Rockville Pike was born to sell, and every day 30,000 card- and cash-carrying consumers come looking to buy.
The one-time barrel-rolling tobacco trace has emerged as the Cinderella of Montgomery County -- a $600 million-a-year retail bonanza. According to former Rockville city designer David Chikvashvilli, a 1983 study found "that per square foot, retail sales on Rockville Pike are greater than on [Beverly Hills'] Rodeo Drive."
Not only greater, but broader. Rockville Pike, or Rte. 355 between Bethesda and Gaithersburg, offers an unparalleled range of services and supplies, from lumber to silk lingerie, furs to furniture, computers to imported chocolate. There are movies, cosmetic makeovers, video games, health spas, car lots and restaurants of almost every conceivable cuisine. According to figures from the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Rockville Pike outsells every shopping center in the metropolitan area except the District's downtown.
"There's a major concentration of wealth" in the Washington area, as former county planner John Westbrook put it, "and Rockville Pike is the prime shopping strip of the wealthy."
The Pike has a national audience as well. Nashville lawyer Ellen Pollack mixes business with regular forays to Syms. Upstate New Yorker John Wrocklage and his wife spend Thanksgiving with their daughter in the District to cash in on preholiday specials at White Flint Mall, which alone accounts for 1.3 percent of the retail sales in the state.
"White Flint has been a major factor in attracting trade from outside the county," according to county Finance Director Dan Lucas. "Montgomery County always lagged behind the state average in per-capita sales tax collections. People eat and make purchases in the District, and especially in the summer, we lose people to the shore.
"But about the time White Flint became operational," Lucas pointed out, "we suddenly exceeded the state average, and now we're 9 percent ahead."
While the Pike's 75,000 daily commuters can see its retail rewards, very few realize that it is also a developers' El Dorado: Existing commercial and industrial property between the White Flint and Rockville malls is worth $580 million. White Flint alone generates nearly $900,000 a year in real estate taxes, not to mention the individual stores' personal property taxes.
Rockville Pike may once have been referred to as the "Main Street of Montgomery County," but as Rockville Planning Director James M. Davis concedes, it has almost certainly outgrown the moniker.
" 'Main Street' can have a 'villagey,' small-scale, quaint connotation," Davis said. "Maybe 'Broadway' would be better."
Actually, Rockville Pike is just acting out its historical role as a commercial conveyance. It was blazed in 1750 to join the fur and tobacco market at Frederick with the new port at Georgetown. Paved in 1829, it became a major stage route, and through most of the 19th century it was a toll road paying dividends to local investors.
But after World War I, with the development of residential neighborhoods north of Bethesda and west of Veirs Mill Road, the Pike hit its speculative stride.
In 1954, farmland in Montgomery County sold for $300 an acre; by 1964, land was selling for more than $1,300 an acre. The progrowth "County Above Party" County Council rezoned thousands of acres for higher-density development before being turned out of office in 1966, and Rockville Pike is the result.
There are two distinct regions of the Pike between White Flint and the Rockville Metro Center. One is the redeveloping area from Edmonston Avenue north; the other a boomtown strip from Congressional Plaza to Nicholson Lane. A shrinking, underdeveloped buffer lies between.
*The north end of Rockville Pike, dominated by the slab-sided county offices and renovated Commons, takes its tone from the high-tech I-270 corridor. The Jefferson Plaza building there, designed for high-end corporate clients, offers a 1980s blend of esthetics (matched black African granite) and athletics (a health spa in the basement).
The newly renovated Edmonston Crossing has signed up a handful of smart-shopper stops, including a vast Eye Lab, the quick-service oculist; Italian shoes, gourmet popcorn, Mexican broiled chicken and designer telephones. And Wintergreen Plaza is geared to lunch-hour convenience: Mexican, Chinese, Indian and Japanese restaurants, plus bagels, pizza and deli food. It offers discount linens, walk-in medical care and computer stores.
*Along the southern Pike, retailers continue to look to the upwardly mobile Bethesda-Chevy Chase market for inspiration. White Flint Mall in particular has spawned a generation of conspicuous consumers -- the mallflowers. "The big thing in Potomac is to get your parents to get you a Bloomie's card with your name on it," according to a 17-year-old girl. "You always use it to cash your checks."
In mid-December, one Southern-drawling man handed over his American Express card to his 11-year-old son. "He said, 'It's your birthday, get what you want,' " marveled Bloomingdale's clerk William Britton. "The kid spent more than $600; and what killed me was, that wasn't even his Christmas present!" Status Locations Expand
But White Flint is no longer the only status-seekers' stop on the strip. The Randolph Road Giant, transformed into the Rockville Gourmet, makes nearly $40 million a year as butcher/baker/pasta maker to the affluent. Across the Pike, behind a fern-bar wood plank facade, the Lewis of London baby boutique pushes $325 prams.
And in the triangular island that once housed Korvette's discount department store, Mid-Pike Plaza deals in upper crust discount -- cheap chic. Under one chrome-tech canopy are G Street Fabrics, the home of bargain brocade; Crackers discount fashions for kids; off-price shoes; discount jewelry; discount toys and Syms cut-rate couture, the crowning glory.
