Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Downtown Rebirth Stops at Mall Door

Perceived as Downscale, City Place Is Left Behind by New Silver Spring

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer

Yes, this was the place for his new restaurant, Abdelhak Abdelmoumen thought as he toured Silver Spring, Md. last year.

The entire downtown seemed new and vibrant. Here was the recently opened Whole Foods, across from the stadium-seat movie theater, next to the Borders bookstore, which was across the street from all sorts of new restaurants.

Then, Abdelmoumen turned the corner and walked into the City Place Mall, where his restaurant, Taste of Morocco, would be located. It was as dead as the streets outside the mall's doors were lively. "There was no action," he said. "I got scared."

Downtown Silver Spring's metamorphosis from a moribund ghost town to a thriving city center has been hailed as one of the country's most successful redevelopment projects. After years of neglect and failed attempts to revive it, downtown is bustling day and night, giving Montgomery County officials reason to boastfully dub it "Silver Sprung."

But the renaissance has largely bypassed City Place, which for more than a decade was the city's only major retail center. Small discount stores and boutiques have come and gone, and upscale chains stayed away from the indoor mall that largely drew a lower-income clientele.

Now surrounded by Starbucks lattes, art films and the glittering headquarters of Discovery Communications at Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue, City Place is an encased island, a vestige of what Silver Spring used to be. It symbolizes the juxtapositions of race and class, old and new, suddenly created by the relentless evolution of a community.

The movie theater that closed more than a year ago sits vacant, its ticket windows shuttered, concession stand empty. A cobbler can be found most afternoons listening to a Spanish-language radio station and waiting for customers. City Place "is now the orphan of Silver Spring," said Blair Lee, a longtime developer and political commentator in the area. "It doesn't fit into the current reality, or even the future."

Inside at lunchtime Friday, Shana Johnson, a 20-year-old college student, and her mother browsed through a store called Rave, where a sales associate said business is "terrible" and stretch jeans with rhinestone studs on the back pockets cost $20. Johnson and her mother come to City Place -- home to Marshalls, Burlington Coat Factory, Fashion One and jewelry stands selling kitschy necklaces -- when they want "something less pricey," Johnson said. "I'm on a budget."

When they want to splurge, they shop at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's. But it's nice to have decent discount shopping so close, they said. "I refuse to spend $49.99 on a shirt when I know I can get it for less here," Johnson said.

Outside City Place on Friday, Eric Liao, 29, a doctor, sat on a park bench outside of Borders. His Dell laptop was logged into downtown's free wireless Internet, and he was checking e-mail while classical music played softly on speakers that line the development. Growing up in the District, he said, "Silver Spring was always nowhere." But since moving recently to the Maryland city, he said, he has been pleasantly surprised with how hip most of downtown has become.

The outside, anyway. He has never stepped inside City Place.

To tap into the prosperity all around it, the mall's management has spent $4 million on a recent expansion, opening a wing that better links the mall to the busy streets and that houses a Ben and Jerry's and a Noodles & Co. restaurant, among other tenants. Galaxy Billiards Cafe, an upscale pool hall with 36 televisions and Stella Artois on tap for $4 a glass, opened a year and a half ago. More changes are coming, mall officials say.

City Place is "not the same mall it was two or three years ago when the redevelopment started," said Aurelia Martin, the marketing director.

But despite the gains in street-front business, the mall's inside is so slow that Derek Pezzarossi, who works at the Cobbler's Bench Shoe Repair, sometimes doesn't average a customer an hour.

A Mall Built on Hope

When City Place opened in 1992, it was supposed to be one of several new developments that county officials hoped would transform downtown, which had become seedy and empty after such retailers as JCPenney and Hecht's left.

In the 1970s and '80s, thousands of square feet of office space sat empty, and streets were usurped by drug dealers and the homeless. Most of the planned developments never materialized. "For a long time, City Place sat there as an island on its own," said Bryant Foulger, a principal in the Foulger-Pratt Development Co., a major player in the downtown renewal. "And I can't tell you why things happen, but what I saw was they had a lot of off-price tenants that you'd never really heard of."

Year after year, plans came and went. Meetings dragged on for hours and days. Little happened -- until a few years ago. The American Film Institute gave a dramatic facelift to the historic Silver Theatre and moved its headquarters there from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Investment poured in, and new stores and restaurants -- Austin Grill, Ann Taylor Loft, Adega Wine Cellars and Cafe -- popped up.

Now, the city's core is "safe and exciting, and people are spending money," Foulger said.

In 2004, the median household income in the five-mile area around downtown Silver Spring was $87,000, according to Montgomery County statistics. By 2009, that figure is expected to jump to $97,000.

Growth has spread in ways planners didn't initially envision. And the real estate market, like that of the rest of the Washington area, has exploded. A new, two-bedroom condo in downtown Silver Spring can go for $500,000. Recently, officials announced $24 million in federal funds for a Silver Spring Transit Center that would better combine public transportation systems.

Which is all the more reason City Place itself is ripe for redevelopment, said the Rev. Donell Peterman, senior pastor of the Joshua Group Ministries, an African American church in Silver Spring. But Peterman wondered whether the mall's reputation as a discount center frequented by minority shoppers has kept away big-name retailers.

"If we can support a [Whole Foods] and a Borders, we can definitely support anything they put inside City Place Mall," he said. "I think we've proven ourselves to be a diverse community that utilizes mainstream stores. It seems there is some kind of reluctance in trusting us."

'A Very Difficult Sell'

To make the inside of the mall more inviting, the management is actively pursuing some large retailers "more suited to the demographics you see in Silver Spring now," said Larry Hoffman, an official of H&R Retail, which leases space to tenants. But it hasn't been easy.

Despite Silver Spring's success, businesses are leery of locating inside the mall and being cut off from the street. "No question, it's a very difficult sell," Hoffman said. "Now they see the success of Borders and the other stores, and they say, 'We want exposure to the street. We don't really want to end up in City Place.' But there aren't a lot of choices, so they are getting more creative."

The owners of a day spa have recently signed a lease for inside the mall, he said. But most of the new tenants are located on the street level with front doors facing the heart of downtown and back doors leading into City Place. At Galaxy billiards, the back door is rarely used, and the bar tries to establish an identity apart from the mall, said Johnny Lee, one of its owners.

He estimated that 80 to 90 percent of his customers come in from the street.

"Honestly, we don't care about the mall," he said. "Our customers don't come from there."

When Abdelmoumen, who has run a restaurant in Arlington for years, opened Taste of Morocco last September, he thought the new place in Silver Spring would do brisk lunch business because of spillover from the mall. That hasn't happened. "We don't do anything at lunch," he said.

The dinner crowd -- patrons sitting on pillowed seats, picking over tasty bastillas while watching gyrating belly dancers -- has kept him afloat, he said. But business is not as good as he would like. His lease is up in a couple of years, he said, and if things don't pick up, he said, "We'll think about moving."

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