Greater Greater Washington

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Pedestrians


Wheaton Plaza owners successfully block pedestrian path, saying it would "bring crime"

All over the region, malls are opening up to their surroundings, whether by redeveloping in a more urban format or simply creating more street connections. But in Wheaton, neighbors are fighting mall owners who want to close off a popular footpath.


Mall owner Westfield doesn't want this desire path to become a sidewalk. All photos by the author unless noted.

The neighbors call it Mt. McComas. Rising above McComas Avenue, it's a giant mound of backfill from the construction of Wheaton Plaza in 1959. Today, it's a meadow where deer roam and a well-worn dirt path delivers shoppers to Costco and Dick's Sporting Goods. Commuters use it as a shortcut to the Wheaton Metro station.

A new residential development on the property was originally going to include a paved sidewalk, but mall owners Westfield successfully blocked it due to concerns that it would bring crime into Kensington Heights, the neighborhood south and west of the mall.

Neighbors disagree. "Walking is a MUCH preferable way of getting there for the new home residents and everyone nearby," wrote neighbor Karen Cordry in a letter to the Planning Board. "Cutting off this access point is a big concern for us."

Current residents and builder embrace walkability

Neighbors originally fought the proposed development, but embraced the chance to get a new path, which saves people walking to downtown Wheaton and the Metro a lot of time. It's about a half-mile walk from McComas Avenue to the Metro using the path, compared to nearly a mile using the neighborhood's twisting, disconnected streets. There are a couple of other paths between the neighborhood and the mall, but they're not as direct.

That connection would presumably be an asset to 39UP, a new development of 40 townhomes and single-family homes on Mt. McComas and another property adjacent to the mall. The original plans, approved in 2009, included a new, dead-end street branching off of McComas Avenue, with a sidewalk connecting it to the mall.


Rendering of new homes at 39UP. Image from OPaL.

Local builder OPaL, which is building 39UP, emphasizes the neighborhood's urban, walkable character. In the development's other portion, on University Boulevard facing Wheaton Plaza, townhomes will face the mall's entrance road, with sidewalks running along it.

"There is a plethora of things going on in Wheaton that are incredibly promising," wrote owner Sean Ruppert in an email. "Our home owners can expect Wheaton to continue to become a more urban core with more and more things to do every year for the foreseeable future." He expects the homes to appeal to "empty nesters, young couples, and singles…all of whom are looking for a Metro-oriented location."

Mall owners say a path would bring crime to surrounding neighborhoods

But Westfield, the Australian company that owns the mall, doesn't want a sidewalk on Mt. McComas. "Westfield…remains opposed to any condition which encourages and in fact authorizes pedestrian from the general public to cross the Kensington Heights-McComas Avenue development and then enter the mall site," wrote vice president of development Clive MacKenzie, Sr., who appears to be based in New Zealand.

MacKenzie claimed that the path "might encourage [people] to enter the neighboring communities from the mall," causing "a substantial security concern." He added that drivers in the parking lot could hit people trying to walk to the mall.


Site plan showing 39UP (in color) and originally proposed connections to Wheaton Plaza (in brown). Image from OPaL.

As a result, developer Sterling Mehring of Kensington Heights, LLC asked the Planning Board for permission to swap the path for a public access easement, which would allow a path to be built some time in the future. The board approved the change, under the condition that they would revisit the path if Wheaton Plaza were ever redeveloped. In the meantime, Mehring worried that people would still be able to use the property as a shortcut.

"I want to be involved in walk able [sic] communities, its [sic] smart growth and it is smart marketing. The market wants that," wrote Mehring to the Planning Board. "The wording would make it the right of any citizen to ignore the established access and sidewalks, and to walk to the end of the public sidewalk easement in our community, cross our community property and walk up the hill to the mall creating a new volunteer path…and the new community would not be entitled to fence or restrict access on their property."

As malls open up to the neighborhood, Wheaton Plaza turns away

Montgomery County has given Westfield $10 million in subsidies over the past decade to build a parking garage and a Costco, which have drawn more customers to a mall that was struggling. Before that, the mall's previous owner received a grant for mall improvements that required them to improve and preserve pedestrian circulation.

But Westfield hasn't given much in return. Their new parking garage at the end of Reedie Drive blocked pedestrian connections to the mall from downtown Wheaton. And neighbors have been fighting a gas station Costco wants to build, on the basis that it would further weaken walkability.

"The least (and I do mean least!) they could do is to make this connection," wrote Donna Savage, land use chair for the Kensington Heights Civic Association, in a letter to the Planning Board.


