Downtown Silver Spring
Montgomery County, Maryland
Downtown Silver Spring lies at the heart of the Silver Spring central business district (CBD), an unincorporated, 250-acre transit-oriented urban area located just northeast of Washington, D.C., in Montgomery County, Maryland. Silver Spring’s core was at one time a non-descript area of parking lots, aging retail, office buildings, and boarded-up storefronts. It is now a thriving, mixed-use town center within an arts and entertainment district. The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority maintains a Red Line Metro station within a five-minute walk of the city center, and a multimodal transit center–featuring access to subway, train, local and regional bus lines, taxi service, a future light rail line, and bicycle trails–is nearing completion.
Today, Silver Spring is a rapidly redeveloping and vibrant city featuring a mix of public plazas and open space, offices, housing, hotel, retail, entertainment, transit access, and civic uses–all easily accessible on foot thanks to sustained downtown and CBD redevelopment efforts by public and private entities alike.
A Site with a History
In 1840, Francis Preston Blair discovered a spring northeast of the nation’s capitol shining with mica and named it Silver Spring. Two years later, he built a 20-room mansion named after the spring, on 250 acres of land. By 1854, Blair’s son, Montgomery Blair (who became Postmaster General under Abraham Lincoln and represented Dred Scott before the U.S. Supreme Court) built the Falkland House nearby.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century, however, that growth came to Silver Spring, most notably in 1922 when Woodside Development Corporation bought the 122-acre Alton Farm just north of Silver Spring and built Woodside Park, the area’s first automobile-oriented suburb. Woodside Park is considered one of the region’s best examples of 1920s-1930s residential development (and marketing), its original one-acre, single-family lots providing contrast to the urbanizing core located just north of Washington, D.C. known as Silver Spring.
Access to the District was primarily by car along Georgia Avenue or via the Washington trolley, which halted service in 1926. Twelve years later, one of the country’s first shopping centers with a street-facing parking lot was built in downtown Silver Spring. Silver Spring was also notable for the Silver Theatre, designed by architect John Eberson. In 1948, Georgia Avenue was widened, providing additional lanes for traffic traveling to new suburban developments such as Silver Spring, Woodside Park, and points north.
By the 1950s, downtown Silver Spring was characterized by office and retail uses and the parking lots that served those uses. It had become a major shopping destination for suburbanites living in the Washington D.C. area, with department stores such as the Hecht Company, J.C. Penney, and Sears, Roebuck and Co.
The community’s retail dominance began to change in 1960, however, when the shining, indoor Wheaton Mall opened just three miles north of the central business district. The mall siphoned off much of the Silver Spring’s business, beginning downtown’s slow decline.
Planning for Central Business District Redevelopment
Through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, a series of efforts were made to revitalize the Silver Spring central business district. The Silver Spring Metro Station opened in 1973. A few office buildings, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, opened around the Metro station, but the deteriorated retail core did not benefit. Twenty years later, a new Montgomery County General Plan was approved that encouraged urban renewal through greater density in urban cores, including Silver Spring. Additionally, Maryland’s Smart Growth Initiative refocused development funds and incentives on revitalizing downtowns with access to transit. Administered by the state’s Department of Planning, the Initiative provided planning guidance in four ways. First, it took advantage of the county’s “optional method of development” for CBD zones. This tool allows developers to increase density in exchange for providing public amenities, such as enhanced open space, public art, updated streetscapes, and affordable housing. Second, the Initiative promotes the use of existing infrastructure and historic buildings. Third, it actively fosters mixed-use development. Finally, the Initiative encourages alternative methods of transportation, which in the Silver Spring CBD has been fulfilled by reducing parking by up to one-half the total number of spaces traditionally required by Montgomery County. Other measures at Silver Spring include development of a new transit center (still under construction), installation of bike trails throughout the central business district, and the inclusion of bike stations in new mixed-use projects.
