- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Developers of Silver Spring’s emerging arts and entertainment district are planning a large mixed-use complex to augment the proposed Birchmere Music Hall as the Maryland Senate prepares to vote on whether to help fund the project.

The House voted Saturday to allocate $4 million over the next two years to bring the Birchmere to downtown Silver Spring. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee gave its approval Tuesday, and the funding awaits a vote by the full Senate.

Montgomery County has pledged $4 million in matching funds and Lee Development Group, which owns the parking lot and storefront where the Birchmere would be built, would donate land valued at more than $3 million.

The site now consists of a large parking lot and the historic storefront of the former J.C. Penney’s building. The rest was torn down 17 years ago.

The Birchmere, which currently is headquartered in Alexandria, would contribute another $1 million to convert the site into a music hall. The Birchmere hosts nationally recognized entertainers and sponsors musical shows throughout the Washington area.

Montgomery County officials hope the Birchmere will attract further development, similar to the way the American Film Institute Silver Theatre at 8633 Colesville Road, became a bargaining chip to attract Discovery Communications to downtown Silver Spring.

“I think it could have a big impact,” said Gary Stith, director of Montgomery County’s Silver Spring Regional Center. “It would be a regional draw, and it would add to the arts and entertainment we have in downtown Silver Spring, and that would attract restaurants and other businesses.”

When County Executive Douglas M. Duncan started discussing the idea in 2003, the county had no additional plans for the Birchmere other than a music hall at 8656 Colesville Road, across the street from AFI Silver Theatre. Since then, it has been delayed by budget shortfalls.

However, Lee Development is moving ahead on its own with plans for an office building, parking facility and either a hotel or residential units next to the proposed Birchmere site.

The company hired Georgetown firm Hickok Cole Architects to do a feasibility study for the mixed-use complex.

Although the music hall is estimated to cost $8 million, “The whole future project would probably be in the range of $70 million to $90 million,” said Bruce Lee, president of Lee Development.

The plan is 90 percent completed, enough so that Lee Development expects to break ground on the Birchmere in late 2008 if the Maryland General Assembly approves funding and Montgomery County acts promptly to grant construction permits.

“Now we’re getting close to the reality of what would actually fit on the site,” Mr. Lee said.

He and Hickok Cole architects are figuring out details of construction, such as which steel to use, now that the overall development plan is done.

The music hall would have seating for 600 to 750 customers in up to 30,000 square feet of space, Mr. Lee said. Another 183,000 square feet is being set aside for an office building and 114,000 square feet for a hotel or residential building.

The buildings would sit on 72,000 square feet of land.

When it is finished, Colesville Road and the surrounding area would have “that Broadway effect, which would be just a home run,” Mr. Lee said.

Property Lines runs on Thursdays. Call Tom Ramstack at 202/636-3180 or e-mail tramstackwashingtontimes.com.

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