Rockville Celebrates Opening Of Square

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Rockville officials unveiled the new city square yesterday, hoping to create a civic identity beyond the strip malls of Rockville Pike and provide a walkable core where people can live, eat and shop in central Montgomery County.

The 12-acre Rockville Town Square has 27 shops and restaurants -- including a Gordon Biersch brewery, Gifford's Ice Cream and an Aveda day spa -- in a downtown that once emptied after government and courthouse employees went home. All storefronts have been leased, with 20 more stores and eateries expected to open by year's end, said Donald Wood, president of Federal Realty, which manages the retail space.

The $370 million development is designed to bring to the sprawling suburb a vibrant, connected feel like that provided by the rebirth of downtown Bethesda a decade ago. Public officials hope the wide brick sidewalks, trees, benches and bubbling fountains will serve a market of people hungry for a place to gather between Bethesda Row and Gaithersburg's Rio Center.

"There were all these really good neighbors in Rockville," Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) told about 300 people in his native city. "But we were always lacking that sense of place, that sense of center."

Rockville put nearly $50 million toward creating the project, and Montgomery County invested $46 million. The state contributed $6 million.

Although yesterday's presentation marked the official premiere, restaurants and shops have been opening gradually since March. Owners say business has picked up since Memorial Day weekend, when the city opened new streets that had to be torn up to replace botched brickwork. Weekday lunch customers remain thin, and business owners said they expect it will take a year or two for crowds to find them. Still, customers say the square has begun to crawl with couples and stroller-pushing families on evenings and weekends, when waits for a table can reach 45 minutes.

"Every day, it's getting much, much better," said Carlos Aulestia, owner of Toy Kingdom, which opened in March. "It's better than I expected for this time of year."

Less enthusiastic has been interest from those who want to -- or can afford to -- call the development home. The upper-level condominiums, ranging from $350,000 to $1 million, were completed after the local condominium market had soured as part of a broader real estate slowdown. Now, 152 units remain as condominiums, with 100 sold over the past year. An additional 496 will be rented, but rental rates have not been determined, said Scott Ross, whose company, RD Rockville LLC, owns the units.

Ross said he is not worried, saying demand for high-end housing in Montgomery exceeds the supply. "We have a lot of people making a lot of money," Ross said. "I think the market responds to a good product."

Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo said the town square has prompted more redevelopment, including a hotel and more shops, restaurants and residences planned for a three-acre parking lot between the town square and Regal movie theater. Marc Dubick, president of Duball Rockville LLC, said construction on the $260 million project -- two towers of 15 to 18 floors -- is expected to begin next spring.

Longtime Rockville residents have seen attempts to revitalize their downtown before. The city's quaint downtown gave way to bulldozers in the 1960s, when the Rockville Mall was built near the same area. The mall met its own bulldozers in the early 1990s, after one of its major department stores never materialized and shoppers shied away from its underground parking. The Regal movie theater and several nearby restaurants opened in the late 1990s, but the surrounding area remained steeped in parking lots and strip malls.

City officials and developers say the town square -- built on the site of a former Magruder's shopping center, a gas station and parking lot -- is different. Its anchor is a new county public library, which brings a steady stream of people of all ages. It's two blocks from a Metro stop -- and with traffic worsening, they say, people flock to walkable areas near transit.

Town square boosters are promoting its parking -- 1,000 public spaces that are free until September, when they will begin costing $1 an hour on weekdays.

The availability of parking was a big hit yesterday with sisters Christina Convis and Marianne Beukema, both of Kensington, who brought their young sons to the new library for an air-conditioned play date. Beukema said she and her husband used to go to downtown Bethesda for fun. "Now, with children," she said, "this seems a little more child-friendly."

"You don't have to worry," Convis said as the women ate a picnic lunch on a shaded bench while the boys, ages 2 to 4, jumped near a small fountain in the square. "Here you can let them wander a bit."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company