Tuesday’s announcement that Discovery Communications plans to close and sell its headquarters is a huge blow to Silver Spring, whose revitalization Discovery helped kickstart 20 years ago.
Discovery, which operates TV channels such as TLC, Animal Planet, and OWN, currently employs about 1,300 people at its headquarters, which occupies a giant city block across the street from the Silver Spring Metro station and is known for its iconic Shark Week-themed displays. It’ll move the corporate offices to New York, while creative and back office activities will go to Knoxville, Tennessee, home to Scripps Networks, which Discovery agreed to purchase last year.
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett said in a statement that the county and state of Maryland sought to keep Discovery in the area: “The County and State made a substantial proposal designed to accommodate Discovery’s challenges. Together, we were ready to provide considerable incentives to retain their presence in the County. I know this was a tough decision for Discovery. I respect the contributions Discovery has made over the last 15 years to Silver Spring and Montgomery County. We will miss them.”
A spark for redevelopment
Almost since its inception in 1985, Discovery was based in Montgomery County, originally on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. In the 1990s, Montgomery County was trying to find a way to revitalize downtown Silver Spring, which had been struggling for decades due to white flight and disinvestment. The county had entertained multiple proposals to build a megamall on four city blocks bounded by Georgia Avenue, Wayne Avenue, and Colesville Road, including one from the developers of the Mall of America.
That plan fell through in 1996. Two years later, the county agreed to clear the land and give it to Discovery for a new headquarters, along with $10 million in tax subsidies. Montgomery County condemned several public streets and relocated many businesses, including the iconic Tastee Diner, which was put on the back of a truck and shifted a few blocks away. In 1998, Discovery began work on its new headquarters, a $165 million, 10-story tower.
The building anchored a larger redevelopment project, including an outdoor shopping center, a public plaza and town hall, and new homes. When it opened in 2003, county leaders boasted that Discovery could make Silver Spring the “Burbank of the East Coast,” citing the California city home to several media companies. The American Film Institute located a block away, and together with Discovery sponsored an annual film festival, Silverdocs. Radio One, a network of black-owned TV and radio stations, moved in across the street. Discovery acquired a second building on nearby Kennett Street to hold more workers.
Suddenly, a place Washington City Paper had dubbed a “vivid picture of urban splatter” had become a new hot spot. Local restaurants boasted of increased foot traffic from employees. Video and recording companies settled in the area to support the growing media hub. Local filmmaker Walter Gottlieb even created a comedy webseries, The Videomakers, about the employees of a fictionalized version of the Discovery Channel.
A diminishing presence
Within a few years, Silver Spring’s goal of becoming a media cluster was fizzling out as DC’s own revitalization continued. In 2008, NPR considered moving from Mount Vernon Square to Silver Spring, but decided to stay in the District. Montgomery County Councilmember (and current County Executive candidate) Marc Elrich opposed it, saying, “I’m opposed to pulling businesses out of the District.” In 2013, Discovery pulled its sponsorship of Silverdocs, and AFI moved most of the film festival to venues in DC.
Discovery was having troubles of its own, laying off workers and moving some functions to New York. Its local workforce, which the Washington Post reports numbered 2,500 ten years ago, is down to about 1,300. In 2017, after buying Scripps, Discovery moved its workers out of the Kennett Street building, and received $1 million in tax incentives from Montgomery County and Maryland to renovate its headquarters. (Part of that was a loan that had not yet been disbursed, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Commerce told Washingtonian.)
What does this mean for Downtown Silver Spring?
Discovery isn’t the only big organization leaving. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission plans to move its headquarters from downtown Silver Spring to Wheaton. In the short term, these two departures could be a huge blow to Silver Spring restaurants and businesses, who depend on workers for daytime traffic. It might even affect home prices in the surrounding area.
In the long term, Silver Spring is likely to be okay. Large federal agencies are (for now) still located here, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Pharmaceutical company United Therapeutics, whose CEO lives in Silver Spring, has undergone a massive expansion here, and is currently building a new office and lab building dubbed the Unisphere. And with the Fillmore music hall, a newly renovated Ellsworth Place, and a slew of well-regarded restaurants, it’s still a regional destination for shopping and entertainment.
But there is now a big hole in the center of downtown, and it won’t be easy to fill. There aren’t a lot of organizations that can fill a giant, purpose-built office building. It’s also a staggeringly anti-urban building, turning its back on downtown streets with blank walls, a partially above-ground parking garage, and a large park that is often inaccessible to the public. This makes it hard to adapt the building to a different use, like retail or housing.
Discovery’s move also won’t help Montgomery County’s reputation as being unattractive to businesses. It couldn’t compete with New York as a prestigious headquarters location. And County Councilmember Hans Riemer told Bethesda Beat that the “cost of doing business is much higher here than in Tennessee.” The county says its plan to replace Discovery is a “work in progress.”
In the meantime, Discovery will remain in Silver Spring until next summer. Here’s hoping Chompie the Shark might make one last appearance before heading to New York.
This piece was also posted on Greater Greater Washington.