Montgomery County's first public housing building is coming down; A ‘world-class’ rec center rises
SILVER SPRING, Md. - Tucked in between three high-rise apartment buildings at the end of Apple Avenue and on the edge of Fenwick Street, right behind the courthouse and up the hill from the train tracks in a cozy corner of downtown Silver Spring is where you’ll find it.
The new South County Regional Recreation and Aquatic Center in Elizabeth Square will be an unprecedented urban oasis equipped with state-of-the-art swimming pools, hot tubs, a gymnasium, multipurpose rooms, a kitchen and a health clinic. A facility like this one has never been built in Montgomery County, and residents like Don Braverman, 90, Izola Ancar, 84, and Stan Starr, 68, can’t wait for it to open.
Ancar, Braverman, and Starr, live in The Leggett, a newly built income-restricted apartment building for senior citizens over the age of 62. Opening The Leggett on May 4 was phase one of the Housing Opportunities Commission’s intricate plan to transform this pocket of the city.
Ms. Ancar moved into the building in June 2023. When she came to check it out, she said she was given information on the recreation and aquatic center by a representative at the leasing office.
"It’s got everything," she said. "I love to swim, and my knees are kind of bad, but they have the heated pool. That’s good. I will use the pool every day."
On days when the weather is warm, and not too windy, Ms. Ancar sits in front of the Alexander House apartment building located adjacent to The Leggett. She likes to people-watch and shoot the breeze with her friend, Cheryl Bigham.
Cheryl Bigham (L), and her friend Izola Ancar (R) sit in front of the Alexander House, one of three residential buildings in the new Elizabeth Square.
With the sound of cars zooming on the roads in front of them, hammers hitting nails, power tools buzzing and the trains chugging along the tracks behind them, Ms. Ancar and Ms. Bigham get giddy when they talk about the future of the neighborhood.
Ms. Bigham, 62, says that she’s lived on the fourth floor of the Alexander House since 2022.
"When they showed me my unit, they showed me the pool that they were building," she recalled. "They said it was for residents." (At the time, she wasn’t sure if everybody would be allowed in.)
From her balcony, she can see and hear builders working on the recreation and aquatic center. The noise doesn’t bother her, though. When she goes inside she can’t hear much because her windows are insulated.
Ms. Bigham is looking forward to using the treadmill when the rec center opens.
"That aqua aerobics is good for our joints," she said.
Mr. Braverman wound up at The Leggett after his son suggested he downsize from the single-family house he’d spent years at, to an apartment in Silver Spring. He wasn’t sure he could live in a small unit, but he says the staff has been "incredible."
Because of the condition of his knees and his lack of balance, Mr. Braverman says that he can’t ride a bicycle like he used to, so he’s looking forward to using the stationary bike in the new rec center.
"It can’t open soon enough," he said. "I’ve gone to the senior center here, but the bicycle is unfortunately not the kind I need or want. This is why I really want it to open."
The Holy Cross Health clinic is on the second floor of The Leggett and connected to the Silver Spring Recreation and Aquatic Center. For now, all patients have to enter through The Leggett.
Mr. Braverman also mentioned that he’s been seeing the main doctor who will treat patients at the Holy Cross Health Partners clinic [an elevator ride upstairs] for over a year now.
Montgomery County Recreation Department and Holy Cross Health hosted an informational meeting for residents of The Leggett in August 2023.
Other tenants, like Mr. Starr, believe the construction is, "taking too long!"
"We’re hearing these dates shift around a lot," he said at a county-sponsored informational about the Silver Spring Recreation and Aquatic Center, held specifically for residents of The Leggett.
Initially, it was advertised that the building would be open by June 2023, but the county now says no one will be lifting a weight or taking a dip until late February.
"Generally speaking, it’s a great idea. But we’re getting lost in the minutiae," Mr. Starr said.
Stan Starr, 68, sits in his apartment on the 16th floor of The Leggett.
Among his gripes, the self-proclaimed "Mayor of The Leggett" believes that Costello, the construction company tasked with building the rec center, parks their cars along Apple Avenue leading to the cul-de-sac where his building and the SSRAC are located.
"The rugs are ruined because these people wouldn’t put tarps down to cover the carpet, so they track it in, and now this beautiful rug is ruined," he said. "The fire alarm … They told me that they’re suppressing the fire alarm because while they are building the pool, it’s causing dust. But what happens if there’s a real fire?"
Mr. Starr left the Arrive Silver Spring apartment building on Georgia Avenue a few months after a woman died in a fire on the eleventh floor. Despite his concerns, he said he likes his new unit, and is "glad" he moved.
The front door rug at The Leggett in September 2023.
Dulce Flores is the community/resident manager at The Leggett.
She says that she and her staff have been telling tenants about the SSRAC daily and letting them know how convenient it will be to use.
