Tuesday, October 30, 2012

what's up the pike: hurricane sandy edition (updated)

I spent yesterday nervously watching the lights flicker on and off, so I was relieved to wake up today and find that the lights were still on. Thankfully, it seems like the D.C. area, was relatively unharmed by Hurricane Sandy. However, all is not well in East County as the cleanup begins, so here's a look at what's happening Up the Pike:

Photo by Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the Silver Spring Regional Services Center.
- A tree fell into an apartment building on Manchester Place in Long Branch last night. Nobody was injured, but as many as 20 people were displaced.

- About 1200 Pepco customers and maybe a few hundred BG&E customers are without power today, making just a small fraction of the over 100,000 people across the region in the dark.

- USA Today's hotel reporter seems to have spent the night at the Hampton Inn-Homewood Suites in downtown Silver Spring, where glowing light sticks are available to guests in case of a power outage.

Westfield Wheaton Mall Wheaton Plaza (seriously, will someone give me $100 million so I can buy it and change the name back?) will open at 11am today, along with all of its stores.

- Some stores and restaurants in big-D Downtown Silver Spring are open today.

- But good luck getting there: the bridge carrying Route 29 over Northwest Branch (that's just south of Lockwood Drive, by Trader Joe's) is closed due to flooding and "may remain so as long as the rain continues," according to Patrick Lacefield, spokesperson for County Executive Ike Leggett. UPDATE: Route 29 is now open. Here's a list of other closed roads around Montgomery County, though most of them aren't on the east side. 35 traffic signals throughout the county remain out, however, so be careful.

- However, Metro will open at 2pm today and run on a Sunday schedule, while Ride On will open at 4pm, also running on a Sunday schedule.

- Most public buildings, schools and parks are closed today, but should reopen tomorrow, along with early voting. In addition, your trash will be picked up two days late - so if the garbage truck normally comes on Tuesday, now it'll come on Thursday.

- A few months ago, I wrote about Hang Out DC, a social network being built by local resident Peng Wu as a way for busy professionals to make friends. "I'm taking advantage of the bad weather for Hang out DC HURRICANE LAUNCH!" he wrote me yesterday. Peng calls it "a match.com for people who want to make new friends in their neighborhood or share similar interests" and notes that a few Silver Spring-area members have already joined.

- You've probably already heard about the "horse head jogger" in D.C., but in case you haven't, I wanted to make sure since this made my day, week, and year.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

long lines, high democratic turnout in early voting

Early Voting at Praisner Rec Center
This was the line to vote this afternoon at the Praisner Recreation Center in Burtonsville, one of five polling places for early voting in Montgomery County. It may not look that long, but with people inside the wait was about an hour, according to Matt Verghese, communications director for the Maryland Democratic Party (and my former classmate at the University of Maryland).

Turnout has been heavy since early voting opened yesterday, with nearly 70,000 voters participating across the state. Some polling places report waits of more than two hours, though today in Burtonsville it was only about an hour. Turnout has been overwhelmingly Democratic, even for a blue state like Maryland, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by over three to one.

Polls are open from 10am to 8pm every day, except for Sunday, when they're open from 12pm to 6pm. Early voting will continue through Thursday, though Governor O'Malley has cancelled it tomorrow due to the threat of Hurricane Sandy. It may be extended to Friday to allow more voters to come out, however.

That said, I didn't vote yet as lunch was waiting for me at home, so I'll probably be back this evening. The polls will stay open to anyone who's there at closing time. Verghese told me that some polling places scheduled to close at 8pm last night didn't see their last voter until 11:45pm.

Waiting In Line To Vote, Paint Branch High School
Waiting in line to vote at Paint Branch High School on Election Day 2008.
It'll be interesting to see how this affects turnout on Election Day next week. Will early voting draw out people who otherwise wouldn't vote, or will habitual voters use it to visit the polling place on a different day?

Monday, October 22, 2012

los angeles' orange line shows the way for MoCo BRT

Orange Line Platform, North Hollywood
Passengers board a bus at North Hollywood Station. Photo by the author.

A new study says that Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit may not work due to its spread-out, suburban character. But a trip on the Orange Line, Los Angeles' first BRT line, suggests that may not be true.

