Developers want to turn Silver Spring property into urban neighborhood
by Kevin James Shay Staff writer
The Montgomery County Planning Board unanimously approved Thursday a site plan for the first phase of an estimated $650 million redevelopment of The Blairs, a 30-acre apartment and retail development near the Metro station in downtown Silver Spring.
In the initial phase, Rockville developer The Tower Cos. plans to remove several Blair Towers buildings containing 266 unoccupied units that date to the 1950s around Eastern Avenue and Blair Mill Road. The company will construct a new, multi-faceted building as high as 18 stories, with up to 507 housing units, including as many as 64 moderately-priced units.
The building will be in two sections of various heights, but it is considered a single building, with shared underground parking and amenities like a fitness center and swimming pool.
With construction taking more than a decade, the developer hopes to install almost 1,700 new apartments and overhaul the sprawling suburban-type property into a more walkable, urban neighborhood with green space and public areas containing sculptures and benches. About 1,100 units would be preserved. The plan calls for as much as 3.4 million square feet of residential property and 450,000 square feet of retail, office and other commercial uses.
Some 20 percent of the area — bounded by Colesville Road, East-West Highway, Blair Mill and Eastern — would be public space and urban parks. Parking would be mainly underground, rather than the present surface lots and garages.
“We’re very excited about this project,” said Sri Velamati, vice president of development for The Tower Cos.
The County Council does not have to approve the site plan, said Stephanie Dickel, the project’s lead planner with the county planning department.
Preliminary work on demolishing the first phase of buildings, which are unoccupied, has started. Many former residents of those buildings moved to other Blair properties in the area.
Officials hope to break ground on the two new buildings early next year with completion of those slated for early 2017.
One resident of The Blairs said during the Thursday meeting she was not all that excited about the potential “overdevelopment” of downtown Silver Spring and how she may be priced out of living there.
The Blairs follows county rent guidelines, provides moderately-priced units and offers a two-year lease with a fixed rent, Velamati said.
“Affordability is an issue,” he said. “If the community becomes unaffordable, many people may choose not to live in Silver Spring.”
The Blairs also has held meetings with tenants, including some open to the public, to explain the redevelopment project, Velamati said.
“Our goal is not to inconvenience residents, but to make this a better place for them to live,” he said.
Increasing the supply of available rental units will help keep rents lower, Planning Board chairman Casey Anderson said.
“We are lucky we have people who want to move to Silver Spring,” Anderson said. “Unless we increase the housing supply, we will have more pressure on prices since there is more demand. ... This kind of project is exactly the kind of thing we need.”
When The Blairs was originally discussed in the 1950s, there probably were people who thought it would be too big of a project and cause overdevelopment, Anderson said. He said he was enthusiastic about the long-term benefits but realized the redevelopment could provide difficulties to some.
Tower officials should be commended for being willing to lose income by phasing in redevelopment and “investing in the future,” board member Norman Dreyfuss said. “Not a lot of developers have that long-term vision,” he said.
The board received letters supporting the project from civic and business groups, including the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce and Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board.
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