Sarbanes Transit Center under construction in Silver Spring. Photo by Dan Reed.

Silver Spring’s Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center will be completed by 2011, but creating a vibrant urban center depends on the planned development surrounding it.

The transit center will bring buses, commuter trains, Metro and the eventual Purple Line together for the first time in what’s already the second-largest transportation hub in Maryland. Around it, developer Foulger-Pratt (the same people who brought you Downtown Silver Spring) says they plan to build three towers containing 460,000 square feet of office space, a 469-unit apartment building, a 196-room hotel and 25,000 square feet of ground floor retail. That retail is about half the size of a Giant, or not very much given that around 97,000 people pass through that area each day. But since the recession’s put the kibosh on any ambitious redevelopment, this may not happen for a long, long time.

Silver Spring Transit Center Massing Model

Image courtesy of WMATA.

It doesn’t help that the pictures most people see of the transit center are like this one, with big, gray, blocky windowless buildings. Architects are familiar with these as “massing models,” placeholders for actual buildings that have yet to be designed. (Of course, anyone familiar with the Crescent on Wayne Avenue knows that massing models can be a little too close to real life.)

Silver Spring Transit Center - Inside

Inside the transit center. Image courtesy of WDG.

That’s why it’s comforting to see these (very small) renderings from D.C.-based WDG Architects, the firm charged with designing the buildings around the transit center. (Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership out of Portland is designing the transit center itself, images of which look quite promising.) WDG has a lot of experience with mixed-use and transit-oriented development in the area, from National Harbor to Rockville Town Square. In Downtown Silver Spring, they designed the Veridian apartments on East-West Highway.

Silver Spring Transit Center - Colesville Road

Looking into the site from Colesville Road. Image courtesy of WDG.

What they’ve proposed for the Transit Center looks inviting, attractive — most importantly, urban, with lots of windows and openings to the street and upper levels of the transit center that’ll get people out and walking around. You could argue that the buildings look kinda similar to everything else built in the D.C. area, but I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing so long as they contribute to a more vibrant street-level environment.

That being said, I don’t think the combined plans from WDG and ZGF are as inspiring as the original plan by Torti Gallas, in which the bus terminal and the buildings around it were incorporated into one beautiful complex that really celebrates transit, like a mini-Union Station for Silver Spring and Montgomery County. I’ve never been clear on why it was shelved. The offices of Torti Gallas are just a few blocks away at Georgia Avenue and Spring Street, so you know they designed something fully aware that they’d have to use it one day.

The “Hanging Gardens of Transit.” Image courtesy of Torti Gallas.

A plaza in the Sarbanes Transit Center. Image courtesy of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca.

But there is one thing I really like about the new transit center itself. There’s a little tower at the corner of Wayne and Colesville that in the image below looks like a blown up Metro pylon. At night, it’ll glow. It’s not quite the portals of Union Station, but it’ll be a nice beacon for people entering or leaving the station, as if to say, “Welcome home.”

Silver Spring Transit Center - Wayne at Colesville

The transit center complex from Wayne and Colesville. Image courtesy of WDG.

Crossposted at Just Up The Pike.