A Dose of Art and Entertainment Revives a Suburb
By EUGENE L. MEYER Published: June 13, 2007
Photo by Steve Ruark for The New York Times
Sara Nathan, right, and her son Seth, 3, cool off in a fountain in a newly redeveloped section of downtown Silver Spring. Md.
SILVER SPRING, Md., June 12 — Washington’s first suburban shopping district had its heyday here in the 1950s, but as people moved farther out and new malls sprouted to serve them, retailers and then offices left in droves, sending Silver Spring into a decades-long decline.
But now this once-ailing suburb, which abuts the District of Columbia and is linked to downtown Washington by subway, is enjoying a renaissance, a result of public involvement and private investment that is turning it into an arts and entertainment center, anchored by the Discovery Channel and the American Film Institute and including new offices, hotels, theaters, restaurants and housing.
As recently as the mid-1990s, such a rebirth would have seemed a pipe dream. The streets were often deserted; the vacancy rate stood at 39 percent for offices and about 25 percent for stores, and there seemed little reason for hope.
Douglas M. Duncan, then the Montgomery County executive and now vice president for administrative affairs at the University of Maryland in College Park, recently recalled that when he pledged to revitalize the area, “the attitude from the public was why bother, no one will ever come to Silver Spring.”
Gary Stith, the county’s Silver Spring coordinator, said that back then the city offered nothing to do when the workday ended and people left their offices. “We didn’t have the amenities,” Mr. Stith said. “There was no reason to stay.”
In addition, he said, there was an image problem, stoked by the fear that crime would creep in from Washington. “We used to say Silver Spring is safer than it looked,” he said. (Silver Spring still has its somewhat shabby side, which includes auto body shops, greasy spoons, a tattoo parlor and used book and record stores, but they are now considered part of its charm.)
Mr. Duncan feared that if nothing was done, the problem would spread to other areas. So, undaunted by a series of ambitious but failed plans that included a proposal by the Mall of America’s Canadian developers to build a huge mall in Silver Spring, the county acquired much of the downtown core and turned the project over to a private joint venture of the Foulger-Pratt and Peterson Companies, both major developers in the Washington area.
With $1.2 billion in public and private investment over the last six years, including $187 million from the county, much has been done. “I can’t think of any downside to this project,”said Bryant F. Foulger, a principal of Foulger-Pratt.
In April 2003, the American Film Institute, which has its main office in Los Angeles, moved from the Kennedy Center in Washington into a renovated 1938 movie theater, adding two more screens and bringing celebrities like Clint Eastwood for the grand opening and Martin Scorsese, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover and even Al Gore to town for presentations. The institute occupies 7,000 square feet of office space and has 25 full-time and 40 part-time year-round employees.
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