- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2016

Amid the ongoing construction and redevelopment in downtown Silver Spring, a “curious,” colorful new structure caught the eye of longtime resident Steve Coffey earlier this month.

“I didn’t know what the hell it was,” the 56-year-old carpenter said.

It was Outbox — a pop-up work space that opened June 6 outside the Ellsworth Place mall. Spanning several storefronts, the facility runs parallel to two strips of shops that include more than 20 dining options.

Designers said the structure aims to provide a place for communal work and creativity. Outbox consists of a solid ceiling and floor but attracts attention with its open walls and vibrant metalwork siding.

Equipped with free WiFi, charging outlets and seating for 20 people, Outbox provides an alternative to office cubicles and the cramped quarters of a coffeehouse.

“[Starbucks] always smells like coffee, [and] people are sitting, like, really closely,” said Betty Gentle, a 27-year-old law school graduate. “You actually have space out here and natural air, so I really like it. I’ll definitely come back.”

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The construction of Outbox comes amid a larger refurbishment of Silver Spring’s downtown, including Ellsworth Place. More than $45 million has been spent to transform the former City Place Mall into a 350,000 square-foot, six-story, enclosed shopping center that offers indoor and outdoor spaces.

Mr. Coffey helped build City Place, which opened in 1992. He said the original retail center “was vibrant, and then it died,” as land-use issues, high crime and low residency brought on the decline of the entire downtown region.

But the area has begun to rebound, experiencing considerable commercial growth in the last 10 years. In 2012, Petrie Richardson Ventures acquired ownership of the mall and began a top-to-bottom interior and exterior renovation to rebrand and revitalize the shopping center, which currently is open for business but will officially reopen as Ellsworth Place in the fall.

Dan Figueroa is regional manager of the property management firm Peterson Companies, one of three developers responsible for the 440,000 square-foot main street development that includes retail and restaurants outside of Ellsworth Plaza and Veterans Plaza.

He said Outbox adds “another layer of activity” to the bustling shopping area and often stops passers-by in their tracks.

“As virtue of the box just being out there, it is an attraction in and of itself,” Mr. Figueroa said. “When people are walking by, they see it and it’s kind of like a moth to the flame.”

In refurbishing the area, developers wanted to come up with creative ways to bring people to the area and keep them outside, Mr. Figueroa said. “Everybody puts out tables and chairs — but I thought, ‘Let’s be a little more creative.’ “

The real estate developer normally would have hired a professional firm, but instead it chose to present the project to a local architecture class at Montgomery College. Students drafted various plans over the course of a semester before the winning design, “Catalyst,” was selected and fabricated at a firm in Chantilly, Virginia.

Mr. Figueroa said the students were inspired to create an area that reflects the energy of downtown Silver Spring.

But Mr. Coffey said the creators of Outbox could have gone “a little bit tamer on the colors.”

He said he likes to come to Outbox to read and enjoy the shade, but wishes the structure was a little less modern.

“I would say it’s a little too industrial To me, that’s just stupid,” Mr. Coffey said of the metal circles that frame the structure. “That’s not my style.”

Outbox is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the plaza by Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring.

  • This article has been updated to include more information about the developers.

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