Thursday, January 29, 2015

without crosswalks, east-west highway is the street where everybody jaywalks

When I moved to East-West Highway in South Silver Spring last fall, I quickly noticed one thing: people cross the street without using crosswalks all the time. Even as the surrounding area becomes more urban and walkable, this street remains a relic of its industrial, car-oriented past.

Man + Dog Crossing East-West Highway_cropped
Drivers stop to let a man and his dog cross East-West Highway. All photos by the author.

East-West Highway was built in the 1920s to connect Bethesda and Silver Spring and provide an alternative to Military Road in the District. (An extension to Prince George's County came later.) Industrial uses like bottling plants, commercial bakeries, and repair shops sprouted up along the road in Silver Spring. When the Blairs complex was built in the 1950s, the developers purposefully faced it away from East-West Highway because it was so unattractive.

When the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring took off about 10 years ago, those buildings gave way to apartments and condominiums. More recently, businesses including Denizens Brewing Company, Bump 'N Grind, a coffeeshop/record store, and Scion, a restaurant based in Dupont Circle, have flocked to the area.

South Silver Spring is now one of the region's youngest neighborhoods, with a large number of transit commuters. Even the owner of the Blairs is embarking on a redevelopment plan to face the street again.

As Silver Spring redeveloped, it became more walkable. But East-West Highway never caught up.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

watch the region get older as young people cluster around stuff to do

New maps from the Census Bureau show where young adults lived between 1980 and 2013. While the DC area as a whole is aging, urban neighborhoods both in the District and throughout the region are getting younger.

Darker areas have a higher concentration of young people. Map from the Census Bureau, animated by the author.

Friday, January 9, 2015

could springfield town center show the way for struggling malls?

Shopping malls are having a rough time as consumers increasingly shop elsewhere. While it's too early to say they're done for, successful malls have to take big steps to stay current. In Fairfax County, Springfield Town Center is experimenting with ways to do just that, including unique international stores and a central court laid out like an urban plaza.

Inside the new Springfield Town Center. Photo by Ser Amantio di Nicolao.
Last weekend, my boyfriend and I visited Springfield Town Center, a few minutes from his house in Annandale. Before it reopened in October, it was Springfield Mall, a 1970's-era regional shopping center that once hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana but had fallen so far that owner Vornado felt the only solution was to tear the entire thing down and start from scratch.

This isn't the only mall in the region that's being replaced with something else. Laurel Mall is now Towne Centre at Laurel, an outdoor shopping center. Landmark Mall in Alexandria and White Flint Mall in North Bethesda will soon become mixed-use districts. And the former Landover Mall is a candidate for the FBI's new headquarters.

What sets Springfield Town Center apart is that it's still an enclosed mall. Vornado kept the three anchor stores, Macy's, JCPenney, and Target, but demolished the old mall and built a new, reconfigured one in its place. Still, the new mall feels very different than enclosed malls you've seen before.

20120624 1332 - Farewell Springfield Mall brony meetup - deserted mall - IMG_4475
The old Springfield Mall. Photo by Rev. Xanatos Satanicos... on Flickr.

Malls still have a place

The assumption among real estate folks is that shoppers would rather spend their money at big-box stores that offer one-stop shopping, or head to historic main streets or lifestyle centers where they can get out and walk around outside.

But the mall isn't over yet, as some hope. Real estate analysts CoStar estimate that about 80% of the nation's existing malls are still healthy, though it's not clear what "healthy" means.

Malls must adapt to survive

As going to the mall becomes a once-in-a-while occasion, the malls that are thriving are super-regional malls like Tysons Corner Center, a 15-minute drive from Springfield. While it's smaller than Tysons, Springfield Town Center's bet is that shoppers will go to the mall if it offers something you can't find anywhere else.

Vornado brought in several "fast-fashion" retailers who are both new to the DC area and generally not found in malls: Uniqlo from Japan, Spain's Suiteblanco, and Topshop and F&F, both from the UK. Inside, there are deliberate design choices that make the mall feel like a place to linger: high-quality materials, bright lighting, and a large room with tables, chairs, and a grand central staircase that calls to mind an old train station waiting room.

It seems to be working, if only because of the curiosity factor surrounding a new mall. Two weeks after the holiday shopping season, Springfield Town Center was packed. The parking lots were full and the corridors were bustling with shoppers, especially teenagers, who are turning away from shopping malls. The mall's two sit-down restaurants, Maggiano's and Yard House, both had an hour-long wait.

I'm curious to see if shoppers will choose Springfield Town Center over big-box stores and downtowns, or even bigger malls like Tysons. There are plans to eventually surround the mall with offices and apartments, similar to what's happening at Tysons Corner Center and the Mall in Columbia in Maryland. Ultimately, that might create the kind of environment, and support the diversity of retail, that will draw shoppers in the long run.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

looking back, looking forward to 2015

Happy new year! With 2015 safely in the door, it’s time to look forward and look ahead. In past years, I've done a MoCo version of the Post's In and Out List, but this year it seemed like there were plenty of Ins, but no Outs. So let's take a look back in non-list form.

Denizens Brewing Company
Hanging out at Denizens Brewing Company, which opened this summer. Photo by the author.

2014 was an exciting year for East County, though not always in a good way. We marched in protest of the achievement gap, rode our bikes on Montgomery County’s first cycletrack, and tried to figure out where Silver Spring’s boundaries were.

We spent the summer throwing back Southside Ryes at Denizens Brewing Company’s biergarten and hanging out on the roof of Olivia’s View. As winter came, we celebrated the opening of Bump ’N Grind and wondered if Silver Spring was finally “hip.”

This year’s elections were a nail-biter, with close races for county council, board of education, and governor. Jill Ortman-Fouse beat back the teachers’ union to win a seat on the school board in a year when they didn’t seem to get anything right. And Governor-elect Larry Hogan won over disenchanted rural Marylanders with his indifference to Montgomery County and common sense in general.

Meanwhile, as economic and racial inequality made headlines nationwide, we saw the disparities firsthand in our neighborhoods and our schools. And this spring, we lost one of our great community leaders, Richard Jaeggi.

Some things haven’t changed. The Silver Spring Transit Center still isn’t open. And the Purple Line, which was all but a done deal two months ago, remains a dream. If anything, we’ve got stuff to talk about in the new year. And for a blog, that’s always welcome.