American Dream to remain a fantasy Montgomery County executive ends plans for Silver Spring mall

November 13, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan announced yesterday that he has terminated an agreement with a Canadian developer to build American Dream, a sprawling $585 million retail and entertainment complex in Silver Spring.

Duncan said his decision was based on the uncertainties surrounding the project's finances. Triple Five Development's executives failed to produce "concrete evidence" of private investors willing to put their money into a project, he said.

But even if the developer could document private backing, he said, the project relied too much on taxpayer support -- up to half its cost, or about $250 million to $300 million.

"The public should not have to accept an inordinate share of the risk in this, or any venture of this sort," Duncan said. "They want the taxpayers of Montgomery County and the state of Maryland to put up too much money."

The decision all but kills the ambitious urban renewal project. Triple Five wanted to convert a four-block area of vacant lots and empty storefronts into a megamall covering the equivalent of 21 football fields with attractions such as an indoor wave pool, luxury hotel, and ice rink amid clusters of retail stores and restaurants.

Triple Five is the company that pioneered the megamall -- the zTC Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., and West Edmonton Mall in Canada, which hold respective titles as the largest in the United States and the world.

Representatives of Triple Five yesterday refused to declare the project dead. But they said unless Duncan endorsed greater public support for the megamall, they would seek to build it elsewhere in the Wash ington area. The officials refused to specify where else they might locate.

"We are stunned to learn the Montgomery County executive has chosen to reject our proposal for revitalizing Silver Spring," said Martin Walrath, project director for Triple Five. "We don't understand his reasons."

Walrath accused Duncan of lacking the "political will" to pursue state funding in Annapolis. He said Baltimore's state legislators have expressed greater support for the project than many of their counterparts in Montgomery County.

"The state has a tremendous amount of interest in this," he said.

Duncan, however, said he was uncomfortable with launching a "major floor fight" in Annapolis with so little certainty over the project's private finances. And, he said, he feared going after too much state support for a mall would cost Montgomery County some of its vital road and education funding.

Nevertheless, the county executive said he was willing to support up to $150 million in public investment for the project. That would have included $50 million in state money to upgrade infrastructure and $21.5 million in state enterprise zone tax credits.

Silver Spring's deteriorating downtown has been a vexing problem for the prosperous county. American Dream is the third large-scale development effort aimed at reviving the suburb's commercial center over the past 10 years.

The megamall's opponents said yesterday they were pleased with Duncan's decision but recognized that their objections probably played little role in the decision. They had attacked the project for its potentially negative impact on traffic, crime and the environment of the middle-class community.

"I hope everyone has learned that bigger isn't necessarily better," said Roberta Faul-Zeitler, president of Citizens for Sensible Development, an anti-mall group with 4,000 members. "Something that is high-risk and untested isn't necessarily the solution for Silver Spring."

The mall's supporters expressed deep disappointment with the decision. The developer had estimated that the huge project might have pumped $1 billion into the community's economy and created thousands of jobs.

"I'm just astonished," said Steve Silverman, president of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce. "He's made a premature decision. He's not left Silver Spring in a position to go out and find alternatives."

Silverman said he also is concerned that Duncan's decision might perpetuate the business community's image of Montgomery County as unfriendly to developers.

Duncan said he will seek other developers who have submitted proposals to redevelop downtown Silver Spring.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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