Instead of building more typical suburban developments, in the past two decades builders increasingly have been bringing city life to the suburbs and exurbs. Street grids are plotted around central plazas surrounded by condos, apartments and shopping. Public transportation is arranged, parking garages are hidden from view, and all the things that people love about D.C. and cities like it are layered on: public art, sidewalk performers, outdoor movies, street festivals, block parties and food carts.
The spread of “town center” projects, particularly in the Washington suburbs, is making it harder to distinguish what makes a city a city. The urban neighborhood has become an exportable commodity.
By the end of 2011, there were 398 such city replicas — town center or “lifestyle center” projects — in the United States, most of them built in suburbs, in exurbs or on farmland alongside a highway. Since the 1960s, developers had promoted suburban shopping centers as safe, clean escapes from crowded cities. But with urban living back in vogue since the late 1990s, developers are trying to create it outside city limits.
The titan of town center developments locally, and in many ways nationwide, is Reston Town Center, a walkable neighborhood that is one of the densest parts of Fairfax County and has become a smashing commercial success.
Robert C. Kettler had Reston Town Center in mind when he and a partner plotted the Village at Leesburg on 57 acres of shrub land along Route 7 in 2006. An expert in condo and apartment development, Kettler wanted to build an urban environment in the middle of the suburbs. He hired consultants to design a “village square” and streetscape with block lengths, sidewalk widths, planter heights and storefront windows modeled closely after those in cities.
Kettler and others are aiming to replicate the culture and convenience of cities, minus their traffic and crime. But can a city be a city if it’s built in the middle of a cornfield?
Critics of town centers consider them soulless corporate replicas — no more real cities than Disney World’s fairy-tale fiberglass-and-concrete showpiece is a real castle.
The Village at Leesburg may not feel like Williamsburg in Brooklyn or U Street in D.C., but it demonstrates how smartly county governments and developers are mimicking what feels so unique about the urban experience. They are importing the very streetlights and cobblestones used in city construction, as well as the boutique shops and restaurants that many city-dwellers adore.
Kettler said he designed the Village at Leesburg to feel urban because people want to draw energy from one another on the street. “They want to be in an environment, in a context, where they can experience life as fully as possible. They like to be around people, and they like to be around interesting things, and they like to be around energy,” he said. “And that’s what the suburbs have historically lacked.”
Kettler called the apartments — adorned with the same modern fixtures and features as his company’s units downtown — the Metropolitan, a name he has also used for apartments in Pentagon City, Reston Town Center, Herndon and Lorton. His company wasn’t shy about marketing them as urban, even using a rap song to promote “the most fly one-, two- and three-bedrooms in the area”:
Awwwww, Leesburg Village is the place to hang.
I pick up my cash at the Wachovia Bank,
Then I get the best breakfast in the nation —
I’m sunnyside up at the Eggspectation, come on.
For the most part, it worked. The Village at Leesburg apartments are nearly all rented, at a higher price per square foot than anywhere else in the county, Kettler said. He is planning to add 168 townhomes.
Other builders have quickly followed. Springfield Mall and
are being demolished so they can be turned into town centers. Owners of White Flint Mall plan to build a 45-acre neighborhood around a 2.1-acre “central piazza,” which they said was inspired by the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
Reston Town Center and similar projects have succeeded in part by persuading the hippest urban shops to open in their sparkling new storefronts. Warren Brown, owner of U Street’s CakeLove, added a second location in downtown Silver Spring in 2006. Georgetown Cupcake arrived on Bethesda Row in 2009, and Sweetgreen, the salad shop that debuted in Georgetown, opened in Reston Town Center in 2010.
Kamal and Nizam Ali, owners of Ben’s Chili Bowl, which has been a D.C. landmark for 54 years, want to open another greasy spoon in Clarendon. But will replicating the restaurant dilute its appeal?