The base of Mt. McComas.

Shopping malls aren't as popular as they used to be, and as a result, many area malls are taking on a more urban character. Ballston Common is opening up to the street to attract more foot traffic. Tysons Corner Center will get a new plaza connecting it to a new Metro station. And White Flint Mall, a few miles from Wheaton Plaza, will be torn down and rebuilt as an urban neighborhood. Those mall owners understand that encouraging pedestrian traffic, rather than increasing crime, would actually draw more customers, creating more business.

Unlike Tysons or White Flint, Wheaton Plaza is already part of a walkable and growing downtown. Yet rather than improving connections that could strengthen the mall and the surrounding community, Westfield is severing them.

Development


How do you fix Ballston mall? Make it less like a mall

Problem: The Ballston Common Mall isn't working very well. Solution: Open the mall up to the surrounding streets, so it becomes the center of a lively community rather than a walled-off separate place.


Concept for the Ballston mall renovation. Images from Forest City.

Ballston is one of the smallest malls in the region. It can't compete well against bigger centers with more stores, like Pentagon City or Tysons Corner. Instead, the mall generally only draws customers from a small area nearby, and thus makes less money than other, bigger malls.

Meanwhile, being an enclosed mall that serves mostly local traffic, it saps sidewalk retail away from Ballston's neighborhood streets. Stores that would otherwise be on the sidewalk are instead bottled up in the mall.

To fix this, developer Forest City plans to face more stores to the sidewalk, and give them more inviting storefronts. It will replace nondescript mall doors with open-air plazas that naturally extend the street into the mall. Capping the building will be a new 29-story residential tower.


Concept for the open-air plaza.

Forest City still needs to work with Arlington County to finalize and approve plans. For now, these are just concepts. But if all goes well, the 1980s-style Ballston Common Mall will transition to become the contemporary Ballston Center in 2017 and 2018.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


See a strip mall become a neighborhood in White Flint

The first phase of Pike + Rose, the massive strip mall redevelopment on Rockville Pike, is scheduled to open this fall. Recently, I got to tour the construction site as it slowly transforms into a neighborhood.


Grand Park Avenue, one of several new streets at Pike + Rose. All photos by the author.

When it's finished several years from now, Pike + Rose will contain 9 city blocks with 3.5 million square feet of apartments, offices, shops, and restaurants, as well as a movie theatre and music venue. I'll be five times the size of Bethesda Row, which developer Federal Realty also built.

After about 18 months of construction, Pike + Rose is beginning to look like a place. Cladding is beginning to cover the buildings' frames, and windows are starting to go in. Grand Park Avenue, envisioned as a bustling street lined with storefronts and dining patios, is still a mud pit, though it now has curbs.


The future Muse Alley.

Around the corner is Muse Alley, the first of several public spaces in the development. Evan Goldman, Federal Realty's vice president of development and my tour guide, explained that the lower level would be a deck with movable tables and chairs and surrounded by a "forest" of birch trees. Overlooking it will be a beer garden.

There are three buildings in the first phase. Two are apartment buildings: Pallas, an 18-story building that's still being framed, and PerSei, a mid-rise building that will open this spring. Aaron Kraut at BethesdaNow got to take a look inside PerSei last week.


Looking at PerSei from across the street.

Like many new apartment buildings, it's been designed to look like several smaller buildings in an attempt to break down its block-long size. Goldman said that the developer wanted to draw from the area's history. One section is designed to look like a repurposed warehouse building, while the cream-colored section pictured above will get a mural inspired by a bakery that was once located nearby.


11800 Grand Park will contain offices over a movie theatre and other venues.

The third building, 11800 Grand Park Avenue, contains several floors of offices atop a health club, a high-end movie theatre, and a four-star restaurant. Federal Realty worked with Strathmore, whose music hall is a mile away, to create a jazz club as well. It was originally supposed to be an open-air space, but instead will have sliding glass walls, allowing it to double as a corporate meeting space during the week.

Having this many entertainment venues next to each other, and all opening at once, could create a critical mass of activity in White Flint almost instantly. It's similar to the way that restaurateur Joe Englert sought to make H Street NE a nightlife destination by opening several bars and restaurants at once. "This will be the entertainment center of the county," Goldman says. "We hope this is that place everyone goes on the weekends."


Looking out at White Flint's skyline from the health club deck.

This building includes a number of outdoor spaces; the restaurant, health club, and jazz venue all have roof decks. Today the views are of parking lots and strip malls, but over time, it'll fill in as White Flint grows a skyline.

