Tuesday, May 29, 2012

blake high's allies 4 equality named "GSA of the year" (updated)

UPDATE: See Allies 4 Equality's acceptance speech below.
Check out this video from GLSEN about Allies 4 Equality, Blake High School's GSA.

Twelve years ago, a student at Blake High School approached teacher Mary Wagner about starting a gay-straight alliance. Today, Allies 4 Equality isn't just a school club - it's sending a message of tolerance and love around the world. And last Monday, the group received the the first-ever "Gay-Straight Alliance of the Year" award by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, at their yearly Respect Awards in New York.

I'm a big fan of A4E, which as described by Wagner, ranges "between being a support group and being an activist group, depending on what the students need.”

One lunch period each week, Wagner and co-sponsor Deena Barlev open their classrooms to kids looking to talk in a safe space. An open, respectful dialogue is encouraged, but no one's required to disclose their sexuality. My only disappointment with A4E is that I never went when I attended Blake ten years ago, though I've since come back to speak a few times.

A4E's latest accomplishment is Allie the Ally, a paper doll modeled on Flat Stanley and created by juniors Heidi Peterson and Jenna Beers. People are encouraged to print Allie out, take a picture with her, and send a message in support of LGBTQ rights and awareness. When I first heard about Allie a few months ago, I was intrigued.

But I was really impressed by her adventures: she's been everywhere from Hollywood to Australia and has been written up in publications from the Post to Wired magazine. Meanwhile, Ally's friends post pictures and spread the word on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Allies 4 Equality isn't just a model for other gay-straight alliances. It's an example of how a group of young people with a good idea and just enough support from caring adults can do great things. Congratulations to everyone at A4E for your efforts! I've never been prouder to be a graduate of Blake High School. And check out their acceptance speech at the GLSEN Respect Awards last month:

on the commenting policy

I have no illusion that adults are always pleasant and courteous to each other in real life, let alone behind a computer screen where you don't even have to use your real name. I am no stranger to putting my foot in my mouth, whether online or in public. But I want JUTP to have a liberal commenting policy based on Greater Greater Washington's: make a thoughtful argument, no personal attacks, no anonymous comments.

Perhaps this was in vain. I very rarely delete comments, but recently I removed some on last Wednesday's post about the controversial Chelsea Court development from Jean Cavanaugh, president of the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens' Association, earning me the ire of many of her neighbors.

At 1,110 words, her comments were far longer than my original, 840-word post. She also chose to open them by insulting me: "Fine, you are not a journalist, you are a blogger and you are promoting a particular point of view. Facts are apparently not important," Jean wrote. 

What followed were a list of corrections, most of which I happily fixed here and on GGW. Then I e-mailed Jean, explaining that I deleted her comments but made the corrections, and offered to let her write a guest post. I also explained what I did in the comments.

Jean's response: I was just an "onlooker who [is] quick to label others who don't agree with them" and that she was "sorry to see that in someone so young whose career hasn't even started yet." "I no longer consider [Just Up The Pike] a place for honesty," she concluded.

Since then, her neighbors have accused me of censorship and being "undemocratic." Others have tried to invalidate my opinions on Chelsea Court because of my age, even though it has no bearing on the merits of building single-family homes or townhomes on the site of a former school.

I've heard from opponents of Chelsea Court and understand their concerns. Though I don't agree with them, I know we all care about the future of Silver Spring, even if we seek different ends. I wanted to calmly express my disagreement and back it up with facts and reason, and I expect them to do the same. I stand by my word, otherwise I wouldn't put it on the Internet to be preserved for all eternity.

I embrace diversity of opinions, and for six years, I've sought out people I disagree with. I accept thoughtful, well-reasoned guest blogs, and I gave Jean Cavanaugh the opportunity to write one instead of leaving a less visible comment. And the offer still stands whenever she, or anyone else, is ready. As promised, you get 600 words, my standard for guest posts.

I'll agree to disagree on Chelsea Court. But I'm not going to let some people who don't know me attack my character and my work. Jean, the ball's in your court.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

chelsea court proposal passes one hurdle, faces another (updated)

UPDATE: I made a few corrections to this post after publication, which are in bold.

With fewer houses and a reconfigured layout, Chelsea Court, a proposed townhouse development less than a block from downtown Silver Spring, got the nod from MoCo's hearing examiner, bringing it one step closer to reality. The County Council next has to approve the project, and they should.

Clarendon Park Townhomes
Townhomes like these at Clarendon Park in Arlington could soon becoming to Silver Spring.

