The modern storefront looks great, but what they sell is just so two-dimensional.

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.IMG_7329IMG_7342I’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:IMG_7337

 

And then there’s this curiosity—behind the parked car:IMG_7651We 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.IMG_7658IMG_7652Yes, 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.IMG_7654And 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.IMG_7650If 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.Pseudo storefronts in Silver Spring.Aside from the uncharacteristic level of detail to these “murals”, they approach their subject with the sensibility of an artist.IMG_7657

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.IMG_7338Looks good enough. But also on the block is the entrance to Ellsworth Place, a six-story vertical mall with gaping vacancies.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

13 thoughts on “The modern storefront looks great, but what they sell is just so two-dimensional.

  1. Chris B

    You didn’t even have to comment on the tenant featured prominently in the photo of the indoor mall.

    Its mere name carries the aura (patina? odor?) of “dying mall”.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Heh heh…yeah, I thought about it near the end, when I was ready to post. Then I just got lazy. At this point it’s almost a foregone conclusion that, if a mall’s got a Burlington Coat Factory, it’s on it’s on the road to oblivion.

      Interestingly though, this mall still has a few strong tenants, like Michael’s and TJ Maxx. But in previous years it was strong enough to support Nordstrom Rack. Now it’s got competing nail salons.

      Also, it appears that the owners engaged in a “daylighting” of the first floor, much akin to what has been gradually achieved with Circle Centre, to some success. I’d say this mall shares more than a few similarities with Circle Centre, in fact.

      Reply
      1. Brian Rostron

        Ellsworth Plaza, formerly City Place Mall, was once the first Hecht’s department store outside of DC, back when downtown Silver Spring was an shopping hub, with some of the first shopping centers in the area designed for automobile parking Then, as you suggest, people built bigger malls with more parking farther out in places like Wheaton. For some reason, the space has been stocked with redundant discount clothing stores, even though downtown Silver Spring has experienced a mixed-use development boom with lots of new apartment and condo residents.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellsworth_Place

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Hi Brian, thanks for the details. I get the impression that, despite downtown Silver Spring’s resurgence, the mall suffers the same conditions as most other downtown malls (usually built in the 90s or late 80s): an overriding aura of superfluity in the face of revitalizing street-level retail. No doubt when Ellsworth was first built, it was the big shopping destination in town, at a time when the rest of downtown Silver City remained marginal. Now the condition has essentially reversed, and, since the leasable space in Ellsworth Place is redundant, the only tenants it can attract share this redundancy.

          Silver Spring could receive an additional 5,000 residential units downtown in the years ahead (and I suspect it will), but this will probably have little impact on the upper floors of Ellsworth Place. The added residential density may, however, improve the prospects of the Magritte retail on Cameron Street that I featured in this blog article.

          Reply
  2. Peebee

    I invite you to do a little research on the history of Ellsworth Place. It is in the midst of an extensive $75 million revitalization project which started when the current owners bought it in 2012. Until a couple of years ago, it was known as City Place (and called Sh*tty Place) but much has been done to bring in new restaurants and retailers. Michaels, TJ Maxx, and Marshall’s are new tenants, as are Dave & Buster’s and Not Your Average Joe’s. A strong effort was made to open up street access so that people could walk into the stores themselves rather than into the mall. Most of the “gaping vacancies” you mention were caused by the remodeling, as most of the prior tenants had to leave. But a Guitar Center is coming in, a local (non-chain) coffee shop was just announced, and they are continuing to fill the remodeled space with tenants.

    Time will tell whether the new approach will be successful, but what they’ve done is definitely an improvement over the old City Place. Your blog piece reads like you were completely unfamiliar with Ellsworth Place and didn’t bother to do any research about it at all, though.

    http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Beat/2015/Newly-Minted-Ellsworth-Place-Embraces-Revitalized-Downtown-Silver-Spring/ is an earlier piece, but there are many others you could have consulted. (I have no connection to the developers — just a Silver Spring resident who is happy that someone is making an effort to bring in new retailers and create a space worth going to, rather than the sh*thole that existed previously.)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Peebee, thanks for your comments. Considering that Ellsworth Place was barely a footnote to the overall thrust of the article (the murals at the building on Cameron Street), my research was admittedly light. But it wasn’t absent, and it did account for the extensive renovations the mall experienced. If Ellsworth Place had been the primary focal point of this article, I would have built a more detailed historical trajectory. But i wrote three sentences, and those observations remain true: the exterior-oriented aspects of the mall are performing much better than the interior.

