Along the two-mile stretch of Rockville Pike that runs between Strathmore Hall and downtown Rockville, the car is king. The road's six lanes are wide enough for Hummers and Hondas alike. Traffic lights are timed not for those on foot, but the lead-footed. And any savvy merchant knows that on Rockville Pike, surface parking is not an amenity, but a necessity.
So the idea of transforming Rockville Pike into a pedestrian paradise sounds, well, quixotic. Yet several developers, in partnership with the city, county and state governments, are moving forward on a variety of projects designed within five years to transform Rockville Pike into a paragon of smart growth.
Call it the Bethesda-ization of Rockville Pike. With the county running out of land to build large housing and retail developments and housing in short supply, developers have begun taking another look at established corridors such as Rockville Pike, in particular around Metro stations.
Some of the major projects underway include:
* A $450 million, 32-acre mixed-use project on the site of a driving range and miniature golf course next to the White Flint Metro. Late next year, Lcor expects to break ground on the first phase of the project -- an apartment building with 350 rental units -- said Michael J. Smith, vice president of development for the Pennsylvania-based developer. Shops, including a grocery store, will line the ground level. Eventually, Lcor will add three more apartment buildings, as well as an office tower.
The Montgomery County Park and Planning Commission is scheduled to hold a hearing this month on Lcor's preliminary site plans.
* Chevy Chase-based JBG Cos. secured approval last year for Twinbrook Commons, a mixed-use project of more than 1,300 residential units and 140,000 square feet of retail space that will straddle the Twinbrook Metro. Part of the project sits in Rockville, the rest on county land. JBG officials are talking with the city about annexing the county land so the entire project will be in Rockville, city spokesman Neil H. Greenberger said.
* Close to the Rockville Metro station, Federal Realty Investment Trust, in partnership with the City of Rockville and the county, has begun building a town center -- with 170,000 square feet of residential, retail and office uses -- on the site of a shopping center adjacent to the Regal Cinema.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority plans to put out another request next year for proposals to develop the land around the station.
The transit authority has been the driving force behind the urbanization of Rockville Pike. It first put out a request for proposals to developers to build transit-oriented projects near the Rockville, Twinbrook and White Flint Metro stations in 1995, said Dutch Heinemeyer, acting managing director for property development and management. The authority received several proposals for Twinbrook and White Flint and none for Rockville.
Developers who handed in winning submissions are only now securing the necessary approvals from city, county and state planning boards. Many of the early phases of the projects are expected to be completed within the next five years.
The developers' timing could not be better. Traffic concerns have been fueling demand for pedestrian-friendly housing. But "there are not a lot of choices for condos between Bethesda and Gaithersburg," said Kristine Warner, a spokeswoman for Federal Realty Investment Trust, which also owns several shopping centers along Rockville Pike.
The planned residential development around Metro stations is producing a development ripple effect along the pike. At Mid-Pike Plaza, which sits at Rockville Pike and Montrose Road, owner Federal Realty has signed leases with tenants that will expire in 2009 so that the developer will have "a clean slate" to redo the site to meet the needs of new residents, said Donald T. Briggs, Federal Realty's director of development.
Federal Realty executives said they have begun to study how to make over Mid-Pike Plaza. They see adding a mix of "fast-casual" and sit-down restaurants similar to what they have created at Pentagon Row and Bethesda Row, Warner said.
In addition, the Washington-based Donohoe Cos. is building an office and residential building near the Lcor site at the White Flint Metro. The rental apartments, which are finished, are 70 percent leased. Donohoe is breaking ground on condominiums next month. As of this week, more than 150 of the 197 units have been sold.
To foster a more intimate environment, other developers are scaling back Rockville Pike's Autobahn sensibilities by breaking up blocks with new streets. "What we see occurring on the pike is a new trend. There's a transformation taking place. Now what you have is rear-loaded retail with a sea of asphalt with huge city blocks. . . . It's a daunting pedestrian environment," Lcor's Smith said. "We're making it so you can live and work on our site and don't have to rely on a car."