Like many of the satellite cities surrounding Washington DC, Silver Spring offers a dense, active, well-capitalized downtown with a mixture of uses and solid accessibility, thanks to the robust and ever growing DC Metro system. And the downtown sits just a half-mile from the northwestern corner of the DC boundary, in the prosperous expanses of Montgomery County, Maryland.I’m sure it went through its doldrums period back in the day, when it failed to compete with the malls in the more distant suburbs. But now it’s unmistakably enjoying an upswing. The downtown hosts numerous restaurants, services, well-maintained plazas and a Silver Movie Theater operated by the American Film Institute, as well as some more conventional storefronts, like these:
And then there’s this curiosity—behind the parked car:We don’t expect a family-operated men’s clothier in your run-of-the-mill downtown, do we? Well, I’m beguiling my readers with some bogus camera work; if it wasn’t obvious already, it’s time to reveal my tricks.Yes, it’s nothing more than a screen, helping to create the illusion of an active storefront while simultaneously promoting the space for lease. We see this all the time, whether in street-level shop windows downtown or in vacant mall space. But I think this one is more elaborate than most.And while Silver Spring benefits greatly from the Washington DC Metro stop in the heart of downtown, the steady wave of redevelopment has quickly relegated some of the older office buildings to Class C status.If we were to walk to the street corner in the background of this pic, then turn either direction, we’d be right on Georgia Avenue, one of the main arterials of Silver Spring’s downtown. So the location is satisfactory. But the building is ancient, by this city’s standards, dating from the 1970s.
Even healthy downtown markets must contend with the malaise of oversupply, when it comes to commercial—and especially retail—real estate. I don’t hold a great deal of confidence that the property managers of this building are going to find a tenant any time soon, as spiffy as this promotionally painted wall might be. But they at least recognize that a mere “FOR LEASE” sign is unlikely to do the trick. They have to get creative; they have to stimulate the imagination by filling in the details of what could go in the space, or even to crowd out the imagination altogether and lead the horse to water.Aside from the uncharacteristic level of detail to these “murals”, they approach their subject with the sensibility of an artist.
The hurdles that this building faces are akin to those of malls, shopping centers, or small town main streets. Until a few years ago, the net square footage of retail across the country was growing rapidly. (For all I know, it might still be, though I strongly suspect it has slowed, if not stopped altogether.) Historically, retail space in the US has grown at a much faster clip than the need among tenants to lease it, leaving us with a glut of vacant storefronts. And now, the era of online goods and services has amplified the problem, because the number of tenants seeking visible storefronts is plunging. The Information Superhighway is far more visible and accessible than the average main street, or the typical suburban six-lane highway. Virtual space trumps physical space.
Some commercial centers are obviously competing more vigorously than others, and Silver Spring still enjoys a variety of well-patronized shopping options. But the tenants can easily choose among the best niche offerings downtown, leaving the second-best with slim pickings, and the third-rate stuff with next to nothing. Case in point: on the same street as that AFI Silver movie theatre, we encounter a bumpin’ music venue called The Fillmore.Looks good enough. But also on the block is the entrance to Ellsworth Place, a six-story vertical mall with gaping vacancies.
The external tenants within Ellsworth Place seem to be holding their own—particularly through restaurants—but the interior isn’t turning any heads. People just don’t get excited about malls anymore, certainly not when a thriving city street scene competes for their attention.
Nonetheless, despite its full engagement with the downtown, our building in question languishes.
It’s got great street exposure—just not the right street. Though only few blocks away from the absolute heart of downtown Silver Spring, it doesn’t command the same interest, and unless it’s a type of destination-oriented shop (like the L.A. Fitness gym immediately across the street) these storefronts simply fail to thrive. The commercial space in the upper levels may suffer a similar fate: if the occupancy rate for the offices remains low, this condition naturally would result in far fewer people entering or exiting the building, or walking along the sidewalk that serves these storefronts.
In other words, the elaborately decorated panels that help sheathe the vacancy—the Potemkin Village of Silver Spring—may be the best thing this building has going for it. But crisis does yield opportunity, and, as more storefronts across the country face increasingly lingering vacancies, it may spawn a market specifically predicated on creative ways to hide the void…or at least to animate it enough to attract some attention. Who knows? Some innovative graphic designers, sculptors or even performance artists might make a killing out of populating these big empty windows with something…anything. And though the creative minds behind this particular storefront used a plotter and paste rather than a paintbrush and a palette, I still confidently apply the word “artist” to describe what they achieved. After all, how can you not love the fact that they made a reference to everyone’s favorite bowler-hat-wearing Belgian? No, I’m not referring to Hercule Poirot. Just take a look.
Yes, it’s a René Magritte reference, and there’s no way it’s accidental. Maybe it’s a clue that the best tenant to fill the space should specialize in giant gourmet pears. Or not-pipes. Or—as an homage to another celebrated surrealist Dalí—a store of nothing but melted clocks.