Last night, East Silver Spring landowner Ulysses Glee discussed his plans for a mixed-use complex he’d like to build on the parking lot at Fenton Street and Silver Spring Avenue in East Silver Spring.
Eric from Thayer Avenue live-tweeted the proceedings at the East Silver Spring Civic Association’s monthly meeting. Those who don’t live in East Silver Spring may know the lot as the site of Fenton Street Market, intended keep the seat warm until ground is broken later this spring.
Glee has talked about building on this site for a few years now. His latest proposal is renamed Silver Spring Park, after the surrounding neighborhood’s historical name. It looks pretty good on paper. Compared to the original plan, however, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Until last summer, the development was known as the Moda Vista, a condominium with retail on the first floor and a swanky modern façade the likes of which we haven’t seen much of in Silver Spring. Downtown has quite a few modern buildings, but very few good ones.
A 2007 rendering of the Moda Vista. Image courtesy of DC Metrocentric.
The Moda Vista promised to activate busy Fenton Street’s sidewalks with storefronts, while on Silver Spring Avenue, it stepped back to line up with the yards of adjacent houses and provide residents a little green space. It was a clever, versatile design, and one I looked forward to seeing.
Now, the program is much larger than before: fifty-eight apartments, seven of which would be subsidized by the County; 9,200 square feet of retail along Fenton Street; 22,000 square feet of office space; and a 110-room Fairfield Marriott hotel. This is a good thing, especially in a location just blocks from a major transit center, but it’s now more difficult to make everything work together and with the neighborhood context.
All we have is a cell-phone photo of a printed flyer from the meeting, but you can begin to see what the complex’s exterior will look like. There are now two buildings instead of one—the apartments are along Silver Spring Avenue, and the hotel on Fenton Street. It’ll create a more varied and interesting streetscape, but it’s also a thoughtful move for the adjacent single-family homes, which will be buffered from the busier street by the apartments, which in turn is buffered by the hotel.
Count the vertical lines on the building above, located at Georgia and Wayne avenues. You need visual interest for buildings on the street where people will walk past - and if there’s retail inside, you want them to walk as slowly as possible. Silver Spring Park’s hotel and retail building, meanwhile, is awkwardly proportioned. Urban buildings, even modern ones, look and work better with vertical windows, not horizontal or square ones. The hotel façade looks flat and unadorned - better seen from a car flying down the highway.
Around the corner on Silver Spring, the apartment building doesn’t meet the ground or the adjacent houses as well as the Moda Vista would have. Setting it back may no longer be feasible with a hotel sharing the property. But the ground floor should be elevated - not only because the building otherwise looks like it’s sinking into the ground, but because people walking by now get a full view of first-floor apartments.
This is the Montgomery Arms at Colesville and Fenton. Note how none of the apartments are directly at the sidewalk level - they’re either a half-story above or below. No one can look inside without bending down or climbing up. At Silver Spring Park, you only have to look at the houses next door to see how living rooms should meet the sidewalk: either set back or elevated, giving those inside privacy from prying eyes.
You might say knocking Silver Spring Park’s square windows is a little petty, but I can only criticize them because otherwise it’s a great project in a great location. In fact, this is a better proposal than much of what we’ve seen in Downtown Silver Spring over the past several years. But changes should be made to let this complex blend in better with the urban context. Not only will it be a better neighbor, but it’ll give those who sleep, work and shop inside a better experience.