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It takes more than stores to build a winning town center

Merchants have to figure out "what works and what doesn't, who the customer is, where they are traveling from," said Robin McBride, chief operating officer in the mid-Atlantic region for Federal Realty Investment Trust, the developer of Rockville Town Square.

"Those who are successful are the ones who have tweaked their merchandise, their pricing and their offerings to match the customer and the demand," she said.

McBride sees that happening at Rockville Town Square.

"We are pleased with where we are today," she said.

National Harbor in southern Prince George's County also found its niche. It opened in 2008, far from any Metro station and just before the recession hit. But a dearth of upscale dining and shopping options in Prince George's, combined with built-in business from the development's hotel and convention center, has helped it grow. There are about two-dozen stores, three having opened in December, and four restaurants are scheduled to open this summer, putting the number of dining choices at 18. No businesses have closed.

Lagging behind

Other newer developments, particularly those in areas saturated with dining and shopping options, are having a tougher time.

In the Washington suburbs, "you can choose between Bethesda, Silver Spring, Lanham, Potomac Mills, Pentagon City," said David Stein, director of building operations for DC USA, a development of 13 stores and two restaurants in Columbia Heights. "There are only so many dollars, and people have a choice of where to go. The various developments have started competing with each other."

Another challenge: Many suburbanites are loath to abandon the convenience of their cars.

Rockville Town Square is two blocks from a Metro station, but merchants said many customers drive there. Suburban shoppers accustomed to free parking have balked at paying for garage parking, merchants said.

Rockville officials reduced garage rates and offered free parking during the winter holiday season. Town Square merchants also agreed to hand out fliers at the Shady Grove and Rockville Metro stations, advertising $60-a-month commuter parking in the town center garages. The hope is that those commuters might shop or eat on their way to and from work, even if it means they contribute to traffic congestion.

Seth Harry, founder of a Columbia-based urban design firm, said the willingness of area residents to drive to Rockville Town Square shows that "people crave the experience to park and walk around. . . . People want to be somewhere. There's a 'there' there. That's an experience people don't always get in suburbia."

Fairfax Corner has been a successful town center, with its mix of condominiums, upscale shops, restaurants and a multiplex, but in Fairfax City, Old Town Plaza is struggling. Two weeks before Christmas, shoppers were scarce. Half of its office and retail space is leased, and three restaurants have closed since the development opened in 2008. Planners say the development's problems appear at least partly rooted in its design, which leaves no room for a large anchor, such as a multiplex cinema or department store.

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