The city square, modeled after an Italian piazza, features a public library, visual arts center and 180,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

Setting Rockville Town Square apart from the region’s sea of suburban shopping centers has been paramount for owner Federal Realty Investment Trust. And it’s taking steps to that end.

This month at the center, the Rockville-based realty firm will open the largest outdoor skating rink in Montgomery County, totaling 7,200 square feet. That opening will be followed up in the spring with arrival of the region’s first grocery store by Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market of Richmond.

The new additions are part of a larger effort to complete Federal Realty’s vision of creating a community where people can live, eat and shop in the heart of downtown Rockville. The city square, modeled after an Italian piazza, features a public library, visual arts center and 180,000 square feet of shops and restaurants situated below 644 condominiums and apartments.

“We’re activating the downtown and creating a neighborhood town square, where you can get just about everything done,” said Robin McBride, chief operating officer in the mid-Atlantic region for Federal Realty.

Tri-State Ice Management will handle the upkeep of the $500,000 rink, which will offer amenities such as ice skating lessons and private parties through March. In the warmer months, the rink will revert to event space.

James Cousins cleans the window of Toy Kingdom. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

By the time the ice melts on the rink, Ellwood Thompson’s could well be arranging baskets of apples and gourmet cheese in its 15,000-square-foot grocery store, operating under the name Dawson’s Market.

The supermarket, named after a family farm that once resided in Rockville, will feature organic goods from local vendors, farmers and artisans, much like the Ellwood Thompson’s in Richmond, said owner Rick Hood.

He had signed a lease in 2008 to open an Ellwood Thomson’s at D.C. USA, a retail complex in the District, but pulled out once the economy soured. The rent, he said, was no longer affordable.

Opening a location in the suburbs wasn’t appealing initially, but Hood said he found a natural fit in Rockville. City officials and Federal Realty, he said, “wanted a smaller operator focused on Rockville, instead of a regional retailer that pulls traffic from a large area. And that’s us.”

The grocery store is a key addition to the town square, which has struggled to get one up and running since opening in 2007. Back then, Super Fresh signed up to anchor the development with a 34,000 square foot store.

The grocer paid rent on the empty space for three years, but never turned on the lights as its parent company, Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (A&P), faltered. Once A&P filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year, the deal fell through.

While that space sat empty, the downturn took a toll on the center as eight of the 46 storefronts went dark. Most of those tenants since have been replaced, some as recent as this year.

Work continues on a 7,200-square-foot ice rink that is to open later this month at Rockville Town Square. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

Tippy’s Taco House and ice cream parlor Marble Slab Creamery both set up shop during the summer. Next spring is to usher in three more tenants: Vie de France bakery, Vietnamese restaurant Pho & Rolls and Chicago-based eatery Bar Louie. The new merchants would bring the retail occupancy rate up to 96 percent.

McBride credits the Ellwood Thompson’s deal, along with the planned redesign of the parking garage, for attracting the latest lineup of tenants.

Federal Realty signed a 50-year lease in September to assume the management of the three city-owned garages at the center.The deal allows the company to put up new signage welcoming customers driving along the heavily trafficked pike. It also changed the pricey parking rules at the square, a move McBride believes should help merchants.

Customers used to pay for parking upon arrival and get slapped with a ticket if they went over the estimated time, which merchants complained served as a deterrent, McBride said. Now shoppers and diners receive two hours of free parking validation.

Rockville Town Center is not the only project Federal Realty is shaping up along the pike. The company has submitted a plan to turn its Mid-Pike Plaza shopping center into a mixed-use project called Pike & Rose, anchored by a luxury movie theater.