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Progress at Gaithersburg's two new town centers

Gaithersburg's collection of walkable new urbanist neighborhoods is growing, with impressive construction progress at both the Crown development and Watkins Mill Town Center.

Ellington Boulevard in Downtown Crown, seen from the north. All photos by BeyondDC.

Both neighborhoods are planned around future stations of the Corridor Cities Transitway, which will someday connect a whole string of walkable neighborhoods in upper Montgomery County to Shady Grove Metro station. But with rapid transit service still years away, construction is working from the outside in, focusing first on sections farther from planned transit stations.


At the Crown development, construction progress is focused on Phase 1, the western half. A mixed-use town center surrounds the corner of Ellington Boulevard and Crown Park Avenue, with blocks of rowhouse neighborhoods to the side.

Ellington Boulevard, seen from the south.

Crown Park Avenue, perpendicular to Ellington Boulevard.

It's clear that serious work and expense went into the architectural details.

Downtown Crown.

Downtown Crown.

To the east, the rowhouse neighborhoods are taking shape as well.

Rowhouses on Hendrix Avenue.

Decoverly Drive marks the boundary of Phase 1, as well as the future route of the transitway. Crown's original plans show an even larger town center surrounding the BRT station along Decoverly. But following actual construction, it appears density has been reduced around the station, and rowhouses line the Phase 1 edge instead.

One wonders if Phase 2 will make Crown a truly transit-oriented place, or if transit will merely run through it.

Decoverly Drive.

Watkins Mill Town Center

A few miles to the northwest, adjacent to the Metropolitan Grove MARC station, Watkins Mill Town Center is taking shape.

Watkins Mill Town Center.

At Watkins Mill, the rowhouses and lower density portions are nearing completion, but the downtown section has yet to begin construction. As a result, a huge field separates the MARC station (and future BRT stop) from the constructed portions of the development.

Urban Avenue, not quite urban yet.

Someday, the Corridor Cities Transitway could make Gaithersburg a second Arlington, a string of walkable communities knit together by transit. Whether that actually happens or not will depend the State of Maryland getting the transitway built, and the City of Gaithersburg insisting on truly transit-oriented places.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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"Someday, the Corridor Cities Transitway could make Gaithersburg a second Arlington"

I think that might be just a *bit* of hyperbole. I don't mean to be negative, but Arlington is Arlington because it is effectively a continuation of downtown DC b/c of proximity and subway transit.

This: will never become this: Maps at same scale for density comparison.

by Nick on Feb 24, 2014 1:52 pm • linkreport

These photos look great. There's nothing like good long term planning to make one hopefull for the future.

by Thayer-D on Feb 24, 2014 2:48 pm • linkreport

The first photo in particular shows what happens when a developer tries too hard, yet not hard enough, to make one big building read like multiple smaller buildings. Despite the riot of different colors and materials it's painfully obvious by looking at the way all of the windows line up exactly that this is not a neighborhood that developed organically over time, but a big development plopped down all at once.

by jimble on Feb 24, 2014 4:33 pm • linkreport

I love the details on the downtown crown.

But I think that the road in crown park avenue should have been a few feet narrower. Or the buildings a little taller maybe.

by drumz on Feb 24, 2014 4:36 pm • linkreport

i have to say these buildings look a lot better than some of the crap being plopped down in DC. Why cant we forget the glass box idea and just stick with historical dc design via row houses that already exist in the city, there is so much inspiration already out there

by corey on Feb 24, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

presumably this will work better than walkable places that don't get walked like Traville, which seem to be the models for this.

by Rich on Feb 24, 2014 5:28 pm • linkreport


What neighborhoods have developed organically ? Almost all areas whether built now or in the 130 years have really not developed organically.

Many older neighborhoods around the country are out of Sears Catalogs. Row houses or older single Detached Houses in almost every city on the East Coast of the US that was around in 1860 has blocks of houses there were built at the around same time(within a year). They are all basically the same design with minor changes such-as with a porch or without a porch, the color, or what the steps are made of.

Most housing was never built one house at a time there were at least pairs unless you live in really rural areas. Even the Amish & Mennonites don't built organically.

by kk on Feb 24, 2014 7:26 pm • linkreport

@ Corey,
It's not as simple as you would think. Suffice it to say that there's a big difference between many an architect's view of "style" and the man on the street perspective. As an anecdotal illustration of this phenomenon, I'll quote an architect from an AIA journal speaking about his impressions of several communities such as this one...

