Fear in Fenton Village

Mural on the side of Kefa Cafe, an Ethopian-owned coffee-shop brightens up a cold winter day on Bonifant Street.

By MIKE PERSLEY

One Silver Spring resident and several Fenton Village’s small-business owners accuse county officials of putting little thought into the impact their new development plans will have on the neighborhood’s long-established businesses and appearance.

“You say you love small businesses,” says Karen Roper, Chair of the East Silver Spring Citizen’s Association, “but you’re running out over 200 of them, and you’re not doing anything proactive to keep them in the area.”

In recent years the county’s planning board targeted Fenton Village for new housing and office space because it is close to the downtown business district. The neighborhood is also in the state’s Purple Line plan. A new station will be located at the soon-to-be finished Silver Spring public library.

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Bonifont Street from Fenton Street in Silver Spring. Library construction is on the right.

Roper argues that the county’s plan does require space for neighborhood-serving retail, but does nothing to protect the small-businesses that are already there.

The result, she fears, will be a neighborhood that will eventually change from a walkable, small-business friendly community to one crowded by high-priced housing complexes and office space.

“What is the plan?” asks Roper. “If you just want to gentrify this, and make it some exclusive place where all you can do is eat, you ought to be telling us. But you shouldn’t have the reputation of supporting small businesses when you don’t.”

Fenton Village currently holds more than 100 small-businesses, believed by some to meet many of its residents most basic services.

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Mural on the side of Kefa Cafe, an Ethopian-owned coffee-shop brightens up a cold winter day on Bonifant Street.

Locksmiths, shoe repair, tailoring, auto repair shops, and a diverse array of ethnic restaurants line the streets between Wayne Avenue to the north, Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street to the east and west, and Sligo Avenue to the south.

Many of the businesses are a short walk from each other.

The county’s master plan for the area, adopted in 2000, recognizes the neighborhood’s unique characteristics.

“Fenton Village,” the plan states, “is envisioned as a diverse community of people living and working together to create a tightly-knit urban neighborhood, conducive to strolling and browsing…Fenton Village has many strengths, including multi-cultural shops and restaurants, unique small businesses, a pedestrian-scaled physical environment, clusters of complimentary businesses.”

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Small businesses on Bonifant Street.

The plan calls for changes in zoning to develop housing and office space that would improve the neighborhood’s aesthetics while growing the small-businesses customer base.

The problem, Roper says, is that the growing development will cause the price of rent to go up and slowly force those businesses out, and that the city has no rules in place to protect them.

One example she points to is the small swath of businesses on Bonifant Street, between Fenton St. and Georgia Avenue.

Twenty-one businesses are located in this small area, many of which have been around for decades, but one, a thrift store, already has plans of shutting down so the site can be rebuilt as a housing complex.

Further, a small portion of the Purple Line is set to be built directly through Bonifant Street leading into the library station. The construction will remove over half of the parking spaces for customers, and make it difficult for the businesses to receive shipments.

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Silver Spring county library under construction at the corner of Bonifant and Fenton Streets.

Construction of the rail system, which is set to begin in 2015, will also hinder access to the businesses for some portion of the five years that’s expected to finish the project.

“ Where are the 21 businesses going to go?” asks Roper. “Because they’re all going to be wiped out within a matter of two years.”

Steve Schneider, owner of Atlantic Guns, Inc., believes the county has not taken into account his businesses needs, particularly on parking.

“The biggest problem has to do with parking.If we have customers, we need parking,” he says. “ A trolley going right out in front of you makes that kind of difficult, but they’re going to do what they want to do no matter what you think.”

Cynthia Parker, who has co-owned Silver Spring Books at its Bonifant Street location for 23 years, also worries about the effect parking will have on her business.

“It’s going to make a big difference, of course, when anything is being built,” she says. “It’s going to change some things. You would expect that. But the fact that it’s taking away all of this parking. Where is everyone going to go?”

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Reemberto Rodriquez, Director of the Silver Spring Regional Center, which helps create dialogue between state and county agencies and Silver Spring residents, says that good-faith efforts have been made to address the issues created by the new development.

“To say that we’re working together on this is an understatement,” he says. “ Everything that is done is being done in a personal and empathetic way toward the businesses.”

Rodriguez, who lives within walking distance of the businesses on Bonifant Street and maintains good relationships with many of the owners, says he meets regularly with county officials and the Maryland Transportation Administration and finds them very responsive to the citizens needs.

“All agencies have the best interest at heart,” he says, “But to say that it’s simple would be disingenuous. It’s a complicated matter.”

Paul Shepard, Deputy Chief Public Information Officer for the Purple Line Outreach Team, agrees that every effort is being made by the MTA to accommodate businesses along the planned line.

“Since 2011, the MTA has hosted 5 meetings with the Bonifant Street business owners specifically,” he says, “and we’ll continue to meet with communities, business owners, and other stakeholders throughout the project to provide updates and discuss their concerns.”

But for Roper, dialogue with agencies is not enough if there are no rules in place to protect the type of neighborhood retail that Fenton Village relies on.

“There’s no rule that says it has to be retail,” she says. “We’re getting nothing but housing. This whole area is going to be a really crowded area with no retail.”

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Bonifont Street’s section of ethnic restaurants and other businesses converted from row-houses.

Roper says that she, through her position at the citizen’s association, has personally sat down with four different developers whose projects have been approved by the counties planning board, and worked out agreements that would alter their development to maintain the neighborhood’s sense of place.

For example, a deal was negotiated with a firm that is planning to build office space on the site of the 1st Baptist Church on the corner of Fenton and Bonifant Street. The new contract gave the developers extra density if they pushed their design closer to downtown to avoid placing a 60 ft. building next to a residential home.

“People would be able to stand in their office and see people cooking dinner in their kitchen,” she says. “The county doesn’t seem to think about these things. They just want to build anything and everything.”

Roper claims that the county should have rules in place to create transitional zoning between downtown and Fenton Village, otherwise they are only giving lip service to preserving the neighborhood’s character.

Bridget B. Schwiesow, Communications Manager for the Montgomery County Planning Department, the agency responsible for approving new development plans throughout the county, says that the department is already creating rules to protect the character of Fenton Village.

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Businesses on Bonifant Street.

“A recent text amendment to the ordinance (the master plan) requires building step backs for buildings fronting on Fenton Street focusing on the compatibility, height, and character of Fenton,” she says. “Fenton Village will continue to be a distinct and unique district in Silver Spring.”

Roper views the new rules with skepticism.

“There’s nothing about their rules that gives any meaningful protection to the businesses in this neighborhood,” she says. “They’re going. They’ve been going for years. We had over 200. We’re down to 119, and it’s only going to get worse.”