AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING: A community arts center for East Silver Spring

Inside the Torpedo Factory Art Center.

AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING • STEVE KNIGHT AND KAREN BURDITT

As some of you may know, the police station on Sligo Avenue will be closing and relocating to a new headquarters in White Oak in about two years. So, what is to become of the three story building and large piece of property on which it sits?

While many envision turning the property over to a private developer for town houses, we would like to challenge that notion and ask you to consider another possibility of adaptive reuse: Retaining the site for the community by turning the building into an Arts Center and the grounds around it into a public park and community gardens. No, this is not our idea, but rather one that has been gaining momentum and support in the community.

Building on the art scene that we already have

The East Silver Spring Police Station will be closing. Would it make a good location for an art center?

Turning the police station into the Station Arts Center is an opportunity for Silver Spring to strengthen its existing arts scene and to support its local artists.  It is also a terrific opportunity to bring the various residents together, established and new, young and old, to share in the pleasure of the creative spirit.

The county government has designated Silver Spring as an Arts and Entertainment District, but what is the use of this designation if our artists are being priced out of Silver Spring, and potential studio space turned into new housing and commercial developments?  Where is the sense in our local artists leaving the county to find affordable space?

By providing affordable studio space for local, established and emerging artists, the county can help to build on and strengthen the local art scene. By providing exhibit space, the work of these artists can be showcased regularly.  And by providing classroom space, future generations of talent can be nurtured and developed.

Laurie Breen is a painter who has lived in East Silver Spring for over ten years. We spoke with her about her thoughts on the Station Arts Center. Laurie started out painting in her basement, and after some time she began to get serious enough that finding dedicated workspace away from home was a necessity. When she and her husband began to look for studio space in the area, it became clear quickly that none was existent and “renting space in an office building was just not going to work,” she says.

Local visual artists like Laurie also wonder if there isn’t a disconnect between the county’s designation of East Silver Spring as arts and entertainment district: “The community doesn’t have a visual arts component that is readily apparent to us,” she says. Of the twelve artists in the Gateway Center in Brentwood in nearby Prince George’s County where Laurie has her studio, she says three are from Montgomery County.

And that is not all these three share in common: “We each have received grants from the Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council in the last couple of years,” she says. Isn’t it ironic that artists have to travel across the county line to find space to work? And wouldn’t it be wonderful to keep this spirit closer to home? Laurie adds, “Artists bring energy to a community. There is a real hunger for this sort of thing, especially with what I’ve seen with the vitality of the Fenton Street Market.”

Learning from other models

The Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va., provides an excellent model of a building that has been adapted for artists to develop and display their work. Photo courtesy The Torpedo Factory.

There is a very successful local example, The Torpedo Factory Art Center, in nearby Alexandria Virginia. With studio space for 82 artists, 6 galleries, a school offering arts classes and even a small museum on local archeology, the Torpedo Factory offers a very compelling example of what could be on the corner of Sligo Avenue and Grove Streets. The Torpedo Factory was a pioneer of the concept of repurposing old buildings into arts centers, spawning similar institutions nation-wide. They are so successful that the Torpedo Factory website offers an information packet on how to start an arts center.

Artists at work in the Torpedo Factory. Photo courtesy The Torpedo Factory.

Another local example is nearby where Laurie now has her studio: After some additional looking she came across the Gateway Arts Center in Brentwood in nearby Prince George’s County. Recently converted from an old automobile dealership showroom with studio space for twelve artists, a gallery for exhibiting work and even space for a museum on African American History, The Gateway Arts Center strikes us a miniature version of the Torpedo Factory. It is run by the Prince Georges County Department of Parks and Recreation.

And closer to home still, one may well ask, with the nearby Pyramid Atlantic and Montgomery College Arts Center on King Street, don’t we have enough studio space? While these are both worthy institutions that go a long way towards defining the little bit of a local art scene that we do have, they are very specific organizations with unique roles quite different from a Community Arts Center. Both are primarily academic institutions, with Pyramid Atlantic focused exclusively on paper and book arts and the MC Arts Center on King Street is primarily the home of the Montgomery College’s School of Art + Design.

Community space for a growing community

With over 1,000 multi-family housing units slated to come on line in the next couple of years, along Fenton Street between Sligo and Wayne Avenues alone, and hundreds more in progress on the west side of Georgia Avenue, one could ask if we really need to take another already-publicly owned property and convert it to more housing?

There is little to no additional dedicated public gathering and open space for the community planned with all of these added apartment developments. Only scant set-asides for minimal open space are required of each one. Can you really see the developer of a market rate apartment building willingly setting aside part of their lot for a community garden or welcoming the general public into their private club rooms for painting or pottery studios?

A healthy community is made up of many parts residential, some parts commercial, and most importantly, some parts institutional, which is to say those places where people can gather. Yes, “places for gathering” has become an over-used cliché, but having places that are public, open and accessible that are intended for specific activities is very important and they can really become the defining landmarks for a community. So, we think the real question is not “do we need more housing to generate more tax revenue?” but rather, “what does our neighborhood, defined as an arts and entertainment district, and already home to more artists and designers than any other part of the DC Metro Area, need to remain viable and true to itself?”

