Friday, August 31, 2012

good public space can make good retail

Plantings, Veridian Plaza
This pocket park outside the Veridian Apartments is nice, but it's not great for retail.
Take a walk around downtown Silver Spring and you'll notice a lot of empty shops and empty parks. As it turns out, the two are related.

Just look at The Crescent condominium on Wayne Avenue, which has seen a rotating cast of retail tenants since it opened in 2006. Or the newly-completed United Therapeutics headquarters, which has several empty retail spaces at the intersection of Cameron and Spring streets. Around the corner, developers of an apartment building called The Cameron placed tables and chairs in front of their ground-floor retail space in anticipation of a restaurant, but they got an outpatient surgery center instead.

Why aren't these spaces filled with successful shops and restaurants? Retailers in an urban area like downtown Silver Spring rely on foot traffic, not car traffic. They need lots of shoppers walking in front of their windows, because a few of them will actually come inside. But new storefronts in the area are often too far from the sidewalk or each other to let that happen.
SurgCenter, Cameron & Fenton
Developers placed tables and chairs outside The Cameron assuming a restaurant would locate there, but an outpatient surgery center opened instead.
Each of those three projects, like most new buildings in downtown Silver Spring are required to have a pocket park. Some are more successful than others, but most create gaps in the street wall, the part of the building that faces the street. Street walls need to be continuous, and they need lots of storefronts to work well.

Renowned Danish urban designer Jan Gehl notes that successful shopping streets have storefronts about 25 feet wide. This means that a pedestrian walking at normal speed will see something new about every 5 seconds, keeping their attention.

In addition, pocket parks placed directly in front of a building separate the shops from the sidewalk, discouraging pedestrians from wandering over because they can't see what's going on inside. If that pocket park is intentionally or unintentionally designed to repel people, no retailer can survive there.

If you don't believe me, just look at any successful retail street in Greater Washington, from M Street in Georgetown to Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda to Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood. The shops all have narrow storefronts, there are few gaps between them, and they're close to the street. As a result, these streets can keep stores in business.
Empty Retail, Spring Street
A little plaza breaks up the street wall between empty storefronts in the United Therapeutics headquarters on Spring Street.
Not surprisingly, retailers moving to downtown Silver Spring are finding spaces next to the sidewalk. At the Veridian, an apartment building on East-West Highway, there's a small grocery store and a Papa John's on the sidewalk, but two other spaces facing a large and well-landscaped park have been empty since the building opened three years ago.

Of course, that doesn't mean that any space on a sidewalk will immediately get filled, especially if they're off the beaten path. Most of downtown Silver Spring's shops and restaurants are east of Georgia Avenue and south of Colesville Road; naturally, that's where the most activity is. Shoppers may be reluctant to wander even a few blocks away from that area, which in turn makes retailers reluctant to open there. That's a large part of why there are so many vacancies along East-West Highway and Cameron Street.

The key to making retail work in those places is to create a destination, even for people living in the immediate area. One way to do that is with a well-used park. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Eitan Gutin, who lives with his family in the Galaxy, a new apartment building on 13th Street.

Its pocket park, which is shared with two other buildings, "gets plenty of use," he wrote. "People often sit at the tables in the shade to eat or do work, and on the weekend the playground has at least one or two families for a good chunk of the day."
Photosynth of the public space at the Galaxy by JimmyO.
This is the kind of public space a shop wants to be next to. All three of the surrounding buildings open onto the park, meaning there's lots of foot traffic going through it. And the space is used for a variety of activities throughout the day - Gutin says a Jewish prayer group even has potlucks there - meaning it's busy at all times. Unfortunately, most of the Galaxy's ground floor is a parking garage, which was a missed opportunity for good retail.

How can create more successful retail space and public spaces in downtown Silver Spring? For starters, we should concentrate our open space. Instead of requiring that every building have a little park where nothing happens, we should encourage the creation of a few larger parks where lots of activities can occur. Fortunately, the county is already exploring ways to do this.

In turn, we need to concentrate retail activity. New retail space should be located near existing stores and restaurants, so they can form a more substantial destination. We should also make sure that existing shops aren't displaced by buildings with no stores in them, which puts gaps in the street wall.

In an urban area like downtown Silver Spring, successful retail and successful public space can go hand in hand. The key is making sure that they're both designed and located to get people using them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

south silver spring residents split over proposed apartment building

South Silver Spring Apartment Buildings
Eastern Village's roof garden. Residents of this building say the seven-story Boulevard at Newell would block their views.
South Silver Spring residents aren't sure what should replace a self-storage facility at Newell Street and Eastern Avenue, where developer Comstock Homes wants to build a seven-story apartment building. Some would prefer a park, while others just want a shorter building.

