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

Montgomery County Council members expressed preliminary approval Tuesday of a master plan for downtown Silver Spring and some small adjacent areas that focuses on topics such as development, transportation and parks, among others.

The council has held multiple work sessions on the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan, which covers downtown Silver Spring and eastward, especially toward the northern part of downtown

Council members agreed to remove references to Thrive Montgomery 2050 — the council’s proposed update to its general master plan — as the council has not voted on that yet.

The Silver Spring plan aims to help spur development in the area’s central business district and includes goals addressing climate change and improving local transportation networks. Some of those include:

  • Encourage a minimum of 35% of green cover (Trees, green roofs, etc.) on select development areas in the plan
  • Minimizing stormwater runoff through new development
  • Incentivizing redevelopment and new development near transit, including the reuse of some parking garages
  • Allowing for additional density on downtown lots in order to add more residential and commercial space
  • Creating opportunities and funds for start-ups or other businesses to begin or expand operations
  • Preserving affordable housing by designating certain areas as historic and/or offering tax incentives

County Council Vice President Evan Glass, whose political career stems back to his time as a member of the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, said in an interview that the plan will help the downtown area become a more vibrant community for people to live, work and play.

County Council Member Will Jawando, who has often talked about growing up in downtown Silver Spring, agrees. He said in an interview the plan allows for additional height for buildings and more opportunities for transit-oriented development. 

“It just reinforces our focus on density near transit, complete communities, and also green space and parks,” Jawando said.

One of the main policy debates during Tuesday’s meeting was whether structured parking should be considered as a “public benefit” in developer projects. Such parking can include underground parking or parking as part of an overall apartment or condo building.

County planners may consider the number of public benefits that a development proposal includes when determining whether to approve it. They are options designed to benefit residents and visitors and include: 

  • Major public facilities
  • Affordable housing
  • Small business opportunity
  • Streetscape improvement
  • A variety of apartment units, both in size and income level
  •  Public open space
  • Tree canopy
  • Habitat restoration
  • Historic preservation

The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee voted 2-1 in a prior worksession to remove structured parking from the public benefits list. Council Member Hans Riemer, chair of that committee, and Jawando voted in favor while Council Member Andrew Friedson dissented. 

After debating the issue, the full council voted 6-3 to reverse the committee’s decision. Friedson, along with Council President Gabe Albornoz and Council Members Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice, Tom Hucker and Sidney Katz voted to leave structured parking as a public benefit. Riemer, Jawando and Council Vice President Evan Glass voted to remove it.

The majority opinion said that developers should be given credit for including structured parking in their proposals. Removing the public benefit designation could make it more difficult for developers to introduce residential and commercial projects, because those developers have said that structured parking can make projects economically possible, supporters said. 

Friedson said that although the Pike & Rose neighborhood is different than downtown Silver Spring, it is a good example of how structured parking can be accomplished effectively. 

Those who disagreed, including county planning staff, said that developers would likely need to build structured parking anyway, given the small sizes of lots in downtown Silver Spring and limited space. There also are other public benefits that developers could pursue, they added.

Glass added in an interview that allowing structured parking would go against one of the central ideas of the proposed plan — incentivizing development near transit and getting people to use methods other than vehicles to move around. 

“Silver Spring has an incredible wealth of public transit opportunities, from the Red Line to the bus depot to the future Purple Line, not to mention walkable, bikeable streets,” Glass said. “We want to encourage that … we should be building off of our transportation assets, not further incentivizing garages and cars.” 

Committee members also disagreed on the role of certain density funds within the plan boundaries. The idea behind the fund is that property owners work with the county government or nearby property owners to purchase more density in order to increase their building heights on certain lots. 

In some scenarios, property owners pay money to the county; in others, they pay money to the property owner from whom they want to purchase density. 

Riemer and Friedson agreed that specific properties within downtown Silver Spring should be allowed more height in order to add more commercial or residential space, and in order to provide more amenities for the public good. Broadly speaking, Jawando disagreed with that idea, saying property owners should be required to make contributions to the county to build more density — that money could be used for affordable housing, parks or infrastructure improvements, for instance. 

Jawando said in an interview that the regulations and guidelines around building height allowances can be changed through future zoning changes. Although his opinion didn’t prevail, the overall policy decision is a good one, he added.

A study by planning officials found that property owners could pay up to $10 for each additional square foot of density and “still have a pretty sizable profit,” Jawando said. The proposed master plan sets the rates at $5 per square foot of additional density for residential buildings and $3 for commercial properties. “It’s a start,” he said.

“There’s no silver bullet to providing the housing and the infrastructure needs in our community, but this is at least a step in the right direction,” Jawando added.   

The council is expected to formally approve the proposed master plan in the coming weeks. 

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