Thursday, August 16, 2012

goodbye, georgian towers; hello, "point at silver spring"

Georgian Towers is no more. Photo by Matt Johnson.
After 45 years, Georgian Towers are no more. A new owner has renamed the downtown Silver Spring complex "The Point at Silver Spring." While a new name might give the troubled complex a fresh start, it ignores the emotional and social value of an established name.

New owner Pantzer Properties recently bought the 1960's-era apartment buildings at Georgia Avenue and Spring Street out of receivership. Despite a dramatic transformation in recent years, the complex has been plagued by financial troubles. In 2008, previous owner Stellar Management renamed it The Georgian and began a multi-million dollar renovation, culminating in a swanky rooftop party with models, a DJ, and a woman-turned-sushi bar.

However, the celebration didn't last long. Stellar took out loans to pay for the improvements, but couldn't generate enough income to cover them. As a result, they defaulted on their loans and declared bankruptcy. Despite dramatic rent increases, tenants claimed that Stellar basically stopped running the building. Renovations stopped while the building fell victim to vandalism, thefts and break-ins. According to the Washington Business Journal, Pantzer acquired the complex for just $168 million, nearly $50 million less than what Stellar owed on it.

Apartment complex owners often like renaming their properties, whether to reboot a tarnished reputation or maintain a consistent brand. Most of Pantzer's properties are called "The Point," such as the Point in Alexandria and the Point in Germantown. (It's probably a coincidence that "The Point" was a former name of The Enclave, an apartment complex in White Oak that changed names several times and also received a makeover by Stellar.)

At the same time, people get accustomed to using a certain name and it becomes a part of the community. If you've lived in the D.C. area for a while, you may have visited a Chevy Chase Bank, went Christmas shopping at Hecht's, hung out at Wheaton Plaza or went to Montgomery General Hospital when you're sick. Today, those names are gone, replaced by titles that may create a unified corporate brand but erode our sense of place.
'Georgian' Marquee1980's-Era Logo On Window
The Georgian in 2008.1980's-era Georgian Towers logo, still visible in 2008.
AvalonBay, one of the nation's biggest rental companies, has an aggressive branding strategy, often renaming properties to craft a specific image or appeal to certain markets. Yet as their own marketing people admit, "An individual property can be outdated or sold, but a brand lives on."

I grew up in Georgian Towers, and I often meet people online and in real life who lived there or knew someone who lived there at some point in the past four decades. Even if we didn't live there at the same time, we have a shared, positive emotional connection about this place. It doesn't matter that the building was called Georgian Towers, but the meaning, or brand, attached to the name does. There might be value in that, rather than trying to wipe the slate clean every time a new owner comes in.

Georgian Towers as a name hasn't existed for at least 5 years, but I still hear people using it, which makes me wonder if "The Point at Silver Spring" will stick. That said, I hear people refer to "Wheaton Mall" a lot, which tells me that Westfield's attempt at renaming it "Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton" or "Westfield Wheaton" failed, but still managed to erase the old name.

After years of instability, the tenants of The Point at Silver Spring are getting new management and a better, safer place to live. That's more important than any nostalgia I or anyone else feels for our old home. At the same time, it would be nice if Pantzer gave their new property a name that acknowledged its past. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't mind "The Point at Georgian Towers."

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