That’s a familiar question for Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, the progressive bookstore-restaurant-community space that started at 14th and V streets in 2005. Shallal has since added Busboys locations in Shirlington, Mount Vernon Square and Hyattsville, and has floated the idea of opening in Harlem.
“I got lots of e-mails from people saying: ‘Why are you doing this? We want you to be something that is Washingtonian,’ ” he said. “ ‘We don’t want you to go to New York or these other places.’ . . . I take those comments very seriously.”
Shallal said he and his management staff constantly receive offers to open in new developments but wonder: “When do you start becoming cookie-cutter? . . . When do you lose your soul?”
At one point, even the most hardened and historic urban neighborhoods were shiny and new.
“You can say, well, Capitol Hill at one time was nothing more than a planned community,” said Patrick Phillips, president and chief executive of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit group that studies cities. Just as planners are doing today in the exurbs, Pierre L’Enfant “planned out the streets, and builders came in and bought lots and built the houses. All of these places were contrived in that they were consciously planned and built.”
Developer Anthony Lanier rebuilt Georgetown block by block, rehabbing houses, storefronts and industrial buildings more than 100 years old. He turned a vacant incinerator near M Street into the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences.
Lanier acknowledges that, in a lot of ways, the urban neighborhood he has helped transform — along with U Street, Eastern Market and others in the District — is inferior to the town centers being built along the Beltway and beyond. Georgetown traffic and parking can be terrible, and car break-ins are not unusual. Even walking the uneven cobblestone sidewalks can be rough.
And while Georgetown’s storefronts may have historic wooden beams and sidewalks where the Kennedys strode, the names outside are looking more like those in a mall. Ubiquitous brands such as Sunglass Hut, Johnny Rockets and Nike have flooded the neighborhood, filling in around mom-and-pop restaurants and chic local boutiques. Deals to bring strip-mall staples such as Michael’s craft store and T.J. Maxxare being discussed.
Developer and D.C. native Jair Lynch warned recently that suburban city-like centers could steal the District’s thunder. “Just like the suburbs kicked our butt on retail in the 1980s, that’s exactly what’s going to happen with these transit-oriented, urban neighborhoods that are coming up now,” he said.
But for all the success of town centers, don’t expect Lanier, the king of Georgetown retail, to build one. People love cities because of their eccentricities, things that developers cannot build or import: the tattoos on the woman who passes you on the sidewalk, the street person who bums cigarettes and always remembers your name.
“Both of us can go to the dentist,” Lanier says. “You can say you want the teeth of Cary Grant, where one is perfectly set next to the other one and they are white and shining and perfect. I want to have that one crooked tooth in the front — I want it back crooked. Because that’s the way that I am. And if I take it away, it’s going to bother you.”
The feeling of walking down M Street in Georgetown or on U Street cannot be duplicated, Lanier argues, because these areas were built not by a developer with a singular vision but by time.
The buildings were erected over decades, when different architects and designers were in vogue. Every owner has his own vision — one wants a bar, another wants an art gallery or a furniture store. Together, they create a chaotic mix that might not be as functional as what is dreamt up in a developer’s marketing office. But a city’s character, Lanier argues, will be a draw for much longer.
Much of that character is created by an economy’s booms and busts, as old businesses are forced to close and new ones are ushered in.
“When you look at even the most successful town centers, Reston Town Center — when you look at whether it will really, truly have the character that a much more diversified city has, you have to wonder: Will it ever have a real down cycle?” Phillips said. “That’s something that really adds character.”
Kettler has heard the criticism that town centers end up feeling like movie sets. But he sees a naturally evolving plot: Driving through the Village at Leesburg, he is happy to see that the young trees he planted a few years ago are a little taller, that there are more people hitting the treadmills at L.A. Fitness, that there are more people on the street.
“When you put the camera on and you put the actors on the stage, it looks like a real place.”
Jonathan O’Connell covers development and commercial real estate in Washington for The Washington Post’s Capital Business. Follow him on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz.
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