New Gansevoort plaza in New York. Photo by Streetsblog.

Two American cities recently gave streets back to the people, turning space once restricted to cars into plazas. Last weekend, New York turned Broadway around Times Square into pedestrian space, and last year transformed a chaotic intersection in the Meatpacking District into a successful public square. Just two weeks ago, San Francisco put out IKEA chairs and cardboard bollards to turn some underused asphalt into a temporary piazza. I’m still in shock looking at photos of people dancing and playing catch on what was once four lanes of downtown traffic. Why not do the same here?

New York’s and San Francisco’s projects received praise for creating open space in the crowded city. The intersection of Sligo, Chesapeake and Chicago Avenues in East Silver Spring could similarly use public space. East Silver Spring is a former “streetcar suburb” bordering Downtown Silver Spring. Sligo is the local “Main Street,” lined with apartment buildings, schools, and locally-owned businesses. This corner is a community gathering place; when school buses stop there, kids pour out into the street, stopping to chat or heading into Iva’s Beer and Wine for a snack.

The corner store at Sligo, Chesapeake and Chicago avenues in East Silver Spring. Photo by Dan Reed.

“This is where we went to scream after the Supreme Court said Bush won,” civic leader Karen Roper said in 2006. “It’s like our barbershop,” where everyone comes to meet.

Chicago and Chesapeake are both residential streets with considerably less traffic; in fact, Chesapeake is only a block long. The three streets meet in an awkward cross shape, and both Chicago and Chesapeake intersect with Sligo Avenue, barely thirty feet apart from each other. Two intersections mean more turning movements on and off of Sligo, holding up traffic. It also means two more places where cars and pedestrians conflict with each other. Worst of all, it’s a lot of asphalt that isn’t being fully utilized.

On his website Montgomery Sideways, pedestrian advocate William Smith has posted a plan he’s working on with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation and East Silver Spring community to make Sligo Avenue safer for walkers. The Sligo/Chesapeake/Chicago intersection is one of the spots his Sligo Avenue Accessibility Project studies. There, he proposes curb bump-outs, wider sidewalks and a pedestrian refuge island in the middle of Sligo Avenue.

William Smith’s proposal for pedestrian improvements at the Sligo/Chesapeake/Chicago intersection.

My proposal for a plaza on the currently underused portion of Chesapeake Avenue between Sligo and Chicago. View larger map.

If we want to make the intersection more pedestrian-friendly and take advantage of its local significance, we could make part of it into a plaza. We could close the fifty feet of Chesapeake Avenue between Sligo and Chicago to vehicles. Cars coming from Chesapeake would have to turn right at Chicago before turning onto Sligo. There would be one fewer intersection and one fewer street for pedestrians to cross.

In the new plaza, tables and chairs could provide places for people to sit, eat and mingle. Planters and bollards could be used to define the space and make it clear that cars do not belong here. The market’s parking is on the street and in a lot on Chicago Avenue, so they wouldn’t lose any vehicular access to the project. But they do have a new amenity - public open space, a rarity in a neighborhood of apartment buildings and homes with private yards.

The best part about this proposal is that we could try it out easily and temporarily. Like New York’s and San Francisco’s, it’d be an opportunity to see how well these spaces work and how they could be better. San Francisco created the 17th Street Plaza by painting the asphalt yellow; New York closed parts of Times Square with a few well-placed Jersey barriers. It’s not pretty, but it’s a quick and dirty way to create and “troubleshoot” a public space.

Silver Spring is, after all, the place that laid out 35,000 square feet of plastic grass four years ago and turned it into a people-watching paradise. If we could do that, it’s worthwhile to look at other simple ways to improve and expand the pedestrian realm.