"It's a facade. It really is a stage set. It really does talk about a place that existed before, but it doesn't have a hand of contemporary society on it at all, and that bothers me."

Make sense of that quote and you'll understand why, at least from an architect's perspective, why we don't see more of this kind of work downtown.

by Thayer-D on Feb 24, 2014 9:40 pm • linkreport

I would have to agree with kk on this one in regards to the "organically grown/developed" communities. Each generation has had its phase or newly developing housing stock/commumities. Architectual designs come in a variety of visual and structural aesthetics. Cities had to start at some point in time, same as suburban neighborhoods. The layouts and designs of each community can have characters of a unique or similar nature comparable of communities that have either existed in other areas or as a spin off of communities or developments in other cities. I believe that the the intention of the development is to provide a walkable community to its residents instead of building the usual "Sprawl Type" development and if doing so by creating a new community as transit oriented or walkable then I would give credit to the developers for having a vision or at least transitioning its vision and their perception on housing and development trends / needs . At least they are making an attempt to do so instead of building the same "Sprawl type" communities that are car dependent without any plans for transit in place. With that also being said the City Centre development in DC was a parking lot prior to its development and not "organic" . Many of the newer development of this region are not "organic". Some are, but many are not. That is what makes architecture beautiful not everything is the same but different, unique and apparently attractive enough for it to sale. JMO.

by MoCoCit on Feb 25, 2014 7:55 am • linkreport

I agree that few places really are "organic" - maybe a bad choice of words on my part. But a row of houses in Brightwood or Kingman Park doesn't pretend to be other than what it is. I see this sort of development everywhere now, and the half-baked variation of brick colors and cheaply detailed ornamentation is becoming a very tired cliche. These buildings are actually better than most, but a little variation in floor heights would have broken up the monolithic blocks so much more effectively than a dozen different colors of brick.

by jimble on Feb 25, 2014 9:12 am • linkreport

There is a difference between style and materials though. I don't think we need to copy old designs (although aren't a lot of the neoclassical buildings loved in their own right today?) but I would love to see more and better use of brick and stone which give a building a sense of elegance and permanence to me.

by BTA on Feb 25, 2014 9:46 am • linkreport

I'd agree architects shouldn't copy like any artist ought not plagiarize, but how's another glass box any more original than another brick facade? I think the question BTA brings up, allbeit subjective, is a matter of training. If an architect dosen't develope their sense of architecture as a visual art, regardless of ideological inclination, then the work will suffer from an aesthetic point of view.

As for organic or not, in today's building climate, given the approvals process, financing, and constructin methods, the notion that a town can grow through gradual accretion is a romantic notion that can only be simulated. Even beloved communities like Venice California and Forest Hills Gardens, NY where only designed to look organic, while built as a development. Ironically, this happened to a certain extend in Kentlands, where by the original developer lost control of the project to the bank, yet the plan stipulated a mix of builders, which was protected by the covenants. Consequently, the bank sold off lots individually which resulted in many heterogenious streetscapes rather than a lot of blocks being executed by one builder with a kit of interchangable parts. But even in that case, it comes down to a designers skill in being able to manipulate a buildable set of options to create the most visual interest possible within certain economic constraints.

This kind of skill can be taught assuming architecture schools would acknowledge the realities of contemporary building practices. Unfortunatly, they tend to focus more on the ideology of the aesthetic than the realities of the building industry and the users experience. Despite a lack of proper training though, many architects are learning outside school and this kind of work is steadily growing in quantity and quality.

by Thayer-D on Feb 25, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

As much as I prefer these suburban "town centers" to the typical sprawling, cul-de-sac, suburbia, they still feel so artificial, soulless, and isolated. King Farm in Rockville is easily the biggest offender, but Crown is hardly better. Town centers like these are very isolated from surrounding areas with "street grids" that only connect within the community.

King Farm pretty much shows a multi-block-long wall to MD 355 and has one road crossing over to the Metro station which is less than half a mile away. Crown Farm is also less than a mile from the even larger urbanist Washingtonian Center/RIO retail/office/entertainment/hotel complex, but there is no easy way to get between the two as a pedestrian or as a motorist. On top of that these developments tend to use cheap materials use cheap building materials, reuse the same exact design for all buildings/homes, and have a sterile feel.

