After years of cost overruns, construction problems and a still-unresolved lawsuit, the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center in Silver Spring soon will celebrate its first birthday. Now it’s time to figure out what should happen to the space around it.
The transit center, at Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue, brings together the Red Line, MARC commuter rail, Metrobus, Ride On buses, MTA commuter buses and intercity buses, as well as several major bike trails. The original plan was to surround the transit center with offices, hotels and apartments, all with ground-floor shops and restaurants.
But that vision has remained just that because Montgomery County discovered serious structural defects in the transit center, and its builder, Foulger-Pratt, was slated to develop the land around it. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), in his attempt to cut costs on the Purple Line, which will have a stop at the transit center, moved it away from the Red Line platform and onto the empty land, meaning that there’s less space left to build on.
Today, the 60,000 riders who use the transit center each day arrive in a grassy field. What should be Silver Spring’s front door is instead a blank canvas. The rest of downtown Silver Spring is a long, uphill walk from the transit center, and anyone new to the area would be surprised to hear that just beyond it are awesome shops, restaurants, music venues and theaters.
Great transit hubs aren’t just places to wait for a train or bus; they’re anchors for entire communities. Riders stepping out of these stations should emerge onto a lively, buzzing city street, as they do in Columbia Heights. Silver Spring should be no different.
How can we make this happen? Montgomery County owns the land, and county officials will lead the design and planning process for it. Their highest priority should be to ensure that the walk from the transit center to the core of downtown is as enjoyable and engaging as it can be.
To start, the three streets around the transit center — Colesville Road, Wayne Avenue and Ramsey Avenue — need a lot of activity. That means creating buildings with ground floors with shops, restaurants with outdoor seating and cultural amenities such as art galleries and performance spaces.
People passing through should walk down sidewalks with trees and landscaping, benches and outdoor dining tables, and big shop windows with things to look at. Anything that would interrupt this experience — blank walls, loading docks or parking entrances — should be tucked in back if possible. This would not only make the walk more pleasant but also help calm traffic on some of downtown’s busiest streets. Replicate 14th Street NW in the District, which has so much going on for long stretches at a time that you could walk for miles and not even realize it.
Above street level should be the uses that would help populate all of those restaurants and shops on the street level. Offices would bring workers to support these businesses during the morning and afternoon, while apartments and hotel rooms would bring residents and visitors at night. Creating this critical mass of activity would help knit together the different parts of downtown Silver Spring, from the theaters along Colesville Road to the new residential buildings on Ripley Street.
Some county officials, including council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), suggested a few years ago turning the land around the transit center into a park. However, the backs of the transit center and surrounding buildings as well as adjacent busy roads make a less-than-ideal backdrop for outdoor relaxation. This is one of the most valuable development sites in Montgomery County, and building up around the transit center would allow us to benefit from the massive public investment we’ve already made there.
My neighbors and I are happy that the Silver Spring Transit Center is open, safe and helping everyone get around. Now it’s time to make this the true, beating heart of downtown Silver Spring, cementing its role as a regional gathering place.
The writer, an urban planner, blogs at Just Up the Pike, which focuses on Montgomery County.