Built in 2005 and extended earlier this summer, the Orange Line runs between North Hollywood, Warner Center and Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It's a suburban area in Los Angeles with over 1.7 million people known for wide boulevards, tract houses and shopping malls that gave rise to the infamous "Valley Girl."

Like Montgomery County, it has not one but several "downtowns." And like the Valley, Montgomery County has become more diverse, with more younger, immigrant or low-income residents who depend on transit, but also a growing interest in alternatives to driving among more well-heeled residents.

Why does the Orange Line work? It goes where people want to go, it's frequent, and it connects to the subway, major bus routes, and commuter rail. But more importantly, it gives riders a fast, pleasant experience that rivals driving in a place known for its car culture.

The Orange Line is Packed
Buses are crowded, but they feel bright and airy inside.

The Orange Line includes many of the same features as Montgomery's BRT proposal, giving it the feel of a train. For instance, the stations are more substantial than normal bus shelters, with ticket machines, maps and benches, and signs saying when the next bus is coming. They have distinctive canopies that provide shade while giving the line a unique visual identity.

The buses are long and sleek, with big windows that make the inside feel bright and airy. They're actually the same buses the Los Angeles Metro uses elsewhere, though with a different paint scheme. Passengers pay by tapping a smart card at the station, and when the bus arrives, they can get on or off using any door, as they would on a train. I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for buses to arrive when I rode the Orange Line around 2pm, though they were still packed.

What makes the Orange Line really effective, however, is that buses have their own special lanes for the entire 18-mile route, the result of using a former rail line and a wide boulevard. There are also special sensors that turn stoplights green when buses approach so they don't have to stop. This allows buses to reach speeds of up to 55 miles an hour, cutting commutes across the Valley nearly in half and making it as fast, if not faster, than driving. The busway is lushly landscaped, while a popular bike and foot path runs alongside it. The result is a commute that's not only convenient, but very pleasant.

Bike Path + Transitway, Between Woodman + Valley College Stations
A bike path next to the Orange Line busway.

As a result, ridership has almost doubled from 16,000 people each weekday in 2005 to 31,000 today. That's the same number of riders planners anticipate will use certain BRT lines in Montgomery. By comparison, the busiest conventional bus routes in both the Valley and Montgomery County carry just 10,000 riders per weekday.

One rider told me, completely unprompted, how much he liked the Orange Line. "Thank God for Metro," he said. "I'm glad they have all these buses and trains now. Back in the day, we didn't have none of this and you had to have a car."

Unfortunately, Montgomery County's BRT plan wouldn't always give buses their own lanes, even in congested areas like downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. Buses would be stuck in traffic with everyone else, making it a lousy alternative to the car.

Busway on Chandler Boulevard, Laurel Canyon Station
Orange Line buses run in their own lanes on busy Chandler Boulevard.

That said, at $25 million per mile, the Orange Line cost nearly twice as much to build as Montgomery's BRT is expected to, and we can't afford to make that kind of investment in places where it's not warranted. Some areas in the 160-mile system envisioned by the county's Transit Task Force might be better suited for smaller improvements, like the Metro Rapid buses in Los Angeles that inspired MetroExtra service here.

However, in areas where transit use is already high, we should go all out to encourage more of it. The Orange Line didn't require taking away lanes from cars, but we will have to in Montgomery County to get the same quality of service. It won't be easy, but it can and should be done.

It's no surprise that some officials, like County Councilmember Nancy Floreen, are skeptical of Montgomery's BRT plan. "This is suburbia," she told the Washington Examiner. "To assume that everyone is going to switch to a nice, snazzy looking bus is not particularly realistic."

And she's right: no one's going to ride the bus, especially if we don't make it worthwhile. The Orange Line shows us that in the right places, you can get suburban riders on the bus if you give them a fast, frequent, and pleasant experience. We'd do well to follow their example.

Check out this slideshow of the Orange Line.

Monday, October 15, 2012

mission meridian village shows how to do suburban density right

First of a series of posts from this year's Rail~Volution conference in Los Angeles.

