BUT FIRST: Burtonsville's working on a town center of their own - the Burtonsville Business Association meets 7 p.m. THURSDAY at Long and Foster, Burtonsville Crossing.
A model of the proposed Ashton Meeting Place, at New Hampshire Avenue and Route 108. Photo courtesy of PreserveAshton.net.
"You're going to hear words that are unfamiliar, like density," says Michelle Layton to her audience, a "town meeting" held Monday night in the cafeteria of Sherwood Elementary School in Sandy Spring.
With an introduction like that, it's easy to write off the Sandy Spring-Ashton Rural Preservation Consortium as another NIMBY group. But in a town filled with history and surrounded by progress, any development just won't cut it.
For the past several years, the cumbersomely named civic group has been fighting the Ashton Meeting Place, a mixed-use development at New Hampshire and Route 108 that developer Fred Nichols calls a "neighborhood village center." Some detractors, though, prefer to call it the "Ashton Mall."
"This group is trying to keep the density at what we think is a reasonable level," says Ashton resident David Hartje. "The guy that wants to build the shopping center wants it to be more dense than we do."
AFTER THE JUMP: Who walks in Ashton?
Miche Booz and Brooke Farquhar's "counter-proposal" for the Ashton Meeting Place, designed to emulate the existing 18th-century village center.
The Meeting Place, which has been rejected by Park and Planning several times already, is going up for review again June 28th. It would 100,000 square feet of shops, offices and condominiums, along with a small grocery store.
Residents complain that the proposal is too big for the community; that grocery stores in nearby Olney, Cloverly and Clarksville make a new one unnecessary; and that the developer, a Sandy Spring resident himself, has ignored their concerns.
"We're up against a very conventional-thinking developer," says planner Brooke Farquhar, who with Brookeville architect Miche Booz created an alternative proposal for the Meeting Place (above). At only 72,000 square feet, the Farquhar-Booz plan looks like an extension of the 18th-century town center, with smaller buildings and a large village green at the corner of New Hampshire and Route 108.
"I think it takes a little imagination," Farquhar says, referring to her plan, "and probably a financial risk."
An earlier, "compromise" plan with the community included sidewalks and a village green. However, Nichols' latest proposal looks more like a regular strip mall, including a 228-foot-long blank wall where a grocery store would back to Route 108 that has many residents furious. The scale of the project - and its ambiguous commitment to urban design - has put the County's "Rural Village Overlay Zone" in effect in Ashton to the test.
"Everyone's been wrestling with this definition of what 'Rural Overlay Zone' means," says Booz.
The overlay zone, created specifically for Sandy Spring and Ashton as part of its 1998 Master Plan, grew out of a charrette led by architect Andres Duany in 1995. Duany - best known for the ground-breaking Kentlands development in Gaithersburg - stressed the need for narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets, a mix of building types and uses, and buildings that face the street.
Only a small part of Duany's plan was realized: Wyndcrest, a small subdivision on Route 108 that residents say should be the example for the rest of the town center. In Wyndcrest, County-subsidized townhouses sit next to restored 19th-century farmhouses, and front yards have been replaced by a commons. And everything is close to the street, making walking easy and pleasant.
"That's the wave of the future," says Booz (pronounced Bose), who also designed the Sandy Spring Museum. "It's been an uphill battle explaining to people what that means . . . that the road has many uses - pedestrians, bicyclists, cars."
At Monday night's meeting, it appears that many residents have gotten the idea. Beth Garrettson, whose family was one of several to found Ashton in 1728, walks frequently. "Not many people do because it is a dangerous intersection [New Hampshire and 108]," she says. "But I do it because I think you should be able to."
Garrettson suggests that despite the spread-out nature of the villages, the Meeting Place would attract a lot of pedestrians. "People will walk up to a half-mile for entertainment," she says.
"I see them [walking], at least the high school students," adds Farquhar.
One resident, however, questioned the need to reduce density at Ashton Meeting Place. (After all, higher-density development encourages people to walk more.) "If I was the owner of this property and I was told I would lose 25% of my income because there's less space I can rent, I wouldn't be very happy," she says.
For Layton, it seems, density might not be so unfamiliar to some Ashton residents. She acknowledges that the community hasn't completely rallied around her cause. "I think the opinions vary," she says. "There are people looking for convenience, but there are people who want it small."
But above all, everyone wants the Meeting Place to fit in. "We would like a center that looks like it belongs here," she adds.