The news last month that The Hecht Co. plans to build a 180,000-square-foot store at Wheaton Plaza has fueled debate and anxiety over the future of Silver Spring's retail core -- three miles to the south -- where Hecht's has maintained a store since 1946.
Some developers, planners and Silver Spring residents said they believe that Hecht's eventually will close its Silver Spring outlet at Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive. "It's a given that Hecht's will leave," said one prominent developer who requested anonymity. "There's no way that they will operate two stores so close to one another."
Hecht personnel both here and at the store's parent May Co. in St. Louis said they have no plans to pull up stakes in Silver Spring. But store officials left the door open for future changes once the Wheaton Plaza deal is completed.
"The only plans we have at present are to operate the Silver Spring store and hope that it makes more money," said Charles Luber, vice president of real estate for May Co.
Both Luber and Hecht Co. Chairman Warren Harris said the store eventually may consider a shift in the type of goods sold in Silver Spring or convert excess floor space to office space, depending on what market studies show.
E. Brooke Lee III, a Silver Spring developer and resident, said if Hecht's closes "it will be difficult to attract another large retailer to Silver Spring without a critical mass of retail establishments in the area. Retail sales have been mediocre here for 25 years."
Lee also owns land on the corner opposite from Hecht's, which he leases to J. C. Penney's. While he said "it is premature to talk about redeveloping that parcel," Lee said large retailers "feed on each other, and Hecht's and Penney's are the only ones down here." Penney's lease with Lee expires next Nov. 30.
Others disagree, saying Silver Spring's current office building boom will generate about 10,000 new workers. "The latent demand for good retail that's been there all along will explode," making the area a strong location for another major department store, developer Bryant Foulger said.
John Westbrook, former chief of the county planning board's urban design division, said, "Residents would like to see more upscale products on sale there."
In addition to its Silver Spring store, The Hecht Co. owns two other nearby buildings, which comprise most of the south side of Colesville Road between Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street -- Silver Spring's so-called "super retail block."
One of the buildings, the 72,000-square-foot Eig building, is vacant, and the other houses a popular variety store. On the other end of the block from Hecht's sits the now-closed Silver Theatre, with its Art Deco lines and adjacent off-street shopping strip.
Developer Joseph Kaempfer has an option to buy this corner, but negotiations have stalled at the planning board while the whole block is considered as a historic district, said David L. Burka, owner of the parcel on the southwest corner of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road.
"Everyone is wrestling with what to do with retail in that original corridor," said John Carter, a planner with the county's urban design division.
Lee, who is erecting a 10-story white limestone office tower with a two-story public atrium, a black granite tower and Art Deco lines across the street from the Silver Theatre, said he is "skeptical about the whole preservation effort. . . . It would be a rape of the entire central business district to freeze the block in time with a bunch of third-rate buildings."
Westbrook disagreed, saying that while the block has a "dowdy, negative feeling, underneath all that grime is a pretty remarkable shopping strip," which developers must "rejuvenate with uses for today" if Silver Spring is to survive as an integrated place where people work, live and shop. "Otherwise, they'll just have another canyon of tall buildings that is dead after dark."
Burka says county planners should require developers to make rent concessions and small store spaces available in their multi-storied office towers so some of the area's oldest stores, and the flavor they represent, can remain.
"The small shoe stores and jewelers and picture framers need 700 to 1,000 square feet," Burka said. "They are willing to pay, but they can't get anything that small."