By the late 1990s, county, state, and private efforts began to pay off, particularly with the formation of Downtown Silver Spring, a public-private partnership between Montgomery County and the developers selected to rebuild downtown Silver Spring: Foulger Pratt, the Peterson Companies, and Argo Investment Company. Between 1987 and 1996, however, other developers proposed plans based upon an enclosed mall concept. All three proposals were rejected due to negative community reaction, government skepticism that an enclosed mall would succeed, and a failure to attract private-sector investment. The county then approached Foulger Pratt and the Peterson Companies, firms located in Rockville, Maryland, and Fairfax, Virginia. These developers had experience working in downtown redevelopment, especially in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Foulger Pratt was particularly successful in forming a vision and plan for downtown Silver Spring that residents, businesses, and decision-makers could embrace. Public involvement played a key role.
Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan was also essential for the support of downtown redevelopment. He worked closely with Foulger Pratt and the Peterson Companies to attract key tenants, including Discovery Communications and the American Film Institute. He also led efforts to gain approvals at the Montgomery County Council and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
In February 2000, the Montgomery County Council approved the Silver Spring CBD Sector Plan. The Sector Plan begins:
Silver Spring will become the downtown serving the surrounding residential communities, the eastern part of the County, and a broader regional market, including the District of Columbia and western Prince George’s County. The downtown’s Core will re-emerge as the center of the community, with offices, shops, restaurants, and civic uses arranged along landscaped, pedestrian-friendly streets.
All of Silver Spring’s districts will be enriched with amenities and linked by tree-lined sidewalks, local and regional trails, and a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks. The new connections will capitalize on Silver Spring’s role as a transportation center where local and regional train, bus, road, and trail systems come together. The downtown’s parks and plazas will be connected by a linked park system supplemented by sidewalks edged with trees, and buildings with shopfronts that enliven the sidewalks.
The Sector Plan is based on six themes developed from public meetings and discussions with community members. The themes are designed to help guide the evaluation and selection of development proposals and future redevelopment efforts:
- Transit-oriented Downtown
- Commercial Downtown
- Residential Downtown
- Civic Downtown
- Green Downtown
- Pedestrian-friendly Downtown
Additionally, the Sector Plan identifies four community goals that were articulated in focus groups and public workshops: “Plan recommendations and development projects should be market-oriented to ensure a long-term revitalization; Silver Spring should be an active place with mixed uses attracting people at all times of the day, week, and year; Silver Spring must be an attractive place—an upgraded urban environment will attract private investment; and local, state, and federal governments must commit public resources to support private investment.”
State and local governments have indeed provided financial incentives to help jump start the central business district’s redevelopment, investing over $450 million to purchase land; provide rent subsidies; build two public parking structures; construct a new courthouse, civic building, and Veterans’ Plaza; and renovate Silver Theatre. Since 2000, the CBD has leveraged over $2 billion in private investment, as well.
A Renewed Downtown in Design and Practice
Silver Spring’s downtown redevelopment, master-planned by RTKL, is organized around a central spine, Ellsworth Drive, a semi-private street lined with a mix of retail. Along Ellsworth is Silver Plaza, featuring an interactive fountain, a set of “art” stairs, elevator, and ample seating. This plaza functions as Silver Spring’s town square. At the end of Ellsworth is Veterans’ Plaza, a hardscape mall that features a glazed glass pavilion that provides shade during the summer months while hosting concerts during warm weather and a popular ice rink in winter. This space is surrounded by a movie theater, restaurants, and the Silver Spring Civic Building. The Civic Building hosts a variety of community events. Ellsworth is closed to vehicular traffic on weekends for concerts, festivals, and a farmers’ market.
Downtown Silver Spring has several successful tenants, chief among them Discovery Communications headquarters, which relocated to Silver Spring in 2003. The infusion of daily commuters from the parent company to the Discovery Channel provides a much-needed base of workers who patronize downtown’s numerous restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, and theaters.
