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Rockville, 1, Montgomery County, 0

For those who are keeping score in the battle to see which governments can figure out that a downtown is a public space and must be open to all, the city of Rockville has taken a narrow but firm lead over Montgomery County, which, you'll recall, gave away the store in downtown Silver Spring.

The issue here is whether publicly owned but privately developed downtown retail developments--essentially outdoor shopping malls created to give the public a downtown feeling in a shopping district managed by a for-profit corporation--must allow people to express themselves as they would in any public space--that is, by allowing people to distribute political literature, take photographs, preach their faith, or behave in any way that they would on a street in a naturally occurring city.

While downtown Silver Spring's managers--supported by county officials--continue to insist that they have the right to restrict photography as they see fit, Rockville's authorities are taking the opposite tack, demanding that the developer of the city's new Town Square allow people the full range of free expression that existed on Rockville's streets prior to this development.

Indeed, Rockville City Manager Scott Ullery has now apologized to a political candidate, Drew Powell, who was stopped from taking photos at the new Town Square by a private security guard. Powell was there with his son and took a picture of the young fellow outside, with no stores in the shot. The guard told Powell that the developer had a no-photos policy and that if Powell persisted, the guard would call police and ask that the photographer be arrested for trespassing.

That incident, back in May, led Ullery to make it clear to Federal Realty, the developer, that no such restrictions on free speech would be permitted. And the developer told the city officials that they do not have a no-photos policy.

Ullery wrote in an email on Friday that he checked out the incident with Federal Realty executives and learned that "on May 4 the employee [the aforementioned security guard] observed Mr. Powell taking pictures in the area in front of Beheaders (which is across the plaza from the library). The employee made a judgment on his own to ask Mr. Powell to stop. He supposedly assumed FRIT [Federal Realty] did not want certain photos taken of store fronts. FRIT states the employee made the judgment on his own, but FRIT accepts the blame for not addressing picture taking in their training and policy manual. FRIT has readily agreed to send a letter of apology to Mr. Powell. I've called Mr. Powell and informed him of what I've learned, as well as offered my apology on behalf of the City."

Powell, it turns out, is running for mayor of Rockville, and the current holder of that position, Larry Giammo, questions whether it's plausible that Powell would be the only person ever stopped from taking photos in that section of downtown Rockville. In an email to members of the city council, Giammo also wonders whether it's really necessary for the council to take a stand assuring the public that the Town Square will be treated as public space, despite its private management.

"As for any potential resolution to proclaim our support for the First Amendment of the Constitution, I think it would be wise to first understand what all the relevant facts are regarding the alleged incident," Giammo wrote. "I don't think it would cast the city council or our community in a good light if the two city council members who have aligned themselves politically with Mr. Powell were to try to make this alleged incident into an issue before all of the relevant facts are known."

Whatever the internal politics of Rockville's mayoral contest, the ongoing dispute both in Montgomery County and across the nation about whether privatized public projects--in Rockville, for example, $88 million of the $352 million cost of the downtown development is being paid for by various government agencies--allow developers to cordon off those spaces and declare them restricted speech zones.

Rockville's response to this issue is vastly more encouraging than that of Montgomery County in the Silver Spring case, and anything the city council might do to make its stance in favor of citizens' rights clear is a shot of fresh and welcome action.



By Marc Fisher |  July 9, 2007; 1:15 PM ET
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Comments

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I wish you would stopping beating on this photography issue in Silver Spring.

For twenty years there was NOTHING there worth parking your car for. Business would not go there.

Now that there is finally something there I do not regret whatever the county negotiated to get it there. To be real honest, but for the Georgia Ave side deco buildings, it looks like about a hundred other outdoor malls across the country anyway. The state of things in Silver Spring was such that I'm happy to have that.

There are still people who post here who won't go to Silver Spring because they are nervous in that neighborhood. If the complex needs policing and control to make customers feel at ease shopping or dining there then so be it.

I for one was tired of driving to Rockville -where I never took any pictures anyway- to eat out or see a movie.

At least now I can stay in my own neighborhood, where a kid from the local high school who doesn't have a car to drive to Rockville in can get a part-time job and earn a few bucks waiting tables or selling movie tickets.

