When Shirley King decided to move to the Blair House apartments in Silver Spring a little more than a year ago, what sold her was its central location.
King, 70, who lives just a few yards from the Silver Spring Metro stop and a downtown bus line, can quickly get to her various club and church meetings. Also nearby are a Giant Food supermarket, several shops, a mall and Gold's Gym, where she works out three times a week.
"I was looking for places around here because it was very convenient, and because I'm in a motorized wheelchair," King said. "It's an excellent location, plus they built it up fantastically."
Blair House is one of a complex of apartment buildings occupying most of a large block off Eastern Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, owned by the Tower Cos., a Bethesda developer. During the 1990s, Tower completed a $25 million renovation on the complex, which includes more than 1,300 units in the high-rise Blair House, Blair East and Blair Plaza, and the four mid-rise buildings of Blair Towers. The buildings, built from the late 1950s to the 1960s, are a bit bland architecturally, but the lobbies are generously decorated and the apartments freshly painted, with up-to-date appliances.
The Blairs offer units with rents ranging from $790 for an efficiency to a $2,200 three-bedroom. Square footage runs from a 421-square-foot efficiency to a 1,985-square-foot three-bedroom, two-bath unit.
Amenities vary according to the building and apartment size, but shared amenities include an Olympic-size pool, playground and fitness center. There are laundry and trash rooms on each floor.
King said there is a pleasant mix among the Blair House tenants of families, young singles and seniors of various races and nationalities. "Everyone I come into contact with is sweet," she said.
One recent weekend, Margo Newman of Los Angeles supervised as movers unloaded her 81-year-old father's belongings into his new one-bedroom apartment in one of the Blair Towers buildings. She said they had chosen the place for several reasons, most important among them the location.
"We liked that it was close to a lot of things for him," she said, adding that the buildings' security also appealed to her. "For an older person living by himself, it's a good place."
Newman said it was difficult for her father to go from a large townhouse in Potomac to cramming his belongings into a one-bedroom apartment, but the generous size of the place allowed him to keep most of his things with him. She said everything in the apartment was renovated before her father moved in, and the complex also offered a special of two months' rent free.
"It's by far the most affordable thing we found in Montgomery County," she said.
The complex will also soon include Blair Towns, two mid-rise buildings with 78 units being constructed alongside Blair House. The company expects that project to be completed by spring.
Coinciding with the state's promotion of "smart growth" and public efforts to revitalize the Silver Spring area, the renovations and the Blair Towns project were meant to create an urban living area, a mini-city where transportation, shopping and other needs are within walking distance. To that end, it recently expanded the buildings that house the Giant and CVS drugstore adjacent to the complex and has signed on other retailers, including a Caribou Coffee shop. Marvin Atwell, a maintenance supervisor, says the coffee shop is very popular among the young professionals in the complex -- somewhat like an outside social area.
"They take their computers and books over there and work," Atwell said. Though two of the Blair properties are separated from the strip mall in places, the Blair East and Blair Plaza buildings have back entrances opening onto the mall parking lot.
Atwell, who has worked at the Blairs in different capacities for 25 years, said the complex is "getting younger and younger every year." He attributes this change in tenants partially to a growing desire to live in town, near work and stores. "It's a good place for someone who doesn't own a car."
The new Blair Towns are to be built to the nationally recognized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, which are set by the U.S. Green Building Council. The standards concern every aspect of environmentally conscious building, including site selection, water efficiency, energy use, air quality and materials.
The use of this more costly design is the product of Tower Cos. President Jeffrey S. Abramson's passion for environmentally friendly building and the reduction of car use and energy consumption. "We do it because it's the only smart way to develop," he said.
The Blair Towns will be Tower's third development under LEED standards; the others are the new Tower Building in Rockville and the Millennium building at 1909 K St. NW downtown, both office buildings. Abramson said it would be the first LEED-certified mid-rise residential building in the eastern United States.
The Towns is being built on what was once a large parking lot. A garage with more than 400 spaces, already constructed, will be connected to both Blair House and one of the Blair Towns buildings. Some of the new townhouses will have garages under their units.
Whether it is because of the housing crunch, the location or the appeal of an environmentally healthy home, Abramson said there's already a waiting list to lease the 78 Blair Towns units.
Some tenants, especially at Blair House, which is adjacent to the construction project, have complained that the work has created problems and has coincided with a decline in management of the complex. Mark Frautschi, head of a new tenants association at Blair House, said residents began meeting in the fall because individual complaints to management were getting no response. He said the meetings typically draw 25 to 50 residents.
"The common theme has to be with communication," said Frautschi, who moved to Blair House in 2001. "For me, I feel like management just doesn't care about us." He said the solution would be two-way communication and regular monthly meetings of residents with property managers and owners.
Ruth Wells, 84, has lived at Blair House 19 years and says that since the construction began, "I feel like there's a castle built around me."
Besides the construction, she said, some points of contention involve security in the new garage and the recent turnover of cleaning service to an outside contractor, causing some cleaning staff to leave. Wells said the quality of cleaning services has declined since then.
Cris Helle, director of property management for Tower Cos., said cleaning service was contracted out, but Tower cleaning staff members were given the opportunity to interview for jobs with the contractor. He said all maintenance is still done by Tower staff, except for extensive electrical and plumbing work.
Helle said management had received a list of requests from the tenants association but that some of the requests, such as round-the-clock security patrols and more video cameras, were excessive.
"We're not a lockdown facility, we're an apartment building," he said.
Tenants such as Frautschi say their chief demand is to be heard. "We are not an unfriendly bunch," Faraj said. "We are just trying to create a community."