Two years ago, Bethesda-based developer EYA bought planned a development on the five-acre Chelsea School campus at Pershing Drive and Springvale Road after the school decided to move. Noting the site's proximity to the Silver Spring Metro and demand for transit-accessible housing, EYA sought to have the site rezoned from R-60, which allows single-family homes, to RT-15, which allows townhouses.

The zoning change was approved by the county Planning Board, which pointed to the twelve-story Colesville Towers apartments across the street and said townhouses weren't too dense for the neighborhood. Then it went to the County Council, but they rejected the zoning change due to opposition from residents only want single-family homes in their neighborhood.

The County Council asked EYA to come back with a new proposal, and they did, which was just approved by the Hearing Examiner, Lynn Robeson, who basically serves as a judge for the county's zoning code. The examiner's office released this 111-page report detailing how they came to their conclusion.

Chelsea Court Plan 
The originally proposed site plan.

Latest site plan, Chelsea Court 
The new site plan.

The site will now be zoned RT-12.5, which still allows townhouses, but at a lower density. There will be only 64 townhouses, instead of 77 as EYA first proposed, while the number of county-mandated moderately-priced dwelling units will drop from 13 10 to 8. The houses will be placed further away from Springvale Road to appease residents of that street, while a private street for the new development has been moved.

Because of these changes, half of the site is set aside as open space, including wider courtyards between townhouse rows and a larger park at the corner of Springvale Road and Pershing Drive. There's also more open space around the historic Riggs-Thompson House, which was built by the founder of Riggs Bank was originally going to be saved in the first proposal.

Nonetheless, some neighbors weren't satisfied. No fewer than six civic associations opposed the project, including the adjacent Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (SOECA), but also Lyttonsville and South Four Corners, both of which are several miles away from the site.

Residents complained about the loss of large trees, while others questioned that EYA's traffic studies showing no increase in nearby congestion. SOECA president vice president Vicki Warren said there wasn't enough open space around the Riggs-Thompson House, though historic preservation planner Judith Christensen said she could "live with" what was provided because the county's Historic Preservation Commission would have a say in how it was used.

Many complained that the project's layout resembled military barracks, though the "alternative plan" submitted by Kenneth Doggett, SOECA's "expert land planner," looks much like EYA's proposal, but with fewer houses.

Proposed site plan (Kenneth Doggett), Chelsea Court
Doggett's proposal for the Chelsea Court site.

In response, EYA tried to show how Chelsea Court fit into the local context. Vice president Aakash Thakkar displayed a model of Clarendon Park, a project they built in Arlington with a similar layout, and noted how the end houses were designed to look like single-family homes, helping them blend into the neighborhood.

Miguel Iraola, a planner at Hord Coplan Macht who's designing the project, offered several precedents throughout Silver Spring, Wheaton and Bethesda that are similar in design or density to their proposal. Neighbors Maria Schmit and Tom Anderson claimed that they weren't comparable to Chelsea Court, but Robeson agreed with Iraola's conclusion.

With the hearing examiner's approval, the new Chelsea Court proposal will now go before the County Council once again, and I hope they approve it as well. EYA has worked hard to meet the neighborhood's concerns, crafting a project that not only respects the site's history but its current surroundings.

They also have a good track record for creating quality infill projects, which many neighbors recognize. “Based on EYA’s National Park Seminary [in Forest Glen], I am convinced this new development will be attractive – just as attractive as our existing neighborhood and perhaps even more so,” wrote SOECA resident Leslie Downey in a letter to the Planning Board last year.

Many Silver Spring residents say they want to support local businesses, are upset about traffic congestion, and are concerned about safety. Yet they are often the same ones who oppose projects like Chelsea Court, which would generate more customers, allow more people to walk, bike or use transit instead of driving, and provide more "eyes on the street."

We could do far worse than this. Chelsea Court has been fully vetted and dutifully revised, and now it's time to get it built.

(Thanks to reader David Adams for the heads-up.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

new museum of health and medicine reopens in forest glen

National Museum of Health & Medicine Sign
I was nervous to visit the newly-reopened National Museum of Health and Medicine, now located at the Walter Reed Annex in Forest Glen, especially after reading about some of the museum's medical oddities. But when I went to their open house yesterday, I was more intrigued than grossed out.

Yes, there's a photograph of a Civil War soldier who lost his chin, the preserved leg of a young man who had elephantitis, and a series of fetal skeletons. But they're presented to teach, not to shock like some other local museums.

"It's all about distance," says Tim Clarke Jr., deputy director of communications for the museum and a Silver Spring resident. He notes that "you learn a lot" from examining these artifacts. "Individually [they're] interesting," he says, "but as an aggregate, you learn about the disease."

