In 1978, when Metro finally breezed into the slick elevated Red Line station overlooking Colesville Road, it brought a surprise for the businessmen and residents of Silver Spring: Nothing happened.
The revival of the sagging downtown business area that many had expected to come with the subway failed to arrive. For more than three years, virtually no significant new developments came into the area near the Metro stop, despite the relatively open sites there. The station, hailed as the savior of Silver Spring, remained isolated in an enclave of auto body shops and weed-strewn vacant lots, separated from the downtown stores by an uphill, quarter-mile walk.
Community leaders blamed the lack of development on everything from stringent local zoning laws to stubborn businessmen to what many saw as their area's bad image. When it became clear that subway service alone wouldn't do the trick, merchants and residents joined in a campaign to bring in new business by refurbishing and reviving the downtown area themselves. Now, at last, they think they are seeing some results.
"You already see statements from major developers that Silver Spring is a sleeping giant," said local lawyer and Chamber of Commerce President James W. Taval. "We think we're going to make it click."
The source of his optimism is a group of four projects either just approved by or pending before Montgomery County planning officials. Together, the projects total 1.2 million square feet of new office space, stores, restaurants and theaters, and a multimillion-dollar investment in an area depressed by a decade of sewer moratoriums that curtailed development, high interest rates and a steady outward migration of its businesses and most affluent residents.
Don Spivak, chief of the Community Planning's East Division of the county planning board, said the city's facelifting campaign was the key factor in attracting the projects. "The sense is that there is a clear commitment on the part of the county government to a revitalized Silver Spring," he said. "I think it's an attitude change. The feeling now is that the commitment is there and that the county is willing to invest money there."
With a combination of public and private money, storefronts have been refurbished, streets repaved and lighting improved. The county has spent about $1 million to improve the landscape and has built a new 1,100-space parking garage to serve Metro commuters and the downtown businesses, according to Spivak. About $2 million more will be spent on street lighting and road repair.
The two new office building projects already approved for downtown are the Silver Spring Business Center, which will be 12 or 13 stories, at Spring Street and Colesville Road, and a 12-story office building on Wayne Avenue, half a block from the Metro station on the site of the old Pumphries Funeral Home. Applications are pending for the seven-story Gateway Center and the Silver Spring Metro Plaza with three separate office towers.
But overnight transformations from homely lass to beautiful princess are the stuff of fairy tales, not urban revitalization. Even some of Silver Spring's strongest supporters believe that, more than anything, their downtown is suffering from a problem of image that has not yet been overcome.
"It's the city's oldest business district and that has a tendency to have an image impact," said Taval. "You think of a lower economic group and crime, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Silver Spring has acquired a reputation, some of it undeserved, as the county's high-crime area, its blue-collar suburb, its pocket of poverty and the home of minority and immigrant residents.
The proposed development projects are all large-scale office buildings, which could change the shape and character of a downtown now comprised of small retail shops and family-run businesses. The new offices should attract new residents, but there are still no plans for new housing, other than condominiums. The developers' theory is that once the office space is occupied, residential development will follow.
Despite the lingering concern, the positive talk today is in marked contrast to the doomsday forecasts of a few years ago, when Silver Spring supporters desperately searched for ways to revive their sagging downtown.
"Any city, shopping mall, strip or center goes through normal growth, deterioration, then revitalization," said developer and businessman E. Brooke Lee III. "Because Silver Spring was one of the first areas to experience growth, it was also one of the first to go through a long period of decline."
Lee, a member of one of the state's most famous families, is descended from Francis Preston Blair, a native Virginian who lived several years in Kentucky and returned to this area in the 1830s to establish an estate in the wilderness where Silver Spring now sprawls. The community developed slowly at first and then blossomed in the years after World War II into the Washington area's retail and commercial center.
When public metered parking came in 1945, followed by Hecht's with its first suburban store, Silver Spring exploded into this area's hub of growth and developed as the downtown of its day with wide streets, high-ceilinged movie houses and grandiose old department stores that swallowed almost entire blocks.
But the Silver Spring-style downtown soon was outdated, replaced by the enclosed indoor shopping malls that could offer commuters convenient, free all-day parking and the ease of shopping at a variety of stores while being protected from the weather.
"The Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue strips were all built literally within two years of each other," Lee said. "Everything in the area was built in the same vintage, and it's all become obsolete at the same time. There was no gradual growth, so the decline was not gradual."
"Right now," Lee said, "there is substantial beginning-stage development. Silver Spring is really just now at the point where Bethesda was five years ago."