"I go to Syms anytime I don't have anything better to do," Angela Chappert, who works in the District and lives in Silver Spring, said recently. "Like yesterday -- it was a lousy day, raining, and I said, 'I'm getting out of here!' I can get a better buy there than I can find anywhere else. Yesterday I found a Dior nightgown for $25 instead of $60, and a dress . . . . My husband said, 'You don't need another dress!' And I said, 'Oh, yes I do.' "
Mid-Pike Plaza, in fact, was conceived and redeveloped specifically to appeal to the new Pike people -- "definitely upper middle class, with a lot of discretionary income . . . and status conscious," according to Phil Smith, vice president of Federal Realty Investment Trust. "We also own the more traditional Congressional Plaza, and we consciously wanted to avoid competing with ourselves."
The Syms contract was considered so central to the concept that Federal Realty began negotiating with the store before the land lease was signed. Federal Realty also actively sought out an athletic club, ultimately landing the ultra-trendy Holiday ESPRE Centre, a combination body shop and singles bar.
Oscar Taylor's, a $1.5 million charcuterie, was the final piece. Mid-Pike Plaza is "very much a social gathering place," Smith continued. "Particularly during the day, we have a lot of women who are essentially not working, who go to the health club in the morning, meet for lunch and then shop in the afternoon. So it was very important to have an established, up-scale restaurant like Oscar Taylor's." A Passage to Sophistication
Ten years ago, no Potomac couple with any claim to sophistication ate out in Rockville. "Where? There was only a Hot Shoppes," one county official recalled with a laugh. And pub crawling on Rockville Pike, known to beer drinkers as "the Northwest Passage," was strictly a blue-collar pastime.
But these days Oscar Taylor's, with its Diamond Jim Brady decor and 80 brands of beer, is just one of a bevy of swank restaurants and bars cashing in on the all-day traffic. And with an estimated 30,000 sales clerks, office workers and middle-level executives working on the Pike, there are plenty of happy hours to go around.
"We get government workers, computer designers, businessmen, Potomac ladies, Bethesda yuppies and every mortgage broker in town," according to Oscar Taylor's bartender Terry Gribben.
"You might think that there's only a certain number of customers out there, and all the bars are just spreading them around," said manager Frank Surowiec, who estimates that his establishment will do $4 million in sales a year. "But there seems to be a constant supply. The weekend New York, New York opened, we were even busier than usual, and so was Houston's."
Gribben, who grew up in Silver Spring and spent his social adolescence in Georgetown, is one of thousands of young Rockville Pike converts.
"I bought a house around here two years ago," Gribben said. "Now I might go downtown for the Redskins or the Cherry Blossom parade, or if I have friends visiting who want to see the monuments. Otherwise, there's everything you need right here."
What's left of the "old" Rockville Pike revolves around Woodmont Country Club: car dealerships, thrift bakeries, fast foods, funeral homes and furniture wholesalers with alphabet-block signs. But these may be endangered species in a time when developers are snatching up whatever parcels they can find.
Luxury office space is being created faster than it can be leased. Approximately 3 million square feet of office space, not counting the attendant retail, restaurant and support buildings, is under construction or in development between Rockville Mall and White Flint.
The leasing lag for new offices can be as long as a year and a half, "and that takes deep pockets," said Westbrook, the former county planner who is now with Placemakers Inc., a design/development firm in Kensington. "Only the big guys can afford to wait. I have to make it or break it in five years, and I'm not going to make it or break it in that corridor."
That would probably suit some Rockville residents just fine. Many have vociferously protested what they see as the wholesale high-rising of the Pike and its effect on the already heavy traffic -- estimated at more than 55,000 cars every day.
A traffic engineering consultant has estimated that the Pike can absorb only another 3.5 million square feet of retail and office space -- just a little more than is already approved. The Rockville Pike Corridor Advisory Commission has spent nearly two years wrestling with the issues of congestion versus convenience.
"Rockville's always being promoted as the All-American city," said Charlotte Joseph, president of the Montrose Civic Association and an advocate of development curbs. "The perception of people moving here is of a small town. But how do you reconcile those 'small town' values when you can see Manhattan coming down the Pike?"
"Don't call it 'Manhattanization,' " said developer Lowell Baier, president of the Rockville Businessman's Association. "Just call it 'urbanization.' "
"We'd prefer to call it the 'maturization' of the county," said Edward Rovner, special assistant to County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist. "After all, this is a large part of what makes for quality of life -- not just where your kids go to school, but choices of where you eat and go to the movies and buy clothes."
Now that Rockville Pike has financial success squarely in its sites, it must fight to keep the human dimension in the high-rises. Planners have been concerned that an overbuilt Pike might become a commercial Berlin Wall between the eastern and western suburbs.
But commerce, like nature, abhors a vacuum. While land-rush development and and Red Line construction have squeezed out many of the homelier service industries, a new community of ethnic and specialty stores is beginning to provide crucial color between the big bland offices.
NEXT: The new international Rockville