By: Lorne Bell
The numbers alone are impressive: a 20-year, $700 million urban redevelopment in the heart of downtown Silver Spring, Maryland; 27 acres of land abutting the Washington, D.C., Metro transit system; 2,800 high-rise apartment units; 200,000 square feet of office space; 125,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space; a 200-key hotel; a 5,000-sq-ft urban organic farm; and five acres of interconnected, transit-oriented parks, running paths, festival space, playgrounds, water features, and native vegetation.
This is the Blairs Master Plan, a project of the Rockville, Maryland–based developer, the Tower Companies, a USGBC Silver level member company. And it’s scaling sustainable design to neighborhood proportions. “Nobody gets the opportunity today to have 27 acres on a transit system, especially one bordering Washington, D.C., so you get the sense of a district or little city, rather than a collection of buildings,” says Jeffrey Abramson, a second-generation partner in the family-owned Tower Companies. “It’s a necklace of parks connecting four new residential buildings with a central pathway—a spine that connects everything to a shopping center with retail and restaurants, and it all leads through the complex to the Metro.”
The Tower Companies, founded by the late Albert “Sonny” Abramson in 1947, built the original Blairs complex in the late 1950s and 1960s. The complex featured multiple residential buildings, including Blair Towers, four mid-rise buildings with 257 units. In the decades since, the company has become a pioneer in Leadership in Environmental Design (LEED)-certified and sustainable development. In 2004 it became the first developer in the nation to open a LEED-certified apartment complex, Blair Towns. Today, 90 percent of the firm’s commercial and multifamily residential projects are LEED and ENERGY STAR certified.
The centerpiece of the Blairs Master Plan is its transit-oriented design. Traditional vehicles take a backseat to more environmentally sound transportation, which explains the subterranean garage and reduced parking-to-resident ratio. There are also Zipcar and electric vehicle charging stations, storage for more than 100 bikes, and plans for a residential electric bike program. And all footpaths are strategically designed to take residents between home, work, shopping, entertainment, parks, and of course, multiple Metro transportation hubs.
The transit-oriented vision is part of a growing trend in sustainable urban design, and one that can’t come too soon for Silver Spring. That’s according to Jane Redicker, president and CEO of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce. Redicker says Silver Spring has come a long way since the early 1990s, when the region’s businesses were struggling. Community and business leaders have since revitalized downtown Silver Spring, bringing restaurants, retailers, and residential construction back to the region. But increased development has brought heavy car traffic, and green space is still in short supply. “The Blairs Master Plan gives people the opportunity to live, work, and play in the same area and never really have to leave or get into a car,” says Redicker.
To spearhead the project, the Tower Companies found like-minded design firms in Bing Thom Architects, based in Vancouver, Canada, and Sasaki Associates, a USGBC Silver-level member company based in Watertown, Massachusetts. The internationally renowned planning and architectural firms pride themselves on creating community-centered urban spaces, and they collaborated on a plan that was both environmentally progressive and seamlessly integrated with the surrounding urban landscape.
According to Ling Meng, Bing Thom’s design director, the greatest challenge in crafting the Blairs Master Plan was not the project’s city-sized scope or LEED Gold aspirations, but its two-decades-long timetable.
“Over time, the spaces can be improved and modified, but we wanted to make sure the essence—the integration of mixed-use facilities with the community, the accessibility, the public spaces—will always be there,” says Meng.
In looking at the existing site, Meng saw a 1960s-styled community with a large supermarket and massive parking lot in the middle, but little integration with the surrounding community. With public transportation less than a quarter mile away, it was, in his words, “the perfect site” to develop an integrated, mixed-use space.
The property’s 45-ft gradient inspired a vision of a walkable European hill town within Silver Spring, with every social amenity accessible by foot. The plan also envisioned a community that was anything but insular, with a layout that encourages locals to pass through the Blairs on their way to the Metro, engaging with the community’s retail, restaurant, and entertainment offerings. “It’s everything we talk about when we talk about transit-oriented principles,” says Meng.
Alan Ward agrees. Ward is principal at Sasaki and a renowned urban planner and landscape architect. His past projects include the historic redesign of the landscape at the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool. He and his team worked with Bing Thom during the urban planning and design phase of the Master Plan, and they met extensively with Silver Spring county officials to determine appropriate rezoning, building and outdoor space sizes, and common space elements that would enhance the communal life in downtown Silver Spring. Once those spaces were defined, Ward’s team then fit the buildings with the site’s unique topography and led the design of the site’s landscapes, from locating recreational spaces, water features, and gardens, to selecting and placing sustainable vegetation native to the nearby Piedmont Forest.
The result is an outdoor environment that includes more than 100 local species of vegetation. The plantings are strategically located to recapture rainwater runoff from buildings and the surrounding landscape, reducing annual demand for irrigation by 60 percent, or 84,000 gallons of water.
And while the green features and resource savings are impressive, Ward is particularly proud of his firm’s collaboration on the Master Plan’s transit-friendly elements. In the long run, those may arguably result in the greatest impact on the health of the surrounding environment and community residents.
