Blairs complex in Silver Spring headed for major overhaul


A rendering of the Blair Plaza of the Blair Project. (Courtesy of Sasaki Associates)

Owners of the Blairs apartment and retail complex in Silver Spring plan to overhaul the property into a more dense, urban neighborhood that would replace parking lots and older apartments with more than 1,400 new apartments, shopping, walking paths and green space.

The Tower Cos., a family-owned developer based in Rockville, unveiled the plans at a community meeting Wednesday night at the Silver Spring Civic Center.

One of the first steps will be to tear down four of the complex’s smaller buildings, which could happen as early as summer 2014. The larger Blair apartment building will remain.

Although the project does not require new zoning, the Tower’s site plan will require county approval.

Tower began building the Blairs, located just over the line from the District between Eastern Avenue, Colesville Road, East-West Highway and Blair Mill Road, in the late 1950s. The first apartments were completed in 1959.

The complex is now one of the area’s most energy-efficient developments, with 1,371 apartments and a shopping center anchored by a Giant grocery store. On weekend mornings, the line for dim sum outside Oriental East Restaurant often stretches out the door.

But Silver Spring, like many of Washington’s suburbs, is quickly evolving to accommodate an influx of residents and shoppers seeking neighborhoods that are walkable and accessible to public transit. The Blairs’ massive surface parking lot and steep slope make the area difficult to navigate on foot. For a property near the Silver Spring Metro and MARC stations, as well as a revitalized downtown area, Tower officials believed that it was time for a major change.

“The Blairs has had a suburban design, and it has been that way since the 1960s,” said Ed Murn, Tower’s director of development, adding that “what we’re trying to do is transition to an urban, transit-­oriented, pedestrian-friendly community.”

Murn said he has been meeting with residents of the Blair Tower Apartments recently to explain that nobody will be removed from their apartments before their current leases expire and that those with leases expiring this year will be permitted to stay through the end of the year.

Residents of the buildings, where 210 of the 257 units are occupied, will have priority to move to other apartments on the property. “Our first goal is to try to find apartment units for those residents at the Blairs,” he said.

Over the next 10 years, Blair Towers would be replaced by four much larger high-rise apartment buildings, ranging from 260 to 370 units each. Tower hired Canadian architect Bing Thom, who designed the renovated Arena Stage in Southwest Washington, and Massachusetts planning and design firm Sasaki Associates.

Many of the other changes will not take place for years. The Giant won’t be going anywhere for at least a decade, when Tower begins a second phase. Murn said he would like to see Giant build a new store as part of the plan. “We’ve just begun those discussions,” he said.

The shopping center would be remade as a mixed-use urban park built above underground parking and surrounded by retail space, an office building and a 125-room hotel. Rather than a narrow stairway leading from the upper portion of the Blairs to the southern portion — lacking access for those who have wheelchairs, bicycles and strollers — a sloped pedestrian connection with wide walking trails would connect the shopping area and the apartments.

In all, the Blairs would go from having 1,371 apartments to 2,800. “This is a suburb that’s becoming a city,” Thom said.

Nearby residents of the District have long complained that shoppers and residents of the Blairs clog their neighborhoods with traffic. Tower plans to increase the total parking spaces at the Blairs to 3,296 from 1,783 through the redevelopment. Murn said that according to a survey, about three-quarters of residents get to work by some method other than driving.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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