Tuesday, September 25, 2012

When one blog closes...

...another opens.

This is it for updates on 14th&You folks, unless the Mrs. and I happen to relocate near to this blog's eponymous intersection at some point in the future. Barring that unlikely event, we're considering this blog finito. But we're starting a new adventure: visit us in Montgomery County at our new online home, North FlintVille. Who knows, you just might learn something!

Anyway, we hope to see you around.

Mr. and Mrs. 14thandyou

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Suburban Town Centers: Friend or Faux?

It's 7:00 PM on a Monday evening, and I'm sitting in a chair in the middle of Rockville's "Town Square," situated along a few blocks just east of Rockville Pike and across the street from the Rockville Metro station. A father, his daughter and their dog play on the faux lawn at the center of the square, while a fountain spews water up from the ground behind me. The fountain is situated in front of a performance stage where, several nights a week, musical performances take place. The square hosts a farmer's market on Saturdays that is very popular in the community. Surrounding the square, and branching out along streets in every direction, is a dense cluster of restaurants, bars, shops and galleries, with new ones opening seemingly every week. (Both American Tap Room and Dawson's Market, an upscale grocery store from Ellwood Thompson, are set to open here next month.) A new library sits at a prominent corner in the neighborhood. And above it all are thousands of residents who are seeking the suburban life without forsaking the conveniences--or feel--of city living. Perhaps most surprising of all, there are people walking about in what once was a deader-than-a-doornail suburban government center off of a strip mall-dominated suburban highway. It's a scene that was difficult to imagine as recently as five years ago.

Has Georgetown come to Rockville?

 It's a question posed by Washington Post reporter Jonathan O'Connell in his recent piece for the Post's Outlook section. O'Connell looks at the spurt of "town center"-type developments that have sprung up across the region and the country over the past 15 years and asks whether developers have been successful in exporting city life to the suburbs.

 As a transplanted city dweller who has found himself in the middle of that most suburban of suburbs, Rockville/North Bethesda/White Flint, it's a question I've pondered myself over the last year or so. After all, our immediate neighborhood is Ground Zero for Montgomery County's efforts to "urbanize" the stretch of Rockville Pike around the White Flint Metro Station. It's a neighborhood that, until very recently, was home mainly to an indoor shopping mall, row after row of nondescript strip malls, car dealerships and gas stations. However, with the opening last year of the first phase of the North Bethesda Market project, and several mega-developments currently under construction or about to break ground, Montgomery County is banking heavily on the "town center" model to attract and retain the young professionals and families that have found places like Bethesda, Silver Spring and Virginia's Orange Line corridor more attractive options. The term "urban" gets thrown around a lot by both developers and city officials when describing these developments.

But are these places really "urban"?

The scene I described in the opening paragraph above certainly sounds urban: people, shops and restaurants, density, community. So why do critics, as O'Connell notes, assail suburban town centers as soulless faux-cities, "no more real cities than Disney World's fairy-tale fiberglass-and-concrete showpiece is a real castle?"

A big part of it, I would argue, comes from where they are situated. Let's consider a neighborhood like Dupont Circle, a description of which wouldn't sound wholly far off from the scene I described above. What makes Dupont "feel" different than Rockville Town Center? There are obvious things like the age of the buildings, which predate those in central Rockville by a hundred years or more. The buildings have a history: what is now an upscale wine bar may at one time have been a mens clothing store that sold Duke Ellington his first suit, or a People's Drug. And there is the make-up of the crowd itself, which is something O'Connell gets into a bit. The people are more diverse, and the eccentricities are more pronounced. Dupont, and other urban neighborhoods, aren't quite so manicured; they look more "authentic." But do people really hop on the Metro in Rockville for a night out in Dupont primarily because they may see a woman with a tattoo?

 The problem with "town center" developments, as I see it, isn't the town centers themselves--it's what's around them. They don't feel like part of a cohesive urban fabric, and they don't mesh with their surroundings. They are the place one goes to feel like you've entered a city, before hopping back in your car and driving home somewhere that doesn't feel like that at all. They feel contrived because they exist apart from everything around them--like building an opulent Victorian mansion in the middle of a Toll Brothers community of by-the-numbers single family homes. When you're in Logan, or H Street, or Columbia Heights, or Dupont, there is a feeling of connected-ness, to go along with a volume of people and an energy and vibrancy that the sometimes admittedly-sterile "town centers" have difficulty delivering.

