Silver Spring gets plans for 'town center' RTKL part of team that is proposing $326 million revival

Urban development

October 29, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

After more than a decade of false starts, downtown Silver Spring may finally get the boost it needs to restore it as a vital commercial center.

A team of four developers, including Baltimore's RTKL Associates, unveiled a $326 million proposal yesterday that would turn vacant lots, empty buildings and half-filled parking garages in Maryland's second largest community into a "town center" of stores, offices and a hotel.

The plan centers on two hubs within the 26-acre wedge of land bordered by Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road: "Silver Circle," a cluster of businesses geared toward leisure activities and evening entertainment; and "Town Square," which would include a supermarket, hardware store and civic meeting building.

The hubs, designed by RTKL, feature street-facing storefronts, restaurants with sidewalk seating, wide pedestrian walkways and curbside parking.

A "fast track" timeline for the project sets groundbreaking for late 1998.

The plan is half the cost of last year's failed American Dream megamall proposal and has another very important advantage -- the support of Montgomery County's most powerful politician.

"At the time [last year], I said that if the American Dream is the home-run approach, one project that solves all the problems of downtown Silver Spring, if that's not going to work, we need to look at hitting a bunch of singles," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "You get the same results, the same score."

Duncan said he expects to include funds for capital improvements for the site in his budget next year and will ask the state for $20 million for the project and $20 million to upgrade the nearby commuter rail system.

Much rides on the outcome of this plan. After three failed attempts at urban renewal, Silver Spring has earned a national reputation it would like to bury. The state and county have spent $50 million to buy the land at the heart of the downtown and want tax revenue as a payoff for their investment. And Duncan, who is up for re-election next year, has vowed to fix the state's second-largest community "or die trying."

Already there are signs things will be different.

The project has attracted letters of interest from more than a dozen businesses, including AMC Theaters, Fresh Fields supermarket chain, TGI Friday, the Sports Authority and a national book store chain, said Bryant F. Foulger of Foulger-Pratt Co. of Rockville, head of the development team.

Foulger noted that this project would rely on customers who live and work in the area, unlike the 2.1 million-square-foot American Dream, whose backers had hoped it would become a national attraction like the Mall of America.

Even the design plays to civic pride. The vacant strip mall at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road would be transformed into a fountain-lined Gateway Plaza, "a bigger than life and proud an-

nouncement of Silver Spring," said architect Gary Bowden, of RTKL.

The developers also are reaching out to merchants and civic leaders who fear that a multimillion-dollar project would overwhelm the tiny pockets of successful businesses within the 300-acre downtown.

"A rising tide lifts all ships," said James W. Todd, president of the Peterson Cos. and one of the developers.

"Good, solid, local businesses, with people who have a good product, will thrive."

Argo Investment Co. of Rockville is the fourth developer.

Steve Silverman, co-chairman of the 31-member citizens' committee that has worked with the developers since May, praised the variety of stores and community-friendly design.

"It is exactly what most people in our community are looking for," he said. "We're not trying to be another Bethesda."

The project would require tearing down two massive parking garages and the National Guard Armory, the latter a landmark and potential flash point with longtime residents.

"The armory is not the Parthenon," said Silverman, who noted that the project includes a new civic building.

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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