Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson put the phrase “retrofitting suburbia” into the urbanist lexicon back in 2008, when they published a book about a movement to turn dying malls and car-choked strips into mixed-use, walkable places. Slowed by the recession, the movement roared back into view in Maryland this month. On February 13, the owners of a huge 1960s apartment and strip retail complex in Silver Spring unveiled a master plan by Bing Thom Architects and Sasaki Associates for an ambitious redevelopment of the 27-acre site.
Under the new master plan, the complex, called The Blairs, would gain 10 new buildings of up to 200 feet in height. Its current stock of 1,400 apartments would double. Four-hundred-and-fifty-thousand square feet of new commercial space would be added. The large parking lot at its heart would be replaced by a series of parks weaving through the property; these would also negotiate a steep grade change that now effectively splits the eastern and western halves of the complex.
The plan “brings the feel, scale, and overlap of uses that is more akin to an organically evolved city,” Alan Ward, the lead designer for Sasaki, told AN.
The new buildings will be familiar to anyone who’s visited Vancouver or scanned Thom’s portfolio: They’re glass-walled “point towers,” with parking-structure podiums wrapped in townhouses or retail. Ward’s landscape plan draws on landscape-urbanist moves such as zigzagging ramps and a rainwater collection feature.
Speaking to the website GreaterGreaterWashington.org, Thom described the property owner’s attitude as, “We want everyone to walk through our property!” As the scope of the project, plus its expense (up to $625 million), and the contemporary quality of the design concept suggest, owner Rockville, Maryland-based Tower Companies believes that this suburban retrofit can become a bona fide urban district with help from brand-name design firms. That’s welcome news, given the fact that many past retrofits have drawn on New Urbanist planning principles but have mediocre buildings.
June Williamson, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia and an architecture professor at the City College of New York, isn’t surprised to see this kind of project just across the District line. “The DC area has a market for new development,” unlike areas where the recession has bitten deeper, she said. “We look at other potential strip malls and mall sites around the country, but there’s no market, no demand for higher-density redevelopment.”
Williamson said she guessed the project may herald a raising of the bar for architectural sophistication in suburban retrofits. Architects may be realizing that these projects “are meaty challenges to take on, and have great merit.” The Silver Spring master plan, she suggested, is “a confluence of more sophisticated developers, the understanding that it’s a more sophisticated market, and design firms who are aware of the opportunities to make a change.” Thom, she noted, has experience in suburban retrofits, having turned an ailing mall in Surrey, British Columbia, into a city center with a university and offices.
For all the plan’s ambitions, it does have hallmarks of what might be called “transitional urbanism.” It nods to the single-family homes across Eastern Avenue by stepping down the building heights toward the east. (Ironically, this adjacent “suburban” neighborhood is in DC, while the “urban” area to the west of the site is in Maryland.) There is still a lot of parking. There won’t be a through street, and the property will remain in the hands of one private owner. Silver Spring’s downtown shopping district, too, is privately controlled public space, an arrangement that has caused controversy, such as when the property managers tried to ban photography back in 2007.
So far, the local response to the Thom/Sasaki plan has been positive, possibly a sign that NIMBYism is going the way of suburban malls. Tower Companies hopes to break ground in 2014, pending approval from Montgomery County, and the four-phase build-out will take more than a decade.