Back on the street, 75% of the retail spaces have been leased, including several restaurants. Many of them are chains, but there are places that only have a few other locations nationwide, meaning they'll be the only ones in the DC area.


Restaurants will fill the ground-floor spaces on Old Georgetown Road.

Some of these restaurants will face Old Georgetown Road, a busy state highway. This fits in with the county's vision to make it a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly street, though both Montgomery County and Maryland transportation officials have been reluctant to do so. Hopefully, creating activity on Old Georgetown now will push them to redesign it as an urban street.


What's left of Mid-Pike Plaza.

In May, work on Pike + Rose's second phase will start by demolishing the rest of the main strip mall, while a small retail building at the corner of Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road will get a facelift to help it blend in with the new buildings. Most of the remaining tenants have left; some have moved to other Federal Realty-owned shopping centers along Rockville Pike, while Chipotle, Starbucks, and La Madeleine will move to new spaces on-site.

The second phase should open within two years, but Federal Realty has no timeline for the rest of the site, including the building on the corner. Plans show that it could eventually become a high-rise office building, though that probably won't happen until there's funding for a new entrance to the White Flint Metro across the street, which would make that site much more valuable.

White Flint has been in planning for years, and it'll take decades for it to fully become a more urban place. The first phase of Pike + Rose offers us a glimpse of White Flint's future, but also suggests a path forward for other aging shopping centers around the region.

Check out this slideshow of Pike + Rose under construction.

Public Spaces


Silver Spring mall could get massive facelift, new name

Standing inside City Place Mall, it's as if the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring never happened. After multiple attempts to revive the half-empty mall, the answer could be opening it to the street.


Rendering of the proposed Ellsworth Place Mall. All images from Petrie Ross.

Representatives from Annapolis developer Petrie Ross Ventures presented their plans for the 21-year-old mall at the corner of Colesville Road and Fenton Street last night at the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board's monthly meeting. They want to create several new entrances to the street while reorganizing the mall's interior to draw larger, upscale retailers. Construction could begin this year and the mall could reopen in 2015.

The mall will also get a new name: Ellsworth Place, building on the success of the revitalized Ellsworth Drive next door. "We think it's time for the name to change and the branding to change to send a signal that things aren't the same as they were for 25 years," said partner Walt Petrie.

Mall will get new entrances, national retailers


The mall will get two new entrances, including this one on Ellsworth Drive.

Unlike White Flint Mall, which is being redeveloped as an outdoor shopping center, Ellsworth Place will remain an indoor mall. "It wants to be a mall," said Terry Richardson, president of Petrie Ross. "The retailers who want to be here want a mall experience, just friendlier and more pedestrian-oriented than City Place was."

To that end, Petrie Ross will improve the mall's connections to the surrounding streets, which already have lots of foot traffic. They'll renovate the three existing entrances to draw people in and place new cladding on the mall's newer section, closer to Colesville Road. Signs, lighting and video screens will hang from the existing metal framework that wraps around the building's older portion, originally built as a Hecht's department store in the 1940's.

The developer also plans new entrances on Ellsworth Drive and Colesville Road with escalators leading directly to the mall's upper floors or into a store. Along Fenton Street, there will be a new outdoor dining terrace suspended above the sidewalk to serve a sit-down restaurant. Meanwhile, new signs on the mall's blank rear wall will beckon people standing on the Metro platform two blocks away.


Ellsworth Place's new center court.

Inside, Petrie Ross will replace the existing 1990's Art Deco decor with "more of an industrial, clean look," said Petrie. The mall will get new lighting, a new elevator and new escalators. They also plan to rearrange the layout to improve circulation and combine smaller stores into larger, "junior anchor" spaces for national retailers.

Petrie said he seeks to bring retailers serving the "moderate and up" crowd, with a focus on entertainment venues, restaurants and clothing stores. Some establishments will stay, like McGinty's Public House, Blue Pearl, and the restaurants facing Ellsworth Drive, along with a "refreshed" Burlington Coat Factory. But the food court, which has just one restaurant, will go away, along Galaxy Billards, which will make way for a new entrance.

Several major chains and one "locally owned, regional chain" restaurant have already signed letters of intent to open here, and Petrie Ross is about to sign a lease with one of them. "You're going to recognize this tenant, and be happy to hear who it is," said Petrie. There was no word on what the new stores would be, but attorney Gus Bauman hinted that one of them might be the arts and crafts store Michaels.

On the fifth floor, a 10-screen movie theatre that's been closed since 2004 will be turned into an entertainment venue with "high-end bowling." Petrie compared it to Lucky Strike. "It's a large venue with a lot of activity that will draw a lot of people," he said.

