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It takes more than stores to build a winning town center

"If you drive around the suburbs in Fairfax and Loudoun, a lot of the time you can't tell when you go from one community to another," said John Merrithew, Loudoun's assistant director of planning.

"We're trying to create centers that people recognize as being part of their community, to give them a focal point," he said.

A 'template'

Trapper Martin, who manages Noodles and Co.'s dozen restaurants in the Washington region and ran unsuccessfully for Rockville City Council last year, said business at Rockville Town Square is improving. He still hopes plans to build a high-rise hotel nearby will come to fruition and bring more diners to his restaurant.

The town center "is part of an overall plan that has not happened yet," Martin said. Businesses "hope to hold on until that happens."

How downtown Rockville and other urbanized suburbs emerge when the recession lifts might well determine how the Washington suburbs look tomorrow.

"If they can survive it, they'll emerge on the other side as the template for what comes next," said Harry, the Columbia-based urban designer. "I think it's what aging boomers -- and certainly the younger generation -- are looking for."

Staff writers Lisa Rein and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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