Monday, August 25, 2008
If any family can be considered the founding family of Silver Spring, it is the Lees.
Bruce and Blair Lee's great-great-great-grandfather bought the land that is now South Silver Spring before the Civil War and built a summer home there that he named Silver Spring. The family's real estate business went on to develop nearby apartments, a shopping center and Lee Plaza, the art deco-style office building that towers over the corner of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue.
Yet the Lees find themselves caught in a political struggle, involving the very place where their roots run so deep, over Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett's (D) high-profile redevelopment proposal to bring a live music venue to downtown Silver Spring.
Leggett's plan to open one of Live Nation's Fillmore music halls at the site of an old J.C. Penney store depends on $8 million in taxpayer funds -- and the donation of land by the Lee Development Group. In exchange, the Lees want a measure of protection to ensure that the county's project does not interfere with an adjacent development they are considering.
To the county's chief planner, Royce Hanson, the protection the Lees are seeking would give them a "blank check." To the Lees and Leggett, the family is giving up valuable land and needs assurances that Montgomery's development rules will not change midcourse. By their own account, the Lees run a conservative, risk-averse and closely held family operation.
"My relatives understand that this county is crazy. None of them trust the county," said Bruce Lee, the company's president, who shares that mistrust.
Cousins Bruce and Blair took on leading roles at Lee Development Group after the death in 2003 of another cousin, E. Brooke Lee, who had led the company for more than two decades.
Blair Lee, 63, is the hyper-political Gazette newspaper columnist and WBAL (1090 AM) radio commentator, who works behind the scenes providing strategic advice. His father, the late Blair Lee III, was the Maryland lieutenant governor who finished out the gubernatorial term of Marvin Mandel after Mandel was convicted of mail fraud and racketeering.
Bruce Lee, 44, is the music hall project's genial, boyish public face, who makes the rounds at the County Council. He joined the company after college, working the hands-on property management side of the business and delving into Silver Spring's revitalization debates.
"If you're talking to Bruce, you are talking to Blair and vice versa," said longtime friend Kevin Maloney, who runs a commercial real estate firm in Bethesda. "Their styles are different and their responsibilities are different, but they are working for the same end result."
There was Bruce Lee last month, flustered, his head shaking after county planners unanimously panned the land-use proposals that supporters say are needed to make the music hall a reality. Planning Board members, while supportive of the project, said Leggett's deal with the Lees would wipe out their leverage to negotiate for public space and potentially delay other construction projects for up to 15 years. Board member John M. Robinson, who counts Bruce Lee as a good friend, called the county's case for the land-use measures a "charade" that would give the Lees "privileged status."
It is unclear how the board's recommendation will influence the council when it takes up the measures next month. Leggett said last week he has "strong support" on the nine-member council, in addition to backing from a long list of business and community leaders, but he could not say whether he has five votes.