One of the biggest complaints I hear about downtown Silver Spring is that there are so many chain stores in the redeveloped area along Ellsworth Drive. National retailers like Borders, DSW Shoe Warehouse and Red Lobster can cast a wide net, drawing shoppers from across the region who might also patronize the hundreds of locally-owned shops and restaurants throughout the downtown. However, it's worth exploring whether local retailers can be a draw by themselves.
Developers Edens & Avant know that well-heeled customers are interested in a unique shopping and dining experience and are seeking to bring that to the Mosaic District, a mixed-use development going up near the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station in Fairfax County. Popular D.C.-area restaurants like Black's, Sweetgreen, Matchbox, and Taylor Gourmet have already signed leases to open in the Mosaic District, alongside national retailers like Target, an independent movie theatre, and apartments and townhomes. Writing for Washingtonian magazine, Kate Nerenberg notes that these restaurants will be the "anchor" for other shops:
The developer is aiming to keep Mosaic’s culinary options to locally based businesses. Jessica Bruner, vice-president of leasing, says that it used to be that developers went after a chain like the Cheesecake Factory to lure other businesses. She says getting Black to commit was her Cheesecake Factory.
Could this have been Silver Spring? Perhaps, if the revitalization had happened later. The first buildings in the revitalized downtown Silver Spring opened in 2002, nearly ten years ago. At the time, Silver Spring was considered a risky investment compared to more affluent areas like Bethesda and Rockville, and the county's strict liquor licensing laws meant restaurateurs were going to open up over there anyway. Not only that, but there weren't many models for projects like the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring, so it wasn't clear what kind of stores would succeed there. The end result is a street filled with chains, who could not only pay the high rents demanded by new construction but would also be guaranteed to draw customers no matter what.
It's worth noting that later suburban mixed-use developments, like Rockville Town Square and University Town Center in Hyattsville, experimented more with locally-owned businesses and different retail concepts, with varying levels of success. As downtown Silver Spring becomes more established as a place to shop, eat and drink, it's possible that we'll see more smaller, high-end retailers like those opening in the Mosaic District. That requires drawing more people to the area, largely through the construction of new housing both in and around the business district, and the creation of spaces suitable for eateries like a Taylor Gourmet or Matchbox, where the design of the restaurant is as significant as the food served there.
In the meantime, there may be hope Up The Pike: Edens & Avant also owns Burtonsville Crossing, the beleaguered strip mall that's been losing many of its chain stores to the shopping center across the street. Though Burtonsville is very different from Merrifield, it does have an affluent consumer base, a growing population, and a small but critically-praised "restaurant row." If there's any place in Montgomery County that would benefit from more unique, locally-owned retail, it's right here.