With architects, landscape architects and lawyers in tow, Comstock hosted a meeting at the Silver Spring Civic Building last night to discuss their proposal, dubbed the Boulevard at Newell. It includes 187 apartments, 3,100 square feet of "neighborhood-serving" retail space, a pocket park and 206 parking spaces for residents and visitors.

Over 60 residents from South Silver Spring and the adjacent Shepherd Park neighborhood in the District came out to voice their opinions on the project. While most were unhappy with the proposal, a few expressed support. Steve Schmitz from Comstock stressed that he wanted to hear everyone's thoughts. "We'll stay here until midnight if need be," he said.

Though their proposal is already allowed under current zoning, Comstock is pursuing what's called an optional method of development, which allows them to build at higher density in exchange for public amenities, such as the pocket park, and a more stringent review process by the county.

Comstock has been talking with the community since February, even convening a group of residents to discuss design issues. Schmitz ran down a list of changes to their original design, like increasing the amount of open space on site and reducing its height along Eastern Avenue, where the building faces single-family homes.
Extra Space Self Storage
Proposed site of the Boulevard at Newell, a building with apartments and retail.
Architect Sherief Elfar of Torti Gallas and Partners noted that the Boulevard at Newell could make the walk to the Silver Spring Metro, less than a half-mile away, safer and more pleasant. "You have more people coming in and out, you have eyes on the street," he said, which could deter crime.

A pocket park at the corner of Newell and Eastern with a small lawn and patio would take up nearly a quarter of the one-acre site. "In our view, we think it should be mostly green," said landscape architect Trini Rodriguez of ParkerRodriguez. Her firm is designing the open spaces around the property, including a small courtyard behind the building that would buffer it from adjacent properties. Elfar pointed out that the Boulevard at Newell would be 33 feet away from Eastern Village Cohousing and 59 feet from 8045 Newell Street, the two buildings bordering the site.

Schmitz promised that Comstock will charge "one-quarter market rates" for the retail space, which would face the pocket park, to ensure that it wouldn't stay vacant like other would-be shops in South Silver Spring. He saw it being an independent business, like a coffee shop. "Whatever the community feels it needs, we can attract that tenant," he said.

While the building's design is far from finished, Elfar pointed to other Torti Gallas projects, like the Ellington on U Street, as an example of how it could look. One goal is to break the building up into multiple fa├žades, giving "the impression . . . that it's one or two buildings as you walk by," he said.
New Addition
The proposed building could be similar to the Ellington, also designed by Torti Gallas. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.
However, some neighbors weren't impressed. They warned that the building didn't have enough parking, would block their views, and that the retail space would attract "undesirables." One Eastern Village resident said that apartments facing her building shouldn't have patios, saying that her future neighbors could have "barbeques and parties" on them while "smoking and drinking."

Another resident living in 8045 Newell who didn't give her name railed against the "density and brutalistic architecture" of the proposal. "I won't say it was dishonest, but your presentation was disingenuous at best," she said, claiming that she and her neighbors were promised that new buildings in the neighborhood would be condominiums, not apartments.

Others lamented that the building was too tall, noting that most buildings along Eastern Avenue had less than four stories. "I will only consider four stories if I can get the same number of units," Schmitz replied, arguing that the project needed a certain number of apartments to be financially viable. One resident suggested taking out the pocket park if it meant the building could be shorter.

Supporters said the project was appropriate for the neighborhood. "This is a site that is maybe eight minutes from Metro in a major city," said one South Silver Spring resident, who asked that her name wasn't used. "Density can be expected."

"The county has appropriately designated certain areas as business districts and that is where the higher density should continue to take place," wrote Jessica Evans, who lives in the Silverton and serves on the Silver Spring Urban District Advisory Committee, in an e-mail after the meeting. She hopes that other building owners in South Silver Spring would follow Comstock's lead and lower the rents for their vacant storefronts.

Comstock hopes to file their plans with the Planning Department next month, with a public hearing to follow in the winter. If everything goes smoothly, they expect to start construction on the Boulevard at Newell in 2014.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

goodbye, georgian towers; hello, "point at silver spring"

Georgian Towers is no more. Photo by Matt Johnson.
After 45 years, Georgian Towers are no more. A new owner has renamed the downtown Silver Spring complex "The Point at Silver Spring." While a new name might give the troubled complex a fresh start, it ignores the emotional and social value of an established name.

