Tuesday, October 13, 2015

new video screens are a sign of silver spring's evolution

After twenty years, the dying City Place Mall is finally coming back to life. New video screens on the building's historic exterior are another sign of how downtown Silver Spring is evolving into an urban place.

Ellsworth Place Screens
The new screens. All photos by the author.

The new screens went up outside the five-story shopping center, located on Fenton Street between Colesville Road and Ellsworth Drive, a few weeks ago. They show a mix of ads for the mall, inspirational quotes, and "This Day in History" features.

While the rest of downtown Silver Spring is thriving, City Place has struggled since it opened in 1992. Developer Petrie Ross is renovating the mall, now called Ellsworth Place, opening it up to surrounding streets while adding new shops and restaurants.

The screens help open this mall to the street

Part of the mall was a Hecht's department store that opened in 1947. While the big, blank walls that wrap around the building are architecturally significant, they're also a barrier to the activity on the streets around it, which is why the mall failed in the first place.

New Michaels Entrance at Ellsworth Place
These new signs are the only changes allowed to the mall's historic exterior.

But the developers can't make any major changes to the exterior, like adding windows that could let people see the stores inside. That's why Montgomery County approved the screens in 2010 along with other small changes, like two new entrances, display cases, and new signs.

The screens are a compromise between historic preservationists, who want to keep the building's exterior intact, and retailers who want shoppers to know they're in the mall. Gus Bauman, attorney for Petrie Ross, told residents in 2013 that the screens are necessary to attract retailers. (Ironically, Bauman led the fight to ban billboards 20 years ago as Planning Board chair.)

Video screens are more common

Video screens are increasingly common in the DC area. There are several at 7th & H streets in Gallery Place, which some call "DC's Times Square." There's one at the Mosaic District in Fairfax, which show some ads, but also host outdoor movie nights. You'll even see digital screens outside many public schools in the region.

Fenton Street Market October 10
The screens on the historic side of Ellsworth Place can be seen from Fenton Street Market.

What do people think about the screens? Last Saturday, I stopped by Fenton Street Market, the weekly craft market held in Veterans Plaza across from the mall. Silver Spring resident Brad Cranford, who works at the market and had been looking at the screen all day from his booth, said he didn't mind it.

"It's unobtrusive and kind of cool," he said, "but I don't know what the ultimate goal is." The guy sitting next to him adds, "If they could play soccer games on there, people would love it."

Visual clutter is okay sometimes

Not everyone's happy about them, however. From neighborhood listservs to Twitter, some neighbors say that they ruin the mall's Art Deco-style exterior, which is a historic landmark. Others point to the county's decades-old ban on billboards.

In the past, county officials said that billboards hurt Silver Spring's then-struggling downtown. Today, Silver Spring is finally thriving. Within the past year, it seems like downtown has become even more active: more people, more bars and restaurants, more nightlife. After years of begging my friends in DC to visit Silver Spring to no avail, I've had coworkers, friends, and even a few dates from DC who've asked me to show them around.

These video screens emphasize Silver Spring's vitality rather than take away from it. There's a certain beauty to the visual clutter of an urban place. We celebrate painted ads on the sides of old buildings, a sort of old-school billboard, or scrolling movie marquees. Are these really that different?

Besides, the screens at Ellsworth Place fit in just fine with its neighbors, the Fillmore music hall, the AFI Silver and Majestic movie theatres, and the Silver Spring Black Box, all of whom have marquees with lots of flashing lights and movement. They show that Silver Spring is one of the busiest, most active downtowns not just in Montgomery County, but the region. I say the more bright lights, the better.


Anonymous said...

I think what they are doing is great. I never admired the blank concrete walls on the mall. It looks like a bunker or something. Another good idea is to have either banners running down the blank walls or some form of wall art depicting the history of Silver Spring or something. But I guess that would be too much color? It would certainly bring out the photographers with a mural that big. Perhaps a whale wall by Robert Wyland?

blackman2005 said...

Downtown Silver Spring just needs to expand and diversify its shopping/dining locations. They should just break ground for a new shopping/walking area somewhere between 16th Ave, Georgia Ave and East-West Hwy area. I doubt anything will revitalize foot traffic for the Fenton St./Ellsworth Dr. corridor of DTSS. It's too close cornered and the Ellsworth Dr. location too obscure and closed-in to ever attract popular retailers (Lucky Brand, LUSH, Apple Store, Banana Republic, etc.).

Robert said...

Isn't it ironic. For years Silver Spring residents fought to get big commercial highway style billboards removed from buildings along Georgia Avenue. They were finally taken down.

Now electronic billboards have been put up at Ellsworth Place. The only difference is that the new ones are brighter and change the advertising message.

Colorful banners or wall art would be great, but what we got was just advertising clutter ... as if there was a shortage of that in our lives.

This is progress?