The Army Medical Museum was founded in 1862 with a collection of "specimens of morbid anatomy" from the Civil War. Since renamed the National Museum of Health and Medicine, it has been located at Walter Reed Hospital in the District since the 1970's. When the BRAC Commission moved the hospital to Bethesda in 2005, the museum went to the Walter Reed Annex instead.

The new museum, designed by Philadelphia-based architecture firm KlingStubbins, was completed last summer and opened briefly with some temporary exhibits before the interior was finished.

National Museum of Health & Medicine
Today, the museum's collection contains some 25 million artifacts, including the world's largest set of brains. There are also examples of medical technology from the past, like a dialysis machine from the 1950's and a Japanese medical kit captured during World War II. In the lobby, there's a mural from the ballroom of the National Park Seminary across the street, depicting when it was a veterans' hospital during the mid-20th century.

Much of the collection is kept within the museum itself; the storage facilities and labs can be seen from the exhibition halls, allowing visitors a glimpse of other artifacts and ongoing research.

While the exhibits are designed to be flexible and change over time, some may be permanent, like the "Advances in Military Medicine" exhibit. That one includes the preserved floor of the trauma unit of a tent hospital in Balad, Iraq, pockmarked with gurney legs and stained with antiseptic chemicals and blood. Despite being a semi-temporary structure, the hospital had a 98 percent survival rate, says Clarke, who calls it the "floor where most American lives were saved" during the Iraq War.

The floor was displayed when the museum was still located at Walter Reed Hospital, where many veterans were recuperating. "They'd bring their mom, or their wife and kids," says Clarke, "and say, 'This is where I got my life back.'"

That's the real takeaway of the National Museum of Health and Medicine: not just a gigantic foot in a jar, but the ongoing progress of medical innovation, saving American lives here and abroad. And that's definitely nothing to be afraid of.

The museum is located at 2500 Linden Lane in Forest Glen and is open daily. Admission is free. Their website is a little out of date, so you might want to call 301/319-3300 for any further information.

The museum also wants to get out into the community, hosting free "Science Cafés" where residents can hear from scientists about the latest research. Their next Science Café, with Dr. Gillian Hooker of the National Human Genome Research Institute, is at 6pm tonight at the Silver Spring Civic Building on Ellsworth Drive.

Friday, May 18, 2012

what's up the pike: food and georgia avenue

Two quick links about food, both related to Georgia Avenue:
- As I wrote before, this Saturday Sunday is the 17th-annual Taste of Wheaton festival, located at the corner of Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue in downtown Wheaton. As always, there will be live music, booths with over 50 local organizations and businesses, karaoke, arts and crafts for the kids and, of course, food samples from 14 of Wheaton's favorite restaurants. There could be more food, and more local food, unfortunately. The Gazette interviews many local restauranteurs who say they're unable to staff the event, which means that half of the participating vendors are chains, like Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts. Nonetheless, it still looks like a promising afternoon. - At least there's still a festival for Wheaton's restaurants to participate in. Down Georgia Avenue in D.C., the Caribbean Carnival announced they're moving to Baltimore after being unable to settle their debts with the city. Though some people are quick to point out that four people were shot at last year's festival, the mostly peaceful event was a boon to local restaurants like Li'l GT Cafe, owned by my aunt and cousin. The Post's Clinton Yates interviewed my cousin Navendra about what the Caribbean Carnival means to their shop and the city.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

will the station arts center plan work?

A group of Silver Spring residents want to turn an old police station into an arts center modeled on the Gateway Arts Center in Prince George's County. However, building an artist community in Silver Spring will require something that's hard to find here: housing that artists can afford.

mount rainier artist lofts
The Mount Rainier Artist Lofts. Image from Google Street View.

The Gateway Arts Center is successful partly because it's located in a more established artist enclave, the Gateway Arts District, located along Route 1 in Prince George's County. Like downtown Silver Spring, it's one of 19 Arts & Entertainment Districts designated by the state of Maryland, making it eligible for grants to support the arts and arts-related uses. But the district has also drawn artists for decades. Each year, it holds a yearly studio tour with nearly 120 local artists in 17 venues.

Not only that, but the Gateway Arts District has lots of old houses and warehouses that are cheap and easy to repurpose. There aren't a lot of buildings like that in Silver Spring anymore. Artists who lack places to work need affordable places to live as well.

Being in downtown Silver Spring less than a mile from the Metro, the 2.5 acres the police station sits on are very valuable. Perhaps a better use for this site would be a mix of studio space and artist housing, not unlike Renaissance Square and the Mount Rainier Artist Lofts, two apartment buildings in the Gateway Arts District, or the Brookland Artspace Lofts, a building in Northeast Washington. 

