Tuesday, January 31, 2012

eleven55 ripley raises standard of urban design in DTSS

Former Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey once said "there are so many bad buildings in Silver Spring, it’s a hard place to do good." Nonetheless, some architects and developers are trying to do better here.

Last month, ground was broken on Eleven55 Ripley, a new residential complex in the Ripley District, located west of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring. With a mix of housing and shops, buildings that engage the street, and thoughtfully-designed public space, it makes an effort to enhance the surrounding neighborhood.

Eleven55 was designed by Georgetown-based architects Shalom Baranes and is being built by national apartment developer Home Properties, who have also teamed up to redevelop the Falkland Chase apartments at East-West Highway and 16th Street. It will have 385 apartments and townhomes, including 49 subsidized units for low-income families as required by law, and 5,500 square feet of ground-floor retail space, about the size of a Red Lobster.

The residential component comes in three parts:

Ripley Street North (Ripley Street at Dixon Avenue)

A twenty-story apartment tower with studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units. Home Properties claims it will be the tallest building in Silver Spring, but at 200 feet tall, it's actually just the tallest apartment tower, because there are four taller office buildings in downtown Silver Spring. The tallest building in Montgomery County, meanwhile, will be this 300 foot tall apartment tower in White Flint.

Not everyone will love the sleek, modern design, though one of the commenters on the JUTP Facebook page called it a "watered-down" version of The Standard Hotel in New York, which is encouraging. The long strip windows are an interesting break from the typical window-balcony-window rhythm of many residential buildings. It's not totally clear from these images what materials will be used on the building's exterior, but it looks comparable to the metal cladding used on Cityline, a building Shalom Baranes designed in Tenleytown.

Rowhouses (Ripley Street west of Dixon Avenue)

At the tower's base will be seven row houses with rooftop decks. This is a variation of the "Vancouver point tower," which is basically an apartment tower with townhouses on the bottom. It kills two birds with one stone, providing the density of a high-rise building above while creating a low-rise, human-scaled experience at the street level. Not only does this put people on the sidewalks, but it gives them something interesting to look at, not just driveways like some other downtown Silver Spring buildings.

Loft Building (Ripley Street at Dixon Avenue)

A five-story "loft-style" building with apartments and retail space. The Planning Department says this building will be about 80 feet high, suggesting that there will be some nice, tall ceilings inside. I'm not sure if storefront retail would be successful here, as it's currently a little off the beaten path. Improving the site's connections to the surrounding area will be important.

New Site Plan

That's why the project also includes an extension of Dixon Avenue, which currently ends a block north at Bonifant Street. Home Properties will build the portion of the new street that passes through their site. Eventually, Dixon Avenue will continue south to Silver Spring Avenue. Along with another new street connecting Ripley and Bonifant, Dixon Avenue will connect Eleven55 to the Metro and the rest of downtown Silver Spring. This will require tearing out part of the massive public parking garage on Bonifant or removing it completely, which may not happen for a long time.

Perspective, Proposed Open Space

Finally, the developer will build a quarter-acre pocket park at the with public art commemorating the life and works of environmentalist Rachel Carson, who wrote the book Silent Spring from her house in nearby White Oak. Many of downtown Silver Spring's pocket parks are poorly designed and seldom used, but this one looks pretty good. For starters, placing it at the end of the block allows the new buildings to cozy up to the sidewalk, exactly as buildings in urban neighborhoods are supposed to do.

It's hard to imagine it today, but one day this park will be surrounded by a new Silver Spring Transit Center, several new buildings, and a partially elevated Purple Line. It'll be a valuable green oasis in the midst of the city, ensuring that people will want to use it.

Eleven55 isn't the only cool new building going up in the Ripley District. The Solaire apartments, being built across the street, will have live-work apartments that allow residents to run small businesses from home. At Ripley and Georgia Avenue is the new headquarters of translation company ALC, which placed a striking modern addition above a 1920's-era shop building.

The Ripley District may be a "made-up" neighborhood, but it's shaping up to be a pretty nice place. It's encouraging to see that architects and developers alike are beginning to embrace good urbanism, rather than settling for suburban-style buildings with huge driveways, as was once proposed for this site. Hopefully, Eleven55 will set the standard for new construction in downtown Silver Spring.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

millennials & affordable housing: a clarification

I was taken aback by the responses to Tuesday's post on the Millennial generation (today's twenty-somethings) and affordable housing, both here and on Greater Greater Washington, where it got 176 comments as of last night.

The comments I received could be organized in one of three categories:

1) People who think I'm being "entitled" and/or "whiny" in calling for an increase of reasonably-priced housing in close-in neighborhoods.

2) People who may agree that housing is expensive, but suggest that I just live with their parents/in a group house/commute from the suburbs/live in an on-the-edge urban neighborhood while saving up to move somewhere better.

3) And, finally, people who sympathize with my argument, which was that it's in the interest of Montgomery County (or D.C., or any of the counties around the Beltway) to ensure an ample supply of housing for its workforce by making it easier to build more and different types of housing, not by providing subsidies. Otherwise, they'll either commute from further out, which causes traffic and creates suburban sprawl, or they'll just leave the region altogether.

These are all valid opinions. Maybe I'm being whiny. In order to save money, I have lived with my parents while commuting an hour each way for work, in a group house on the far side of Petworth, and in apartment shares, including the one where I currently live in Philadelphia. People often have to make compromises in where they live, but this is only part of the solution. The study I cited says that there's a need for 60,000 new homes in Montgomery County in coming years just to accommodate new households, whether it's a single person renting a studio apartment or four people sharing a house.

