Mixed-use town center as the new “organic” downtown: how distinct can they be if they become as commonplace as malls?

The mixed-use town center is a novelty across much of the county.  A metropolitan area of one million people is unlikely to have more than one or two of these newfangled nodes, which typically combine housing, retail, offices, hotels, garage parking, and maybe even an institutional use like a school, a library, or a municipal government building, all bundled together with civic spaces that emphasize walking and congregating, often around a fountain.

They’re extroverted.  They’re festive.  And they’re often quite effective at asserting themselves as a distinctive node.  For auto-oriented suburbs, a mixed-use town center may serve as the de facto downtown.   As long as they’re reasonably uncommon, they achieve a novelty that has helped elevate them to the live-work-play paradigm in post-war suburbs.  Given the dire conditions of bricks-and-mortar retail in 2021, they may be the optimal way to keep some form of conventional shopping viable.  As long as the developers avoid an oversupply (the pitfall that helped speed the demise of so many malls in the late 1990s), they may foster a resiliency after COVID that the conventional, boxy, car-dependent, single-use shopping mall cannot.  But let’s keep them few and far between.  A ratio of one mixed-use town center per one million people within a metro might prove the golden standard.

But this begs the question: how do so many of them survive in metro Washington DC?  Sure, it’s a huge metropolitan area: by most estimates from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) of 2019, Washington DC (VA-MD-WV) is the nation’s sixth largest MSA, at over six million people.  It should be able to support six or maybe seven mixed-use town centers.  Instead, the vast suburbs in Maryland and Virginia have dozens, depending on how loosely one applies the term.

Pedestrian corridor in a mixed-use town center called Pike and Rose

The photo above offers a standard tableau at Pike and Rose, a newish mixed-use town center in North Bethesda, Maryland.  While developer Federal Realty opened the first phase back in 2014, the project currently stretches across approximately 25 acres and continues to grow in small increments.  But it uses the street grid that predates the project, from way back in the 70s and 80s and 90s, when the land consisted of a cluster of nondescript strip malls with abundant surface parking.

The entire undertaking earns its name from Rockville Pike (Maryland State Route 355), a north-south arterial that strings together some of the most prestigious suburbs in Montgomery County, in itself one of the most affluent and well-educated counties in the country.  And the “Pike” intersects “Rose” Avenue, a three-block long street, flanked by mid- and high-rise buildings that give Pike and Rose its live/work/play buzz.

At this juncture, even amidst the economic setbacks in the wake of a pandemic, Pike and Rose still boasts close to 900 units serving as homes to nearly 2,000 people, over 175 hotel rooms, nearly 300,000 square feet of Class A office space, and close to 50 shops and restaurants, including such well known anchors as REI, H&M, L.L. Bean, and West Elm.  Though none of these brands would typically serve as an anchor in a conventional mall, the scale of this mixed-use town center, which strives to replicate the fine grained retail of a conventional downtown, makes them well suited nodes.

Café scene in a mixed-use town center called Pike and Rose

The much larger assortment of restaurants includes predominantly chains, though many of the names only have a few locations scattered across the country, making them reasonably recherché compared to more predictable finds like Starbucks and Chipotle (which also claim space at Pike and Rose).

And, of course, the small but strategic green spaces offer pleasant outdoor mingling for those who don’t wish to sit at an al fresco meal.

A courtyard in a mixed-use town center

A 2017 Washington Post article, which cannot help but read like a promo for the whole enterprise, notes that Federal Realty owned the land that hosts Pike & Rose long before it broke ground.  The company had been conceiving of this mixed-use town center for a good decade or two before the first building went up, taking advantage of the nearby WMATA stop of White Flint, which previously accommodated the large White Flint Mall, a long-standing institution in Montgomery County that faced the wrecking ball in 2015, even though it showed no great evidence of decline.  The high value of the White Flint Metro stop encouraged the county to up-zone everything nearby, which included the smattering of right angles just to the northeast.

Federal Realty approached the development slowly, not only because the planning took place in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, but because the company learned the lesson from each and every mixed-use town center that preceded it.  Those that sprout up quickly from a greenfield typically cannot betray aesthetics that indicate that a single development entity.  They look ersatz and inorganic because they are, and while they might not suffer as a result, they rarely benefit if they have the same unity of appearance as the old suburban shopping malls or lifestyle centers that they intend to improve upon.

Federal Realty seems to have understood this and avoid such a pitfall.  Much like The Wharf riverfront development in Southwest Washington DC (which I have explored on multiple occasions), this developer decided to employ a variety of architects among its various structures, ensuring a diversity of façades, materials, and massing.  The firm even included touches like an old painted advertisement punctured by the fenestration, like buildings used to host before billboards became a more efficient advertising tool.

Old-fashioned advertisement painted on the façade in a mixed-use town center

Sure it’s contrived, but it’s also clever.  With medium density buildings constructed with no setbacks—that is, right out to the sidewalk—amidst a series of consecutive right angles, Pike and Rose at certain vantage points looks every bit like a downtown to a municipality of at least 35,000 people.

