Tuesday, April 14, 2009

will silver spring's fall repeat itself in b'ville?

A sign for one of many closed shops at Burtonsville Crossing.

I went home for Easter this weekend. My mother is a pastor, but we don't keep a lot of holiday traditions, and we eat out a lot, so dinner meant a trip to Kim's Hunan in the Burtonsville Crossing shopping center at Old Columbia Pike and Route 198. I didn't realize how many stores have closed there, and even for a Friday night - not necessarily the busiest time for a strip mall - the place seemed unusually quiet.

Edens and Avant, the firm that owns Burtonsville Crossing, lists eight vacant stores on their website out of twenty-eight total. That's a third of the shopping center. Coupled with Burtonsville Shopping Center across the street, where all but the Dutch Country Farmers' Market (which, as we all know, was supposed to have left a year ago) is gone, the "Downtown Burtonsville" I knew as recently as three years ago is gone.

Going to Burtonsville Crossing last night reminded me of when my family lived in Georgian Towers fifteen years ago and Downtown Silver Spring was completely dead. It's a difficult comparison to make - even though Burtonsville and Silver Spring are ten miles apart, one is a small town and the other is Maryland's second-largest central business district. But the circumstances are similar.

Much as Downtown Silver Spring was crippled by the opening of Wheaton Plaza and shopping centers along Rockville Pike, Burtonsville has been hit hard by recent developments like Maple Lawn in Howard County. Not to mention, of course, the Burtonsville Bypass, which allows motorists to speed through town. For a place designed to be seen from a car window, Burtonsville is more or less invisible now.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Burtonsville Shopping Center, on the west side of Old Columbia Pike, is completely vacant save for the Dutch Country Farmers Market.

And as the vacancies increase, Burtonsville becomes less relevant as a gathering place - somewhere to bump into neighbors or have an impromptu lunch with a friend - because fewer stores mean fewer reasons to visit in the first place. Anyone who did their "hanging out" in Burtonsville is either in Downtown Silver Spring, in Columbia Town Center, or somewhere else altogether.

To me, the Burtonsville Community Legacy Plan Charrette was a failure of the people who claim to represent and support this area to understand that the previous way of doing things no longer works. Shopkeepers who complained that sidewalks on Route 198 would be a nuisance know their own clientele well - people who live nearby and drive, not walk to run errands - but ignore the potential draw a pedestrian-friendly town center could be. Residents who rejected any kind of new housing in Burtonsville are aware of how poorly planned the development in Briggs Chaney was - but, again, fail to understand that it was the execution, not the idea that is the problem.

The Business District in Maple Lawn, a new planned community in Howard County.

There is an example of what an attractive and economically successful small town looks like, and it is one exit north of Burtonsville at Maple Lawn. In a lot of ways, Maple Lawn is just another suburban subdivision pretending to be a small town: the people who buy the million-dollar houses there get in their cars and drive to the grocery store like everyone else, but when they get home they can still walk to a neighbor's house/to school/to the various expensive restaurants and boutiques there. It's a step in the right direction.

What we, as people who live in the suburbs, tend to forget about suburban development is that it has a short shelf-life. People live in a place long enough until they can afford to live somewhere "better" rather than investing in their community. Most of my friends and neighbors moved out here from neighborhoods inside the Beltway as they started to decline - and as this area shows its age they move to newer neighborhoods further out in Olney/Rockville/Howard County. My neighborhood was built in the 1980's, as was Burtonsville Crossing, which is now twenty years old. That's a long time in suburbia.

The future of Burtonsville simply isn't about maintaining the status quo. Something has to give, and it'll have to be the people who insist on everything remaining the same.


Rob Goldman said...

During this campaign, I have been the only candidate who has repeatedly focused on the need to bring business, infrastructure, additional public transportation resources and community to Burtonsville. Your blog entry clearly shows where Burtonsville is right now and my campaign has clearly shown where the County needs to devote its attention.

Thomas Hardman said...

Rob, I seem to recall that I've been pimping Burtonsville on this blog and elsewhere for a bit over a year. Indeed, I have mentioned several times in the campaign that Burtonsville is being strangled by the failure to straighten and expand the MD-28/MD-198 run between Norbeck and Burtonsville, and I've even proposed that it's obvious that Burtonsville could be one of the major development hubs through at least the first half of the 21st Century if only the MD-28/MD-198 corridor west of town was straightened, widened, and had significant mass-transit (ideally light to medium rail) run down the centerline or parallel, to connect to an eventual medium/light rail transitway running the length of MD-29 between the District and Baltimore.

Somehow, when I say it, nobody listens.

Among other things, it all depends utterly on knocking down the little elementary school and at least the southern end of the Burtonsville Shopping Center. It would also take about ten houses. Yet the people in charge are determined that Burtonsville will never have this, and that the west side of Burtonsville will forever remain a traffic nightmare of choking congestion and pedestrian impassibility.

Oh well. I proposed, Burtonsville evidently disposed, and that will be the end of it. And Burtonsville.