"All they have to do is take the elevator down. They don’t need to drive," she said. "Usually, they have to wait for family members. Now, they can just go to the second floor. There are some people that are swimmers and, right now, they go to other rec centers."
"It’s an awesome addition not just for residents, but for the entire zip code," Flores added. "Employees will benefit from it. We are all excited about it."
Dulce Flores is the community/resident manager at The Leggett.
Flores is anticipating more traffic on her doorstep.
"It will put eyes on our community. But we like to be seen," she said. "Seniors are uncles and grandmothers, and it’s good to know we’re here. It will work to our benefit."
A couple steps away from The Leggett, and right next door to the SSRAC, the county’s first public housing building is still standing. Sort of.
The Elizabeth House, Montgomery County's oldest public housing building, will be completely demolished in the coming months.
The Elizabeth House is empty. All 194 senior residents moved out, and while some relocated to The Leggett, others had to find housing elsewhere. A sign on the old doors states the property contains asbestos.
What’s left is a shell of a building still oozing out decades-worth of memories.
Chelsea Andrews is the executive director of the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) of Montgomery County. She said that the 10-story apartment building that has housed Silver Spring citizens since 1966 is "beyond its useful life." It will be completely demolished in the coming months.
Recent changes in public housing allow agencies such as HOC to leverage private financing and other affordable housing subsidies to serve the same families and individuals in a financially sustainable business model. The final phase of the Elizabeth Square development involves replacing The Elizabeth House with a new mixed-use, mixed-income building in its place.
In the meantime, a temporary plaza will create another entranceway to the recreation and aquatic center.
Architectural rendering showing one of the entrances to Elizabeth Square. Photo via Montgomery County Recreation Department.
"We are excited to bring new life to the Downtown North district of Silver Spring, new amenities to serve the whole community, and new opportunities for all families to take advantage of this prime location right next to the Metro," Andrews said in a statement. "HOC is tremendously proud to be part of an innovative partnership with the Montgomery County Government and the Lee Development Group to create Elizabeth Square – an exciting new destination in Silver Spring which offers affordable housing colocated with incredible retail and community amenities."
Between The Leggett, The Alexander House, and the forthcoming new-and-improved Elizabeth House, there will be a total of 908 residential units. HOC is also handling Holy Cross’ Primary Care facility, but the amenity that so many residents will enjoy for decades, Andrews believes, is Montgomery County Recreation Department’s new "world-class" South County Regional Recreation and Aquatic Center.
Spas, Zumba, a hospital and an Olympic-sized pool: Inside Maryland's new $55 million hybrid gym
Architectural rendering showing the courtyard and main entrance to Elizabeth Square once the entire project is complete. Photo via Montgomery Country Recreation Department.
Construction on the colossal, highly-anticipated, hybrid Silver Spring recreation and aquatic center began in October 2019.
The idea for the project was a partnership hashed out two years prior between HOC and then-Montgomery County Recreation Director Gabe Albernoz.
"They were going to include some sort of recreational amenity for the residents of this housing development and he thought, this is an opportunity for something greater, and then he called me," recalled David Dise, director of Montgomery County’s General Services Department. "We thought, ‘yeah that’s a great idea. Let’s explore that.’ Since then, we’ve been working with HOC, and the Montgomery County Dept. of Recreation to explore what this could be."
Construction workers building the exterior of the facility in June 2023.
The county’s decision to partner with HOC allowed them to take advantage of a piece of property that was already going to be used. Constructing the recreation and aquatic center absent the housing element would have been more expensive and difficult since there aren't many other large pieces of land in Silver Spring’s central business district.
"I think this was an opportunity, a project, and interests all evolving at the same time. So, just the synergy of doing it here sort of exposed us to the opportunity," Dise explained. "What's nice is that all of the partners involved saw the benefit. It's been a great cooperative environment."
KGD Architecture was brought in by HOC to draw up the designs to fill the 120,000 gross square feet of public recreation space. When it was time to break ground, Dise turned to Lee Development Group, builders who constructed The Fillmore Silver Spring, the Civic Building in Veteran’s Plaza, and the county’s first library-recreation center in Wheaton.
"We’ve built some signature facilities in other parts of the county and this is the kind of facility we would like to build in other places, so it’s great to see that it’s a combination; it’s a tri-service building," said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who has followed this project since it was first proposed. He was a member of the county council at the time and recalled there being a lot of excitement about partnering with HOC.
A Costello construction worker (R) shows Montgomery County Executive March Elrich (L) and David Dise (C) the swimming pool during a tour in September 2023.
On his first visit to the building in late September 2023, Elrich said what he saw was "impressive."
