Panel Weighs Options for Renovating Silver Spring Auditorium

By Jason Tomassini
Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Flexible classroom space and an intimate performance atmosphere are priorities for the renovation of the dormant Old Blair Auditorium in Silver Spring, which would provide nearby schools and residents with program and meeting space.

A committee of county and school officials, residents and the project's architects has met in the past month as part of a feasibility study to renovate the building, which is owned by Montgomery County public schools.

The auditorium has been closed since 1999, when Montgomery Blair High School moved to its new campus at Colesville Road and University Boulevard. The old auditorium is part of the Silver Spring International Middle School and Sligo Creek Elementary School campuses at 313 Wayne Ave.

The two design options favored by the committee would include four classrooms in the back of the auditorium, to be used by the two schools. Those rooms would be available for lease to community groups at night and on weekends. The committee also has discussed using the auditorium for a health clinic or office space.

One of the favored options, called "Scheme 3," includes 800 seats in the auditorium, 600 on the floor and 200 in a second-floor balcony. The two first-floor classrooms would be 1,000 and 850 square feet, respectively, and the two second-floor classrooms would be 1,000 and 800 square feet, according to preliminary plans from the project's architect, Calverton-based Grimm and Parker.

"It has more seating and does it in a flexible way," said Greg Lewis, executive director of the Silver Spring-based Washington Revels, a performance arts group.

The other favored option, called "Scheme 2B," includes 750 seats in the auditorium. The two first-floor classrooms in that design would be 950 and 1,150 square feet, and the two second-floor classrooms would be 1,400 and 1,300 square feet. The larger rooms would be more suited to the dance and music classes planners say are likely to be offered in the auditorium.

Silver Spring International Middle School uses its cafeteria for performances, as well as a space at Northwood High School, said Joe Mamana, assistant principal at Silver Spring International. Mamana said his school would get "first dibs" on using the renovated Old Blair.

"Since our school opened [in 1999], our performers have always found alternative areas," Mamana said. "Something like this would increase the appeal of our performers."

The renovation project is likely to cost several million dollars, said Steve Parker, president of Grimm and Parker.

More defined cost estimates will be determined by the fall, when County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), the County Council and the county school board review the proposed designs.

In 2005, Old Blair Auditorium Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the renovation project, received $600,000 in bond money from the Maryland General Assembly. County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) said the bond was extended after the council approved the $25,000 feasibility study late last year.

The state bond funding is contingent on the county matching the $600,000 when it funds the design and construction of the project in its Capital Improvements Program for 2011-16, Ervin said.

"The most important thing we got done is to get the feasibility study done," Ervin said Friday. "Because without [the study], nothing could move."

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