Rockville dedicated the symbolic center of its downtown renewal last Saturday, launching what city officials hope will be a more profitable era for the beleaguered business district surrounding the Courthouse Square park.
The new brickwork, cast-iron street lamp posts, old clock and gazebo were echoes of an older Rockville. But Michael B. Patterson, chairman of the city's Historic District Commission, said revitalization will depend less on esthetics and more on the city's ability to attract shoppers to downtown.
An urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s produced a mall and high-rise office buildings, but the mall did not succeed in drawing new shoppers to the area. It was hard to reach and lacked major "anchor" stores, critics said.
The mall, now named the Commons at Courthouse Square and next to the newly dedicated park, closed recently after a series of business failures. But last week, Rockville approved a redevelopment plan for the mall that includes building improvements and refinancing.
Architect Arthur Cotton Moore, who designed the new park, stepped away from the festivities and pointed to the tower of the old courthouse building, a halcyon presence in a clash of building styles. "This is the dominant structure, the only one that survived the urban renewal blast" in the 1960s, he said.
"I think people are going to like this," he said, glancing down to the new arcade, adorned with steep roof and curling braces. It was lined with tables of trinkets, baked goods, beer and "I Rockville" bumper stickers. "What people in Rockville were really hoping for was something with a humanistic sense, a Victorian heritage of their past," Moore said.
In planning the latest, $83 million urban revitalization, city officials are banking on a combination of offices, a hotel building, renovation of the shopping mall and new rampways connecting everything to a nearby Metrorail station to make the downtown hum.
The new aim is to attract what Mayor John R. Freeland called a "high-grade" mix of hotel customers and office workers, while still trying to lure shoppers with farmers' markets and outdoor, evening entertainment.
The shopping mall and other businesses moving into the area, Patterson said, "will not be serving the same functions as White Flint, Lake Forest and Montgomery Mall. It will be more the convenience and impulse buying."
That first depends, he said, on whether the pieces fall together.
"They've got an awful lot of apathy and past feelings to overcome," Patterson said. "It's iffy, but it has a chance."