Mixed-use town center: Pike and Rose in North Bethesda, MD

But that’s not quite the reality.  Obviously.  North Bethesda is name for a borderless area in southern Montgomery County, about four miles northwest of the District of Columbia boundary, and, as evidenced by its name, just directly north of Bethesda, which directly abuts the District.  And Bethesda itself is also a largely undefined place.  Like many communities in Maryland, both Bethesda and North Bethesda are unincorporated and lack municipal boundaries, which means they lack any basis for self-governance: no mayor, no city council, no police force, no services that are anything more than a subunit of Montgomery County.  The US Census Bureau considers by Bethesda and North Bethesda to be Census Designated Places (CDPs), which establishes general boundaries for the purposes of capturing data on these areas that feel like discrete suburban communities, but are not.  In lieu of an identity as an incorporated municipality, Bethesda in particular has an established downtown that is rapidly densifying (filled with construction cranes), is the hub for many prominent white-collar corporations, is vibrant with restaurants, and is replete with multi-family residential units, targeting professionals who seek to live in the county’s highly ranked public school system.  It’s impressive for a CDP—not a city, town, or even a village.  But downtown Bethesda also boasts a stop on the WMATA Red Line, meaning that suburbanites who live close by can walk to mass transit which (reasonably) efficiently channels them right to the heart of downtown Washington.  Bethesda has turned into a dense urban center by applying the principles of transit-oriented development (TOD), which deliberately concentrates a variety of uses near prime Metro stations.  North Bethesda, meanwhile, has its own Metro stop under the name of White Flint Station, 4.5 miles northward up the same Red Line.  It, too, is beginning to densify through zoning regulations that encourage high intensity uses under the same TOD principles that have made downtown Bethesda so bustling.  And Pike and Rose is a mixed-use town center calibrated to meet this transit-induced demand.  North Bethesda over time is getting a downtown all its own, which in some respects inevitably will compete with downtown Bethesda.

Those smart land use principles, responding to mass transit’s tendency to appreciate the nearby real estate, help elevate Pike and Rose’s likelihood of long-term success.  And Federal  Realty’s savvy design ensures that not only is it a higher and better use of the land than the strip malls that preceded it, but it’s a lot better looking.  It’s also better looking than the once-celebrated lifestyle center archetype, which essentially took the principles of an enclosed mall, daylighted it (stripped away the roof), and added more greenery.  I’ve reported on a lifestyle center near Allentown, Pennsylvania that seemed in questionable economic health four years ago; I can’t imagine it looks better now after a year of COVID lockdowns.  Lifestyle centers offer a pedestrian friendly aesthetic with outdoor appeal, but they typically remain exclusively restaurant/retail, with few other offices or professional services, no residences, and rarely anything built above a single floor.  And they usually sit in ocean of surface parking, making them easy to access by private automobile but hardly a facsimile of an early 20th century downtown.

A typical mixed-use town center like Pike and Rose strives to improve upon the shortcomings of enclosed malls and lifestyle centers through density.  These might not be as easy to get around by car, but they’re not supposed to be: paid garages replace most surface lots, and transit users can simply walk from the White Flint Metro Station.  But even the best designed ones—and Pike and Rose looks pretty darn good—can hardly belie their ultra-suburban origins.  While the core of this mixed-use town center looks great, one only has to cross one of the arterials that frame it to get a hint of what the area looked like fifteen years ago, before Federal Realty began its densifying initiative.

Up to this point, all photos have depicted the northwest corner of the intersection of Rockville Pike (MD-355) and Old Georgetown Road (MD-187) because that’s the corner that features the minor latticework of streets that comprises Pike and Rose.

But cross the street, and the south side of Old Georgetown Road is not as glamorous.

Mixed-use town center - across the street fro Pike and Rose

Mid-rise hotels and office buildings flank the horizon, but in the foreground, on the opposite side of this busy six-lane arterial, it still looks completely automobile oriented.  Standard suburbia.  However, I guess it’s fair to assert, since we’re looking at a warehouse for Steinway pianos and a Jaguar/Land Rover dealership, at the very least it’s high-end suburbia.  But these are not the sort of land uses one expects to see in an area with surging land values.  Car dealerships routinely seek the optimal combination of a) busy, well-traveled, highly visible streets and b) the cheapest land values nearby so they can display a huge variety of vehicular merchandise.  It’s not always an easy balance to achieve, but apparently the general vicinity of Pike and Rose (or the White Flint Metro Station) offered that precarious balance.  Elsewhere on the same block, here’s an automotive dealer & repair shop that looks completely vacant.

And though Old Georgetown Road has a sidewalk and most buildings offer front entrances that directly face the street, it is hard to imagine pedestrians milling about who seek to do business at these establishments.

The final point of the intersection of these two roads—the corner where they converge—currently offers a Popeye’s and Arby’s drive thru as separate buildings.  If anyone wants a sense of the general character of the White Flint area before the construction of Pike and Rose, all he/she has to do is walk a block or two outside of the development in any direction.