I was especially struck by the sentiment that living in a close-in neighborhood, particularly one where you can walk to things as I suggested, is some kind of luxury deserved only by wealthy people who can afford it. I'm not saying that 20-something entry-level workers should all be able to live in Logan Circle for free. But I am saying that 20-something entry-level workers, or better yet anyone, be able to afford to find decent housing (whatever that may be) in a place where they can get to work, the grocery store, or other amenities without driving there. By not having a car, you're saving money. That alone makes housing more affordable.

We can make that happen by allowing the development of more housing in areas where that already exists, like downtown Silver Spring, and by creating more walkable, amenity-served neighborhoods, like in White Flint. This is a good thing. It keeps workers in Montgomery County; creates shorter commutes, thus reducing traffic; and drives investment to established neighborhoods rather than to the region's fringe.

Increasing the housing stock isn't about entitlement. It's about creating a stronger region and ensuring that the next generation can be a part of it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

millennials won't stay in montgomery if they can't afford it

Looking Back Towards Ellsworth
Urban centers like downtown Silver Spring are drawing Millennials, but many of them are being priced out.

I belong to the Millennials, the largest generation in American history, with 80 million members. Sometimes called Generation Y or the Echo Baby Boomers, we're about to finish school and enter the workforce en masse. Many of us will stay in or move to the D.C. area. But my generation may not come to Montgomery County if we can't find affordable housing in an urban setting.

It's no surprise that D.C.-area housing can be scarce and expensive. The popular "Shit People in D.C. Say" video jokes that all twenty-somethings here live in English basements or converted sunrooms renting for $1,400 a month. Meanwhile, recent college graduate and Washington Post columnist Steven Overly has been documenting his struggle to find a place to live.

The issue of housing young adults is especially acute in Montgomery County, which has morphed from "the perfect suburbia" into a regional employment center where Millennials can find work. There's already an acute shortage of affordable housing, particularly around the county's Metro stations, where apartments can command rents 40 percent higher than those in other areas.

In Montgomery County, there are about 180,000 Millennials, or about 20% of the total population. As the county's Planning Director Rollin Stanley points out, many of them have gone back to live with their parents. I did after I graduated college, as did most of my friends.

where people live at
A map of where thirty-five of my friends and coworkers, all within three years of graduating college, were living in 2009. Yellow houses represent people living with their parents, while red beds represent those living on their own.

As the economy improves, we'll want to move out of the house and out of the suburbs as well. There's no shortage of articles about how Millennials want to live in urban settings. My friends who've struck out on their own are trying to get near Metro or their favorite hangouts, both in D.C. and in suburban downtowns like Silver Spring and Bethesda. But the kind of housing and neighborhoods we want are in short supply here. After all, Montgomery County was and is still seen as a place to raise kids, and its built form represents what people thought was the best way to do so, with big, detached houses and cul-de-sacs.

A recent report (PDF) from economist Stephen Fuller suggests that the county will need as many as 60,000 new homes in the next ten years to accommodate new households. Nearly half of them will be needed by households making less than $50,000 a year, while two-thirds will need to be multi-family homes. That's us: Millennials moving out of their parents' houses, looking for small homes in close-in locations we can afford on entry-level salaries.

Developers are responding to the demand for housing. Both new and old apartment buildings are being repositioned to draw young professionals with high-end amenities, but their high rents price many Millennials out of the market. Twenty years ago, my mother rented a one-bedroom in downtown Silver Spring for $685 a month. Today, that same apartment rents for $1,742 a month, but there are now granite countertops and swanky rooftop parties.

If the Millennial generation wants to live the urban lifestyle, which can take cars off the road, conserve land and revitalize older neighborhoods, shouldn't we make it easier and more affordable to do so?

Buildings Along East-West Highway
Increasing the supply of housing, like these recently-built apartments in Silver Spring, can help lower prices.

The best way to reduce or even eliminate what Matt Yglesias calls the "Metro premium" is to increase the supply of housing near transit, reducing prices. In the coming years, thousands of new residential units will be built at several of Montgomery County's thirteen Metro stations. Even if 20-somethings aren't in the market for luxury apartments, they can help satisfy the demand for housing, lowering prices.

Increasing the variety of housing types will help as well. Montgomery County should encourage the creation of Accessory Dwelling Units, also known as granny flats or laneway homes. They'll provide a new source of low-cost housing while preserving the character of close-in, single-family neighborhoods. In more urban settings like downtown Silver Spring, so-called "micro-lofts" or Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units like the Videre in Seattle provide compact, comfortable accommodations to singles who don't need and can't afford a lot of space. And for those ready to buy a home, small-lot houses like these in Portland can give privacy while keeping costs down.

For some Montgomery County residents, the term "affordable housing" conjures up images of crime and blight. But those who need low-cost housing are often your own kids, eager to stay close to the people and places they love. If Montgomery County wants the Millennial generation to make their homes here, it needs to become more affordable. After all, one day we'll want to start families, and if we're already living here, we're more likely to stick around.

Friday, January 20, 2012

lenny greenberg, dreaming of wheaton beyond the strip mall

The Edgemoor
Leonard Greenberg developed these buildings in Bethesda. And he'd do the same in Wheaton if given a chance.