Looking Back Towards Mission Street
Commercial building and duplexes at Mission Meridian Village.
It's commonly accepted that we should build up around public transit, but how can you do it in a way that respects existing neighborhoods? Yesterday, I visited Mission Meridian Village in South Pasadena, a project that shows how to do just that.

Designed by New Urbanist architects Moule & Polyzoides and developed in a public-private partnership between the city and Creative Housing Associates, Mission Meridian Village opened in 2003 across from the then-new South Pasadena Gold Line station, which connects to downtown Los Angeles.

Duplex + Crosswalk
A duplex at Mission Meridian Village.
The project is located next just off of Mission Street, a quaint shopping district like Old Town Takoma Park where light-rail trains glide past coffeehouses and bakeries. Closer to Mission Street is a larger commercial building with shops and loft apartments, while behind it are a mix of apartments, townhomes, and single-family homes that seem to blend into the surrounding neighborhood of humble Craftsman bungalows. An underground parking garage, with spaces for residents and commuters, runs under the entire site.

From the street, you see a row of duplexes, each of which has a similar scale and uses the same materials as existing homes. The only hint that these aren't ordinary houses are the little paths that lead into 3 lush courtyards, where you'll find entrances to the other homes.

Inside the Courtyard
Inside one of the courtyards.
All of this happens on 1.65 acres, about a fourth bigger than a football field. With about 67 homes, Mission Meridian Village has a density of 40 homes per acre, but it doesn't feel crowded. Each house has its own private outdoor space, be it a porch, a patio or a balcony. Meanwhile, residents have eagerly embraced the shared courtyards. Chairs and tables spill out from patios into the space, while kids' toys lie on the ground, waiting for the next game.

Mission Meridian Village is a great example of how to provide much-needed housing in a way that gives residents open space and a feeling of community. It's also an example for how to build better suburban neighborhoods where a car isn't mandatory. Most importantly, however, it's an example of how to add to a community while respecting what's already there.

Check out this slideshow of Mission Meridian Village.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

going west, and we don't mean bethesda

Los Angeles Skyline (Downtown in Background)
The "edge cities" of Los Angeles.

This week, Just Up The Pike leaves East County for the West Coast. I'll be in Los Angeles attending Rail~Volution, an annual conference on "building livable communities with transit," with the help of our friends at the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Longtime readers know I really like Los Angeles. Though it has a reputation for car culture and sprawling suburbs, it also has a really robust transit system and lots of great urban neighborhoods. That combination makes it an interesting example for places like Montgomery County, which also have a little bit of everything. (Of course, it's also like 80 degrees there right now, though that doesn't feel as scandalous as going to the beach in December.)

I'm looking forward to learning about great places all over the United States, meeting the people who work to make their communities better, and riding LA's expanding transit system. With Montgomery County looking at a a Bus Rapid Transit system and the potential for a future light-rail Purple Line, this is a great opportunity to look at a place that's had success with both.

Keep an eye out for blog posts on all of those things I said, and if you have any suggestions for things to see, and especially things to eat, feel free to let me know in the comments. I'll see y'all back at home on Thursday.

Friday, October 12, 2012

glenmont arcade reveals MoCo's commercial history

Glenmont Arcade Sign
How much longer will this be around?
With its distinctive sign, the Glenmont Arcade was a local landmark and an emblem of Montgomery County's suburbanization after World War II. But as the county prepares to redevelop Glenmont, will it still have a place in the community?

Located in the Glenmont Shopping Center at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road, the Glenmont Arcade is like a little mall-within-a-strip mall. The arcade was built in 1952 by the Glenmont Land and Development Company, which built many of the surrounding residential neighborhoods. It was the first part of the Glenmont Shopping Center, which was completed in little pieces over the following decade.

The arcade consists of a short, enclosed hallway lined with shops that ends at the entrance of a bowling alley, a beloved local institution that closed in 2002. Unlike a mall or other arcades where the shops are placed in a straight line, each of the shopfronts are angled towards the parking lot, so you can see what's inside without actually having to go inside. According to this 2001 study of the site's history, the arcade originally contained 11 "one-person businesses" in small shops.

