Correction: Earlier versions of this article misidentified the person who criticized former county executive Douglas M. Duncan’s assessment of downtown Silver Spring.
At the low point in the boom-bust-boom history of Silver Spring, the biggest downtown in the Washington suburbs was in desperate straits. From the mid-1960s through the next decade, storefronts emptied out fast. Some morphed into low-rent adult bookstores or churches catering to immigrants. Crime spiked.
Even when Metro opened its first suburban station in Silver Spring in 1978, little changed. The subway was sparking development in the District, but in Silver Spring, the station sat alone, surrounded by body shops and vacant lots.
If Metro was going to be the game-changing investment that planners had promised, something more had to be done. Montgomery County hatched a plan: The Silver Spring Transit Center — a snazzy terminal that would link Metro, the MARC commuter train and the county’s bus system — would cost $26 million, but it would connect to a new residential-retail complex, fill in a crucial gap at the core of the business district and help lure pedestrians to new shops and arts facilities.
Today, 23 years after the county spent $8 million to buy the land for the transit center, two decades after the federal government provided the first $1.5 million to design it and more than six years after construction finally began, the Silver Spring Transit Center sits behind chain-link fencing, its new bus benches still shrink-wrapped. Although the facility is supposedly 95 percent finished, it is crippled by major structural flaws. Dangerous cracks in the building are warning signs that chunks of concrete could fall onto pedestrians, and all sides agree that complex lawsuits lie ahead for the worst building fiasco in county history.
The transit center was conceived during a time of bold expansion, when the county was building a concert hall, a jail, a conference center, schools and libraries, but it began to rise during much tighter times. Still, the cost has ballooned almost fivefold from its original price tag, to $120 million, and that number could rise considerably as crews rip out entire sections that were built incorrectly.
“When you look at Silver Spring today, it’s easy to forget how awful downtown was and how tenuous the redevelopment was,” said John Porcari, who ran Maryland’s transportation department under two governors and is now deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The idea behind the transit center was to jump-start development: “Montgomery County’s point was you really need this infrastructure to trigger the private investment.”
But even as more than half a dozen government agencies and a slew of private contractors struggled to finish the project, Silver Spring sprang: The downtown got a powerful injection of major employers, popular arts and entertainment spots, eateries and residential developments. The American Film Institute opened its East Coast showcase at the Silver Theatre, Discovery Communications built a gleaming headquarters for 2,000 employees, the Round House Theatre and the Fillmore music hall opened, and downtown’s streets filled day and night — an urban renewal from blight to Whole Foods renaissance in just a few years.
And all without the transit center, the catalyst that was supposedly vital to Silver Spring’s transformation.
That leaves some $120 million questions: Was the investment worthwhile? Was the center, which Porcari in 2000 described as “the Union Station of Maryland,” necessary? How and why did the center’s troubles metastasize, its price tag multiplying and its timeline stretching beyond all predictions? And who is responsible for the center falling apart?
Price tag: $26 million.
Silver Spring’s decline began with America’s 30-year love affair with malls. Wheaton Plaza — opened in 1960 as an open-air mall, then enclosed in 1981 — sucked shops and customers out of the old downtowns. White Flint mall in North Bethesda followed in 1977.
Free parking and air-conditioned comfort easily beat pumping the meter and sweating in the summer sun. Macy’s chose to open at Wheaton Plaza rather than downtown. Sears moved from downtown Silver Spring to White Oak, a 40-acre shopping center with vast fields of parking. Developer Sam Eig, who owned a choice corner property at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, sold out, investing in the promise of the Interstate 270 corridor and the new suburbs of Gaithersburg and beyond.
In 1984, demolition began on the Silver Theatre, an art deco classic, and on the downtown’s original, iconic 1938 shopping center. The county quickly ordered the wreckers to halt, but Silver Spring’s freefall continued: In 1987, Hecht’s department store abandoned downtown to open in Wheaton. Two years later, JCPenney, the last big retailer downtown, bailed out.
For years, Silver Spring searched for a savior. After one grand idea fizzled, four brothers from Canada arrived in 1995 with an audacious plan to build the American Dream, a $600 million complex featuring an NHL-sized hockey rink, an aquarium and aquatic park, an Imax theater, a 400-room hotel and a mall the size of 21 football fields.
Many residents, appalled by the size of the project and the prospect of massive traffic jams, rebelled against the deal. When the developers asked the county to pick up about half the tab, then-County Executive Douglas M. Duncan pulled the plug.
Meanwhile, businesses kept leaving, 220 of them in the decade prior to 1996.
County planners were convinced that public money could create magnets that would attract private investment and popular interest in living, working and playing in Silver Spring. The key, some said, was transit.