While County Executive Ike Leggett wants to give developer B.F. Saul $40 million of public funds to build on public land in downtown Wheaton, one developer's been building here with minimal help from Montgomery County. His name is Leonard Greenberg, and since the mid-1980's, his company Greenhill Capital has acquired nearly a third of downtown Wheaton, dreaming of what the area could become. When the county's zoning restrictions forced him to sit out the real estate boom, Greenberg decided to keep waiting while hatching bigger and grander schemes.

JUTP hasn't always been kind to Greenberg's work, but after having a lengthy phone call with him earlier this week, I wanted to offer his side of the story. (This is a long post, but I promise it's worth it.)

"Wheaton should be more of an Adams Morgan"

New apartments like these on Georgia Avenue, says Greenberg, will help local businesses in Wheaton.

Greenberg grew up in the D.C. area, living briefly in Wheaton during the 1950's. After working for a Boston-based real estate investment firm on their D.C.-area projects, he struck out on his own and founded Greenhill Capital in 1974. In the 1980's, he began buying and developing properties in Wheaton, anticipating the opening of a new Metro station.

"It was the last [central business district] that was scheduled to be developed" after Silver Spring, Bethesda and Friendship Heights, says Greenberg. "Plus, it was human scale. And there’s something about the small proprietors."

Most of Greenberg's properties in Wheaton are single-story retail buildings, many of which were designed by Rockville architect Steven Karr. But he's always itched to do something greater. As he told the Gazette last week, Greenberg sees Wheaton as the next Adams Morgan, a vibrant hub for entertainment, shopping and culture. Not only that, but he knows how to do it.

"I’m a johnny-one-note. I've been saying this for 25 years, to get people on the street. I'm an urbophile. I'm a believer in 'city.' I get it."

If Greenberg had his way, he'd change liquor licenses to allow up to 75% of a venue's total sales to be alcohol, drawing bars and clubs. He wants a "county sponsored lease plan and economic program" to fill empty stores with theatres, artists and even university ventures. And he would've made sure that businesses displaced by redevelopment stayed in the area, unlike Barry's Magic Shop, which was condemned by the county to build a pedestrian walkway and received $260,000 to move to Rockville.

Finally, Greenberg would build lots of housing, both downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods, to create more foot traffic that can support local businesses. He's not convinced that B.F. Saul's plan to build offices over the Wheaton Metro will pencil out. "It costs as much to build in Wheaton as it does in Friendship Heights, but the rent multiplier is significantly higher," he explains.

In other words, tenants will pay more for an office in Friendship Heights than in Wheaton, no matter how nice it is. Meanwhile, rents for apartments in Wheaton are the same as those elsewhere in the county. "The county will have to heavily subsidize that office building," Greenberg told me on Monday, two days before Leggett's announcement.

After our talk, I e-mail Greenberg to ask what he thought about the $40 million subsidy B.F. Saul could receive. "Development would have occurred in Wheaton with bolder (even traditional urban) planning, but the county was too lazy and too anti-business for change to naturally evolve," he replies. "We never considered a [government] subsidy . . . on any of our other projects."

"We're not apologizing"

Sidewalk, Triangle Park
Triangle Park, a shopping center developed by Greenhill, shown in 2010 before being leased.

According to Greenberg, any attempts to take Wheaton beyond the strip mall have been stifled by local opposition and red tape. "Boy, do I try to do more and better there," says Greenberg, "and you cannot imagine the resistance we have."

In 1990, the county passed a plan for downtown Wheaton that instituted a "Retail Overlay Preservation District." (See a map of it here.) The district was supposed to protect small businesses while ensuring that new construction was of high quality. However, by limiting the density of new development and requiring that all new buildings be reviewed by the Planning Board, even ones that complied with the zoning code, it actually repelled investment.

"I absolutely abhor what the county has been doing all these years" in Wheaton, says Greenberg. "What they needed to do is have more density, more people to walk and support the urban core."

Upon buying the Anchor Inn restaurant at Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard in 2004, Greenberg envisioned redeveloping it with new housing and shops. It was the height of the real estate boom, when new apartments and townhouses were being built at the edges of downtown Wheaton. However, his proposal to build a 600,000 square feet mixed-use development on the site went nowhere because the county took too long to finish a new plan for the downtown, which was finally approved last year. "They wouldn't repeal the overlay district" in time, he grumbles.

In a Gazette article from 2006, Greenberg lamented that Wheaton "missed the train" on the economic boom. Instead, he built what zoning allowed: the smaller Georgia Crossing project, a series of one-story retail buildings that one resident called underwhelming.

"In the 1950's and 60's, Montgomery County was the standard by which suburbia was to be developed," Greenberg says. "The Wedges and Corridors [Plan], blah blah blah. But as we became more urbanized, they . . . tried to impose suburban standards on urban locations, without consideration to alleys and deliveries and urban edge and human scale, doors at the urban edge and creating a liveliness that was required."

That said, Greenberg isn't doing terribly in Wheaton. He calls me out for using the above photo of Triangle Park, a shopping center at the intersection of Ennalls Avenue and Veirs Mill that he rebuilt after a large fire in 2008. The photo was taken in 2010 and shows the complex when it was new and empty. "That space has been leased for 18 months," says Greenberg. "We’re getting mid-$30's [the leasing rate per square foot] and the parking lot is always full."

Not all of his tenants have been happy, though. In 2010, the Gazette interviewed several disgruntled former tenants who spoke of broken contracts and unfairly high rents. One of those tenants was Eddie Velasquez, whose DeJaBel Café at Greenberg's Georgia Crossing shopping center opened in 2008 and closed 14 months later. Greenberg says it's simple why DeJaBel closed.