Glenmont Arcade, 2001
The Glenmont Arcade in 2001. Photo from Anne Bruder, Maryland State Highway Administration.
Though I've lived in Montgomery County most of my life, I'd never actually been to the Glenmont Arcade before last weekend, when I talked to Scott Whipple, a historic preservation planner at the county's Planning Department, at their open house. He's particularly interested in commercial areas from the mid-20th century, like the Flower Shopping Center in Long Branch, which is currently being studied for preservation.

"It's not often that we get to do something like that," he said. There aren't many remaining examples of architecture from the 1950's and 60's; many buildings have either been torn down, remodeled beyond recognition, or under constant threat from the wrecking ball. One of them is the Glenmont Arcade, which could be demolished under a new plan the county's working on.

Unassuming as it may seem, the Glenmont Arcade comes from a long line of shopping arcades, which first originated in Paris over two hundred years ago before coming to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. They first appeared here in 1925, when the Chevy Chase Arcade was built on Connecticut Avenue in the District. Arcades also served as the inspiration for modern shopping malls like Wheaton Plaza, which was built 7 years after the Glenmont Arcade, and other strip malls around the country.

'Checks Cashed'
Inside the Glenmont Arcade today.
Stepping inside the arcade feels kind of like a time capsule. There are linoleum floors, bright-white and shiny, though they replaced the original terrazzo floors. Fluorescent lights reminiscent of a high-school cafeteria hum quietly. There's an old address sign (for "12345 Georgia Avenue"), which appears to have been hand-painted and a barber pole rotating slowly outside the barbershop that's been there since the arcade opened.

Nonetheless, the space has seen better days. The bowling alley was eventually replaced by a church, which papered over their entrance; all of the shops on the left-hand side were combined into one restaurant, which also papered over their windows. And the two storefronts at the very back, which were probably the most sought-after spaces when next to a busy movie theatre, are now both empty. There are no people in the arcade, save for four teenagers hanging out and smoking, and the occasional customer walking from a check-cashing place out to the parking lot.

Outside, I try to take a photo lining up the Glenmont Arcade sign with the water tower a few blocks away, when I'm approached by a guy wearing oval-rimmed glasses and three coats. He asked what I was doing. "I like the sign," I replied.

"Yeah, it's a nice sign," he said. "It's a shame what happened to the Arcade," he adds, voice trailing off as he shuffles away.

Glenmont Arcade Head-On
Men hang out in front of the Glenmont Arcade, which has seen better days.
The Planning Department is currently working on the Glenmont Sector Plan, which will chart a course for turning Glenmont's business district around. However, the Planning Board chose not to study the Glenmont Arcade for its historical merit. Since the Glenmont Shopping Center was built in several pieces, it's broken up into 15 different lots and has 13 different owners. That will make both redeveloping the shopping center hard, but preserving any part of it even harder.

The arcade itself has just one owner, Greenhill Capital, a Bethesda-based company that owns a third of downtown Wheaton. There are no current plans for redeveloping the Glenmont Shopping Center, though Greenhill may be sympathetic to calls for preserving all or part of the arcade. Company head Lenny Greenberg, who I interviewed earlier this year, has stressed the importance of preserving Wheaton's local culture. When he redeveloped the Anchor Inn, a once-popular restaurant there, he chose to save the 1950's-era sign.

Whipple told me that there's "nothing like" the Glenmont Arcade in Montgomery County, and he's right. As he wrote in a recent blog post, it's better to "reuse buildings than to throw them in the trash." Do we have to throw the Glenmont Arcade in the trash to improve this community? We won't know unless we give this building a fair shake and at least study it for historic preservation.

Check out this slideshow of the Glenmont Arcade, then and now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

new home buyers trade space for community

While much of the nation has been racked by the real estate bust in recent years, the D.C. area escaped largely unscathed. However, one thing has changed: buyers want smaller homes, and builders are listening.

Down Midtown Road
Stormy Skies Over Maple Lawn
New homes at Maple Lawn in 2006 (above) and today (below).

The homes in each photo were built at Maple Lawn, the planned community north of Burtonsville in Howard County, by local builder Miller & Smith. The first photo is of the Foxhall model, which they sold between 2005 and 2007. (Miller & Smith tends to name their homes after urban neighborhoods or themes.) It measured about 3,400 square feet, not counting the basement, and it sold for upwards of $800,000.

