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Downtown Silver Spring: Urban of the Suburban

by Mark Wellborn

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Downtown Silver Spring

Over the past five years, UrbanTurf has profiled more than 80 neighborhoods in the DC area. See them all here. We are revisiting each of those neighborhoods to update our profiles and see how they’ve changed over the years.

When people see the Maryland neighborhood of Silver Spring on the Metro map, it looks unassuming, lingering on the outskirts of DC. The words “Silver Spring” evoke images of an old-timey village like Bedford Falls: small, quiet, and tightly knit. In reality, the area’s downtown sector has a distinctly urban feel to it.

Silver Spring acquired its name when Francis Preston Blair, former member of President Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” discovered mica flakes in a spring in the area in 1840. The first Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station opened in the neighborhood in 1878, and the beginning of the 20th century brought steady progress with a railroad station, post office, and Montgomery County’s first high school. After a spurt of development that included construction of more than 20 high-rises during the 1960s, the 1970s saw a period of decline. People and businesses decamped, leaving the area sleepy and empty. The economy remained fairly stagnant through the ‘90s until a new development boom hit in the early 2000s.

The renovated Silver Theater, which became the AFI Silver, and headquarters of the American Film Institute, was perhaps the impetus. The $20 million project opened in 2003, and created a draw for international visitors with festivals and screenings. That same year, Discovery Communications completed its new headquarters. In terms of residences and offices, from 2001 to 2010 more than twelve new high rises were constructed. Between 2005 and 2006, about 5 residential high rises opened alone. People swarmed the downtown area nearly as quickly as they had left a few decades prior.

Now, following a slight downturn after 2008, the development scene in the area is again firing on all cylinders.

About a Mile Long

The Metro station roughly marks the center of downtown Silver Spring. Rough borders to the east include Cedar Street, Grove Street, and Fenton Street. To the west, 16th Street, and Eastern Avenue hug the neighborhood. Spring Street and King Street lie north and south, respectively.

Another Wave of Development

For such a small area (the entire length of Downtown Silver Spring is just over one mile), the amount of development going on in the area is pretty remarkable. Within the past year, approximately 20 projects either have approved plans, are under construction, or have been completed. Most recently, The Residences at Thayer Avenue, a 52-unit apartment complex, and the downtown branch of the Silver Spring library completed construction and opened to the public.

The new library seems to be a favorite among residents. The modern, angular design includes walls of windows, a coffee house, and provisions for a stop on the proposed Purple Line. Attempting to incorporate the digital age, the library has charging stations, media labs, 3-D printers, and a tech bar complete with loaner iPads. Dan Reed, a life-long Silver Spring resident and author of the Just Up the Pike, visits the library regularly.

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Silver Spring Library

“It’s such a cool space,” Reed said. “Kefa Café is the main reason I go there now, a coffee shop that was around the corner for years, but is now inside the library. I’ll be even more excited when the Purple Line opens up underneath it.”

By the end of October, another new development at 1320 Fenwick Lane will welcome residents. Octave 1320 is an office building that has been repurposed as condos. Modestly sized one-bedrooms between 451 to 547 square feet start in the $200,000s, and the roughly 800 square foot two-bedrooms start in the $300,000s.

Other development highlights include the First Baptist Church redevelopment, which will comprise of 243 apartments, 16,000 square feet of retail space, and a new 29,000 square foot church on Fenton Street. The Bonifant, located adjacent to the library, will contain 140 units of public-private senior housing, 80 percent of which will be below market rate.

Downtown Silver Spring’s largest development endeavor will be The Blairs Redevelopment, renovating an old apartment building and strip mall, and spanning across 38 acres with an underground parking lot. The project will include a total of 2,800 residential units, 200,000 square feet of offices, 200 hotel rooms, and 25,000 square feet of retail space. Two new residential apartment towers are expected to be complete in 2017, while three high rises dating back to the ‘60s, and 78 existing townhomes, will remain on the property.

Current Pricing

At the height of the market, around 2006, Silver Spring’s development boom drove the average sales price to about $300,000 for a two-bedroom condo.

“We’re not quite where we were in 2006 but it’s certainly on its way back up,” Liz Brent of Keller Williams Capital Properties said. “It will be interesting to see how new development affects buildings of 8 to 10 years ago.”