"If you owned a coffee shop, when would you open?" he asks me. "I guess 6 or 7 am, for people going on their way to work," I say.

"He opened at 9," Greenberg replies. Nonetheless, he says, Greenhill Capital got Velasquez a liquor license so the cafe could stay open at night, but even that wasn't enough to keep them in business. Cavan Wilk, who writes for GGW, suggests that it was a lack of foot traffic that killed DeJaBel Café, which wouldn't have been a problem if Greenberg had been able to build apartments on top.

"We're not apologizing" for the work Greenhill does, Greenberg says. "Think about the jobs we’ve created. We start people in businesses and we keep people in business."

"No one asked me to do it"

Where Haagen-Dazs Used to Be, Woodmont Avenue, Bethesda
Greenhill Capital developed this office and retail building in downtown Bethesda, shown in 2009.

One place where Greenberg sees the county doing something right is in downtown Bethesda, where Greenhill Capital's headquarters are located. The difficulty of doing business elsewhere in the county, whether it's Wheaton's retail overlay district or limits on procuring liquor licenses, sends people here, Greenberg says.

Not surprisingly, the handful of projects Greenhill has built here are much better than those in Wheaton: buildings close to the street, a mix of uses, and little aesthetic flourishes here and there. And no parking lots.

On Cordell Avenue, a pizzeria he developed features trompe l'oeil, or an optical illusion of fountains along the sidewalk. "No one asked me to do it," Greenberg says. "I did it." Over at Woodmont Avenue and Elm Street is what Greenberg calls "the Haagen-Dazs building" after its former ground-floor tenant, which has since moved down the street. The building remains a nice, and fully-occupied, piece of urbanism: it's a mix of retail and office space, has lots of windows facing the street, and a little plaza in front that is occasionally used for concerts.

Then there's the Edgemoor shown above, a complex of condominiums and townhomes on Montgomery Lane that was developed by Greenberg and built by three local builders. He rattles off a list of high-end features: "Real copper gutters and downspouts, slate roofs on the end units, oak doors," he says. "And until they screwed it up, Georgian gardens. I had these really nice Georgian gardens, but they took out all of the benches." Greenberg also lives in the high-rise building, which looks like an old-school New York apartment house.

"I wanted something between the Dakota and the Plaza," he says.

Yet these accomplishments generally go unnoticed east of Rock Creek Park, where Greenberg's been depicted (including on this blog) as an unscrupulous landlord and purveyor of strip malls. "Nobody talks about the stuff that we’ve given or the contributions we’ve made," he says. "To put your name on the line for a construction project is far different than throwing spitballs at it."

As a result, Greenberg is content to wait. "We got so frustrated with the process [in Wheaton] that we said we’ll go forward and we’ll wait for the next generation to take it to the next level," he says. "We are constrained by a non-business friendly environment, and Montgomery County's paid the price for that. Developers are not willing to take the risk."

And they'll sit on their substantial holdings in Wheaton until everyone else comes around. "We have enough ground for 1.5 million square feet" of development under current zoning, he says. "We’re interested in the right kind of deal. We’re not interested in selling."

He adds, "We’ll see if Wheaton's time is now."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

will wheaton fail without $40m of county subsidies? (updated)

Draft plan for downtown Wheaton, Winter 2011
Draft site plan for the redevelopment of the Metro bus turnaround and Parking Lot 13 in downtown Wheaton.

In yesterday's Gazette, County Executive Ike Leggett says the only way to revitalize downtown Wheaton is by giving $40 million in public funds to developer B.F. Saul, which already has the rights to build on several county-owned parcels in the area:

“Don't bemoan the fact that we're going to make an investment,” Leggett said. “You have to make an investment, otherwise it would have worked already and it has not.”

Maybe I misread this statement, but it sounds like Leggett's saying that Wheaton is so awful we have to pay people to build here. This isn't the first time we've heard this line. But it raises a few questions:

- Is the kind of development Montgomery County wants to see in Wheaton, like high-end offices, the kind of stuff the market wants in Wheaton? (Check out this draft plan from B.F. Saul, shown above.) Are there other kinds of development (I don't know what) that may be more economically feasible, but haven't been considered?

- Are developers actually scared to build in Wheaton? And if so, is it because of financing, or because of other factors? For instance, are they worried about access to existing activity centers like Bethesda or Rockville, or the area's reputation (real or perceived) for crime? Or the difficulty of obtaining a liquor license in Montgomery County, which makes it difficult restaurants to open?

- And if we really need to "invest" public funds in Wheaton, should it go to a large developer, or to local businesses? This is the question raised by the Coalition for the Fair Redevelopment of Wheaton (an offshoot of the Latino Economic Development Corporation), a coalition of area nonprofits that includes the Latino Economic Development Corporation, which wants to see a Community Benefits Agreement as part of the county's deal with B.F. Saul.

I'm not totally sure if I'm down with the Coalition's list of priorities, but I agree that the solution or "fix" for downtown Wheaton is a little more complicated than the County Executive allows. Clearly, private development is already happening in Wheaton, albeit with some county help: the Leesborough project on the former site of Good Counsel High School, the Exchange, which will include a new Safeway, and the renovation of the 1960's-era Wheaton Place apartments on Amherst Avenue, now called the Encore. All of these projects suggest that Wheaton isn't really a lost cause, and that even without $40 million, the downtown would probably continue to grow and improve on its own.

