For several years, the community of Silver Spring has been bitterly divided by the prospect of overdevelopment. A proposal to build a vast regional mall and office complex on a site that spans Georgia Avenue near the intersection of Colesville Road has triggered waves of angry resistance.

The project would dump many thousands of cars into surrounding neighborhoods, obliterate historic Art Deco buildings and devour most of the remaining open space in the heart of Silver Spring. The rationale for the project, trumpeted by certain officials of Montgomery County, is that only a regional mall with two full-scale department stores can revitalize Silver Spring. Now that the developer, Lloyd Moore, has elicited a letter of "interest from R.H. Macy & Co.," the county planning board has extended the project's deadline.

But there's another approach to revitalizing Silver Spring -- a more modest, incremental approach. And in light of the tenuous state of Macy's finances, the approach that strengthens the qualities that make the community special while bringing in just enough new retail activity makes the most sense.

Anyone who has visited Union Station knows that department stores are hardly essential to successful retail activity. Anyone who has seen the well-planned rehabilitation of Shirlington knows that even a down-at-the-heels suburban shopping location can be transformed into an attractive destination without a goliath mall.

Other retailers have stated that Silver Spring could have a vibrant retail facility joined to the temporarily down-at-the-heels (but eminently restorable) 1938 Silver Theatre and Silver Spring Shopping Center complex. Even Lloyd Moore has come up with a "Plan B" that would blend historic preservation with smaller-scale retail and office development. He has said that this plan could succeed.

It is only Montgomery County's obsession with department stores at any price -- even department stores apparently on the verge of bankruptcy -- that prevents a sane and moderate compromise strategy from healing Silver Spring's wounds.

Such a compromise would make tremendous sense for Silver Spring. The 1938 theater and shopping complex, though deliberately stripped of its decorative fittings several years ago, is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The streamlined cinema built at the zenith of Hollywood's golden age and a pleasantly spacious retail center designed to accommodate patrons arriving in everything from Hudsons to Auburn Speedsters and jaunty Ford V-8s could provide a superlative theme for the revitalization effort. It doesn't take much to imagine what capable marketing people could do with such a resource.

Critics seem to like the idea. In no fewer than five "Cityscape" columns, Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey has pleaded for historic preservation and thoughtful redevelopment in Silver Spring. Forgey has said that Silver Spring is a "heaven-sent opportunity to work with the past to create a future one can look forward to with a certain prideful anticipation."

The urban design commentator in The Post's real estate section, Roger K. Lewis, has likewise urged Montgomery County to look at alternatives to a regional mall, warning that "the latest visions for Silver Spring's downtown could become an amalgam of Rosslyn and an airborne Crystal City underground, with the shadow of Rockville's mall lurking in the background."

Washington Business Journal columnist Jack Kramer has said that "downtown Silver Spring ... has plenty of appeal to sell, if only those appeals were promoted."

The Committee of 100 on the Federal City has vigorously opposed a regional mall for Silver Spring and recommended a more humane redevelopment strategy.

And finally, thousands of citizens have resolutely opposed the 2-million-square-foot mall and office project. Since the policy-makers of Montgomery County haven't listened to any other concept for downtown Silver Spring except a regional mall, the civic movement has been forced into resistance and opposition.

Last year, The Post, which continues in its editorials to favor the regional mall, mistakenly accused the Silver Spring civic leaders of being "Kamikaze activists." But those of us who have spent many hours in the service of this movement plead innocent to the charge of fanaticism. We are reasonable people with a valid and responsible alternative for Silver Spring.

The polarization can be ended at any time: a scaled-back alternative has been designed already by Lloyd Moore himself. Business people have assured us time and again that a compromise can be achieved. A number of smaller and better projects underway demonstrate that the retail recovery of Silver Spring is beginning. Consequently, we will continue to espouse our vision with spirit and determination until Silver Spring at last is treated with the care, the respect and the moderation we believe it deserves.

-- Richard Striner is president of the Art Deco Society of Washington.