Wednesday, July 23, 2008

b'ville town square: controversy kills ambitious redevelopment proposal

Part ONE in a series on the new Burtonsville Town Square development: what could have been, what we're getting, and what other communities are doing.

A plan of the Burtonsville Town Square development as submitted to the Planning Board in 2005. Click here to see a larger version.

For decades, Burtonsville residents have bemoaned the loss of their community's small-town charm. Once a sleepy rural crossroads, Burtonsville became part and parcel of suburban Maryland as the sprawl reached north from Silver Spring, continuing onward to Howard County. Today, cars stream through the business district, centered on routes 198 and 29, and recent efforts to deal with the traffic - among them the Burtonsville Bypass, which re-routed Route 29 around the town - have caused existing businesses to suffer.

Four years ago, Bethesda-based developer Chris Jones of BMC Property Group offered a chance to put the 'ville' back in Burtonsville, on the site of its first large strip mall: the forty-year-old Burtonsville Shopping Center. With tenants like a CVS and the local post office, the shopping center wasn't ritzy, but it'd quietly served the community's needs in the shadow of larger, newer malls.

With neo-traditional architecture, wide sidewalks and a small plaza, the development - dubbed Burtonsville Town Square - sought to create the central gathering place East County never had before. Facing concerns about the environment and a community that had become increasingly wary of new development, Jones' ambitious plan was unable to get the support it needed to become a reality.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

The existing Burtonsville Shopping Center, built in 1965. Current tenants include a CVS pharmacy, the Burtonsville post office, and the Dutch Country Farmers Market.

The Town Square project would've been one of the largest shopping centers in East County, second only to the sprawling Orchard Center shopping center in Calverton and the Downtown Silver Spring redevelopment. Jones sought to make it a destination, dividing the site up into small blocks with internal streets. Store buildings would have four-sided, neo-traditional architecture, though few images of the design have surfaced online. The centerpiece would be an actual town square, located at the intersection of its two main roads.

Half of the Town Square's 260,000 square feet of retail space would go to an unnamed "big-box" anchor store, which Jones argued would be necessary to pay for the project's high-quality architecture. So as to not encroach on wooded areas and the nearby Patuxent Watershed, parking would go not in sprawling lots but in a four-story underground parking garage.

"Feedback has been enthusiastic for the most part," Jones told the Gazette in a 2004 article on the proposed shopping center. (Jones did not respond to requests for an interview in time for publication.) The community groups he'd shown the plans to seemed happy with them, though some were concerned about the size of the anchor store. "The only problem is, of course, when homeowners are thinking about big box, some candidates are more attractive than others," said Shelley Porter of the Burtonsville Umbrella Regional Team, a now-defunct civic organization.

Dense development in the Briggs Chaney and White Oak areas, built in anticipation of a rapid transit line that was never funded, made many East County residents wary of new construction.

By 2005 it seemed as if Burtonsville was slowly turning on the Town Square. Environmental groups were worried about the project's impacts on the watershed of the Patuxent River, barely a mile north of the site. Meanwhile, East County as a whole was wary of new development, having seen the construction of thousands of apartments in the Briggs Chaney and White Oak communities throughout the 1980's without the rapid transit planned to accompany them.

Conceived in response to overcrowded schools and insufferable traffic, the 1997 Fairland Master Plan down-zoned land up and down the Route 29 corridor. It proposed redeveloping the Burtonsville Shopping Center, but zoned all of the land immediately around it as "rural residential."

The Planning Board had approved a preliminary plan for the Town Square in July, but in order to build it, there'd have to be a rezoning, which would require a public hearing. Community support would be vital to the development's success, but it had already lost favor with one of East County's biggest land-use activists.

Stuart Rochester, who'd sat on the advisory committee for the Fairland Master Plan while it was being written, complained the Town Square proposal betrayed its recommendations to create a "small-town" feel in Burtonsville. "The plan [Jones] has unfortunately is massive and not particularly attractive," Rochester told the Gazette in January 2006. "It doesn’t really live up to the intent and expectation in the Master Plan — to create an attractively scaled 'Main Street' type of shopping village."

The current Route 198 corridor in Burtonsville, lined with strip malls and a hodgepodge of signs.

Seeking to send the Town Square back to the drawing board, Rochester and the Patuxent Watershed Protective Association teamed up. In July 2006, they both filed requests for the Planning Board to reconsider the project, which the board soundly rejected. Fearing that Jones would bring a discount store like Wal-Mart to Burtonsville, he demanded to see a tenant listing for the shopping center. Jones had reportedly signed a letter of intent with gourmet supermarket chain Wegmans, but with a plan that didn't even show how a layout of individual stores, he couldn't offer a list of vendors.

