Monday, September 14, 2020

ellsworth drive is one of silver spring's most successful public spaces. should it stay in private hands?

Despite its name, Ellsworth Drive has become one of the region’s most successful pedestrian retail streets. As plans for a facelift move forward, community members are worried that what makes this place special and enticing could be lost.

Ellsworth Drive last summer. Montgomery County owns the street, but leases it to a developer who runs and maintains it. Photo by the author.

Twenty years ago, this street was a back alley, lined with loading docks and parking lots. Today, Ellsworth is arguably the most important street in Silver Spring, if not Montgomery County. On a Friday night in the summer, Ellsworth is the place to see and be seen for a big swath of suburban Maryland.

Little kids play in the fountain. Teen boys skateboard and try to one-up each other, weaving around couples on dates. There are usually a handful of buskers, some with amps, alongside panhandlers. Proselytizers march with sandwich boards past Hare Krishnas waving tambourines. At the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, a man pushes a cart selling roasted nuts, who was recruited here from New York by former MoCo planning official Rollin Stanley.

Ellsworth also hosts a number of major events, from the Montgomery County Thanksgiving Parade, to the annual Silver Spring Jazz Festival and Blues Festival, the Zombie Walk, a weekly farmers’ market, and this summer, several Black Lives Matter protests. No surprise that the big-D Downtown Silver Spring complex (not to be confused with the wider downtown Silver Spring area) that lines Ellsworth Drive was first marketed as a “good old fashioned sensory overload.”

And until March, it was completely car-free, making Ellsworth one of the few exceptions to a long history of failed pedestrian malls. Developer Peterson Companies, which manages the street, wants to keep it that way, and has big renovation plans in mind. In order to make them happen, This fall, the Montgomery County Council will decide whether to give Peterson more control over Ellsworth Drive.

What Peterson wants to do

Ellsworth was rebuilt in 2004 as part of the massive Downtown Silver Spring redevelopment project, and has been a pedestrian street (with some exceptions) ever since. To do that, Montgomery County “abandoned” the street, basically saying that it was no longer needed for through traffic. Montgomery County owns the land beneath the street and legally considers it a public space, but leases it to Peterson Companies, which runs Downtown Silver Spring. Peterson manages and maintains the street except for a bit at the eastern end, close to Fenton Street, which Montgomery County still controls.

The yellow area is what Peterson Companies already controls, the red area is what they're asking Montgomery County to abandon. Image by Montgomery County Planning Department.

Today, Ellsworth has sidewalks running along the sides and asphalt down the middle, except for a big plaza in the middle of the block where the curbs go away and there’s a popular splash pad. Last fall, Peterson and builder Foulger-Pratt revealed their plans to renovate Downtown Silver Spring, including a big overhaul of Ellsworth Drive. The first phase was a new paint job, and several murals by DC creative agency No Kings Collective.

“The nature of retail is changing. It’s much more focused on experience,” Bryant Foulger of Foulger-Pratt said at a community presentation about the project last fall. “We’re also focused on physical plant. Things are wearing out…so we’re thinking about ways to refresh it.”

Ellsworth Drive could get covered in artificial turf. Image by Foulger-Pratt used with permission.

Next up: removing the splash pad replacing it with a more traditional fountain and a large, movable performance stage. The developers also plan to permanently close Ellsworth Drive to cars, by covering the center portion in plastic turf. They envision placing outdoor seating on the turf, along with “family-friendly gathering spaces” and games, like cornhole and ping-pong.

In order to do that, however, Peterson and Foulger-Pratt need Montgomery County to “abandon” the eastern end of Ellsworth Drive, closer to Fenton Street. Over the next two weeks, the County Council will take public comments on whether this should happen. So far, the public is not super excited about it.

People are mad

There are several camps of people who are upset with the plans for Ellsworth Drive. In letters to the Planning Board, which approved the abandonment over the summer, residents raised a variety of concerns. Some parents are upset that the splash pad is going away, as it’s a popular place for kids to play. Bicyclists are upset about losing a popular and car-free bike route through the heart of downtown.

Many of the concerns revolve around the turf itself, even as downtown Silver Spring had a big, and popular artificial turf plaza from 2005 to 2008. Some worry that putting turf on Ellsworth will impede events that happen in the space, like the weekly farmers’ market.

