Silver Spring, Sprung The 'Burb is Revived with Movies, Cafes and Cool-Cat Condos By Lynn Thorne Express Friday, December 8, 2006; 10:04 AM Silver Spring, Md., isn't a planned community or a municipality. The unincorporated zone just across the border from the District doesn't even have a mayor or a single elected official. Silver Spring defies many definitions, but its lack of a label doesn't detract from one fact: This neighborhood is convenient and growing. Just seven miles northeast D.C., the Maryland neighborhood -- named for a spring discovered by 19th-century journalist and politician Francis Preston Blair -- is one of the region's fastest-growing business and residential centers. Its renaissance started in 1998, with a redevelopment agreement between Folger Pratt and Peterson Companies to revitalize and redesign the area. Discovery Communications' move to town in February 2003 helped jump-start the region's meteoric growth. Area residents are pleased with the changes they've seen. Brian Haney, a 25-year-old banker for SunTrust, grew up in Silver Spring and has high praise for all the recent development. He recently bought a condo at the Silverton, a mod new complex carved out of a 20th-century Canada Dry bottling plant. "They've done a good job spreading things out and opening opportunities to new businesses," said Haney. "It was much maligned and run down just a few years ago, but now it's a thriving cultural melting pot." Silver Spring's proximity to the nation's capital likely led to its surging Hispanic and African immigrant population. As a result, regional food is all the rage here. Take a walk down Ellsworth Drive and find everything from Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican and Jamaican cuisine to chain joints such as Chipotle, Red Lobster, Macaroni Grill and Eggspectations. There's plenty of fine dining to satisfy the populace's increasingly sophisticated palate, too. And the second area branch of bakery CakeLove draws carb-craving hordes with its dazzling and daunting selection of fresh baked goods. (935 Ellsworth Dr., cakelove.com; 301-565-2253). Just sniffing the air inside, where bakers whip up buttercream frosting and dense cakes, probably adds a couple hundred calories to your daily reckoning. Most area residents are young professionals or empty nesters who've moved here to enjoy culture, cuisine and a bustling condo scene. More than 3,000 new residential units are slated to go up in the next few years. Located just over the District's northeast border in Maryland, the vibrant and revitalized Silver Spring measures 61 square miles. Nearly all of its downtown area is pedestrian-friendly In fact, it's planned that way. For instance, Arts Alley, at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Blair Mill Road, connects several businesses including Mayorga Coffee Factory (one of several downtown hot spots to offer free WiFi along with jolts of java), Moorenko's ice cream shop (which hosts weekly folk music concerts by toddler favorite Miss Belle) and The Gallery restaurant (a Latin American joint). The area also holds an artists' market on the second Saturday of each month April through early December (weather permitting). The Alley is the first in a series of South Silver Spring PedestrianPOSTLinkages projects aimed at transforming alleyways into destinations. Silver Spring is also convenient to public transportation: Metro's Silver Spring station lies in the heart of downtown, and the Forest Glen stop recently became more accessible due to a $7.7 million pedestrian bridge across Georgia Avenue (between Locust Grove and Forest Glen Road). There's also VanGo, the area's free shuttle that runs throughout the downtown area Monday through Friday. It's so popular that urban planners are pushing to add weekend hours. And the Silver Spring Metrobus transit center, currently the second- busiest transit station in the system, will double capacity by summer 2009. But many residents don't leave Silver Spring often, since both offices and after-work diversions are so plentiful. Families picnic on the unnaturally green patch of SoftLawn at the corner of Fenton and Ellsworth Streets. Think highfalutin Astroturf: It isn't mowed -- it's vacuumed and supposedly never causes allergy flare-ups. Shops are also plentiful and varied, though mostly a chain gang including Ann Taylor Loft, Ulta, DSW Shoe Warehouse, Pier One and American Apparel. Nesters flock to Strosnider's Hardware Store (815 Wayne Ave.) for tools and gardening gear and its next- door neighbor, Whole Foods, for groceries. Perhaps catering to the increasingly young and fitness-conscious condo dwellers, the 'hood also boasts a healthy number of gyms. Scheduled to open late this year, L.A. Fitness (Fenton and Ellsworth avenues; 301-589-2323; lafitness.com) fills 48,500 square feet with 80 pieces of cardio equipment, a full-size basketball court and a 25-yard long pool. Gold's Gym, Washington Sports Clubs and Willow Street Yoga Center (8561 Fenton St., 301-270-8038; willowstreetyoga.com) also operate downtown. Anyone wanting to live among the action has many choices, thanks to all the residential units going up or in place. Gary Stith, director of Silver Spring Regional Center, said: "Most of them are condos, which is a fairly new phenomenon in