Planners Challenged On Design of Own Offices
Thursday, August 30, 2007
What happens when government planners are in charge of an $80 million project for their own use?
Neighbors of the future site of Silver Place, a project that includes new headquarters for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's Montgomery County staff as well as residential towers and shops in Silver Spring, say it may end up giving the community the short end of the stick. They say the potential conflict of interest is enough to merit a community advisory group to review a project in which the client is also the regulatory agency in charge.
"With that much self-interest, if there were ever a time to include other people in the design and development, this would be the time," said Katherine Anderson, treasurer of the Woodside Station Homeowners Association.
Residents who live in the neighborhoods across the street from the agency's existing headquarters at 8787 Georgia Ave., which will be the site of the mixed-use project, oppose the proposed design because they say the site is too dense and the buildings are too tall in comparison to the homes around it.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) agreed with the need for community input "above and beyond the normal review process" in a June 6 letter to the Woodside Station and Woodside Park homeowners associations. Now county planning officials are exploring the possibility of creating an advisory group of residents and development experts.
"Our first response was no, because we're going to include everybody in the community through public meetings, through a Web site and through mailings," said Mike Riley, project manager. As a result of the feedback, planners now think a group that includes neighbors and proponents of environmentally friendly development is a good idea, he said.
A preliminary proposal for the development of the 3.2-acre site include a new headquarters, 358 condominiums and apartments, 47,000 square feet of retail space and hundreds of parking spots. But these are extremely early plans, presented during the bidding process for choosing a developer, Riley said. The design stage won't begin until a contract is negotiated with the developer, SilverPlace LLC. Once the contract is completed, the planning staff will request about $9 million from the County Council to start the designs.
"The original proposal was so explicit because it was a competition," Riley said. "You could see exactly what this development would look like from all the angles. That level of detail gave people the impression that they had missed the opportunity to influence the design.
"The response I heard from several people is that the train has left the station," he added. "When my response was no, it hasn't, I think that's hard for people to believe, but it will change and it will evolve before final approvals are given."
Planners began seriously studying the possibility of a new headquarters in 2003, to replace a building from the 1950s that is too small to hold all of the staff. The new building would provide enough additional room to bring in the parks staff and some planning staff members who work in other locations.
While there are no firm plans for the project, which planners hope will become a model for mixed-use developments in the county, there are some overall goals. They include having retail shops and designating 30 percent of the housing as affordable units. As the project moves forward, community members will have plenty of opportunities to offer feedback, planners said.
The neighbors would like their say sooner rather than later. Though they support the idea of a mixed-use project, residents would like the buildings to be set back farther from the street and want those closest to the neighborhoods to be only three stories so they blend in with the homes. They're also concerned about the increased traffic the project would generate.
"This is really a transitional space between residential and downtown Silver Spring, and it seems logical that you would make that transition gradually," said Katherine Anderson.
Though they have felt left out so far, the neighbors welcome a more organized opportunity to argue their points.
"We're not unrealistic," said Anderson's husband, Joe, spokesman for the Woodside Station Homeowners Association. "We're willing to compromise, but we want an opportunity to compromise."