When Carol Smith moved into her townhouse in Clarksburg last year, she thought she had found the perfect small town. Just off Interstate 270, Clarksburg, founded in 1752, is the last planned community on a major corridor in Montgomery County.
For several years, Newland Communities, a La Jolla, Calif.-based developer of master-planned communities, has worked with several local builders to construct Clarksburg Town Center, which is supposed to emulate a small town, complete with houses, an elementary school and shops.
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Smith paid about $500,000 for her end unit and pays about $750 a year on top of her mortgage and property taxes to finance the construction of roads and other infrastructure. She said she was willing to pay a premium to live in a "neo-traditionalist" or "new urbanist" community with plenty of sidewalks, houses close together and a village green.
New urbanist usually means "pedestrian friendly with short setbacks and relatively high density . . . narrow streets and a public space component," said Gerritt Knapp, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland.
Smith thought she had a pretty good handle on what new urbanism is. And the latest plans for the retail section of the Town Center don't jibe with her definition.
The plans call for a large parking lot surrounded by strips of retail stores, including a supermarket. "It was a far cry from what was told to us by all the builders. They said it would have a new urbanism feel, like Kentlands," she said, referring to one of the country's first new urbanist communities, built in 1988 in Gaithersburg.
"What we saw was a strip mall with a mega parking lot," Smith said. "It's not what we bought into."
On July 27, Smith joined about 100 Clarksburg residents who confronted Newland representatives at a meeting about plans for the retail part of the Town Center.
"We wanted someplace for people to congregate without cars," said Cathy Hulley, a longtime Clarksburg resident who for a decade helped develop a master plan that emphasized new urbanist principles. "The center of a village is a village green. Not a shopping center."
Newland took over development of the 275-acre Clarksburg Town Center last year when it bought developer Terrabrook. Newland is selling the nine-acre Town Center shopping area to Regency Centers Corp., a Jacksonville, Fla.-based retail developer, said Gary Modjeska, a spokesman for Newland.
Modjeska said residents should not be surprised by the retail design; all of the site plans, starting with the 1994 concept design, included a strip-mall retail space with surface parking. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission approved the concept design in 1994 and determined it was in line with the Clarksburg master plan, said Todd D. Brown, a land use attorney with Linowes & Blocher who is representing Newland.
Modjeska said residents have seen only a portion of the final site plans. A town green, which will have a Main Street-like feel, will be across the street from the retail area, but "that site just hasn't been planned yet," he said.
Modjeska added that the 1994 concept design and renderings of Clarksburg Town Center included in marketing materials all bore fine print that said the plans were subject to change during the site planning process.
Kim Shailey, a former Bethesda resident who bought a new townhouse in Clarksburg Town Center, said that despite any fine print, Newland's advertising has been misleading. She cited a Newland advertisement that calls Clarksburg Town Center "a new American classic small town. . . . All of Clarksburg is built on a very human scale. The Town Square is both a gathering place and a commercial hub, and the streetscapes are built for people first and automobiles second."
Shailey and others said they believed the Town Center would resemble Reston Town Center, where retail spaces and offices are clustered in a dense, urban environment, surrounded by different parking options.
Modjeska said the 1,300 homes planned for Clarksburg Town Center will not be enough to support a retail development like Reston Town Center. "We can't create a space there's no market for," he said. He added that Regency would not be able to attract a major supermarket without surface parking.
He said that with its latest design, Newland has made the retail space "more pedestrian friendly" because people can park and walk to all the stores.
Modjeska said Newland is willing to work with residents to find a solution and is planning to meet with smaller numbers of residents starting the week of Aug. 23. "Everybody at the [July 27] meeting had a different idea of a small town," he said.