I drove up to Rockville Town Center this evening, which is situated several miles north of our White Flint home. I drove on a six-lane divided highway past countless strip malls, car dealerships and gas stations. I drove past a golf course, and a self-storage facility. I drove past stretches of road where the sidewalk was barely visible, and through intersections that even the most hardy of pedestrians fear to cross. Forget bike lanes; cyclists on the Pike are as rare as speakeasy cocktail lounges up here. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, I entered Rockville's own urban utopia, the Rockville Town Center, meant to show that central DC doesn't have a monopoly on enticing, dense urbanity. It doesn't help that the "town center" itself is not focused on or geared towards the area's main thoroughfare, Rockville Pike, making it feel even more cut-off.

 Of course the juxtaposition was jarring.

But it's not necessarily an indictment of the town center itself. As it happens, I think Rockville Town Center, and others like it, are several tremendous steps in the right direction for suburban development. What's bad about building pedestrian-focused, dense, vibrant, walkable communities? Particularly ones directly across the street from Metro stations? Not much, I'd argue. There is a reason town centers are popular: they deliver a slice of what people say they want. And judging by their commercial success, the people do indeed want it. And clustering people, services and amenities near each other and near transit hubs makes tremendous sense. And yet, something feels missing.

 Dan Reed, who runs the Just Up the Pike blog, tweeted: "Calling new suburban town centers "fake" is lazy. Everything was new once! If done well, they'll get better with time." I agree with this, but I'd go a step further: not only will these town center developments likely improve with age, but as more suburban developers latch on to the "town center" model, I'd argue that these bastions of supposedly faux-urbanity will begin to feel slightly less "faux" and slightly more "legitimate". Consider what close-in suburbs such as Arlington and Bethesda have been able to achieve along their commercial corridors, and imagine that spread out among father-afield locales such as Rockville and Reston. That, to me, is the future of suburban development. It may not feel particularly "real" to someone used to bar-hopping along Barrack's Row or Adams Morgan, but there was a time when those places were new, too. Just give it some time.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Dispatch From the MoCo Hinterlands

Over the last nine months or so since Mrs. 14thandyou and I packed up our belongings and decamped from one of the nation's top neighborhoods for childless adults to, as WCP scribe Alex Baca once tweeted "some place called North Bethesda," we've been getting the occasional email and comment asking us what life has been like for us in the land of the strip mall: Have we forgotten how to walk? What does a front lawn look like? And are we suffering from a lack of small plate restaurants serving modern adaptations of casual comfort food?

To that last question, the answer is yes. Sadly, small plates haven't so much found their way up to this section of Rockville Pike that, given the number of names people have given it (North Bethesda, South Rockville, White Flint, That Place With the Mall Where They Drive the Choo-Choo Train Around), seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. But to other questions regarding our general well-being, I'm pleased to report that we're getting along quite well.

First, it should be noted that, despite the tremendous differences in character between the Logan/U Street area and our current neighborhood, many aspects of our lives really haven't changed all that drastically. We're a 10 minute walk from the White Flint Metro station--a place within walking distance to a Metro station being my primary requirement when we moved--so although my commute to my Dupont Circle employer is (considerably) longer, it remains car-free and mostly predictable. We're also well-served by several bus lines just steps from our front door, which gives me a somewhat lazy alternative to schlepping across the strip mall parking lot and gravel-strewn sidewalks of Rockville Pike.

Mrs. 14thandyou still drives to her place of employment (transit not being an option for her), although her commute time has plummeted by about 2/3 of what it was before. We also have considerably more space than we could have afforded in any neighborhoods in DC that wouldn't have made the daily commute a living hell for Mrs. 14thandyou, making our day-to-day lives more enjoyable. Our third floor deck that overlooks a nicely landscaped courtyard is also a pleasant place to enjoy a beer and hang out with the cat. And although our home is adjacent to one of the region's busiest thoroughfares and commercial corridors, it is a remarkably quiet place, which is something we have increasingly come to appreciate.

