It takes more than stores to build a winning town center

By Katherine Shaver and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; C01

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.

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."

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.

"It feels like a pass-through to other places," said Heather Pischel, 21, a senior in information technology at George Mason University, a mile away. She and her husband, Chris, lamented the closing of Foster's Grille, a popular restaurant.

"Half the places here, you get used to them, they leave," Chris said.

No village feel

Local residents don't seem to be walking to Old Town Plaza, either, and those accustomed to street parking haven't switched to the garage.

"We have an older demographic," said Geoff Durham, Fairfax City's economic development director. "Walking is learned behavior that hasn't been learned here."

But Chris Farley, owner of Pacers Running Stores, thinks that Old Town Plaza has failed to create a true village feel. He said his other stores, including those in the mixed-use Pentagon Row and downtown Silver Spring developments, are doing well despite the recession.

The restaurants adjacent to and across the street from his Fairfax store have closed, however, and a wine store provides the only other shopping, he said. Even local residents -- the kind of customers his stores depend on -- seem to be shopping elsewhere, Farley said.

"I don't need people to come in and buy shoes every time they're there, but we need people to think of it as a place they want to be and hang out," he said. "It's just not relevant to people."


Although most new development is on hold during the financing crunch, plenty of plans are in the works, with some governments providing incentives to make them possible. Over the next 20 years, as areas such as Tysons Corner are redeveloped, about 70 percent of the Washington region's "walkable, urban places" will remain outside the District, said Christopher B. Leinberger, a real estate expert at the Brookings Institution.

The shift is changing how Washington's suburban governments pursue development. Montgomery County officials recently revamped the planning policy to focus growth in high-density centers around transit stations, and Prince George's is using special tax districts as incentives for such projects, a strategy it once used rarely. When Rockville Town Square was being developed, state and local governments invested $100 million in the project and in improvements in the surrounding area.

"Town centers provide a sense of place, which is hard to find in a suburban environment," said Al Dobbins, deputy planning director for Prince George's. "They provide an opportunity for people to work where they live, which takes vehicles off the roadway, which reduces traffic and improves quality of life."

Fairfax County officials hoping to revitalize an older commercial area in Merrifield have sweetened the pot for Edens & Avant, a developer planning a $750 million town center. The county has agreed to issue $40 million worth of bonds that the company will borrow against and pay back via future property taxes, the first such deal in Fairfax.

Loudoun County officials said they hope to attract more employers by providing office space near gyms, restaurants and stores in town centers that workers can quickly walk to at lunchtime.

"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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