New owner Pantzer Properties recently bought the 1960's-era apartment buildings at Georgia Avenue and Spring Street out of receivership. Despite a dramatic transformation in recent years, the complex has been plagued by financial troubles. In 2008, previous owner Stellar Management renamed it The Georgian and began a multi-million dollar renovation, culminating in a swanky rooftop party with models, a DJ, and a woman-turned-sushi bar.

However, the celebration didn't last long. Stellar took out loans to pay for the improvements, but couldn't generate enough income to cover them. As a result, they defaulted on their loans and declared bankruptcy. Despite dramatic rent increases, tenants claimed that Stellar basically stopped running the building. Renovations stopped while the building fell victim to vandalism, thefts and break-ins. According to the Washington Business Journal, Pantzer acquired the complex for just $168 million, nearly $50 million less than what Stellar owed on it.

Apartment complex owners often like renaming their properties, whether to reboot a tarnished reputation or maintain a consistent brand. Most of Pantzer's properties are called "The Point," such as the Point in Alexandria and the Point in Germantown. (It's probably a coincidence that "The Point" was a former name of The Enclave, an apartment complex in White Oak that changed names several times and also received a makeover by Stellar.)

At the same time, people get accustomed to using a certain name and it becomes a part of the community. If you've lived in the D.C. area for a while, you may have visited a Chevy Chase Bank, went Christmas shopping at Hecht's, hung out at Wheaton Plaza or went to Montgomery General Hospital when you're sick. Today, those names are gone, replaced by titles that may create a unified corporate brand but erode our sense of place.
'Georgian' Marquee1980's-Era Logo On Window
The Georgian in 2008.1980's-era Georgian Towers logo, still visible in 2008.
AvalonBay, one of the nation's biggest rental companies, has an aggressive branding strategy, often renaming properties to craft a specific image or appeal to certain markets. Yet as their own marketing people admit, "An individual property can be outdated or sold, but a brand lives on."

I grew up in Georgian Towers, and I often meet people online and in real life who lived there or knew someone who lived there at some point in the past four decades. Even if we didn't live there at the same time, we have a shared, positive emotional connection about this place. It doesn't matter that the building was called Georgian Towers, but the meaning, or brand, attached to the name does. There might be value in that, rather than trying to wipe the slate clean every time a new owner comes in.

Georgian Towers as a name hasn't existed for at least 5 years, but I still hear people using it, which makes me wonder if "The Point at Silver Spring" will stick. That said, I hear people refer to "Wheaton Mall" a lot, which tells me that Westfield's attempt at renaming it "Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton" or "Westfield Wheaton" failed, but still managed to erase the old name.

After years of instability, the tenants of The Point at Silver Spring are getting new management and a better, safer place to live. That's more important than any nostalgia I or anyone else feels for our old home. At the same time, it would be nice if Pantzer gave their new property a name that acknowledged its past. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't mind "The Point at Georgian Towers."

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.

Monday, August 13, 2012

MoCo's RTV has promise, but needs lanes and money

Last Wednesday, members of a task force appointed to study a bus rapid transit system in Montgomery County talked about their findings at a forum at the Silver Spring Civic Building hosted by the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

While they stressed the importance of transit to the county's future, how the system will work and how it will be paid for are still unclear.

Composed of residents, community leaders and major landowners, the Transit Task Force was set up by County Executive Ike Leggett to give recommendations on how to build a countywide transit system dubbed RTV, for Rapid Transit Vehicle. In May, they released this report, concluding that a 16-line, 148-mile network of rapid bus routes would reduce congestion and provide new development opportunities. It builds on previous studies by planning consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff and an earlier proposal by County Councilmember Marc Elrich.

Bus at Shirlington Station, Arlington
RTV stations will be more substantial, with features similar to those at Shirlington Station in Arlington.
Not your typical bus

Unlike traditional bus service, RTV stations would be distinctive and covered, with real-time information for when the next one was coming and off-board fare collection. Stops would be between a half-mile and a mile apart, while buses would run frequently throughout the day. The buses themselves would be sleek, attractive and level with the station platform, allowing riders with limited mobility to get on and off more easily.

Meanwhile, Metrobus and the county's Ride On bus service would be restructured. New "feeder buses" would collect riders in neighborhoods and deliver them to rapid transit stations, reducing the need for park-and-ride lots.