My sneaking suspicion is that, if Pike and Rose should continue to flourish in the years ahead, these auto-oriented structures will face the wrecking ball and get transformed to more high-density office and apartment buildings, much like we see populating the background.  The unmistakable goal is to densify the area in service of the White Flint metro station.  But mixed-use town centers, effective though they may be, will never fully replicate an organically conceived downtown that emerged and grew over decades, or centuries.  Firstly, Pike and Rose belongs to a single development entity; the entire expanse is the concept of a single company.  But unlike the “company towns” of the late 19th and early 20th century, these homes and offices don’t exist to support a single industry; they flourish in the spirit of the bedroom community character that defines Montgomery County.  More empirically, Pike and Rose currently has the feel of a downtown to a city of at least 35,000 people, as I indicated earlier,.  But in most conventional cities, we see an attenuation of intensity as we leave the absolute center, with eight story buildings giving way to three- or four-story, then two-story, then more auto-oriented structures with off-street parking interspersed with old homes, all still within the same grid network.  That’s not the case at Pike and Rose, nor is it the case at most of the mixed-use town centers that polka dot the wealthy and fast-growing Washington DC metro.

The planners, developers, and civic strategists who harness transit-oriented development to promote dense mixed-use solutions near train stations are unequivocally grooming the market’s preference for efficient solutions.  I salute them.  But simply building tall over a ten-year period in an area that matured by spreading development out over a 75-year period isn’t going to fool too many people into thinking that North Bethesda has its own, soup-to-nuts downtown.  All the buildings date from a single twenty-year time span and abide by construction/aesthetic standards reflective of that period.  And, even if high-density mixed-use development near a Metro station encourages much more walking, I don’t foresee any effort to shrink the massive arterials that slice through the area, linking Washington DC with the exurbs to the north.  It remains to be seen if mixed-use town centers will propel walkability within a live-work setting to the mainstream, or if they’ll prove a moderately resilient fad.  Many malls flourished for a half-century before a better competitor supplanted them, and that competitor does not appear to be the ephemeral lifestyle center.  The real competitor of existing urban paradigms isn’t architectural; it’s virtual.  If the Internet continues to become the standard bearer for commerce, it could easily prompt the implosion of commuting patterns or concentrations of office jobs, much like it already has quashed far too many suburban retail centers.  Then again, if cyber-security issues or social alienation overwhelm and stymie our dependency on the online marketplace, we may find the mixed-use town center an enduring presence.  And if that’s the case, Pike and Rose—and all of its imitators across the Washington DC metro—will be ahead of the curve.

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4 thoughts on “Mixed-use town center as the new “organic” downtown: how distinct can they be if they become as commonplace as malls?

  1. AvatarDianaLeigh

    This is a new concept to me, but I appreciate your description and your analysis of its possibility in the future. Does the metro stop proximity have a lot to do with its development?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      I’d say the Metro has almost everything to do with it! Without the presence of a transit stop that allows many people to get into the city (or even further out into the burbs), I don’t see how there could be the justification for all those tall buildings in the photos–both the brand new ones at Pike and Rose and the others visible in the background in some of the final photos (which are all outside of Pike and Rose).

      The station is called White Flint after the old White Flint Mall, which closed about six years ago and 90% of it was quickly demolished–all except for the Lord and Taylor’s, which continued to operate as a freestanding department store in complete isolation–it looked really funny. And then COVID put an end to Lord and Taylor, which has now gone the way of Service Merchandise and Montgomery Ward. I don’t even think White Flint Mall was in particularly bad shape; it wasn’t really dying, when they took it down. It was simply not as lucrative of a use for super-valuable land right near a metro stop. Here’s what the area looks like in late 2019, the final days of the Lord and Taylor: https://goo.gl/maps/kWdTEtfqRK17qKDE7 I have no doubt, down the road, that they’ll continue to “build up” on the site of the old White Flint, with many more tall buildings like you see in the horizon.

      Incidentally, that old White Flint Mall, was a good half mile from the White Flint Metro stop (maybe a ten minute walk), while Pike and Rose is basically only catty-corner from the station (about a three minute walk). Unless something else in the vicinity prompted the original name “White Flint” , it wouldn’t surprise me if the developers of Pike and Rose petition WMATA to change the name of the station someday. For branding purposes.

      Reply
      1. AvatarChris B

        The mall generations, Boomers and GenX, have to become a small and non-vocal minority first. (Even I remember White Flint, from summer and winter break visits to a college friend who grew up in the part of Bethesda near Burning Tree. Back in the day, there was little else for under-21s to do in the area.)

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

          If I’m understanding what aspect of the discussion you’re responding to correctly, then we have a long wait. I’d imagine the dismantling of White Flint Mall was in the works as long ago as the late 2000s, before the widespread demise of mall culture seemed imminent. Given the current economic doldrums, the old White Flint Mall site will probably sit vacant a lot longer than initially planned. And you’re right: Boomers and GenX don’t ascribe the same value to the live-work-play culture, no doubt in part because most of them were (at least by the mid 30s) raising children. Since Millennials are often choosing not to have children and instead choosing a setting where they can walk home from a night of carousing even up to their early 40s, they may appreciate these mixed-use town centers more. Then again, without kids, they don’t need the lucrative Montgomery County School Districts and may instead opt for being right in on the action through a busy neighborhood in DC–the “real deal” as town centers go.

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