Here's how Miller & Smith described it on their website:
The Foxhall Collection features 10' high ceilings, a gracious two-story entry foyer, formal living room and dining room with butler's pantry, spacious great room, 21st century kitchen and sunny breakfast room. Tucked away, the hobby/tech room makes an excellent study or children's homework area. Outside, enjoy your own private courtyard - perfect for entertaining! Upstairs, there is a sumptuous master suite with sitting room and luxury bath: plus 3 more bedrooms. Expansion options include finished lower level and bonus room. Over 3,400 sq ft of living space for today's active families!

The second photo is of the Fells Point and Gramercy Park models, which are for sale now. These homes have about 2,300 and 2,800 square feet, respectively, not including the basement. And they're much cheaper, each selling for less than $600,000.

From the descriptions, you can see how the interiors of each house have changed:
Fells Point: An open floorplan connects the great room and dining room to a fabulous kitchen with Infinity Island. Upstairs there's a dreamy master suite with luxury features including two walk-in closets.

Gramercy Park: A dramatic, open design with a stylish kitchen including an Infinity Island and the opportunity for a plenty of natural light. A separate dining room and study complete the main level.

Six years ago, Miller & Smith emphasized the Foxhall's two-story foyer and formal living and dining rooms, spaces that look good but are rarely used and require extra maintenance. Today, they stress the "openness" of the Fells Point and Gramercy Park.

Visiting the models of both houses last weekend, I was surprised to find almost no walls on the ground floor. The Gramercy Park has a formal dining room but no living room, while the Fells Point has neither. The master bathroom, which architectural critic Witold Rybczynski once called "America's latest status symbol," is reduced to a sink, toilet and shower.

These houses are 1/3 smaller and 1/4 cheaper than what was built before, but the hardwood floors and granite countertops are still there. Buyers can save money and reduce their energy use, but without sacrificing comfort or luxury.

Gramercy Park + Fells Point Models
The Gramercy Park (left) and Fells Point (right) models are 1/3 smaller than homes built in 2006.

However, smaller homes aren't just a Maple Lawn or even a D.C.-area phenomenon. New homes are shrinking across the country.

Part of the trend may be coming from younger buyers, who just don't want or care about all that extra space. Nancy, the sales agent I met at the model house, pointed out that her visitors include a lot of older couples seeking to downsize from a larger home, but the ones who actually buy are young families. The current buzz is about young singles wanting in-town apartments, but when they outgrow the studio, the interest in smaller homes may persist.

That said, buyers are willing to give up space within their home for amenities outside of it. A study from real estate consultants RCLCO found that buyers will sacrifice a larger house to have a shorter commute. Maple Lawn puts residents within close reach of schools, shops and even jobs. You don't need a movie theatre in your house when there's stuff to do outside. And when your house faces a common green, you can make do with a smaller yard, which in turn makes the house more affordable.

Outdoor Room, Rhapsody In Blue
Backyard of a similar Miller & Smith house in Clarksburg.

Maple Lawn's not perfect. These are still large houses; my parents live in an 1,800-square-foot house that comfortably fits a family of four. The neighborhood's layout isn't totally ideal for walking and it displaced working farmland in an area with no transit where residents will have to drive to leave the community. And it's three miles from an existing town where 70 percent of the stores are empty.

However, it shows that buyers will sacrifice space to live in even a semi-walkable neighborhood with amenities close at hand. That's a good sign for places that are already walkable or are trying to become so.

Monday, October 8, 2012

for a big impact at studio plaza, think small

studio plaza sketch
Sketch of Studio Plaza's first phase from WDG.
Containing apartments, shops, offices and a public park, the proposed Studio Plaza development could be the next big thing in downtown Silver Spring's revival. Literally: it's one block-long building with minimal details that turns a pedestrian street into a tight underpass.

Joint developers Robert Hillerson and Fairfield Investment Company have made an ambitious proposal for a five-acre site taking up most of a city block between Georgia, Thayer and Silver Spring avenues and Fenton Street. A preliminary plan approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board in 2009 shows over 600,000 square of apartments, shops, offices, and a potential hotel.