When finished, the RTV system could receive between 165,000 and 207,000 riders each day, though the task force was realistic about changing transportation habits. "We don't expect to get half the people out of their cars, but even if a small percentage do, it'll make a big difference," said Tina Slater, task force member and president of the Action Committee for Transit.

Francine Waters, representing Lerner Enterprises on the task force, talked about the development potential of RTV. Lines would connect research and development centers like the Great Seneca Science Corridor with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and the Food and Drug Administration in White Oak, creating a "science and health triangle."

Lerner is one of several developers is remaking White Flint as a new urban center. They hope to transform Rockville Pike into a grand boulevard, complete with special, protected lanes for buses. RTV is about "[providing] different levels of mobility," she said, making it easier for people to get around with or without a car.

Street Space For 60 People: Car, Bus, Bicycle
Buses can carry the same number of people in far less space than cars. Image by carltonreid on Flickr.
Need for dedicated lanes

However, it's unclear whether the rest of the system will look like Rockville Pike. The Task Force chose not to look at where dedicated lanes would go, saying it required "block by block" solutions that were best considered during a future design phase. "The construction may be the simplest part," said Winston. "The sorting out of these issues will be extremely complicated."

Adding new lanes for transit could be prohibitively expensive, but county officials are reluctant to give existing lanes to buses. Parsons Brinckerhoff's study assumed that much of the system wouldn't have dedicated lanes at all.

"Some places you won't be able to take anything away," said Dan Wilhelm, task force representative from the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

As GGW's Dan Malouff wrote last month, that could be the undoing of Montgomery County's transit plans. A transit lane can carry more people than a normal car lane. According to Wilhelm, 3 car lanes can carry about 4,000 people per hour. Replace one of them with a dedicated bus lane, and capacity can increase to 10,000 people, depending on how frequent the buses are. With 3 car lanes and a bus lane, a street can carry as many as 18,000 people per hour.

This is especially relevant to the county's downtowns, like Bethesda and Silver Spring, where there's a lot of congestion that can slow buses down but no room to widen streets. Taking away lanes from cars in these areas will be politically unpopular, but giving them to buses is the only way to ensure that the rapid transit system is fast and reliable. Otherwise, riders will be reluctant to use the system, making it less effective while traffic gets worse.
Twins and Bus Stop
Residents and businesses within a half-mile of RTV routes could see higher property taxes.
Questions about funding scheme

The task force estimates that the RTV system could cost $1.8 billion to build and $1.1 million each year to operate. They've proposed dividing it into 3 phases to be built over 20 years. Funding would likely come from a combination of state and local sources. The county could borrow money to build the system and and use the proceeds from a special taxing district along with some state funds to pay it off over time, in an arrangement similar to the 30/10 initiative being used by Los Angeles to pay for a massive transit expansion.

"This will last a long time and can be paid for over a long time," said Winston.

Some audience members were skeptical about that arrangement, which would tax residents and businesses within a half-mile of the proposed routes. Jim Zepp, Silver Spring resident and member of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, asked whether the system benefitted long-distance commuters from Frederick and Howard counties at the expense of those who lived next to a RTV line. "It's not Smart Growth," he said.

Winston suggested residents shouldn't "take a narrow view" of who will benefit from the service. "Even if I don't live near the service, I still benefit in a variety of direct and indirect ways," he said.

The task force warned that not improving the county's transportation system wasn't an option. Montgomery County already loses money to congestion, Wilhelm noted, due to wasted fuel and higher labor costs, which result in a higher cost for doing business here. Meanwhile, the county is losing jobs while surrounding areas continue to add them. There's room for over 160,000 new jobs in Montgomery County under current plans, but even without them, turnover from retirements and an influx of new workers means traffic will still be an issue.

"Burying our heads in the sand about creating additional transportation assets is not the solution," said Winston. "We need to do this even if we don't create all these new jobs, and especially if we do."

Next up, the Planning Department will take a look at the rapid transit proposal and make further refinements. County planners have already made changes to the system outlined by the Task Force, removing lines that were unlikely to get a lot of riders while extending others that might be more popular. According to planner Larry Cole, they may have a report of their own by October.

Monday, August 6, 2012

bethesda: america's 17th coolest city?

America's 17th coolest city? Sort of. Photo by eddie.welker on Flickr.
Forbes recently named Bethesda America's 17th coolest city, causing some to wonder if Montgomery County is becoming Portland on the Potomac. While their ranking and definition of a "city" are suspect, there's still plenty to be excited about.

The magazine made their rankings based on several factors, including the number of restaurants, availability of recreational amenities, cultural diversity, and unemployment rates. Houston topped the list, followed by D.C., while Baltimore was #14. Cities normally touted for their coolness, like Minneapolis and Austin, were lower on the list, while hipster capital Portland was nowhere to be found.