All three buildings rent apartments and live-work units at subsidized rates to people who earn their living making art. These buildings, which are each 100% occupied, offer artists who often have low incomes a quality place to live.

According to the Census, the median rent in below-the-Beltway Silver Spring is $1206 a month, but actual apartment listings suggest that's only enough for a one-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, a one-bedroom in the Brookland Artspace Lofts with studio space rents for $970, while a two-bedroom is just $1205.

We could turn the police station into an arts center as proposed, but also build low-rise artist housing around it. A smaller community garden could be built, or it could instead be located in any of the 46 existing parks in below-the-Beltway Silver Spring and Takoma Park. The lawn in front of the police station could still become a small public space for the neighborhood.

This proposal would cost more to build and may require public money. The Brookland Artspace Lofts in the District, developed by the same company that built the apartments in Mount Rainier, received $11 million in construction funding and tax credits from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. If a funding source is found, however, artist housing could provide more customers for local businesses while developing a more substantial and diverse arts scene. 

When I suggested this to Karen Roper and Steve Knight, two of the residents leading the push for the Station Arts Center, they were skeptical. "It's a little more unstructured and bohemian," Knight says. "I know one of the artists we talked to, she's married and has a house and a family." He wants to know "how strong of a need" there is for artist housing in Silver Spring.

"My neighbors . . . bought their houses cheap" decades ago, says Roper. "They're looking for studio space." She notes that "two, possibly three" buildings with subsidized apartments will be built on Fenton Street in coming years, while a developer wants to renovate the Eagle Bank building at Sligo Avenue and Fenton Street into "microlofts," or small apartments geared at single adults.

One of the reasons the county may support the current Station Arts Center proposal is because of their experience with the new police station in White Oak. Plans to sell extra land around the station to build a mix of affordable and market-rate housing in 2009 were met with intense community opposition before they eventually backed down. Whether the county uses the old police station property to meet its affordable housing goals or make money by selling it to a private developer, dealing with angry neighbors will be inevitable.
Typical apartment at Brookland Artspace Lofts from their website.

That's why Roper and her neighbors are trying to start the conversation about development. "We wanted to get out there and make our pitch before somebody came in and did the same old, same old," she says. "I would like to see some imagination in this county. It's not about how much you develop, it's about how you develop."

Roper wants the Station Arts Center to distinguish Fenton Village from the rest of Silver Spring, calling it the "only thing that represents us and who we are."

As I've written before, having spaces for making art makes our community stronger. Even if I don't agree with every part of the Station Arts Center concept, I'm glad that neighbors are being proactive about what they'd like to see in their community.

That said, Karen Roper might be okay with a few more apartments if they allowed the neighborhood to keep its artistic flair. "I'd rather live in a dense, crowded place with artists and musicians," she says. "When you take that character away, you just have a bunch of crap next to each other."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

residents propose turning old police station into arts center

Next year, the Montgomery County Police Department's Third District station will move to a new facility in White Oak, leaving their current building at Sligo Avenue and Grove Street in Fenton Village. While some neighbors worried that the site would be redeveloped as housing, resident Karen Roper saw a chance to bring local artists together.

silver spring police station
The Third District police station today. Image from Google Street View. 

Roper, who lives in adjacent East Silver Spring and sits on the board of their civic association, has long been active in local affairs. When the police department announced their move in 2009, she began exploring ways to repurpose it with the help of her neighbors Steve Knight, his wife Karen Burditt, and Dan Morales, all architects.

"I realized . . . that we needed to start earlier on getting behind things that we wanted," she says. "Knowing that the police station was going to move, I started talking to the neighbors around it." 

Many of those neighbors were artists who lacked space to work. "[They] have outgrown working in their attics or basements and they're ready to move to something bigger or more serious," says Knight. Roper worries that new development would make downtown Silver Spring "an audience district" by pushing them out.

"We're an arts district that has no space for artists," says Roper. "East Silver Spring is full of artists. That's who we've always been."
Big Ideas @ Gateway
The Gateway Arts Center in Brentwood. Photo by Anne Marchand on Flickr.

One of those artists, Laurie Breen, located her studio in the Gateway Arts Center in Brentwood, which opened two years ago in a former government surplus warehouse. Run by the Gateway Community Development Corporation and the Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation, the center holds classes, has two galleries, along with studios for 13 artists.

