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Catalyzing strip-mall sprawl into a mixed-use boulevard

How do you transform a low-density corridor of strip malls into a walkable, mixed-use community? That's the question facing Rockville, whose Pike runs alongside the Red Line but is filled with one-story big-box retail and choked with traffic. It could be so much more, and Rockville agrees. Over the past few months, they've held community meetings (one of which I attended) and conducted a charrette on what to do along the segment around, and north of, Twinbrook Metro.

Their conclusions are not that dissimilar from DC's plan for Georgia Avenue: encourage a series of "catalyst sites", higher-density mixed-use developments with parking underground or on the inside of the block. Each site will provide the residential density that will make the more walkable businesses possible, while also still accommodating traditional suburban drivers to get there to eat and shop.


For the roadway itself, they propose turning it into a boulevard, with local lanes for people turning in and out of the various developments, through lanes, landscaped medians, and greater pedestrian and bicycle accommodations.

This looks great, but turning strip malls into Smart Growth requires more than just good planning. The political angle may prove a lot more complicated. At the community meeting I attended, many residents supported the boulevard idea, while others did not; as this process continues, we'll discover how the politically active citizens and elected officials of Rockville feel.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Interesting post. I am not against strip mall development since (when needed) it get turned into a more urban environment as is occuring in Rockville. Actually, without the strip mall developments of the last half century the US could not have grown to the extent it grew. I look at it sort of as an organism putting out weak "feelers" which as the feelers mature and gain strength become the impetus for more-urban like development. Actually, the same argument could be made for roadways. Yes, there's no doubt that building more roads starts the vicious cycle of creating more traffic to fill the empty roads. But what is the alternative? To stop the roads ... and stop the development? No, like the strip mall feelers, they are an intermediary necessary step toward developing fuller longtern urban developments. I think if you look back to even ancient cities, you will find that whole (now ancient) districts only developed because there was a (then) highway initially used just to transport people and things. (e.g., the Via Appia.)

by Lance on Jun 27, 2008 7:02 pm • linkreport

The biggest and most fundamental problem with converting suburban strips into boulevards is the surrounding dendritic street network. What that means in plain language is, the major arterial has collector streets branching off of it; the collector streets have a lot of cul-de-sacs branching off of them.

The net result is that everyone has to get on the major arterial (Rockville Pike) in order to go anywhere. Traffic congestion is built in because there are no alternatives. That makes it very hard to put the Pike on a "road diet" and dedicate lanes to transit, medians and frontages with street trees, and generous sidewalks.

In contrast, street networks that are well connected, like DC's, provide alternative routes and thereby distribute the traffic. DC's avenues are 4-6 lanes plus street trees and sidewalks, sometimes on-street parking, and rarely get completely gridlocked. Rockville Pike is 6-8 lanes and commonly is gridlocked during peak periods.

Here are a couple of other local strip-to-boulevard retrofit proposals.

Fairfax Boulevard Partnership Master Plan

New Hampshire Avenue Corridor Concept Plan

by Laurence Aurbach on Jun 27, 2008 7:05 pm • linkreport

An alternative to strip malls and more cars and more roads and more parking lots and more cars...has always been available, just as it is now available. Its a matter of making a choice. The built environment we are saddled with didn't happen by accident and it won't be improved without people making choices.

by Bianchi on Jun 27, 2008 7:30 pm • linkreport

The stretch S of Twinbrook would be more adaptable because of Executive Blvd/Jefferson and Parklawn Dr, which already provide some alternative to the Pike and could be used to divert traffic. Some of the strips already reach to the street, while some, like Mid-Pike Plaza actively try to make it difficult for pedestrians.

by Rich on Jun 27, 2008 8:51 pm • linkreport

Lance: What Bianchi said. Strip malls don't just create some neutral value economic growth while some time goes by until they can be turned into something better. Instead, strip malls actively promote car-oriented development that makes urban development more difficult in the future. And we could easily have been building urbanism in the mid-twentieth century and gotten ourselves enormous economic growth—we just didn't do that.

I encourage you to read Christopher Leinberger's The Option of Urbanism which covers this very topic.

by David Alpert on Jun 27, 2008 11:45 pm • linkreport

David, Laurence:

I just did a piece on this exact issue. I've been idling in the left turn lanes of MD355 as far back as I can remember, and I believe the problem has more to do with the lack of a grid network supporting th main strip. check this out:

by Dave Murphy on Jun 28, 2008 2:50 pm • linkreport

@David. ok, I will check it out.

by Lance on Jun 28, 2008 11:33 pm • linkreport

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