After more than a decade of slumber, Silver Spring is awakening to a building boom that developers say will physically reshape Washington's earliest and liveliest suburb and restore it to the business and residential hub it was before the Capital Beltway and regional shopping malls siphoned off much of its life.
Currently, five major office buildings are under construction within the triangular area formed roughly by Colesville Road, Georgia Avenue and Second and Wayne avenues and within walking distance of the Silver Spring Metro station.
Four other projects are completed and several more are in varying stages of site or plan approval by the Montgomery County Planning Board.
"There are a lot of cranes up in Silver Spring . . . more than two million square feet of space are under construction," said Bill Barron, a county planner specializing in the southeast quadrant of the county.
"The boom that everyone expected to happen here in 1978 when the Metro station opened bypassed us because the market was just a lot stronger in Bethesda and Friendship Heights. Now it's happening" in Silver Spring, he said.
Eight of the projects have or are being built under Montgomery's so-called Optional Method, which allows developers with parcels of at least 20,000 square feet to double their densities in exchange for providing public space, street improvements, parks, parking and other amenities.
While some Silver Spring developers are already worrying about "office overbuild," most are extremely bullish about the current development pace. Five of them have even banded together to collectively market the area and reverse a 20-year decline in Silver Spring's image.
Lloyd W. Moore Development Co., Foulger-Pratt, Majestic Builders Corp., Caruscan Corp. and the Lee Development Group have formed The Renaissance Group to sell Silver Spring as a prime location close to Washington by car or Metro and free of the congestion they say makes Bethesda a less desirable address.
"Silver Spring's been a victim of poor timing, a sewer moratorium and a national recession," said developer E. Brooke Lee III, whose great-great-grandfather, Francis Preston Blair, found the spring from which the community takes its name while horseback riding in the rural Montgomery of the 1830s.
Branches of the Lee and Blair families have been a significant force in the area's development since Preston Blair moved his family there in 1852 from their original home across from the White House, Blair House.
After World War II, until the Beltway was built in 1960, Silver Spring was the archetypical suburb -- a bustling residential area at the tip of prestigious 16th Street and the place The Hecht Co. picked for its first branch store in 1946.
J. C. Penneys followed in 1950 and both stores enjoyed a solid 15 years of growth. But present-day observers now say that even with a stable base of 3,400 residential units in Silver Spring's central business district, the future of this retail core hinges on how quickly the new building boom can create consumer demand and whether these large retailers will still be around to capture it.
Most cite the 1960 opening of Wheaton Plaza, with its 81 acres of free parking and enclosed shopping, as the beginning of Silver Spring's decline as a retail hub. Through most of the 1960s and 1970s, interest in the area waned despite the fact that the last stop of the eastern leg of Metro's Red Line has been there for almost a decade.
But Lee said he believes the sometimes fitful, start-and-stop pace of development since the 1960s, along with the poor step-sister image of Silver Spring, is a thing of the past. "This time, with the number of first-class buildings going up, there's no stopping Silver Spring," he said.
To attract tenants, developers will initially offer leasing rates that beat the $30-plus-per-square-foot being asked in central Bethesda and the $35 a square foot some developers at prime downtown Washington locations can command.
"It's going to be very competitive. We'll be leasing space for between $21.25 and $23.75 per square foot," said Robert D. Allnutt, marketing manager for Silver Spring Metro Plaza, a three-building complex with more than 700,000 square feet of office space that is nearing completion at the corner of Second Avenue and Colesville Road.
Erriki Pukonen, vice president of Caruscan Corp., the Canadian development group that is building the Metro Plaza complex with McCormick Spice Co. of Baltimore, said, "We need to offer rates several dollars below the market at the beginning because Bethesda is still perceived as a classier place. It has an aura of affluence that we can't match at the moment."