Of course, one developer who's been investing in Wheaton without much help from the county has been Leonard Greenberg, who I wrote about last week for his claim (though it wasn't the first time I've heard it) that Wheaton could be "the next Adams Morgan." Earlier this week, I had a lengthy phone conversation with Greenberg, who asked to give his side of the story.

Come back tomorrow for a detailed look at Greenberg's work, his ideas for Wheaton, and one possible reason why developers have shied away from the area.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

new DTSS apartment building includes live-work units

Last month, County Councilmember George Leventhal wrote an op-ed in the Gazette asking whether new development accommodate small businesses. One way to help small businesses is by providing low-cost work spaces.

1150 Ripley Street
The Solaire, a new apartment building in downtown Silver Spring, will include "live-work" units. Rendering and plan courtesy of the Montgomery County Planning Board.

The Solaire, a new apartment tower being developed by Bozzuto and Washington Property Company that's going up at 1150 Ripley Street in the new "neighborhood" of the Ripley District," will offer nine "live-work" apartments. They may not be cheap, but at least they'll save tenants the cost of finding a separate place to do business. After all, you already live there.

Live-work units are exactly what they sound like: homes with a dedicated space for working. Though they're often found in converted loft buildings, they can be built new as well. Arts District Hyattsville, a townhouse development under construction in Prince George's County, has several homes with a shop on the ground floor. In the District, a new building called the Brookland Artspace Lofts provides apartments with dedicated "studio" spaces at subsidized rents to working artists.

Each of the nine live-work units in the Solaire has a bedroom, a kitchen, and a large "live-work" space that looks like a giant living room. They also have high ceilings, concrete floors (not as cozy as home, but hard to mess up) and since they're located on the ground floor, each unit will have a direct entrance to Ripley Street, allowing customers to march right in. The layouts are interesting: the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen are at the rear of each apartment and can be closed off with sliding doors, leaving the rest of the space open for work.

The website describes these units as "ideal for artists, entrepreneurs, and other soulful types," which I admit makes me a little queasy. The Solaire hasn't set its rental rates yet, but judging from the rents of other new buildings in downtown Silver Spring, I can't imagine artists having the means to live here.

Another person that won't live here are shopkeepers and restauranteurs. These units aren't set up for retail, as building codes would require fully separated living and working spaces, along with handicap-accessible bathrooms for customers. And that might be fine. Last fall, Charles Nulsen of developer Washington Property Company, which is building The Solaire, told TBD that there wasn't a "critical mass" of people on Ripley Street to support retail shops anyway. Having live-work units seems like a nice compromise: it provides a venue for small businesses that don't rely on foot traffic, while giving people a reason to wander over there anyway, providing more "eyes on the street," an effective crime deterrent.

Patio, The Silverton
Outdoor patios at the Silverton help bring life to this stretch of East-West Highway.

Having apartments that directly open to the sidewalk also make for more interesting streets. One building that already does this is the Silverton condominium on East-West Highway. It's fun to walk past this building, admiring the gardens and decorations people put on their patios, and say "hi" if anyone's outside.

Downtown Silver Spring benefits from having a diversity of housing options. Providing live-work units is a great way to support local businesses while creating more interesting neighborhoods, and I hope to see more of them in the future.

A side note: check out these "incredible panoramic views" taken from atop the Solaire. This may not be news to those of y'all who live in a DTSS high-rise, but as someone who no longer resides in a "deluxe apartment in the sky," I get excited by them. You can see the new Silver Spring Transit Center is well on its way to completion.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

how to make wheaton into the next adams morgan (or not)

New Wheaton Safeway Rendering
Several new apartment buildings are being built in downtown Wheaton, including the Exchange at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive.

Last week, the Gazette reported on an "apartment boom" in Wheaton, where hundreds of new rentals will be built in the coming years. That's great for Wheaton, whose small businesses will benefit from having more people living in the area, walking around and patronizing their shops.

The most interesting part of the article, however, is this quote from developer Leonard Greenberg, who owns over a dozen properties in downtown Wheaton:

Leonard Greenberg, chief executive officer of Bethesda-based Greenhill Capital, planned to build 600,000 square feet of shops, apartments and office space in 2004 when he bought property at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard. He said the county council was too slow in approving zoning changes that would have allowed for taller buildings on the property, which is now a row of retail shops with a number of vacant properties.

“To me, Wheaton should be more of an Adams Morgan, more of a village-like environment,” said Greenberg, who added the many apartment projects were an encouraging sign. “The reasons why places like Adams Morgan are popular is that they are high-demand areas where there’s lots of activity. You have young people living in accessible locations. Wheaton needs to be a place where people want to go, not just go to work and leave at the end of the day.”

So let's be clear:

Adams Morgan and Madam's Organ
Photo by Jason Pier in DC on Flickr.

This is the real Adams Morgan: shops and restaurants at street level (most of which are locally-owned), apartments above, buildings hugging the street. The result is lots of activity and lots of people, just as Leonard Greenberg describes.

Sidewalk, Triangle Park

And this is what Leonard Greenberg built. More specifically, this is just one of several one-story, single-use strip malls he's built around downtown Wheaton over the past 25 years.

I'm sympathetic with Greenberg's argument that the county dropped the ball on allowing more development in Wheaton when the economy was strong. He understands that you need housing and retail to make a neighborhood vibrant like Adams Morgan. Nonetheless, Greenberg still went ahead and built not one, but several new retail buildings in downtown Wheaton, all of which have several vacancies and whose former tenants complain of unfairly high rents.

