Today, many people might think of Silver Spring as a pretty prosperous place, with a steady stream of restaurant openings, cranes everywhere, and busy sidewalks. But not that long ago, Silver Spring’s future was highly in doubt. These 1970s-era plans from Montgomery County show just how far we’ve come.
During the mid-20th century, Silver Spring emerged as one of the region’s first suburban downtowns. It’s home to one of the nation’s first strip malls, built in 1938. Hecht’s department store opened its first location outside of DC here in 1947, and other retailers like JCPenney soon followed.
It wouldn’t stay on top forever. The opening of Wheaton Plaza in 1959, the Capital Beltway in 1964, and new suburban developments further out attracted people who could afford to move away, leading to waves of white flight. By the 1970s, Silver Spring inside the Beltway was losing population, and much of downtown was boarded-up and vacant. Several local schools closed due to falling enrollment; by the late 1970s, MCPS was planning to close Montgomery Blair High School.
However, there were also positive signs. The area had a growing minority and immigrant population, who were opening businesses and restaurants that attracted people from across the Washington region. The Silver Spring Metro station opened in 1978, and anticipating the people it would bring, developers built offices, apartments, and hotels around it.
Meanwhile, the Montgomery County Planning Department was working on “master plans” for downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, in the hopes of keeping people from fleeing for the suburbs. Some of the ideas in these plans are things we’d do today, while others might seem really strange. And since some neighborhoods were doing better than others, the county’s approaches for them varied widely as well.
In downtown Silver Spring, planners envisioned elevated walkways everywhere
The first new plan was in 1975, for Silver Spring’s central business district. In some ways, it sounds like it could have been written about today’s downtown. “[Downtown] is, or should be, the expression of the community’s dynamic character and of individual civic pride,” says the plan, adding:
“The central business core of Silver Spring is, in the fullest sense of that term, one of the region’s “downtowns.” It is the market place for a large urban area encompassing portions of Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland and a large portion of the District of Columbia. It offers a range of shops and services which is among the largest and most diverse in the Washington area outside the center of Washington itself. It is today, and historically has been, a major core of human activity.”
But the plan also reflected 1970s views for how cities should work. Downtown would be divided into separate areas for each activity: office buildings clustered around the new Metro station and along Colesville Road, a shopping area east of Georgia Avenue (roughly where today’s Downtown Silver Spring complex is), and apartments west of the train tracks.
Elevated walkways, dubbed “pedestrianways,” would connect all of them, criss-crossing the streets below, which would effectively become pseudo-highways carrying drivers to other areas. Curb parking would disappear, drivers would only be able to turn at a handful of intersections, and “sidewalk buffers” (some kind of wall, I guess) would keep pedestrians out of traffic.
Planners also had a pretty limited view of who would live downtown. All three of the 1970s-era Silver Spring plans assumed that most apartment dwellers would either be retired or lower-income, while homes in surrounding neighborhoods go to commuters who would take the new Metro exclusively to jobs on Capitol Hill, as much of downtown DC at the time was parking lots.
In working-class neighborhoods, the county restricted affordable housing
The second plan was for “Silver Spring East,” a historically working-class area between Fenton Street and Piney Branch Road. It had lots of 1910s and 1920s-era bungalows, duplexes and triplexes; in later decades, larger apartment buildings followed, as well as some light industry. County planners noted that it was “one of the first in Montgomery County to be urbanized and one of the earliest to contain substantial apartment development,” and one of the county’s most diverse neighborhoods.
Starting in the late 1960s, the county began working to address growing poverty in the area. Some of the big things they did were building new schools, libraries, and recreation facilities, and starting Ride On bus service. Meanwhile, the Silver Spring East plan sought to “stabilize” deteriorating neighborhoods by reducing the spread of affordable housing and bringing in higher-income residents. “No additional low-cost housing should be constructed within the planning area,” the plan read.
On streets with lots of apartments like Sligo Avenue, the plan downzoned any remaining vacant lots for townhomes, as county planners hoped it would bring in more homeowners. It also prohibited the expansion of Montgomery College beyond its original campus on Fenton Street, though that happened anyway. Noting that neighborhood schools were already planned to close, the plan discussed potential new uses for those sites, like housing or parks.