Lee said, "There's no doubt it's a tenants' market right now. What with the development in Bethesda coming on line at the same time, we'll have a two- or three-year supply of office space. I don't think there'll be a serious glut, but the more aggressive marketers will do better" leasing. Lee is the owner and developer of Lee Plaza, a 10-story Art Deco office tower now being built at the gateway to Silver Spring's old retail core at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road.
County planners said the fact that two Wayne Avenue buildings -- with a total of about 275,000 square feet -- were built and opened by Lloyd Moore in January 1983 and last year and now are "virtually leased up" is a good omen for the five projects under construction.
John E. Carter, a planner with the county's urban design department, said, "Lloyd was the pioneer. His were virtually the only large projects to go up in Silver Spring since about 1975."
John Magladery, vice president of L. W. Moore Development Co., said, "It's not that we're visionaries. We just jumped in sooner." The firm is currently demolishing a row of apartments-turned-offices on Wayne and Dixon Avenues to build the 14-story Atrium at Station Square, the third component of the complex.
Magladery said all three buildings will be oriented around a central botanic garden, part of the required amenities package. An open plaza set back at 8484 Georgia Ave. draws office workers for fair-weather lunches and an eight-month-old restaurant at the 1100 Wayne Ave. site is beginning to do a good nighttime business, according to workers there. The Moore Co. also has widened sidewalks and planted trees to tie the area together and give it a friendlier atmosphere for pedestrians.
Nonetheless, John L. Westbrook, former head of the county's urban design department, said much more will have to happen if Silver Spring is to become "the downtown of Montgomery County as it should be.
"It's still devoid of a heart," Westbrook said. Although the Metro Plaza project and another two buildings being developed by the Foulger-Pratt group will effectively create a new city-center to the southwest, Westbrook said office workers from the complexes and pedestrians from nearby Blair Plaza and Falkland apartments must be able to safely and easily walk into the old retail core across Georgia Avenue if Silver Spring is to become more "than just another Crystal City after dark."
"The story has yet to unfold in Silver Spring," Westbrook said, adding that "an incredible amount of space is already overzoned in the central business district for office use. Some must be left for small retail shops if the flavor and feel of the old Silver Spring is to remain."
Carter agreed, saying "the challenge now is to attract more retail and retain the mix of uses in the central city." He said planners are studying the possibility of a bridge across Wayne Avenue and a tunnel under Georgia to the central retail core. "We will also look at rerouting buses or operating a shopping shuttle," he said.
Bryant Foulger, vice president of Foulger-Pratt Development, said the 28,000 people who use the Silver Spring Metro station each day will generate sufficient foot traffic to keep ground-level retailers busy in his two-phase, 375,000-square-foot Silver Spring Metro Center complex. The first building -- a nine-story structure with 150,000 square feet of office space -- is expected to open next August.
Both the Foulger-Pratt project and Metro Plaza directly across Colesville Road will feed directly into the Metro stop. Both developers also maintained long-established pedestrian paths by designing buildings that face each other with a large central slice left open for walkways, cafe dining and public art galleries.
Caruscan's Allnutt said a major national bank will make its headquarters in three floors of the 10-story building when it opens early this summer. Two other buildings, 16 stories and six stories, respectively, will be ready in early 1987.
Across Second Avenue from the Caruscan project, where Crawford Gun Store and Temple School stood until last year, Majestic Builders Corp. is blasting part of the bedrock and putting in the foundation for its 15-story, 200,000-square-foot Silver Spring Centre, which is expected to be completed in February 1987.
"We remember Silver Spring as the booming suburb before the Beltway, before Wheaton Plaza and the regional malls," said Bernard Sanker, Majestic's executive vice president. "Frankly, we're puzzled why the area didn't develop sooner. . . . We bought this site as soon as it became available. The area fairly shouts 'Location!', with 16th Street leading to downtown and Georgia, Colesville or East-West Highway three minutes from the Beltway or Bethesda."
Sanker said Silver Spring's tawdry image is a thing of the past.
"The boom is definitely on," he declared.