Leaders find disconnect between online and in-person opinions on Silver Spring library bridge
At a recent public hearing on whether the county should allow a pedestrian bridge to be built from the Wayne Avenue parking garage to the new Silver Spring library, only one person of the nine who spoke voiced opposition to the project.
Public record alone, then, suggests overwhelming community support.
But take a look at a few local blogs, and a vastly different opinion emerges.
A blog post from May 18 opposing the bridge has received more than 30 comments, nearly all voicing anti-bridge sentiments. None of these comments is public record because of the format in which they were presented, leaving some asking: Should the Montgomery County Council be factoring in opinions from blogs and social media such as Twitter and Facebook?
"I just think it's absolutely fascinating," said County Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park at the March 8 public hearing. "Because I know that the blogs that write about Silver Spring will continue derisively to ridicule the proposal for this bridge; although, no one who posted on those blogs made an effort to come here tonight."
Posts and comments about the bridge on local blogs such as ThayerAvenue.com, Just Up the Pike, and Silver Spring, Singular suggest that a number of residents vehemently oppose a bridge.
"I think something needs to be said for meaningful debate within the confines of social media, because it's not going away," said Eric Robbins, publisher of ThayerAvenue.com, who has written with disdain about the project since last spring. "It's going to become a more integral part of the debate. Governing organizations need to take a stronger look at that and filter out the fact that some of these are knee-jerk reactions. But if the reactions online are vastly different than those who show up at the council meetings, then someone needs to recognize the disconnect and rectify the problem."
In December, County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring reintroduced a resolution to change the Silver Spring Urban Renewal Plan to allow pedestrian bridges downtown. The plan, written in 1999, prohibits bridges over four streets in the business district, including Wayne Avenue.
The change would allow for an elevated walkway stretching from the Wayne Avenue garage, over a four lane street, to the $32 million Silver Spring library. A bridge would cost more than $750,000, said Don Scheuerman, acting section chief of the county Department of General Services, at a public meeting in November. The library is slated for completion in 2014.
Those who want a bridge say it will make the library more accessible to seniors, people with disabilities and those with young children.
"The new library must be as accessible as possible to all patrons, regardless of their physical condition or how they get to the library," said Marilyn Wisoff, of Friends of the Library, Montgomery County, a nonprofit that supports libraries and supplements the basic operating funds provided in the county's budget. "This means that the intersection should be safe, and there should be direct access from parking to the library."
Those opposed to a bridge say it will decrease foot traffic, taking business away from street-level stores in Fenton Village, downtown Silver Spring and the surrounding area. A cheaper solution is to make the Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street intersection more pedestrian-friendly, the opponents say.
Robbins argues that, in light of county budget constraints, a library bridge is not a priority. The county should instead improve the pedestrian safety of the intersection at Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street. Elevators in the garage and library make the library accessible to those with disabilities.
Council members are online too, Leventhal said, adding that he believes he is obligated to consider all input, no matter the format. But social media has limitations, he said. If someone posts an opinion on his Facebook page only, there is no guarantee that all council members will read it, Leventhal said, adding that commenting on blogs can elicit nasty responses.
"People who disagree with you can be very emotional about their viewpoint, and it scares some people off," Leventhal said.
The County Council takes written testimony from individuals who cannot attend a public hearing. Testifying at a public hearing is most effective, Leventhal said, because the entire council focuses on one issue.
Showing up, Robbins said, does make a difference. But the council cannot toss aside opinions just because of the medium in which they were presented, he said. Robbins and Leventhal agree that age may play a role in how viewpoints are being brought to the table. Younger people simply spend more time on the Internet, they said.
The resolution to amend the Urban Renewal Plan to allow for a bridge went before the Health and Human Services and Planning, Housing & Economic Development committees of the County Council March 10. Leventhal voted to move the resolution forward. No one seconded the motion, and the committee made no recommendation.
Ordinarily, items go before the council with a committee recommendation. It is now up to Ervin to decide whether to put the item on the agenda to go before the whole council. Otherwise, the resolution is dead.
A revised, streamlined design of the Silver Spring library leaves room for a pedestrian bridge, should the county decide to build one in the future. There is no current proposal to build a bridge.