An article in the Metro section Wednesday and a column in the Style section Saurday suggested that only one member of the Montgomery County Council favored limiting the ceiling on new jobs in Silver Spring to 8,500. Three members of the seven-person council did so. (Published 11/3/87)
In 1983, when I started writing columns about downtown Silver Spring, the phalanx of the future was just beginning to form, its lead element being an aggressively banal new office building on Wayne Avenue. There was some time, I figured, to save the heart of Silver Spring and to get these building blocks in better order, but not much.
Now it may be a matter of a few days. The Montgomery County Council, seriously split on the issue, will adopt a growth policy for central Silver Spring on Tuesday. The vote will concern the number of new jobs to be created there. One has to be mildly encouraged by preliminary signals -- all seven council members have rejected County Executive Sidney Kramer's outlandishly permissive number of 13,500; three supported a figure of 11,500, three others favored 9,500, and one brave soul held out for 8,500.
This job-counting is the crudest sort of planning tool, but at least, if the lower numbers hold, it should discourage the wholesale dismemberment of the old Silver Spring and will enable the council and planners finally to get on with the long-postponed real business of deciding what should happen there.
In this task they could do a lot worse than listen to the advice of Prof. Dorn McGrath and six graduate planning students at George Washington University, who took on the complicated issues of Silver Spring planning as a course this fall and who, at a press conference last week, made a simple recommendation: The government should buy up land right in the middle of the town and build a park on it.
This proposal, astounding only in the context of a seriously devaluated planning process as regards Silver Spring, would have the obvious merit of preventing the construction of a regional shopping mall there, for the land this little team sees as a park -- a triangle bordered by Georgia Avenue, Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue -- is controlled by a developer who would do just that.
It is not an architectural issue, although one could hardly look forward to the esthetic results of so behemoth a project given the record of this developer, Lloyd Moore, who financed the construction of the above-mentioned building on Wayne Avenue and, since then, two others of equally striking banality. It is not mainly a traffic issue, though that is an obvious concern, nor even primarily a preservation issue, although Moore's proposed mall would spell the end of the streamlined 1940s center of the town. Nor is it an either-or issue of growth versus no growth -- central Silver Spring, perched on Washington's edge, served by Metrorail and bisected by major thoroughfares, is growing and will continue to grow.
Marj Press, one of the GW students, put it simply and succinctly when she explained, "We all feel people are important and a place for them to go is important." The key word is "place," and it is the answer to all of the key questions concerning Silver Spring, which are: What is this fast-changing suburban center changing into? What is the nature of its transformation? How does one determine what should be done, and how much can one do to make sure what should happen does happen?
In this process of transformation Silver Spring has a distinct advantage over other nearby suburbs. There already exists a there there, a definitive sense of place resulting from its development, in the 1940s and 1950s, as a vital, architecturally expressive suburban commercial center with a Main Street scale.
Admittedly, much of its economic life, and consequently its charm and effectiveness as a cohesive, good-feeling place, has been siphoned off in the past quarter century by newer, bigger commercial facilities farther away from Washington. Despite all the new construction in recent years, Silver Spring's low-rise center still has a ragtag look. (This was edged along a bit two years ago by a property owner who ordered the removal of the terrific Silver Theater sign -- everybody's favorite symbol of Silver Spring's best years -- and the destruction of some handsome Vitralite panels.)
But there's glory under the grit. Compared with, say, Rockville, which plowed under much of its old, appealing personality to replace it with a numbing no-place mall (which today is being rebuilt at great cost), Silver Spring is sitting pretty. The very survival of this ensemble of buildings is a critical clue to what can and should occur in Silver Spring, for it presents a seemingly heaven-sent opportunity to work with the past to create a future one can look forward to with a certain prideful anticipation.
Which is where the park idea comes in handy. It's a wholesome idea in itself. The need for green space in Silver Spring is clear and becomes more pressing with each new building. But the real genius of the idea lies in the proposed location -- the triangle is situated directly between the Metro station and the old downtown center. Given that the old center, in whatever form, ultimately will become the new center, this open space, while adding dignity to the surrounding buildings, would strengthen immeasurably the visual and psychological connections. It would strengthen, in short, Silver Spring's identity and sense of its unique self, its sense of place.
It also is a flexible notion -- it can be developed and refined. Maybe half a loaf would be as good as the whole; maybe the space would have to be more than a passive park -- maybe it should include open-air restaurants, or a few low buildings (such as a spruced-up Tastee Diner), or an important symbolic monument, or a larger-scale public facility (a performing arts center?). What the proposal really does, if only the county can pick up on it (Silver Spring unfortunately has no government of its own), is to signal the possibility of a bold rebirth of the public imagination in Silver Spring.
County planners have been discussing such ideas for years, but one gets the feeling that they've been ignored for so long they've lost site of a grander goal in the rush of business as usual -- a tiny plaza here, a couple of benches there, little amenities for the city in return for great increases in density, and profitability for developers. With the more attentive audience that could result from a lower-growth decision by the County Council next Tuesday, perhaps the planners can be stimulated to step forward again with broadly imaginative ideas. Obviously the need exists.
For instance, there's the oft-overlooked linkage between architecture and preservation -- a key question for the image of the new Silver Spring that has been addressed with some success there only once (in the new Lee Plaza building), despite the millions of dollars and thousands of design hours spent. Clearly, a preservation policy is needed, and just as important is a set of design guidelines based largely upon yesterday's proven successes.
Or there is the difficult question of what to do about those amazingly pedestrian-hostile boulevards in Silver Spring's center. Perhaps some sort of bridge is needed -- Moore's proposed mall would bridge Georgia Avenue with a three-story structure -- and, if so, why not strain human ingenuity to make a beautiful bridge, one that old people as well as conditioned athletes can use with ease? Or perhaps Colesville Road should be buried (as the McGrath team dares to suggest) along the lines of Connecticut Avenue at Dupont Circle.
And what about that ugly and unsatisfactory bus depot that borders the Metro station -- surely that can be redesigned to better accommodate bus riders as well as the rest of us. It could become (again as the McGrath team suggests) the starting and ending point of a parade of commodious public spaces from the station to the town center.
It's a long list, but exciting. Even at this late stage Silver Spring could become something of a laboratory and a model of ways to save a place and transform it at the same time.