"Being inside this thing and seeing what they’ve done is pretty remarkable and you realize the magnitude of the challenges that are in this building in terms of what you’re supporting as a residential tower … How they’ve laid this whole thing out is just … Just beautiful," Elrich said.
"It’s a senior center, it’s an aquatic center, and it’s got recreation activities, and classrooms and a commercial kitchen that can be used for training. So, it’s really a complete package that can be used for a lot of different services," he continued.
Robin Riley is Montgomery County’s Recreation director. She oversees 22 other rec centers throughout the county, and has played an integral role in the development of this ambitious project.
A wall inside the SSRAC displays the features and rooms on each floor.
The SSRAC will be MoCo's first regional hub, and according to Riley, it’s filled with endless opportunities.
"While it will serve seniors [above us] if you look around, there’s tons of other residents that we serve here and it's accessible by Metro and to lots of downtown businesses that can come here before work and after work," Riley said during a recent tour of the space. "We’re excited about the opportunity to do something in a more urban environment that we’ve never done before."
So far, she’s hired nine full-time employees and hopes to fill several seasonal positions soon.
The first floor of the facility will feature multipurpose activity rooms, public use space, and social areas.
On the second floor, there’s a gymnasium where residents can play basketball, badminton, volleyball and, of course, – there will be pickleball.
The exercise and weight room, in addition to the movement and dance studios with mood lighting for ballet and Zumba, are also on Level 2. There’s a culinary arts kitchen where Riley says cooking classes will take place and seniors can learn to fix quick and easy meals. Each room is equipped with very specific applications for the community to use.
The largest draw that most visitors will marvel at and frequent is the aquatic area on the bottom level.
A view of the Olympic-sized pool inside the Silver Spring Recreation and Aquatic Center. Photo via Montgomery County Recreation Department.
Totaling 14,500 square feet of water surface area within the 26,500 square foot natatorium area, the space includes a diving and swimming competition pool, a warmer temperature recreation pool, a leisure pool, and two spas.
There will be high school competitions held in the Olympic-sized pool, and as the facilitator for the 2023 Maryland Senior Olympics, the county hoped to have the space open to use for some aquatic events.
The leisure pool features a variety of playful water details, including a faux rock raised platform slides area and a six-inch deep children’s lagoon with bubblers. Plus, there are built-in evaporation drains that draw all the air right out of the surface water, minimizing the chlorine. That means the entire facility won’t have that indoor pool smell.
Photo via Montgomery County Recreation Department
Another unique design feature is the cabana locker rooms. Due to new county laws requiring family changing areas, and nonbinary restrooms, for the first time ever, the county has placed the cabanas – in addition to men’s and women’s locker rooms – into a recreation facility.
To top things off, there’s also a green vegetative roof throughout most of the facility.
It’s an environmental site design element that minimizes the heat island of the inner city, boosting what water captures and limiting the amount of runoff into the storm sewage.
One of the things that went into the design of the space was the effort to minimize the train noise in the rooms in the building. Sound monitors were placed in all of the residences that face the train to make sure the noise from outside doesn’t come in.
The windows are triple-glazed and contain an extra layer of glass.
The walls are soundproof — so if there’s a raucous basketball tournament going on, it won't spread through the rest of the rooms.
Soon, they will be adorned with photos, plaques and memorabilia from some of the area’s greatest athletes as the facility will become the new home for the Montgomery County Sports Hall of Fame.
"We know that the pool and the gym are going to be active sports places, so it was just a natural fit," Riley said.
Architectural rendering of the bronze Dominique Dawes statue that will be placed inside the SSRAC.
A bronze statue of one of the most notable inductees will be placed in the entranceway, perhaps as a symbol to residents of what they too can achieve.
"Dominique Dawes is from the city of Takoma Park, and certainly a hallmark here for Montgomery County," Riley said. "She’s really involved in building this up. We hope to have her come here and teach some classes as well."
Silver Spring Recreation and Aquatic Center: Can seniors and teens thrive together?
What happens when you open up a top-tier recreation and aquatic center in one of the most diverse cities in America?
A recent WalletHub study has Silver Spring ranked first when it comes to socioeconomic diversity and fourth in cultural diversity. Census data shows the city’s makeup is 39.1% white, 29.3% African American, 24.6% Hispanic 6.8% two or more ethnicities and 7.9% Asian, which means the multicultural faces that will fill the halls of the SSRAC may just look like a living mosaic, embodying a blend of backgrounds.
Just over 23.1% of the population is under the age of 18, while 11.7% of residents are at least 65 years old. And the average salary for households in the area is $91,970.
County Executive Marc Elrich believes this is a good thing.
"I think this will help this community feel like they’re getting the kind of facility that serves a diverse population at a level that they don’t always feel they see," he said. "I think mixtures of populations are great civilizing forces. A lot of times, people don’t know each other but when you come together and you’re sharing spaces together I think it has an effect … Having people together and interacting with each other helps build a sense of some kind of common bond and some type of understanding of all the people that you deal with in this county."
