Wednesday, October 24, 2012

White Flint Metro platform retiling almost complete

If you're growing weary of walking around metal barricades and along wooden planking while you race to catch your train at Metro's White Flint station, your commute is about to become just a little bit easier. Metro is wrapping up a retiling of the platform of the outdoor station, transitioning from the glazed terra cotta tile to precast concrete pavers.

It is an upgrade Metro announced they would be making to all outdoor stations following successful testing of the concrete tiles at the Takoma station in 2009.

The replacement of the hexagonal tiles, an iconic part of the Metrorail system, is being done both for cost and safety reasons. According to Metro, the terra cotta tiles were not particularly durable at the outdoor stations, with many cracking and falling apart. Additionally, the glazed tiles could become slippery when wet, a problem that is also addressed by the new concrete pavers.

According to a statement made in Metro's press release on this issue from June 2009 from David Couch, Metro’s Managing Director of Engineering and Capital Projects,  “These new tiles also provide a safer and durable walking surface and will significantly reduce the life-cycle repair costs to Metrorail station platforms.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Symphony Park nears completion: Georgetown, Back Bay, or...something else?

When it was announced in June of 2010, Symphony Park, the residential development from Streetscape Partners located at the southeast corner of Strathmore Ave and Rockville Pike, was described by Streetscape's Ron Kaplan as being inspired by Georgetown, Boston's Back Bay and other "sophisticated communities." (Side point: If you've been to Smith Point on a Saturday night, "sophistication" is not the word that springs immediately to mind, but no matter.) The development consists of turn-of-the-(19th) century-inspired townhomes built at the base of a hill sloping up towards the Strathmore Mansion and Performing Arts Center. In addition to the "bucolic environment," a hallmark of the development will be several acres of reforested land they are dubbing "Symphony Park Forest."

With the development nearing completion, I paid it a visit recently and took a quick stroll around. The takeaway form my brief visit was that if neighborhoods such as Georgetown and Back Bat were the inspirations, it would be a stretch to consider Symphony Park aspirational; realistically, it fails in practically every conceivable way.

Let's establish something here at the outset: the homes look pleasant, but they are the kind of pseudo-Victorian style townhomes that are all the rage at moment in developments such as this and nearby Park Potomac: attractive enough, but nothing people are mistaking for the true Victorian mansions that line boulevards like East Capitol Street. Also like Park Potomac, they are grossly at odds with the nearby ramblers and colonials that line Strathmore Avenue--or anything else, for that matter.

And that is, unfortunately, where the similarities to neighborhoods such as Georgetown end.

It's farcical to see neighborhoods such as Back Bay brought up as comparisons to this, if for no other reason than the fact that the overall layout of the community--from its completely suburban cul-de-sac-esque street grid, to the inward-focused positioning of the houses away from Rockville Pike, to its complete refusal to integrate with the otherwise lovely Strathmore grounds, or to make any effort whatsoever to mesh with its surroundings--smacks of so many thoughtless, meandering suburban planned communities.

Which may be the point, really. Symphony Park is but the latest in a seemingly endlessly regurgitated stream of suburban developments promising to bring current and future residents a taste of the city life right there in the suburbs. Enjoy the Georgetown urban lifestyle without any of the negative externalities of urban living, it purports to say. Except you can't separate one from the other. You can't have density and all of the positives it brings without also getting a little scruffy and dirty, bumping into some people on the sidewalk, and occasionally encountering difficulties finding a places to park your Benz. Cities are inherently imperfect creatures, which is part of the reason why they hold such appeal. By attempting to sell a development as "urban" while lacking the unpredictable, imperfect, non-uniform-yet-cohesive structure of urban environments is to miss the point completely.

I keep returning to the idea of "authenticity" when writing about these nouveau suburban developments; considering why we view a neighborhood like Georgetown, which is populated largely by chain retail stores and mediocre dining, as "authentic" while a place like Rockville Town Center is viewed as inauthentic and contrived despite holding many similar characteristics. Part of it is simply age, part of it is density, but part of it also is the idea of organic development that is itself a small part of a greater whole. Neighborhoods like Back Bay fit comfortably into place within the larger puzzles that are the cities they inhabit. Places like Symphony Park do not, and its design virtually guarantees that it never will.

It borders on patronizing that a developer such as Streetscape, who utilized the same architectural firm, Lessard Group, that designed the equally atrocious Park Potomac development, would think that a few "historically inspired" townhouses built around a completely disconnected street grid and far removed from any commercial activity of any kind would compare itself to some of the country's most well-known urban neighborhoods. But there you go.

So these million-dollar homes will go up, they will be sold, people will move in and park their cars in the two-car garages located in the backs of each unit, and they will receive the occasional compliment from people who will remark that their home vaguely reminds them of some century-old ornate mansion in a neighborhood like Capitol Hill or Park Slope, and the residents will grin and nod. But they'll wonder why their day-to-day lives don't quite feel like they imagined they would if they were living in Georgetown, even as they get in their cars and drive north up the street a few blocks to the CVS and White Flint Mall.

Meanwhile, Strathmore and Montgomery County will have missed out on a tremendous opportunity to begin piecing together some semblance of a dense, cohesive urban neighborhood along the Pike, electing instead to go with a developer who gives the middle finger to context and environemtn, and mistakes faux-Victorian inspiration for the creation of a legitimate urban environment.

It bears mentioning that comparisons to Georgetown are wrong in one other aspect as well. With its location on the Strathmore grounds, Symphony Park residents will have access to something Georgetown residents do not: a Metro station.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

New Rockville project highlights difficulties of urban developments in suburban areas

Yesterday, the Gazette reported that Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) announced at a news conference that construction is set to begin this year on a $100 million dollar mixed-use development at the corner of East Middle Street and Monroe St. in Rockville Town Center. The 3.2 acre parcel is currently used as a parking lot for the Regal Cinema across the street. The project will be developed by Virginia-based Duball Projects.