Studio Plaza has been well-received by neighboring residents and business owners, partly due to the developers' commitment to providing several public amenities. Their plan includes a substantial park, a garage to replace an existing public parking lot, a new street and an extension of Mayor's Promenade, a short walkway off of Georgia Avenue home to the bust of former "Mayor" Norman Lane.

They've offered to set aside 15% of all apartments as Moderately Priced Dwelling Units for low-income families, while half of the apartments would be set aside as Workforce Housing for middle-income families. The project will also seek LEED certification, a measure of efficient energy and material use.

Mayor's Promenade Looking Towards Georgia
Mayor's Promenade today. Photo by the author.
studio plaza sections
These sections show Mayor's Promenade passing beneath the proposed building. Image from the Planning Department.
Recently, Hillerson and Fairfield submitted more detailed plans to the Planning Board of the project's first phase, containing a 12-story building with 410 apartments and 10,000 square feet of retail, a parking garage, and the park. (They can be seen in this slideshow.) They've also swapped out their original architect, SK&I of Bethesda, for D.C-based WDG Architects, who's designed other apartment buildings in downtown Silver Spring, like the Veridian and the Cameron. According to their website, the building was designed "with the animated and eclectic spirit of the Fenton Village area in mind."

Whether they've actually accomplished that is questionable. While the original design placed a building on either side of Mayor's Promenade, the current design has one big building with the promenade going through it. Instead of a pedestrian street celebrating the neighborhood's "quirky and unique character," there will be an underpass, part of which will be just one story high.

Complaints that new development in Silver Spring is "out of scale" are common, whether it's for townhouses or a much smaller apartment building. But a rendering of the building behind the two-story shopfronts on Georgia Avenue, shows that it really is oversized. Its height isn't the problem, as there are plenty of taller buildings nearby. It's that this building is 400 feet long.

central green rendering
Top: the 2009 proposal shows buildings with different materials and greater setbacks. Image from the Planning Department.
studio plaza render
The current proposal shows one large building with repetitive details and fewer setbacks. Image from WDG.
Stretching the building out across the entire block defeats the purpose of breaking it up in the first place. The exterior is also very repetitive, with a few simple elements used over and over again. As I've written before, good urban streets give pedestrians something new to look at every 5 seconds, or every 25 feet. That's why a block of identical 18-foot-wide rowhouses can still look and feel great, but on a building this size, excessive repetition just emphasizes how massive it is.

However, the public park, designed by Alexandria-based landscape architects ParkerRodriguez, is more promising. Approximately 16,000 square feet in size, it's bigger than most developer-provided public spaces in downtown Silver Spring. The same paving materials used in the park will be extended into the new street, making it feel even larger.

A raised terrace will run along the edges of the park, where several ground-floor apartments will have entrances and private patios, similar to those at the Silverton condominiums on East-West Highway. This will help make a very large building feel much more personal: instead of walking past anonymous windows, you'll pass front doors. That will make the park feel more like a neighborhood gathering place, as opposed to a space like Veterans Plaza, which is more of a regional destination.

That said, the bulbous shape and location of the green areas in the new site plan seem arbitrary, and it's unclear what they're meant to be used for.
detailed site plan
Site plan of the proposed building and public park from the Planning Department.
How could Studio Plaza be better? For starters, the building could be broken up into two, which would bring it closer in scale with other high-rises in Silver Spring while providing more visual interest. Each half could be done in different materials or even a different style, giving them their own distinct character. And while the building already steps down one story closer to low-rise Fenton Street, there may be more opportunities for other setbacks to make it look less bulky.

If a connection between the two buildings is deemed necessary, it shouldn't be as deep as the rest of the building, and it should be higher off the ground, so Mayor's Promenade can still get light and air.
Union Row, 14th & W (1)
The Flats at Union Row shows how to bridge over a pedestrian street without being imposing.
You can see a really good example of this in the Flats at Union Row, a condominium off of U Street in the District designed by SK&I. Like Studio Plaza, it bridges over a pedestrian street, but the opening is large enough that the building doesn't feel so massive and the street still feels like an outdoor space. (Not surprisingly, a bridge in the SK&I-designed 2009 proposal looks quite similar.)

