In Kentlands, the past and the future come to suburbia

Amy Reinink/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Kentlands residents can walk to a variety of businesses on Main Street, the neighborhood's traditional downtown.

Twenty-five years ago, when developers started planning Kentlands in Gaithersburg, they envisioned a mecca of neotraditional “new urbanist” ideals.

Parks and other public spaces would teem with kids playing and parents socializing. Residents would walk to the store for milk, or ride their bikes to a traditional Main Street business district to get ice cream after dinner. Houses on small lots, built close to one another and close to the street, would further encourage residents to interact with their neighbors.

(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

Judy Gross, who last year published “The Kentlands: A Home for All Seasons,” an anthology of essays about the community, said that a quarter-century later, she and other residents believe that vision is largely a reality.

“We had lived in suburbia in Long Island and New Jersey, where we lived on half an acre and had to drive everywhere we went,” said Gross, 77, who moved to a townhouse in Kentlands 19 years ago with her husband, Ted, to be closer to their son in Gaithersburg after their first grandson was born. “We came here and said: ‘Wow. What a difference.’ ”

New urbanism: When Potomac builder Joseph Alfandre bought Kentlands Farm in 1988, there was only one well-recognized neotraditional development in the United States: Seaside, a Florida resort community developed by urban planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of DPZ.

Alfandre hired DPZ to design a similar community in Gaithersburg, making it the first year-round neotraditional development, Gross said. In 1990, when the Kentlands sales office opened, two dozen people camped outside overnight to ensure their spot in line, according to Gross’s book.

The development was constructed over more than a decade, using multiple builders to ensure the houses were architecturally distinct. The process led to a diverse housing stock, but it contributed to financial difficulties for developers. In 1991, Joseph Alfandre & Co. and Great Seneca Limited Partnership turned the development over to the bank to escape financial ruin, according to Gross’s book. Alfandre continued to consult on the project, but other developers finished the job.

“The reason why you don’t see that many communities using this development model is that it’s not a revenue-optimizing design for developers,” said Alex Kleinman, chairman of the Kentlands Citizens Association board of trustees. “You don’t see cookie-cutter homes, because they purposely brought in many different builders. The result is something special. But if you’re a developer, is it something you want to commit yourself to economically?”

Diversity and walkability: In addition to architectural diversity, Kentlands offers a diversity of housing types, with apartments that appeal to young singles, townhomes that draw retirees looking to downsize and single-family houses, Gross said. There’s even a retirement community, Kentlands Manor.

Residents can walk almost anywhere: to several man-made lakes, to a Whole Foods or Giant Food supermarket, or to the commercial district on Main Street. Among the couple dozen restaurants on Main Street is Vasilis Mediterranean Grill, whose owners live in an apartment above the restaurant, Gross said.

Residents can also walk to the old Kentlands mansion and barn, which have been converted to public spaces with art studios and a theater.

Developers left large swaths of woodlands between clusters of houses, and Gross said the paths through the woods remain one of the neighborhood’s best features.

“This is one way this place is different — you leave the house and you’re one with nature,” Gross said.

Schools and kids’ activities: Also within walking distance is Rachel Carson Elementary School, which recently was named a state Blue Ribbon School. Kids attend Lakelands Park Middle School, also within walking distance, and Quince Orchard High School.

Gross said the schools are among many factors making the neighborhood attractive to young families. The community’s swim team, the Kingfish, has 300 members, Kleinman said. The Kentlands Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that sponsors cultural and charitable activities in the neighborhood, sponsors a variety of other events where kids and their parents can mingle, including an annual 5K run and a community play group.

“Kids here grow up being able to walk down the road to get ice cream with their friends,” Gross said. “They make friends they’ll have for their whole lives.”

Living there: Kentlands is bordered, roughly, by Quince Orchard Road to the northwest, Great Seneca Highway to the northeast, Main Street and Inspiration Lane to the southeast, and Darnestown Road to the southwest.

People are no longer camping outside a sales office to live in Kentlands, but there’s still a high demand for houses there, said Elaine Koch, an agent with Re/Max who has lived in the neighborhood since 1998.

Thirty Kentlands homes sold in the past six months, Koch said, at prices ranging from $275,000 to $1.05 million. Fourteen homes are now on the market, priced from $289,000 to $1.05 million, she said.

“In general, values are much higher in Kentlands, because you are not only buying the house, but the lifestyle,” Koch said.

Jump-starting activism: As Kentlands turns 25 and its housing and infrastructure age, residents are discovering that it’s not immune to some of the problems that plague typical suburban subdivisions.

“Like most 20-plus-year-old houses, everything is in the process of needing to be replaced or having major maintenance issues,” Kleinman said.

The neighborhood is also not immune to broader societal issues, Kleinman said.

“As a society, we are more focused on ourselves and less focused on each other,” Kleinman said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, every board meeting was packed, because people were idealists who were inspired by building this kind of community. Now, we have more people who didn’t come here because they wanted to be a new-urbanism pioneer, but people who just like this community. Inspiring people to be involved requires more effort than before.”

But for the most part, Gross said, Kentlands remains true to its founders’ vision for it.

“You have many, many people who have been living here since the community’s inception,” Gross said. “I think it’s because it’s not just another group of homes plopped down somewhere; it’s a real community.”

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.

 
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