Providing programs for a wide variety of people may seem challenging, but Carmen Berrios, a manager within Montgomery County’s Recreation Department, says the team is excited to get started.
A digital sign will display important messages in front of the SSRAC.
Six days a week, there’ll be activities to help the seniors who frequent the facility stay active and fit. There will be aquatic cycling, aqua yoga, general swimming lessons and all kinds of bonus classes, Berrios says, that will be held in the water. On land, a vast array of classes from Zumba to Tai chi, Bikram yoga, arts and crafts, all kinds of dances and lots more in between will be offered for every member of the family.
"We want to have a facility that’s robust and active, and so we want to make sure that we’re offering programming that our community wants – especially with the seniors that will be living right here with us, we want to make sure that we’re offering programming that they are able to take advantage of," Berrios explained. "Montgomery County is a melting pot. That is what makes us such a wonderful place to live and work. It’s the diversity of our community, and so, our community center will be no different. We will be diverse in both age ranges and also in racial and ethnic backgrounds and that is how we learn from one another, that’s how we communicate and come together and create really great activities. This facility will be no different in that way."
Berrios has been busy gathering feedback from the neighborhoods nearby, and promoting the survey online that helps the county tailor its programming to future users.
In March 2023, Berrios, Riley and a few other members of the recreation department asked local teenagers to talk about their interests and what they wanted to see inside the SSRAC by giving out free pizza and other snacks at a youth outreach event in Wheaton. The county says it wanted to make sure they were connecting with the kids and including activities that they’re interested in.
In the breakout sessions, the teens were candid, and said they wanted an arcade room, phone charging stations, a selfie wall, McDonald’s, escape rooms, scooters, essay writing, anime, money management and K-POP dancing classes, plus SAT/ACT help. They also wanted activities like boxing, sword fighting, archery, mini golf, bumper cars, crochet, darts, karaoke and laser tag, among several other ideas.
"It was an important meeting for us to make sure we heard their voice," Riley said. "We know that young people have a voice and if they have a choice they’ll come."
In March 2023, Montgomery County Recreation staff engaged with teens to gather their input and ideas for the SSRAC.
The youth development team Riley says is "vibrant" in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools has the tough task of motivating kids to be a part of positive activities that can help keep them out of trouble.
With youth violence and mental health issues among young people rising across the country and in the county, the recreation department hopes the SSRAC will be a safe space for teens.
From 2017 through 2022, violent crime rose by 40% in Downtown Silver Spring, according to the county’s crime database. Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones announced in December 2023 that from FY22 to FY23 arrests of kids 17 and under for violent crimes increased a whopping 329%. The county's health director said at the time that the bright side is that violent crimes being committed by teens have decreased since 2021's surge and are now close to pre-pandemic levels. Chief Jones also mentioned that teens are more likely to be victims than criminals. He said the perception that criminals are getting younger is true, and among 12 to 17-year-olds, statistics show the biggest rise in committing violent crime is among 15-year-olds.
The Montgomery County Police Department also reported a 120% increase in youth overdose fatalities from 2021 to 2022. The department’s data shows there were five fatal overdoses of kids 17 and younger recorded two years ago, compared to 11 deaths in 2022.
"We want them to come here," Riley said. "We don’t want them gathered on the plaza, or on Elm Street or Ellsworth. We want them [at the SSRAC] engaged in an activity that they’ll love and stay connected to."
Architectural rendering of the SSRAC, showing the rearview of the facility from Fenwick Lane once the new Elizabeth House is constructed. Photo via Montgomery County Recreation Department.
The county executive agrees.
"It’s absolutely part of the answer," Elrich said. "We need places for youth to go, and need activities there that engage them. That’s certainly one of the nice things about this facility. You can find a lot of stuff to do and hopefully, a lot of kids will come here and be amongst adults who moderate good behaviors and they learn."
The goal is to have the recreation and aquatic center completely finished by Feb. 24. Elrich pointed to supply chain delays as the main factor for the wait.
"I don’t feel too bad about the length of time of the delay given the complexity of the project," he said.
At this point, it’s too early to try to quantify the impact the Silver Spring Recreation and Aquatic Center will have on this bustling community. But when the last brick is laid and the paint dries on the walls; when the builders are all gone, and the seniors are suited up, and ready to sweat; when the kids get out after school, and the pool tiles aren't yet wet — there's a place for them to go.
It's between three high-rise apartment buildings at the end of Apple Avenue and on the edge of Fenwick Street, right behind the courthouse and up the hill from the train tracks in a cozy corner of downtown Silver Spring. That's where they'll find what they're looking for.