“For Silver Spring to accommodate more commerce and be a major source of jobs, we had to have more people using transit,” said Ed Daniel, a retired county transportation planner who played a central role in getting the transit center started.
In 1993, federal, state and county officials announced plans for a $26 million terminal to link commuter and Metro trains, Metro and Ride-On buses, and taxis.
But Metro was skeptical, arguing that the concept was too narrow, that the center needed to be more ambitious. The county planning board objected as well, saying the design was ugly and needed to include park space and more pedestrian-friendly features.
Consensus on how to make the transit center work was still beyond reach.
December 1999: $48 million
As the tech boom pumped new money into the D.C. area, Duncan promised downtown Silver Spring would become “the hottest urban center in the Washington region.”
A new approach to urban development captured the imagination of planners and builders: smart growth. It was an effort to curb suburban sprawl by adding density in areas served by public transportation, and it was propounded by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening and by Duncan.
As they campaigned to lure major employers to Silver Spring in the late ’90s, county officials said they would encourage half of the downtown workforce to commute by transit. “We’ve done for the car all we need to do,” said Bryant Foulger, the construction executive whose company, Foulger-Pratt, joined with the Peterson Companies to propose a new concept for downtown — not an indoor mall, but a faux-urban street lined with stores, movie theaters and restaurants.
That complex would draw pedestrians from the transit center, which would be attached to another Foulger-Pratt project above and adjacent to the transit facility. With 250 apartments, a 150-room hotel, shops and offices, the three high-rise buildings were designed to make Silver Spring a vibrant illustration of smart growth.
The transit center would expand from a glorified bus stop to a three-level economic engine linking three sections of downtown, providing a steady stream of pedestrians to walk to the new restaurants, theaters and a new skating rink and civic center.
But when the county produced its design, the planning board rejected it as “unacceptable”; board members had no appetite for a concrete hulk plopped into a prime location where they had hoped to encourage walking, shopping and dining.
“It was not an act of beauty,” said Royce Hanson, who ran the board in the 1970s, ’80s and 2000s. “I was admonished at the time for saying that it was ugly.”
The center was intended to be “a beautiful hub,” said county council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). “That beautiful part has been lost through all the years of redesigning.”
Even as the battle over design continued, the project helped spur development, some early supporters said, noting that Discovery and other employers moved to Silver Spring in part because of the promise of improved transit.
“The thinking became that the whole thing should be looked at as an urban showcase entry point to the redeveloping Silver Spring,” said Diane Ratcliff, director of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration.
Over several years, officials from a growing list of agencies held long, complex meetings on design. The project’s cast of managers looked like an interagency clown car. Metro and the county owned pieces of the land. The county, its county planning board, Metro, the state transit agency, the state highway commission, the Federal Transit Administration and the CSX railroad all had to sign off on aspects of design and construction.
“The more entities involved, the more approvals and inspections you have,” said David Dise, director of the county’s General Services Department. “It does complicate and slow the process.”
Turf wars led to more delays. Montgomery County “very much wanted to build this,” Porcari said. But once built, the center would be operated by Metro. “You have one entity building it for another that is going to have to accept it. That relationship makes it a more difficult project.”
Still, politicians kept pushing the designers and builders to move faster. “We kept being told that we had to hurry up and get it built because the federal funding was going to expire,” Hanson said.
February 2006: $75 million.
Again and again, county officials announced dates for the start of work on the transit center. Nothing happened.
But the price tag kept soaring as plans became more complex, now accommodating the proposed Purple Line light rail line between New Carrollton and Bethesda. (Still, some county officials said the price might actually decline as more detailed designs were produced.)
The government promised that the transit center would spur development that would in turn bring “increases in real estate, sales and income tax revenues,” the late John Matthias, a county planner, wrote in a history of the project.
But battles continued. The effort to satisfy all the agencies was like trying to stuff “eight pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag,” Matthias wrote.
The resulting design looks like a very big but simple, three-level parking garage. The oval structure is actually quite complex, however, built to absorb far greater loads than a garden-variety municipal garage – as many as 250 buses an hour.
Heavy bus traffic required broad roadways and a wide turning radius, which means long, uninterrupted spans between columns. Virtually all of the concrete is embedded with curving steel tendons that are tightened to help the building bear a heavier load.
That complexity set off alarms even before a contractor was selected to build the center. The design, by the global engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the county’s specifications were so elaborate — the document distributed to prospective builders was more than 2,200 pages long — that some firms were leery of bidding for the work.