Local resident and community activist Karen Roper also wonders if there isn’t more that can be done to build on the neighborhood’s unique spirit: “For the twenty-six years I have lived here, Fenton Village and the East Silver Spring neighborhood surrounding it have been full of artists, living and working. Do we really want to exclude these artists from the revitalization?” she asks. “The [County] Master Plan calls for keeping the character of Fenton Village. Fenton Village has been described as artistic, eclectic, creative and diverse,” she says. “We should be capitalizing on this character instead of replacing it. The Arts Station is an opportunity to ensure that the creative character remains a part of this community.”

Welcome additions to the neighborhood: functional and attractive open space

We think it is important to consider what is the most appropriate use for the site after the police station relocates. We believe the existing building and its space is an important buffer between the growing density of Fenton Village and the adjacent single family residential neighborhood. Not only would a public arts center surrounded by useful and attractive open space be a great benefit, it would also serve as a much more appropriate bridge between these two disparate parts of East Silver Spring.

An added benefit to the Station Arts Center is the opportunity to create community gardens in a rear fenced parking area.  Using 4’x6’ container gardens divided by accessible paved paths, the County Parks Community Gardens Coordinator believes there is an opportunity for as many as 144 garden plots.  Not only would these plots provide added gardening opportunities to the established residents, they would also provide gardening opportunities to new residents – all of whom will be living in soon-to-come multi-unit mid- and high-rise apartment buildings with no private yard space.  These plots will also be accessible for gardeners with a wide variety of mobility issues who otherwise cannot use the other common gardens.

While we would love to see the exterior of the 14,500 square foot 1961 building re-imagined into something more attractive, the existing building has been relatively well-maintained and is perfectly serviceable as-is. Often when repurposing a building a little can go quite a long and economical way. Only a minimum of expense and interior reconfiguration would be needed to easily convert the station, which is essentially an office building, into an arts center. Furthermore, the large lawn that stretches along Sligo Avenue could easily be transformed into a delightful public park with the modest addition of some landscaping and site furnishings.  The building would then become a visual backdrop to the lovely public garden in front.

Community space versus public space

The community "owned" the faux lawn that once existed in the current Veteran's Plaza. Pictured here is a local crowd enjoying the 2006 Silver Spring Jazz Festival. Photo by Eric Bond

There is a difference between community space and public space.  For those of you who have lived in Silver Spring you will recall our short lived Village Green.  Before Veterans Plaza was built there was a period when a city block of Astroturf became a popular gathering place in Downtown Silver Spring.

When the green was removed, and construction on the Civic Center began, the only public gathering places were the stores and restaurants along Ellsworth.  Borders Books was one of the popular places to meet, that is, until it closed.

When we leave it up to commercial businesses to be the community’s gathering places, then we leave our sense of community at the mercy of the economic fortunes of corporate enterprises.  A community should have its own gathering places, separate from commercial businesses; places where people can go without incurring a cost.  Libraries, recreation centers, civic centers and arts centers all provide the space where a community can come together.

How to lend support to creating the Station Arts Center

To have a healthy, varied, interesting community you must participate in the dialogue with the county government.  If you believe, as we do, that the Station Arts Center is not only desirable but necessary for East Silver Spring, then please speak up. Show your support by adding your name to the Online Petition: bit.ly/stationartscenter. If you have questions, you can get in touch with those already working towards making the Station Art Center a reality by emailing stationartscenter@gmail.com.

About the Author

Steve Knight and Karen Burditt
Karen Burditt is a registered architect with 25 years experience, currently working with Esocoff & Associates Architects in Washington DC. Steve Knight is an Associate with David M. Schwarz Architects, also in Washington. Steve and Karen have lived in their bungalow in East Silver Spring for 12 years.

3 Comments on "AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING: A community arts center for East Silver Spring"

  1. Karen and Steve, I really appreciate the incredible vision you folks have laid out for East Silver Spring. Development has its place, but we have to demand that public space like the police station is not mindlessly gobbled up without consideration of creative options such as the Station Arts Center.

    If you haven’t heard of it, there is an amazing indoor market in Minneapolis called Mercado Central. It combines space for local artists to create and display their work with space for other types of local vendors, from wonderful ethnic food to handmade clothing and jewelry (www.mercadocentral.net). The residents of East Silver Spring, including our neighbors in Long Branch, have such incredible gifts and talents laying untapped; I would love to see the Arts Center idea incorporate space for local entrepreneurs to develop food and craft businesses, in addition to studio art!

    Thank you so much for making such a powerful case for innovative community space!

  2. Perhaps at least a portion of City Place could be repurposed as something akin to the Torpedo Factory. It already has a great location where many residents gather and is currently a wasteland of dollar stores.

    Putting this sort of venture out in the middle of nowhere is destined to fail as a commercial endeavor. If artists are going to try to have a space to work as well as a retail component, this needs to be in a more commercial area.

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