A visit to Kentlands

Today On Wednesday I had to drive over to drop something off at a co-worker’s house in Kentlands, the neo-traditional residential and commercial development in Gaithersburg. (For those interested in traffic, the trip took almost exactly an hour, starting from Oakland Mills Village Center and heading down US 29, around the beltway, and back up I-270.) My visit, short though it was, prompted some thoughts about future development in Howard County. My usual disclaimer applies: These are not the opinions of a trained professional, just those of an ordinary person who might be a visitor to or even resident of future developments.

I had visited Kentlands back when we lived in Montgomery County and the then-new development was being hailed as the next big thing in suburban community planning. There were a few houses, a couple of community center facilities (adapted from existing structures), a school, and that was about it. Later I read about a K-Mart and Lowes being built between Kentlands and the adjoining highway, an event criticized as a betrayal of the Kentlands design principles of walkability and human scale development.

Well, having driven around Kentlands today I can say that at least to me the reality of Kentlands is more interesting and even attractive than either the hype or the hate would suggest. True, there’s the aforementioned K-Mart and Lowes in Kentlands Square, a typical big-box development, albeit with a bit more design flair than most. There are also the expected houses, townhouses, and apartment buildings (the largest thing in the immediate neighborhood in terms of scale). But the most interesting thing in my opinion was Market Square, a low-rise retail development located right next to the apartments and townhouses.

It seemed like a nice variegated human-scale development, someplace you could drive into (like I did) and park at, or just stroll to from the neighboring apartments and townhouses. It was a little bit messy in terms of the street layout, which seemed like a hybrid of a central rectilinear grid with more suburban-like curviness around it. The architecture was pleasant without being truly distinguished, and in a couple of places was a bit jarring. Most notably, next to the residential area there was a transitional row of buildings that contained retail shops but that looked like re-purposed townhouses, complete with that blank-looking siding-covered back end that a lot of today’s townhouses have. I don’t know if that was done deliberately to echo the real townhouses, or if the popularity of the retail spaces led the developers to convert some planned townhouses for retail use.

If the latter, it’s an indication of the popularity of Market Square, which seemed well-populated with a mix of people shopping, eating out, and generally larking about. You’d never mistake Kentlands for a real city or a real small town, but at least to my ignorant eyes it seemed like a place with some vitality, someplace I wouldn’t mind living in or visiting. It was definitely suburban in character, but it had that better suburb vibe I’ve been going on about.

On the drive home I took the back way through Montgomery County to avoid the beltway and ended up driving down MD 216 through Fulton. I couldn’t help contrasting where I’d just been with Maple Lawn, Howard County’s own Kentlands manqué. Even allowing for the relative age and build-out of the two developments, the comparison was not favorable to Maple Lawn.

The biggest thing that struck me about Maple Lawn is that it’s a supposedly walkable community with no place to actually walk to. In Kentlands you could drive to Market Square if you lived elsewhere, but if you actually lived in Kentlands it doesn’t seem too much of a hike to walk over to Market Square and have a burger at Five Guys or whatever. However in Maple Lawn, for whatever reason (because the development has power lines running down the middle?) the residential area is totally isolated from the office and retail area; a local wanting to stroll over to Looney’s Pub to watch the NBA finals or have some ice cream at Maggie Moo’s would face a walk of almost a mile.

This may account for some of the failure of Maple Lawn to generate more traffic for now-closed restaurants in the development like Oz Chophouse or Trapeze: If a Kentlands resident starts walking over to Market Square, then for sure they’re going to end up shopping or eating there. But if a Maple Lawn resident has to get in the car anyway to go to a Maple Lawn restaurant or shop, then they’re quite likely to change their mind in the process and drive somewhere else in the county.

On the way home I also drove through the center of Rockville and took a swing by the new town center development. Those who know Rockville will recall that Rockville had a past downtown disaster in the form of the Rockville Mall, an indoor mall in a faux-Brutalist idiom (in my opinion one of the worst movements in 60s and 70s architecture—which is saying something—and one of the worst possible choices for a retail center). Much of it is still there, having been converted to government office space, and the hopes of Rockville now rest with the new Rockville Town Square development a couple of blocks north, designed to provide a high-density transit-oriented environment (though it’s further away from the Metro station than the old Rockville Mall).

Frankly I was unimpressed at first glance. In driving by Rockville Town Square the buildings seemed rather blank, cold, and forbidding. The most prominent features I recall seeing were entrances for underground parking garages—a sure turn-off for the typical suburbanite, who’s been spoiled by surface parking lots and primed by Hollywood action movies to know that nothing good can come of entering an underground garage.

