Downtown Silver Spring is one of the more interesting downtown revitalization efforts that I’ve come across, in a large part because it incorporates an enclosed mall with the rejuvenated streetscape. The development encompasses two separately owned and maintained parcels–the indoor, 5-level (yet small, at only 300,000 square feet) City Place Mall; and the outdoor “urban neighborhood” of Downtown Silver Spring.
Silver Spring, Maryland is located at the top of the District of Columbia diamond, just inside of the Washington Beltway, in affluent Montgomery County. Arguably the second-largest city in Maryland after Baltimore, Silver Spring’s downtown experienced the same post-war lows as many major American cities, but like many has seen its downtown spring back to life in the 2000s.
The neighborhood surrounding Downtown Silver Spring and City Place has its roots (obviously) in Silver Spring’s historic downtown retail district, which included Hecht’s, JCPenney, and Sears in the 1950s. By the late 1980s, however, the area fell into decline and Hecht’s vacated their large store in the center of downtown Silver Spring. The former Hecht’s was converted to a tall enclosed mall–City Place–in 1992, but the mall failed to attract major tenants and became known as a budget mall. This is largely still at least somewhat true today, as City Place counts Marshalls and Burlington Coat Factory as its anchors. In this decade, however, a large portion of the downtown area surrounding the City Place Mall has been redeveloped as an active outdoor streetscape, with a variety of retail, restaurant, and entertainment-oriented tenants. Several streets are closed to vehicular traffic and used as pedestrian malls, and the development has a symbiotic relationship with the existing enclosed mall. Today the Downtown Silver Spring portion of the development has tenants like a 20 screen movie theatre, Whole Foods Market, Borders Books and Music, and Pier 1 Imports.
If I have any complaint with developments like these, it’s that they tend to be far more homogenous than the downtowns they replace. While I applaud any project that brings activity and life back to our faded downtowns, I hate that it has to eternally revolve around Starbucks and Cold Stone Creameries and that the end result feels like Celebration, Florida. For example, little separates the end product at Downtown Silver Spring from much of the work done 40 miles up the road in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or from the Newport on the Levee development in Newport, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati. Even in their worst downswings, our cities derived their life from the unique businesses they hosted, from local restaurants to used CD and book stores. Developments like these are a start, but hopefully their visitors will fan out to surrounding blocks and enjoy the offerings of neighborhoods that aren’t leased by a single corporate parent.