Some areas were targeted for complete redevelopment, like the Grove Street corridor, which had a number of run-down houses at the time, or the Piney Branch Apartments (now the Top of the Park condominium) on Manchester Road. Neither of those things happened, and today, they’re some of Silver Spring’s most sought-after neighborhoods.
In wealthy neighborhoods, a push to stop “white flight”
The county took a very different approach in “North Silver Spring,” which included several more affluent communities north of downtown, like Woodside, North Woodside, Woodside Park, and Seven Oaks-Evanswood. As downtown struggled, those areas, consisting of large Victorians, colonials, and Tudor-style homes on substantial lots, remained pretty stable. There were some concerns about a “high mobility rate” (aka white flight), as residents sold their homes and moved to newer, more distant suburbs.
How to do it was another story. County planners felt that more housing would benefit the area, particularly homes on smaller lots that could attract young families who didn’t want to maintain the large, old homes common there. They proposed rezoning the blocks along Georgia Avenue between Spring Street and 16th Street for townhomes, “patio homes,” and homes on smaller lots. Neighbors successfully turned back most of those proposals, but still fought the handful of new townhomes that did get approved and built.
There was also a push to make the area feel more suburban. In the Montgomery Hills shopping area, planners recommended pedestrian overpasses to keep Georgia Avenue traffic moving (which didn’t happen), and giving 1920s-era buildings a common facade to look more like a strip mall (which didn’t happen). Residents, meanwhile, pushed to close off some streets and giving them old-timey, idyllic-sounding names like “Old Woodside Drive” (also, didn’t happen).
One quirk about this plan might have been its book club. The Planning Department set up a committee of neighbors to give feedback on the plan, and had them read Kevin Lynch’s The Image Of The City. Just like the people who participated in Lynch’s research, they were asked to draw their own maps of the neighborhood (they weren’t included in the plan, which is too bad because they would have been cool to see).
What 1970s-era plans got right, and what they missed
While the Silver Spring of these plans is very different from today’s, county planners accurately predicted many current-day trends, like a shift from driving to other transportation modes. “Within the next few years there will be a true opportunity to reduce the social and environmental impacts of the automobile,” says the East Silver Spring plan, noting the new Metro station’s ability to change local travel habits.
The North Silver Spring plan proposed bike lanes, and mentioned something called the “Cross County Light Rail,” which would turn a freight rail line connecting Silver Spring to Bethesda into a transit line. This might be the first time what’s now called the Purple Line appeared in a planning document; Montgomery County would actually buy the rail line in 1986.
Other decisions seem more questionable today. In the 1970s, county planners expected the area’s population would fall, and wanted to prevent homes from losing value. At the time, that meant helping people maintain their old homes, turning two- and three-family homes into single-family homes, and reducing the number of homes that could be built on a given property, so homeowners couldn’t sell to developers who’d build townhomes or apartments.
That policy worked, sort of: throughout the 1980s, most of the neighborhoods around downtown remained basically the same, and a handful of new townhomes and single-family homes were built. But county planners never predicted that urban living would come back with a vengeance, and that communities like Silver Spring would experience a huge surge of demand.
How should our community grow in the future?
Downtown Silver Spring has sprouted a ton of new apartments to accommodate the growing population of people who want to live here. But surrounding neighborhoods are largely kept in amber because of decisions made 40 years ago. As a result, rents in downtown apartment buildings have been pretty stable because the supply is growing, but home values in surrounding neighborhoods are now 20% higher than they were before the Great Recession, threatening the diversity that makes this place special.
The last Silver Spring master plan was completed in 2000, which means it’s long overdue for an update. Some time in the next few years, Montgomery County will likely reopen the plan, and with it a conversation about where this community will go next. What will the big debates be then? We’ll find out soon enough.
(This post wouldn’t have been possible without the family of Harry Sanders, who shared these and other plans Harry had in his library with me. As always, thank you.)