I was about to give up on it when I decided to leave MD 355 and other main streets and go down a side street. I then discovered that in the center of the development (you know, where nobody driving by can see it) there was a short street (perhaps a hundred yards or so) that had a reasonable facsimile of an urban streetscape, including some shops, restaurants and a new library with a nice little public courtyard. It was nice, but it seemed out of place, and I had to wonder how popular it really is.

I think Kentlands, Maple Lawn, and Rockville Town Square have some basic lessons to teach us about development in the suburbs, lessons that are applicable to the future Columbia Town Center development. Maple Lawn (at least in its present form) tries to follow the new urbanism template, but perpetuates the traditional suburban separation of residential and commercial development and thus forces even its residents into their cars. Rockville Town Center goes in the other direction: it strives to replicate a high-density urban milieu at the expense of turning off suburbanites who by necessity may have to drive there.

Kentlands is by no means perfect, but as a suburbanite it felt comfortable and reassuring while offering an experience that is a step up from your typical suburban community. It is relatively discoverable by car, and when driving into the development it offers a nice transition from county four-lane highway to central boulevard to smaller side streets to small surface lots or on-street spaces, from whence you can walk to your destination and stroll through a relatively enticing and human-scale streetscape. I hope that Columbia Town Center will be able to replicate the experience.

9 thoughts on “A visit to Kentlands

  1. randy

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post and the observations you have made. I lived in Columbia for many years (from high school on), but now live in Northern VA. Have you had a chance to see Reston Town Center? It is worth checking out. It is a vibrant place because there are businesses, residences (mid-rise and high rise condos), shopping, and entertainment with easy pedestrian access. True, if you live in Reston but not near the Town Center, you would have to drive there, but when I compare it to Columbia Town Center (and I get to both a fair amount these days), I get the feeling that something is missing in Columbia TC, even though the setting on Lake Kittamaqundi is beautiful.

  2. wildelakemike

    Not being a planner either, it’s difficult for me to understand the mechanical reasons why one development works, while another doesn’t. Frank, in layman’s terms, you did a very job of distinguishing the three locations you visited, and Randy’s added comment was also helpful.

    My wife and I recently visited Annapolis Towncenter at Parole (I think that’s the name), a so-called “lifestyle” center not too far from the Annapolis Mall, right in the middle of all of those box stores outside of Annapolis (my home town, by the way).

    This development is vertical mixed-use center with several high-rise buildings on either side of pavered street that visually dominate the area. The first floors were all retail, with clothing stores, a yogurt store, a Whole Foods grocery store and numerous other small stores. In one building, a Target occupied the entire third floor. Parking was provided in the back and was easily accessible. Offices occupied the second floor levels as well. Above were apartments and condos.

    What struck us was there were really people on the streets, walking their dogs, enjoying coffee at a sidewalk cafe, and generally enjoying their Sunday afternoon. Though we did not eat at any of the several restaurants, I have been told they are pretty good and are easily in walking distance from the housing units that were integrated into the development.

    The location of this center is hardly ideal. We checked out a condo, and when we looked down from one side, we saw the Home Depot, from another side, a Kohl’s. While the center itself was fairly well designed, though as Frank noted, without remarkable architecture, it is still in an unattractive residential location.

    In any case, this center does show what can be done with a true, mixed-use community. Like Frank, I am hoping that so many of the lessons that can be learned from other developments can be reflected in Columbia’s downtown.

    1. hecker Post author

      wildelakemike: Thanks for the report on Annapolis Towncenter at Parole; I’ve never visited there, so I can’t really comment on it. I will however echo your final paragraph and urge county council members and others involved in Columbia Town Center planning to check out other next-generation suburban developments in the Washington-Baltimore area. Besides getting some ideas on what does and doesn’t work, it’s important to see up close and personal the attractions of other local jurisdictions that will be competing with Columbia and Howard County for residents and businesses.

      In my opinion it’s especially important that council members and planners experience other developments as civilians do, not via official trips with other dignitaries and planners close at hand to explain the theory behind the reality. Screw the theory: What matters is how the development is perceived by ordinary people doing the things ordinary people do: shopping, eating, going to movies, checking out the local apartments, townhouses, and condos.

      I think this is especially important because it’s going to take a long time to build out Columbia Town Center, and in my opinion the development needs to work reasonably well during all phases. Maybe it’s all going to be great when it’s done and the grand vision is fulfilled, but Columbia Town Center is going to be stuck in the halfway stages for a long time, and if the economy goes south in a major way it may end up stuck in the halfway stages forever.

