The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Frederick is "Fredneck" no more

A few weeks ago, my friends and I drove up to Frederick for the day. I'd never been there, but discovered much greater Washington could learn from. Forget "Fredneck." No matter what color their necks may be, this place is far from backwards.

You can imagine my surprise when, after we parked in the very center of downtown, I stepped out of the car to see a bustling, if small, business district. "Wow!" I exclaimed. "Frederick is just like a city, but smaller!"

As if on cue, a guy in a baseball cap walked by and yelled, "Don't get excited. It sucks."

Trellis & Stone Bridge

Running through Downtown Frederick is Carroll Creek Park, a recently renovated promenade along a tributary of the Monocacy River. Completed in 2006, the park began as a flood-control project after rainstorms in the 1970's decimated the business district. Today, it's a gorgeous urban space, lined with new apartments, offices, and some shops and restaurants. On a Saturday afternoon, the creek was hopping as people strolled the banks and gathered on outdoor patios.

Chain Stores At Carroll Creek

New development usually means higher rents, so much of the retail along Carroll Creek is occupied by chain stores like Five Guys and Ben & Jerry's. That's almost all the chains you'll find in downtown Frederick, where mom-and-pops dominate.

Romanesque Building, Market & Church

Market and Patrick streets form the spine of downtown Frederick. Some of the 2,500 buildings in the surrounding historic district date to the 19th century. They were preserved after the city paid off Confederate General Jubal Early not to burn it down during the Civil War. Unscarred by 20th century attempts at urban renewal, the downtown feels as vibrant as cities several times its size.

Pitcrew Skate Shop, Market & 2nd

Jane Jacobs argued that older buildings keep rents down—many are paid off, and the costs of renovating one are often lower than building new. In downtown Frederick, that means small businesses can afford to set up shop here, meaning a greater variety of shops and a stronger sense of place. Among the offerings are a store that sells puzzles and knives (in the same space), a store that sells kitschy toys in the front (and modern furniture in the back), and this surprisingly large skate shop.

Shaggy Dog Stories, Market & 3rd

A business district filled with local businesspeople engenders a strong sense of community. You're more likely to know, and trust, the people running the puzzle and knife store. Many shopkeepers along Market Street put out water dishes for dogs, and if you're walking one, no one thinks twice about approaching you.

New Townhomes, East 5th

As we saw at Carroll Creek, the quality of new development in Frederick is excellent. Having so many older buildings around means the bar's raised high for new stuff. The same goes for residential buildings, like these new rowhouses just off Market Street.

Shitty Strip Mall, Market & 4th

Not everything is as nice. This vacant strip mall at Market and 4th uses brick and double-hung windows to look historic, but setting it back behind a big parking lot kills the sidewalk life. This is just four blocks north from downtown, and it's not surprising that shops further north of this strip aren't doing so well.

Market & All Saints

But overall, Frederick's an awesome example of how to make a city work. You've got strong (though not always historic) architecture, streets that favor pedestrians over cars, a really strong mix of uses and activities, and a commitment to quality open space. It's definitely an example for how communities across Maryland and the D.C. area can improve themselves in the future.

It's hard to deny that all of these things contribute to a strong sense of community and local pride, as witnessed in this hilarious video spoofing Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind".

Also, check out this photoset of downtown Frederick.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Historic downtown Frederick is beautiful. The rest of the county is now overrun by unsustainable, soulless suburban sprawl. Yet another American Tragedy. Frederick County still doesn't know what hit 'em in the 2000's credit bubble.

At least the legacy downtown has never looked better.

by Cavan on May 25, 2010 3:53 pm • linkreport

City, suburbs, one constant. A vacant building w/ a Douglas Development lease sign.

On a different note, anything think of the staples commercial when they saw wow. Wow! That's a small city!

by vacant on May 25, 2010 3:58 pm • linkreport

This just in: urban blog discovers that life outside cities and suburbs is not necessarily backward.

Next week: if you throw a phone into a black hole and call it, what happens?

by Tim on May 25, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

The Douglas development sign is really funny.

by Neil Flanagan on May 25, 2010 4:12 pm • linkreport

I tried to laugh at your weak snark, Tim, but just couldn't seem to find it worth it.

by Cavan on May 25, 2010 4:26 pm • linkreport

Don't forget Volt Restaurant. Ate there and it was a truly memorable experience. Beautiful building, too.

by Ward 1 Guy on May 25, 2010 4:47 pm • linkreport

Frederick is indeed great. If it were closer in, it would be Alexandria.

