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Green Means Go
Silver Spring's Synthetic Lawn Is a Sweet Success

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2005

First-time visitors always reach down to examine the grass.

Wait a minute. It doesn't feel like grass. It feels like "grass."

It doesn't smell like grass. It has no smell.

There must be some mistake here in the heart of suddenly and surprisingly hot and happening downtown Silver Spring. Can it be that county planning geniuses have decided to cover nearly an acre of real estate with . . . AstroTurf?

No. Certainly not.

It is not AstroTurf -- it is SoftLawn.

Not just any SoftLawn. It's "fescue"-grade SoftLawn, made of polypropylene, supplied by Synthetic Turf International of Jupiter, Fla.

It creates a plastic village green, Silver Spring's artificial answer to Boston Common, and it will be with us for about a year at the corner of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive, across the intersection from City Place mall.

But here's the weird part: As an oasis in the city, as a place to walk barefoot in the park, it -- um, how to put this? -- well, to be perfectly frank: It works.

This is hard to admit. On close inspection, the surface has the tactile properties of one of those Teflon-safe dishwashing scrubbies. The "blades" of "grass" are short and tightly packed, like the brush cut of a poodle.

It's hard to admit that this fake grass might be kind of okay, because the world has enough fake things in it. Synthetic turf is the epitome of the ersatz and the tacky. It is the all-weather solution of last resort for hopeless front stoops and athletic fields that have lost touch with their roots.

But visit this inorganic field of dreams on a recent afternoon and look around. Barefoot lovers are stretched out kissing. Frisbees and footballs are flying. Mexican takeout is steaming on picnic blankets. Teenagers practice cigarette insouciance in laconic cross-legged circles, while toddlers scamper like liberated crazy people.

Build it of polypropylene, and still they will come.

The first time people see it -- while checking out the surrounding stores, theaters and restaurants of the revitalized Silver Spring -- they do a double take. The green of this urban green space is so green. So perfect, like the 18th hole of a country club you can't afford.

"It's like something out of a David Lynch movie," says Matt Shortridge of Takoma Park.

He is sitting on the green, eating ice cream with his wife, Kathy O'Rourke.

"It bums me out that it's okay that it's fake," she says.

"Maybe this is what miniature golf courses look like before they put the holes in," he says. Their son, Truman, 4, has left his ice cream half-eaten to take off across the green with a look of pure joy.

"You look out here and you want to be in the middle of it," O'Rourke says.

Nearby, Michael Shereikis, guitarist with the local Afrofunk band Chopteeth, sits and watches his 7-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter run around.

"They walked past here and said let's check out that field," Shereikis says. "If it's professional sports, I'm totally against AstroTurf. But for some reason, this is working."

This peculiar brainstorm was born over the summer in the mind of Don Scheuerman, a senior engineer with the Montgomery County Department of Public Works and Transportation. He was faced with a problem and a set of requirements, and he arrived at a logical solution.

The county was demolishing a parking garage on the site. Public events were scheduled for late summer and fall, including the Silver Spring Jazz Festival. The county wanted to create a public space quickly. Any surface would be temporary, slated to be torn up next fall to make way for a pavilion and ice-skating rink, if funding is approved.

Scheuerman considered and discarded grass seed (it wouldn't take in the drought), real grass turf (ditto), asphalt or gravel (unappealing). Fake grass seemed to meet all the requirements at a comparatively reasonable price -- $96,000.

Scheuerman's colleagues were appalled. Synthetic turf is the antithesis of Montgomery County's image of itself.

"I was very hostile to putting in turf," says Susan Hoffmann, marketing and special events manager for Silver Spring. "I thought it would look terrible, feel awful, be very uncomfortable."

The first day, in late August, she kicked off her shoes and walked barefoot as a test. The lawn felt fine, "soft" even. In coming days she noticed crowds showing up spontaneously to use the park. She and other officials began to appreciate the genius of Scheuerman's folly.

Why does fake grass work in this case? Many park users say they like real grass, but the real parks near their houses feel isolated -- far from the action and social connection of downtown.

Others say they can enjoy the plastic pasture only in the knowledge that it's a transitional phase before the planned ice rink.

Then some say real grass has its drawbacks. Ants. Grass stains. Some opine that toddlers -- for whom real and fake are tedious distinctions -- can frolic more easily on the ruglike surface.

Adding to its magnetic invitation, the green is subtly sloped and contoured. A perfectly flat ground would have felt too much like the floor of a basement.

One problem: The cigarette butts pile up. Maintenance workers -- who groom this lawn with giant vacuum cleaners -- need to get out there more often.

"If we want grass, we can stay over at Walter Reed; it's beautiful over there," says Army National Guard Lt. Frank Washburn, who lost part of his left foot in northern Iraq and is recuperating in the military hospital.

This evening he's sharing an ice cream with his girlfriend, Casey McCraith. They have their shoes off. They just ate dinner at Ruby Tuesday's. The plastic park is one of their favorite places to end an evening, surveying the downtown bustle on the other three corners of the intersection. "Sometimes it's nice to watch the commercial [activity] and not be in it," Washburn says.

Students from the Perpetual Motion Suzuki Strings, a music school, begin an impromptu concert. They collect $240 for Hurricane Katrina relief in a violin case.

Some kids kick a soccer ball. Two girls practice cheerleading moves. A family plays tag. A little boy is pushing a little girl who's sitting on his skateboard. McCraith gets a kiss from Washburn.

Old-fashioned street lamps come on, a sliver of new moon rises over Ellsworth.

Crystal Gomes trots after her daughter, Kennedy, 2, who is making a beeline into the green yonder. "This has just been an instant success," Gomes says.

Next fall, when it's time to peel off the "grass," county officials are hoping to recycle it on other vacant lots -- unless the plastic park turns out to be so beloved that protesters march with signs demanding: "Save our SoftLawn!"

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