Discovery's plan wins approval
by Theodore Kim
The Gazette Staff Writer
June 7, 2000
Pedestrian, traffic safety issues still a concern
The Discovery project has leaped its final bureaucratic hurdle.
An architectural rendering of Discovery Communications' future
Last week, the county Planning Board unanimously approved the
architectural designs for Discovery Communications' future Silver
Spring headquarters, including the creation of a glowing, 350-foot
tower that will radically alter the current downtown skyline.
The board's 4-0 vote caps a dogged, two-year effort by Discovery and
county officials to relocate the global media firm from overcrowded
offices in Bethesda.
The judgment also paves the way for construction to, most likely, begin
in early October and finish sometime in the fall 2002.
Utility work on the site could begin as soon as next month, officials said.
The $160 million structure, to be located adjacent to the current Metro
station, is considered the cornerstone of Silver Spring's nearly $1
billion ongoing urban renewal.
At last week's board hearing in Silver Spring, John Hendricks, Discovery's
founder and chairman, said the relocation would help the region become "a
part of the information age."
"With this [project], Silver Spring has a chance to become a media hub for
the entire world," Hendricks said.
Discovery's new L-shaped headquarters will feature a nine-story wing on
Colesville Road and a six-story wing on Georgia Avenue; a fenced, one-acre
public garden along Wayne Avenue; a spacious public lobby to be used for
exhibits; a large mural made of etched steel or granite along Colesville
Road; and large video displays facing Georgia Avenue.
The building, which will be home to nearly half of Discovery's 4,000
employees worldwide, will have enough office and parking space to cover
more than nine football fields.
"It's an exciting day for Silver Spring," said Doug Wrenn, head of the
Silver Spring redevelopment office, at the hearing.
The highlight of the building is a thin, 350-foot spire, dubbed "Discovery
Tower," which will be lighted at night and stand as one of the tallest
structures in Montgomery County.
In addition, the structure will "emit a focused beam of light straight
upward to the sky" using lasers or other lights, officials said.
The beam of light will be visible for miles, perhaps as far away as
Arlington, Va., one official said.
The spire will not have an observation deck, according to project drawings.
Discovery executives said they want the tower to serve as the defining
landmark for Silver Spring and the county, as well as become a
metaphorical "beacon for the media industry."
"Light has always been a powerful symbol," said David King, architect at
SmithGroup, the D.C.-based firm in charge of the project.
"Literally and figuratively, the [building and tower] will be the
centerpiece for downtown redevelopment," Wrenn said.
The Planning Board's approval came after a nearly four-hour debate over
the specifics of Discovery's plan, including concerns with pedestrian and
traffic safety, the possibility of including a Discovery store on
Colesville Road, and whether a steel fence should enclose the public garden.
Larry Ponsford, senior planner at the Park and Planning Commission, argued
a fenced garden would discourage people from using it, even when it is
open during the day.
He pointed to New York's Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center, and Boston's
Christian Science headquarters as successful public spaces that are not enclosed.
"It is the obligation of Discovery to make the garden as open as
possible," Ponsford said.
However, Hendricks and other Discovery executives maintained that a fenced
garden is necessary for the safety of its employees during nighttime hours.
"You must remember that we're a global company," Hendricks told the board.
"For our employees who are providing 24 hours of programming on 11
channels, they need to be able to take a break, to have the opportunity to
go outside safely."
Discovery produces the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, as well as a
handful of other global cable, media and retail interests.
Domenick Fioravanti, a senior executive in charge of the project, was more
blunt in his assessment.
"Yes, we are concerned about vandalism and loitering," Fioravanti told the
board. "At three in the morning, who is going to be in the [garden]?"
Fioravanti also said, despite a recent drop in crime countywide and the
approval of additional horse-mounted police patrols, downtown Silver
Spring is still perceived to be unsafe.
"The truth is that perception is reality," he said.
The board, eventually, decided to approve the fence, with the condition
that it looks inviting and is arrayed with large entrances and signs.
"Make it look open and not like a fortress," said board member Arthur Holmes.
Also, planning officials said an etched mural on one side of the building
is not enough to "stimulate pedestrian activity" along Colesville Road,
one of Silver Spring's main thoroughfares.
Instead, they suggested Discovery put retail space at the intersection of
Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road.
One longtime local developer agreed with their assessment.
"The Berlin Wall had artwork, too, and I don't think it made it anymore
fulfilling," said E. Brook Lee, president of Lee Development Group, at the
hearing. "I dread to think we're going to have to live with this for the
next 50 to 100 years."
Despite his concerns, Lee said he was "100 percent in favor of the
In response to concerns, Discovery officials argued their current design
provides nearly three times the amount of public space required by the
They also said the building lacks a cafeteria and other amenities by
design, compelling employees to venture into the downtown community.
The board decided to approve the mural idea, although the specific design,
which is being done by an independent artist, must be sanctioned at a
Board members also discussed the effects that the new structure will have
on local traffic patterns and pedestrian safety.
However, any definitive plans to alleviate traffic have been put on hold,
since plans are not yet complete for the nearby $40 million transit
center, to be built across the street at the current Metro station.
Meanwhile, a string of local civic leaders testified in support of the
project at the hearing, some saying they thought such a mammoth commercial
project would never be undertaken in Silver Spring.
"There is new interest in office leasing," said Roger Bain, president of
the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, to the board. "Groups are
vying for space for creative and production facilities, and breathing new
life into South Silver Spring. The local housing market has taken off. And
the company isn't even here yet."
Sally Sternbach, head of the regional advisory board, said Discovery's
relocation has "drawn new faces" to its monthly civic meetings.
"There continues to be an air of excitement around Discovery's move to
Silver Spring that is unprecedented," Sternbach told the board.
In addition to constructing its headquarters, Discovery also is renovating
the former Caldor building in South Silver Spring in an $18 million effort.
The office will house about 400 employees, as well as a media archive. It
is slated to open sometime this summer, with most personnel relocating to
the office in October.