That wouldn't be a problem if, when the market improves, you could just drop apartments on top of his strip malls. But it's not that simple. Instead, we have sizable chunks of downtown Wheaton that are stuck as strip malls and parking lots, and they will continue to be until those buildings wear out, which is probably several decades from now.

I can't blame Leonard Greenberg for doing what he wants with his property. But I've never been clear what, exactly, he sought to accomplish with it.

View Larger Map
The Computer Building.

Another interesting quote is about the Computer Building, located on Georgia Avenue south of Reedie Drive. Developer Lowe Enterprises wants to convert that building from offices to apartments, which would require displacing their current tenants:

Stuart Cohen would have to move his Environmental & Turf Services company, which he said relies on its proximity to the Wheaton Metro station for access to Washington, D.C. Michael Trembley runs the American Career Institute, a vocational school and one of the Computer Building’s biggest tenants. Trembley said finding new office space near a Metro station would be a top priority for the school’s nearly 300 students.

It's ironic that Wheaton's "apartment boom" will displace existing offices, given that the county and developer B.F. Saul, which have partnered to develop several acres around the Wheaton Metro station, want to build nearly a million square feet of new offices in the downtown. However, that space will likely command higher rents than offices in the Computer Building, making it difficult for Environmental & Turf Services or the American Career Institute to relocate there.

Vibrant urban neighborhoods come from a mix of uses like housing, retail and offices. Hopefully, the new Wheaton Sector Plan and zoning code rewrite will allow Leonard Greenberg to build what he wants, not just strip malls.

Vibrant neighborhoods also come from a mix of old and new. If we want downtown Wheaton to become Montgomery County's answer to Adams Morgan, we should retain existing businesses, be they a pupusa shop or a vocational school. Perhaps the county and B.F. Saul could work out some kind of subsidy for displaced businesses who'd like to locate in a new office building.

If we can do all of these things, we can ensure that Wheaton becomes an even better place to live or visit without sacrificing what already makes it so great.

in case you missed it: awesome timelapse video of downtown silver spring

Downtown Silver Spring - HDR Time Lapse Preview from Tolu Omokehinde on Vimeo.

If you follow JUTP on Facebook or Twitter, you've probably already seen this. (And if you don't, please consider it! You'll get links and news that doesn't always make it to the blog!) Tolu Omokehinde and Nick Grossman, students at Montgomery Blair High School/staffers for Blair's student newspaper SilverChips posted this timelapse video they shot of downtown Silver Spring landmarks, notably the Veterans Plaza ice rink and Ellsworth/Fenton intersection.

If you're wondering why the images look so visually intense, it's because they used high dynamic range imaging or HDR, a technique in which photographs are taken at different exposures simultaneously and edited together, resulting in images that more closely resemble what the human eye sees.

As they write in SilverChips, Omokehinde and Grossman stood outside for five hours with two cameras that took a combined 2,800 photos, which were then edited together to make a 45-second clip. They plan to release additional videos, including one with scenes of Blair that include 23,000 photos taken over two months.

I'm hoping they'll get out into downtown Silver Spring again as well. Writing on the video's page, friend of JUTP Bossi suggests a slew of additional scenes, like one from a bridge over the Red Line tracks and outside the Fillmore on show night. All of these would be great places to show Silver Spring at its best.

Time permitting, of course. I'm impressed that Omokehinde and Grossman can do this while juggling all the responsibilities of high school. Keep up the good work!

Monday, January 9, 2012

adorable purple line video, and introducing #welcometosilverspring

Whether to gin up support for the Purple Line, or to remind folks it's still being planned, the Maryland Transit Administration created this awesome video. I can't think of another piece of public transit, new or existing, as adorable as the Purple Line looks in this clip.

My favorite part? A brief cameo from Chompy the shark, shown in his natural state hanging from the Discovery Building despite going on hiatus last summer:

The video depicts the Purple Line and its major destinations in a cartoon version of suburban Maryland, in which houses are scattered helter-skelter across the landscape and giant words occupy the center of each town. (In Silver Spring, of course, they already do.) Naturally, liberties are taken with the Purple Line's route as well. Here it is scooting down what appears to be a cartoon Georgia Avenue:

The actual Purple Line will go down Bonifant Street and Wayne Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, but there is talk about bringing D.C.'s proposed streetcar up Georgia Avenue into Maryland, so hopefully this will get people excited for that as well.

ANYWAY: I'd like to try an experiment with y'all. The other day, I was at Target on Cherry Hill Road and I saw a group of teenage boys performing a synchronized dance in and around a Cadillac Escalade with diplomat tags. I thought to myself, "Only in Silver Spring."

I'm curious what other things you see that make you think the same. That's why I started using the #welcometosilverspring hashtag on Twitter. If you use Twitter and find something that seems unique to Silver Spring, use it. Here's a feed of tweets currently using the #welcometosilverspring hashtag:

As of press time, there are only three tweets, two of which are mine. I'm looking forward to seeing what y'all come up with.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

the Post tries to find the forgotten village of norwood (updated)

Where Is Norwood

UPDATE: A very nice gentleman named Vic Seested sent an e-mail to Post reporter Katie Shaver (who then forwarded it to me) calling us both out for our blatant ignorance of local history:

your article in the post today-destination unknown has to be one of the worst researched i've read in some time. you had the misfortune of not getting up from your desk and from talking with some really stupid clueless people. facts. at the intersection of "norwood rd and 182" is the old maryland state police medivac factility. the sign which is still there says "norwood division". where did they pull that one from. next, the road at the intersection of 182 and "NORWOOD RD" might be a clue that there was/is something called norwood at one time. guess what. about 1/2 mile up norwood rd, not far from the idiot at the sandy spring museum, which is 1/2 mile from norwood road is a maryland/montgomery county historic home. guess what the name is? NORWOOD. guess why the area is called norwood? the newcomers like the 20 something has no history and no sense of history. thank god he is working on city planning. he could be working on nuclear defense. see the attached. vic seested

Thanks, Vic. (And thanks for the follow-up e-mail you sent me explaining that there "is no cure for stupid.")

