On a breezy August night in 1984, the art deco marquee of the grand old Silver Theatre was moments from meeting the business end of a wrecking ball.
As demolition crews punched holes in the blond brick facade, frantic Silver Spring residents rushed out to Georgia Avenue, screaming accusations of cultural vandalism and pleading with the owners to halt the destruction. A stop-work order from Montgomery County spared the Depression-era movie house, but not before it became a monument to a business district's decline.
Overtaken by blight and crime, left behind by the migration to newer, greener outer-ring suburbs, downtown Silver Spring has spent the past two decades craving a revival. It always seemed painfully out of reach -- until now.
Tomorrow, the Silver Theatre reopens, painstakingly restored to its original luster, the nostalgic centerpiece of an unlikely rebirth.
The suburban shopping district just six miles from the White House, where bankruptcies were once as frequent as bargains, is now the focus of nearly $1 billion in public and private investment. Where political promises to rebuild were once as empty as its sidewalks at night, downtown has become a triumph of hope over history.
"I always said, 'I'm going to revitalize Silver Spring or die trying,' " said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "People called me an idiot. . . . I told them, 'I believe in this. I'm committed to this. Trust me. We're going to make this happen.' "
To make it happen, Duncan poured an estimated $350 million in taxpayer money into the project, eliminating huge upfront costs for the developers and substantially reducing risks that might otherwise have scared them away. He combined that with a package of tax incentives that will make it cheaper for relocating companies to do business in Silver Spring than virtually anywhere else in the county.
Duncan has won wide praise for his willingness to stake his career on Silver Spring, a political graveyard for predecessors. But others wonder whether all that has been accomplished could have happened without such hefty concessions to development and business interests.
So generous was the largess from the county and state that it may be 2021, according to estimates, before Montgomery starts realizing direct financial benefits from the project.
"I know that trying to figure out how much you have to reward private players in order to get them involved is extraordinarily difficult," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery). "With the kind of investment we've made, he'd better have a spectacular return."
To see the potential for such a return, one need only stand at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, listen to the pounding of jackhammers and scan a skyline filled with cranes and girders. Once an unremarkable commuter crossroads, Silver Spring is in the midst of a dramatic transition.
The theater, which will be the American Film Institute's primary venue for festivals and art house movies, is only a small piece of a project that has come together bit by bit in what Duncan described as "a long string of singles and doubles, instead of a dramatic home run."
The new urban center sits on 22 acres and when finished will resemble a tidy 1950s Main Street with a millennial ethnic edge. The Tastee Diner has been joined by Baja Fresh and the upscale Whole Foods grocery. The electric shaver repair shop, a landmark that has fixed Norelcos and Remingtons for more than 50 years, now has an Information Age neighbor in Discovery Communications. Next to the Silver Theatre will be an ultra-modern, 20-screen stadium-seat cinema.
Beyond this core of development, there are plans for housing, hotels, offices, parking, a transit hub and a civic building, all spread across a 360-acre swath.
Sonia Sanshes, who has run the Silver Spring Men's Shop since 1972, described the changes as "revolutionary."
"I finally feel that Silver Spring is coming up," Sanshes said. "We're going to have respect."
Generations have passed since downtown Silver Spring was the bustling main street to one of Washington's fastest-growing bedroom communities. The fall came slowly. As with other inner-ring suburban centers across the country, Silver Spring's shopping district was gutted by the rise of big regional shopping malls and hampered by years of political neglect.
It was the arrival of Metro's Red Line in February 1978 that started community leaders and county planners brainstorming for ways to revive the moribund shopping district.
"We all knew that with the coming of Metro, it was going to change this downtown area," said Gus Bauman, who was chairman of the county Planning Board at the time. "But already, there was disagreement about what it would become."
Would it be like its neighbor, Bethesda, dominated by glass and steel office towers and trendy eateries? Or would it share the down-market chic of Washington's Adams Morgan? Should it be the downtown of all Montgomery County or just of Silver Spring?
What followed over the next 15 years was a series of ill-fated proposals that ranged from the modest and mundane to the grand and positively goofy. The idea of an office tower atop a bridge spanning Georgia Avenue caved under the pressure of public opposition. Visions of a more modest shopping center evaporated during an economic slump. And the so-called American Dream scenario, a mega-mall with a wave pool, foundered in lukewarm public support and inadequate financing.
By the time Duncan came to office in 1994 -- with minimal support from Silver Spring voters -- the continuing malaise had arguably become the most pressing concern in Montgomery.
