A city-backed plan to transform Rockville's industrial Stonestreet Avenue into a cultural arts and entertainment district is causing concern among business owners along the strip.
In March, the mayor and City Council adopted a master plan for East Rockville that recommends rezoning Stonestreet to allow a combination of retail, restaurants, small-scale offices and multifamily housing on a Main Street-style boulevard.
It would be a big makeover for Stonestreet, a 25-acre area that has been designated for light industrial use since the 1950s and is home to more than 100 businesses, including several auto repair shops, at least one dog groomer and an 11-acre printing and storage facility for the Montgomery County public schools system.
In response to the proposal, Stonestreet business owners have formed the East Rockville Business Association. They note that about 1,000 people work for businesses along the strip, which runs between the Metro and CSX railroad tracks and the Lincoln Park and East Rockville neighborhoods. The Rockville Metro station is a short walk away.
The railroad tracks that make Stonestreet convenient for patrons and workers have long divided Rockville, physically and socially. With a new town center under construction on the western side of the rail line, city officials and residents who live on the other side of Stonestreet are seeking to bridge the gap in amenities and in appearance. "Many of the people who have lived [in East Rockville] for generations don't want to be cut off from the city. When the town center was going to be developed, it was evident the link to East Rockville would be established," city spokesperson Neil H. Greenberger said.
East Rockville residents wrote up their desires for Stonestreet in the master plan, which recommends encouraging banks, cleaners, restaurants, craft and art shops, galleries, antique shops and artist studios to locate on the street. Enticing such merchants, however, would require rezoning the area.
Many Stonestreet business owners worry that they will be forced out, not simply from Rockville but from the county.
"Where are you going to go? Laurel? Frederick? There is no more industrial property in Montgomery County," said Wayne Harrison, president of the East Rockville Business Association and the owner of H.T. Harrison & Sons roofing company, which has been on Stonestreet for about 40 years.
A special task force of residents and property and business owners has been meeting with a city-paid consultant to hash out the details of the new zoning rules for Stonestreet. The consultant's report is scheduled to be completed in December.
The major point of contention between business owners and residents and city planners is how long industrial uses will remain on Stonestreet and under what conditions. "How to make existing businesses compatible with the new uses, that is the question," said Jim Wasilak, the city's chief of strategic long-range planning.
Phyllis Marcuccio, the East Rockville Citizens Association president, sits on the East Rockville Neighborhood Plan Advisory Group, which helped develop the master plan. She said the group never intended for the businesses to leave. "Nobody has a problem with these businesses. They're all valuable businesses," she said. "What has happened is the City of Rockville has changed. With the new development that is coming into the downtown area, you can't keep business as usual."
Harrison said that current tenants of Stonestreet should be allowed to stay for as long as they want and that market forces will determine the direction of future development. Others want to speed the process up.
"We don't have four decades to wait. . . . Their businesses once fit the area. They don't fit the future. If we waited for the town center there would be no town center," Greenberger said. "The mayor and the council are determined that Rockville will become a city for everybody. Sometimes it takes some rearranging."
Greenberger said that if businesses are forced to relocate, the city will probably offer financial assistance, as it did with businesses that had to move out of the town center development area. Greenberger acknowledged that finding comparable industrial space may be difficult. "It's easier to relocate a pizza restaurant," he said. But he said that unlike a pizza parlor, many of the enterprises on Stonestreet are "destination businesses" that don't rely on foot traffic or visibility. "Most of these businesses could be in other places and still be very successful."
Talk like this troubles business owners on Stonestreet. They let city officials know how they felt a few weeks ago after the city sent them a survey.
The survey said its purpose was to "identify the immediate and long-term business plans" of Stonestreet business owners and "to evaluate the potential for business retention and development."
But among the questions were: "What alternative locations do you see as places for potential relocation or expansion?" and "What factors would make relocation or expansion easier or more attractive, i.e., assistance in locating sites, design assistance, etc.?"
"I kept looking for the question that asks if you want to move in the first place, and I couldn't find it," said Capri Harrison of H.T. Harrison & Sons.
After several business owners complained, Wasilak said, the city scrapped the old survey and will be issuing a new one.
"I don't want to move. You see how busy I am?" said Jacob Schneider, owner of Jacob's Autorama, an auto repair shop, while pointing in the direction of his crowded shop floor. "Wherever I go, I have to start my business from zero."