Tuesday, August 14, 2012

south silver spring needs better parks, not just more

Extra Space Self Storage
A developer wants to build apartments here. Some neighbors want a park.
Citing a lack of open space, some South Silver Spring residents oppose a planned apartment building. But the problem isn't that there aren't enough parks, but that existing parks aren't being used.

Reston-based Comstock Homes seeks to build a 7-story, 200-unit building with ground-floor shops on a 1-acre property at the corner of Newell Street and Eastern Avenue currently home to a self-storage facility. Dubbed the Boulevard on Newell, the building would be allowed under current zoning and could start construction in 2014. Comstock will present their proposal at a meeting Monday, August 20 at 7pm in the Silver Spring Civic Building, located at Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring.

While the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association hasn't taken an official position on it, some residents living in the two buildings bordering the site, 8045 Newell Street and Eastern Village Cohousing, worried that the building could draw crime, block their sunlight and add more traffic to the area.

"The community is overdeveloped and there's too much density," says Brian Holland, an HR consultant who lives at 8045 Newell, in a phone interview with JUTP. "The community is beginning to say no. Enough."

Holland and his neighbors recently formed Park Now for South Silver Spring, which wants Montgomery County to buy the $2.8 million property and turn it into a park. "We request that our interests be prioritized over those of real estate developers," reads this petition, which as of Sunday night had 153 signatures.

South Silver Spring Apartment Buildings
New and old apartments in South Silver Spring, seen from the roof garden of Eastern Village.
Mostly warehouses and auto shops just ten years ago, South Silver Spring has sprouted several apartment and condominium buildings and is now one of the county's most densely populated neighborhoods, as members of Park Now are quick to note. It's not surprising that residents want open space.

At the same time, the property at Newell and Eastern is a short walk from the Silver Spring Transit Center, shopping centers and some of the region's largest employers. It's also literally across the street from the District of Columbia. This is an urban neighborhood, and people who choose to live there should be realistic about what kind of development will happen in their backyard.

That said, before spending millions of taxpayer dollars to acquire and build a new park in South Silver Spring, it's worth taking a look at the parks that already exist there.

Older apartment complexes like Rock Creek Springs have tree-filled courtyards, though they're only open to people who live there. However, newer buildings like 8045 Newell are required by the county to have a Public Use Space, usually in the form of a pocket park. 37 Public Use Spaces have been built in downtown Silver Spring in recent decades, and no fewer than 5 can be found within a block of Newell and Eastern, along with Acorn Park, a public park home to the original Silver Spring.

Veridian Plaza
A pocket park outside the Veridian, a new apartment building in South Silver Spring.
Holland says those spaces don't count. "Those parks do not have any green. They are asphalt," he says, adding, "Many residents have no place to put their doggies. They basically defecate on the little strip [of grass] right by East-West Highway."

Many of the neighborhood's pocket parks are poorly designed and seldom used. However, it's worth exploring how they could be redesigned or reprogrammed to meet residents' needs. There's no reason why these pocket parks, home to nebulous public art today, couldn't accommodate dog runs, jungle gyms, or something else.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away is the 24-acre Jesup Blair Park, with playgrounds, sports fields and a picnic ground. But South Silver Spring residents don't go there. "It is deemed unsafe," says Holland. "There is a perception by some that it is intruded [upon] by people who live in the District."

Evan Glass, board member of the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, believes access, not crime, is the biggest reason why people aren't using the park. "It is divided from the community by a cavernous Georgia Avenue," he says. "Until we figure out how to bridge that divide, it's going to remain severely underutilized."

Giant Food Parking Lot - Aerial
County planners propose building a park at a redeveloped Blair Park Shopping Center. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
In the event there's still a need for more open space, county planners have studied potential sites for new, large parks in downtown Silver Spring. The Newell and Eastern property was one of three they identified in South Silver Spring, along with the parking lot at the Blair Park Shopping Center and a block bounded by East-West Highway, Bottleworks Lane and Kennett Street.

Those two sites may actually be better for a new park. They're both larger, at roughly 1.5 acres in size, and more centrally located within the neighborhood, allowing more residents to reach them. And a park at the Blairs, surrounded by shops, restaurants and offices, could be a really valuable space, offering a true green oasis in the busiest part of South Silver Spring.

No matter what gets built at Newell and Eastern, it's clear that there's a desire for quality park space in South Silver Spring. Hopefully, the community can come together to make it happen. "The association is trying to work with all parties involved, especially the residents, to make whatever outcome the most appealing for everyone," says Glass.


Patrick said...

I live in 8045 Newell as well, and I support the proposed building, provided that it's nice, has an urban design and has a nice street character. The area is not overbuilt, as evidenced by the lack of retail space utilization. South Silver Spring still needs more residents or our retail space will be left under utilized. In addition, more people will put more people on sidewalks and more eyes on the street, making the area safer.

South Silver Spring does need better parks. I'm with Dan on reprogramming the existing pocket parks. 8045 Newell has a pocket park of its own that is completely unused. It doesn't have to be this way.

The Veridian Pocket park is not as bad as some would have you believe. It is by far the most popular pocket park I have seen in Silver Spring. I often see dogs running around and playing in it and people sit and eat food there. It could really take off if the retail filled in in that area.

That being said, a little less programming for that pocket park would make it better. Those strange high metal tables and chairs are never used. Those should just be taken out. A little more openness to it would go a long way.

The idea of putting a park in the Blair Park shopping center is a homerun. The proposal would be to gain more office space and living space, while keeping retail and adding in a park. That's everything you could want. The whole community and Silver Spring as a whole would benefit from this proposal at the shopping center.

What really makes this whole park idea on Newell so silly is that the people who want this park never supported a park before the building was proposed. They don't want a park. They just don't want a taller building next to their building.

In addition, the county did look at this space for a park but deemed it one of the least desirable potential locations. The biggest issue is that this strip of land borders The District. Why build a park to serve another jurisdiction? For most people in South Silver Spring, this park makes little sense. It'a also an oddly shaped piece of land.

This, however, should not distract from real discussions about providing better park space in South Silver Spring. Evan is absolutely right that making Georgia easier to cross would be great. We also need to make better use of the myriad of pocket parks in the area.

Big Bubba said...

I can't imagine that Giant, or the apartment complexes, that use the area for parking think this is a great idea and they would go for it. In fact, I think they will protest it forcefully.

I live on the other side of the tracks and rarely go to Giant because parking is such an issue there. I can walk to Safeway and WholeFoods so if this idea came to fruition I would guess I'd never venture to those shops. I will grant you the shops there get tons of foot traffic. However, closing the parking lot will have hurt businesses there.

Gull said...

@ Big Bubba and all other readers for that matter:

I think the vision for the Blairs property (Giant et al) was just a visioning, and is by no means currently proposed by the Blairs. It's more respective of what should happen to those properties in the case of formal re-development, which would have a very publicized and long public process through the MNCPPC office. There would very likely be many levels of below ground parking under the buildings - everything would be raised, and that Giant in the picture is actually a 'new' building with the multiple levels of development over it. I think it's actually a great location for a new park.

The emphasis for this subject site and all others near it should be more on developing the land to it's densest plausible level to increase foot traffic and to help the under-used retail along E-W hwy. I'd bet if all of the vacant retail locations along east-west were to open, you'd see that area in front of Canada Dry/Veridian become very active. I always complain there needs to be a draw to that area, either a large anchor type retail store, or a substantial office investment to create a captive daytime audience.