Vision for civic building will soon be reality
Ahead of July 1 opening, long-planned public structure nearly complete
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A reception hall, an ice rink, state-of-the-art meeting rooms, an open-air courtyard, an art gallery, real grass.
For years, this was only a vision for the corner of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring, long the home of a new civic building and public plaza. But as the exterior of the civic building nears completion and a July opening date fast approaches, residents will soon get their first chance to see that vision fully realized.
Behind a construction fence, those walking through the Ellsworth Drive area can see the prominent all-glass front of the civic building set back from a frame with wood paneling inside. Inside, it takes a bit of imagination to imagine the art gallery filled with visitors and paintings rather than construction workers, or the great hall holding a wedding reception instead of concrete floors and exposed insulation.
The final product became a bit clearer on a recent private tour of the 42,000-square-foot building, hosted by Susan Hoffmann of the Silver Spring Regional Center.
On one side of the main lobby will be an art gallery operated by the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, and on the other side there will be a high-ceilinged atrium with an all-glass wall that will look out onto the ice rink and plaza.
The plaza will replace the former artificial-turf field, a temporary but very popular plot that occupied the civic building site until construction could begin. Chairs, benches and chess tables will surround the ice rink, which will be turned into a landscaped plaza for festivals and events in non-winter months.
"It will be like our front porch, so to speak," said Hoffmann, the center's director of marketing and special events, during the tour last week.
Adjacent to the atrium is an 800-person capacity great hall, open to private and public organizations, as well as private parties like wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, Hoffmann said.
An open-air courtyard on the first floor will be available to the public looking for a nice place to eat lunch or reserve for private events, Hoffmann said. The courtyard includes tables and benches and is surrounded on all sides by windows that reach from the ground to the top of the second floor.
Meeting rooms to be used for "breakout space" during events or conferences held at the civic building flank the first floor wall closest to Fenton Street. The second floor contains the Silver Spring Regional Center's new offices.
The basement level of the nearly $20 million county-funded building will house the offices for 22 employees of the Round House Theatre, a nonprofit performing arts group with theaters and offices in Silver Spring and Bethesda and an educational program in Silver Spring. In a deal finalized years ago by former County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), Round House will pay $1 a month in rent to the county, in exchange for "helping to complete the county's vision for downtown Silver Spring as a hub of arts and culture," said Blake Robison, producing artistic director at the Round House Theatre, who was not involved in the original deal for the civic building space.
But Richard Jaeggi, executive director of the youth media group the Gandhi Brigade, questioned why so much is being designated to one group when Silver Spring needs to fill the void of the artificial turf, which became an unprogrammed space used by many of the teens that frequent downtown Silver Spring.
"We need a dedicated place for youth leaders to be able to meet and organize events that would serve the larger group," Jaeggi said in a phone interview. "... It wouldn't just be a drop-in space for ping pong or [video game console Nintendo] Wii but a place where leadership work can really be done."
Jaeggi was on the advisory committee that helped plan the civic building years ago and questioned whether the building would cater to youth after a proposed media center was pulled from plans. The youth from his organization have been attending community meetings to express their ideas for the civic building.
Despite years of planning and an opening date fast approaching, Hoffmann said the vision for the civic building is still changing and that local officials are listening.
"There's a lot of attention being paid to young people and wanting to find a space for them that's their own that they wouldn't necessarily have to share," Hoffmann said.