Tuesday, May 29, 2007

signs of life in rockville town square

Check out this slideshow of the new Rockville Town Square.

Three years ago, I hated Downtown Silver Spring. When Ellsworth Drive was closed to cars and little red "Us" hung from street signs, I wrote a column in my high school paper mourning the loss of the gritty, unpeopled wasteland that my parents had fled from in the late 90's. There were people in my Downtown Silver Spring now - people I didn't know, people who looked like they didn't belong - too many people. And while I've come to love my city's new center [and defend it with tooth and nail], I can't help but wonder what it's like for other communities going through the same thing.

Today, I work in the newly opened Rockville Town Square, where a downtown hastily torn out and replaced with a shopping mall in the name of urban renewal four decades ago has been restored, albeit in a sanitized, more marketable form. This past weekend was Hometown Holidays, Rockville's Memorial Day celebration, and people from all over the region were expected to come see performances by KC and the Sunshine Band, Augustana and local favorites like Jimmie's Chicken Shack.

And, in fact, they did. In the new heart of Rockville, middle-aged couples pushed strollers in one hand and held Budweisers in the other. Packs of teenaged uber-preps, emo kids and suburban homeboys wandered up and down the narrow streets, staring in the windows of stores selling things most people can't afford or don't need. And toddlers wielding balloon swords and walking balloon dogs ambled about a little grassy area in the square, a luxury that many in Silver Spring are fighting for today.

AFTER THE JUMP: the Town Square learns from Silver Spring's mistakes while making a few of its own.

The four-block Rockville Town Square complex includes 175,000 square feet of retail space, compared to 360,000 square feet in Bethesda Row and over 450,000 square feet in Downtown Silver Spring. Don't let the term "retail" fool you - the tenants at Rockville Town Square are overwhelmingly restaurants, ranging from burgers at Five Guys to steak at Greystone Grill. For the residents of the over six hundred condominiums sitting on top of these restaurants - a feature neither Silver Spring nor Bethesda claims to offer (yet) - a quick meal is no more than a few steps away, but most daily needs require a hop in the car, seemingly defeating the purpose of the Square's pedestrian-oriented design.

In Silver Spring, you can buy a book or CD, a pair of shoes, or a nice suit; in Bethesda, you can even pick up an iPod or a $10,000 television. At Ten Thousand Villages in Rockville, you can buy a thirty-four-dollar laundry hamper hand-woven by Bangladeshi artists. Then again, Rockville Pike, the nightmarish, thirty-mile-long shopping strip, is only a block away.

But for what shopping you can't do here, the Square more than makes up for in ambiance. Downtown Silver Spring, with its lights and neon, proudly refers to itself as "a good old fashioned sensory overload." Rockville Town Square earnestly wants to bring back the feel of an earlier time, with building fronts echoing century-old Victorian and Federal-style buildings that still exist a few blocks away.

Having five stories of condos above everything helps - the rhythm of bay windows and balconies give the feel of a neighborhood, one with actual residents that will actually be there at midnight to hear the drunks stagger home. It feels historically grounded and wildly authentic at the same time. But it plays better than streetscape along Ellsworth and Fenton in Silver Spring, where all you see are blank fa├žades dressed up with a thin layer of concrete and brick.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Rockville Town Square can continue to muster up the crowds that will make it "the place to be." Whether you're dining al fresco or skateboarding across the plaza (not recommended due to the cobblestones), you're there to see and be seen, and that requires lots of people. However, there's a considerably smaller population within walking distance than in Silver Spring, where over 32,000 people live within one mile of "the Turf" according to The Peterson Companies. The city of Rockville, which extends for nearly two miles in every direction around the Town Square, has less than 50,000 residents.

Two large parking garages, one of which has eight stories (compared to the Town Square Garage in Silver Spring, with seven) will accomodate visitors from surrounding towns. The nearby Metro stop will help as well, but it's several blocks away, involving a long trek across Rockville Pike in an enclosed bridge that suggests a shopping mall more than a town square.

Also note the main anchors of Downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda Row are movie theatres. Rockville has the Regal Cinemas 13, conveniently located across a vast parking lot from the Town Square project. (That parking lot proved to be very convenient during Hometown Holidays; by the looks of the crowds, it is the real Rockville Town Square.) Are Rockville Town Square's anchors - the new Rockville Library and the Arts and Innovation Center - enough to draw people to that space? Or will it be the restaurants that bring them in? Or will it be the square itself, despite being hidden from neighboring streets behind the same six-story buildings that lend it so much character?

"This does not look like Rockville," one of my co-workers noted the other day, echoing the same frustration I'd had with Silver Spring three years earlier. But with the already-completed King Farm neighborhood a mile north (with its own "village square") and future developments at the Twinbrook and White Flint Metro stations, the face of Rockville is quickly changing. And, unlike in older, urbanized communities like Silver Spring and Bethesda, these places are hobbling together an city fabric from scratch.

If Hometown Holidays is any suggestion, Rockville's new downtown may be a huge success with its new take on a formula that's been tried twice before in Montgomery County. Yet "the Turf" in Silver Spring shows us that there's lots of room for surprises. What will happen as the Rockville Town Square gets a mind of its own? We're about to find out.

And I'll be here, for the summer at least, watching.


Anonymous said...

None of this would have happened if the small minds in Rockville were in charge.

Speaking of which, Councilmembers Marccuchio and Robbins with their ally Drew Powell plan to "do in" City Manager Ullery and the staff who worked to make town center a reality.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the major differences between the new Rockville and the new Silver Spring are the demographics. DSS has perhaps the most diverse crowd in the region of any shopping district, yet it remains one of the most sucessful. I was at both the Memorial Day concerts and the parade in Rockville and the crowd was almost exclusively white. There were several groups from Baltimore that performed at the parade, I wonder what they were thinking just then.

Anonymous said...

A few small corrections & additions to your interesting comments -

Bethesda does have condos, and even more rental apartments, above retail. I live in one of the rentals. They're scattered rather than massed as in Rockville, but they're there.

Also, I think downtown Rockville has more similarity to the new construction within existing downtowns of Bethesda and Rockville than to the "from scratch" downtowns planned for Twinbrook and White Flint.

There may not be a supermarket any more, but there is, or at least was last time I looked, a hardware store across the street. And there is a movie theater, just across the way - the parking lot in between will, I certainly hope, be filled in with more mixed use development.

Anonymous said...

One correction, there are not 600 condos in Rockville Town Center any longer. They couldn't sell them at their $900K+ price, so they converted 75% of the units to apartments.

I have some serious concerns about this rush to put mixed use development everywhere. After exploring Rockville's new Town Center, I was left wondering with my wife... "who on earth would want to live on top of a bar?" With all of the drunks, smoke, and crowd noise until the late hours of the night--it's no wonder the condos wouldn't sell.

I fear that Rockville's new Town Center may go bust before all is said and done and just be another failed attempt to re-develop the center of the city.

Anonymous said...

All you naysayers need to get over it. The new towncenter is wonderful for young professionals who are transitioning from college to "real life" but still want to be able to walk home after a few drinks at the bar. The supermarket is scheduled to open in Spring of 2008. The "small minds" in Rockville are also the "old minds" who need to think forward. Mixed use development is the only way an overcrowded city like Rockville, as witnessed daily on Rockville Pike, will be able to thrive, and also create less environmental impact. I hope the Rockville Town Center is here to stay.