Gov & Business
Real Estate & Hospitality

Downtown Silver Spring’s “Missing Middle” Expansion Plans Missing Some Very Important Pieces; The Details

MBS Staff

According to Montgomery County’s Planning Department, now is the time to start having a serious discussion about Downtown Silver Spring’s Sector Plan. The last time the plan was updated was 20 years in 2000. During that time, an inundation of more than 4,000 residential units has risen from the ground, new retail and restaurant districts were built; a once fledgling biotech called United Therapeutics, is now the most valuable in the D.C. area (headquartered in a sprawling urban campus in downtown); and former crown jewel Discovery Communications has come and gone.

Officially called the Silver Spring Downtown Plan, it would update the 2000 Silver Spring Central Business District (CBD) Sector Plan. The Montgomery County Planning board has moved swiftly; however, they’re still in the initial planning stages and the public has the chance to voice their opinion.

The Sector Plan does more than just guide development, it also sets the rules and can be used as a reference point to deny or approve any project. New office spaces that allow for many possibilities such as your new dream job or startup, to your favorite restaurant located in the ground floor of your new apartment building – its all detailed in the Sector Plan.

One of the most important aspects addressed in a sector plan is zoning. Building heights in particular are a sticking point for many, but this is an area where Silver Spring (and the County) could solve many issues.

During a June 4th planning board meeting, Atara Margolies, Planner Coordinator for Area 1 of the planning department, presented four options that could change downtown Silver Spring forever: list the options here.

The Expansion Plans

There were two options out the four that show the contrast between the current boundary and how far the expansion could go.

Option A would keep things the same with the exception of a small area expansion by the St. Michael’s Church along Wayne Avenue.

On the opposite end is Option D, which is the most uninhibited and ambitious geographical expansion. Option D would increase the size of downtown Silver Spring by approximately 30 to 40 percent. Most of the expansion would move the CBD boundary east and northeast with an additional expansion northwest into the Woodside neighborhood. To put things into perspective, the total expansion area is about 75 percent of the Wheaton CBD and about half the size of downtown Bethesda.

Silver Spring Expansion Option D

The dotted orange line shows what's expected to be the new boundary of the Silver Spring Central Business District (CBD). The black solid and thinner line shows the current boundary. (image: Montgomery Planning).

Some want less, some want more

Public testimony varied during the June 4th meeting, but it was clear from talking points that one side didn’t want an expansion while the other side was resoundingly in favor of one, so much so that they didn’t think Option D went far enough.

Roberta Faul-Zeitler, who lives with her husband off Colesville Road, said “...We’re not asking to be gerrymandered into an expanded downtown. Downtown Silver Spring is a very incomplete 350-acre canvas. It needs an economic development plan, reinvestment, incubators, affordable housing, shared workspaces, useful retail, and next generation technology. There are already 4,000 residential units approved for the CBD.”

Dan Reed, who owns a townhome in East Silver Spring, presented a passionate testimony in favor of the downtown Silver Spring boundary expansion. “Single-family [detached] zoning is a message that we only value people that can afford large expensive homes.” said Reed. Reed further states, “My family was priced out of Silver Spring in 1998 and ever since I made it a goal to buy my own home here. My partner and I spent years, saving and working five jobs between us, and last fall bought one of the few townhouses here. My block looks like the Silver Spring we could be; cottages, townhomes and apartment buildings all together, diverse homes for a diverse community. Our townhouse is one-mile from the Red Line and two-thirds of a mile from the Purple Line. So why can’t you build townhomes in other areas that are just as close or closer? None of these options for the downtown plan boundary go far enough. Option D is at best a compromise.”

“The Missing Middle”

The “missing middle” is a term that’s recently surfaced but has already had abundant use by the Planning Department; it’s defined by what they consider to be the “in-between housing” that’s lacking in the County and a theoretical answer to what some in the industry believe to be an affordable housing shortage in the Washington, D.C. area.

The expansion area consists mostly of single family detached-homes including early 19th century two-story dwellings and some mid-20th-century ranchers sitting on large quarter-acre lots.

The “missing middle” would be the solution according to planners and consist of anything from townhouses to multi-family mid-rises of approximately less than 24 units. The “missing middle” would bridge the gap between single family detached homes and high-rise apartment buildings.

But the planning board didn’t address how the pricing for the “missing middle” units would remain affordable and what would keep developers from selling or renting them at market rates.

Tom Armstrong, who lives in the area, made note of this in his testimony “One of the things that has struck me about this discussion is how expensive it is to live in downtown Silver Spring and the hope that the ‘missing middle’ will solve that problem. But take the example of the Chelsea Townhouses that were built within the last 10 years. Those units all go for $700,000 to over $1 million. That’s as much as my single-family [detached] house is worth according to Zillow,” he continued “Even the MPDUs (Moderatley Priced Dwelling units) — and there are only 15 percent of them as far as that development... Even those go for around $250k. The [income required] is around $60k a year. 150 percent of the poverty line in Montgomery County is only $38k a year.”

What about the missing jobs?

Nowhere during the presentation did the Planning Department find the lack of office space and job growth in the current Silver Spring CDB concerning.

But Planning Board member Gerald R. Cichy was concerned that commercial use would spread as part of the expansion. Margolies of the Planning Department reinforced that thought, clearly stating that the expansion would only include residential and it would be inappropriate for expansion to include commercial use. This would mean no neighborhood retail and especially no office spaces, thereby erasing any possibility of job growth.

Planning Board decision

The planning board in quick fashion, unanimously approved walkshed Option D. As previously mentioned, the most expansive option would extend the CBD boundary as far east as the location of the former Montgomery Blair High School on Dale Drive, encompassing the namesake Purple Line station in the vicinity.

The planning department will take the next steps in further study of Option D, which will include community input and discussion of individual parcel zoning.