The project will act as an infill development in the burgeoning Town Center, which opened in 2007 and has seen a steady stream of residents and retailers move in--most recently Dawson's Market, the development's first grocery store. It will receive a $4.16 million conditional grant from Montgomery County's economic development fund, which includes nearly $1 million from the City of Rockville.

Rockville Town Center is the core development meant to transform central Rockville from a drab center of government offices and strip malls into a vibrant, dense, transit-oriented neighborhood. I wrote previously on whether or not Rockville's Town Center, and others like it, can reasonably be called "urban". As this project demonstrates, density and proximity to transportation, while helpful, are not by themselves the sole indication of a project's "urban-ness." Take, for instance, the 1100 parking spaces that the project will bring.

The number of parking spaces included in the project dwarfs the number of parking spaces included in similar-sized developments in DC and other urban areas. Consider, for instance, that the mammoth City Center DC project, which will fill a lot more than three times the size of this proposed development, will offer only 1,550 parking spaces. For a development that is dense, walkable and only a few blocks away from the Metro, it's easy to castigate this project as doing too little to discourage parking and encourage the use of transit. But, in my judgment that would ignore the realities of the environment Rockville Town Center, and other similar suburban town center developments, finds itself in.

The truth is, centrally located though it may be, and although it is within easy walking distance to a Metro station, the majority of people still drive to the Town Center. Why? Well, several reasons actually, and they highlight the struggle to "urbanize" overwhelmingly suburban locales.

For one, it's just easier. Suburban towns and neighborhoods such as Rockville have been car-dependent for decades, and the overwhelming amount of infrastructure in place supports that. From major arterial roads like Rockville Pike and Gude Drive, to poorly maintained sidewalks and the near complete lack of bike lanes, the car remains king. And it would be foolish for developers to ignore that.

Second, being within close proximity to a Metro station is not in itself a sufficient driver of non-vehicular-based visits from people outside of the neighborhood. Forget Metro's spotty and unreliable service, bus and other alternative transit services remain lacking as well. The frequency of bus service along Rockville Pike, coupled with the traffic congestion of the Pike, makes bus commuting difficult and unreliable. For those with a car, driving is frequently far and away the best option.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is not yet a sufficiently high enough population within reasonable walking distance to the Town Center project for a developer to have confidence in being successful without providing accommodations for people to come from outside the immediate vicinity. This is a crucial point, and, by my thinking, strikes at the very heart of why people assail "town center"-type developments to be sterile, contrived islands of faux-urbanity amongst a sea of suburban sprawl. As I argued in my previous post on this, town centers feel contrived because they stand out so significantly from what's around them. With no cohesive urban fabric to blend into--no dense environs in immediate proximity, no commensurate population of residents, workers and visitors--town centers can feel cut off from what else is around them.

Thus, for projects such as Rockville Town Center to be successful, it must have infrastructure in place--including sufficient parking to meet anticipated demand--to reasonably attract people from outside of the immediate area.

The solutions to this quandary aren't immediate, but are doable. Some intermediate steps could be taken, such as focusing on improvements to non-Metrorail transit services, constructing and maintaining bike lanes and other cycling infrastructure, and taking steps to decreasing the pedestrian hostility evident along much of the Pike and other thoroughfares. But most solutions will be longer in coming than even those.

Make no mistake: I come down firmly on the side of those who believe that these town center-type developments present an enticing and desirable picture of what suburban living could come to entail. There just needs to be a thoughtful approach to them and other developments so that, gradually, entire areas are transformed. For instance, a neighborhood such as Mount Pleasant in DC was once a sleepy streetcar suburb, not the bustling urban neighborhood many think of today. The same could be said of many urban neighborhoods, both in DC and elsewhere.

As neighborhoods and regions develop, so do the character of those neighborhoods. And, with the right plans and growth model, perhaps at some point in the future we'll look back at a time when a project this size and in this location necessitated the inclusion of 1100 parking spaces. I hope so. Until then, it's hard to fault a developer for designing to the existing environment.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mid-Pike exodus continues: CVS, World Market moving out; zombies come in

It may seem strange to those living in DC, where a CVS can be found seemingly on every other block, that one might miss a CVS when it closes, but head north along the Pike and they get to be a bit farther apart from each other. Which is why I'm selfishly annoyed that the one CVS that is within walking distance to our home is packing up and relocating after next Friday, October 12.

CVS is moving to a strip mall a block south of the White Flint Metro station, across from White Flint Mall. The move is part of the ongoing exodus of shops out of the Mid-Pike Plaza shopping center, which is being redeveloped into a massive mixed-use project known as Pike & Rose.

World Market is set to follow suit, and will soon abandon its Mid-Pike home for a new one in the Federal Plaza shopping center a few blocks up the Pike.

No word on when the last tenants will move out (an event not likely to occur until well into 2013), although I can proudly report that the Urban Haunted House and its "70 zombies in 37,000 square feet of mock offices, laboratories, contamination pods and a morgue" is, um, alive and well. See, this is the kind of stuff you only see in the suburbs...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Foggy North FlintVille

Snapped this photo of a foggy Mid-Pike Plaza this morning on my way to the Metro. The fog gives the shrinking strip mall and even more apocalyptic feel than usual.

Note the barely visible cranes at work in the background on the Pike & Rose development, which is slowly taking over the Mid-Pike lot. Phase One of the project, focusing on the southwest corner of the 24 acre lot, is set to open in 2014, and will include an iPic Theater. When complete, Pike & Rose will feature more than 1 million sf of office space, 430,000 sf of retail, and a whopping 1.7 million sf of residential space.