Concerns about local businesses, historic preservation


The mall's renovated entrance at Colesville and Fenton.

After Hecht's closed in 1987, Montgomery County sought a way to bring shoppers back to downtown Silver Spring, but City Place struggled soon after it opened in 1992. When the Downtown Silver Spring complex opened in 2003, the mall had become an afterthought.

Since buying the mall in 2007, Petrie Ross has made several proposals to fix it, ranging from cosmetic changes to turning it into an outlet mall or a Target.

As a result, residents were cautiously optimistic about the mall's future. "I'm personally excited about this and I know people want things to go into this building," said Evan Glass, chair of the advisory board. "But this is the fourth iteration y'all have showed us. So why now? Why this?"

Terry Richardson, president of Petrie Ross, said that after years of recession, shoppers are ready to start spending again and retailers want to serve them. "National retailers . . . hit the pause button" in 2008, he said. "But year by year, sales are increasing."

Residents talked about stores they'd like to see in the new mall, like a bookstore or other "third places" where people could hang out without having to spend money. Board member Praj Kasbekar asked if there could be more local businesses in the mall. "Not everyone is looking for another national chain in Silver Spring," she said.

Historic preservation was another concern. The Hecht's wing is a historic landmark, and any changes to the outside will require approval from the county's Historic Preservation Commission.

Bauman called the proposed exterior alterations "modest," saying they won't drastically alter the façade. Instead of cutting a hole over the new Ellsworth Drive entrance to put a display window there, Petrie Ross will attach a new sign and glass "shadow box" to the exterior. "Without those entrances, tenants will not come here," Bauman added. "This is what tenants tell us will bring them to Silver Spring."

Groundbreaking could happen this year


Aerial of Ellsworth Place with proposed office building on top.

Representatives from Petrie Ross are already talking to the Montgomery County Planning Department about getting permits. If they get them this fall, Petrie said, construction could start by "the end of the year" and the mall could reopen within 2 years.

There's no word on when work will start on a 9-story, 210,000-square-foot office building above the mall, which was approved with the original project in 1988. The infrastructure needed for the office building is already in place and "we could get the permits tomorrow," said Petrie.

The past failures of City Place shows that malls don't always work in an urban setting. But with over 30,000 people working in downtown Silver Spring and thousands of apartments being built, there's bound to be demand for new places to shop, eat and hang out. The key is making sure that they're not walled off, but connected to the larger urban realm.

Check out this slideshow of renderings of the new Ellsworth Place.

Development


Rebuild of the Blairs will turn Silver Spring parking into parks

With 1400 apartments, a strip mall and an office building around a huge parking lot, the Blairs are a suburban relic in the middle of downtown Silver Spring. Over the next 15 to 20 years, it could become a city in its own right, with new housing, commercial space, and a network of new streets and parks.


The Blairs today. Photo by the author.

The Rockville-based Tower Companies showed me their long-term plan for the redevelopment of the 1960's-era 27-acre complex bounded by Colesville Road, East-West Highway, Blair Mill Road and Eastern Avenue on Wednesday before presenting it to the community that evening at the Silver Spring Civic Building.

The project, which could cost $625 million, would double the amount of housing and triple the amount of commercial, which is already allowed under current zoning. The shopping center, office building, and older apartment buildings would be replaced with acres of new parks, courtyards, and buildings with green roofs.

Canadian architect Bing Thom, who designed the new Arena Stage in Southwest DC, developed the plan with landscape architect Alan Ward of Boston-based Sasaki Associates, who designed Reston Town Center. "As an architect, it's such a joy to work with [Tower]," says Thom. "Here's a private property owner that says 'We want everyone to walk through our property!'"

Plan proposes new street grid, network of parks


Site plan of the proposed Blairs Master Plan. All images courtesy of Sasaki Associates.

Thom describes the Blairs Master Plan as a "transition from suburban to semi-urban to urban." The tallest buildings, located closer to East-West Highway and the Silver Spring Metro station, would reach 200 feet in height, stepping down to 140 feet and then 40-foot tall townhouses across from the single-family homes on Eastern Avenue.

Each of the 10 new apartment, office and hotel towers sits atop a podium of structured parking, which is capped by a private courtyard or roof deck and wrapped by either townhouses with ground-floor entrances or ground-floor retail. In Vancouver, where Thom is based, this type of building is called a "point tower."

Not only do the townhouses lend the high-rises a more human scale, but they provide a type of housing that isn't very common in downtown Silver Spring. "It's a house in the city," says Thom. "For young families and households with pets, they'll be very popular."

