Tuesday, November 27, 2012

blairs redevelopment could yield new downtown park

Blair Park Giant
Today it's a parking lot, but in the future it could be a big park.
Downtown Silver Spring could get a big new park in an unlikely place: the parking lot of the Blair Shops.

According to a tweet from Evan Glass, chair of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, the Blair Apartments at East-West Highway and Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring will get a new urban park as part of a future redevelopment project. The announcement was made during a meeting of the advisory board's Tree and Neighborhoods committees, where staff from Montgomery Parks and the Montgomery County Planning Department led a conversation about open space in the area.

The Blairs were built in the early 1960's on the former site of Falkland, the mansion of Montgomery Blair, postmaster general under President Abraham Lincoln. A series of additions and renovations by owner Tower Companies followed in the early 2000's. Today, the 27-acre complex contains over 1400 apartments in 10 buildings, the Blair Shops, a 100,000 square foot strip mall, and a 67,000 square-foot office building.

A few years ago, county planners did a study of potential sites for new, large parks in the area, identifying the Blairs as a possibility. Their drawings of the site show how the site could be redeveloped, with a park measuring several acres in place of the Blair Shops parking lot and high-rise apartments above the shopping center. A street grid would connect the site to the surrounding area, while structured parking garages would make up for the lost parking lot.

Giant Food Parking Lot - Aerial
Rendering of a potential park at the Blairs from the MoCo Planning Department.

Giant Food Parking Lot - Potential
Rendering of how the Blairs could be redeveloped from the MoCo Planning Department.

While there are currently no firm details about how and when the Blairs will be redeveloped, the Tower Companies' website suggests that they eventually plan to have 2800 apartments and 450,000 square feet of total development, nearly double the amount of space there today. It's also unclear whether the park will be publicly or privately owned, though ideally it would be owned by the county.

Glass's tweet says that public meetings on the project will be held early next year. Until then, the potential for a big new park in downtown Silver Spring is exciting. The availability of and access to open space has been a growing issue in the Downcounty in recent months, particularly with residents concerned about new development.

A few blocks from the Blairs, a group of South Silver Spring residents upset that a proposed apartment building on Newell Street will block their views are lobbying to have that property turned into a park. Meanwhile, residents in Wheaton successfully persuaded the county to buy a former art school for parkland instead of letting townhouses be built there.

Montgomery County will continue to grow, and new residents will need places to live, work and shop. They'll also need parks for gathering, recreation and enjoying nature. However, we've seen how poorly-designed, poorly-located parks can be underused, dampen foot traffic and even hurt nearby shops and restaurants.

We can't let that happen again, and the best way to do that is to plan for new parks, not just put them wherever someone doesn't want something built in their backyard. Building a park as part of redeveloping the Blairs means it can be designed as a part of the neighborhood as opposed to an afterthought or leftover space. And since the redevelopment will have to be reviewed and approved by the Planning Board, there will be many opportunities for community input as well.

A well-designed urban park can be a great asset for residents and businesses alike. Hopefully, a new park at the Blairs will do that for downtown Silver Spring.


jag2923 said...

This makes so much sense it's unbelievable. Really hope The Blairs are interested in making the jump into the 21st century. Right now it's almost comical to have a 60s era strip mall and sea of asphalt next to the metro. It's the reason I've never come to considering The Blairs as a home. East of the tracks is far more interesting and lively.

Anonymous said...

Yes, let's cram even more people into as tight a space as possible and then make them feel good about it by planting a little rectangle of grass where their cars used to be. We might be better served by tearing down the whole thing and making it into a REAL park. I know it will never happen, but one can wish. I cringe at the thought that the old Walter Reed property could also end up looking like this. I don't wish anything bad on anyone living in the Blairs or anywhere else, but when something like this becomes a reason for excitement, it's a sign for me to leave my beloved Silver Spring and move WAY out to the country where I can find real grass and trees. Am I bitter? No. Disappointed? You betcha.

Dan Reed said...

One of the things I enjoy about living in Montgomery County is that over a third of the county (and almost half if you include our huge park system) will be preserved as open space & farmland forever, but there are also great suburban neighborhoods and urban areas like downtown Silver Spring, which will be made even better with more residents and more things to do. I'm sorry you feel the way you do, but to be fair, we're not exactly Calcutta or Tokyo. Different strokes, I guess.

Craig said...

If you build a park where the large parking lot is located today then we might have a problem with the retailers.

Most people who shop at the Blairs Giant use an automobile to visit the store. They need a car for loading multiple bags of heavy groceries. For these customers, walking to the Giant store is simply not feasible.

Also, many shoppers at the Blair Giant live in the Shepherd Park and Takoma Park neighborhoods of DC where you have an abundance of residential housing but no grocery stores within a reasonable distance. They have no choice but to drive a car to the Blairs lot.

The restaurants located nearby (i.e. Oriental East, Mama Lucia) will also see a significant loss of customers if parking is stripped away. Oriental East attracts a huge number of customers on weekends for their brunch service. These customers (mostly Chinese ex-pats) travel from Virginia and farther points in Maryland to eat there.

The bottom line is that the walking customer base residing in downtown Silver Spring is NOT enough to sustain the major retail and dining businesses in the Blair development. If a re-development plan does not seriously take vehicle traffic into consideration, the Blairs risk losing the Giant supermarket and some of the dining places nearby.

The County planning people will have to explore parking garages and/or underground parking for non-residents of the Blairs development project.

Gull said...

@ Craig,

The plan with the redevelopment would put parking in structure(s), Similar to how people access the Harris Teeter and Whole Foods in the White Flint area now. These developers and the County know not everyone can walk everywhere, but there is no reason the cars have to be single stacked and out in the open! It's just a shame the Tower Co has not been able to get that Exxon station, which would really let them fill out that corner with a nice amenity!