These are the early signs of the rebirth of Silver Spring's downtown: a skeleton of steel girders, walls of gray concrete block and mounds of dirt along North Fenton Street.

There will be a supermarket by summer, joined by a hardware store and shops. Two blocks away, the historic Silver Theatre awaits renovation as the home for the American Film Institute, and Discovery Communications Inc. is planning its new headquarters nearby.

The remaking of Silver Spring's downtown core is only the beginning, however, of an ambitious proposal to revive the entire sprawling commercial district in what would be one of Maryland's largest urban renewal projects.

It will take a massive effort--and a lot of public and private money--to transform the 350-acre central business district, more than twice the size of Bethesda's prosperous and popular commercial area.

"Imagine downtown Silver Spring becoming that kind of an economic engine," said County Council member Derick Berlage (D), whose district includes Silver Spring. He spoke Tuesday during the council's review of a proposed growth plan for the commercial area. "This is truly an investment we can't afford not to make."

The council, which is scheduled to formally adopt the plan in January, supports the plan's major proposals and made few changes during Tuesday's discussion of suggested revisions. Earlier plans to redevelop Silver Spring were dogged by dissension and eventually failed. "Everybody is on the same page, finally," Berlage said after the meeting.

The master plan envisions Silver Spring's downtown as a cluster of neighborhoods, each with distinctive features such as small businesses, arts and entertainment, new housing and an expanded community college campus. The tree-lined streets would connect to an expanded transit center, and the area's economic health will rely largely on the American Film Institute and Discovery Communications.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who doggedly coaxed businesses into Silver Spring, said the huge public investment outlined in the master plan is worth it. Five years from now, "I'm convinced it will be the hottest urban center in the Washington region," he said. "People won't recognize it."

A Time of Discovery

What will the new downtown Silver Spring look like? For starters, it's likely that the skyline will be reshaped by Discovery's $150 million headquarters at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. Representatives for the international multimedia company already have sought county approval to exceed the downtown height limit of 200 feet.

Dom Fioravanti, Discovery senior vice president, cautioned that the firm's architects have not settled on a design, but he added: "We feel a sense of responsibility. We would like to put a terrific piece of architecture on the site for ourselves and for the community."

Construction of Discovery's headquarters for an estimated 1,800 employees is planned to begin late next year, while Discovery's film production facilities will move into the former Caldor discount store building on East West Highway in the spring.

Out of the Ashes and Exhaust

Discovery, the Film Institute and the town center development with new stores, restaurants, movie theaters, parking garages and civic spaces, emerged after earlier proposals for a regional mall and office towers failed because of a chilly business climate and a cold shoulder from residents who feared intrusion on surrounding neighborhoods.

The county and state have pledged $163 million toward the $410 million project by Foulger-Pratt Cos. of Rockville and Peterson Cos. of Fairfax, which covers 22 acres at Silver Spring's core.

Redevelopment in older neighborhoods "always needs public money," said James W. Todd, president of the Peterson Cos. "The cost of structured parking and the cost of redoing the old infrastructure is more than commercial rents [from new businesses] can support."

The developers proposed open-heart surgery for downtown to shift the draw for pedestrians one block east of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road to the smaller intersection of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive.

"The automobile has taken away ground zero in Silver Spring," said Bryant F. Foulger, vice president of Foulger-Pratt. "There's no taking that back."

In fact, the county's master plan reinforces and expands the idea that, as Foulger put it, "We've done for the car all we need to do." The biggest single chunk of public money for revitalizing the commercial area is for transportation, $48 million earmarked for an enlarged transit center to house Metro, Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) trains, and public and private bus lines. Silver Spring's Metro station, already the largest transit center in Maryland with 57,000 daily trips, is expected to have ridership increase another 70 percent in the next 20 years.

County transportation planners will ask new Silver Spring employers such as Discovery to encourage half their downtown work forces to commute via transit. Now, more than 60 percent of Silver Spring's workers drive to their jobs.

To reinforce the mass transit message, the master plan proposes another $20 million worth of bike trails throughout the business district, $5 million for broader, more attractive sidewalks and street lighting, and $12.2 million for preliminary design of the Georgetown Branch light rail between Silver Spring and Bethesda. The trolley-type light rail system isn't popular with Duncan, who favors a new east-west Metro line. Council members insisted the trolley be included in the plan.

Berlage pointed out that Bethesda and Silver Spring are the county's most important urban centers. "For them not to be connected by transit is just crazy," he said.

In housing, the master plan sets its sights lower, eschewing zoning for residential high-rises in favor of town houses and low-rise apartments. It's another break with the past, as nearly all of the central business district's 7,800 residents now live in high-rise apartments. Besides reflecting a greater appreciation for steep construction costs, planners saw what could work.

A year ago, Arlington developer Eakin-Youngentob Associates began constructing 57 colonial-style garage town houses on a former county parking lot along Cameron Street and Second Avenue. Nearly 80 percent of the Cameron Hill town houses have sold, mainly to a mix of young professionals and older buyers without children, said Robert D. Youngentob, president of the company. "We were all pleasantly surprised," Youngentob said of the company's first effort in Montgomery County. "We are actively looking at Silver Spring to do another project."

