Tuesday, August 1, 2006

"Hometown Week": The land use transformations of a suburban hometown ...

[The first in a series called "Hometown week"]

   I'm spending mid-summer in the town I grew up in -- Silver Spring, Maryland, a middle class suburb just north of Washington, D.C., which has, not coincidentally, been the center of a number of instructive land use controversies in recent years.  Here's my telling of the recent history of Silver Spring's development: 

   By 1960 Silver Spring was suburban Maryland's economic center, with department stores, two traditional pedestrian shopping streets, surrounded by ample parking, and middle-class homes of a variety of sizes and prices.  It also saw the construction of a lot of apartment blocks (built in large part to house singles and young families who moved to work for the booming Washington government) close to the suburban downtown.  By the '70s, many of these apartment units became popular with African Americans moving out of Washington and with immigrants, including many from the Indies.  As more blacks patronized the downtown shopping area, more whites decided to shop elsewhere, and by 1990 the downtown had been transformed.  The department stores and hardware stores closed, and they were replaced by Jamaican luncheonettes and mall clothing shops catering to the growing number of immigrants from El Salvador and elsewhere.  I returned to the area in 1988 after some years away.

   By this time, politicians and others began talking of a need to "revitalize" Silver Spring, even thought I saw very few empty storefronts in the downtown.  It was "seedy," "declining" (Declining in what, one might have asked?), and even "dying," they said.  A humorous incident occurred in the '90s, when the West Edmonton Mall developers, the Ghermezians, concocted a plan to build a colossal upscale mall in the town; they turned tail once they actually visited Silver Spring.  The progressive Democratic-run government began a multi-million-dollar "revitalization" program that involved a lot of eminent domain and big projects.  A few skeptics (Can you guess who?) snickered that the plan was to make downtown Silver Spring comfortable again for the affluent white folks who ran the county. 

   The headquarters of Discovery Communications was lured to the downtown.  Meanwhile, the focal point for the residents was the transformation of a once-back-street into an outdoor festival/new-urbanist shopping center that is now filled with the usual suspects -- a Border's, Potbelly sandwich shop, Starbucks, and a Regal move theater showing all the blockbusters, as well as a number of more-local restaurants.  And, to the surprise of some, it seems to be extraordinarily successful and well-integrated by race and age.  A success?  Perhaps, but not necessarily to those merchants outside the redevelopment area, which have seen their patrons siphoned off, and perhaps not to the taxpayers of the county, who have seen millions go to subsidizing people like me to shop at Border's.          

   A few miles north of downtown Silver Spring is Wheaton, a place with even less panache; outside its old-fashioned suburban mall is a hodge-podge of little shops, many of which are popular with the Latino and black residents who have moved further north.  There is now talk of "revitalizing" Wheaton ... as well as concern of local small shop operators about their future …   


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