POST: Check out the Weekend section in today's Washington Post. There's an interesting article by Katie Shaver on the forgotten village of Norwood, brought back to life by an exit sign on the InterCounty Connector. And it features a few quotes from yours truly since I blogged about it last month:

Just Up the Pike blogger Dan Reed, who grew up in the area, said the sign piqued his interest when he tried out the ICC while home for Thanksgiving from the University of Pennsylvania . . .

He said he thinks of the influence that the names of Metrorail stations, such as White Flint in North Bethesda, have had in identifying communities.

“I’d be curious,” Reed said, “if in 20 years people say, ‘I live in Norwood,’ because of the highway sign.”

More interesting is the explanation from Scott Crumley, lead traffic engineer for the toll highway, as to how the Norwood exit got its name:

Scott Crumley, the ICC project’s lead traffic engineer, said state highway planners and ICC officials thought of Norwood in 2005, when the state was drafting the project’s bid documents . . .

Notes from numerous meetings about the exit signs show that Ashton was considered a natural northern destination for the New Hampshire Avenue (Route 650) exit and that Olney was noted to be due north of the ICC via the Georgia Avenue (Route 97) exit.

“If you look at 182 [Layhill Road], it doesn’t go to Ashton. It doesn’t go to Olney. It really doesn’t go to Sandy Spring,” Crumley said. Norwood, which he said is on U.S. Postal Service maps even though it no longer has a post office, “was kind of the best of what they had to work with.”

That makes enough sense. Special thanks go to Katie Shaver for doing the research that my Google searches couldn't, but also for giving me a shout-out. I'm glad that our local newspapers are willing to work with local bloggers.

Friday, January 6, 2012

citing poor sales, teen clothier pacsun will leave wheaton plaza

PacSun, Wheaton Plaza

While new retailers are beginning to fill the empty spaces at Westfield Wheaton Wheaton Mall Wheaton Plaza, one new vacancy has appeared. PacSun, the purveyor of surf and skate wear who came to the mall as part of Westfield's $140 million renovation seven years ago, will close January 30.

When I visited the mall a few days before Christmas, the store's windows were covered in "GOING OUT OF BUSINESS" signs. Though the mall's parking lots and corridors were crowded with shoppers, PacSun was empty. Inside, I talked to one employee about the store's closing. He explained that PacSun, based in Orange County, California, had chosen to shut their Wheaton branch last year. "No one really knows why they're closing," he said, looking pretty dejected. "With the numbers we're running, I think we could save it. But it looks like they've already made up their mind."

A number of stores in East County have closed in recent years: Hecht's, Ritz Camera, Circuit City, Pier 1 Imports, and most recently Borders. It feels silly to mourn the passing of another chain store, particularly one whose stated mission in a report to stockholders is "to be the favorite place for teens and young adults to shop in the mall." Nonetheless, PacSun was base camp for a teenage Dan seeking to reinvent himself as an alternakid way back in 2005, and I'm sad to see it go.

So why would PacSun close? Sure, the folks who live a mile away in snoburban Kensington won't shop at Wheaton Plaza, but the mall remains busy. PacSun has been struggling for years, largely because they've lost touch with their target shoppers. That's especially apparent in Wheaton, a diverse community whose kids don't exactly look like the characters on The O.C.

East County skaters at a meeting on the Woodside skate spot in 2010. Photo by Chip Py.

Pacsun Ballyhoo Beach Party
The crowd at a concert sponsored by PacSun in California. Photo by Jim Alden on Flickr.

Anyone who's spent time in downtown Silver Spring knows that East County kids like to skate, and you might assume that they'd want to buy clothes from a store like PacSun. But East County skaters, like shoppers at Wheaton Plaza, are a pretty diverse bunch, and they may not all be interested in PacSun's Southern California aesthetic.

As skateboarding became increasingly intertwined with hip-hop and urban culture, PacSun stubbornly looked the other way. Even now, the chain's music page features mostly white rock or indie acts like Anthony Green and Fleet Foxes. If they wanted to be the "favorite place" for kids in Wheaton to shop at the mall, they weren't necessarily trying.

It shouldn't be surprising that the chain has struggled to retain its core demographic for years. They've been losing ground to competitiors like Zumiez, which sells not only clothes but skateboards and skating accessories. (Zumiez doesn't have any locations in Montgomery County; their closest store is at the Mall in Columbia.) They also compete with local stores like the Record Exchange (formerly the CD/Game Exchange) in downtown Silver Spring, which sometimes carries shirts and skateboard decks.

According to the company's 2010 Annual Report, PacSun added nearly 50 stores a year during the last decade, growing to nearly 1,000 locations nationwide at its peak in 2007. But the chain's growing irrelevance meant they were especially hammered when the recession hit in 2008. Their stock value plummeted from a peak of $28 in 2005 to just 93 cents two years later, by which point PacSun was now closing 50 stores a year. Today, their stock has only rebounded to $1.66. Last month, they announced that they'd close 200 more low-performing stores, including the Wheaton Plaza store, with a goal of having about 600 stores total when they're done.

