Like many inner suburbs across the country, Silver Spring faces a difficult decision about its downtown. A private developer proposes to demolish the old Silver Shopping Center and movie theater to make way for a new shopping mall and office building. Is this a simple case of economic development versus historic preservation, or is something more at stake?

The insights of 93-year old Fannie Mae Jackson and 60-year old Larry Flower are pertinent. In their lawsuit challenging New York City's proposed redevelopment of Times Square, they complained about the destruction of "familiar and reassuring daily sights" and the consequent elimination of "proprietors and social institutions ... known and relied upon for many years" but never mentioned the architectural or historical integrity of existing buildings.

These two nonprofessionals inject a needed human argument into battles about redevelopment, an argument that shouldn't be overlooked. Redevelopment is about more than bricks and mortar. Precipitous change can sever the connective tissue between people and place and unwittingly disturb the well-being of the people most affected.

What the New Yorkers are describing is something I'll call "associative value." A place has associative value when people have substantial familiarity with and memories attached to that place's visual appearance and function. The appearance may not be aesthetically pleasing or architecturally significant, the use no more glamorous than a neighborhood grocery store or newspaper shop.

But the place may be a hangout where friends meet. It may be a location where seemingly superficial conversations between shopkeepers and customers actually make up an essential network of human contact. It may be a spot where people have gathered to celebrate the end of a year or the end of a war. In time, these kinds of places become a reassuring point of reference in one's life.

Acknowledging the importance of these associations does not necessarily require the preservation of the existing buildings. After all, forms and uses evolve. Other economic and social values no less important might be better served by new development.

How how might consideration of associative value be incorporated into the planning process? First, when an area is threatened by demolition, planners should determine whether this "connective tissue" would be severed. Reasonable public-private efforts to revive uses and rehabilitate structures should be explored.

Second, any plan for the area should attempt to retain those buildings and uses especially important to members of the community. And third, if preservation is not economically feasible, then new structures and uses should attempt to reflect some aspects of structures and uses they have replaced.

In the Silver Spring debate, preservationists have focused on the historical and architectural value of the shopping center and theater. If these buildings aren't landmarks with a capital "L," they obviously have meaning for many in the neighborhood. Alternatives to their demolition should be explored. Communities lucky enough to undergo redevelopment need not throw away the very things that make them special to their residents. -- Jerold S. Kayden led a Harvard study on Silver Spring several years ago.