“When you create a site that encourages pedestrian and transit use, and it’s a redevelopment of a site that creates more density in closer proximity to mass transit, that is the bigger story,” says Ward.
With the Master Plan in place, the Tower Companies tapped two more industry heavyweights to design and build the Pearl, the first of four residential buildings registered for LEED, which opened in February. Baltimore-based Design Collective, Inc., is a national leader in mixed-use urban planning and design, and Clark Construction is a prolific contractor with more than 68 million square feet of LEED-certified projects in its portfolio. Both companies are USGBC Silver-level members.
Spearheading the Pearl’s design meant picking up where the Master Plan’s vision left off, a challenge that felt familiar to Michael Goodwin, senior principal at Design Collective.
“On a number of projects, we’ve found ourselves inheriting a masterplan that we did not author,” says Goodwin. “But our approach is more holistic than some of the firms that are just mixed-use or planning firms. We analyze the masterplan to understand its goals, look at what it’s trying to achieve, and improve upon it.”
From the start, Goodwin says, his firm understood the Blairs Master Plan’s vision of residential buildings that were not just LEED-certified, but fully integrated into the existing urban landscape. With an interdisciplinary team that included urban designers, architects, and environmental graphic designers, Design Collective developed the Pearl as a progressive, multi-tiered building with portions of the building 5 stories, 8 stories, and 14 stories high. Design Collective’s modification to the approved zoning improved on the Blairs Master Plan’s goal of maximizing residents’ access to, and views of, the outdoors while minimizing the solar impact on adjacent homes and businesses.
Goodwin’s firm also collaborated with the structural engineer to determine that fully submerging the parking garage was economically feasible since the first layer of existing soil would need to be removed anyway to support high-rise construction. The approved zoning had 4-stories of above-grade parking wrapped by residential units. Design Collective’s new design brought the outdoor/social amenities that would have been on the roof of the garage down to the ground level, further diminishing the impact of cars and improving the Tower’s vision for access to green spaces and promotion of a healthy lifestyle.
Before construction could begin, the Tower Companies had to tear down the 60-year-old Blair Towers. In keeping with Sonny Abramson’s community-centered approach to development, residents were offered units in the adjoining Blair Apartments building. The developer also paid for moving expenses, which might explain why more than 40 percent of them have chosen to stay throughout the construction process.
And when it came time to build Design Collective’s vision of the Pearl, the nationally ranked Clark Construction was more than ready. The Bethesda-based contractor has more than a century of experience building everything from museums to mixed-use residential communities. And with more than $3.2 billion in annual green projects, the company is well versed in the products, designs, and site practices required to achieve LEED certification.
“Nowadays, just about every project we do is LEED certified,” says Mike Alto, senior vice president at Clark Construction. “So we help to optimize the budget, and that means working closely with the design team and owners to help them make design decisions.”
So, what is the end result? The Pearl is a U-shaped complex of 284 units spread across low-, mid-, and high-rise structures, providing occupants with maximum views of the property’s expansive green spaces. In addition to cutting-edge green features—the building boasts a solar photovoltaic system, green rooftops, high-efficiency heat pumps and water fixtures, and postconsumer recycled construction materials—the building and environs integrate abundant opportunities for healthy living and sustainable practices across residential, commercial, retail, and common spaces.
Residents of the Pearl, for example, can take part in free composting and a community supported agriculture program. From the spacious lobby, they can see the two-story floating glass fitness center above a central courtyard with green space and water features. From the rooftop pool, residents can take in views of the 1,750-acre Rock Creek Park, part of the National Parks system.
The development’s outdoor spaces also promote recreation, with swaths of grass and trees ideal for yoga classes; residential gardens; communal dining and cooking space for residents and restaurant chefs; a playground, outdoor athletic equipment, and a dog run; and running and pedestrian paths throughout the property. In Abramson’s words, you can “literally see the green.”
That holistic vision is aligned with the evolution of LEED, as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) looks beyond solar panels and heat recovery systems to consider a building’s impact on occupants and the community. LEED credits can now be earned for proximity to public transportation, access to outdoor parks and affordable, locally sourced food, and a site footprint that minimizes strain on the surrounding environment.
As the Pearl prepared to open its doors, Jeffrey Abramson called the collaboration between the Tower Companies, Bing Thom Architects, Sasaki, Design Collective, Inc., and Clark Construction “world-class,” and he was already looking forward to breaking ground on the Blairs Master Plan’s second residential building.
The project itself is a testament to the impact of LEED and sustainable urban design, and to Abramson’s father’s vision of building healthy, thriving communities, not just buildings. In honor of that vision, residents of the Pearl and members of the Silver Spring community can now gather on Sonny’s Green, a green space at the property’s center that includes a 400-person amphitheater, urban garden, and playground. A more expansive Sonny’s Park will be a permanent fixture on the property as additional residences are built.
“We wanted to design something memorable,” says Abramson.
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