Wednesday, February 19, 2014

it takes more than open space to make a great urban park

The Silver Spring Transit Center isn't finished yet, but there's already support for turning vacant land next to it into a big park. However, this really isn't a good place for a park. There are also lots of small, underused parks nearby, and with some alterations, they could help quench the demand for open space.

2012 10 05 - 7833 - Silver Spring - Transit Center
The unfinished Silver Spring Transit Center. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

County Councilmember Hans Riemer recently proposed building a two-acre park next to the Transit Center instead of an originally planned hotel. On his blog, he talks about the many "green urban parks" in downtown DC, like Dupont Circle. "Silver Spring deserves one too," he writes.

What makes a great urban park like Dupont Circle, or Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, or Union Square in New York? They all have grassy areas and trees, and are nice places to enjoy the outdoors. But they don't exist in isolation. What happens on the edges of great urban parks is what makes them successful.

Great urban parks need people and buildings, too

Parks like Dupont and Rittenhouse sit in the middle of very dense, busy neighborhoods with thousands of people living and working nearby. The surrounding buildings also create a frame around the space, making it an outdoor room. Most of the buildings that face Dupont Circle have a store or restaurant on the ground floor. On Rittenhouse Square, there are apartment building entrances and restaurants with dining terraces opening to the square.

What happens on the edges of Rittenhouse Square make it a great park. Photo from Google Street View.

Together, these things make a space that people are constantly using throughout the day, eating lunch, playing chess, making music, holding demonstrations, getting exercise, or just passing through.

Compare that to the Transit Center. Most of the surrounding buildings don't face the space Hans Riemer would like to be a park. At the street level, all you'll find are fast-food places, lots of blank walls, and loading docks, none of which do much to generate life on the sidewalk. Putting a park here wouldn't change that context.

We know that because there used to be a park next to the Metro station before the Transit Center was built. It was a popular skate spot, but it was also run-down and empty. It wasn't a good park.

A site plan of the proposed Transit Center park. Image from Montgomery County.

It would be different if we could build a park with shops and restaurants directly facing it, and lots of people in very, very close proximity to use it and pass through it all the time. In fact, that's what the Transit Center plans already call for: a smaller park, less than an acre in size but with some green areas, directly adjacent to an apartment building, an office building, and a hotel.

Unfortunately, those plans are on hold due to a breakdown in negotiations between developer Foulger-Pratt, which also built the Transit Center, and Metro, which owns the land. But that doesn't mean we should throw them away.

Silver Spring has lots of open space, but we don't use it

People complain that Silver Spring doesn't have enough parks, but we might actually have too many. In downtown Silver Spring, there are literally dozens of small pocket parks, the result of a requirement that new development include an open space that's accessible to the public.

Many of those spaces are poorly designed and go unused. County planners and residents have already been working to fix this problem.

In 2008, the Planning Board recommended eliminating the pocket park requirement and build big parks instead. Two such projects have already been approved. The redevelopment of the Blairs will include a big park, while the Studio Plaza development on Fenton Street will have one as well.

And last year, the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board suggested looking at ways to repurpose existing parks and county-owned properties. Evan Glass, chair of the board and a candidate for County Council, has proposed reusing the current Silver Spring Library as a recreation center and park space once the new library is built.

Sensory Garden Towards Wayne Avenue
There's a big, grassy park a block from the Transit Center, but it goes unused. Photo by the author.

Some of downtown's pocket parks could be repurposed as well. There's already a big, grassy park exists a block from the Transit Center at the Discovery Channel headquarters. But it isn't really used and was closed for months after a gunman attacked the building in 2010. Across from the Transit Center, Montgomery County will turn a bus turnaround into another small park with trees and landscaping.

These spaces aren't perfect. But they exist, and if any community member or elected official is serious about improving open space in downtown Silver Spring, they should start here.