“They acted like they were building the Taj Mahal,” said a local construction executive who asked not to be named to avoid jeopardizing his ties to the county. Two companies, Foulger-Pratt and Clark Construction, put in bids.
Foulger-Pratt got the business with a promise to finish the work by 2011 for $62.9 million.
September 2008: $93 million
Just a few months after breaking ground in 2008, the county acknowledged it had underestimated the difficulty of the project. It hired Parsons Brinckerhoff to coordinate the cats-herd of participating agencies. That deal was capped at $465,000, but the figure would nearly double over the next three years.
Hardly a month went by without some new expense. The budget had to be bumped up to manage storm water, clean up hazardous materials, sink foundations deep into tough bedrock and add county staff to supervise all the changes.
“It was a series of mistakes that were dumbfounding,” Dise said.
Battles also raged between the designer and the builder. Foulger said the drawings Parsons Brinckerhoff produced were ambiguous and inconsistent, requiring his company to file more than 1,300 requests for clarification on plans for everything from ceiling lights to bike racks.
“This project should never have started when it did,” Foulger said in an interview. The county and the design firm “should have waited until the drawings were complete and finished. And then we could have moved forward and built this thing rationally.”
April 2010: $96 million.
The April 7 memo was short and blunt: “Please contact George with the Department of Permitting Services at your earliest convenience about a structural issue that needs to be resolved.”
Georgios Mavrommatis had been examining drawings of a long, curved wall in the transit center plans when he noticed that there were no slip joints where the floor met the wall. Engineers use slip joints to allow a building to move under stress, such as when a heavy bus rolls by.
The memo, to Douglas Lang, Parsons Brinckerhoff’s main engineer on the project, launched years of argument about whether the center’s roadways — the heart of the structure — might start to crack if those joints were not installed because the design drawings did not include them.
Lang was confident, according to minutes of a meeting that May, that the structure “should be able to accommodate” the pressures as is. In early June, he wrote a memo suggesting that the issue could be wrapped up within a week.
Three years later, two engineering firms, one hired by the county and one by Metro, concluded that the transit center’s overly rigid design left out any way for the building to breathe. It was, a senior county official said, like a snare drum that has been tuned too tightly.
Six months after Mavrommatis’s warning, inspectors had found cracks and concrete that was so thin in some places that portions of steel tendons were sticking out. The contract required at least 10 inches of concrete on all the slabs, including a minimum of two inches covering the steel.
Finger-pointing accelerated, centering on the building’s middle level, which would carry the heaviest bus traffic. Drawings by Parsons Brinckerhoff included symbols for supporting steel throughout the level. But the drawings did not include steel in two important parts of the building. Subcontractors had made their own more-detailed drawings based on the Parsons Brinckerhoff drawings and left the steel out.
Parsons Brinckerhoff and the county maintain that the plans explicitly call for steel everywhere. But in early 2011, the concrete in those sections was poured — without steel.
Without that steel support, the county’s consulting engineers concluded this year, pieces of concrete could have fallen from the ceiling, landing on passengers below.
January 2013: $120 million.
The county has all but halted construction, as lawyers, engineers and politicians blame one another, threaten lawsuits and discuss fixes. For now, the transit center remains a quiet oasis in the center of busy Silver Spring. Where 200 workers once toiled, a handful of men in hard hats wandered about on a recent morning. Next to the empty center, the site where a large residential-retail complex was planned is a grassy hill. There are no active plans to develop it. Pedestrians walk long loops around the chain-link fence to get to buses along curbs four blocks from the Metro station.
“Silver Spring was a national model for urban revitalization and now it’s a laughingstock,” said Duncan, county executive from 1994 to 2006 and now a candidate to reclaim his old job. An early proponent of the transit center, Duncan contends that “I teed it up for the person replacing me to build the thing.”
Patrick Lacefield, spokesman for County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett, who is expected to announce soon that he will seek a third term, said it’s sad that Duncan “finds it politically expedient to be so pessimistic about Silver Spring. It’s a great place that’s only gotten better over the last 10 years.”
Residents are frustrated. “People are gritting their teeth about the cost,” said Laura Steinberg, a longtime civic activist in Silver Spring.
And some wonder whether the whole thing was worth the time and money. “Silver Spring is now virtually built out and the center is irrelevant,” Elrich said. “Other places survive perfectly well without monuments, and maybe we didn’t need a monument.”
Everyone agrees the center can be fixed — at a price not yet determined. Repairs could begin this summer, and politicians expect a ribbon cutting before the June 2014 primary election.
But the county has learned one lesson: Three times in the past nine years, the county issued news releases announcing a celebration of the center’s opening. This time, no one will commit to an opening date.
Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.