Greater Greater Washington

To turn this Silver Spring street around, one building owner put in fake stores

For years, the ground-floor shops at the Guardian Building in downtown Silver Spring have sat empty. To lure new tenants, the building's owner brought the space to life with fake storefronts.


All photos from Devin Arkin.

The Arkin family has owned this six-story office building, located at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street, for decades. But as owner Michael Arkin's health declined and he wasn't able to keep the building up, many of the retail tenants moved away, retired, or passed away. After a stroke a few years ago, his sons took over management of the building. "We had our work cut out for us," said son Devin Arkin, who grew up in Silver Spring but now lives in Chicago.


The Guardian Building before.

The sons renovated the building and commissioned an sculpture for the lobby of 1950s-era hardware they found in the basement. But they weren't sure what to do with its nearly 7,400 square feet of empty retail space until they read about towns in Northern Ireland who disguised their empty shops with murals depicting open, lively businesses.

Arkin's advertising firm Huckleberry Pie crafted scenes of busy stores, like a men's wear store and a bakery, and fitted them over the empty windows. Workers toil away behind the counter as ducks and chickens peer out from door frames. Discrete "For Lease" and "Build to Suit" signs appear between images of food and goods.


The fake storefronts seen from across the street.

Cameron Street is a few blocks away from the shops and restaurants along Ellsworth Drive, and as a result there isn't a lot of foot traffic. The Guardian Building isn't alone in having an empty first floor. The Cameron, an apartment building across the street, lost one of its two ground floor tenants, an outpatient surgery center. And two blocks away at Cameron and Spring streets, there are ground floor spaces at United Therapeutics' new headquarters that have been vacant for nearly four years.

If all of the storefronts on Cameron Street were filled, it might actually become a compelling destination that could draw shoppers and diners from other parts of downtown Silver Spring. But since most of them are empty, nobody wants to be the first to take the risk. (Other than Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the first floor of the Cameron, which as a chain can draw customers on name recognition alone.)

Hopefully, the Guardian Building can buck the trend. Its fake storefronts may not convince anyone, but it does look better than it did before. Hopefully, they'll catch the eye of potential tenants soon. According to this marketing brochure, the space is still vacant.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

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you know what would be amazing there? Day care. It's lively, it doesn't rely on random foot traffic (families will go a couple blocks out of the way for pick-up and drop-off), ground-floor is great since strollers can easily go in and out, it provides non-outsource-able jobs, and there is a shortage of it. People from the 16th St. and GA Ave. corridors in DC could bus up to it and metro to work (or walk, if they work in Silver Spring) and people from points north could drop kids off on the way to work.

I imagine that even if the landlords needed to give a cut rate to encourage a day care provider to open up there (the buildout and insurance are expensive for that industry) they could make a lot of it up through higher office rates. There are companies that would love to offer "on-site child care" as a perk to employees.

by sbc on Jul 10, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

I live very near here, so it would be nice for tenants to show up in the vacant spaces. However I am not sure there is enough foot traffic (as you mentioned) for the serendipitous sales that many types of retail needs. Probably just services that are destinations upon themselves, like banks, dry cleaners, or the like would be possible here. That's mainly what we see already on the northern edges of Silver Spring's downtown along Georgia.

However, there are a number of surface parking lots in the area that could be developed in order to increase the density. But as it is, this is really a bland glass/steel office building type of area without enough interesting street level detail to encourage increased pedestrian traffic without major changes.

Weren't they planning some kind of mixed use where the current planning building is? That may help if true.

by engrish_major on Jul 10, 2014 12:46 pm • linkreport

There are so many nonprofits that need cheap office space, hard to believe they couldnt find anyone...

by BTA on Jul 10, 2014 1:02 pm • linkreport

Hell they could probably donate the space and get a tax writeoff

by BTA on Jul 10, 2014 1:03 pm • linkreport

Didn't they try something like this with abandoned buildings in the South Bronx in the 1980s?

by Frank IBC on Jul 10, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

Those painted-on flower boxes and curtains on the abandoned buildings in the South Bronx struck me as more ghoulish than cheerful. What they've done in Silver Spring looks like it won't work any better than the similar treatments I've seen many times in dead and dying malls.

by jimble on Jul 10, 2014 1:46 pm • linkreport

If they really wanted tenants, they would ask for dirt cheap rent...

by Randall M. on Jul 10, 2014 2:00 pm • linkreport

I don't think it's a matter of having to "turn the street around" - Cameron St. is 4 blocks long and is quite nice (other than the power substation building) with everything from EYA townhomes to luxury apartments to United Therapeutics' headquarters. There just isn't enough foot or car traffic to support ground floor retail along the whole length of this tucked-away, short sidestreet. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just a fact.

by jag on Jul 10, 2014 3:20 pm • linkreport

Silver Spring
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tangledweb/sets/72157634841766712/

by Vas on Jul 11, 2014 1:15 am • linkreport

There are a couple of nearby residential developments in the pipeline so foot traffic may increase. The county could help by surveying nearby condo and apartment dwellers about the kind of retail shops they want. Several of the residential buildings in that area cater to senior citizens, which could have an impact on foot traffic or the type of businesses that need to go in there.
Good article by the way.

by Woody Brosnan on Jul 11, 2014 7:35 am • linkreport

"What they've done in Silver Spring looks like it won't work any better than the similar treatments I've seen many times in dead and dying malls."

Yeah, it always looks tacky and...really...almost projects "we've given up on ever leasing this so at least we made it not just an empty window."

by Another Nick on Jul 11, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport

It's all banks in that neighbourhood. But if they lowered rents enough to let in art and book shops, Ethiopian resturants, cafes, etc. they'd get foot traffic with little problem.

by asffa on Jul 11, 2014 3:24 pm • linkreport

I like that they added things like brick and other materials, which goes to show you that sterile glass boxes are actually the worst.

by LowHeadways on Jul 14, 2014 2:39 pm • linkreport

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