Readying Rockville Pike for Renewal

Montgomery County planners have ambitious ideas of how the congested thoroughfare might be turned into a modern "urban village" over time. These renderings offer a glimpse.
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

As you drive Rockville Pike and its asphalt jumble of car dealerships, strip shopping centers and fast-food restaurants, it's hard to imagine the six-lane thoroughfare as a grand boulevard. But that's the vision Montgomery County's planners have in mind.

They see the pike, Montgomery's commercial spine, redesigned as a tree-lined, walkable, bikeable, lovable and magnificent road connecting a network of urban villages strung along each side. There would be neighborhood stores, restaurants, housing and offices -- allowing residents to work, dine and shop within blocks of their high-rise apartments in an urban setting.

The villages would be built along four Metro stops -- Shady Grove, Rockville, Twinbrook and White Flint -- and to move between them, commuters would ditch their cars whenever possible and use buses, bikes or their own two feet.

The concept of re-creating the pike, a congested and unattractive thoroughfare, enjoys wide support from political leaders, residents, developers and the business community. But to become reality, the idea must surmount obstacles that include hesitation from commercial property owners who are making a profit along the cluttered road, concerns of neighbors about increased traffic and the cost of all that development amid an economic downturn.

The slowdown, which began showing up in sluggish real estate sales long before the Wall Street meltdown, could buy more time to do the pike's overhaul right, planners and developers say. Rather than piecemeal projects that have been launched in recent years, planners hope to present a cohesive vision for redeveloping a commercial zone that is 20 times larger than Tysons Corner with the capacity for 2 1/2 times as many jobs.

The project, which could span 10 to 15 years, would be among the largest redevelopments of post-World War II suburbia in the Washington region.

Montgomery Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, nationally known among planners who favor long-range, sustainable redevelopment, has made the redesign a priority. This fall, he hopes to present a final proposal for the 420-acre White Flint area, encouraging the replacement of strip malls and acres of parking lots with high-rises and retail villages. He intends to hold hearings and send the proposal to the County Council by spring, hoping for approval by the end of next year.

"This is a huge opportunity for Montgomery County," said Don Briggs of Federal Realty Investment Trust, a major landowner on the pike. "This could be a win-win-win for everybody involved."

Montgomery's plans are part of a movement of communities across the United States that are trying to re-engineer older neighborhoods built around America's love affair with the car.

In nearby Tysons Corner, Fairfax County officials recently approved a blueprint to transform the car-clogged suburban commercial center into a more urban web of apartments, retail spaces and office buildings. That vision depends heavily on a Metrorail line that has yet to be built. Rockville Pike, by contrast, has the Red Line through its commercial core, but the stations could handle more riders.

Re-engineering the road would be expensive, perhaps as much as $300 million in today's dollars for the White Flint area, according to an informal estimate by Hanson. It's not clear whether government and developers would share the costs.

And while some of the strip centers that line the pike are aging and ripe for renewal, others have long-term leases and are profitable, giving landowners little incentive to endure years of redevelopment. Residents in the many single-family homes near the pike also have concerns, worrying that their well-established neighborhoods will be overshadowed by tall buildings and overwhelmed by traffic.

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