An aerial view of downtown Silver Spring. Credit: File Photo

This story was updated at 11:05 a.m. June 7, 2022, to correct a reference to potential square feet in downtown Silver Spring.

Under the new Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan, the coming years could bring more density in the downtown urban core, reimagined public parks, and more infrastructure to improve the ability to walk and cycle in the community.

The Montgomery County Council, which approved the plan in May, and county planners and multiple local civic associations agree the plan is a necessary step to continue growing the strengths and diversity of one of the downcounty urban cores. Some differ, however, on what types of housing and other changes should happen to the areas outside downtown Silver Spring.

The Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan boundaries, broadly speaking, stretch from:

  • 16th and Spring streets on the west
  • South Noyes Drive, Ellsworth Urban Park and Springvale Road on the north and northeast
  • Grove Street on the east
  • Fenton Street and Takoma Avenue on the southeast
  • Eastern Avenue on the south

Atara Margolies, the Montgomery County Planning Department’s project manager for the Silver Spring downtown plan, said in an interview that many of the neighborhoods adjoining the plan boundaries will undergo a different sector planning process, beginning around the middle of next year.

Right before the council held its final vote, members decided to change the proposed boundaries of the plan before approving it May 26. Before the revision, the plan included a few blocks of the Woodside neighborhood north of Spring Street and stretched a few blocks farther east on the northeastern side of the boundaries.

The council agreed to pull the boundaries back because many of the land parcels included in the new plan had previously been rezoned, said Council Member Hans Riemer, who chairs the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee. The committee held multiple worksessions on the plan.

The change was made to alleviate confusion among some community members about where rezoning had occurred, he said, noting that council members have the power to consider zoning changes for any land parcel in the county through a different process.

Now that the council passed the downtown Silver Spring plan, it now will pass zoning changes in the coming weeks and months to directly implement the plan. 

Margolies said the downtown Silver Spring plan allows for more density and higher buildings, especially near the Metro station. The plan notes that there is about 40 million square feet of total potential development if developers or property owners decide to add onto their existing buildings, she said.

Right now, only about 24 million square feet is built out, she added.

“The challenge of this plan was not so much to add zoning, but it was to incentivize people to actually realize the zoning that they’ve got on their property,” Margolies said. 

She said the plan adds flexibility by allowing the future development of any type of commercial or residential use, or a mix of the two, within its boundaries, along with allowing an increase in building heights throughout the plan — including adjacent to the Metro. The maximum height of buildings could reach 360 feet with Planning Board approval, according to the plan. 

Charlie Jacobson, president of the Woodside Civic Association, and members of other neighborhood associations said they appreciated the plan’s focus on improving parks, local transportation networks and the ability to walk and cycle around downtown Silver Spring.

Dan Reed, planning committee chair of the East Silver Spring Civic Association, said he was happy to see the emphasis on improving multiple parks and public spaces. That includes Jesup Blair Park, which is probably currently underutilized but has great potential, he said. 

Chris Reynolds is president of the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association (SOECA), which represents the neighborhood bordered by Colesville Road on the west, Cedar and Fenton streets on the south, Bonifant Road and Wayne Avenue on the east, and Franklin and Caroline avenues on the north.

Reynolds said the plan also seeks to connect the southwestern part of downtown Silver Spring across the Metro, MARC and CSX rail tracks to nearby Georgia Avenue via construction of a pedestrian bridge — which he said would help connect neighborhoods.

A former resident of The Blairs apartment complex on Blair Mill Road, Reynolds said he often felt that his neighborhood was “disconnected” from downtown Silver Spring. A pedestrian/landscape bridge described in the plan over the tracks would fix that, he said. 

What’s next for the communities adjacent to the plan’s boundaries?

Montgomery Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and Gwen Wright, director of the Planning Department, have said that planning staff would begin work in the coming months on a new sector plan for the neighborhoods mainly to the north and east of the downtown plan’s boundaries.

The development of the plan will likely spur debate within civic associations and the broader community about what rezoning should be envisioned for certain communities, what types of housing should be allowed, and how overall pedestrian access and transportation networks should be improved, among other issues.

The final plan boundaries, roughly, are in purple. The prior plan boundaries are in red. Photo from Montgomery County Council/Montgomery Planning Department

Reed, the East Silver Spring Civic Association member and a vocal advocate of increasing the amount of affordable housing in the county, said he hopes communities will consider allowing different types of housing stock, in order to make the overall area more affordable to newer residents. 

There needs to be a greater diversity in housing stock to make that happen, he said.

“I live in a townhouse in East Silver Spring, that’s on a block with big apartment buildings and big single-family houses, and I defy anybody to come by and say my house doesn’t fit in,” Reed said.

Still, there has been debate among civic associations about what future growth should look like. Reynolds said he appreciated that the council chose to exclude some parts of the Seven Oaks-Evanswood neighborhood. The decision allows civic association members to have further conversations about that, he added.

The civic association hasn’t taken a formal position on what the future sector plan encompassing surrounding neighborhoods of Silver Spring should look like, Reynolds said, but there is broad consensus on certain infrastructure issues, like improving sidewalk access or making it easier to cycle along neighborhood streets. 

While agreeing that the amount of affordable housing needs to improve, he said residents are concerned that areas around and in downtown Silver Spring are often used as a testing ground for zoning changes and increasing density when such changes in planning policies should perhaps be tested more broadly across the county.

“There are people who feel that every time the county wants to try something new, they try to do it over here in Silver Spring … . They don’t like when we feel like the guinea pigs over here,” Reynolds said. “Some people are kind of reflexively nervous over here, because [the county] would never get away with it in Chevy Chase or somewhere else.”

Jacobson said Woodside Civic Association members were thankful that the council removed two blocks of their neighborhood from the downtown plan. He added that there are more opportunities for housing in the area, but that planners should focus on vacant commercial space in the downtown core, or on the Health and Human Services building along Georgia Avenue near Spring Street.

Environmental considerations need to be considered with any future growth, including stormwater management, tree cover and other aspects, Jacobson said.

“I think duplexes could be fine, what we don’t want is a situation where one has a duplex, a fourplex or whatever where the housing footprint takes up most of the property and the rest is parking … once developers pencil in that stuff, that’s what it ends up looking like,” Jacobson said. 

Reynolds said debate among communities might occur in the coming months as work on the sector plan for other communities gets underway — but he added there is more common ground among residents than some might think.

“There’s a lot of people who are happy to live in a diverse, growing area like Silver Spring with lots of small businesses,” Reynolds said. “To the extent that changes are natural and necessary and organic, I don’t think any of us are in the way of that.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com