During downtown Silver Spring’s planning process, residents requested a grocery store and hardware store. Though there was initial skepticism that a large, natural foods market could do well in this part of the county, the developers convinced Whole Foods to open a new store, and it has done very well, breaking regional sales records year upon year. A new Strosniders Hardware Store has also done consistently good business, even in the economic downturn. Other successful businesses new to the downtown since 2003 are the Regal Majestic Cinema (Stadium 20 and IMAX), several national restaurants, a Marriott hotel, CVS drugstore, Staples, clothing stores, and service-oriented businesses.
Central to the success of the core are two well-placed parking garages operated by Montgomery County. They are screened from the streets by retail and office buildings and provide easy sidewalk access.
Historic Preservation and Arts and Entertainment District Designation
Two critical factors in the revival of downtown Silver Spring are the preservation and integration of historic buildings and the designation of Silver Spring as an Arts and Entertainment District. This designation is a means of supporting the economy and improving the quality of life in arts districts by making available state tax incentives. The historic Silver Theatre, a 1930s Art Deco-style building, is a wonderful example of these measures in action. It has been restored to its original grandeur and is now the home of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, a unique public-private partnership between Montgomery County and the American Film Institute.
Also benefiting is the Fillmore, a new 2,000-seat concert hall located across the street from the AFI Silver Theatre. This public-private partnership between Montgomery County and Lee Development Group preserved the historic façade of the old J.C. Penney store and has a lease agreement with Live Nation to operate as the Fillmore Silver Spring.
Two other historic buildings have been renovated and integrated into downtown Silver Spring. The first is the Art Deco-style Hecht Company building, which now houses the City Place Mall. Located between Colesville Road and Ellsworth Drive, it is an urban style mall with four levels of interior shops and entries onto three surrounding streets. There is also access via a pedestrian bridge to a parking garage across the street. However, the inward-focused mall has struggled to maintain economic viability.
The 1930s-era strip mall at the corner of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue has also been renovated. When it originally opened, the shopping center broke the convention that merchandise should be displayed in windows adjacent to the street, visible to people on the street. This complex, which includes a mix of restaurants and retail, serves now as one of the entryways to downtown. The front parking area also now includes downtown entry signage and a fountain.
Unfortunately, Silver Spring’s historic Armory, located near the intersection of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, could not be saved. The Armory’s broad green space and low profile would have been out of context with surrounding buildings, and the land was needed for new parking garages. The new Civic Building now satisfies the requirements for a large, public meeting space once met by the Armory.
Expanding Downtown’s Success
A central focus of the Silver Spring CBD Sector Plan was to encourage, at a reduced scale, new transit-oriented development in the districts surrounding downtown, particularly to the south and west. Among these districts are Fenton Village, the Ripley District, and South Silver Spring. They were once characterized by industrial/car service, automobile dealerships, and repair uses. Today, they follow in the redevelopment footsteps of downtown Silver Spring. Many new mixed-use buildings have been constructed, and more are planned.
Directly south of downtown Silver Spring, in Fenton Village, lies the site of the future Silver Spring Library. Located at the corner of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street, it will be built directly over a future Purple Line station. The Purple Line is a planned east-west light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. The mixed-use library project will include retail, county office space, and low-income housing. Among several other mixed use projects in the planning stage is Studio Plaza, a public-private venture that will transform a county-owned surface parking lot into a mixed-use project with underground parking and a half-acre of open space.
Across from the new library is a proposed project called 8415 Fenton Street, which will replace a 1950s-era Baptist Church and parking lot. 8415 Fenton Street is a mixed-use development with street-level retail, plus a public plaza and new Baptist church that will integrate the stained-glass windows and other architectural components of the original church. Keeping the church on the same site rather than moving it to further suburbs preserves an important civic use, reduces the need to drive to church, and provides a ready base of people who can enjoy the project’s retail uses and public plaza.
