Wednesday, September 7, 2011

incremental change in burtonsville (still lipstick on a pig)

Route 198 Shopping Center Sign
Local businesses in Burtonsville are sporting new storefronts, thanks to funding from Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs. While they may be more than "lipstick on a pig," they don't do enough to solve the underlying problems in Burtonsville's struggling village center.
Pothole, Route 198 Shopping Center
A pothole outside the newly renovated shopping center.
Shopping Center Where Peking Used To Be
The same building two years ago. The first set of new storefronts have just gone up in a retail building on Route 198, Burtonsville's "Restaurant Row." A few other properties along the corridor whose owners applied for funding will also receive new façades in the coming months. Covered in fake stucco and stone veneers, the new storefronts look better than they used to, even though they have that contrived "make this building look like three" look that way too many developments do today.

It's also unfortunate that the new façades no longer have a covered arcade in front. Suburban strip malls have long included covered arcades because they shield shoppers from the rain and sun, but they're often narrow and cheaply detailed. They also block views into shops, especially from passing cars. As a result, new shopping centers in East County, like the WesTech Village Corner on Tech Road and the recently-renovated Briggs Chaney Plaza, don't include them at all. Yet when done well, arcades like this one in downtown Rockville can create a nice "outdoor room," the kind of space that humans flock to like bees to nectar.
Traffic On Route 198
The rest of Route 198 looks much as it used to, unfortunately. 

Despite its good intentions, DHCA's façade improvement program is undermined by a lack of attention to Burtonsville's public realm. This building has a new, arcade-less storefront, but the parking lots still have huge potholes in them, adjacent property owners who didn't participate in the program still have dumpy buildings, and there's absolutely no accommodation for pedestrians, not even a continuous sidewalk along Route 198, a twisty rural road that's become a congested through-route for drivers going to Howard County or I-95. 

When asked, the community's said they want a lot more from Burtonsville. Results of a planning workshop held by Montgomery County planners last spring revealed that residents want more things to do, a more attractive streetscape, and more alternatives to driving in the village center. Some respondents explicitly called for an "Old Town", "village" or "urban-lite" feel in the area, giving people more reasons to spend their time and money there. 

One thing that could draw more shoppers to Burtonsville is some sort of public gathering space. For nearly fifteen years, there have been plans to create a "village green" behind the shops on Route 198, though civic leaders complain it would "bring undesirables" to the community. Meanwhile, a small pocket plaza was built as part of Burtonsville Town Square, a strip mall at Route 198 and Old Columbia Pike that opened last fall. It's a very attractive space, with a ring of benches and ample landscaping. At the center of the plaza is an interactive sundial and a piece of public art that appears to be the door from a bank vault.
Plaza, Burtonsville Town Square
The new pocket plaza has attractive seating and landscaping, but it's in the middle of a parking lot.
Public Art Safe Door 2
Public art in the new pocket plaza at Burtonsville Town Square. 

However, I came by on a pleasant, cloudless, 82-degree summer afternoon and the space was empty. Why? It's in the middle of a parking lot, placed as an afterthought in an awkward spot where no more spaces could fit. This means that customers are unlikely to pass through the space on foot, because it's far from most of the shops and restaurants in the shopping center. 

Not only that, but customers probably won't walk through a boring, empty parking lot to sit here. And as a privately-owned space, it's meant only for customers of Burtonsville Town Square, meaning those visiting businesses along Route 198 can't go there either. The problem with Burtonsville's village center isn't a lack of retail. 

Burtonsville Town Square developer Chris Jones has cannibalized the community's existing businesses, leaving an existing shopping center half-empty and in need of government assistance. Meanwhile, shoppers are already traveling two exits up Route 29 to Maple Lawn, a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use complex with upscale stores and restaurants that directly competes with Burtonsville for customers. 

What Burtonsville really lacks is a sense of place. It has great ethnic restaurants and long-standing family businesses, but they're obscured by a mess of cracked parking lots and congested highways. These assets deserve to shine, and to do so, they need attractive storefronts, streets that slow traffic and encourage people to look around, and legitimate public gathering places. 

As Montgomery County planners work to create a neighborhood plan to revitalize Burtonsville's village center, these are the goals they should seek to accomplish.


Steve Ammann said...

This is still a start. I feel like this post is really negative, but at least Burtonsville is trying to move forward and improve the area. As far as the parking lot is concerned, it is slated to be paved in the next few weeks. Burtonsville will never be Rockville, but at least its trying to make itself more beautiful. Let's focus on the positive...

Dr. F. said...

Chris Jones, the developer of Burtonsville Town Square (or whatever the hell he calls it) is a pox on Burtonsville. The one thing Burtonsville had that drew visitors from across the DMV, was the Amish Market, which he cluelessly forced out, along with the Post Office. What's left is a Giant (which we already had), a MOCO liquor store (ditto), a Dunky Dee's (ditto), and a single restaurant (Zen).

Now the older mall across the street is a ghost town and the mom & pop Beer & Wine store is the latest merchant about to bail. Jones had an opportunity to build an actual town square with the types of pedestrian access and gathering spaces you have long championed, Dan, but he chose instead to build yet another irrelevant strip mall.

Wish he had listened to you more, Dan. He's Burtonsville's answer to Dan Snider, money totally lacking in vision.