Site of the Day: Chains vs. Indies in Silver Spring
Ok, here's an easy one: Red Lobster vs. Crisfield's. Slightly harder: Potbelly vs. Adega Wine Cellars and Cafe.
No-brainers: Panera Bread vs. Mayorga Coffee Factory, or Cold Stone Creamery vs. York Castle.
We're talking about the face-off between the invading chain eateries and the homegrown independents (as long as they survive, anyway.) The venue: downtown Silver Spring, though we could be talking about just about anyplace in the American streetscape.
Blogger Andrew Lindemann Malone has spent several years riding this issue, and his verdicts come down pretty reliably on the side of the independents. Of course, we've all been to some indieswhere the food is far more awful even than the worst chains', but even those places usually have other redeeming qualities--a less corporate atmosphere, a crowd of regulars who make for rewarding people-watching, a character or two on the staff.
Yet here we are with downtown Silver Spring going the way of downtown Bethesda and Shirlington, with big chains moving in and the old standbys closing up. A few local communities have made a point of protecting the independents--Ballston and other parts of Arlington have worked hard with landlords to promote price structures that make it possible for small businesses to survive growth. Old Town Alexandria, though under increasing price pressure, has maintained an attractive mix of local and national businesses. But left to the vagaries of the market, national chains have a way of displacing local businesses.
You can call that progress or you can find someplace else to eat and shop. The faint glimmerings of such a transformation are already visible on 14th Street in the District, just moments after the street's gentrification really took off. And the process is nearing its completion in Dupont Circle and, to a lesser degree, Georgetown, where chains have taken over what were once the city's most reliable people magnets, turning them into ever-less interesting places.
The lesson here is that cities and suburbs cannot leave the mix of retail outlets to chance and the real estate market. Developers and governments are learning that they have to work on the balance along the streetfronts almost as avidly as a mall manager controls the mix inside his retail hothouse.
Can Silver Spring be saved from the march of the chains? Probably not in the red-hot heart of the downtown between the Silver Theater and Discovery Channel, but possibly in the back streets to the south, along Georgia Avenue and in the rows of ethnic eateries tucked behind the avenue. That's the next task for county planners and local developers, and time is of the essence.
By Marc Fisher |
January 30, 2006; 7:19 AM ET
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