Posted by: SS-TP | July 9, 2007 3:21 PM

I'm glad to know that developers have figured out how to leave comments (who else would leave such a nonsensical remark). Developers don't need to be given the ability to trample the rights people assume in public spaces in order to be profitable.

Covering the public photography issue helps give a simple, straightforward face to a more complex underlying problem with giving away the store to developers: their ability to curtail the free speech rights we associate with public spaces.

This is important, and Marc, thank you for covering the issue.

Posted by: John | July 9, 2007 3:58 PM

wow, who the hell is this SS-TP fool. i mean, ugh, it's not even worth debating. i can either make a million slippery slope arguments, or i could just invoke some stupid godwin's law corollary here. "i don't need guaranteed freedoms, because i don't plan on using them anyways." whatever that poster does, hope that they don't hold political office.

Posted by: IMGoph | July 9, 2007 4:02 PM

IMGoph, thank you for getting to it first. Hey, Montgomery County - you brought me a Red Lobster, so go ahead, take away whatever rights you want!!

Posted by: h3 | July 9, 2007 4:38 PM

Yeah. Go ahead, Montgomery County - you brought me a Red Lobster, so go ahead and take away whatever rights you want!

For the record, I love the new development in downtown Silver Spring - I remember what it was like 20 years ago - and I am delighted to see people there. I just don't see precisely how, say, not allowing photography helps people feel safer.

Posted by: h3 | July 9, 2007 4:40 PM

Oh shoot, I did double-post. Sorry! The comment system was being weird. Oh well, now you get to enjoy my Red Lobster joke twice.

Posted by: h3 | July 9, 2007 4:44 PM

I liked the old Silver Spring.

Vinyl Ink: RIP. :(

Posted by: Dave | July 9, 2007 5:07 PM

Yeah, as someone above says, it is an important issue, and this is good news. Thanks for covering it.

Posted by: Karl | July 9, 2007 5:17 PM

What will be Prince George's County position on the National Harbor? This is another project by the same Silver Spring developer. I believe the developer recently asked for another $30,000,000 from PG on top of the tens of millions already requested.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 9, 2007 5:47 PM

If the county had told us when the Silver Spring redevelopment was being planned that it would become a private outdoor mall under the control of the developer, there would have been an outcry against it. Funny me; I thought they were putting stores on both sides of public streets....

Posted by: Anonymous | July 9, 2007 7:17 PM

If the county had told us when the Silver Spring redevelopment was being planned that it would become a private outdoor mall under the control of the developer, there would have been an outcry against it. Funny me; I thought they were putting stores on both sides of public streets....

Posted by: Anonymous | July 9, 2007 7:19 PM

Agree that the issue is important and needs to be covered. Don't know if it has been brought up in this space before, but a developer out of Baltimore faced a big-time public outcry about two years ago when they opened up a large "public" urban redevelopment in Louisville, KY. Essentially the company had reserved the right to close public streets that ran through the redeveloped blocks on certain nights to hold outdoor concerts. They stipulated that, when the streets were closed, they could allow or deny entry to the closed-off area based on a dress code. The dress code? No sleeveless shirts or jerseys on men, for one. This angered an awful lot of people and I believe the company ended up relaxing their "dress code."

Haven't heard of similar flashpoints elsewhere in the country but I imagine this is a relatively common issue as cities especially in the South and Midwest throw up their hands and bring in a developer to jumpstart the revitalization of their downtown areas.

Posted by: KY in DC | July 9, 2007 7:33 PM

Agree that the issue is important and needs to be covered. Don't know if it has been brought up in this space before, but a developer out of Baltimore faced a big-time public outcry about two years ago when they opened up a large "public" urban redevelopment in Louisville, KY. Essentially the company had reserved the right to close public streets that ran through the redeveloped blocks on certain nights to hold outdoor concerts. They stipulated that, when the streets were closed, they could allow or deny entry to the closed-off area based on a dress code. The dress code? No sleeveless shirts or jerseys on men, for one. This angered an awful lot of people and I believe the company ended up relaxing their "dress code."

