Townhomes like this could be coming to Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

With fewer houses and a reconfigured layout, Chelsea Court, a proposed townhouse development less than a block from downtown Silver Spring, got the nod from Montgomery County’s hearing examiner, bringing it one step closer to reality. The County Council next has to approve the project, and they should.

Two years ago, Bethesda-based developer EYA bought  planned a development at the five-acre Chelsea School campus at Pershing Drive and Spring­vale Road after the school decided to move. Noting the site’s proximity to the Silver Spring Metro and demand for transit-accessible housing, EYA sought to have the site rezoned from R-60, which allows single-family homes, to RT-15, which allows townhouses.

The zoning change was approved by the county Planning Board, which pointed to the twelve-story Colesville Towers apartments across the street and said townhouses weren’t too dense for the neighborhood.

Then it went to the County Council, but they rejected the zoning change due to opposition from residents only want single-family homes in their neighborhood.

The County Council asked EYA to come back with a new proposal, and they did, which was just approved by the Hearing Examiner, Lynn Robeson, who basically serves as a judge for the county’s zoning code.

The examiner’s office released this 111-page report detailing how it came to this conclusion.

Chelsea Court Plan

Latest site plan, Chelsea Court

Top: The originally proposed site plan. Bottom: The new site plan.

The site will now be zoned RT-12.5, which still allows townhouses, but at a lower density. There will be only 64 townhouses, instead of 77 as EYA first proposed, while the number of county-mandated moderately-priced dwelling units will drop from 13 to 8 10. The houses will be placed further away from Springvale Road to appease residents of that street, while a private street for the new development has been moved. Because of these changes, half of the site is set aside as open space, including wider courtyards between townhouse rows and a larger park at the corner of Springvale Road and Pershing Drive. There’s also more open space around the historic Riggs-Thompson House, which was built by the founder of Riggs Bank was originally going to be saved in the first proposal. Neighbors continue to oppose townhouses Nonetheless, some neighbors weren’t satisfied. No fewer than 6 civic associations opposed the project, including the adjacent Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (SOECA), but also Lyttonsville and South Four Corners, both of which are several miles away from the site. Residents complained about the loss of large trees, while others questioned that EYA’s traffic studies showing no increase in nearby congestion. SOECA president Vicki Warren said there wasn’t enough open space around the Riggs-Thompson House, though historic preservation planner Judith Christensen said she could “live with” what was provided because the county’s Historic Preservation Commission would have a say in how it was used. Many complained that the project’s layout resembled military barracks, though the “alternative plan” submitted by Kenneth Doggett, SOECA’s “expert land planner,” looks much like EYA’s proposal, but with fewer houses.
Proposed site plan (Kenneth Doggett), Chelsea Court

Doggett’s proposal for the Chelsea Court site.

In response, EYA tried to show how Chelsea Court fit into the local context. Vice president Aakash Thakkar displayed a model of Clarendon Park, a project they built in Arlington with a similar layout, and noted how the end houses were designed to look like single-family homes, helping them blend into the neighborhood. Miguel Iraola, a planner at Hord Coplan Macht who’s designing the project, offered several precedents throughout Silver Spring, Wheaton and Bethesda that are similar in design or density to their proposal. Neighbors Maria Schmit and Tom Anderson claimed that they weren’t comparable to Chelsea Court, but Robeson agreed with Iraola’s conclusion. With the hearing examiner’s approval, the new Chelsea Court proposal will now go before the County Council once again, and I hope they approve it as well. EYA has worked hard to meet the neighborhood’s concerns, crafting a project that not only respects the site’s history but its current surroundings. They also have a good track record for creating quality infill projects, which many neighbors recognize. “Based on EYA’s National Park Seminary [in Forest Glen], I am convinced this new development will be attractive — just as attractive as our existing neighborhood and perhaps even more so,” wrote SOECA resident Leslie Downey in a letter to the Planning Board last year. Many Silver Spring residents say they want to support local businesses, are upset about traffic congestion, and are concerned about safety. Yet they are often the same ones who oppose projects like Chelsea Court, which would generate more customers, allow more people to walk, bike or use transit instead of driving, and provide more “eyes on the street.” We could do far worse than this. Chelsea Court has been fully vetted and dutifully revised, and now it’s time to get it built.