Roper wants to create a place like that in Silver Spring. Her group envisions turning the 1960's-era police station into the Station Arts Center, a place where local artists can make and display their work and residents take classes. The parking lot in back would be turned into a community garden with 44 plots and "plenty of parking," while the front lawn would become an outdoor hangout like "the Turf," the temporary green that stood where Veterans Plaza is today.

The station is located between downtown's high-rises and the porch-fronted bungalows of East Silver Spring, and both Roper and Knight refer to it as a good place for a "transition" or "buffer" between the two while reinforcing the community's character. A thousand units will be built in Fenton Village over the next few years, says Roper, but "there's no green space, there's no community gardens, and there's no space for artists."

Knight and Burditt introduced the Station Arts Center concept in a column for the Silver Spring Voice. To "prove a need and a desire" for the project, the group is circulating a petition. Civic groups and the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board have also been receptive.

"When I pitched the idea of an arts center and community garden, people loved it," Roper says, adding that David Dise, director of the county's Department of General Services, called it the "best proposal he'd ever heard for Silver Spring."

Roper, Knight and Morales took a quick tour of the police station and found it wouldn't take much to turn it into an arts center.

"I think you could go in there on Day 1 and have a fairly reasonable artist space," says Knight, noting that the building and its mechanical systems were in good repair, but could be reconfigured easily. "I don't think there's anything sacred [architecturally] about the building. It provides a pretty good blank slate to start with." There are also more unusual features, like an underground shooting range beneath the parking lot, which Roper says would make a "cool darkroom" for photographers.

There are some issues, namely a lack of natural light. But "if the resources presented themselves," Knight says, "it wouldn't be really impinging the building's structural integrity if you wanted to punch some more windows into it."

Roper's excited about the building's aesthetic qualities. "The police station is funky and square and 60's in look . . . it lends itself well to an arts center," she says.

The Parks Department is "extremely enthusiastic" about the community garden, she adds, because the site is already publicly owned and fenced off, requiring little additional work. Knight notes that there was a "pretty positive response" to one at Fenton Street Park, two blocks away.

Meanwhile, the lawn in front of the police station would become a "front yard" that Knight compares to "the Turf." It would be a "more casual outdoor space for people where you can just walk out, lay out a beach towel and get a tan."

"We're not going to blanket the police station in Astroturf," he jokes.

Though the design isn't finished, Roper estimates that it will cost $750,000 to renovate the police station. She is currently looking for a nonprofit group to operate the arts center, which would sustain itself by renting between 25 and 50 studios to working artists, offering classes to the public and some sort of "retail place."

"All we need from the county is a short-term lease," says Roper. "We don't need any funds from them."

Will the Station Arts Center plan work? We'll look at it in more detail tomorrow, along with one change I think could make it better.

Friday, May 4, 2012

what's up the pike: highway removal edition

It should be no surprise to longtime readers that with the end of each semester comes period with little to no new posts, followed by a humbled mea culpa by yours truly. What's my excuse this time? I was busy taking down the Southeast Freeway in the District. I'll explain more later, but in the meantime, here's a look at what's happening in East County:

- Metro is selling nearly four acres they own in downtown Wheaton. The site, located near the corner of Georgia and Blueridge avenues, is zoned for multi-family housing and retail. I'm glad WMATA is trying to find someone who actually knows what to do with this valuable property, rather than squandering it like they recently did in Glenmont.

- A club that hosts weekend and evening events for East County youth could be expanded to other parts of the county, says Colesville Patch. The County Council's Planning, Housing & Economic Development Committee voted to provide funding for Teen Escape Club offshoots in Bethesda and Germantown, along with another one in Silver Spring. With summer fast approaching, it's good to find actual solutions to teen boredom as opposed to, well, you know.

- Things are happening in downtown Silver Spring this weekend: of course, Fenton Street Market is back on Saturday, but so is the DTSS Fine Art Festival, along with the second-annual Taste the World in Fenton Village on Sunday.

- Downtown Wheaton may not have a market for high-end offices, but it's still a great place to eat. In fact, I ate at Nava Thai, one of my favorite restaurants in Wheaton in Greater Washington ever, while I was home last month. That's why I'm looking forward to the 17th-annual Taste of Wheaton festival on Saturday, May 20 at the corner of Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue. I'm not sure which of Wheaton's great restaurants will be participating (or I'm not paying enough attention to their website), but I am intrigued by food, wine and cocktail pairings.

- And at Planning Place: There are a lot of neat historic things in MoCo, and planners have released their draft recommendations for Burtonsville's village center. I'm generally hopeful about what they've proposed, but we'll talk more about that soon. Have a good weekend and JUTP will be back in full force next week!