Hagerstown, Annapolis, and Cumberland all also feature very high quality urbanism, and Ellicott City, while maybe not as good, is at least worth mentioning.

by BeyondDC on May 25, 2010 4:58 pm • linkreport

... Nearby in Virginia, Leesburg and Fredericksburg have good downtowns. If you go a little further away, Winchester, Staunton, and Charlottesville are all worth seeing.

by BeyondDC on May 25, 2010 5:00 pm • linkreport

I'm personally not so concerned about chains dominating particular parts of town as long as the urban form is kept well. Eventually smaller and more independent stores should be able to move in.

by Canaan on May 25, 2010 5:06 pm • linkreport

We have a number of nice stores north of 4th St. that would certainly be happy to have a tenant at the strip mall on Market and 4th, since it would certainly draw business further up the road. Moxie up near Market and 7th is a great bakery and coffee shop. There's a neat art store at Market and 5th. We moved to Frederick four years ago and love everything but the commute.

by Bobby on May 25, 2010 5:06 pm • linkreport

I love downtown Frederick. If only the MARC or Amtrak went through it on the weekend.

by Reid on May 25, 2010 5:13 pm • linkreport

Haven't been to Frederick in about eight years. Looks good. A lot of it reminds me of the (small) city I went to college in, except without the downtown urban decay, or the attempted 'revitalization' in the form of a huge enclosed mall in the heart of downtown. It's easy to focus on big cities, but lots of small cities need good urbanism too.

by Distantantennas on May 25, 2010 5:44 pm • linkreport

Pit Crew, yeah! That's been there since I was in high school. Glad to see GGW get up north, Frederick is a pretty "special" place.

by Ryan S on May 25, 2010 6:09 pm • linkreport

The Cuban Place is the bomb.

by Boots on May 25, 2010 7:57 pm • linkreport

"Yet another American Tragedy."

Do you realize how obnoxiously silly you sound? The Civil War was a tragedy. Frederick's lack of urban planning, not so much.

by Jeez on May 25, 2010 10:54 pm • linkreport

What about Harry Grove Stadium?

by Johnny Uptown on May 26, 2010 6:17 am • linkreport

It's true. The cuban place IS the bomb.

by Andy on May 26, 2010 8:12 am • linkreport

Downtown Frederick is really nice. It's a quaint little historic village with nice shops and restaurants, and a great place to visit for a day or two.

I guess I'm unsure what the point here is, though. You can't compare what is essentially a slightly touristy village to a city.

The population of Frederick is about 60,000 in 20 square miles. The population of just zip code 20010 is about exactly half of that, 29,784, in 1.56 square miles. The demographics have nothing in common.

Is there something to be learned, other than small towns are totally different than big cities?

by Jamie on May 26, 2010 9:32 am • linkreport

Actually the vacant strip mall was actually an long abandoned grocery store that's been there well, forever, that's been recently redesigned to look like and strip mall. For some reason, a grocery store couldn't survive in downtown and people preferred traveling to the now deteriorating 'golden mile' on West Patrick St. The 'old Carmack Jays' is a long time concern to the planners of downtown Frederick and for now, at least, will be used as the site of a farmer's market on Wednesdays, 3-7pm starting June 9.

by Ally on May 28, 2010 7:23 am • linkreport

hilarious that, no matter where you go, if there's one vacant building left in the area, chances are it's a jemal building.

by IMGoph on Jun 6, 2010 6:19 pm • linkreport

yeah i dig old frederick too. cool vibe. good antique stores. the delaplaine arts center is a great feature. i agree about Volt, good place ( if you can get up there for lunch, its a really fantastic deal).

the brew pub is pretty cool.
my wife and i used to go to the art openings walk every few months or so, and once we stayed at a bed and breakfast over the 4th of july weekend. they do a cool fireworks display in that big park. its fun and kinda laid back. cunningham falls and the catoctin furnace is a quick drive away.

that all said, if i lived there, i'd blow my brains out. it is small and if you've spend a week there, you will have exhausted everything there is to do.

by sean on Jun 7, 2010 5:09 pm • linkreport

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