Silver Spring to see big changes

Groundbreaking for new downtown to come tomorrow

April 18, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING -- Pigs are flying. Hell has frozen over. Silver Spring is getting a new downtown.

After two decades of fits and starts that included visions of a monorail and wave pool and plans that nearly tore the community apart, officials will break ground tomorrow on a $321 million town center.

The project will bring high-tech movie theaters, name-brand stores and civic boasting rights to a community that as recently as last month was used as a seedy backdrop for a political TV spot.

The Silver Spring Town Center has spawned $500 million worth of development nearby, such as the $150 million Discovery channel headquarters, the American Film Institute's East Coast center, an expansion of Montgomery College and a multimillion-dollar transit center.

"For the next two years, we're going to see the tangible results of 20 years of effort," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who had promised residents he would fix Silver Spring "or die trying."

The project also has given rise to a new generation of politicians and civic activists who cut their teeth on Silver Spring when they weren't sinking them into each other.

"It's more than an economic development project," said County Council member Steven Silverman, a lawyer and former president of the Chamber of Commerce who took heat for the earlier attempts.

"If you look at Silver Spring and what we've been able to accomplish, you're seeing a community that has learned to work together to get things done," he said.

Locals say, only somewhat in jest, that this plan succeeded when the others failed because the developers got the best hardware store in town, Strosnider's Hardware.

In Montgomery County, they say Strosnider's the way a baseball purist says Ebbets Field; a golfer, Augusta. To people in Silver Spring who have to buck miles of weekend traffic to get to a chain hardware store, Strosnider's has always been a reminder of how good Potomac and Bethesda have it.

So when Bryant Foulger, vice president of Foulger-Pratt Cos., the lead developer of the town center, told hundreds of anxious Silver Spring residents last year that he would give them a Strosnider's, people stood, applauded and whistled.

"I should have said that earlier," the soft-spoken developer said.

Foulger had listened when the Ghermezian brothers had not.

The four Ghermezians, owners of Triple Five Group of Edmonton, Alberta, and developers of Mall of America in Minnesota, blew into town from Canada in 1995 with a plastic model of Silver Spring's proposed future and a name for it: American Dream.

In their black fedoras, black overcoats, black suits and dark ties, the Ghermezians were easy pickings for newspaper cartoonists and hecklers, who called them the Blues Brothers.

American Dream, a four-block, $585 million mall, was targeted not at locals, but at tourists eight miles away in Washington.

The Ghermezians called it an Urban Entertainment Center and proposed filling it with a 425-room hotel, an ice rink, a sports club, an aquarium, an IMAX theater, an aquatic park with a wave pool, a miniature golf course and numerous restaurants and shops under one roof.

But no hardware store.

Some residents, like a girl without a date just before the prom, panicked at the thought of being left out again and embraced American Dream.

"It didn't look like anything I had ever seen," said Wendy Perdue, a civic leader and member of the planning board. "But then I thought, `This could be OK.' People thought I had lost my mind."

Others put up yellow-and-black signs and wrote to local editorial pages, denouncing the Ghermezians, the plan and their neighbors who felt differently.

When Duncan learned that the financing hinged on the state and local governments paying half the cost, he killed American Dream in November 1996.

"At the time, we had no idea what we were going to do next, but clearly it was the right thing to do," said Duncan. "We were going to keep trying things until we found the right match."

Foulger, who was involved in the first major attempt at redevelopment, Silver Triangle, in the mid-1980s, re-emerged with new partners. With the Peterson Cos., one of the largest private developers in the Washington region; Argo Investment Co.; and the Baltimore-based architectural firm RTKL Associates, he agreed to look things over.

"We didn't say yes right away. We know Silver Spring," Foulger said. "We knew because of the history, this project had to be nailed."

Foulger listened. At countless community meetings where people created wish lists on giant rolls of butcher paper. In small-group settings in church basements.

The experience was cathartic for many.

"The animosity had been so high," said Silverman. "Part of the community acceptance of Foulger-Pratt was sheer exhaustion, but it was also recognition that the timing was right on this one and we'd better not blow it."

The new leaders, including Silverman and Perdue, built support in the religious community and among civic associations, two groups rarely invited to participate in economic development projects.

"I learned that it's a lot easier to get something done when you bring someone other than the usual suspects to the table," said Silverman. "After fighting tooth and nail for years, you had a group of people decide it was time to move on."

Perdue said, "For me, the hard part is that there are some personal relationships that disappeared, and I'll always regret that."

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