Downtown Silver Spring is entering the 21st century with a flourish
he Discovery Communications building's warmly lit main lobby smells of plastic, Windex and fresh paint. A cheerfully dinging mechanical contraption pushes and shakes rainbow-colored balls down a series of tracks. Outside, as a family passes by on the sidewalk, its wide-eyed toddler glances back five times at "Stan," a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil replica that glares malevolently through the glass wall.
But the courtyard in front is littered with old newspaper, cheeseburger wrappers and three hulking pieces of construction equipment, because the Discovery Communications headquarters won't open until Mar 31. It's part of a second wave of almost completed commercial and community-geared revitalization in downtown Silver Spring that is ten years and $400 million in the making.
Silver Spring first popped up on the map in 1890 and soon became a thriving residential and commercial area, thanks to overflow from nearby Washington, D.C. In the ‘60s, according to Enterprise Zone Administrator Melvin Tull, the Beltway and the shopping mall both emerged, causing businesses and people to leave central suburbs like Silver Spring.
Then the malls followed suit, and by the ‘80s and ‘90s, downtown Silver Spring seemed to operate between nine and five.
And that, says Tull, spurred the county to implement an urban renewal project. "The aim was to create a new environment in downtown Silver Spring, a place where people will want to come, instead of just the barren streets with no buildings," he explains.
The project spans 22 acres at the heart of Silver Spring and is ongoing. The first phase, which consisted of constructing a "Neighborhood Center" with supermarkets and hardware stores, was received favorably by the neighborhood when it opened two years ago. "It just goes to show the pent-up demand there is around here for this rehabilitation," says Tull.
Now, a second wave of developments is about to break. The Discovery Communications building and the historic Silver Theatre, newly renovated and operated by the American Film Institute (AFI), will officially open within the next month. Office buildings are being converted to housing developments and warehouses to headquarters for firms that range from biotechnology to music production.
Hotels, restaurants, a gym and a 20-screen, 4,500-seat commercial movie theater called the "Majestic" are in the works; Montgomery College will expand drastically; the Silver Spring Metro Station will become a full-fledged transportation center; and a civic center, complete with ice rink and facilities for community gatherings, is slated to open in 2005.
Outside the building's 75-seat theater, endless panes of glass stretch toward a 12-story-high skylight, a sight Community Outreach Specialist Barbara Henry says is "probably the single most impressive ‘oh my God' factor" of the building. She smiles widely at her guests' awed faces and slightly dropped jaws. "Folks," she says, "welcome to the new Silver Spring."
Today, the Discovery building spans 4.5 acres, 60 percent of which will be covered by a sensory garden. The garden will have plantings that "appeal to your five senses," explains Henry. The garden will be open to the public, and Discovery plans to use it to house this year's Silver Spring concert series, which will run at 7 p.m. every Thursday night over the summer.
Discovery Communications has also formed a partnership with AFI. The two will broadcast SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, featuring 60 provocative films from around the world, between June 18 and 22.
Down the street, through a warren of partially finished hallways and past the workers laying down carpeting in the foyer, Public Relations and Marketing Coordinator Joan Kirby motions at the historic Silver Theatre's box office, which is molded in its original wood and brass. "This space is responsible for the first suburb of Washington, D.C.," she says, describing the theater's popularity among high schoolers—many of whom may have been current Blazers' parents and grandparents—and its high-profile architect, who designed the theater to be evocative of a steamliner.
But it closed its doors in 1986, nearly 50 years after its 1938 opening, and the Silver Theatre seemed in danger of being demolished until Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan dedicated $7.8 million to its renovation as part of the redevelopment project. He calls the theater the "crown jewel" of the revitalization efforts, mainly due to its historical significance and to the internationally recognized exhibition center that AFI Silver plans to become.
From the wallpaper to the noisy nautical carpet, the theater's art-deco style evokes a sense of nostalgia. Under the direction of Tony Award-winning writer Murray Horowitz, the original Silver Theatre has been painstakingly reproduced; now, it seats 400 people in oversized chairs and will present first-run and lesser-known movies alike at normal box office prices.
Kirby points out an empty space at the front, which will house a organist, and says that the Silver Theatre was lovingly rehabilitated as a way of thanking those who made it possible in the first place. "The thought is, Montgomery County taxpayers paid for this. This is their baby," she says.
Across the lobby, currently dusty and unfinished, two new theaters are capable of playing wide-screen movies in their original versions. Every room is perfect in acoustics and sightline. Theater 3, which seats 75, can be used as a screening room by film classes and workers in the entertainment industry, and Theater 2 is decorated with metal grids and sparse atmospheric lighting intended to contribute to a film's overall effect. "It's kind of like a twinkling metaphysical thing," Kirby says of the lighting. "The idea is, you'll be chatting with your friends, and then the lights will dim, and you'll be transported out of reality and into the movie."
Along with the opportunities available to film classes, AFI offers the schools with which it has formed partnerships—MCPS, Montgomery College and the like—a variety of programs to encourage an appreciation of the arts. County students and teachers will be able to join workshops at AFI Silver, use a cable connection to broadcast media to their schools from the facility and apply filmmaking to their basic curriculum.
AFI Silver's Apr 4 opening will honor Clint Eastwood and will precede a week of invitational screenings; its doors will officially open to the public on Apr 11, with open houses on Apr 12 and 15. Eventually, the theater hopes to run a
bluegrass film festival and Latin American and European showcases, offering a melange of historic films and box office hits that will draw an equally diverse variety of moviegoers.
According to Kirby, that's AFI's aim in renovating, maintaining and expanding the historic Silver Theatre. "It's part of an effort to give people chances to build and revitalize. It did it once, and it's the focal point of what's going to do it again," she says. "In the ‘50s, this was the hot place to be. In 2003, it'll be the hot place to be."
Tull agrees. "That's what we're trying to create—to expand the hours more than nine-to-five so that people can enjoy the evenings as well as the days," he explains. "We're not there yet. But by this time next year, we sure will be."
Across from the Discovery building and in front of a barbed-wire fence that surrounds the site upon which the Majestic will be constructed, a map reads, "Pardon our mess." It details the progress of the development: Section A, the Neighborhood Center, is complete; Sections B and C consist of theatrical and cultural attractions that are already named and scheduled to open in 2004. Section D, though, has five empty spaces. They're pastel-colored and inviting, and they only hint at the promise the renovations hold for bringing back the Silver Spring of yore.
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