Greater Greater Washington

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52 years late, Rockville will be whole again

For literally decades, downtown Rockville's most central block has sat empty, used only as a parking lot. It's been a huge hole in the city's urban fabric, separating the area near Rockville Metro station from the more vibrant Town Square. Now, after multiple failed attempts, it is finally, finally, being developed.


Rockville's long empty block. Image from Bing.

And with this property, the most visible sign of Rockville's failed 1960 urban renewal will be erased.

Back in 1960, Rockville was transitioning away from its historic role as a sleepy county seat, and into a booming post-war suburb. City leaders fully embraced the notion that walkable urban places were obsolete, and approved an urban renewal plan that bulldozed 111 buildings covering 47 acresalmost all of Rockville's historic downtown.

Like countless such plans from that era, this one was a disaster. A few mostly car-oriented buildings were constructed, including the short-lived Rockville Mall, but much of downtown remained empty.

It wasn't until New Urbanism started taking hold in the 1990s that Rockville once again began thinking about its downtown as a downtown, instead of a glorified strip mall and office park.

Since then Rockville has had many successes. The Regal Theater opened, a grand new courthouse was built, and of course, the impressive new Town Square redefined the center of downtown. But in all that time, one key property has failed to redevelop, despite repeated attempts.

The Town Center parking lot forms a gaping hole in Rockville


The current Town Center development. Image from Duball LLC and the CIM Urban Real Estate Fund.

Ever since the 1960 mass bulldozing of downtown, the block bounded by Middle Lane, Montgomery Avenue, Maryland Avenue, and Monroe Street, has been vacant of buildings. It's the central block in Rockville's downtown street grid, and marks the transition between the remaining urban renewal era highrises to the south, and the new Town Square to the north.

Arguably, it's the most important single block in Rockville, and it's been nothing but a parking lot for decades. In 2009 I named it the 5th most offensive parking lot in the Washington region, and the #1 worst outside of the District.

In 1994 the city worked with developers to plan a huge complex of office towers, including what would have been the tallest building in the city. The proposal floated around until the dot com bust soured the upper Montgomery County office market. By the turn of the millennium, the proposal was dead.

Then in 2005 the City of Rockville approved a new mixed-use redevelopment for the property, with somewhat shorter buildings. But development never got started, and when the recession hit those plans were once again tabled.

But now it appears that 2005 proposal has been dusted off and is ready to be built. The developer has a tenant and bank financing, which had always been the major holdups.

7 years after project approval, 18 years after the first proposal, and 52 years after urban renewal ruined Rockville, downtown is finally being stitched back together.

Upon seeing the property fenced off for the start of construction last week, @thisisbossi said it best on Twitter: FINALLY.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

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Great news.

Next, maybe they can implode the fugly Brutalist County Office Buildings.

Rockville Mall never quite got off the ground but its legacy seems to last forever. Its first anchor, Lansburgh's failed in the spring of 1973, less than a year after the mall opened, and the department store that replaced it, Lit's, failed by December of that year. My mom bought me a lifetime supply of Carter's underwear at the liquidation sale of the former, and Christmas tree balls at the liquidation sale of the latter.

by Frank IBC on Dec 12, 2012 10:45 am • linkreport

FINALLY! I remember when the Regal opened and parking in that lot. Years and years later I went to visit a friend who works in the town center complex and was surprised to see that ugly lot was still there. What an eyesore.

I wasn't aware how much of central Rockville was bulldozed. I grew up in Gaithersburg (no great thing itself) and driving through Rockville I always thought "this place is horrible!" Now I know why.

Now, if only the exceedingly pedestrian unfriendly Rockville Pike wasn't between downtown Rockville and the metro/MARC station.

by Birdie on Dec 12, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

About. Damn. Time.

by Justin..... on Dec 12, 2012 11:06 am • linkreport

I'm confused by the point of view emerging from @Birdie's collective recent comments b/c it is so different from another commenter going by @Birdie...

by Tina on Dec 12, 2012 11:21 am • linkreport

It'd be nice to have more than the one picture provided. Even on the Duball website they just have the one.

by drumz on Dec 12, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

@ Birdie:

Actually Rockville Pike (called Hungerford Drive in that section) didn't exist until the "renewal".

Before 1958, Rockville Pike and Veirs Mill Road formed a "Y" that merged to become Montgomery Avenue. To continue north to Gaithersburg, you would go west on Montgomery Street (which now no longer exists between Rockville Pike and Maryland Avenue) west to Washington Street, and turn right, and drive north on Washington Street to its current end at 355.

Hungerford Drive was built to directly connect Rockville Pike with the north end of Washington Street and bypass the old downtown area.

After the old town was demolished, Route 28 was diverted one block south from Montgomery Avenue to Jefferson Street, and the present full intersection between Routes 335 and 28 was built. The old alignment of Montgomery Avenue lies under the County Office complex.

by Frank IBC on Dec 12, 2012 11:31 am • linkreport

Very nice. When you see the old photos of Rockville, it kind of blows you away. Love the building. Those Torti Gallas folks do infill right.

by Thayer-D on Dec 12, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

To see the old alignments of the main roads through downtown Rockville, you can go to http://www.historicaerials.com/ and enter Rockville, MD just as you would for Google, Bing or Mapquest.

The topographical maps from 1955 and earlier show the old alignments of 355 (then US 240) and 28 and all the old streets. The aerial map for 1957 and the topographical map for 1958 both show a just-built Hungerford Drive but with Montgomery Avenue and all the old streets still there.