A new street grid with extensions of Draper Lane and Portal Drive NW, new streets, and pedestrian passages, breaks up the existing superblock. The new streets tie the site into the surrounding community and make circulation easier, but are designed to discourage through traffic. Meanwhile, a series of open spaces totaling over 4 acres creates a connection between the Silver Spring Metro station and Rock Creek Park.

"What was once one block is now more permeable," says Ward. "We worked as a team to shape the blocks and make this interesting network of public spaces."

Draper, which exists today as a parking ramp, will become a real street with sidewalks and bike lanes. It divides the site, which has a 25-foot drop between the east and west sides, into what Thom calls the "upper and lower escarpment."


Blair Park, the largest park in a four-acre network.

The "upper escarpment," closer to East-West Highway, replaces the existing shopping center and the office building on Colesville Road with a "lively," mixed-use district with shops, offices, a hotel and about 700 new apartments. It's centered on Blair Park, a one-acre, oval-shaped park oriented to guide people to and from the Metro. Ward envisions it as a major gathering space that can host festivals and concerts, but can still feel comfortable for everyday activities.

Surrounding the park are shops, a new grocery store, and restaurants with outdoor seating. It's lined by a street that is "designed for pedestrians, but cars happen to go through it," says Ward.

Closer to Eastern Avenue is the "lower escarpment," with a more "relaxed, residential" character. Blair Towers, 257 apartments in 4 mid-rise buildings constructed in 1959, would be replaced by roughly 1000 apartments and townhomes in four new blocks. They'll be allowed to remain until their leases expire throughout the next year, though the Tower Companies says they'll allow residents to move to vacant apartments elsewhere in the complex and help pay their moving costs.


Montgomery Square would have a seating area and "imagination playground."

Another open space, called Terrace Park, provides a transition between the upper and lower escarpments with a gentle sloping lawn criss-crossed by ramps and a water feature that collects and recycles rainwater. At the bottom is Montgomery Square, which has outdoor seating and a children's "imagination playground." Throughout the lower escarpment are a series of smaller pocket parks leading to Eastern Avenue and Rock Creek Park, including a "fitness park" or outdoor gym, and two dog parks.

When finished, there would be 2,800 apartments and townhomes, 1,700 of which would be new; 200,000 square feet of office space; 125,000 square feet of retail space, including a new grocery store; and a 125-room hotel. With the exception of Blair Towers, all of the other apartments in the complex, which were either recently renovated or newly built to LEED standards, would remain.

Murn says he hopes to file a project plan with the Montgomery County Planning Department in March and anticipates that the entire approval process should take between 16 and 18 months. If everything goes as scheduled, work on the lower escarpment would begin in the fall of 2014 and occur in 4 phases. Later, the shopping center and office building would be redeveloped in 3 additional phases. Since Giant's lease doesn't end until 2024, it may take 15 to 20 years for the entire project to be completed.

Residents concerned about parking, open space and displacement


A mews, or pedestrian passage lined with townhouses.

Reaction to the project at Wednesday's presentation was generally positive, though several concerns were raised.

Residents of Shepherd Park, located across from the Blairs in the District, say the redevelopment will exacerbate an existing parking shortage. The Blairs Master Plan proposes 3300 parking spaces, nearly twice what's there today.

Ed Murn, director of development for the Tower Companies, says he intentionally "overparked" the site, providing more parking than tenants are likely to use. This may be due to the county's zoning requirements, or demands from retailers.

It's likely that some parking will go unused. The Blairs are across the street from one of the region's largest transit hubs and a short walk to major employers and shopping and should attract people who don't want or need to drive. Most people living in downtown Silver Spring already get around by foot, bike or transit. Structured parking is really expensive to build, especially if it won't be used. If it's possible to reduce the amount of parking on site, the developers should go for it.

Blair Towers tenants say they're worried about displacement and not being able to find affordable housing in the area. Rents continue to rise in Silver Spring despite an apartment building boom, though low vacancy rates suggest there isn't enough housing to meet demand.

As many as 210 apartments will be set aside as Moderately Priced Dwelling Units for low-income households. Murn argued that adding new housing while keeping some of the old will provide more affordable options. "I'm gonna have older buildings at lower price points than the newer buildings at higher price points," he says.


Private ownership of public spaces allows programming like this performance depicted here, but are they truly public?

There's also a growing desire for open space in the area, raising the question of how public the Blairs' open spaces will be, since they are all privately owned. In 2007, Montgomery County determined that Ellsworth Drive, which was leased to a private developer, was a public forum where people have the right to free speech.