Meanwhile, the park should have as big a lawn as possible. We've seen from the past success of "the Turf" and the current push for a park in South Silver Spring that downtown residents want green space, and this one is big enough to accommodate it. This is a great opportunity to provide a large grassy area, as proposed in the 2009 plan, that could be used for everything from picnics to recreation to even live performances.

Studio Plaza has the potential to make a big impact on downtown Silver Spring, but only if its designers and developers focus on the small stuff. By opening up Mayor's Promenade, making the park more usable, and putting more detail into the building's exterior, they can truly make this project a reflection of its neighborhood.

Friday, October 5, 2012

what's up the pike: good buildings, bad buildings, and teenagers

Rendering, Boulevard at Newell
Coming soon to the corner of Newell Street and Eastern Avenue, we hope.
- Friend of JUTP Patrick Thornton sent us this rendering of the Boulevard at Newell, a proposed 7-story, 197-unit apartment building that would be located at 8001 Newell Street in South Silver Spring. The building has been a source of controversy in the neighborhood. While some residents look forward to the project, others say it should be a park.

Developer Comstock Homes has been working with architects at Torti Gallas and Partners, located here in downtown Silver Spring, to create a design that meets at least some of the neighbors' concerns. Considering that the property is already zoned for apartments and all of the parks and public spaces that currently exist in and near South Silver Spring, folks may find themselves with a building in their backyard. And in my opinion, you could be looking at a lot worse.

studio plaza render
This is hopefully not coming soon to Fenton Village.
- We've also got new pictures of Studio Plaza, a major new proposal in Fenton Village that could bring hundreds of apartments, new shops, offices and even a hotel to the block bounded by Fenton Street and Georgia, Thayer and Silver Spring avenues. In 2009, residents and businesses in the area were been supportive of the project, which would also include public amenities like a substantial new park, parking garage and a renovation of Mayor's Promenade, home to the bust of Silver Spring "Mayor" Norman Lane.

Three years later, developers Robert Hillerson and Fairfield Investment Company are back with a new architect and a new design, which is currently under review at the Planning Department. Neighbors on the East Silver Spring Civic Association listserve have referred to it as "ugly, ugly, ugly," but aesthetic preferences aside, the current design has major scale issues and turns Mayor's Promenade into an underpass. Check out this slideshow of new and old images of the project, and come back Monday for a full discussion of what this project gets right and what could be better. (Thanks to Karen Burditt for the heads-up.)

- Next Wednesday, the County Council will host a Youth Town Hall Meeting to hear from middle and high school students. It's great that our elected officials are willingly engaging young people on the issues they care about, especially if it prevents more anti-youth legislation in the future.

The meeting will be this Wednesday, October 10 at 7pm in the Third Floor Hearing Room at the Council Office Building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. For more information, check out this Facebook event.

- Want to know more about planning issues? Come out to the Fortress of Planning tomorrow for Planning Smarter, an open house hosted by the MoCo Planning Department. You'll get to see the "latest cool projects" (their words, not mine) county planners are working on and even meet a real-life planner! The kids can even build a city of their own using cardboard boxes. The open house will be from 10am to 1pm tomorrow at the Planning Department, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

commemorating wheaton plaza through the medium of T-shirt

UPDATE: The Wheaton Plaza T-shirt is done and for sale! Check it out on the JUTP online store. If you buy one, send me a photo at justupthepike at gmail dot com and you might see it on the blog!

Lately, I've been messing around with the idea of designing T-shirts with for various East County communities. I always liked the local-themed line of shirts Snoburbia sold, and I was sad when founder Lydia Sullivan decided to shut down her online store to focus on being a civic activist.

But while many of Snoburbia's shirts simply bore the name of a place, I wanted to take it a step further and include local landmarks. For instance, a Silver Spring shirt could play off of the Silver Theatre marquee, while a Burtonsville shirt could use the Bedding Barn, and a White Oak shirt could play off the Wonder Years logo, since one of its creators grew up there.

Thinking of a landmark for Wheaton was harder. There's a lot I like about Wheaton, notably all that scary ethnic food, but nothing I could think of that looked good on a T-shirt. Then I found this old photo of the entrance sign at Wheaton Plaza on this Facebook page commemorating the history of Montgomery County's first shopping mall, which opened in 1959. While current owner Westfield ignores the mall's past, the 700 or so members of this page (most of whom, it seems, grew up in the area during the 1960's and 70's) keep it alive with old photos and stories.