Go to the 1970 aerial map and the 1972 topographical map and you can see that 28 has been relocated and many of the old streets wiped off the map.

by Frank IBC on Dec 12, 2012 11:39 am • linkreport

@Tina, as far as I know, I'm the only Birdie here. I've started posting more frequently. It what way are my recent comments different?

by Birdie on Dec 12, 2012 11:45 am • linkreport

Awesome news for Rockville.

@Frank IBC, thanks for the historical aerials link! Super cool.

by Nick on Dec 12, 2012 11:48 am • linkreport

@Birdie: There has in the past been a commenter with extremely outspoken views on how car-oriented suburban development is better than TOD, arguably to the point of trolling actually. Guessing that's not you?

Of course with a system that doesn't protect user names, this can happen. I know I've seen someone else post using "jw" as their name.

by JW on Dec 12, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

I think the person people are thinking about was "Bertie."

by MLD on Dec 12, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

@MLD: Yes, you're right. I need to pay more attention. Sorry Birdie.

by JW on Dec 12, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

Good call Rockville. I am in down town rockville from time to time and that parking lot always seemed like a waste, also I never park their anyway because its a pain to get out of.

by Matt R on Dec 12, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

@MLD @Birdie - oh yeah! Sorry for confusing you, @Birdie

by Tina on Dec 12, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

no problem, @Tina. I was a bit harsh and less-than-diplomatic yesterday. Clearly, the anticipation of christmas with the family and having to listen to the Tales of Woeful Commutes has me a bit twitchy and it gotten taken out here yesterday.

So, back to Rockville......@Frank IBC, thank you for the historical background! And I agree about those awful Brutalist county buildings. Horrid.

by Birdie on Dec 12, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport

I think the brutalist county buildings have a place, if the site were redeveloped to keep them and add another new building or two. Too much "newness" or stuff built at the same time gives you Ballston in Arlington. It's great density, but until the most recent building boom at the intersection of Fairfax Dr and Glebe, the place just looked like 1985 on steroids. The new construction is helping to soften the look and make it look more organic.

by Gull on Dec 12, 2012 1:36 pm • linkreport

I spent one spring break in the late 80's as unskilled labor Moving Large Heavy Things (tm) on the movie theater renovation. Even a dumb college kid could see that that renovation was not going to fix things. I remember thinking it was weird that, with a metro station RIGHT THERE they could do better.

Great learning experience though. Every kid should have s stint at heavy labor for an attitude adjustment if nothing else.

by Curious George on Dec 12, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport

I used to commute to Rockville about 4 or 5 years ago and I always thought that that lot was such an eyesore. After watching the Choice Hotels HQ go up across the street on 355 this past year, I've been really hoping that the next development for downtown would on that fugly parking lot.

So when the county/city announced the development in September I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was even more elated when they actually began construction on schedule in November.

Only the western half of the parking lot will be developed in the first phase, while the eastern side will be developed in the second phase when the first phase is complete (hopefully). The first phase includes a 14-story residential (apartment)/hotel (Cambria Suites) tower, and the second phase will be an 18-story all-residential (probably condos, depending on the market) tower.

by King Terrapin on Dec 12, 2012 5:32 pm • linkreport

@ Gull

I actually appreciate brutalist architecture as well, which is part of the reason why I love DC architecture. However, the executive office building (in Rockville) is probably the ugliest brutalist building in the area (yes, worse thn the FBI building).

I think the problem with it is the height. After 9 or 10 stories brutalist buildings begin to lose their visual appeal. Brutalist buildings should look fortress-like and give the impression of power, so they shouldn't be that much taller than they are wide.

by King Terrapin on Dec 12, 2012 5:46 pm • linkreport

Here is a photo of a model of the project:
http://rockville.patch.com/articles/hotel-construction-begins-parking-shrinks-in-rockville-town-center#photo-11661302

Caption reads, "The model for the mixed-use project as it will appear from the front of the Regal Cinemas on East Montgomery Avenue."

by Laurence Aurbach on Dec 12, 2012 5:52 pm • linkreport

Be careful what you wish for as the county keeps approving new buildings without adequate parking or they forget to do sewer hookups or they promise local residents a two story building that turns into a three story building. I like the general redevelopment of Rockville, but I get the feeling it's haphazardly done to leave some sort of legacy similar to Doug Duncan's with Silver Spring renewal.

I don't live in Rockville, but do visit my dentist there who has explained some of the above problems. When he explains it, I started looking and realizing how spot on he was. Then again, smart planning has never really materalized from most of the MoCo smart growth projects. Why should I be surprised.

Perhaps they could at least put some nice like bike lane paintings down or something.

by T1 on Dec 13, 2012 10:07 am • linkreport

I'm pretty sure the redevelopment of Rockville is mostly at the initiative of the Rockville City government, which has it's own planning and permitting departments. Although you are not wrong in that the County government as a landowner has a big influence on what happend in downtown Rockville.

by Peter on Dec 13, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

I am old enough to remember some of that controversial Urban Renewal in Rockville. as I remember seeing both the 1884 and 1904 bank buildings on Perry Street (now Maryland avenue and East Montgomery Avenue as there was also a GC Murphy Store , as well as passing through the downtown on the former alignment of East Montgomery Avenue.Fortunately another old bank building dating from 1930 remains at East Montgomery Avenue at North Washington Street facing our Grey Courthouse.

by Steve on Nov 9, 2013 9:03 pm • linkreport

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