Thirty-one-year-old Liz Cattaneo trolls bustling downtown Silver Spring for indie films and theater on a regular basis. She’s young, she’s hip, and she knows what’s going on around town. A few days ago, she visited the centerpiece of the arts-centric revitalization efforts along Georgia Avenue in South Silver Spring: the so-called Arts Alley@Blair Mill, a 1,000-foot alleyway intended as an outdoor space for artists and laymen alike.
“It’s under the bridge! How would anyone know about it?” asks Cattaneo, referring to the alley’s location under the Metro bridge that crosses Georgia Avenue. “But really, they should really make it more easily recognizable or locatable.” She adds that she has seen little or no marketing of the arts effort in South Silver Spring.
That’s because the project’s piggy bank is empty. The alley renaissance has blown through the 2.5 million federal dollars that jump-started the development. Susan Hoffmann, the marketing and special-events manager for the Silver Spring Regional Center, says it’s hard to know if or when additional funding will present itself.
“It has so much potential and we do need to start focusing on [revitalizing] South Silver Spring. [The Arts Alley] is an opportunity to do it, we just don’t have the budget to establish a presence down here,” says Hoffmann. “If we had musicians every Saturday night, people would come. That would be very easy to do—it’s just getting the bucks.”
The Arts Alley vision was announced two years ago, as Silver Spring began tossing out new-urbanism buzzwords such as “pedestrian-friendly” and “sustainability.” A plan for a series of pedestrian walkways, each with its own artsy theme, was born. The eight planned alleys are intended to be a series of spruced-up passageways winding behind retail stores and businesses. The Arts Alley is the project’s flagship endeavor.
There was big talk of musicians, sculptures, regular performances, and permanent window space featuring rotating exhibits. The place has now been open to foot traffic since last June, yet save for a De Stijl–inspired design, a once-a-month crafts market and occasional music brought in courtesy of the merchants, the only art in the Arts Alley is in its name. At some point in the past two years, plans for the Arts Alley were significantly scaled back, though none of the officials consulted by S&T could say exactly when.
Revitalization courtesy of the arts is hardly a novel idea. Think downtown Winston-Salem, Worcester, Baltimore, and, of course, the District along corridors such as H Street NE and 14th Street NW. The planner’s dream sequence goes something like this: Artists arrive, renovate apartments, and paint cool murals. Chic restaurants, theaters, and galleries sprout up. Before long, a studio apartment sells for $600,000.
David Chikvashvili, Montgomery County’s chief of commercial revitalization, is hoping that the Arts Alley follows some version of this timeline. “Artists are always carrying a lot of energy and ideas,” he says. “Urban areas are always the ones that attract artists because artists are always looking for a way to be viewed and express. It’s a marketplace of ideas.”
In the southern slice of Silver Spring, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to find artists renovating run-down lofts. Instead, developers are getting ready to deliver 2,300 new residential units. Perhaps the resulting foot traffic will push the concept forward. “It’s not so much that we scaled back—it’s that we got to a point and we haven’t moved forward. It’s in suspended animation,” says Hoffmann.
Barry Soorenko, owner of the Photogroup agency, which represents and manages photographers, owns the property and worked closely with the city to get the project off the ground. The road from concept to reality has been rocky, he admits; he blames the bumps on funding and the construction mayhem at the far end of the alley. However, he is quick to say he still hopes to have murals painted along the walls, space devoted to sculpture, and more musical acts and performers. When this will happen though, is hard to say: Neither the county nor Soorenko can afford the promotion costs right now.
Some have complained that the Silver Spring Regional Center is to blame for the Arts Alley’s lackluster execution. Detractors claim that the center, which is in charge of marketing Silver Spring, has devoted energy to promoting downtown Silver Spring, which includes the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, to the detriment of the southern portion of the city’s arts district. Indeed, the area around AFI—which, until five years ago, was also depressed—is alive with packed restaurants, retail stores, and pedestrians.
“There’s still a lot of construction [near the Arts Alley],” says center director Gary Sith in defense of his organization’s work. “We’re where we were two years ago downtown. Until things settle down, it’s going to be hard to make things happen in a big way.”
Chikvashvili suggests reserving judgment until construction is finished, the new condos are sold, and the alleys are freshly paved. “I’m sure this is going to be very successful the more time goes on and as the projects are completed, and when all those residents are living within two or three blocks of the alley,” says Chikvashvili. “It’s about everything coming together. We can’t close our eyes, blink, and want everything to have happened.”
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