When a proposal to turn downtown Silver Spring into a historic district first was considered last summer, Montgomery County officials seemed a little sheepish about the idea.
After all, the rows of shops and glass-front stores near the intersection of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue date only from the 1930s through the 1950s, and hardly seemed to compare with the turn-of-the-century row houses of Georgetown or the even earlier homes of Alexandria.
So the county consulted urban and architectural experts from California to New York who said this week that, in their judgment, downtown Silver Spring is a historic slice of Americana -- fast disappearing and well worth saving.
"The interesting thing about Silver Spring is that it is not terribly extraordinary," said Philadelphia architect Steven Izenour at a symposium this week that allowed the expert consultants to meet with the residents and property owners of downtown Silver Spring. "It has all the elements of a traditional American main street -- slightly haphazard, but a vital mix."
The proposal for a historic district has met with some resistance from property owners and developers. They say the Silver Spring retail stores have no historical significance or value and to save them would be contrary to the county's plan to revitalize the area through new development.
Meanwhile, county historic preservation societies and many residents argue that much of the downtown is worth keeping. And they say they fear that massive new development will rob the area of its neighborhood identity.
"I am not an expert," said Priscilla Anne Schwab, chairwoman of the county Historic Preservation Committee. "But I can see the value in older things that worked and still work well. I'm one of those who wish she'd kept her 1953 Buick."
To diffuse a potential battleground of historic proportions, the county commissioned a study of the area -- with the aid of the outside consultants -- to determine the feasibility of perserving it as a historic district, spokesman John Hoover said.
The seminar, attended by about 70 people, was a chance for the consultants to report their opinions and for the county planning staff to receive comments and ideas from the residents, he said.
The six consultants, who are architects, historians and developers, said Silver Spring could have "preservation with profit."
"You don't want to freeze-dry the downtown," said Chester Liebs, an architectural historian from Columbia University. "There has to be a vital mix of old and new."
The panelists said developers would profit by working with preservation and not against it, because the most successful redevelopments in the country have been in older neighborhoods and commercial centers that were renovated rather than bulldozed to make way for new buildings.
They cited the Art Deco district in South Miami Beach nationally and Georgetown Park locally as examples.
The residents in the audience agreed that the downtown stores should be saved, saying they want Silver Spring to maintain a "human scale" of small and large development, rather than the massive overdevelopment that has plagued some area cities. On the other hand, residents said they did not want a "yuppieville."
"It won't be successful if there is a fern bar next to an ice cream store, one after another," agreed Izenour. "You need a hardware store and a camera store and a laundromat, or it's not a real town."
The ups and downs of Silver Spring are similar to those of hundreds of small cities throughout the country, said the architectural historians. It started as a trolley town, linked to Washington by rows of tracks, and grew to be the "Capital of Montgomery" by the mid-1950s.
Silver Spring's architecture is "very visual, very much designed to get attention," he said.
But the downtown area declined when the trolleys stopped running and convenient shopping malls drew people to suburbs farther out. Many of the remaining stores have become "tawdry," the consultants said.
However, since the Silver Spring Metro station opened several years ago, developers have taken a new look at the area, and an increase in building permits has followed. The county plan calls for dense development in the area.