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 façades 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.