Welcome rebirth of Silver Spring

Downtown: The opening of restaurants and other businesses is ushering in a revitalization of the suburb.

December 12, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING -- In 1991, the historic Silver Theatre, once a shiny art deco jewel, was a dark, deteriorating shell populated by drug dealers and feral cats.

Twelve years later, the marquee is glowing as the painstakingly restored theater holds premieres and cinematic revivals while celebrating a rebirth of a different sort -- that of once-faded downtown Silver Spring.

"The fortunes of Silver Spring and the Silver Theatre have long gone together, and now they're both back," said Bryant Foulger, whose company, Foulger-Pratt, is the principal developer of the emerging new downtown.

The Washington suburb's appearance is changing almost overnight. Last week marked the opening of the Austin Grill and Panera Bread restaurants, both a short stroll from the theater. A Red Lobster opened Monday, with a Potbelly sandwich shop, Macaroni Grill and Starbucks soon to follow. Work is under way on a Pier I Imports, Borders Books & Music, a 20-screen megaplex, a hotel and an office complex.

With bulldozers and cranes invading their once-dowdy downtown, community leaders are beginning to believe that Silver Spring -- abandoned by businesses decades ago for more outlying D.C. suburbs -- is finally on the rebound after years of false starts.

For residents, the long-awaited makeover seemed to become real in April when the red letters spelling out "SILVER" were positioned above the theater on Colesville Road, and actor-director Clint Eastwood walked down a red carpet on opening night. The American Film Institute, the new occupant of the 1938 structure, restored or re-created such items as wall coverings and carpeting -- sometimes tracking down the original manufacturers -- while adding 21st-century technology.

"There were people lined up on the street for opening night and the energy was just palpable," said Murray Horwitz, the theater director. "People were saying, `Oh, my God, this is Silver Spring!' "

Across Georgia Avenue, the new 550,000-square-foot headquarters of Discovery Communications -- parent of the Discovery Channel and a dozen other channels -- looms over the downtown, housing 1,500 employees. The building, whose public lobby features a 40-foot-long re-creation of a T. Rex dinosaur, opened in the spring. Discovery had previously leased office space in nearby Bethesda.

"Everyone asks us why we didn't locate in L.A. or New York with all the other media companies," says David C. Leavy, a Discovery communications executive. "We're a Maryland company and have roots here. We were asked to come in and be an anchor in Silver Spring, and that fits in with the altruistic mission of the company."

It didn't hurt that the state gave Discovery a $15 million tax break last year for locating in Montgomery County. The money was part of a package of several hundred million dollars being spent by the county, state and federal governments for Silver Spring -- on everything from parking garages to buying land for the commercial district.

While most legislators are thrilled at the result, some wonder if the tax inducements went too far. "There just isn't enough money in the state coffers to pay businesses to stay put or move from one location to another," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat from Bethesda. The best economic development strategy, Frosh says, is to have good schools, effective mass transit and low crime.

But state Sen. Ida G. Ruben, who represents Silver Spring and voted for the tax incentives, wore a smile as she appeared at the Austin Grill's opening last week around the corner from the Silver Theatre. Ruben, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and other local politicians and merchants celebrated with margaritas and chips. The restaurant adjoins a pedestrian plaza that will connect many of the new restaurants and other attractions.

"I grew up here," said Ruben. "I was here when Hecht's was here and Hahn's shoe store was here." She said the migration of the retailers from Silver Spring was aided by the 1960 opening of the Wheaton Plaza shopping center several miles away.

Silver Spring was left with boarded-up storefronts and increasing crime. "Ten years ago, Silver Spring businesses were closing right and left, there was a serious increase in drug dealing and other crime, and graffiti everywhere," said former County Council member Derek Berlage, chairman of the county's Park and Planning Commission. "In the Silver Theatre, drug dealers had broken in and there was water leaking from the roof."

The county searched fruitlessly for answers. A plan for an enclosed mall with a wave pool and a roller coaster fell apart in 1996 after some residents worried about potential traffic jams while politicians questioned the sizable taxpayer cost.

Duncan, elected in 1994, said Silver Spring was too important to the county economy -- and had too much promise -- to give up.

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