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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.

By Marc Fisher |  July 23, 2008; 8:25 AM ET
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Rare old and ugly buildings are still old and ugly buildings. Tear it down. You really trying to tell me that future architects are going to look at these dumps and say, "Yeah, that's the look I'm looking for."

Posted by: dgc | July 23, 2008 9:44 AM

The Falkland area is beautiful and walkable, NOT car-oriented! The apartments have large windows overlooking trees. The Falkland property provids vital green relief to the high-rises surrounding it. To make Silver Spring walkable, make the crosswalks safe and improve bus service. Marc, sounds like you just want to chop down the few remaining trees and dump more bricks and cement on our community. The 1950s strip malls now served by buses are the last best hope for redeveloment in MoCo. When they are redeveloped, it's over. MoCo will be utterly built out.

Posted by: WalkingUnderTrees | July 23, 2008 10:19 AM

This episode show why the entire Historic Preservation scheme needs to be revamped. It only takes a few NIMBY activists to hold up progress for an entire region and the only leverage they hold are these flimsy "historic" claims. Falkland Chase historic? GTFO! They have abused this system so much that its original intent is unrecognizable.

Posted by: Chris | July 23, 2008 10:21 AM

"Marc, sounds like you just want to chop down the few remaining trees and dump more bricks and cement on our community."

I don't think Marc tries to hide his support for urban-style density near Metro stations, while preserving the outer green spaces from sprawl-style development. That is the fundamental conundrum of modern urban/suburban development. Silver Spring will not be tree-deprived if this development goes through. If it does not, the likelihood of lower-density development destroying more green space is greater, in the long if not the short run.

I am not entirely sure how I stand on this particular development, but I do know we can not afford to preserve the outmoded devlopment plans of 50-60 years ago.

Posted by: mark not marc | July 23, 2008 10:40 AM

It has nothing to do with historic preservation it has to do with overbuilding and draining the county coffers. Enough of trashing Silver Spring, Leggett needs to go.

The question is one of overdevelopment of Silver Spring. It is already filled with condos build one year ago that now have lost 25% of their value.

additionally we do not need to build affordable housing as Montgomery county is awash in affordable housing.

No one needs any more of Ike Leggett's building schemes that benefit his friends and Ike.

Incidentially take a look at the buildings just up the street on east West.

who approved that density? who approved the height and width of the new apartment building?

Posted by: JohnAdams1 | July 23, 2008 10:58 AM

who approved that density? who approved the height and width of the new apartment building?

Posted by: JohnAdams1 | July 23, 2008 10:58 AM

Are you talking about Summit Hills? For an apartment complex within 1/2 a mile from downtown Silver Spring, a group of 4-story buildings with one 8-story high rise surrounded by parking doesn't seem particularly dense to me.

I think that people need to accept the fact that, suburb or no, that part of Silver Spring is going to become increasingly urban in character. Why not build the appropriate amount of housing to match demand for places near a transit hub? That seems like the best way to keep rents down and density up, which are the two goals that Legget and other leaders seem to be talking about.

Posted by: Matt in Silver Spring | July 23, 2008 11:16 AM

I have my own prejudice, having lived in Falkland years ago when I was first married. You didn't need a car - you could walk to any place in Silver Spring (this was course pre-Metro, pre-disappearance of the central business district). Times change and so do notions of what is practical. I work in downtown Silver Spring, which is becoming an impersonal canyon of shiny buildings and new condos with absolutely no character. Falkland stands as an oasis with its tidy brick buildings that tower over nothing. Trees - rather than tricky landscaping - surround the modest, unpretentious apartments where many young families in Montgomery County got there start. Also, are the surrounding condos/apartment buildings in such hot demand? What are the occupancy rates? Do we really believe a developer will build so-called "affordable housing" on such valuable property. Please. Don't plow down everything that was old Silver Spring. Leave the Falklands be.....

Posted by: Sandra Arnoult | July 23, 2008 11:21 AM

"Trees - rather than tricky landscaping"

I don't agree with you, but you totally lost me here. What constitutes "tricky" landscaping?

Posted by: Lindemann | July 23, 2008 11:33 AM

Thank God I never lived there. However, my friends who lived in the North-East parcel when they moved down from Boston were not as lucky. The apartments were dank, and even with the "large windows overlooking trees" it was never a bright, comfortable place to live.

Where did the 'condo' question come up. As far as can be read from the original plans, these will be rentals. EXACTLY what is needed to bring people to choose the Silver Spring area when they move here for a job in The District.

Posted by: Jeff | July 23, 2008 11:38 AM

Having worked with the Planning Board over 25 years ago, you'll have to realize Monkey County citizenry is made up of a mixed bag of nuts. For every project, the NIMBYs came out in full force. The land use attorneys fought for their projects. The planning commissioners had their own agenda. At that time the commission was made up of 3 women and 2 men. They wanted to 'decorate' the county by area -- Silver Spring is Art Deco. Kensington is Victorian. Potomac is McMansion City. Bethesda is Yuppieville, but get a load of that hub cab collection sculpture at the Metro. Every new office complex had to have a water feature and special landscaping to make it attractive. Every shopping center parking lot had to have X% of greenery.

