"Is that older image of Silver Spring as an American Main Street one that you feel strongly enough about . . . to hang on to?"

The question could not have been more to the point. Architect Steven Izenour of the vanguard Philadelphia firm Venture, Rauch and Scott Brown, was posing the fundamental challenge -- the basic, root Silver Spring question that must be answered in the coming months.

If the answer is a flat-out no, we can say goodbye to one of the Washington region's more pleasant ensembles of historic commercial architecture and consign to memory a central business district with an unusually cohesive identity. Even if the answer is yes, many major problems will confront those trying to preserve the image of the place while building, in effect, a new Silver Spring.

Izenour's question came in the middle of a town meeting last Tuesday organized by the urban design staff of the Montgomery County Planning Board. In addition to the Philadelphia architect, the panel included architectural historians Richard Longstreth of George Washington University and Chester Liebs of Columbia University; architect Bradford Perkins of New York; Thomas Moriarity, who spent seven years with the Main Street program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation before joining the local development firm of Halcyon Ltd. last year; and Priscilla Anne Schwab, chairman of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. In the audience were many who will contribute to the resolution of the issue in the coming months -- citizens, developers, architects, planners and county officials.

As the afternoon meeting wore on into evening, it became even more apparent than before that the process will be difficult. The panelists, clearly aware of the conflict between the smallness of the existing buildings and the high-density zoning of the land upon which they stand, could not quite agree upon the merits of a proposed Silver Spring historic district, and those in the audience voiced nearly every possible shade of opinion, from tear-it-down to don't. And yet I sensed what one speaker referred to as a "reservoir of affection" for the place that could be turned to good account.

The centerpiece of the commercial core is the Silver Theatre and adjacent shopping center on the southeast corner of the town's main intersection, Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. This group of buildings, in poor condition and defaced last summer by its owner (who destroyed among other things the streamlined Silver marquee), nevertheless remains a rather nice package. It was designed in the late 1930s by John Eberson, then a nationally reknowned theater architect.

In the following years, up to the early 1950s, a number of different developers and architects extended the retail complex along both sides of Colesville Road and parts of Fenton and Ellsworth Streets, following Eberson's lead in scale, materials, colors and the relationship of the buildings to the street without, in most cases, mimicking his modest version of late, streamlined Art Deco style.

Even its most fervent admirers do not say the resulting group of buildings is Great Architecture, and there are those who would destroy it simply because it is not Rockefeller Center or south Miami Beach. But as Longstreth, Liebs and Richard Guy Wilson, another eminent architectural historian who testified at an earlier hearing, pointed out, the complex is significant in terms of local history -- it is without question the best surviving group of such buildings in the Washington area -- and because of its rarity it is becoming significant in national terms, too.

To their important testimony I would simply add that the district is a good example of an architectural process largely lost with the wholesale triumph of high-density commercial Modernism in the 1960s, and this is the ability to build, over time, a group of buildings that is homogeneous as a whole and, at the same time, is quite varied and lively in detail. Popular commercial architecture of the 1940s and early 1950s, Izenour observed, "was the last style that really did understand what are the elements of a vibrant American Main Street."

The Beltway and the regional shopping mall spelled big economic trouble for downtown Silver Spring, which by the mid-1970s was in serious decline. It was at this point that members of the Montgomery County Planning Board, aware of the imminent arrival of the Red Line Metro station, made a crucial decision: They changed the zoning map of the district from C-2, which allows a maximum building height of 60 feet with fairly low density (the amount of floor area permitted relative to the size of the lot), to CBD-3, which under special conditions allows a height of 200 feet with a relatively high density. This is without question the root cause of today's dilemma, and although it is true that a judicious, limited downzoning of the district would do much to solve the problem, no one realistically expects this to happen.

For nearly a decade after the zoning change there was no significant development activity in Silver Spring, but interest picked up after the recession of the early 1980s ran its course, and today the "cranes are flying" there, as the builders say. Ironically, interest in saving the buildings and the spirit in the heart of Silver Spring picked up at exactly the same time, as the preservation movement, both nationally and locally, began to realize the importance of such modest remnants of the recent past.

As a result of this overlap, the planning board was forced to rule upon a proposed new building at a key location before having an opportunity to consider the proposed historic district, which will come up next month. In January the board approved plans for Lee Plaza, an 11-story mixed-use building on the northeast corner of Colesville and Georgia, a decision that spelled doom for the buildings on the site. The most notable of these is the Hahn's store, which faces the corner with its attractive little clock tower.

Pessimists interpret this action as an unfortunate harbinger of things to come, because the board simply overruled the impassioned plea of John Westbrook, the bright and caring chief of the urban design staff, to save at least the fac,ades of the existing structures. I prefer, perhaps foolishly, to regard the move in a more positive light. After numerous false starts, the designer of the new building, Wayne Smith of Donald N. Coupard Associates, a prominent Montgomery County architectural firm (with the research assistance of architectural historian Judy Robinson of Traceries, a Washington company), took most of his design cues from the existing buildings, and the resulting project is quite a good example of sympathetic, contextual architecture.

Like the late-1940s Hecht's department store, Smith's building meets the corner with a handsome rounded form; like the early 1950s Eig Building, it introduces a sober color scheme with a change in materials (from limestone base to polished black granite on the corner tower and along the eighth-floor setback level); like the Eig and several other buildings, it frames its ribbon windows with projecting strips; and like the existing stores, it meets the street well, with extremely attractive windows for clearly delineated, separate stores. To be sure, there is a lot of design work to be done, particularly on the upper floors, if the building is truly to avoid the cookie-cutter suburban look of other new buildings nearby.

But it is a good start and potentially a good omen, because it simply makes no sense to approve such a contextual design while condoning the elimination of the context -- the existing buildings -- upon which the design is based. The really hard decisions about what to save lie ahead. My choices would be, first and foremost and absolutely necessary, the theater and shopping center, and then, in no particular order, the Penney's store, the Eig building, the original Hecht's (but not the later addition), and as many of the lower buildings on Colesville Road and Fenton Street as is humanly possible. Fac,ade preservation could, and should, be used, but not exclusively.

The main issue here is not so much architectural style as it is character -- the special sense of image and place that central Silver Spring has (and most other suburban places lack). The main question, as Izenour said, is not so much how to hang on to this character as whether or not there exists the will to do so.