"I identified this as the greatest threat to our quality of life," Duncan said. "If the decline in downtown Silver Spring started to invade the residential neighborhoods, at that point it would have become almost impossible to turn around."
Duncan's road map to the remaking of Silver Spring has been used across the country with varying degrees of success. Former Indianapolis mayor William H. Hudnut III said redevelopment efforts hinge on three critical elements: public investment, political courage and timing.
The purpose of investing public dollars in such an effort, Hudnut said, is to minimize the financial risk developers face by building in a blighted area.
"I call it patient money, long-range money," said Hudnut, who brought a $500 million entertainment complex to his city's downtown. "You can't be too demanding that there be a return on an investment right away."
Duncan decided to sink massive amounts of this "patient money" into Silver Spring. The single largest expense -- about $75 million -- went to buy up all the property in the "Silver Triangle," the 22-acre heart of the redevelopment. Carol S. Rubin, an assistant county attorney at the time, was put in charge of the real estate effort.
In most cases, Rubin said, the county was forced to use its power of eminent domain to snatch the land from its owners, an effort that only added to the costs involved.
"We probably overpaid for all the properties," Rubin said. "But that's typical for condemnations. You pay more than a third party might, because the government needs that property."
The effort took years and exacted a heavy toll on land and business owners. Andrea Bray's hat shop had been open only a year in 1996 when the county told her she would have to move.
"It was extremely frightening at the time," said Bray, who reopened a few blocks south, near the D.C. line. "Being forced to move, it's like having to start a new business all over again."
At the same time, county officials approached then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening for help in sweetening the deal for interested developers. Glendening (D), who had just launched his signature "smart growth" initiative to combat sprawl, partly by steering construction back into run-down urban areas, saw a tremendous opportunity.
"It immediately became the priority for us when we [started handing out] business grants and tax credits," Glendening said. "We wanted to change the bottom line so that people would be far more likely to invest in existing communities than they would to go out and tear down one more forest and pave over one more farm."
The state put more than $40 million into Silver Spring to help pay for a new transportation hub, landscaping, school renovations and, most importantly, tax credits to lure businesses. Included was a provision that allowed developers to pay property taxes based on just a portion of the land's assessed value for the first 10 years. Another established a $500 income tax credit for each new job created and up to $3,000 for each "disadvantaged" worker hired.
Not everyone was thrilled with the inducements. Blair G. Ewing, a former County Council member and Duncan adversary, said many in Silver Spring fault Duncan for "a willingness to spend any amount of money to help developers. It's a one-sided approach" that overstates the needs of developers and under-serves the poor, he said.
When Duncan went to Annapolis last year seeking a $15.6 million tax break for Discovery, Frosh led an unsuccessful opposition group. Frosh said he still thinks taxpayers took on too much of the burden.
"I think government's role in economic development is a hazy and perilous one." he said. "Look at Discovery. I don't think Discovery took a big risk. So why did we lay out such a generous package for them?"
Whether or not the sweeteners were too generous, the combination of free land and tax breaks worked. In 1997, Duncan announced that a team of developers led by Rockville's Foulger-Pratt Co. and Fairfax County-based Peterson Development Co. would rebuild Silver Spring.
Duncan also got directly involved in negotiations to lure California-based Edwards Cinemas to the Silver Theatre. When those talks fell apart, he flew to Georgia to try to persuade a lender to extend favorable financing terms to another cinema company. When the American Film Institute began expressing interest in taking over the Silver Theatre, Duncan flew to Los Angeles and promised that the county would pay for the entire $20 million renovation.
"He basically staked his political future on seeing this succeed," said council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). The risk, Silverman said, lay not only in selling Silver Spring to developers; it was also in persuading a contentious and divided community to support the final proposal.
Duncan, having assumed the political risk, took a victory lap last week, touring the neighborhood with colleagues, political allies and news cameras in tow. But critics believe a good deal of the credit is owed to the roaring economy of the 1990s. The average housing price in the county has risen to $301,860, up from $180,000 in 1995 -- clearly a more appealing demographic to prospective retailers.
It may be too soon to say whether Silver Spring will be an economic success. But Joan Kirby, the marketing director for the Silver Theatre, thinks it already has been. She is planning the gala reception to accompany the theater's grand opening tomorrow and its first public screening April 11.
One of the first films to be shown, she said, will be "Four Daughters," with John Garfield and Claude Rains -- the feature that opened the Silver Theatre back in 1938.