Fillmore project takes step forward
Planners approve plans for music venue; construction expected this fall
A July approval of plans for the Fillmore music venue is the only hurdle left before construction can begin on the long-anticipated Silver Spring project, bringing to a close more than seven years of controversial and unprecedented dealing between Montgomery County and the private sector.
The Montgomery County Planning Board, which two years ago rejected the land-use deal that allowed the Fillmore to come to Colesville Road, unanimously approved the project and preliminary plans for the Fillmore and an adjacent office and hotel project Thursday. A site plan will be reviewed in July. If approved, only building permits would be required before construction can begin.
Thursday's approval maintains the aggressive schedule put forth by the county and developer Lee Development Group, of Silver Spring, which expect to break ground on the Fillmore in the early fall and open the venue in September 2011. The land use agreement with the county wasn't finalized until last November.
The project began seven years ago when Montgomery County asked LDG to donate the vacant site of a former J.C. Penney department store for a music venue. After negotiations with the Alexandria-based Birchmere music venue fell through, in January 2008, the county signed a 20-year, $3.26 million lease with Los Angeles-based Live Nation, the largest live entertainment corporation in the world, to operate the building.
The county and state will provide $4 million each toward the Fillmore. The land is valued at $3.5 million. Live Nation will spend $2 million on the interior of the building.
"When the county first approached us, my oldest son was in first grade," Bruce Lee, president of Lee Development Group, told the board Thursday afternoon. "A couple of hours ago, I left his eighth-grade graduation."
The entire project spans more than two acres and three lots with frontages on Colesville Road, Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street. The Fillmore is expected to be about 23,000 square feet with the capacity for 2,000 standing concertgoers. It will be designed to also accommodate 750 portable seats for certain events. The Fillmore will have no on-site parking.
Montgomery County will be allowed to hold three events at the venue per year for free; nonprofit and charity organizations will be allowed the same. The venue will be available for 30 free additional community uses per year.
Fronting on Fenton Street, the 189-room, 14-story hotel will be 135,000 square feet and 143 feet tall, with three levels of parking. The 11-story, 220,000-square-foot office building will front Georgia Avenue at the site of an existing surface parking lot and include about 5,500 square feet of retail space. The office will include seven levels of parking, including three below ground.
The only significant dispute in the plans regarded the proposed alley that will run from Georgia Avenue beside the office building, wind behind retail offerings on Colesville Road and exit on Fenton Street near the proposed hotel lobby. Part of the alley is public and part of it is private but planners expect it to be used almost solely for delivery and loading, not by pedestrians.
Hanson wasn't so sure.
"The Fillmore is going to draw a lot of people how do they get around?" Hanson asked. "If they are staying late at the office to go to a concert, they walk around to the corner of Georgia and Colesville or they can walk up the alley."
As a compromise, planners said they would look into a physical connection between the hotel and the Fillmore to improve pedestrian flow.
Construction of both the office and hotel will not begin until tenants can be leased, Lee said. The Fillmore is considered a public amenity for the hotel and office projects, making Thursday's hearing "unusual" in Montgomery County because a public amenity will be built before the actual project, said William Kominers, an attorney representing LDG.
In an agreement finalized in November 2009, LDG agreed to donate the land to the county and build the Fillmore as a public amenity. In exchange, LDG is allowed 15 years to build the office and hotel under current land-use rules.
But the last time Fillmore planners were before the planning board, in summer 2008, the board rejected those land-use rules because it stripped them of authority in approving public amenities. The land-use rules were passed later that summer by the Montgomery County Council, which has final authority on such provisions.
"There is a general concern that we've built over the years a strong planning process that is protected from political favoritism," Hanson said in July 2008. "We don't want to get into a situation where a project can get anything it wants based on the decisions of an elected official."
But on Thursday, that conflict was mostly ignored except toward the end of the one-and-a-half-hour hearing, when Commissioner Joseph Alfandre questioned whether a similarly complex deal will ever again occur in the county.
Kominers doubted it would.
"[The county says] I'm from the government, I've got a great idea, give me your land first and trust us,'" Kominers said. "The process doesn't really accommodate that."
Lee said it was "very expensive" to complete the deal which required detailed plans for the Fillmore and for the office and hotel project, which have no timetable for being built before it could be reviewed.
"It's too tortured a process; there's too many players," said Steven A. Silverman, director of the county's Department of Economic Development, after the hearing. "But an office, hotel and music venue fits perfectly in this part of Silver Spring."