The Blairs today. Photo by the author.

Downtown Silver Spring could get a big new park in an unlikely place: the parking lot of the Blair Shops, a 1960’s-era strip mall across from the Silver Spring Metro station.

According to a tweet from Evan Glass, chair of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, the Blair Apartments at East-West Highway and Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring will get a new urban park as part of a future redevelopment project.

The announcement came at a meeting of the advisory board’s Tree and Neighborhoods committees, where staff from Montgomery Parks and the Montgomery County Planning Department led a conversation about open space in the area.

The Blairs were built in the early 1960’s on the former site of Falkland, the mansion of Montgomery Blair, postmaster general under President Abraham Lincoln. A series of additions and renovations by owner Tower Companies followed in the early 2000’s. Today, the 27-acre complex contains over 1400 apartments in 10 buildings, the Blair Shops, a 100,000 square foot strip mall, and a 67,000 square-foot office building.

A few years ago, county planners did a study of potential sites for new, large parks in the area, identifying the Blairs as a possibility. Their drawings of the site show how the site could be redeveloped, with a park measuring several acres in place of the Blair Shops parking lot and high-rise apartments above the shopping center. A street grid would connect the site to the surrounding area, while structured parking garages would make up for the lost parking lot.

Giant Food Parking Lot - Aerial

Giant Food Parking Lot - Potential

Top: Rendering of a potential park at the Blairs. Bottom: Rendering of how the Blairs could be redeveloped. Images from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

While there are currently no firm details about how and when the Blairs will be redeveloped, the Tower Companies’ website suggests that they eventually plan to have 2800 apartments and 450,000 square feet of total development, nearly double the amount of space there today. It’s also unclear whether the park will be publicly or privately owned, though ideally it would be owned by the county. Glass’s tweet says that public meetings on the project will be held early next year. Until then, the potential for a big new park in downtown Silver Spring is exciting. The availability of and access to open space has been a growing issue in the Downcounty in recent months, particularly with residents concerned about new development. A few blocks from the Blairs, a group of South Silver Spring residents upset that a proposed apartment building on Newell Street will block their views are lobbying to have that property turned into a park. Meanwhile, residents in Wheaton successfully persuaded the county to buy a former art school for parkland instead of letting townhouses be built there. Montgomery County will continue to grow, and new residents will need places to live, work and shop. They’ll also need parks for gathering, recreation and enjoying nature. However, we’ve seen how poorly-designed, poorly-located parks can be underused, dampen foot traffic and even hurt nearby shops and restaurants. We can’t let that happen again, and the best way to do that is to plan for new parks, not just put them wherever someone doesn’t want something built in their backyard. Building a park as part of redeveloping the Blairs means it can be designed as a part of the neighborhood as opposed to an afterthought or leftover space. And since the redevelopment will have to be reviewed and approved by the Planning Board, there will be many opportunities for community input as well. A well-designed urban park can be a great asset for residents and businesses alike. Hopefully, a new park at the Blairs will do that for downtown Silver Spring.