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The 'Silver Spring War': Inside The Rebirth Of A Downtown

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The view of downtown Silver Spring, Md., from the platform of its Metro station.
The view of downtown Silver Spring, Md., from the platform of its Metro station.

Over the past decade, Silver Spring has “sprung.” More than 5,000 residential units have been built, with the public and private sectors investing around $2.5 billion in the area. But the redevelopment wasn't always a sure thing. For more than a decade, it divided residents in what was known as the “Silver Spring War.”

Lack of investment leads to decline

In the 1960s and '70s, as the middle class was draining out of D.C., something similar was happening along the old commercial strip in downtown Silver Spring.

“Literally, offices were leaving, banks were leaving, businesses and stores were all leaving, movie theaters were all leaving,” says Gus Bauman, who has lived in Silver Spring for the past 40 years. For most of that time, he has been deeply involved in land use and planning issues in the area. In 1978, he was there on the platform when Metro opened its first station in Maryland, in downtown Silver Spring. It was supposed to jumpstart development, but it wasn't so simple.

“Just because a Metro station opened didn’t mean you’re going to have redevelopment around it," he says.

At first, the financing wasn't there — no one wanted to invest in an area that had seen better days. Finally, in 1986, a developer came up with a plan to raze a section of downtown, replacing everything with a massive mall complex straddling Georgia Avenue.

“When that plan was released, all hell broke loose,” says Bauman. “It led to litigation, it led to a referendum on the ballot, it led to the unseating of the county executive in the 1990 Democratic primary election. The press called it the ‘Silver Spring War’ and it was a war.”

The war raged as plan after plan failed and downtown’s decline continued. Between 1988 and 1996, 220 businesses left the area, and the office vacancy rate rose to nearly 40 percent.

AFI Silver Theatre 2
AFI Silver was built on the historic Silver Theatre, which was saved from the wrecking ball in 1998. (Mr. T in DC)

A plan well ahead of its time

In 1989, Bauman became chairman of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, where he helped hammer out a new master plan.

Pulling a copy of the 1993 plan off the shelf in his office, Bauman points to the cover.

“I wanted the cover to say, and you can see it: the cover says the plan for the revival of downtown Silver Spring, dated April 1993," Bauman says.

That plan would take another 10 years to really get going, but it was the rough draft of today’s Silver Spring — a dense, walkable mix of housing, retail, and office space, centered around the Metro station.

It would also be an arts district, starting with the restoration of the grand art deco Silver Theater, built in 1938.

“I kept showing developers the Silver Theater that had been empty since 1983, and was full of rats and pigeons and water. It was terrible. Every developer going through there would say, ‘It would take $25 million to bring this back as a theater,'" Bauman says.

In fact, it took about $20 million. In 1998, Montgomery County agreed to purchase and restore the theater. The American Film Institute agreed to operate it, showing independent films, foreign films and documentaries.

Murray Horwitz was the founding director of the new AFI Silver, which opened its doors in 2003.

“It was an emblem of what had happened to Silver Spring. When we reopened, people came with tears, literally, some people with tears streaming down their faces, saying, ‘We never thought this place would reopen, thank you so much,'" Horwitz says.

Horwitz says the Silver played a key role in bringing life back to downtown.

“The fact that it was, and is, a movie theater, I think gave us a little bit of a leg up," Horwitz says. "Had we been a ballet company or had we been an opera company, I’m not sure it would have worked so well as it did. But film is sort of the new literature.”

But it wasn't just a nice place to see a movie. The new AFI Silver brought people from around the world for festivals and screenings. In a neighborhood that had been deserted at night, suddenly it wasn't uncommon to see a celebrity sitting down at an outdoor cafe.

Silver Spring Veterans Plaza
Residents rest in the shade during the Magical Montgomery Festival at the Silver Spring Civic Building and Veterans Plaza. (Adam Fagen)

Residents were the last piece of the puzzle

By the early 2000s, Silver Spring had the elements to recreate a bustling downtown. The final ingredient was people who wanted to live here. Silver Spring was counting on people like Evan Glass, who moved to downtown Silver Spring ten years ago.

“It was pretty much parking lots and auto shops that were around here,” he says, looking at the apartment towers that now line the streets. He moved to Silver Spring after he finished college in D.C., and he didn't know much about Silver Spring.

“All I realized is that it was affordable, I could walk to the Metro, and I wanted to be here," Glass says.

But as hundreds, then thousands of people moved in to a place that had not been residential, Glass says there were some growing pains. There were parking problems, crime, and questions about future development.

Glass helped found the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association to address some of these issues, and help build community among all these strangers.

“When you're in a high-rise community it’s very rare that you know who a neighbor on your own floor is, let alone someone two floors below you, and forget about knowing anybody in the building next to you."

Back when planning started in downtown Silver Spring, in the late 1970s, it was hard to imagine urban places like this would again be desirable and sought-after.

Former county planner Gus Bauman says Silver Spring embraced “smart growth” before it became a trendy buzzword.

“It wasn't a new idea, but it was a nice label and more and more people found it appealing," Bauman says.

Finally, the market had caught up with the planners.

“We took off on a tear at that point and have not looked back since,” Bauman says.

Silver Spring is still a work in progress. Right in the middle of all the new development downtown, the old City Place Mall languishes with high vacancy rates. But a major renovation is in the works, while elsewhere downtown hundreds more apartment units are under construction.

Music: "Maryland" by The Jones Thing from Isolated Twins


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