatures" collected opposing youth curfew

Youth Curfew Petition, July 30
Volunteers collect signatures in downtown Silver Spring last Friday night.

Opposition to the county's proposed youth curfew continues to grow as petitioners collected signatures against the legislation last weekend.

On Friday, JUTP learned that the National Youth Rights Association was organizing a protest on Ellsworth Drive, the site of a stabbing four weeks ago that prompted County Executive Leggett to propose a curfew. In reality, it was a petition drive, and ten volunteers were out collecting signatures, including NYRA executive director Alex Koroknay-Palicz and high-school senior Abigail Burman, one of four Montgomery County teens who are leading opposition to the curfew. An early count of the signatures shows about several hundred names, Burman says, adding, "I would say that it went quite well."

The County Council held a public hearing on the proposed curfew last week and will take it up in their Public Safety committee in September. For more information, check out the "Stand Up to the MoCo Curfew" Facebook group or visit