Atara Margolies, project manager for the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan. Credit: Montgomery County Planning

This article was updated at 11 a.m. June 7, 2022, to correct a reference to the amount of square feet that can be built in Silver Spring.

The County Council’s vote in May to approve the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan was, in part, a nod to the work of Atara Margolies and several other county officials.

Margolies was the Montgomery County Planning Department’s project manager for the Silver Spring downtown plan, which aims to increase density in the urban core of Silver Spring, and improve public parks and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, along with several other initiatives.

As project manager, Margolies worked with several other planners on drafting the plan, presenting it to the Planning Board, winning support from the board and then working with County Council Members and staff to secure the council’s approval.

Earlier this month, Bethesda Beat spoke with Margolies about the plan and how it will be implemented in Silver Spring. Here are some of her responses, edited for clarity and length. 

What is the overall purpose of this plan?

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It’s a sector plan. Sector and master plans cover every area of the county, and we look at them every 20 to 25 years or so, to assess a variety of issues: land use, zoning, transportation, parks and open spaces, housing issues and policy.

So it was time to plan the downtown. Everything in the 2000 sector plan that had been recommended had already been realized. A lot of what has made downtown Silver Spring what it is today is an outcome of that. So this is just the regular cycle of how we do planning here in Montgomery County.

Now that the council has approved the plan, what are the next steps?

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There are a few more checkboxes to go through. Once the plan is approved at the [County] Council level, it goes to the [The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission] for adoption. The full commission is just where the Montgomery County Planning Board and the Prince George’s [County] Planning Board sit together and pass a resolution for adoption.

After that, the last two steps are a zoning text amendment that the council has to pass to make the zoning changes in the code necessary to implement the changes in the Silver Spring plan. And then there’s the separate task of changing the zoning map to align with the changes.

Can anything be tweaked during this process?

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The change of zoning in this county is always governed by the County Council. The County Council can change the zoning always. So they can do it in this process, they can come in two years … they have local power to change the zoning, that’s the bottom line. 

They’re always able to make changes, although it’s typically not after this point.

The plan calls for adding density in the downtown urban core. How will that be accomplished?

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We have a unique challenge in Silver Spring, which is different than other plans, including Bethesda, one of the last downtown plans. Silver Spring still hasn’t realized all the [floor area ratio] that’s zoned there today. There’s about 40 million potential square feet that can be realized in Silver Spring, and we’ve only got 24 million built today. So 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. 

So we did a few things. One is we made the zoning more flexible. You can do any combination of commercial or residential [redevelopment]. Or it doesn’t have to be a combination, it can be one or the other on pretty much every property in the plan, with only a handful of exceptions. We also increased the heights — a small increase throughout, and then really poured a lot of extra height into the area right around the Metro station.

The last thing we did is … if a property doesn’t think it has enough density, there are already a few ways to get it through the zoning code today. And we added a third option, which is to contribute to a fund, that in the future will fund some of the civic improvements that the plan lays out.

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State and county officials are expecting the Purple Line light-rail to begin operating in late 2026. The line runs through downtown Silver Spring, and the plan talks about reimagining that corridor, particularly on Bonifant Street under the parking garage near Georgia Avenue. What do planners envision for that area?

[The Montgomery County Department of Transportation] and the [Silver Spring] Parking Lot District have identified already, years ago, that [the] garage is not fully utilized, and that they would love to see a developer come and get that land and do something exciting there.

When we opened up this plan, we were able to check in and see that that was still the goal … a Purple Line station is going to be right there, and that’s not really an entrance or gateway of any sort right now to the downtown. But the plan really envisions that the garage disappears, and you’ve got two development sites on either side, and you’re got a great opportunity for improved sidewalk and pedestrian connections, all the way to Georgia Avenue. 

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The plan describes a Green Loop, a series of rings in the downtown area to create better opportunities for walking and cycling, connecting neighborhoods to public spaces and parks. Tell us more about this concept.

The Green Loop is a prioritization of how we can create a network of streets in the downtown that are safer for pedestrians [and are] greener, cooler, more comfortable and really bring together the plan goals of diversity, connectivity and resilience.

And you may ask: Why is it a loop? Well, downtown Silver Spring has the unique condition of being divided by Metrorail … we obviously are proposing a significant new crossing, but at the same time, that’s only one spot. (In the plan, there is a proposed pedestrian bridge that would connect the area near the Blairs apartments, across Metro, CSX and MARC tracks to near Georgia Avenue.)

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The old plan really focused on Georgia [Avenue] and Colesville [Road] bringing people in cars into downtown Silver Spring, and this plan sort of turns that inside out. It says we want people who come here today to drive and park, and then walk and take transit into downtown Silver Spring and be able to navigate on the local streets.

What are the challenges of implementing this plan?

All master and sector plans are aspirational. We lay out the vision for the next 20 years, and we’re not an implementation agency, so we don’t actually implement anything. We have a list of projects at the end of the plan, and we sort of suggest, here are the agencies that will be implementing these.

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It’s up to MCDOT and Parks as two main implementation agencies in the county to look at the projects recommended in the sector plan and figure out which ones are going to be implemented. There are some projects that are going to be implemented in the short-term … and there are some that are more pie in the sky.

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