Just two weeks ago they were at each others throats. Art deco enthusiasts claimed the Silver Theatre and neighboring buildings in the heart of Silver Spring were national treasures, while property owners and developers maintained they were shoddy, third-rate examples of art deco, and should be torn down.
But in a sudden turnabout, county planners now say the developers and the preservationists have formed plans for two separate multimillion-dollar commercial monuments to the curved lines and neon lights of the art deco era, on opposite sides of Colesville Road.
An art deco theme, the planners said, could prove a big bonus to Silver Spring's business district and give it charms distinct from those of areas like Bethesda, Rosslyn and Crystal City.
The Kaempfer Company, a local development firm, has agreed to buy the Silver Theatre and adjacent shopping center at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, and it plans to use them as the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar restoration and development project, planning officials said. Company officials could not be reached for comment.
The current owners, the Burka family, who said they considered their buildings mediocre, had some of the art deco trimmings at the Silver Theatre -- a brick tower, opaque glass and tiled entranceways -- torn up earlier this year when the Art Deco Society of Washington announced it would seek to have the buildings made part of a historic district. Art Deco Society officials have said the damage could be repaired.
E. Brooke Lee III, whose Lee Development Group owns the Hahn's shoe store building and five other 40-year-old buildings on the opposite side of Colesville Road, had targeted the site for new development despite protests by the Art Deco Society. Yesterday Lee said he still believes his buildings are not worth saving and still plans to tear them down. But now, he said, he hopes to build a new $14 million building that will out-deco the Art Deco Society.
Richard Striner, president of the Art Deco Society of Washington, praised the latest plans for the area, whose buildings date from 1938 to 1950. "We feel this has the potential to be the most exciting art deco preservation and revival project between New York City and Miami Beach," he said.
He said the developers had shown "how you can approach a situation which would otherwise have been a nightmare, and turn it into something that everyone is going to be very proud of."
Lee, while emphasizing that his plans will not be final for three weeks, said yesterday that he decided some art deco features would be useful in the planned 10-story office and retail complex.
"We started ending up with an art deco building and decided, what the hell, let's show the people of Montgomery County what a real art deco building looks like," he said.
He said he is exploring such art deco hallmarks as stainless steel screens, streamline curves and neon lights, but added that he is determined to create a building that is attractive even to people who believe they don't like art deco.
Lee's plans call for a two-story retail area along the sidewalk, including a "sidewalk museum" with history exhibits on the Lee family, which has been pivotal in the county's development. The higher portions of the building would be set back from the street.
John Westbrook, chief of urban planning for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Montgomery County, said he is confident the plans will work out, and he called the ideas "incredibly exciting." One incentive for the developers, he said, is that they may be able to benefit from state and local financial incentives for preservation and public amenities.
Andrea Eaton, a senior planner with the county's planning policies committee, said the apparently conflicting views of developers, preservationsists and area residents could be brought together.
"They are not incompatible," she said. "And somehow these interests were unnecessarily polarized. . . . Everybody has a valid viewpoint, and they aren't necessarily incompatible. I think people have picked up on that."