Haven't heard of similar flashpoints elsewhere in the country but I imagine this is a relatively common issue as cities especially in the South and Midwest throw up their hands and bring in a developer to jumpstart the revitalization of their downtown areas, then realize they don't have control over their own streets anymore. The developer has a right to set their project up for success, sure, but that desire for profit has to stop when we start telling people which side of the street they can and can't walk on.

Posted by: KY in DC | July 9, 2007 7:34 PM

Giammo sounds like an idiot in this blog. Who cares about all the relevant facts, or if Powell was the only person ever told not to take photos. One person told not to take photos is too much. And it seems clear this actually did happen, and Federal Realt admits they screwed up. Maybe Powell is using this for political advantage. I don't care. I think the City Council is doing the right thing. Given what has happened in Silver Spring, they should nip this in the bud. By the way, was the security guard fired? Probably not. People aren't fired often enough when they screw up. Who makes a judgment that they should prohibit people from taking photographs in a public place? Anyone who shows such poor judgment should not be security guard. What will he do when children use squirt guns at the town center? Shoot them?

Posted by: Cliff | July 9, 2007 9:41 PM

please don't fire the poor security guard. he probably moonlights for 5 different companies and 4 of them are against photography. don't take this out on him.

Posted by: mm | July 9, 2007 10:02 PM

Having recently moved from Durham, NC, where downtown redevelopment has been privately driven (if heavily financed by federal grants) but brought in local restaurants/bars/destinations, I have to say that the SS downtown creeps me out a little. My kids love the fountain, but I'd rather browse at something like Kramer Books than Borders or eat someplace with a little more uniqueness than Austin Grill (I shall not even speak of RL). There's something of a Stepford-ness to the architecture and the astoundingly bland musical entertainment that appears on Thursdays.

Having seen downtown Durham revitalized with uniquely Durham (or at least "Triangle") institutions, I wonder why downtowns up here must be so "big boxy" in nature.

Oh, yeah, I miss Vinyl Ink, too. I stopped by many times while passing through.

Posted by: TP, not SS | July 9, 2007 10:18 PM

Did Silver Spring used to be ghetto?

This is not a smart-ass question. I've only lived here 3 years, and as long as I've known it's been bland and suburban-ish, but *certainly* not someplace I'd be afraid to go.

Somebody fill me in...

Posted by: Anonymous | July 9, 2007 10:42 PM

Did Silver Spring used to be ghetto?

This is not a smart-ass question. I've only lived here 3 years, and as long as I've known it's been bland and suburban-ish, but *certainly* not someplace I'd be afraid to go.

Somebody fill me in...
--------------

absolutely not. Silver Spring was, at its low point, a place with old-fashioned mom and pop stores where my grandmother went to get special italian cheeses and I'd go to Vinyl Ink for rare records (before iTunes). Silver Spring in the 1970s was on the downside of being nice, let's say like Bethesda with more white ethnic groups like Jewish and Italian stores. Both Bethesda and Silver Spring had Tastee Diners, both had Hot Shoppes, they were sister cities until the 1980s. For someone to say people were "nervous" entering Silver Spring is either a joke or I mean, it was primarily a Jewish neighborhood where people like Goldie Hawn grew up... if you get nervous around Jewish stores then that's really a telling statement, isn't it?

Posted by: DCer | July 9, 2007 10:50 PM

In view of the apparently arbitrary and capricious nature of this problem, (FRIT policy permits photographs, Peterson policy prohibits them), I agree that this is an issue worth covering. Does the Peterson ban extend to an artists drawing, or if the security situation deteriorated, would it extend to the use of CCTV cameras? Would Peterson ban Peterson from taking pictures?

If Peterson remains recalcitrant, to help it distil thinking and clarify it's policy, suggest that the photographers threaten to hurt them in the pocket by taking a boat trip down the Potomac to snap the hell out of National Harbor infrastructure. WAPO recently reported that for convenience and security reasons the World Bank/IMF is considering National Harbor for the 2009 meeting. Now if photos of NH were readily available on the internet..........

