A group of Montgomery County residents are asking the County Council to advocate for more outdoor public space in downtown Silver Spring during the COVID-19 pandemic.
People in the Facebook group Open Streets Montgomery, a group that features information about outdoor seating and recreation during the pandemic, posted this week that they want Ellsworth Drive to be closed to vehicular traffic again.
Ellsworth Drive had been a strictly-pedestrian area before the pandemic. Laurie Yankowski, a spokeswoman for the Peterson Companies, which manages the property, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that the street was opened to cars on March 17.
Yankowski wrote that Peterson regularly checks in with businesses in the area, and many owners said they wanted the street open to cars to help provide parking for curbside pick-up and delivery service to help the businesses survive during the pandemic.
“The majority of their revenue still comes from carry-out and delivery,” she wrote.
Yankowski wrote that there is still space for seating in the area, and restaurants have room to expand their patios if they choose.
“We look forward to closing Ellsworth again, but for now this is the best way for us to ensure the long-term viability of the merchants and businesses on Ellsworth and in Downtown Silver Spring,” she wrote.
On Monday, Dan Reed, an urban planner from Silver Spring, who publishes the blog Just Up the Pike on urban, housing and transportation issues, posted in the Facebook group a sample text for a letter to the council urging them to close Ellsworth Drive again. Reed worked on the letter with his friends and neighbors Alison Gillespie and Pete Tantisunthorn, who are part of the effort to advocate for more public space in the county.
“In a diverse, densely-populated community where many residents have limited access to open space, people of all ages and backgrounds rely on Ellsworth Drive as a place to get outside and spend time with friends and loved ones,” the letter stated. “Where just a few months ago there used to be people enjoying themselves, we now have a glorified parking lot next to actual parking lots with thousands of underused parking spaces.”
The letter went on to point out that in Rockville, Bethesda, Wheaton and Takoma Park there are “streeteries,” or streets that have been closed in order to expand outdoor seating for restaurants during the pandemic, and to increase space for curbside pickup.
“Restaurant owners all over the country have made the most of sidewalk seating, but along Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring they have not been able to expand due to parked cars. This is not helpful to the smaller businesses that depend on both table service and curbside to survive. Curtailing parking, enforcing a strict ten-minute parking limit, and moving parking to one end of the street would likely help the small businesses more than the current set-up,” the letter stated.
County Council Member Tom Hucker, whose district includes Silver Spring, wrote in a text message to Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that he hopes to “find an arrangement” that restores pedestrian space and expands outdoor seating, but still allows businesses to conduct carryout operations.
At-large Council Member Evan Glass said in an interview on Wednesday that he has been talking with community members and Peterson Companies to determine the best solution.
“These are challenging times for restaurants across the county and nationally. And we need to ensure that the restaurants have the ability to conduct their business,” he said.
“Opening the street to cars might have been a good use when people were stuck inside, and ordering food mostly by delivery,” he said. But now, the weather is getting nicer and people want to be outside.”
Roderick Ball, a manager with the grilled chicken restaurant Nando’s, told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that his business has seen a 30% increase in sales since the street was reopened.
“[Customers] were having to get out and park in the parking lot [and] walk all the way around, so for them to be able to pull up and drop someone off or pull over and park …. It’s given us a little bit more business,” he said.
Adam Stein, the owner of the Eleanor restaurant and arcade at 931 Ellsworth Drive, told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that having vehicular traffic hasn’t affect his business much one way or the other.
“I understand how it benefits some of the other fast-casual spots,” he said.
Stein said earlier this week someone from Peterson Companies came by The Eleanor to give out a survey asking whether they approved of the reopening of Ellsworth to vehicles. He said is more interested in working with the landlord to allow businesses to have expanded patios.
Meanwhile, Bethesda’s Streetery, which opened in June will remain in place during the fall, according to Stephanie Coppula, a spokeswoman for the downtown management organization Bethesda Urban Partnership. Since June, some streets have been closed to traffic, to make way for tables and chairs. The street closures have included:
- Norfolk Avenue, between St. Elmo Avenue and Cordell Avenue
- Norfolk Avenue, between Cordell Avenue and Del Ray Avenue
- Woodmont Avenue, between Elm Street and Bethesda Avenue
- Veterans Park, corner of Norfolk and Woodmont Avenues
Coppula wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that at some point streets will reopen in the winter, with the goal of bringing back the seating in the spring.
“We will be monitoring the weather and usage of The Streetery to determine when it will close for the season,” she wrote.
Marylou Berg, a spokeswoman for the city of Rockville, wrote in an email on Wednesday that their Streetery will remain in place until at least the end of Gov. Larry Hogan’s state of emergency, which has no definite end date.
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com