In more ways than one, redeveloping Silver Spring's commercial area will be good for the environment. The master plan calls for extensive networks of street trees and additional green space throughout the urban district. It also calls for developers to use modern storm water controls for the first time in many parts of downtown.

In the town center project now underway, the county is spending more than $240,000 to decontaminate lots where a former gas station and dry cleaner leaked toxic chemicals into the ground. About 10 percent of the 22 acres of pavement and old buildings will be reclaimed as green space.

Some Naysayers in Crowd

Beyond the downtown core, the master plan divides the business district into three neighborhoods and proposes a mix of tailored zoning and publicly funded projects to stimulate development in each of them.

Fenton Street Village, a 14-block area just south of the town center project, is envisioned in the master plan as a spiffier, more vibrant enclave of the small businesses that are dominant there. Now, Fenton Street features empty, locked storefronts, vacant lots and a faded 1960s look of brick fronts covered in faux stone siding and aluminum panels. Just one office building along Fenton has participated in the county's three-year-old cost-sharing program to upgrade exteriors.

Fenton Village businesses and residents of nearby East Silver Spring have clashed with the county in past efforts to upgrade the area, and skepticism remains about whether the master plan offers the best solutions.

"The county gives me some heartburn," said Bob Colvin, president of the East Silver Spring Citizens Association, who is critical of a master plan proposal to narrow a traffic intersection in Fenton Village for a park expansion.

Mike Gerecht, president of CD Publications, a newsletter publishing company on Fenton Street, recounted how the parking requirements in Silver Spring's old master plan made it difficult for small businesses to expand. He called the new plan's proposal to convert Fenton Village parking lots to housing "ludicrous."

"You're taking away parking from a retail area," he said. "It wouldn't help [business] people."

Laura Steinberg, who co-chaired a special citizens advisory committee on Silver Spring's downtown from 1997 through 1998, is both hopeful and anxious about Fenton Village.

"At this point, I think it's small businesses that need the most support, or it [Silver Spring redevelopment] won't be what people thought it could be," she said.

Despite its homeliness, Fenton Village possesses a more comfortable urban scale than the industrial clutter of the Ripley District and South Silver Spring, two adjoining areas southwest of downtown. Ripley Street, which lends its name to the district just east of the Silver Spring Metro, looks like a narrow alley and is lined with decrepit warehouses, wrecked cars and makeshift parking lots.

With high-rise housing once envisioned for this area a dashed fantasy, the new master plan advocates more commercial zoning for office buildings. But the plan acknowledges that proposed public improvements may create their own problems--a planned southern extension of Dixon Avenue in this district could further fragment the area's small lots, and a bike trail route slices through part of Progress Place, a facility that provides food for the homeless.

"We can't afford to lose any space," said Deborah Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit corporation that operates Progress Place.

South Silver Spring, which abuts the District of Columbia line, is home to one of the business district's biggest eyesores--the Gramax Building, 15 stories of orange brick and broken windows on 13th Street that have been empty for years. In fact, South Silver Spring has four of the business district's seven vacant office buildings, and just a few years ago the area was plagued by drug dealing and gunplay.

"It was no man's land," said civic activist Randy Boehm.

But Boehm is enthusiastic about South Silver Spring's prospects, citing the community development corporation founded by local civic groups in 1997 and upcoming public improvements. Chief among these is the $70 million expansion of Montgomery College's Takoma Park campus.

The expansion, in areas along Georgia Avenue, Fenton Street and Jesup Blair Park, will occur over the next five years as the college builds a health sciences building, a student services building and a cultural arts center with a 500-seat auditorium. The buildings will border a renovated Jesup Blair park.

A few years ago, plans to expand the crowded campus into Takoma Park were mired in community opposition.

But county officials encouraged the college to expand west toward Georgia Avenue and helped the college establish its year-old program hosting American Film Institute workshops.

"Rather than just the core area," said Steve Simon, a spokesman for Montgomery College, "the county is looking at all of Silver Spring getting a piece of the revitalization."

Residents interested in reviewing the Silver Spring business district master plan and others in Montgomery County can visit the Web site www.clark.net/pub/mncppc/montgom/planning/cbp/

Major Public Expenditures For Central Business District

These project estimates include money from the county, regional agencies, state and private sector.

TOWN CENTER

Land acquisition, $42 million.

Two parking garages along Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street, $64.6 million.

Veterans Plaza, streetscaping, planning and design of overall project, $30.6 million.

Silver Theatre renovation and expansion for American Film Institute, $18 million.

Round House Theater performing arts facility, $5.2 million.

Civic Building, $8 million.

OTHER CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT PROJECTS

Montgomery College expansion, $70.2 million.

Transit Center design and construction, $48 million.

Georgetown Branch light rail preliminary design, $12.2 million.

Bikeways and trails, design and construction, $20 million.

Streetscaping, $5 million.

Dixon Avenue extension, $2 million.

SOURCES: Silver Spring Redevelopment Office, office of the county executive and Montgomery College.