New library site. Photo by the project consultants, RKTL.

Back in February, when this blog had recently launched, the issue that generated the most comments was… skybridges. This 1960s design fad, which segregated pedestrians into elevated crossings from building to building, made streets less safe and damaged the pedestrian character in cities like Des Moines and Denver.

The Washington area has another proposed skybridge, reflecting all the outmoded urban design thinking, in Silver Spring. The library is moving to the corner of Wayne, Fenton, and Bonifant, right at the border between the commercial downtown area and the adjacent residences and literally in the path of the proposed Purple Line. The most recent presentation calls this a “unique opportunity” to create a vibrant pedestrian streetscape, especially along Fenton Street.

Unfortunately, the project’s consultants seem to feel that they can best ensure a vibrant streetscape by building a bridge over Wayne Avenue. According to a letter resident Colleen Mitchell sent to Montgomery County,

During the presentation at the October 21st meeting, the consultants actually stated that the only way to safely cross Wayne Avenue is to construct a pedestrian bridge. Frankly, this is archaic thinking and runs counter to current planning concepts which consistently emphasize designing “complete streets” with roadways that are equally safe for all modes of transportation. Pedestrian bridges reduce street life and activity, create dark, unwelcoming places underneath, present security issues, and allow roadways to become a higher speed facility with reduced safety for pedestrians.

This project also seems to have too much parking. The proposed skybridge would connect to yet another parking garage, across the street. Downtown Silver Spring has lots and lots of parking; we don’t need more for every new use.

Left: Option 1a ground floor plan. Right: Option 3 perspective drawing.

Many of the designs include the skybridge and few retail entrances along the street. Look at the ground floor plan for the first option, 1a (left). It doesn’t engage the street very well at all. There’s this strip of park separating the entrances from the street, and people then have to cross the train tracks to go in and out of the building. I know that the Purple Line will run at-grade and people and trains can share the same space, but we still shouldn’t try to make the tracks a sidewalk at the same time, where there will be especially high pedestrian volumes going in and out of the building.

An option like #3 (right, above) looks quite a bit better, with retail and library entrances right out to the sidewalk. Still, all of these designs remind me of Rob Goodspeed’s excellent Ballston essay and the “structure of voids.” Why do we need open space at all on this site? Almost every building built in urbanizing suburban areas like Silver Spring and Ballston seems to involve some open space. I know that many residents ask for it, and in many areas, the zoning requires it.

But such open space rules usually create small and underutilized plazas that break up the flow of buildings and isolate pedestrians. Real urban neighborhoods have little open space on private property, except a small landscaped buffer, and no large gaps in the streetwall. The street and sidewalk itself is the public space. Larger parks within walking distance provide the opportunities for recreation, sitting outside, dog walking, etc. Silver Spring should strive for a similar design, instead of the motley constellation of random triangular green spaces that sound so good but end up so unsatisfying.

Want to weigh in on the library? There’s a meeting tonight at 7 pm, at the current library, 8901 Colesville Road.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.