By Karl Vick and Margaret Webb Pressler
For the third time in 11 years, Montgomery County officials and private developers announced a plan yesterday to rejuvenate downtown Silver Spring. Rather than a mall or a megamall, however, the latest blueprint calls for a return to the streetscape of shops and restaurants that defined the area before its decline.
The proposal is only half the size of, and in many ways is a recoil from, the American Dream megamall project that County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) scuttled last November. Dubbed simply "Downtown Silver Spring," the $326 million new plan promises a blend of utility and vitality aimed at drawing shoppers from the adjoining communities rather than tourists from the entire region.
Major components would be a multi-story bookstore, a movie multiplex and a half-dozen restaurants in an entertainment cluster on Ellsworth Drive, back from the busy intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road.
On two large blocks closer to residential neighborhoods, developers promise a supermarket, hardware store and new civic building adjoining a "town square." The square could be flooded in cold weather to create a skating rink, similar to the one in Reston Town Center -- a "traditional town center" plunked down successfully in an outlying suburb. The development team behind Downtown Silver Spring had a hand in the Reston project.
"I think we may have gotten it right this time," said Derick Berlage (D), who represents Silver Spring on the County Council. "This is the first proposal that truly is not a mall."
Immediate reaction from community activists was generally positive, as might be expected for a plan that incorporates most of what they complained had been lacking in earlier proposals: a measure of open space; stores where local residents can run for a drill bit on a Saturday afternoon or a bag of groceries on the way home from work; and a "porous" perimeter meant to promote, rather than dominate, nearby merchants.
"It sounds like what the opponents of the American Dream wanted," said Randy Boehm, chairman of the Gateway Coalition, which concentrates on developing the southern section of Silver Spring. "What opposition appears early on will probably not have much following."
No less encouraging was the reaction of local retail and real estate experts, who said the proposal has several elements that give it a good chance for success -- in particular, well-known developers and a concept considered the hottest in retail development today.
"Urban retail streetscapes . . . have really come back into vogue, as the American public, particularly for entertainment and restaurants, don't want to go to a mall," said Matt McCormick, senior vice president of retail services for Smith Realty Cos. of Arlington.
The developers said they paid close heed to the expressed wishes of a community they know well already. "We proposed a process, as opposed to a project," said Bryant F. Foulger of Foulger-Pratt Cos., the Montgomery firm that also developed the office complex housing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration near the Silver Spring Metro station. A second developer, the Peterson Cos., is finishing the Fair Lakes community in Fairfax. Argo Investment of Montgomery has interests in the huge Milestone development in Germantown.
The developers have asked Montgomery officials to keep to a schedule that calls for construction to begin in December 1998. They released a list of 11 companies that have expressed "written interest" in the project, provided it gets going promptly.
The list includes Fresh Fields, AMC Theaters, Bed Bath & Beyond, the Sports Authority, TGI Friday and Applebees, as well "a national book seller" -- a reference that signaled strong interest from both Barnes & Noble and Borders, sources said. The 800,000-square-foot plan includes a place for a 150-room hotel at the corner of Georgia and Wayne avenues.
Real estate experts noted that retailers operating in places such as Tysons Corner now are looking for secondary markets in the area.
"A lot of my clients are interested in in-fill locations like Silver Spring and Largo, and they weren't a year ago," said Maury Levin, a partner with KLNB Inc., a retail brokerage based in Calverton, Md.
And if retailers are interested, experts said, it won't be a problem to get the project financed. With relatively few new malls or strip centers being built, lenders are looking for other deals, and main street developments have ignited special interest because of their huge success in cities such as Miami and Los Angeles.
"The world is awash with cash available, and it's a snowball thing. The reason there's so much cash available is because the tenants are interested," said Mike Gorsage, a retail broker with CB Commercial.
"So money is interested, tenants are interested, you've got good sponsorship, and I think the subsidies [from the county and state] are there that make it economically feasible," he said.
Before the proposal can reach bankers, however, it must run the gantlet of activists who derailed both the American Dream and, before that, a more traditional mall that developer Lloyd Moore first proposed in 1986.
Roberta Faul-Zeitler, president of Citizens for Sensible Development, applauded "some very strong points" in the proposal but noted that it calls for tearing down the Armory building, which is in line for historic preservation status.
And the plan's perimeter extends well beyond the 14 acres originally set aside for downtown development, apparently requiring more county land purchases -- the biggest share of the public expense of any development deal.
"What is this going to cost the taxpayers?" Faul-Zeitler asked.
Duncan, who rejected the American Dream proposal in part because its developers asked the public to cover up to half of its $600 million cost, said the public's share of the new plan will be negotiated by his staff over the next 45 days. To date, the county has spent $27 million acquiring land and will ask the state for at least $20 million more. The figures do not include any tax abatement that may be negotiated.
But the county executive voiced strong support for the proposal.
"Silver Spring has waited long enough," Duncan said. "It's time to move forward and start building something there, rather than just talking about it."