This sign is way before my time, but I like it. The geometric shapes and clean lines are a great example of Googie architecture and reflect the idealism and fascination with the future that many Americans had in the years following World War II. It's also way more distinctive than the current entrance sign.

So I created a mockup of the sign in Illustrator. I wanted to be as faithful as possible, even trying to match the original typeface (I used Clarendon). Wheaton's been suffering from an identity crisis as of late, and I hope that new and established residents alike might get something out of a design that celebrates the [recent] history of their community. And if it's received well, I'd be willing to do T-shirts for other places in East County as well. What do you think? Would you buy a "Wheaton Plaza" T-shirt?

Monday, October 1, 2012

georgetown university considers satellite campus in white oak

Georgetown University
Could this be coming to East County? Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Georgetown University needs space to grow. Montgomery County needs a university to anchor a research and development center they want to create in White Oak. Luckily, there's a college campus for sale in the neighborhood that can satisfy them both.

According to the Post's Jonathan O'Connell, Georgetown is interested in buying the National Labor College, a 47-acre campus at New Hampshire Avenue and the Beltway. The AFL-CIO bought the former Catholic school to educate union workers nearly 40 years ago, but chose to sell it due to declining enrollment.

National Labor College
Bird's-eye view of the National Labor College campus from Bing Maps.

Over 300 potential buyers expressed interest in buying the campus due to its redevelopment potential. One of them was Tysons Corner Center owner Macerich, which had considered building a "high-end retail outlet center for name brands like Prada" on the site.

Georgetown would use the property to consolidate its sports programs in one location and to use the Lane Kirkland Center, a conference facility completed in 2006, for meeting space. Meanwhile, growing Montgomery College may want it for an entire new campus, though they haven't submitted a formal bid yet. While both schools would make a great use for the property, having Georgetown at the National Labor College is particularly interesting.

Last week, county planners submitted preliminary recommendations (PDF!) for the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, which envisions creating a new center for research and technology around the Food and Drug Administration's new campus on New Hampshire Avenue, a half-mile from the National Labor College. Under the plan, which is similar to the proposed Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, the area could have as many as 40,000 new jobs and 8,000 new homes.

Quad, LifeSci Village
Rendering of LifeSci Village, a proposed research and development park with housing, offices and shops. Image from Percontee.

The county's already picked a developer for what would be the plan's largest component, a massive mixed-use development called LifeSci Village. However, a county-funded study by consulting firm Partners for Economic Solutions last year found that the Science Gateway won't work without an affiliated research institution.

Georgetown could potentially fill that void. The university conducts a lot of research, and while much of it is not in science or technology-related fields, they are looking to expand. Georgetown is looking for up to 100 acres for a satellite campus somewhere in the District of Columbia to accommodate their future growth needs.

While a few potential sites exist, many of them would require building a school from scratch. The National Labor College, with dorms, classrooms, a library and an auditorium, would allow Georgetown to hit the ground running. That is, if they sought to use the campus for more than athletic fields and conference rooms.

With a new campus, Georgetown could expand into new fields of study and scientific research. Meanwhile, the White Oak Science Gateway would have a prestigious anchor that could draw scientists and companies from around the world. In turn, they would attract investment in the kind of amenities that East County residents are clamoring for, like more jobs and better shopping.

Potential BRT Routes in White Oak
Potential Rapid Transit Vehicle routes in the White Oak Science Gateway. The National Labor College stop is the blue dot at the bottom. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Board.

Of course, one thing that sites in the District have is proximity to Georgetown's main campus, while the National Labor College is over 10 miles away. If built, Montgomery County's proposed Rapid Transit Vehicle system would have three routes serving the White Oak Science Gateway and a stop serving the National Labor College, improving its accessibility to the main campus and the rest of the region.

As I've written before, the National Labor College campus is a big opportunity for East County to reinvent itself. However, it also gives Georgetown University a chance to grow and become an even stronger research institution. Meeting the school's athletic needs is important, but there's potential for much more on this site.