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It takes more than stores to build a winning town center

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By Katherine Shaver and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010

When Rockville Town Square opened in summer 2007, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) praised the 12 acres of shops, restaurants and condominiums as a way to revive the aging suburb. Officials visualized people living above stores, eating lunch at sidewalk cafes and walking to the Rockville Metro station.

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Nearly three years later, that vision is still taking shape. On weeknights, the after-work crowd streams into Gold's Gym. On weekends, the Gordon Biersch restaurant is packed. But the large space leased to the Superfresh grocery chain remains vacant; eight of the 46 storefronts have changed hands; and some of the restaurants are struggling. The development was designed to meet a demand for pedestrian-friendly suburbs with an urban feel, but it opened just as the economy soured.

The ability of the Washington area's suburban town centers to weather the recession will have long-term effects on life in the counties ringing the District. Developers want to capitalize on the demand for housing from people without children and draw suburbanites to walkable communities where they can live, work and socialize. Local governments see town centers as a form of suburban renewal -- a way to make over aging downtowns, diversify tax bases and reduce traffic congestion -- and some are providing developers with incentives to help make it happen.

But planners say that does not guarantee success. Developers still must persuade people accustomed to driving to keep their cars parked, and town centers have to provide the right mix of retail, residential and office space to compete in a crowded marketplace.

"There's been a cultural shift about our suburbs," said John McIlwain, a senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute. "We'll see a lot more interest in compact urban living."

Boomers, millennials

The nation's two largest groups -- baby boomers shedding their houses as they become empty nesters and millennials reaching their 30s and moving into their own homes -- largely prefer densely populated, walkable communities, experts say.

Urban planners project that 86 percent of the growth in new households will be single people or couples without children at home -- and neither group wants to live in remote suburbs or in houses surrounded by big lawns.

"People want to live near culture and with bars and restaurants right outside their doors," said Faroll Hamer, director of planning and zoning for Alexandria, which wants to revitalize areas around the Potomac Yard shopping center and Landmark Mall. "We're not abandoning the suburbs, but we're providing more choices."

That's what attracted Daniel Stauffer, 42, to Rockville Town Square. He said moving from rural Blacksburg, Va., to the District would have been "too overwhelming," but he still wanted easy Metro access to the city's restaurants, museums and arts venues as well as a short commute to his job in Germantown.

"I wanted a lifestyle where I didn't have to get in my car all the time and something with a community feel," said Stauffer, a molecular biologist. "I have a tailor, dry cleaner and breakfast place right outside my door."

The right mix

Establishing a village center with a successful combination of restaurants and stores can take several years, industry observers say.

"It took 15 years for Reston [Town Center] to work," said Steven B. Alloy, president of Virginia-based home builder Stanley Martin. "Now it's a home run."


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