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Silver Spring's Competitiveness On The Line In County Executive Recount, Business Leaders Say

The fate of Downtown Silver Spring, long a hub of culture and commerce for eastern Montgomery County, could be determined by a handful of votes in the neck-and-neck county executive race.

The area has a retail vacancy rate of 11%, according to a study commissioned by the county planning department last year, and office vacancy that hovers around 20%. County planners, developers and pro-growth political officials have advocated for changes to zoning and economic incentives to make up for the loss of major business, most notably Discovery Communications.

Downtown Silver Spring in May 2019

But with the county executive race now going to a recount between incumbent Marc Elrich and business-backed outsider David Blair, some fear the future of downtown Silver Spring has become tied up in political battles that neither serve existing residents nor set the area up for future success.

“There’s a strong majority of the county voters who want more economic progress and jobs and more opportunities and understand that the county has been falling behind,” Hans Riemer, outgoing council member and county executive candidate, told Bisnow. “The voters clearly favor a pro-growth or pro-progress attitude.”

Silver Spring’s rising vacancy has coincided with increasing frustration among property owners about the county’s approach to economic development. Over the past six years, big players in Silver Spring like Washington Property Co., Brookfield Properties, United Therapeutics and others have been building a vision for a business improvement district to better market the city’s downtown area.

Support for the idea coalesced as those in the private sector increasingly felt that county initiatives, which included designating Silver Spring an “urban district” alongside Wheaton and Bethesda, didn’t go far enough in marketing the area to businesses and potential new residents, said Steve Silverman, a former county council member and government relations consultant who has worked with the BID’s backers.

Silverman consulted for the Progressives for Progress PAC backed by Washington Property Co. President Charles Nulsen, which backed a slate of county council candidates with the developer’s ample funding, seven of whom won their primaries.

Bozzuto's Mike Schlegel with Washington Property Co.'s Charlie Nulsen at a ULI event in 2014

Silverman said politics has gotten in the way of economic development and believes political leaders need to try again to fund the BID.

“It's not a matter of reinventing the wheel ... I just think that Silver Spring has been an area that has been neglected by the county in the past several years in terms of safety and economic revitalization,” Silverman said. “It’s a resources issue.”

Silverman said the county has been agnostic about economic development, but when it comes to the BID, Elrich has been defiant. In comments to local media outlets, he has said the BID "puts the power in the hands of White wealthy landlords" and decried the board structure, saying it would allow large property owners to tax small businesses without adequately addressing their needs or input.

Elrich did not provide a response to questions from Bisnow about the BID, or what he would do to address Silver Spring's retail vacancy if re-elected.

The county executive vetoed the creation of a BID in August of last year, only to be overridden by the county council on an 8-1 vote the following month. During county budget negotiations, Elrich proposed no money for the BID, only for the council to pass roughly $200K for the organization to get started instead, according to Silverman.

That funding is likely not enough — hiring an executive director for the BID alone would require more than that budget provides, Silverman said. 

“There's a way to do this, it's just a matter of whether people want to do it,” Silverman said. “If the opponents of the BID are going to continue to castigate private property owners who invest hundreds of millions of dollars into downtown Silver Spring, then that's a big problem.”

It’s not just politicians concerned about Silver Spring. Dan Reed, a Silver Spring resident and smart growth advocate, said the fact that Blair and Riemer collectively earned about 60% of the vote in this year’s county executive primary indicates Montgomery County broadly supports a “pro-change or pro-stuff agenda.”

Reed, who grew up in eastern Montgomery County, said the county is also poised to elect a younger generation of council members who have seen the success of Silver Spring’s revitalization over the past 25 years and want to continue to nurture the area. He said Kristin Mink, the new council member who won the primary to represent Silver Spring’s district, was just two classes above him in high school, and she shares his view that more development can benefit the county.

“We both got to see firsthand the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring as it happened, and how that impacted our lives as teenagers and how much that made our lives better,” Reed said. “I think the new council members as a whole will have much more urgency than we may have seen in the past.”

Intersection of Fenton Street and Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring

The Montgomery County Planning Board in June adopted the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan, which includes provisions that incentivize increased building heights near transit stations and the commercial core, promote the creation of 11,000 multifamily units and entice life sciences, technology and education employers to the community.

The plan would also improve pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure in Silver Spring’s downtown, which Reed said is critical to promoting the area as a destination and inviting place to live.

“More housing means more people living in downtown. More people means more feet on the street or foot traffic to support local businesses,” Reed said. 

There are other plans in the works to modernize the county as well, including the much-discussed Thrive 2050 plan. It includes broad goals around “missing middle” housing and transit-oriented development, and Reed said it is pivotal to making Silver Spring competitive compared to similar dense, suburban destinations like Old Town Alexandria and the Mosaic District

“We need to make sure that when it's Friday evening and people are deciding where they're going to go out, or companies are determining where they want to locate, or someone wants to decide where they want to move to start their families or start their life, that Silver Spring is always in that conversation,” Reed said. “We will lose them if we're not paying attention to that.”