Murn stresses that the public spaces will be "open and inviting," though he didn't say what restrictions may be placed on them. "Without private ownership, it's impossible for Tower Companies to provide programming our tenants and neighbors would want," says Murn, adding, "The activity doesn't come without the public."

The Blairs Master Plan will breathe new life into a section of downtown Silver Spring that's seen a lot of residential and office development but little else. Even residents who were worried about the project had good things to say about it and praised the detail of the developer and design team's presentation. Many asked for them to hold more community meetings so others could learn about it and offer input.

"This project is so large and so important to the future of Silver Spring that it demands more public comment," says Evan Glass, chair of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board. "An open process is usually a good process."

Check out this slideshow with detailed images of the Blairs Master Plan.

Retail


Moratoriums have their place, but are easily misused

Residents and leaders in the U Street area are now debating a proposal for a moratorium on liquor licenses. When is a moratorium, for liquor or otherwise, useful? When is it not?


Photo by sbluerock on Flickr.

Theoretically, local moratoriums on certain types of development can strengthen neighborhoods by encouraging a broader mix of uses. Unfortunately, they rarely actually work that way. More often, moratoriums become misused by opponents of growth in general, to try and slow or stop change.

The basic truth of moratoriums is that they don't usually stop things, but rather move them somewhere else. Banning bars on U Street doesn't eliminate demand for bars, it simply pushes any new supply to the next best location. Residential moratoriums, sometimes used in fast growing suburbs, are the same.

Any discussion of a local ban on any particular use needs to consider where that use is most appropriate. It's not enough to just say "I don't want more of X in my neighborhood." We have to plan where we do want that use, make sure it can happen there, and then plan what we want in the banned location instead.

Malls can use their control in ways neighborhoods can't

One of the advantages suburban malls have over urban neighborhoods is total control of the merchant mix. Mall owners know that it's important to have a wide variety of stores, so the best malls typically lease spaces to shops that will improve their mix, rather than those that will pay the highest rent.

When you're at a mall and Verizon has a big luxurious shop, but AT&T and T-Mobile only have little carts, it isn't because AT&T and T-Mobile can't afford to outbid that shoe store down the hall; it's because the mall owner will only lease out one big space to cell phone providers.

That isn't limiting the free market. On the contrary, it's taking a broad long term view of the market.

Urban neighborhoods usually can't be as selective, because every building has a unique owner. Mall owners are concerned about the overall profit of the entire mall, so they can turn down high leases on individual storefronts if they think it will pay off with a little more business everywhere else. But if you only own one individual storefront, you're going to maximize it with the highest-paying tenant you can find.

That sometimes results in neighborhoods with a bad mix of stores. We certainly see that in DC, where many of our retail strips have a glut of bank branches, cell phone stores, or pharmacies.

If used carefully, a moratorium can help level the playing field for urban neighborhoods with a lot of small land owners. That only works if the neighborhood is desirable enough to fill all its storefronts even with limits, and if the moratorium is more a way to promote something new rather than limit something old.

But moratoriums shouldn't be tossed around lightly. The key is to plan for what you do want and then make it happen. Moratoriums fail when they're used without a master plan guiding them towards a specific goal.

And sometimes, it's worth having a high ratio of certain things. For example, as a regionally-significant nightlife district, it's acceptable for U Street to have a lot of bars.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


White Flint's journey points way for other struggling malls

White Flint Mall opened in 1977 as the emblem of Montgomery County's rising suburban affluence, but over time the luxury mall began to show its age. Now located at the center of the urbanizing White Flint Sector Plan area, the mall's transformation into an urban neighborhood is a sign of where the county's going.


White Flint Mall today. All images by the author except where noted.

"It's going to be an incredible project, certainly adding to the energy and synergy of White Flint," says Francine Waters, managing director of owner Lerner Enterprises, which built the mall and others like it throughout the region over the past several decades.

In October, the Planning Board approved a sketch plan to replace the 874,000-square-foot mall and an adjacent office building with 5.2 million square feet of shops, homes, offices and a hotel. The project could take 25 years to build over 3 phases; when finished, it would be the largest development in the White Flint area.

In a 2011 Washington Post article, Michael Cohen of Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects described the project as "making a town, a community."

Enclosed malls like White Flint were popular throughout North America during the late 20th century, but have become less popular as changing demographics and shopping habits have lured consumers to big-box stores and the Internet.

Borders, one of the mall's anchors, filed for bankruptcy and closed in 2011, followed by Bloomingdale's, which closed last year and moved to the mixed-use Wisconsin Place complex in Friendship Heights. Though Lerner won't divulge how many vacancies there are, portions of the mall are now empty.

