Pressure Mounts Toward New Housing In Silver Spring
In the many face-offs between historic preservationists and smart growth advocates that have been popping up around the region, the preservationists tend to have the upper hand--politicians and planners live in fear of being accused of bulldozing the gems of the past.
But in the controversial debate over whether to replace a 1930s garden-apartment complex next door to the Metro tracks and one block from downtown Silver Spring with 1,000 units of new housing, including nearly 300 moderately priced apartments, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett is taking a stand for the density that could complete Silver Spring's transformation into a lively center.
Leggett last week endorsed Home Properties' plan to take down the northern parcel of the Falkland Chase apartment complex and replace it with a mid-rise development that would provide 926 units of market-rate rentals and 233 units of affordable housing within 800 feet of Silver Spring's forthcoming transit center.
Leggett sent county housing director Rick Nelson to the planning board to deliver his endorsement, noting that if the county doesn't give the developers the green light, some of the existing Falkland apartments might have to be demolished anyway as part of the planned construction of the Purple Line transit route.
Leggett says the developer's offer to support historic designation for the southern portion of the Falkland complex--the portion south of East-West Highway--offers a reasonable balance between preservation and smart growth. Preservationists testifying before the board, however, insisted that only by retaining the entire apartment complex can the architect's original vision be honored.
Take a ride over to Falkland yourself and see if you think this is a unitary vision. What you'll find is three garden apartment complexes, divided by East-West and by 16th Street, both of which are highway-width thoroughfares. Perhaps there was once a sense of community that linked the three parts of Falkland Chase, but if so, that was decades ago, before the roads dividing the parcels of the development morphed into major commuter routes.
Earlier this month, county planners endorsed the idea of splitting up Falkland, preserving the southern parcels and letting developers tear down the northern piece. Last December, the planning board voted 4-1 to find the entire Falkland complex eligible for historic preservation.
But now planners say that "replacing the buildings on the north parcel with a new development at considerably higher densities can achieve a higher public objective than would preservation." That's a big shift, and a clear statement that Montgomery's goal of creating a livable, walkable downtown Silver Spring trumps nostalgic efforts to cling to the outdated, car-oriented scale of the past.
The county's preservation office still contends that the entire Falkland complex ought to be protected from demolition, but the planners say that providing extra housing, making a significant portion of the units affordable, and adding all this density smack where it ought to be, in the center of Silver Spring, is exactly why the downtown was redeveloped and exactly why the taxpayers paid for Metro.
The planning board is expected to vote on the question in the early fall, and the ultimate decision will be made by the county council. But for now, Leggett's support for the project is a big boost toward making certain that the public's investment in Silver Spring will eventually pay off not only in a strong business district, but in the form of a community where far more people can live, work, commute and play.
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