Town Square With Ice Rink to Replace Artificial Turf

By Mariana Minaya
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Montgomery County Planning Board approved plans Thursday to replace the surprisingly popular artificial turf in the heart of downtown Silver Spring with a town square that would include a civic building, veterans memorial and ice skating rink.

The unanimous decision followed almost four hours of testimony from divided residents, some of whom support the proposed development and others who want more green space on the site -- with some pushing to continue the plastic variety.

"When you're looking at a finished civic center, the question is, do you want to have artificial plants?" said Royce Hanson, chairman of the Planning Board, who ultimately listened to architects' concerns that grass or artificial turf would be less resistant to heavy foot traffic than a paved plaza.

The 35,000-square-foot turf has covered the site of a former parking garage at Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive since it was torn down two years ago. The turf has become a hangout spot regularly visited by teenagers kicking around a Hacky Sack or young families picnicking.

In its place will rise a $22 million development with a smorgasbord of entertainment offerings. A paved plaza will be furnished with movable tables and chairs, and an ice rink, covered by a pavilion, will operate 4 1/2 months of the year. The rest of the time, the space will be left open or used for events such as farmers markets and concerts.

"I see this as offering tremendous flexibility because of the convertible nature of the space under that pavilion," Laura Steinberg of Takoma Park, who supported the project's design, said in an interview yesterday.

Yet the turf's success can be attributed to its simplicity and versatility, some residents said. It is soft enough for sitting or lying down under the open sky, and large enough to be used by soccer players, couples and people-watchers at the same time.

"Overly programmed space fails," Silver Spring resident James Karn told the board. The proposed development "will result in less usage on a day-to-day basis," he said.

Construction is likely to begin in the fall and will take about 16 months to complete, said Gary Stith, director of the county's Silver Spring Regional Center.

"I'm just glad we're going to be able to move forward, because this project has been in the works for a long time," Stith said.

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