Olde Towne Gaithersburg: He who hesitated was lost
During the now-defunct credit bubble, legacy walkable urban places in Montgomery County enjoyed renovation and investment unparalleled in decades. Silver Spring received a brand new commercial development that catalyzed a better reputation and increased foot traffic. Investment in Bethesda accelerated beyond its already fast pace. Wheaton got a renovated mall and new residential development for the first time in decades. Takoma Park saw an increase in property values and commercial vitality.
Most dramatically, downtown Rockville recognized that its experiment with 20th century-style "urban renewal" was a miserable failure and restored a human-scale street grid while providing incentives for walkable urban development in its Metro-adjacent location. The only legacy downtown that didn't get in on the action was Gaithersburg, whose historic downtown is known as Olde Towne Gaithersburg. According to the Gazette, Gaithersburg is now seeking advice from developers how to revitalize their downtown.
Most of the land within the corporate limits of Gaithersburg currently sits underneath car-dependent suburban sprawl built between the 1970s and the 1990s. However, Gaithersburg was once a major agricultural stop on the B&O Railroad, whose tracks share a right-of-way with the Metro Red Line between Silver Spring and Union Station. Consequently, Gaithersburg possesses a walkable, urban historic downtown with a human-scale street grid. However, preexisting suburban sensibilities blocked new investment during the development boom years of the middle of this decade:
"We didn't build anything," said Councilman Henry F. Marraffa Jr., pointing to meticulous planning rules, political intractability and overconfidence among city leaders who he says "placed too many conditions" on projects. The city now has more than 4,000 apartments, condos, townhouses and single-family homes approved to be built, but many are years from development, he said.Parking minimums are another specific example of suburban sensibilities that are currently stifling growth:
Marraffa sat on a previous council that in 2001 passed a first-ever moratorium on residential development, designed to last one year, citing a need to review the city's master plan. Developers and schools added capacity elsewhere. Now the city is looking to developers to learn how to lure builders during the recession and lending crisis.
Malcolm Van De Reit, a former developer with JPI and now president of White Oak Properties in McLean, Va., cited three other obstacles to Olde Towne development. He said parking ratios tied to new projects should be reduced; land assemblage for large projects is challenging in part because of landowners' expectations on pricing; and city leaders must be sensitive to the changing economy and developers' need to be cost-conscious.As Mr. Van De Reit said, parking minimums provide a sizable disincentive to a developer who wishes to invest in an urban-friendly project. Without new investment, a city or town stagnates and declines. That is exactly what happened in our major cities, including Washington, DC, from World War II to the end of the century. Hindsight has taught us that preventing all development is just as destructive in the long term as promoting poorly planned development.
"Most developers right now are going back to basics, so they're not going to be moving too far out of their comfort zones as far as spending a lot of money on ... bells and whistles," Van De Reit said.
An existing parking ordinance does not reflect an urban model or the way apartment communities operate. It asks developers to build parking and has caused some projects to crumble under their own weight or lose financing through delays in planning processes, he said.
Olde Towne Gaithersburg, like every walkable urban place in the region and the United States, needs to adopt a zoning and planning framework that makes sense in a human-scale environment. Gaithersburg already has neighboring communities in its own county to learn from. Neighboring Rockville would be an excellent place to start due to proximity, similar demographics, and similar infrastructure, though without a Red Line Station. Like Rockville, as an incorporated town, Gaithersburg has more control over land use planning. Unincorporated Wheaton, Silver Spring, and Bethesda are all governed and planned at the county level.
It's one thing for a dedicated livable/walkable communities and mass transit activist to suggest such a course of action. The point is driven home even more acutely when members of the business community say the same thing:
Developers have suggested a more flexible ordinance in Olde Towne, "an urban model," used in downtown Rockville or Bethesda, Van De Reit said. The current requirement forces structured or partially below-grade parking at costs not justified by Gaithersburg rents.While seeking feedback from developers can be a positive part of the process, as Richard Layman says, a request for proposals isn't a plan. There's no subsitute for a carefully crafted plan that combines ideas from planners, developers and residents. Gaithersburg should bear that in mind as it moves forward with much-needed planning to leverage its most valuable asset.
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