      For example, I think Maple Lawn doesn’t really work in major ways in its current state, and at least with me its reputation has suffered because of that. I’d hate for similar mistakes to be made with Columbia Town Center.

  3. hecker Post author

    Randy: Thanks for your comment. Funny you should mention Reston Town Center…

    But first, a date correction: I actually visited Kentlands on Wednesday and started writing the post that evening. I finished and posted it yesterday evening (Thursday), but because I run my blog on UTC time (which is four hours ahead of us right now) it was dated today (Friday). I corrected the date at the beginning of the post accordingly. All clear?

    Anyway, after visiting Kentlands the day before I happened to be in Reston Town Center just yesterday; I travel to Reston every week or two on business, and have been to Reston Town Center several times to eat lunch over the past few months. I didn’t think to compare Columbia to Reston, probably because subconsciously I don’t think there is a comparison, Reston being so much more advanced than its erstwhile new town rival in terms of commercial density and general economic vibrancy.

    For what it’s worth, I generally like Reston Town Center. Again, there’s no confusing it with a real city, but there are enough high-rise commercial buildings there to make it stand out in the landscape as a destination. Unlike Kentlands there’s enough density to require parking garages to hold all the cars; unlike Rockville Town Square the parking garages are above ground, which though uglier makes it more like a typical mall environment that suburbanites would find familiar and comforting. If I remember correctly the parking garages are just on one side of the development, which opens up the development on the other sides and makes it more approachable when arriving by car.

  4. Sarah

    Rockville Town Center– it’s interesting that you would say that the parking garages are a turnoff for suburbanites as the Rockville area has a handful of them. Few are underground, to be sure, but I don’t think folks who live in Rockville are as nervous as you think about underground parking garages as it’s a lot closer to denser development than anything in Howard County is. The parking garage uses the newish sensor technology which tells you how many spaces are occupied, which is cool and helps reassure folks they’ll find a spot.

    I’m not sure what time of day you visited, but on weekends and evenings, those garages have a lot of cars in them (folks at the restaurants). They feature another aspect that folks in Rockville aren’t used to (which I think is more significant than the underground parking garages), and that’s parking you have to pay for. The garages there are $1/hour. Granted, if you know the area, you can get away without paying by parking further away. Or go to the library and you get two free hours.

    Rockville Town Centre is still pretty new, and is competing with a lot. I don’t like the outward design (it is intimidating if you’re on the wrong side, and it can be confusing), and I don’t know that its popularity can be attributed to any design as opposed to the type of restaurants and shops that are available there. The big hole in it is also the Superfresh that was supposed to go in but fell through after back-and-forth. The Magruder’s that was there before (when it was a strip mall) was allllways busy. In the meantime, though, a Giant has opened up about a half mile away, so it’s difficult to know whether or not a new grocery store would be sustainable there. If I was a resident at Rockville Town Square, I’d be ticked because the Superfresh would have been much more convenient, and the Giant really isn’t.

    I agree that County Council members should be checking out these other developments (along with Washington Center in Gaithersburg, King Farm in Rockville/Derwood) to see what to emulate and what to avoid. Maple Lawn, in my opinion, is an outright failure so far, but I would argue that plopping that development down where it is was a bad idea to begin with, especially with the scale of all the development making it hardly walkable.

  5. hecker Post author

    Sarah: Thanks for your informative comments, as always. I drove by Rockville Town Square at 4 pm on a weekday and obviously was on the “wrong side”, as you put it. However I got the impression that there wasn’t any “right side” except for the inside, i.e., the central street. I note that on the Rockville Town Square web page I linked to, the photo of the development was taken at night when the buildings were all lit up and looked more inviting; whether deliberate or not, it clearly serves to hide some of the development’s design flaws.

  6. hecker Post author

    Sarah: One more thing, totally off-topic (but since it’s my blog I’ll excuse myself): Did you know that the St-Exupery quote on your blog was later adapted (or reinvented) by the poet Frank Bidart, to totally opposite affect? (See his poem “To the Dead“, from his book “In the Western Night”.) According to Google at least I seem to have been the only person who’s ever noticed this.

  7. Sarah

    It does look nice coming up (north, I think) on Maryland Avenue, but this is a street not usually used

    And I think absolutely think those photos were used to hide some development flaws 🙂

    Re: the poem and the quote… wow. I love it. It’s amazing how he used it to convey… yeah, the total opposite effect. Thanks for that!

  8. Sarah

    Ack, I didn’t finish my thought– not usually used unless you’re going somewhere specifically on Maryland Ave or coming up from 270.

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