What can you do to refresh a mall? Some, like Landover Mall in Prince George's County, were simply demolished while awaiting another use, while others like Harundale Mall in Anne Arundel County were turned into a strip center. A few, however, are being turned into something that resembles a neighborhood, with a mix of residential and commercial uses and public open space.

One of the best examples of this kind of redevelopment is Belmar, a former mall outside of Denver that is being redeveloped as a suburban downtown. Closer to home, plans are underway to do the same with Landmark Mall in Alexandria and Owings Mills Mall in Baltimore County.


Photo by Chris Yarzab on Flickr.

To orchestrate this transformation, Lerner hired Elkus Manfredi, which also designed CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Florida, a renowned example of New Urbanist planning principles, and Americana at Brand, a mixed-use project in Glendale, California. Both projects helped revive formerly struggling business districts and became regional destinations.

"We're looking for that exciting compelling story that [the Friends of White Flint and the White Flint Partnership] all have been looking for," says Waters. "Elkus Manfredi is a world-class architect and Americana at Brand certainly reflects a very successful project."


Site plan of the proposed redevelopment of White Flint Mall.

In the proposed design, both department store spacesLord and Taylor and the former Bloomingdale'swould remain, effectively preserving the "memory" of the mall's original footprint. Meanwhile, the center of the mall would be demolished and replaced by a 1.7-acre "central piazza" surrounded by smaller shops with housing above.

The tallest buildings, reaching as high as 200 to 250 feet, would line Rockville Pike and a future extension of Executive Boulevard that would form the site's northern boundary. From there, the height steps down to 100-foot-tall buildings around the piazza and 50-foot buildings on the site's eastern and southern boundaries, where it's closest to single-family homes.

Overall, there would be 1 million square feet of retail space, which would be joined by another million square feet of office space, a 280,000-square-foot hotel, and over 2400 apartments in 14 buildings. Underground parking garages containing 9,300 spaces would serve the entire development. According to the planning department's report, each building will be designed and oriented to take advantage of passive solar heating and lighting, reducing energy costs.

A new grid of private streets would divide the site into blocks and connect it to Rockville Pike and future extensions of Executive Boulevard and Nebel Street. The streets will be designed to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and cars and have extensive landscaping and street furniture.

Meanwhile, 40% of the site would be set aside as public or private open space, including the piazza, a 2.3-acre addition to the existing White Flint Park, and four smaller plazas scattered throughout the development.

Lerner will also set aside 4 acres on the property's southern end for an elementary school if Montgomery County Public Schools chooses to purchase it. County planners estimate that the 14,000 housing units that could eventually be built in White Flint will create demand for new schools in the area.

However, there was a brief conflict last fall when the Planning Board asked the developer to simply give the land away, but they later backed down. At the time, Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier argued that the school was necessary to placate concerns about overcrowded classrooms.

Handing over the property "was not in the sector plan," says Waters.


Bird's-eye view of the proposed White Flint Mall redevelopment.

While the redevelopment of White Flint Mall has a lot of potential, some urban design issues stem from its history as a mall. While streets break the site up into city blocks, they are much larger than blocks in other projects in the White Flint Sector Plan area. For instance, the block containing the former Bloomingdale's appears to be over 800 feet long, while the 2 blocks closest to Rockville Pike are subdivided by what appear to be cul-de-sacs that don't connect to the Pike itself.

Not only does this reduce pedestrian connectivity, but it forces drivers onto a series of 4- and 6-lane streets roughly located where the mall's ring road is today.

These larger blocks and road sections may arise in part from county Department of Transportation regulations that discourage blocks shorter than 600 feet. While a series of pedestrian passages cutting through the site help improve connectivity, it may be worth reconsidering how the street grid is set up, and whether traffic can be managed with a more fine-grained grid of smaller streets and shorter blocks.

Though the mall is set to close next year, it's unclear when construction will begin. The Planning Board will need to approve a preliminary plan and a site plan, both of which are more detailed than a sketch plan, before anything can happen. Nonetheless, Waters looks forward to what the property will become.

"It's going to be an incredible project certainly adding to the energy and synergy of White Flint," says Waters. "I am absolutely, positively thrilled with what we're proposing and how it works with the other projects within White Flint."

This content was originally developed for the Friends of White Flint blog. For more images of White Flint Mall and its proposed redevelopment, check out this slideshow.

Preservation


Glenmont Arcade shows Montgomery's commercial history

With its distinctive sign, the Glenmont Arcade was a local landmark and an emblem of Montgomery County's suburbanization after World War II. But as the county prepares to redevelop Glenmont, will it still have a place in the community?