The Ripley District just to the west features a mixed-use project called 1055 Ripley Street. Located on Ripley Street and adjacent to the new transit center, the project will feature live/work units on the ground floor. Directly across the street is Eleven-55 Ripley, a residential high-rise with retail and office uses in a separate, smaller building. These projects are important for the district because their developers have agreed to complete the street grid. They will extend the east/west-oriented Ripley Street to the new transit center (to the west) and punch a north/south street through an existing parking garage (to the north).
In South Silver Spring several new developments have taken place over the last ten years, including the Cultural Arts Center and Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center. Linked to the existing campus by a pedestrian bridge that spans the Metro rails and CSX tracks, the centers host classrooms, public display space, and state-of-the-art theater and performance space, helping to activate a once lifeless part of the central business district by expanding educational uses into South Silver Spring. Other new, mixed-use projects in South Silver Spring include the Silverton, a multi-family condominium built in the renovated Canada Dry Building and 1200 East West, a mixed-use project on East West Highway that replaced an old car dealership. It features ground-floor retail and a public art plaza. The recently completed Veridian and Aurora are other mixed-use projects that enliven South Silver Spring.
Adjacent to the Silver Spring Metro station on the west side of the tracks is an approved mixed-use, high-rise project called Falkland Chase (and in the second phase, Falkland North). When complete, it will replace circa-1930s, three-story garden apartments more than 1,000 residential units, street-level retail, a public green, and an upscale grocery store. The developer has agreed to restore and provide public access to an existing stream that winds through an adjacent parcel, repairing decades of erosion by installing erosion control measures, planting new trees and other flora, and constructing foot bridges and public walkways.
Approved in July 2004, United Therapeutics Corporation’s new headquarters are located at the north end of the Silver Spring CBD. The $32 million, 50,000-square-foot, four-story research and production facility was dedicated in June 2006. The building, which includes ground-floor retail, is the first phase of the drug maker’s expansion project. The second phase bridges the first with a skywalk. Phase II was completed in 2012. A key component of both phases are two public plazas surrounded by retail and community space. The plazas include water features, seating, lush planting, and a “bio-wall” celebrating great achievers of the biological sciences.
Today, downtown Silver Spring boasts a vibrant mixed-use town center that has become a local and regional draw. Thanks to public-private partnerships and investment, it is a far cry from the moribund place it was just ten years ago—from the lively pedestrian-oriented Ellsworth Drive, with its fountain plaza and café dining, to Veterans’ Plaza, with its outdoor ice rink, modern multicolored pavilion, and award-winning civic building.
Downtown’s redevelopment success has spilled over to adjacent neighborhoods, as well. Here, the Silver Spring CBD continues its transformation into a vital, 24/7 urban environment where residents can walk, bike, or take mass transit to work and beyond. As redevelopment is completed, residents and visitors will have retail, civic, education, and entertainment venues all within a five-minute walk of their homes—demonstrating how foresight, dedication, and planning by local governments combined with a committed and informed private sector and residency can create extraordinary change in a blighted suburban edge city.
- Silver Spring Tries Harder, the Magazine of the American Planning Association, February 2004, page 32
- 2005 Rudy Brunner Award for Urban Excellence, Reinventing Downtown, Shipley, Axelrod,Farbstein, Wener,Bruner Foundation
- Downtown Silver Spring: Revitalizing a Central Business District, 2004 APA Mobile Workshop Power Point Presentation, G lenn Kreger, Gary Stith, Miguel Iraola,
- Silver Spring CBD Sector Plan, February 2000, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission
John Marcolin received a Bachelor of Science degree in horticulture from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1987. In 1993 he received a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from Virginia Tech. John worked 15 years in the private sector as a landscape architect and urban designer. For the past five years he has worked as an urban designer for the Montgomery County Planning Department.
Header photo and home page photo of Downtown Silver Spring courtesy The Peterson Companies.