The 'historic preservationists' wanted to keep the ugliest things for the sake of history. They even wanted to preserve an old country store covered with Coca Cola signs because 'that's where our children learned to make change.' Sheesh, give me a break. Then you get the complainers who buy a house near Suburban Hospital then complain about all those nasty noisy ambulances and Medevac helicopters. 'They disturb my daughter's naps.'

Get a grip people. Monkey County is supposed to have the highest percentage of college graduates, but you'd never know it by what goes on there.

Posted by: Not there anymore... | July 23, 2008 11:50 AM

"What you'll find is three garden apartment complexes, divided by East-West and by 16th Street, both of which are highway-width thoroughfares."

Actually six apartments are in the plan area. This is in the other article as well. The preserved part of Falkland will be the southern section below EW Hwy.

I just want to know when construction will start and how that will affect my walk to the metro on EW. I think it will add 3-5 minutes of wait time for crossing the street at 16th and then again at Colesville. The real annoyance there will be the rather narrow sidewalk on the south side of EW Hwy on the Falkland property. If they prohibit use of the north side sidewalk on EW then they should widen the walk on the southern side. There are commonly groups of 10+ walkers crossing at the 16th-EW light and the narrow sidewalk would be a horrible bottleneck.

Posted by: Terry (former TWOTD winner) | July 23, 2008 12:01 PM

I think they can build things that look nice. If the historic preservationists have their way, there won't be any trees left to protect. We can't keep ugly and inefficient buildings forever. We need to make more use of the few mass transit assets we have. Demand environmental construction. Build the next set of buildings so they can last 200 years.

Posted by: matt m | July 23, 2008 12:08 PM

Here we go again. Silver Spring is always the location for moderately priced units. Tell me why there are barely any in Potomac, Bethesda and Rockville? Thanks Leggett, builders and city council. Thanks for nothing!

Posted by: Silver Spring resident | July 23, 2008 12:14 PM

YESSS!! I LOVE YOU RAW FISHER! Thank you for writing this piece :D.

Posted by: bornnraised in the big ss | July 23, 2008 3:56 PM

I've been very concerned about the same issue that Terry raised - pedestrian access during the redevelopment process. Everyone talks about making Silver Spring more dense and pedestrian friendly - yet there are already hundreds of people who use the northern stretch of the east-west highway sidewalk on a daily basis.....are they going to shut that sidewalk down for years, like they've done for the other developments further east on E-W highway in SS? That would not be acceptable.

As Mark noted in his article, the area roads are all highway width thoroughfares.....and there's already enough bus/car/pedestrian issues without making the thousands of people who live in Summit Hills (and further west) have to make an extra highway crossing in order to get to the metro. (the idea is to make SS MORE pedestrian friendly, not to kill off all the existing pedestrians - right?)

Posted by: silver spring resident | July 23, 2008 4:53 PM

Thank you dgc for that first comment.

I love my big green spaces, don't get me wrong, but some of those buildings in FC just NEED to be torn down. My only concern will be whether or not the SS transit systems and roads can handle the volume of residents for another big building. There are a huge amount of condos and apartments being built by Newell St. and EW HWY right now. Is the new transit center really going to be able to handle the load?

Posted by: ss resident | July 23, 2008 5:28 PM

All of this so called Smart growth, the building of more high rises and increasing density is nothing but a Ponzi scheme.

The developers in cahoots woth the state and county, tear down existing neighborhoods, increase the population density thus increasing the tax base and revenue.

Meanwhile more density and roads will require more spending, more spending over time means increae spending- increase spending means more taxes or more people=
Where does it end??

Posted by: rfustero | July 23, 2008 5:39 PM

All this will be moot if something isn't done about the rowdiness of some people on the revitalized Ellsworth Drive strip. Because nobody will want to LIVE in SS. See local blogs such as Silver Spring Singular and Silver Spring Penguin -- or talk to the Ellsworth business owners I've been with in the past week. They are fed up with the behavior exhibited down there. The families who flocked to SS in recent years and are starting to look elsewhere for both entertainment and a place to live.

Posted by: Brent | July 23, 2008 5:45 PM

I've lived in/around downtown SS for 20 years, and I grew up playing with friends in Rosemary Hills, "the Falklands", and Summit Hills, back when none of you would ever walk through them at noon, much less midnight. SS has come a very long way since then. That said, it still hasn't reached critical mass in terms of young taxpaying-and-spending singles and families.

The vacancies in the condos up E-W, while relevant to the discussion, are a different situation, as (a) they were planned and approved long before the current market slowdown, and (b) as someone else said, they're condos, not apartments. If you haven't noticed, the rental market is actually much, much tighter now than it was even a year ago -- meaning that there's upward pressure on rents, and a need for affordable units.

While I think the historic preservation argument is only a couple yards shy of ludicrous, I would say that some attention needs to be paid to a plan for increasing the commercial/retail footprint.

In short, affordable housing is good, but have it be part of a larger plan, a la the College Park Gateway plan devised by PGC and UMd. Piecemealing rarely works, imho.

Posted by: jb | July 23, 2008 5:58 PM

You know what Marc? Take a drive down Arcola Ave one of these days and then tell me Leggett has safety as a priority. I won't tell you why, I want it to be a surprise. I will say that because of Arcola, Leggett has lost my vote, my husband's vote and my parents' (and we all voted for him last time. Boy do we feel stupid now).

Posted by: Wheaton | July 24, 2008 1:05 PM

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