Pat Singer remembers her turning point. It was spring and County Executive Sidney Kramer was hosting a breakfast to talk about his plans for redeveloping Silver Spring. Seated in the audience, Singer listened and fumed.
"It made me mad. Here he stood, telling me in this most self-satisfied tone what was good for Silver Spring and I don't remember anyone asking me what I thought," Singer recalled.
Already concerned about the executive's plans for downtown, Singer became galvanized. She decided that because Silver Spring was her home, she had an obligation to it.
In the following months, Singer helped put together a coalition of 14 neighborhood associations to oppose Kramer's plans for downtown Silver Spring. It was slow and hard going at first, she said. People either did not have the time to listen or were suspicious of Singer as just one of those preservationists who did not want Silver Spring's Art Deco buildings torn down.
"But I just kept on calling and asked if I could come to one of their meetings and talk," Singer said. And, when she told them of concerns about transportation raised by members of the planning staff and by an independent traffic engineer, they started to listen.
Singer's group, the Silver Spring-Takoma Traffic Coalition, has effectively mobilized public concerns that could threaten the size and shape of planned downtown development. Singer has strong opinions and has aroused strong feelings in some of her opponents who label her and the coalition extremists.
That bewilders and amuses Singer. "We're pretty average people to be zealots," said Singer, a federal worker, wife and mother of a teen-age daughter.
For the record, she said she has never been involved in protests or civic affairs before. Her concern about -- and eventual opposition to -- what is being proposed for Silver Spring grew gradually over many months.
A Silver Spring resident for 15 years, she became interested in the future of the downtown area through friends who were trying to preserve some of the Art Deco-style buildings when owners of the Silver Theatre were dismantling parts of its distinctive architectural features.
She kept abreast of proposals for downtown and, she said, "I started to realize that the stakes were higher than preservation . . . . The character of downtown and the character of Silver Spring as a residential area was being threatened."
Singer, 44, is concerned that plans by developer Lloyd Moore for a mall and office complex are too big for the area. Moore has yet to submit his specific plan to county planning officials but, according to Singer, his original concept calls for a project almost twice as large as Wheaton Plaza in an area one-ninth the size.
"It won't revitalize Silver Spring, it will obliterate it," she said.
And, she is worried that the resulting traffic will overwhelm the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, like hers in Woodside Park. She points to a report by the planning board's staff that said that if the worst case were to occur, there could be mile-long traffic backups on Georgia Avenue between Seminary Road and the Capital Beltway with delays of 10 minutes per vehicle during rush hour.
The planning staff said the worst case is unlikely, but Singer argued that the county is being too optimistic about its ability to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit. A traffic engineer hired by the citizens coalition has found flaws in the county plans, she said.
"Enough of my time is spent getting around. I don't want to devote any more of my time to just getting around, even if it is in 10-minute segments," Singer said. More important, she said, is her natural concern for her 17-year-old daughter, who has started to drive.
Singer stresses that she is not, as some of her critics have charged, antidevelopment. When she first saw Moore's plans, she remembers thinking that some points did not look too bad before she contemplated the scale. And, she said, she supports another plan for new shops in the building being vacated by the Hecht Co.
Singer wants an infusion of new stores and businesses that will attract people, but she wants it on a human scale. If possible, she thinks the architecturally significant buildings should be retained, but restored and combined with new development. She offers Dupont Circle as an example of what would be interesting for downtown Silver Spring.
"When I hear some of our officials talk about Silver Spring and the need to redevelop it and what is wrong with it, I think it is being sold short," Singer said. "After all, thousands of middle-class residents were willing to come here, to make the biggest investment of their lives by making this their home. We shouldn't lose sight of that."