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.