One operation definitely not in the tenant listing was the Dutch Country Farmers' Market, a local institution then located in the Burtonsville Shopping Center. For twenty years, the market had hosted dozens of small businesses from Pennsylvania selling everything from fresh produce to chicken wings and outbuildings. From the proposal's beginning, Chris Jones had made it clear that the so-called "Amish Market" wouldn't have a place in the Town Square, citing competition with his unnamed anchor tenant.

As the Amish Market's eviction made regional headlines, Jones began changing his plans for the Town Square, eager to duck to the controversy that had plagued him before. On Friday, we'll have an exclusive look at what he plans to build now.

Check out this plan, drafted by Just Up The Pike, of what the Burtonsville Town Square could have looked like.

1 comment:

Thomas Hardman said...


Dan, here is where you and I part ways over aesthetics, I guess. But I couldn't begin to call that a "town square".

"Downtown Burtonsville" is, in my opinion, not really salvageable until and unless a few things happen. Feel free to hate on me but I cannot see too many alternatives.

1. Free your mind and realize that the only way to save Burtonsville is to destroy it.

2. Understand that Burtonsville is laid out wrong, aligned wrong, and could not be better designed to obstruct traffic and outrage drivers. Furthermore, except to the west, everything is laid out even more wrongly. One obvious solution set for dealing with the traffic -- preserving existing businesses and making them more accessible by both foot and car -- is out of the question due to the layout of the area southeast of the intersection of US-29 and MD-28. O the horror.

3. All possible solutions to "rationalizing" Burtonsville utterly depend on two prerequisites. First, the elementary school goes. Done gone finish, kaput. Auf Wedersehen. The only thing more in the way is Burtonsville Shopping Center. Second, Burtonsville Shopping Center vanished utterly from the face of the earth and the minds of planners. History. Toast.

4. Bulldozers and heavy equipment are the friend of mankind and all things good for Burtonsville. Get ready to use them extensively or all hope is lost. Get ready to condemn some land, too. That is all.

5. Take your map and take a nice straight ruler. Mark a line from roughly the intersection of MD-198 and US-29 westward to roughly the intersection of MD-198 and Kruhm Road. Bulldoze everything along that line, 9 lanes wide. Pave it into three lanes by three lanes with left-turn pullouts and either elevated or cut-and-cover light rail.

6. Everything north of the highway-rail alignment is henceforth by proclamation and decree nothing other than Patuxent Watershed and conterminous farm or park lands. Offlimits for development etc., except as public space.

7. Leave the old Spencerville Road if you want to and in fact that's a great idea. However, at the southernmost point, once again break out the bulldozers and punch a road due east to the frontage road. Blackburn Road, counterintuitive as this may seem, goes the wrong way one way and that has to be fixed north of your new road. The new road should be one-way eastbound.

8. Santini Road gets realigned and improved between the new highway-rail line of MD-198 and the road you just built.

9 Everyone residing within that new square gets told that they just got zoned "mixed use high density" and to start packing, have a nice paycheck from our eminent domain action. The dirty trick here isn't the power play, it's that however you zone the place, you preserve as a public greens most of that land encircled by Blackburn Road and bounded on the north by Tolson Place.

Now you have your town square! Develop it how you will. But you can not ever possibly have a decent downtown Burtonsville until land unless you get almost all (and all passthrough)vehicular traffic off of the current alignment of MD-198.

Leave the current businesses where they are, more or less, and let "old 198" become more of a boulevard for local traffic, and develop stub streets perpendicular to that, connecting to Tolson Place and put a comparable street parallel to "old 198" to the north of it.

Thus you have the skeleton of a much more densified and walkable downtown Burtonsville, where locals can also drive but which has the vast majority of passthrough traffic routed around it. You stop preserving relic roads that got their modern layout when the vast majority of traffic was quadruped and ungulate. Then once the hideous traffic snarls and "you can't get there from here" layout has been rationalized, then you start debating on how to develop that.

And there you have it, something that will work and is far more ambitious than the Burtonsville Town Square as proposed, which really would be nothing more than trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and a gangrenous sow's ear at that. Fix the traffic first and all else will follow. Fail to fix the traffic and Burtonsville remains not a destination, but a horror to be suffered while just passing through. Not to hate on Burtonsville, I'm sure there's plenty there that's just hunky-dory, but generally speaking I can't get on or off the road to go see what might be there.