After nearly 20 years, future of Clarksburg Town Center plan may be at a crossroads

July 17, 2013

Nearly 20 years after plans were drawn, 13 after ground was broken and seven since the developer was forced to sign an agreement to deliver what was promised, the heart of Clarksburg Town Center exists solely on YouTube as a 3-D animation.

“Our goal is to create a vibrant, character-filled, financially viable retail area,” the reassuring woman’s voice says over upbeat elevator music. She guarantees “some fantastic community amenities,” including a supermarket, a library, a park, an amphitheater and medical offices.

Off-screen, Clarksburg Town Center is a sloping, overgrown expanse of weeds and dirt. Over the next few months, Montgomery County officials face a series of decisions that could determine whether something close to the original vision can be redeemed.

The county is completing a study of the possible environmental consequences of two proposals for residential and commercial construction along Interstate 270 near the Town Center site. Pulte Homes plans up to 1,000 houses on 538 acres west of Clarksburg Road. The Peterson Cos. want to develop 450,000 square feet of high-end stores, dining and housing just west of Town Center.

Both projects are on hold, pending the environmental review.

Some residents see the Peterson plan as a long-overdue boon to a retail-starved community. Supporters also say a successful development could spur more growth, stimulating activity at Town Center that could finally push it from video to reality.

Others fear that those developments could be the death of Clarksburg as envisioned, choking off and isolating Town Center while increasing traffic and pollution that could destroy the fragile Ten Mile Creek Watershed. Critics also point out that development is way off schedule: Town Center is an overlooked element of the project’s first stage, as outlined by the 1994 master plan. The Peterson and Pulte proposals are on land earmarked for the fourth and final phase.

“It’s all too much too soon,” said MelaneHoffmann of the Liveable Clarksburg Coalition, which wants Town Center completed and promised transit improvements delivered before anything else gets built.

Clarksburg was supposed to be a shining model of pedestrian-friendly new urbanism at the county’s exurban northern edge. Boosters said it would be more than another generic, sprawling housing development, but a town where people lived side-by-side in city-like density. In exchange for giving up the big, traditional suburban housing lots with front lawns and back yards, residents would be able to walk for some of their shopping and gather as a community in open-air cafes and restaurants.

The density emerged, but many of the amenities did not. Instead, Clarksburg became shorthand for lax regulatory oversight and broken agreements. In 2004, some residents discovered that there were houses and townhouses built too tall or too close to roads and that the developer, Newland Communities, planned a retail core that looked more like an ordinary commercial strip, not the beating heart of a village. Hearings, mediation, arbitration and lawsuits followed, as did resignations of top planning officials. Newland bailed in 2011, selling its interest to Elm Street Development of McLean for $1.

Residents — the approximately 2,300 in the Town Center and 11,000 in surrounding Clarksburg developments — are left to do much of their shopping in Damascus, Urbana or Germantown. The rail or bus transit integral to the 1994 master plan is years away, if it comes at all. Rush-hour traffic on I-270 and Route 355 can be mind-bending.

Town Center’s future will be up for debate again this fall. In lieu of heavy fines and penalties, Newland signed a 2006 compliance agreement committing to remedy many of the violations and build the Town Center retail core according to plan. Elm Street is expected to file an amended plan with the county soon.

David Flanagan, president and principal of Elm Street, has made it plain that he will not hew to the design specified in the compliance agreement, which he considers no longer financially feasible. His version of Town Center, broadly illustrated in the YouTube video, lacks several features in the agreement residents consider important, including structured parking, “live-work” townhouses with commercial first floors and residences above them, and $1 million for landscaping and other details.

“We don’t intend to [adhere to] the compliance plan,” Flanagan told the Montgomery Planning Board at a June 27 hearing. He asked for permission to reopen the agreement and negotiate with planning staff for changes. If such talks are not possible, Flanagan said, “It’s going to be a short conversation.”

Planning Board Chairman Françoise Carrier took a dim view of Flanagan’s hard line.

“It doesn’t seem like a very good starting point that you have no intention of even trying to comply at all,” she said. Board members eventually granted Flanagan’s request.

Flanagan did not return phone messages seeking comment.

As Flanagan tries to bargain with the county, the Peterson Cos. is preparing to turn a 100-acre site east of I-270 near Town Center into Streamside at Clarksburg. Taylor Chess, president of the retail division, calls it “the custard filling of the eclair” that can catalyze Clarksburg’s historic district and, ultimately, Town Center. He said the plan would include a road and path that would make it a 10-minute walk from Streamside to Town Center to Streamside.

Peterson, developer of National Harbor and portions of downtown Silver Spring, also pledges to provide sewer service to the historic district, which suffers from failing septic systems.

But Streamside also sits at the headwaters of Ten Mile Creek, which environmentalists consider “the last best” watershed in the region. It flows cool and clear into Little Seneca Lake, a reservoir that is part of the Washington area’s emergency water supply. About a third of Streamside consists of impervious surfaces that opponents say will increase polluted runoff into Ten Mile.

Chess said that advances in storm-water management and environmental design will actually improve the creek’s water quality. Environmentalists scoff at the assertion, contending that much of the science remains unproven.

Pulte has increased the size of its proposed home development by spending $12 million to purchase development rights from landowners in the county’s Agricultural Reserve.

The deal is part of the county’s Transfer of Development Rights program, which is designed to preserve land for farming while enabling higher building densities elsewhere.

Pulte says that any changes in the master plan would destroy the integrity of the development-rights program.

Last year, the County Council voted to reopen the Clarksburg Master Plan for possible amendment and asked planning staff to weigh where, how or even if development should go forth in the Ten Mile Creek Watershed. The findings are due to be discussed at a July 25 Planning Board hearing. A recommendation will go to the council sometime this fall.

West of I-270 and outside of the watershed is another proposed mixed-use development, Clarksburg Premium Outlets. Ron Kaplan, co-managing principal at Streetscape Partners, said that while Clarksburg residents wouldn’t be able to walk to the site, the advantages are no water-quality issues and a project that is “as close to shovel-ready as a piece of dirt can be.”

“People are starved for this,” Kaplan said.

Other long-awaited services are starting to take shape. Express bus service between Clarksburg and the Shady Grove Metro station will begin in January, and a Harris Teeter supermarket is expected to be on line this fall as part of a shopping development in Clarksburg’s Arora Hills section.

But the years of frustration have taken a toll. Kim Shiley, one of the three women who originally uncovered the building violations, moved to Annapolis a year ago, angry at those who resented her advocacy and convinced that Clarksburg will never be more than “one of the vanilla communities of Montgomery County.”

“There are people who don’t talk to each other now,” said Kathie Hulley, vice president of the Clarksburg Civic Association.

But many residents, weary of turmoil and looking for closure, would welcome virtually any kind of retail opportunity.

“I really kind of wonder if a lot of people have lost the vision because it’s been going on for so long,” said Pat Darby, who owns a bookstore in Clarksburg’s historic district. “We just want to see something happen. Most people aren’t concerned with what gets put where.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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