Go to Main Montgomery Page

New Town, Old Town

By D’Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 11, 1992

It is one of Washington's most written-about neighborhoods, the talk of architecture circles and recipient of a Time magazine "best of 1991" design award.

The Gaithersburg development called Kentlands, off Route 28, is intended to be a "traditional new town," according to the husband-and-wife Florida architectural team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. They want to promote a sense of community, discourage dependence on the car and encourage a small-world lifestyle where jobs, shopping and housing are near each other.

By 1998, when it is completed, the 350-acre development is supposed to have 1,600 homes, town houses, condominium units and apartments, as well as a shopping center, office park, recreation center, church and several lakes. It already has its own elementary school, named after conservationist Rachel Carson.

For the six dozen households now living there, Kentlands still is a work in progress. Construction equipment digs near their homes, some roads lead nowhere and some promised amenities don't exist.

Residents say it is too early to tell whether the Kentlands design concept will work, but most believe it probably will.

"That's what I bought into—the opportunity to relive Georgetown one day, or Annapolis," said William Edens, who shares a 3,300-square-foot four-bedroom town house with his wife, stepson and mother-in-law. "Everybody you talk to bought into the philosophy that they bought into a community that's going to be unique."

The development offers condominiums starting in the low $100,000s, starter homes and town houses in the high $100,000s and single-family homes from $200,000 on up, some custom-built.

It is not perfect. Edens, for example, commutes 28 miles on the Beltway to Capitol Heights, not exactly reducing his dependence on his car. His wife, Geri, takes the Metro into the District from the Shady Grove station four miles away.

With permission from Gaithersburg officials, the designers and developers of Kentlands abandoned many aspects of the usual building code in an effort to promote socializing and neighborliness.

Homes are on smaller lots, and starter cottages sit next to large houses. Walking paths abound, roads are narrower and streets cross others rather than stop at dead-ends. There is a town square.

The architecture tends toward brass lamps, wood-shingled roofs, brick sidewalks in the pricier sections, front porches and balconies. The developers boast that there is no aluminum siding here, only brick, stone and other natural materials.

There have been bumps along the way. The project's lender, Chevy Chase Savings&Loan, took over Kentlands from its original developer, Joseph Alfandre, last year, blaming the recession for poor sales at the development. Some of the original builders bowed out.

What was to be an upscale mall instead will be a neighborhood shopping center with Giant Food, K mart and Lowe's Hardware stores. The office park is on hold. Some lots originally set for single-family homes now are zoned for less expensive town houses.

A recent Wall Street Journal article praised the concept, but slammed the way the homes and condominiums looked, using phrases like "visual swamp," and "lackluster but not egregious."

A small group of residents, concerned the bank takeover could water down the design concept, is monitoring Gaithersburg planning and city council meetings on the design and construction of Kentlands. Generally, they are pleased with the results of their lobbying.

The shopping center, for example, which was to have a blank wall facing nearby homes, now will have windows to make it more visually attractive, said homeowner Richard Arkin.

"I believe it's going to happen and it's going to be most of what we all envisioned," said Ron Wiggins, a real estate agent. "I feel more positive now than six months ago."

In one way, at least, the Kentlands concept has been fulfilled. Everybody seems to walk at Kentlands—with a dog, by the lake or along a construction road in the evening.

People say they know their neighbors, although there is not much mixing among homeowners, condo residents and renters.

"We go out walking every evening," said homeowner Beverly Grimm, Wiggins's wife, "and there are a lot of people walking... . You move here for the sense of community and you're going to make it work. There's nobody here who says, 'Leave me alone.'"

Arkin likes his back-alley garage because people walk through the alleys and "you run into neighbors when you are working in your garage." The house has another unusual feature: A separate apartment over the garage that he rents to a young local architect.

"It's already a great place," Arkin said. "It has aspects of living in Williamsburg. It almost seems like a dream sometimes."

Margaret McElhaney lives with her two teenage children in one of the four-story beige-and-brick balcony apartment buildings, where monthly rents run from $735 to $1,300 for one- and two-bedroom units.

McElhaney likes it so much she is moving to a larger unit. She appreciates the fact that "everyone kind of watches for everyone else," and likes the swimming pool and well-lighted parking lot, even if "the walls aren't quite as quiet as I wish they were."

"I like the fact that they're very ecology-minded," McElhaney said. "They have kept a lot of the trees."

Frank Zari, a condominium owner who moved in six months ago, is pleased that the building's designers kept living areas in one unit away from bedrooms in the adjoining unit.

Zari knows all his neighbors and, like other residents, he said prospective purchasers should keep one rule in mind: "If you don't like close living, you shouldn't buy here."

When Brenda Williamson and her husband moved to Washington from Texas, she was looking for "a new house in an old neighborhood ... an old-fashioned neighborhood with modern conveniences."

When they moved into their house in December 1990, she said, they were the first residents. Williamson likes the place so much she went to work there, and is now an employee of the information center.

"You can just see a pulling together," she said.

© Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top