Food and entertainment is a mixed-bag. The nightlife, it must be said, is wholly inadequate, but whether replacing the likes of Masa 14, Estadio and Bar Bilar with Joe's Noodles, Yekta Kabobi and Ambrosia Greek Diner is an overall step down is certainly up for debate. There is something to be said for an abundance of cheap, casual, flavorful ethnic restaurants, which our new neighborhood has in droves. We have not one, but two Jewish bagelrys within a short walk of our home--something that, at least according to most PoP commenters, many in central DC would sell their firstborn (or, as it were, their first dog) for. Tucked away in seemingly every forlorn-looking strip mall is a market, restaurant or store that merits attention. Nine months in, and we still haven't come close to trying all of the new places up here. And it is nice to be able to drop $20 on a meal, rather than simply on your appetizer or first round of drinks. Still, on that occasion when we're looking for a place to sit back and sip a couple of pints, it's basically Matchbox, Gilly's or Ruby Tuesday's for us. Admittedly not the most exciting options. (There is also the notorious Dietl's, which satisfies my occasional urge to drink watery canned beer.)

As to our physical environment, there's no question that we traded aesthetic beauty and urban vitality for a neighborhood that has substantially less of both. Gone are the stunning, ornamented Victorians of Logan and Dupont, replaced by architecturally bland and uninspired apartments, townhomes and shopping centers that represent the architectural dark ages of the 60s-80s. The streets have little life or energy, storefronts are set back hundreds of feet from the sidewalks and roadways, and to state that the car remains king here would so obvious an observation so as to not warrant a mention. Indeed, some of the pedestrian infrastructure is so poorly designed that it can only be described as either tremendously ill-planned or downright hostile.

As but one example, consider the case of the parking lot located at Montrose and Rockville Pike, which was (ostensibly) built to encourage individuals to park their vehicles and walk to the Metro or nearby businesses. Except, there is no sidewalk or other pedestrian access that connects the parking lot to the sidewalk on Rockville Pike. Pedestrians, myself included, have instead created a so-called "desire path" (pictured below) where a sidewalk should be. This makes no sense, and the neighborhood is littered with these poorly thought-out examples of pedestrian hosility.

And despite Capital Bikeshare's plans to expand the system into Montgomery County, a ride along Rockville Pike is such a harrowing and frightful thought that I can't envision myself doing it, in spite of years spent biking throughout central DC. Helmet or no, it strikes me as particularly unpleasant for a number of reasons. More on that will likely come in a future post.

And yet, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that an environment that appears on its face to be quite sterile still has its charms. The nearby Montrose Parkway, with its wide jogging and biking path that leads into Tilden Stream Park is quite enjoyable, as are a number of MoCo's fantastic nearby parks. And as pedestrian unfriendly as the neighborhood may appear, our walkscore of 82 and abundance of nearby businesses does make the neighborhood more approachable on foot than many more "typical" suburban enclaves.

So, what to make of all this? It would be untrue for me to state that there aren't things I enjoy about our new neigborhood--indeed, that there aren't things I enjoy *more* about our new neighborhood than the one we lived in before. I touched on several of them above. And Mrs. 14thandyou and I have established some patterns and rituals that we've come to greatly enjoy. Spend a Saturday morning with us sipping coffee and eating freshly baked scones while wandering Kensington's antique market and you'd get part of the picture.

But the thing I miss the most about living where we did before is the loss of a sense of community. Dense, people-packed neighborhoods, through various means, encourage--and in some ways force--one to interact with ones neighbors. Whether through my writings on this blog, meeting with local business owners, running into familiar people on the street and in local parks, or sitting in on the local ANC meeting, the fact is that I got to know a lot of people while living in DC. Many I consider friends, and even those who are merely acquaintences helped me to establish a connection with my old neighborhood that I have found to establish in my new one.

For all of the talk of DC being a rather unfriendly place where everyone is career-driven, I found the opposite story to be true. It's not that people hin our new neighborhood are unfriendly--it's that we simply don't interact with each other. There is a noticeably different mindset and approach to living in a suburban neighborhood--even one that is relatively dense (and about to become much denser) by suburban standards--than living in a Logan Circle, Shaw, Columbia Heights or any one of DC's numerous hoods. It's true that we haven't found ourselves engaging in local politics and community affairs nearly to the extent that we did while living in DC. Part of that is time demands, but part of that is a lack thus far is establishing a real connection or sense of ownership of where we live to help us get to the point where we want to participate in such things. I had that when we lived in Logan; I haven't yet found it here.

Perhaps we will get there, and a year from now I will feel differently and will be running for a seat on the Western Montgomery Council Citizen's Advisory Board. And when people ask me how two ex-urbanites are getting along up in the MoCo hinterlands, the answer is: we're doing fine, but there are certainly things we miss. The bars, nightclubs, restaurants, galleries, parks and other physical attributes are lacking but in many ways replaced; however, the human and emotional connection we had with our previous home hasn't been. And perhaps that is the true loss of suburban living.