A Partial Defense of Rockville Town Square

Rockville Town Square, a transit-oriented development nearing completion in Rockville, Md., was in the national news recently. It received favorable coverage in the New York Times article A Piazza for a Maryland Suburb.

Writing for the online magazine Godspy earlier this year, Paul Grenier and Tim Patitsas wrote an extensive critique of Rockville Town Square titled The Liturgy of the City Street. While Rockville Town Square has certain flaws, I felt their critique was unfair in some respects. Here is my response to Grenier and Patitsas’ article:

More power to Grenier and Patitsas’ message of the liturgical spirit, if it can bring us better-designed and more durable architecture. And godspeed to their sermon if it can bring us an economic/political system and cultural life that is friendlier and less rushed and stressed. May their words reach all those who have the power to effect such a change.

However, their article requires some refinement before I, and perhaps most new urbanists, can agree with its critique of new urbanism.

The article seems to be written from a sincere love of cities, and a recognition that new urbanism is attempting something better than conventional suburban development. But in its assertion that new urbanism is totally failing at that pursuit, the article contains a number of errors, distortions and logical inconsistencies.

1. The authors write that new urbanism has “improved the look of countless downtowns and other places throughout our fair land.” Based on their characterization, one would think new urbanism is responsible for nearly all new development in our cities. But in fact, new urbanism is countable. Neighborhood-scale new urbanism — larger than a couple of blocks — represents a fraction of one percent of all new development in the U.S.

At the smaller scale, the number of building-scale projects that match new urban principles is more difficult to estimate. It is possible that small projects, as a percentage of new development, are an order of magnitude larger than the neighborhood-scale projects. They could account for as much as 2 to 4 percent of all new development in the U.S.

What about the remaining 90-plus percent? The challenge of improving the built environment is huge. New urbanists need the help of thinkers like Grenier and Patitsas, and all their natural allies, to help invent, rediscover and reclaim ways of informing contemporary placemaking with good spirit.

Many new urbanists are working in small ways to revitalize existing neighborhoods through code revision, retrofit, small business retention, housing affordability efforts, historic preservation, getting granny flats legalized, trying to get big box retailers to blend better, parking ordinances, design guidelines, calming streets, etc. These are all ways of being liturgical and respecting time.

2. We do indeed have plenty of good ideas for building cities, ideas that draw from Jacobs and Alexander, among many others. But we also have plenty of bad city planning ideas, ideas that draw from CIAM, the deconstructionists and the avant-gardists. The latter are currently ascendant in the architectural establishment and its universities, foundations, magazines and awards programs. Those ideas are a persistent obstacle to creating humane and comfortable cities.

3. The authors mention the convention center neighborhood in DC (a.k.a. the Penn Quarter). The Penn Quarter has been planned and developed over the course of decades

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, starting before new urbanism hit the scene. In the 1970s and 1980s most of the area was a dead space of vacant lots and surface parking. Today it’s an urban entertainment center of astounding scale, representing billions of dollars of private investment. Penn Quarter has world-class examples of historic preservation and adaptive reuse. The sports arena is admittedly no Fenway Park, but there are few recently-built arenas that are better integrated with their surrounding blocks and sidewalks.

However, the neighborhood’s landmark mixed-use development, Gallery Place does not embody some principles of new urbanism. That’s because to a large degree it’s a suburban mall shoehorned inside a city block. The mall anchor, a 14-screen multiplex, plus a number of snack shops and cafes, are withdrawn from the street in an interior atrium. Also — my personal opinion — the architectural style is an enervating and incompetent postmodernist collage.

4. New urbanism did not lead to the demolishing of a big chunk of downtown Rockville, only the small strip mall that the authors laud with such nostalgia. According to the authors, new urbanism killed its personality and life. But it was tenanted almost entirely by chain stores, including the “excellent, inexpensive produce market.” The strip mall was conventional in almost every way. What’s more, there are twenty or more nearly identical strip malls within a three mile radius.

What about the family restaurants that were so laid back and charming? Did new urbanism destroy their spirits? No. The owners could have moved to any of the nearby strip malls and continued operating in the same laid back style. The pizza parlor chose to take on the higher rent, perhaps to increase their status and income. New urban revitalization gave them that choice, and they took it.

Note, by the way, that Rockville put into place an elaborate transition plan for displaced businesses. In January 2006, the initial mix of national and local tenants was signed to Rockville Town Square. The city spokesman said, “Nobody wanted it to be big everything — all chains, all national. I think this first bunch is a good mix.”

Why not give Rockville Town Square a chance to grow a bit before rejecting it out of hand? It has the potential to be a real civic center in a way that Rockville has always seemed to lack. Roger Lewis, architecture writer for the Washington Post, wrote that “Rockville’s Town Square has the potential to become an animated destination, not unlike the Campo dei Fiori [in Rome]. … Although Rockville Town Square is a work in progress, its physical form, geometric proportions and visual qualities are already evident. One can sense even now that it will be a special urban space, more European than American in character, a space unlike any other in metropolitan Washington.”

5. It’s incorrect to say that casual friendships between merchant and customer are categorically thrown away and rejected by new urbanism, or even by other forms of new development. I’ve experienced and heard about too many counterexamples to believe that depersonalized, corporate relationships are the necessary and unavoidable result of new construction.

6. In general, if new urbanism is destroying the soul of cities, then why are new urban downtown developments drawing so many people? What does that make all the people working, shopping, walking, fraternizing, seeking entertainment and paying high rent? Are they ghosts? Are they zombies? Are they sad and clueless Mouseketeers? I think the authors display a dangerously polarized view of modern culture and the built environment. Are there flaws in new downtowns? Certainly, even major ones. Are they a spirit-destroying evil? No. That’s a level of venom that should be reserved for built environments that are actually causing great harm to people.

One response to “A Partial Defense of Rockville Town Square

  1. George "Physical Graffiti" Roman

    I don’t understand the people who lament the passing of the utterly ordinary strip mall that preceeded Rockville’s new town center. Look folks, there’s nothing vibrant or healthy about a strip mall. We may miss the vendors, but if they’re truly valuable they should have little difficulty relocating and earning profits elsewhere (and hopefully not in another strip mall).

    Speaking of strip mall blight, the remaining specimens surrounding the new Rockville Town Center are an order of magnitude more hideous than the one just replaced. It’s a shame the City Council didn’t include their razing in the deal.

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