Barry Soorenko recalls when he first bought his property off Georgia Avenue in South Silver Spring.
The alley behind what is now Mayorga Coffee Roasters, he recalls, "had an open trench drain and it was horrible."
Since he bought the property 10 years ago, Soorenko has given the alley a series of makeovers as he has reconfigured old warehouses and garages into hubs for thriving communications and commercial arts businesses.
Now, the alley and neighboring areas of South Silver Spring are about to get an even bigger makeover.
Last month, Democratic Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), and other local and federal officials opened up the Arts Alley@Blair Mill behind Mayorga, which sits on Soorenko's property.
The project is part of a $3.9 million plan to develop and link eight walkways and alleys throughout South Silver Spring, which is undergoing a revitalization with the construction of 1,000 new homes and businesses.
Officials and developers are looking to turn the alleyways into pedestrian-friendly places lined with art galleries, restaurants, a coffee shop and an ice cream shop. The program, a joint public and private effort, ultimately would create paths linking East West Highway and Kennett Street, and Kennett Street with Eastern Avenue. The project is scheduled for completion in 2007.
As it is completed in coming months, the Arts Alley@Blair Mill will include not only the coffee shop but several restaurants and an ice cream shop. It will feature distinctive paving, lighting, street furniture, art and landscaping.
The area will be "alive with art, alive with people," Duncan said at last month's opening ceremony for the alley.
Plans for the walkways and alleys are drawing comparisons to popular arts districts in New York, Georgetown, Europe and Canada. But, the proposal aims to keep the feel of Silver Spring, planners said.
"It's a very, very different type of atmosphere," Soorenko said. "And it's what Silver Spring is all about -- Silver Spring has always been a little different."
Business owners are planning to feature art exhibitions, have guitar players strumming outdoors in the evenings and provide terraces where people can dine under umbrellas.
For many, the upcoming boom in South Silver Spring has been a long time coming.
"I think what the development in the core did is tell people that Silver Spring is for real," said county planner Glenn Kreger.
Many businesses in the area are eager to take advantage of the new arts district and the buzz coming from South Silver Spring.
"Three years ago, we were crazy, now we're pioneers," said Martin Mayorga, president of Mayorga Coffee Roasters. He later added, "The word 'alley' has got this negative connotation. You hate to even use it with what they've done back there."
Mayorga plans to put in an attractive new facade for his coffee shop, transforming what used to be the back entrance of an old industrial structure into welcoming, window-lined storefronts for customers.
Other restaurants plan to have outdoor seating, bars and entertainment. Ward Deal, executive chef of Gallery, a restaurant opening in the arts alley at the end of the summer, will seat diners on a terrace.
"It's going to be a destination spot not just for Silver Spring but for the whole area," he said.
The transformation of South Silver Spring also signals that "Silver Spring is becoming a real city and will have a lot of things that real cities have to offer," Kreger said.
"One of the things that makes cities great is arts and the cultural resources available to that community, and I think we've had a great start so far."
Attractive colored glass panels dress up the formerly drab alley.