H&M, Wheaton Plaza

So where do teens at Wheaton Plaza go? They're probably headed for Swedish clothing retailer H&M, which recently opened a new, two-story store right across from Macy's. Their clothes seem to work with any aesthetic, from preppies to backpack rappers to skater kids. Maybe that's why they seem to be doing so well. According to H&M's 2010 Annual Report, the chain has over 2,200 locations around the world. And 2010 was a bad year for them: they planned to open 240 stores, but could only open 218 because "completion of some shopping malls, in which H&M had planned to open stores, was halted."

Westfield took a gamble on Wheaton Plaza in 2005, and it's to be expected that not every store they brought in would be successful. That said, retailers who choose to locate in Wheaton should be aware of their clientele, and kids at Wheaton Plaza weren't buying PacSun's SoCal vibe. (They do seem to be buying the SoCal vibe at preppy-ish Hollister, which remains open, but I'd venture that those are probably different kids.)

Part of me wants to poke around PacSun before it closes up for good, but I do wonder if, at age twenty-three, I've outgrown my alternakid mantle. I could be wrong. I'll wear anything if it's heavily discounted.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

guest post: why I live in burtonsville

Tents at Praisner Center
Burtonsville Day, one of the many things we love about Burtonsville.

Burtonsville's been going through some tough times in recent years, and I admit I've been a little hard on the place lately. To provide some good news, Burtonsville resident and Boston native David offers this guest post explaining why he moved here. And for more things we love about living in East County, check out our crowdsourced list from 2009.

Burtonsville seems like a pretty insignificant place. Even while writing this, “Burtonsville” was the only town I mentioned here that was not found in spellcheck. Some of my friends describe it as the “boonies.” However, I have lived here for several years now and I been very happy with my decision. If it wasn't for the incessant buzzing in my ear about Burtonsville's bad crime rap, I'd never have known about it.

I am a single young professional living in Burtonsville. I bought a townhouse off of Greencastle Road in 2009. There are several reasons I originally ended up in this area. I discovered the beauty and excitement of D.C. when I was a college intern for a major insurance company. My love of the city is what brought me to the area, but I ended up landing a job in Columbia.

At first, I was a bit stuck on where to live. I wanted easy access to my job on weekdays and easy access to the city on weekends. Using the age-old trick of using push-pins and string on a map, I decided that Laurel, Burtonsville, and parts of Silver Spring were the best candidates. Silver Spring was a bit out of my price range and the further south I went, the longer my weekday commute would be.

I focused much of my search in Laurel. No offense Laurel, but the homes in my price range were either torn down to the studs by previous, foreclosed upon, owners or the construction of the home itself was of very poor quality. I visited more than one hundred properties when I finally stumbled across an ad for a foreclosed townhouse in Burtonsville. While I first moved here for its location, I have come up with a list of reasons I want to stay here:

Very easy access to Route 29 and 95. Both are obviously helpful when traveling to Columbia or D.C.. It's a 20 minute reverse commute to Columbia, 20 weekend minutes to Silver Spring Metro, or 15 weekend minutes to Greenbelt station.

My community has a good amount of well kept green space and my home is adjacent to several small ponds with walking paths. My community also offers a great outdoor pool.

The construction of the homes in my neighborhood are of simple design, but well built. I have taken advantages of this fact many times now with various home improvement projects. The homes in my community are excellent starter homes for singles, young couples, or small families.

I have great neighbors.

Fairland Park is less than a mile away. I use it for jogging, biking, tennis, hiking, and casual strolls. I often see adult recreational softball, and flag football leagues too.

The Fairland Sports and Aquatics Complex. The aquatics center includes the following facilities: a heated, 50-meter, indoor pool with moveable floor, a heated, indoor 25-yard leisure pool with a fountain, a heated whirlpool. If you swim there, you've probably seen me by now.

The Gardens Ice House in Laurel. The “Ice House” operates three sheets of ice - two NHL rinks, and one Olympic rink. I'm not much of a skater myself, but open-skate night can be a fun evening.

I have FIOS high-speed internet. This is a minor point, but few of my city friends have it.

It's close to the new Paint Branch High School.

There's a wonderful farm stand in Spicknall's Farm Market. I can get all the local, fresh vegetables I desire.

The new InterCounty Connector has a couple of entrances near Greencastle. Say what you want about the overall utility of the road, but it has a great bus system that stops at Burtonsville Town Center, once an hour, 365 days a year, and then drives directly to the airport. This is important for me as I travel somewhat frequently. As of writing, the fare for a one-way pass is $5 on bus 201 and the parking is free! It's simply the most economic and convenient way to get to the airport (and train station via free shuttle). If you want to take advantage of this, look for the signage at the parking lot for “BWI Bus” customers.

Cuba De Ayer and Chapala are two of my favorite restaurants.

I don't feel Burtonsville gets the respect it deserves. It's a relatively inexpensive place to live and with all the opportunities for exercise and a stress-free commute, it promotes a healthy life-style. I understand the many concerns and reservations people have about living in Burtonsville, but like I said in my introduction, I had to actually live here before I understood all of its perks.

Time for a swim,

Thanks, David! And if you'd like to send a guest post our way, feel free to e-mail me at justupthepike at gmail dot com.