Others argue that the turf won’t be accessible for people living with disabilities or using mobility devices like canes or wheelchairs. The Maryland Sierra Club and other environmental activists say synthetic turf is toxic, will increase stormwater runoff, will contribute to the heat island effect, and requires significant resources to clean and replace every few years.

The ACLU of Montgomery County is circulating a petition, with over 350 signatures, arguing that putting turf on Ellsworth Drive kicks out skateboarders, who have been skating on Ellsworth Drive since the 1990s, and have been pushed out of other spaces in Silver Spring. Many skaters in Silver Spring are Black and brown youth, and skaters are often policed more than young people of other backgrounds or doing other activities.

Peterson has tried to address these concerns with an FAQ on their website, which claims that they’ll use “eco-friendly turf” that will still accommodate events and bicyclists. They also have an email and social media ad campaign urging people to write the County Council and “Save Downtown Silver Spring.” Yet they’d never asked community members if they wanted any of these changes to such a significant public venue in the first place.

A rough relationship with the community

Since Downtown Silver Spring opened, Peterson has had a strained relationship with the community. In 2007, one of the developer’s security guards threatened to have photographer Chip Py arrested for taking photos on Ellsworth Drive. Peterson staff told him that the street was a private space, and they banned photography because they didn’t want people to write bad things about the development, or for stores’ competitors to photograph and steal ideas from their displays. The ensuing controversy led to a Fourth of July march on Ellsworth where marchers took photos of the street.

While Peterson eventually changed their policy - and Montgomery County promised that the street was a public space and that people had the right to free speech there - they have still tried to exert control on who, and what, can happen in the space. A year after Chip Py’s march, he was accosted again for handing out campaign literature. In 2011, Peterson and a number of Silver Spring business leaders unsuccessfully pushed a teen curfew following a fight after a concert in Downtown Silver Spring. In 2019, Peterson security kicked a 7-year-old girl out of the splash pad for wearing swim trunks instead of a one-piece swimsuit.

Ellsworth Drive today. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Peterson has allowed drivers to park on the street, sometimes for hours at a time. Photo by the author.

More recently, the developer unilaterally reopened Ellsworth Drive to car traffic for the first time in a decade after the COVID-19 pandemic started, to allow curbside pickup for restaurants on that block. For the past six months, the street has become a de facto parking lot. Despite a 10-minute parking restriction, drivers will simply leave their cars there for hours to avoid paying for parking in nearby parking garages, where there are thousands of empty spaces available.

A group of residents including Alison Gillespie, Pete Tan, and myself reached out to restaurants on Ellsworth who say say that the only outreach they had was a survey asking if they wanted curbside pickup. As streets in other parts of Montgomery County have closed to allow restaurants to have outdoor dining, like Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, residents and businesses have asked for the same on Ellsworth. County councilmembers Evan Glass and Tom Hucker say they support outdoor dining with some space for curbside pickup, but Peterson has refused to consider reopening the street to people.

What happens next

In many ways, the fight over Ellsworth Drive reflects a broader tension in Silver Spring and other urbanizing places: who is public space for? Over the past 16 years, people in Silver Spring and surrounding communities have made Ellsworth their own, creating a spontaneous, messy, and energetic space, frequently in ways it wasn’t intended for. By any measure, that’s what a successful public space looks like.

Not only that, but the success of Ellsworth as a community destination has enriched the businesses along it, as well as Peterson and Foulger-Pratt. That’s one big difference between Downtown Silver Spring and some of Peterson’s more suburban developments, like Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg or National Harbor. Ellsworth isn’t just a driveway or a hallway in a shopping mall, yet the companies Montgomery County has trusted it with seem to treat it like one. Ellsworth is a public place, and with it come expectations about the public’s ability to shape and influence how it works.

As the county considers whether to give Peterson more control over this space, community members are asking whether they’ve earned that privilege.

If you’d like to weigh in on the future of Ellsworth Drive, and whether Montgomery County should abandon the rest of it, you can write to the County Council, using the contact information on their website. Make sure to say you’re commenting on item AB 771, Abandonment of Ellsworth Drive.

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