How Making Cool Places to Hang Out Can Turn the County’s Economy Around

By Dan Reed.

Not long ago, my partner and I had a date night: we had tapas and drinks at a cozy restaurant, went for a nice walk around a plaza where families had rolled out blankets to watch an outdoor movie on a big screen. Then, we went upstairs to an art gallery to see an exhibition of queer art and punk music where bands with names like Dreamcrusher and Homo-Superior played so loud my ears were ringing all the way home.

And we did it all in Rockville, a place not far from where I grew up, but where I would have never thought to spend any time before. After all, 20 years ago, what we now call Rockville Town Square parking lot of a failed shopping mall which had never attracted stores or customers, and had been a drag on the area.

What happened? In the 2000s, the City of Rockville, working with Montgomery County, developed a vision to give this community a new downtown to replace the historic one they’d ripped out a generation earlier.

The pieces might sound ordinary: some apartments, some shops and restaurants, a grocery store, a public library, and an arts center, all surrounding a public square and ice rink. Each building is designed in a different style to make the place feel like it grew up over time. Many of the shops and restaurants are locally-owned. And the complex is a few blocks from the Rockville Metro station, several county government buildings, and Richard Montgomery High School, ensuring a steady stream of workers, visitors, and students.

Together, all of these things make Rockville Town Square a place: somewhere to hang out with friends or run into neighbors, to gather for community events, to simply be outside and around other people.

In 2007, Rockville Town Square opened to the public. At the time, I was in college and working at a newly-opened ice cream shop there, and it was clear from the crowds who came by that they were hungry for a place like this. Especially the families who lived in adjacent Rockville neighborhoods like West End, who instantly went from having only a few things to walk to, to having six city blocks of new amenities a short walk from their homes. But so did folks from further away, who were glad they could drive just a few minutes for a night out, as opposed to heading down to Bethesda or DC.

Doug Duncan, who was mayor of Rockville and later County Executive during the planning for this project, was a frequent visitor to our store. I still remember a customer grabbing me and asking, “Could you tell him I said ‘thank you’? For all of this. For everything he’s done here.”

That’s when I knew this place meant something to people.

Rockville Town Square had its stumbles. It had the misfortune of opening right before the Great Recession; the condos above the shops were slow to sell, and some were converted to rental apartments. Many of the shops that were there in 2007 closed and there are still a few vacancies today. Customers who drove were frustrated by the high costs of parking and Federal Realty, which developed the project, took the parking garages over from the city.

But ten years out, Rockville Town Square could arguably be called a success. Home values in the West End rival those of neighborhoods inside the Beltway. The original six-block development is now surrounded by other buildings: new hotels, apartments and more shops and restaurants, including a whole block of Asian-themed businesses serving Rockville’s growing Asian community. But the biggest win might be Choice Hotels, which in 2013 relocated their headquarters from an East County office park to a building next to Rockville Town Square and the Rockville Metro station.

Places like Rockville Town Square are key to Montgomery County’s economic future. The county has several downtowns and town centers: Some, like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Wheaton, have existed for decades; others, like White Flint and Germantown, are newer.

These areas are attracting a majority of the DC area’s businesses: right now, 86% of the region’s new office development is happening next to Metro stations like Rockville. Just look at companies like Marriott, which is relocating to downtown Bethesda, or United Therapeutics, which is expanding their Silver Spring campus.

Additionally, the Washington Post recently noted that most new home buyers are seeking out these walkable neighborhoods, leading to greater competition and skyrocketing home prices because there just aren’t enough of them. The good news is that our downtowns and town centers are also a chance to accommodate new growth in the county. For a century, Montgomery County was able to add new residents by sprawling outward, but there isn’t a lot of open land to develop anymore, as nearly half of the county’s land is set aside for the Agricultural Reserve and for parks.

Instead, we have to focus growth in existing areas. That’s convenient because that’s where more people want to live anyway. That makes the county more attractive for retailers, as we have more residents to shop in areas like Rockville Town Square, and attractive to employers, who know their workers won’t have to commute two hours each way to get to the office. That’s why the county’s long term plans have included more investment in places like Bethesda and Silver Spring, as well as reviving other, older commercial areas in the county, like Veirs Mill Road and Long Branch.

But really the benefit is more places where we can spend time with our friends and families, support local businesses and culture, and make new memories. Rockville Town Square may still look pretty new, but it’s already woven itself into our community.