Octave 1320 is a good indication of what one should expect to pay. Two bedroom condos sell around $250,000 to $350,000, while an apartment of the same size might be just under $50,000. In terms of renting, Older two to three bedroom apartments start around $1,500 per month, while newer apartments and condos might rent up to $2,400 to $2,500 per month. Monthly condo fees vary, however. Depending on amenities, these can range anywhere from $200 to $400 and up.

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Transit Center Hiccups and Delays

While residential development seems particularly ripe in the neighborhood, Montgomery County’s public transportation initiatives for Downtown Silver Spring haven’t proceeded quite so smoothly. The Paul S. Sarbanes Silver Spring Transit Center, whose groundbreaking was in 2000, has changed its opening date a few times due to safety concerns, some of which include questionable concrete strength and steel supports within the center’s structure.

Lisa Wood Mitchell, a lifelong resident of Silver Spring, puts it simply: “I don’t understand why it takes so long to get it open.”

After continued construction issues, delays, $50 million spent over budget, and a lawsuit, Montgomery County recently transferred the project to Metro. At last, the transit center that will link the metro, MARC stations, and various city and commuter bus services, is set to open September 20, 2015.

The Growing Dining Scene

Amid residential and other development, downtown Silver Spring’s restaurant scene continues to grow. The downtown mall area contains numerous dining options alone, such as the recently opened A. G. Kitchen, Lebanese Taverna, Whole Foods, and Nando’s Peri-Peri, but the choices don’t end there. New restaurants like Urban Butcher, Denizens Brewing Co., All Set Restaurant & Bar, 8407 Kitchen Bar, and Scion Restaurant have brought a taste of something more intimate and local; a refreshing contrast from most places in the downtown mall.

Over the past several years, Ethiopian cuisine, and culture otherwise, has also become prominent. Dan Reed finds this presence to be one of Downtown Silver Spring’s greatest assets.

“I think the Ethiopian community has flourished over the past decade. It’s pushed revitalization of downtown forward by adding life to the street.”

How Urban (or, Suburban) is it?

It seems like the streets of Downtown Silver Spring teem with life these days. When not in school, youngsters frolic in the mall fountain and gather round street performers and musicians near the civic center and outdoor stage. The neighborhood now has its own restaurant week and a jazz fest, both of which take place in September. Yet, many dismiss it as a sleepy suburb of DC.

For years, Reed has been trying to squash the misconception.

“I have gotten into more than one fight with people who I like about this. Downtown Silver Spring is an urban place because it has density, a mix of uses, transit, diversity – a lot of things increasingly hard to find in DC. It’s definitely a barrier, though. For a long time, I had a hard time getting my friends to come out. In this summer alone, though, I had no less than three people ask for a tour.”

Cathy Jacob, a vendor at the Saturday Fenton Street Farmers’ Market, who lived in the area for 15 years while her kids were in school, takes a middle of the road stance.

“Once the kids graduated from high school, we wanted to move out to a quieter place. [Downtown Silver Spring] is growing, but it’s still a community. I think it’s a nice cross between urban and suburban.”

Schools

Families in and around Downtown Silver Spring will find a handful of options for schools. Rosemary Hills Elementary and Woodlin Elementary lie to the northwest, while others may opt for Sligo Creek Elementary or East Silver Spring Elementary to the northeast. Takoma Park Middle School and Silver Spring International Middle School are also within a reasonable distance north and southeast.

A Well Rounded Mix

Walking around the downtown area, it’s clear that the neighborhood is a home to all kinds of people.

Wood Mitchell explains, “You have a mixture of people: black, white, young, old. Music brings the crowds together on weekends.”

The various things that Downtown Silver Spring has to offer somewhere removed, and more affordable than downtown DC, makes it attractive to a wide demographic.

“People are moving here, not just because of development,” says Brent.

“It’s the whole package – lots of new restaurants, there’s the library, there’s the purple line, the Sarbanes Transit Center. We’re looking at a really nice, walkable neighborhood.”

The Bottom Line

Downtown Silver Spring may not be Bedford Falls, or Dupont, for that matter. However, it does seem to be holding its own in a city with an increasing number of attractive neighborhoods. Impending new developments will likely heighten its desirability in the next few years.

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/downtown_silver_spring_urban_of_the_suburban/10460

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