Not surprisingly, people in the area are confused. "Did someone redefine cool or cities or Bethesda?" wrote Montgomery County planner Claudia Kousoulas on the Straight Line blog. A commenter on Bethesda Patch grumbled that Bethesda is "still pretty much white bread." And Huffington Post DC has a poll asking whether the title should have gone to Fairfax.

However, this prize doesn't belong to Bethesda alone. When Forbes says "Bethesda," they're referring to the "Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick Metropolitan Division," a term used by the Census Bureau to break down the larger Washington metropolitan area. It contains Montgomery and Frederick counties. The rest of the region, including D.C., Northern Virginia, and Prince George's, Charles and Calvert counties in Maryland, belongs to the "Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metropolitan Division."

Looking North Towards Lower HighlandsPowell's Books, Portland
Denver is a less cool place than Montgomery County, according to Forbes.Portland didn't make the list at all.

Forbes has lavished Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick with many plaudits in recent years, including 2nd Smartest City, 9th Geekiest City, 5th Most Secure Place to Live, 21st Best-Performing City, and even 2nd Most Livable City. Montgomery alone has gotten its fair share of awards too, being named Utne Reader's "Most Enlightened Suburb" and making the Atlantic Cities' list of Creative Class Counties.

Still, very few people would conceive of Montgomery or Frederick counties, which together cover an area over 60 miles long, as a single "place," let alone a city. After all, some people in Kensington won't even go to Wheaton, a mile away. As a result, the Columbia Journalism Review has called Forbes' use of Metropolitan Divisions manipulative and wildly misleading.

But is that the magazine's fault, or the Census Bureau, who drew these lines in the first place? As Jarrett Walker points out, the boundaries of both metropolitan areas and cities are often arbitrary and have no relation to actual communities or social or economic connections.

The Census may lump Montgomery and Frederick counties together, but as a resident of Silver Spring, I spend more money in and have more social ties to D.C. than I do to Frederick. However, not only is it in another Metropolitan Division, it's in another state, sort of.

Portland on the Potomac deserves a fitting theme song. (Make it full screen; you'll be glad you did.)

Whether or not Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick deserves to be called one of America's coolest cities, the facts supporting that title still hold. With 1.2 million residents, it's comparable to the metropolitan area Salt Lake City. It has one-fifth of Maryland's jobs and 600,000 jobs and just 5 percent unemployment, compared to 8 percent nationwide.

Montgomery County has a majority-minority population with 164 countries represented in its public schools. It's got everything from the headquarters of a major media corporation to punk houses and a town lovingly called the "People's Republic." The county is even planning to build one of the country's largest rapid transit systems.

Pitcrew Skate Shop, Market & 2nd
This skate shop is one of many cool things in Frederick.
And Frederick County, whose reputation as a backwater once earned it the name "Fredneck," has a bustling downtown of its own with trendy restaurants and a growing number of wineries.

We may not be the coolest, and we may not be a city in the proper definition, but there's still plenty to be proud of. And unlike Portland, the sun actually comes out in Montgomery County.

Friday, August 3, 2012

don't forget: charrette on flower theatre tomorrow

The Flower Theatre today. Photo from Google Street View.
For decades, the Flower Theatre in Long Branch entertained generations of Silver Spring residents eager to see the latest films. In recent years, however, the Art Deco-style movie house has sat vacant and may need substantial funding to be usable again.

How can we bring the Flower Theatre back to life? Tomorrow, we'll get to explore this issue at a community charrette hosted by Fenton Street Market.

A charrette is a sort of planning workshop where people craft a vision for the future of a space. At our charrette, we'd like to create an "inventory" of community wants and needs and explore how the Flower Theatre could be repurposed to meet them. We've also invited local architects, planners and community leaders to offer their thoughts and expertise.

Like previous charrettes held at Fenton Street Market, we'll have a big tent with tables, chairs and lots of markers. You'll be able to stop in throughout the day to offer your perspective and suggestions. Our goal? To develop viable solutions for the Flower Theatre that could be implemented either now or in the future.

If that sounds good to you, please join us at Fenton Street Market on Saturday, August 4 from 10am to 1pm. The market is located in Veterans Plaza at the corner of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring. You can also read more on the charrette and the Flower Theatre's history.

We're looking forward to a great discussion and many great ideas at the charrette. In the meantime, what would you like to see done with the Flower Theatre?