Posted by: Count Bobulescu | July 9, 2007 11:15 PM

The real problem is dozing citizens. It is our tax money. They are our rights. To let politicians get away with trashing both in these deals is to lose one's citizenship and just become some sort of "consumer" (read dumb grazing cows!). The citizens should fire the politicians responsible for this farce. Make sure those public servants--that is what we used to call them anyway--know their jobs depend on protecting those with the votes, not just the cash. Remember, millions cannot buy votes if you pay attention and do not let them be bought. Perhaps it is time to put Silver Spring under new management that remembers for whom it works.

Posted by: Ray | July 9, 2007 11:20 PM

"Silver Spring was, at its low point, a place with old-fashioned mom and pop stores where my grandmother went to get special italian cheeses and I'd go to Vinyl Ink for rare records (before iTunes)."

That actually sounds a lot more interesting than Red Lobster and Borders and Ulta. I'm sorry I missed it.

Posted by: thanks for the answer! | July 10, 2007 6:58 AM

This issue will get a lot more interesting if the activity prohibited is something more controversial than taking a photo or wearing sleeveless shirts. How about if a worker of one of those stores is leafletting other workers about starting a union? Or maybe a group of students holds an anti-war vigil? Or better yet, somebody asks consumers to boycott Red Lobster for selling shrimp harvested under feudal working conditions. Then we'll find out for real if the streets belong to us or the developers. And I know which side this "Don't Infringe the Rights of the Wealthy" Supreme Court will come down on.

Posted by: G.Debs | July 10, 2007 7:04 AM

Well, I'll be a lot more impressed when I see mom and pop shops make a return. I agree with those who say that we really don't need yet another chain store and restaurant in this area. I'm quite bored with finding a B&N, Borders and Pier 1 in every other shopping center around here. If there is an economist on here, please tell us if there is such a thing as market saturation, and what effects it can have.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | July 10, 2007 7:48 AM

f there is an economist on here, please tell us if there is such a thing as market saturation, and what effects it can have.
----------

I'm not economist but I played one in college (it was my minor). Starbucks and CVS have shown that market saturation is not that real for certain kinds of stores. Starbucks and CVS are not cannibalizing sales from other stores, they're simply selling more to people who would walk down the sidewalk and turn into any store. So that's not a factor in 2007 for some reason.

But I know from working with friends who own stores that the rents in the entire DC area are so high that a Mom and Pop with a low sales expectation has no hope of paying these rents. The only people who can "make it" are either chains or are becoming chains. Note that Five Guys in Alexandria hit their sink or swim moment and got investment to open 20 locations. Note that fancy restaurants like Olives on 16th st or downscale places like Joe's Crab Shack in Bethesda are actually chains with locations in a dozen cities. It takes so much money to develop the business plan that it makes sense to either build a chain system or don't even bother trying. So until the rest of the nation's economy joins our super-heated area, expect that only national chains will open. That's just not going to change back in the next 5 years, sorry, patronize what we have.

Posted by: DCer | July 10, 2007 9:59 AM

I know, I was sad to see the Artificial Limb Co. go, too...but, so sue me, I was afraid to walk around Silver Spring at night in the 80s (there wasn't anything really goin down, it was just so creepily deserted) and now it's full of people. I guess I can't fault people for enjoying Red Lobster. Well, I can fault them, but if lame-ass chain restaurants is what it takes to get people outside, maybe I just have to settle for some lame-ass chain restaurants in the world. (While I walk a few blocks over to get some real food!)

Posted by: h3 | July 10, 2007 9:59 AM

Why don't we look at this issue in a different light. Drew Powell is the chair of a PAC that is Anti Development. He has been actively working against any kind of developer and development for quite some time and stirs up trouble in order to get his name in the paper and draw attention to an issue. Has anyone bothered to interview the security guard? Did we get the whole story, or did we only get Mr. Powells version? I was under the impression that Mr. Powell doesn't have any photos of his son in front of the library because he was too busy taking pictures through a window of the inside of an unfinished store. Maybe this guard stopped him from taking pictures because he was doing something that looked suspicious...and I wouldn't put it past him given his association with a group that would normally be protesting a development project like the one in Rockville. And don't forget that he is politically motivated as he is a candidate for mayor who has only lived in the city for two years.

Posted by: js | July 12, 2007 12:35 AM

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