In contrast, I much prefer the more "traditional" urban areas such as downtown Rockville, Silver Spring, and Bethesda. The "retrofitted" urban areas such as White Flint, Twinbrook, etc. are also much better than the start-from-scratch-on-100-acres-of-farmland "town centers" further out in the 'burbs.

Btw, it's still really disappointing that the CCT won't be light rail as much as I understand and agree with the rationale behind the mode choice.

by King Terrapin on Feb 25, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

Yeah I agree but once they age it will help.

by h st ll on Feb 25, 2014 12:49 pm • linkreport

King Terrapin,
All you say is true, with the added caveat what h st says, but you need to keep in mind that none of the faults as you've defined them can be overcome at the developer level. For these islands of urbanism to be better integrated into the larger fabric would involve a great deal of local governmental involvement, something that even in the most liberal of jurisdictions is a tought sell. Just look at the problems Montgomery county has had in putting a light rail through it's communities. Used to be that "city fathers"(read business leaders/gov.) simply used emminant domain or subterfuge to execute whatever project was being planned. (See the Penn station show on PBS for example).

I'm not judging what's the best method to develope cities, but it needs to be acknowleged that the conditions that gave rise to our older towns is somewhat different than those of today, to say nothing of the fact that as the "law" get's more complex and the landscape gets more crowded, the ability to grow a town "organically" becomes exponentially more complicated.

Many of these developments happen in a built-out suburban landscape which in many cases had to be fought just to be able to drop a swatch of urbanity in. A lot of the artificiality comes from making the transition between the traditional car oriented surrounding fabric and entering what appears to some as a Truman show. As for the materials, they're no different than any other development, but they will never match the solidity and permanence of the original traditional buildings that relied on thick walls to support themselves rather than a skin applied to a skeleton structure.

Rather than taking it out on developers and architects though, (who share some blame), I think our political leaders should be held to account. I think if they took the time to explain the larger issues at stake, both environmental and economical, the public might be more ammenable to accepting the short term pain yet long term gain that would accrue our communities should they be allowed to "think big" about how to grow to remain sustainable and viable. I also would lay some of the blame on the news outlets that seem to prefer the sound bite to the long term view.

Partly our mobile society is to blame, and also the degraded public realm that's more difficult to sustain in the face of all our private entertainments. But none of these reasons absolve our leaders from pushing for change that will benefit the most in the long run. Then again, we get the leaders we deserve.

by Thayer-D on Feb 25, 2014 1:14 pm • linkreport

Another Arlington? I sure hope not. Traffic is already crazy at rush hour.

On the bright side, maybe all this development will lead to the revitalization of Gaithersburg's main drag along 355? That area is awfully sad-looking by comparison.

by Steve D. on Feb 26, 2014 10:19 am • linkreport

Agree with kk on "organic development". I don't understand why there is such a cry out for development to be "organic" versus planned. Who cares? As long as it's practical and serves the needs of the populace, and honestly, they look pretty decent to me. It's not Montmartre, but then again, it's not La Defense either. Get over it. Things that have character are like that cause well--they are OLDER.

Everything has to start somewhere.

Also, it's really not fair to judge a development project as looking "cold" or "sterile", when it's not yet open and there aren't shops with window dressing yet and well, restaurants and retail and--tada--people walking around, yet.

I have to say, I visited Gaithersburg for the first time in maybe 10 years last weekend to see a friend in a show at Gaithersburg Arts Barn---and had to drive thru one of these urban villages that has been around for a few year, and I found it quite charming, peaceful and well populated and---alive! It helped that it was a beautifully sunny afternoon, but beats what we had before.

And finally, I live in North Arlington. If I hear one more person complain about the traffic I'm gonna scream! Traffic? Are you kidding? Were you raised in Lancaster PA or Montana? I challenge you to find any suburb so close to a major metropolitan area with better traffic than Arlington. It's really not bad at all considering the convenience and practicality of living a few miles from the Nation's capital.

by LuvDusty on Feb 27, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

Transit Oriented Development is no doubt better than traditional sprawl, but greenfield projects such as these are still incredibly wasteful considering the underpopulated, existing neighborhoods in nearby Baltimore. No need to build new streets or row homes down here as they already exist and only need renovation.

by Graham on Mar 11, 2014 11:37 am • linkreport

Kentlands clones/wannabees. This doesn't happen at Kentlands (but does happen in Montgomery Village) - I predict people living there will be physically arguing with each other over parking.

by asffa on Apr 29, 2014 4:01 pm • linkreport

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