      I did read about the revitalization efforts you mentioned (though not your particular cited article), and I have no doubt they have helped shoot some life into the mall. But I also built my judgment on similar downtown malls across the country, most of which are struggling even after similar “daylighting” efforts, mainly because the only portions that succeed are those that have direct street frontage, while the interiors continue to languish. The exact same situation is happening at Circle Centre Mall in downtown Indianapolis (both the decline and revitalization), even though a 28-story residential tower will be opening three blocks away from Circle Centre in the next 9 months, while a large satellite office to Cummins Engines just opened earlier this year. So I am not sanguine about the fate of the small, inline tenants to the Ellsworth Place’s interior, but I wish–and expect–that the street frontage will do well. If I’m wrong and those “gaping vacancies” disappear in a couple years, I’ll eat my words, and Ellsworth Place will stand as a national example for downtown mall revitalization.

      However, as one of my other commenters noted (Chris B), the presence of a Burlington Coat Factory is rarely a good sign. They are the grim reaper of malls nationwide. At this point, most evidence shows that the most competitive sections of the mall–the street-level frontage–will probably continue to strengthen along with the rest of downtown Silver Spring.

      Reply
  3. Todd

    Interesting article – as a resident of Silver Spring, I hope you turn your attention there more often in the future. Regarding the building in question, from what I understand, it is in the process of undergoing a renovation into an apartment complex (http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Beat/2017/Struggling-Silver-Spring-Office-Building-Could-Turn-Into-177-Apartments-Catering-to-Millennials/), which will include street level retail. With the opening of Core apartments right around the corner, the added concentration of people will – cross my fingers – help to further revitalize the area.

    Reply
    1. Bob

      Yep, the office building’s being converted to apartments/having a number of floors added to it. Another Class C office building was recently converted to condos in downtown Silver Spring and promptly sold through (The Octave).

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Thanks for the updates. I learned recently through the blogging talent at Justupthepike.com that the building is getting converted to residences, but I wasn’t aware that the developer was planning on adding floors. A promising indicator for downtown Silver Spring because it hints at a particularly strong investment in the years ahead.

        Reply
  4. Mike

    I knew one of the “artists” of the window mural. My high school friend Devin and his brother Jed inherited control of the building after their father had a stroke. You were right on target about the leasing challenges they faced. The idea for the mural came from a similar example that Jed had seen on a building in Ireland.

    Devin, who owned an advertising agency in Chicago, would have been pleased and proud to read your comments about their mural idea and its execution. Alas, he passed away last November after a long battle with brain cancer.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the details, Mike–sorry to hear about the creator of this design. At the very least, it sounds like better things are to come for the building itself. With the intended re-use, I wonder how much of the late-70s-corporate-park design will survive. Though i’m sure it’s happened before, I’ve never seen a building of this aesthetic get transformed into residences. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of it in the future, since our Edge City landscapes are chock full of post-brutalist office buildings, few of which persist as Class A space.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the article Brian.

      I tend to agree more with Baker more than Krugman: mining/manufacturing jobs routinely employed people for a lifetime, and they were better paying with strong benefits. So they resulted in a lot more inverted multiplier effect contractions when they shut down…much more than the closure of a department store, for example. Besides (as a fellow blogger noted) the logistics industry jobs that are increasingly replacing the customer-service retail are often higher paying than retail…perhaps not by much, but they represent a better opportunity for low-skilled individuals to make 25-50% above the minimum wage and they don’t even require great language skills, in comparison to retail which typically does. My one concern is that increased improvements in robotics will eventually displace humans in the warehouses, even in the ones like Amazon that still depend on quite a bit of blood-and-muscle personnel. Maybe that’s a good thing; I’ve heard horrible things about workplace conditions in Amazon warehouses.

      The Smith analysis is very pollyannaish. And it involves a straight-line projection of a sort of New Deal applied to recovering the retail sector, to which Krugman was right that there’s no political will to do so (certainly not like manufacturing). And yes, loathe as I am to defer to identity politics, Krugman may also be right that white men have an undue influence on the push for a renewed manufacturing sector. Then again, middle-aged white men turn out to vote in droves. But Smith seems to forget that people moved to suburbs because they liked the decentralization that suburbia afforded them. The ones who are tired of that are moving back to cities and old suburbs that give them the density they crave. Generally speaking, they aren’t urbanizing the heavily auto-oriented suburbs (Carmel Indiana being one possible exceptions, though it’s still auto-oriented). I appreciate these insights!

      Reply

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