Stakes high for Silver Spring Developers again seek to revive downtown

September 08, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

There's anxiety in downtown Silver Spring, a feeling among residents and merchants that it will forever be a vast expanse of vacant fields, boarded-up storefronts and office towers that empty at 6.

Three proposals over the past decade to inject life into one of Maryland's largest communities failed in the face of somnambulant bureaucrats, shaky financing or community opposition.

So when Montgomery County officials introduced a new development team in May charged with resurrecting a 14-acre wedge in the heart of the 300-acre downtown, many heard an implicit warning: This may be our last chance.

Resurrection day is almost here. A 31-member steering committee of residents and business leaders will meet two more times this month -- tomorrow and Sept. 23 -- with the development team before the team's blueprint for the property is rolled out early next month.

"The stars -- political, economic, community -- are in alignment. We're here at the right place at the right time," says Bryant Foulger of Foulger-Pratt Cos. of Rockville, who heads the team of four developers chosen by the county.

The stakes are high. Failure now, residents and merchants fear, will mean rising crime and falling property values, making the community of 78,000 more like troubled Washington and less like the rest of prosperous Montgomery.

Residents look with envy at neighboring Bethesda, with its nearly 200 restaurants, and Chevy Chase, with its upscale shops.

But they are equally wary of yet another proposal like the American Dream mega-mall and its gimmicks -- a wave pool, ice rink and IMAX theater -- that could turn the downtown into a mess of traffic-clogged roads. County officials killed plans for the $585 million mall after they said developers failed to produce evidence of private investors.

The state and county have bet a lot on Silver Spring -- $50 million on acquiring the downtown site -- and are eager to get a return via new tax revenue on their investment.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan says the anxiety is understandable but should not be allowed to bog down the latest effort.

"Silver Spring has spent too much time beating on itself," says Duncan, a Democrat. "People feel that way because they fear that if we have to start over again, it will be almost impossible to get someone else to come in here.

"But it's a great hub," he insists. "It has a lot of potential."

Downtown Silver Spring, centered around the intersection of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue, once represented post-war suburban commercial success. It had Maryland's first car-oriented strip shopping center and was among the first suburbs to boast branches of major department stores. In the 1960s, regional malls began sucking the economic life out of the downtown. The rise of Bethesda in the go-go 1980s nearly finished the job.

Despite its commercial deterioration, Silver Spring remains an attractive market, officials say. The average household income is $55,188, about $1,500 higher than the state average, according to 1994 U.S. census figures. More than 58 percent of the population has a college degree.

Most urgent for business and community leaders is to fill the void left by the demise of the Silver Spring Shopping Center and the department stores. How to do it is another matter.

County government officials and the development team talk of a "town center," with retail shops facing the street and a huge block of safe, accessible parking behind them. They point to the Reston, Va., downtown -- a pedestrian-friendly place -- as their model.

But such residents as Roberta Faul-Zeitler, who leads the 4,500-member Citizens for Sensible Development, warn that that vision may be a generic solution that overwhelms nearby downtown merchants who have taken a chance on building their future in Silver Spring.

"We've told [Foulger-Pratt] don't expect us to embrace your whole program," Faul-Zeitler says. "If all we do is take a mall and turn it inside out, then we haven't created a town center."

Faul-Zeitler and others who have attended the summer-long community planning sessions say a blueprint that overlooks the other 286 acres in the urban district and the cultural needs of the community is doomed. They want venues for theater, art and music to be part of the plan.

Counters Blair Lee, the county's former lobbyist in Annapolis and part-owner of a local development company: "Hamlet doesn't save the downtown. We need to let the market tell us what it wants to invest in."

The county councilman who represents Silver Spring agrees.

"Only the private sector has the power to revitalize downtown Silver Spring," says Derick P. Berlage, a Democrat. "Even if Montgomery County tomorrow stumbled onto the perfect plan that solved all the problems, that doesn't mean it would happen because banks would have to invest money, developers would have to build buildings and retailers would have to lease space.

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