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.


  1. Ben,

    Yes, yes and yes. Homebuyers, architects and developers constantly conflate style with substance - if it looks urban, than it is - without considering whether these projects fit into a larger whole. And that's going to be a big concern as White Flint builds out. Will developments like Pike + Rose, North Bethesda Market and North Bethesda Center coalesce into one big neighborhood, or will they just be self-contained pods that don't relate to one another?

    I actually think Rockville Town Square does pretty well in that regard. It has a major public component (the square, the library and the VisArts gallery) that makes it relevant for something else other than shopping and lets people from across Rockville and the region to congregate there. It could be less insular - less blank walls on East Middle Lane, for instance - but the streets were designed to connect with surrounding neighborhoods and future development.

    When I worked at RTS, many of my coworkers and customers alike walked or biked in from the surrounding neighborhoods, which is a good sign. And as the rest of downtown Rockville fills in, I'm sure it'll only become more common.

  2. Thanks Dan. And I agree to a large extent re: RTS. I actually think it's quite well done. I do wish it would do a better job with the streetscape fronting the Pike, which you can drive my and be only vaguely aware that there is a significant mixed-use development on the other side. But by and large it's done a better job than most integrating into its surroundings. Part of that is helped, no doubt, that there was an existing street grid around which to build, unlike Symphony Park.

    Your question re: the other oncoming White Flint developments and whether they will begin to coalesce into a "whole" is a very good one, and one which I plan to continue to look into. If the early returns on North Bethesda Market are any indication, I fear that the answer may not be a good one. But we'll see.


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