The long-planned revitalization of downtown Silver Spring received another boost last week with the approval of a $40 million office complex next to the Silver Spring Metro station that will feature a plaza of shops and art galleries, according to county planners.

The Montgomery County Planning Board approved a project plan for the development that should clear the way for construction to begin by late January, according to Bryant Foulger, vice president of Foulger-Pratt Development Co., the Rockville-based developer.

"We liked this gateway location," Foulger said. "It's very accessible to downtown and it's a major terminus for Metro."

The complex -- two high-rise buildings with 375,000 square feet of office and commercial space -- will be erected on 1.25 acres (now the site of an auto dealership) at Colesville Road and East-West Highway.

A new subway station entrance, shops and three art galleries will be placed near a 17,000-square-foot open-air plaza and sculpture garden that will serve as a gathering place for pedestrians and subway riders.

The galleries, which will have changing exhibits, were added at the county's request to give the complex an artistic focus, planners said.

The developers also have agreed to add trees and brick sidewalks along Colesville Road and East-West Highway. In exchange, the planning board doubled the density of the proposed project, according to John A. Carter, a county urban designer.

A nine-story building and a companion 14-story high rise will feature pre-cast and glass arches to complement the circular theme of the plaza, said Jim Weschler, the project architect. "It's a very classical theme," he said. "We tried taking the basic ingredients of old European architecture and incorporating them into modern architecture."

Approval of the Foulger-Pratt project signaled another advance in the county's efforts to revive Silver Spring's downtown business district using the Metro station as a focus for redevelopment.

Although the subway station is the fourth-busiest in the Metro system, the surrounding area is considered relatively undeveloped, Foulger said.

The planning board is considering a proposal to add a three-story building to another complex being developed next to the station at Colesville Road and Second Street by McCormick Spice Co. of Baltimore and Caruscan, a Canadian company. A nine-story office tower is under construction there and a 16-story building -- the tallest in Silver Spring -- is also planned, Carter said.

Planners also are searching for developers to build on two sites: vacant land across the railroad tracks from the station and the air rights over the bus parking area, Carter said.

All of the construction has been approved under the county's Optional Method of Development, which allows developers increased density in exchange for providing public amenities.

About half of the Foulger-Pratt project site will be devoted to public uses, according to planners.

Foulger praised the zoning method as well as the location, saying that his company will be able to market the project to major corporations seeking a large-scale complex with easy access to downtown Washington.

"The way the rents are structured, it's more economic to have a signature address downtown and maintain support staff in the suburbs," he said.

Foulger-Pratt, known principally as a construction company, built the Mormon Temple in Bethesda and Bell Atlantic Co. headquarters in Rosslyn.