Silver Spring. There weren't any [condos] until about two years ago, but now with all of the amenities available, it's created the need." Those amenities attracted Shane Saunders and his wife, Jennifer. "We were renting in Davidsonville [Md.], but we decideed we wanted more of a D.C. atmosphere," said the 29-year-old financial analyst at DiLorenzo TriCare Health Clinic. "Silver Spring offers so much. My wife's big into shopping, and we eat out a lot. We're on the go most of the time, so this location is perfect." The Saunders bought a top-floor condo in The Aurora, a 145-unit condominium building that replaced two 1960s-era office buildings on Eastern Avenue. Sold out before it even opened in 2006, it houses one- and two-bedroom homes that average from 500 to 1,100 square feet and cost between $320,000 and $379,000. The two buildings, one 10 stories and one 12, are connected by a dramatic lobby and landscaped garden area. Saunders said Silver Spring's -- and the Aurora's -- location influenced his decision to buy here. And it's proven to be a sound choice, especially when it comes to keeping monthly expenses down. "I save an extreme amount of money now. I used to drive to the Pentagon five days a week," he said. "Now we pay for one parking spot, and I walk to the Metro every day. We save so much on gas." And then there's Eastern Village, a "co-housing community." This 1956 office building, located in the Southpoint neighborhood at 7981 Eastern Ave., was renovated and repurposed in November 2004 to hold 56 condo units ranging from 650 to 2,000 square feet. Just what is a co-housing community" In Eastern Village's case, it's a residence with a large community dining hall for shared meals, a group living room, workshops, game rooms, a playroom for children and several other shared spaces that encourage togetherness. Eastern Village has won several awards for its environmentally friendly design, including the 2006 Green Roof Award for Excellence. Its eco-friendly roof reduces storm water runoff and offers more space to hang out. Other "green" features include low-flow water fixtures, high-efficiency lighting, low-VOC paint and special glass windows for better insulation. The upscale, luxury Mica at Silver Spring Metro opened about six months ago. Located at 1220 Blair Mill Rd., Mica offers one-, two- and three-bedroom units that boast granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances. There's also a state-of-the-art gym on-site; prices range from the $200s to the $600s. Also popular with buyers -- and on the design radar -- The Silverton (1201 East-West Hwy.; silverspringcondo.com), which recalls its 1940s roots as a bottling plant via a sleek 210-unit complex that's all glass bricks, tall windows and mid-century mod curves. One- and two-bedrooms, some with dens, cost from the low $300s to the high $400s. Several other condos are still being built, including Cityhomes at 1200 East-West Hwy. The mixed-use development with a scheduled 2008 delivery date will offer 247 condos and 10,000 square feet of retail space. The Adele, a proposed mixed-use, nine-story building to be built by the Freeman Group and Bloom Builders, will hold 96 condo units, 15,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space and 18,000 square feet of office space on the second floor (8260 FentonSt.; 202-295-9000). "We're an arts and entertainment district," said Stith. "We've done a lot to encourage arts. [From] concerts in the summer to the jazz fest in the fall, to the parade before Thanksgiving, and other live entertainment, we're really focused on helping people have a good time." Silver Spring received the Arts and Entertainment designation in 2002 and is the only A&E district in Montgomery County. The reasons for these kudos" Cultural contributors from mega-employer Discovery Communications (discovery.com) to the intimate Round House Theatre, with its acclaimed resident theater company (roundhousetheatre.org, 240- 644-1100). Alexandria, Va., concert venue The Birchmere plans to open a second location in the historic J.C. Penney building on Colesville Road, bringing bluegrass and folk greats to the area. And with two major movie houses, the 4,500-seat Majestic Theatre for first-run movies and the historic AFI Theatre, Silver Spring is also a great place to check out the silver screen. Other arts organizations also thrive. Pyramid Atlantic (8230 Georgia Ave., pyramidatlanticartcenter.org, 301-608-9101) hosts shows, workshops and studios for contemporary print and paper artists including origami folders, paper makers and bookbinders. Alchemy gallery (8025 Georgia Ave., artandalchemy.com, 301-565-2262) features eclectic arts, fine crafts and home furnishings made by more than 90 local artists. And Three Keys Music (8121 Georgia Ave., threekeys.com) packs 3,500 square feet with recording studios. And there's more to come. The vibrant downtown area also should get a library, civic center and veterans' plaza in the next few years. Whatever label it's assigned -- A&E district, suburb or village -- Silver Spring has morphed into a surprising cultural mecca. "Within a two-block area, there's about 9,000 seats of entertainment and restaurants," said Stith. "You can come down here and have a great time."
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