The Glenmont Arcade. Photo by the author.

Located in the Glenmont Shopping Center at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road, the Glenmont Arcade is like a little mall-within-a-strip mall. The arcade was built in 1952 by the Glenmont Land and Development Company, which built many of the surrounding residential neighborhoods. It was the first part of the Glenmont Shopping Center, which was completed in little pieces over the following decade.

The arcade consists of a short, enclosed hallway lined with shops that ends at the entrance of a bowling alley, a beloved local institution that closed in 2002. Unlike a mall or other arcades where the shops are placed in a straight line, each of the shopfronts are angled towards the parking lot, so you can see what's inside without actually having to go inside. According to this 2001 study of the site's history, the arcade originally contained 11 "one-person businesses" in small shops.

Glenmont Arcade, 2001
The Glenmont Arcade in 2001. Photo from Anne Bruder, Maryland State Highway Administration.

Though I've lived in Montgomery County most of my life, I'd never actually been to the Glenmont Arcade before last weekend, when I talked to Scott Whipple, a historic preservation planner at the county's Planning Department, at their open house. He's particularly interested in commercial areas from the mid-20th century, like the Flower Shopping Center in Long Branch, which is currently being studied for preservation.

"It's not often that we get to do something like that," he said. There aren't many remaining examples of architecture from the 1950's and 60's; many buildings have either been torn down, remodeled beyond recognition, or under constant threat from the wrecking ball. One of them is the Glenmont Arcade, which could be demolished under a new plan the county's working on.

Unassuming as it may seem, the Glenmont Arcade comes from a long line of shopping arcades, which first originated in Paris over two hundred years ago before coming to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. They first appeared here in 1925, when the Chevy Chase Arcade was built on Connecticut Avenue in the District. Arcades also served as the inspiration for modern shopping malls like Wheaton Plaza, which was built 7 years after the Glenmont Arcade, and other strip malls around the country.

'Checks Cashed'
Inside the Glenmont Arcade today. Photo by the author.

Stepping inside the arcade feels kind of like a time capsule. There are linoleum floors, bright-white and shiny, though they replaced the original terrazzo floors. Fluorescent lights reminiscent of a high-school cafeteria hum quietly. There's an old address sign (for "12345 Georgia Avenue"), which appears to have been hand-painted and a barber pole rotating slowly outside the barbershop that's been there since the arcade opened.

Nonetheless, the space has seen better days. The bowling alley was eventually replaced by a church, which papered over their entrance; all of the shops on the left-hand side were combined into one restaurant, which also papered over their windows. And the two storefronts at the very back, which were probably the most sought-after spaces when next to a busy movie theatre, are now both empty. There are no people in the arcade, save for four teenagers hanging out and smoking, and the occasional customer walking from a check-cashing place out to the parking lot.

Outside, I try to take a photo lining up the Glenmont Arcade sign with the water tower a few blocks away, when I'm approached by a guy wearing oval-rimmed glasses and three coats. He asked what I was doing. "I like the sign," I replied.

"Yeah, it's a nice sign," he said. "It's a shame what happened to the Arcade," he adds, voice trailing off as he shuffles away.

Glenmont Arcade Head-On
Men hang out in front of the Glenmont Arcade, which has seen better days.

The Planning Department is currently working on the Glenmont Sector Plan, which will chart a course for turning Glenmont's business district around. However, the Planning Board chose not to study the Glenmont Arcade for its historical merit. Since the Glenmont Shopping Center was built in several pieces, it's broken up into 15 different lots and has 13 different owners. That will make both redeveloping the shopping center hard, but preserving any part of it even harder.

The arcade itself has just one owner, Greenhill Capital, a Bethesda-based company that owns a third of downtown Wheaton. There are no current plans for redeveloping the Glenmont Shopping Center, though Greenhill may be sympathetic to calls for preserving all or part of the arcade. Company head Lenny Greenberg, who I interviewed earlier this year, has stressed the importance of preserving Wheaton's local culture. When he redeveloped the Anchor Inn, a once-popular restaurant there, he chose to save the 1950's-era sign.

Whipple told me that there's "nothing like" the Glenmont Arcade in Montgomery County, and he's right. As he wrote in a recent blog post, it's better to "reuse buildings than to throw them in the trash." Do we have to throw the Glenmont Arcade in the trash to improve this community? We won't know unless we give this building a fair shake and consider it for historic preservation.

Check out this slideshow of the Glenmont Arcade then and now.

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