There's a better use for the Transit Center site

It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes, creating great parks in urban areas means more buildings. Silver Spring needs a critical mass of people and stuff to generate the activity needed to give our streets and parks life. Meanwhile, too many bad parks have instead created big, gaping holes in our downtown, sucking out activity and life.

The park we could have at the Transit Center. Image from Montgomery County.

The Transit Center is a bad place for a big park. But it's a good place for buildings.

Montgomery County and Maryland taxpayers have already spent upwards of $120 million on the Transit Center, on top of money spent decades ago to build the Metro station, and money we will soon spend to build the Purple Line. Where they converge will be one of the most valuable development sites in the region, and a significant opportunity to encourage transit use and generate tax revenue.

Not taking advantage of this would be a colossal waste. So would ignoring all of the open spaces Silver Spring already has, as well as the opportunities we do have to create new and better ones.


Unknown said...

I agree with your post. One of the failures in Silver Spring is that much of the development is self-contained, and doesn't tie into the street well. We have a lot of single-purpose buildings: parking garages, office buildings, and restaurants, etc, with little shared areas.

Natural gathering places like Starbucks & Einstein on Colesville are handicapped my the massive surrounding metro architecture and deadly street crossings separating them from the residential buildings.

Gull said...

In the past Dan, I've had some disagreement with some of your ideas, however this time I think we whole heartedly agree that this location is not where a Park should be, and indeed may actually demand some of the highest rents and taxes in all of Silver Spring because of the location. The transit center building is ugly to look at and I have to believe that in part was because the plans were to always shield it with buildings. There also needs to be activating uses along Colesville and Wayne ave to draw pedestrians toward the 'downtown' when they exit the Metro or the transit station.

I really would like to see a renegotiation between the County and Discovery over their green space. Can't the county come up with some money to find a better security situation for Discovery than that horrid black fence? The park does not even look open during the day. At the least place a third opening along the street between the first two. Jazz the fence up with brick pillars or stonework to make it look like a secret garden and not a jail. Best yet, get rid of the fence, install cameras and more lighting and just let us have full use of that nice lawn and landscaping.

I throw my support in expanding Ellsworth Park with the old library site, and focusing our energy on the Blairs property for green space.

really said...

Metro would be extremely foolish to let this parcel go for any purpose that fails to generate long-term revenue for its operations. Mixed use is the way to go, with developers paying the agency to lease (not buy) the land on which offices/commercial/residential buildings will be built, thus guaranteeing revenue for the system for decades. In the interest of protecting taxpayers, Metro should strive to be as financially independent as possible and should be forbidden by law from selling its land for a park or any other purpose.

Lee Goldberg said...

Interesting article. The small space by the transit center seems like a good place to learn some important urban planning lessons for the much bigger and more important redevelopment of the Safeway/Blairs -- that big 1950's parking lot has so much potential as a park if the development around it were done right

Woody Brosnan said...

I'm not sure the site is all that great for a building either because of the steep slope that makes up a good part of the parcel.

If we do nothing then when the Transit Center opens the space will be a big lawn. That's exactly what we need, a place for people to sit, sun, read a book, etc.

Gull said...

Woody - buildings are great at taking up the grade of a property, and it's lucrative to some developers because you can access multiple levels 'at grade'. My apartment building alone has 3 levels all with ground level access because of a hill.

None said...

I'm surprised that the Discovery green space is for public use. For years now I've assumed it was for their employees only. They do an impressive job of making it look that way.

If the county is going to continue requiring green space with development, perhaps it should enact some form based codes to enforce better design that encourages park use and ensures that edges are open to the public.

Isayaah Parker said...

I almost think they should have just left the ORIGINAL transit center as it was. At least it didn't look as ugly. Not only are we stuck with that monstrosity of a transit center, but we have to have a ridiculous park around it that will no doubt collect skateboarders, homeless people and trash just like the last "park" that was there. This is an EPIC FAILURE. Land that is RIGHT ON TOP of a metro station should not look like this...what a waste of revenue from high rents. People want to live on top of a metro station.