Monday, May 4, 2009

Report of the Town Center Summit on April 21

Mark Pierzchala, current president of the Town Center Action Team (TCAT), opened the meeting at 7:05pm. He reports an attendance at the meeting of 100 people.

David Levy, Chief of Long Range Planning & Development from the City of Rockville gave an overview of the history of the project, noting that Town Center as defined in the City’s Town Center Master Plan (adopted by the Mayor and Council in 2001) encompasses significantly more area than just Rockville Town Square, as can be seen in this image at the City website.

He also listed the mixture of public and private development partners in the project: the City of Rockville, Montgomery County, Federal Realty Investment Trust, RD Rockville, and the State of Maryland.

There are 492 units in the Fenestra apartments (originally slated to be condominiums but sold to CIM in 2007), and 152 units in the Palladian condominiums, 50% of which are leased as rent-to-own properties.

Burt Hall from the Rockville Department of Parks and Recreation gave an overview of that department’s role in Town Center, including maintaining the parking garages, acting as landlord for VisArts, and working on the conversion of the old Post Office to police headquarters. He noted that the Mayor and Council recently approved a plan to give residents 12 free parking days in the Town Square parking garages per year, with coupons to be distributed starting June 1, and that the garages require subsidies from the City’s General Fund for operation. He listed the many upcoming activities the department is busy planning for, including First Friday Deck Parties at the Rooftop, beginning May 1, Concerts in the Square, beginning May 7, OTL Wednesdays and the Saturday Farmers Markets, Hometown Holidays and Memorial Day parade, and the Uncorked wine festival in the fall.

Michael Schwartzmann, VP from Ross Development and Investment, and Matt Wexler from CIM spoke about residential development in Town Center, Mr. Schwartzmann noting the good relations between all parties during development and the unusual size of the project, which required as many as 1,100 people to be working on site simultaneously. Mr. Wexler spoke of Rockville as an “urbanizing district,” noting that CIM has several successful projects in similar areas. He said the first of the Fenestra apartments was occupied in August 2007, with units leased at the rate of about 20/month, leading to an 85% occupancy rate today. CIM hopes to sell the units as condos when market conditions allow that.

Neil Burka, Federal Realty Property Manager for Town Square noted that a new furniture store has opened in the space vacated by Bedheaders Home, that the new Indian restaurant, Spice Xing, has had excellent reviews and offer a great lunch buffet at a reasonable price. He also noted the variety of activities planned for the summer, including Cinco de Mayo, Mommy & Me days and Cheap Date Night, among others.

VisArts Executive Director Deborah Moser said there has been a lot of interest in VisArts from around the country, including folks from Torpedo Factory in VA who came to get ideas. She noted the upcoming Ride for the Arts on May 16, kids camps at VisArts, and mentioned that 57 artists from around the country have been selected to participate in the Fine Arts / Crafts exhibit at Hometown Holidays.

Deborah Simon, owner of Waygoose, noted that the Waygoose originally opened in the “Magruder mall” in 1993 and one of the unflagging supporters of Town Square, where the store reopened in May 07. She noted the difficulty all the retailers in Town Square faced opening at a time of economic downturn, and says better signage is needed on Rockville Pike to let drivers and passersby know what a fabulous collection of shops and restaurants exist beyond the parking garage.

Adam Weber, President of the Palladian Condo Association, noted that the new General Manager, Vickie Meyers, would be glad to give tours of the condos to anyone who wants to stop by.

Rockville Economic Development, Inc's Executive Director Sally Sternbach said the mission of REDI is to assure the City's future economic vitality and that a successful Town Center plays a big part in that. She stated that commercial development is particularly desirable, as it requires less infrastructure support than residential, as are commercial tenants, who generally spend more in the local economy than government tenants.

During a Q/A session, Burt Hall noted that the City’s Town Center marketing is primarily through events and Rockville Reports. Robin McBride, Vice President - Mid Atlantic Region COO for Federal Realty, said around $1m was spent over the past year on mailings, signs, media and other advertising. The tendency is for people to travel south, toward DC, rather than vice versa, so it’s a challenge promoting Town Square south of here. One person suggested changing the name of the Rockville metro stop to Rockville Town Center, to let more people know this is where Town Center is, an idea many people seemed to like.

Town Center - future

David Levy gave a chronology of the City’s involvement with Town Center planning beyond Town Square, including an Alignment study in 07/08 for extending Maryland and Dawson (to 355) to accommodate (re)development north of Beall Avenue. He noted that Kettler has plans for a 284 residential-unit building with ground-floor retail on the corner of Beall and N. Washington – they have a 1-year extension from the City. Renovation is scheduled for the Volunteer Fire Department building at the corner of 355 & Beall, though there is a possibility of the firehouse being moved to a different location instead. Duball has received approval for a hotel with residential units in the area across E. Montgomery from Regal Cinemas, but cannot move forward for lack of available financing. Foulger Pratt plans two more office towers at Middle Lane & 355. The District Court is currently under construction at the corner of Jefferson & Maryland Ave. The County is also studying the possibility of a Circuit Court annex, expansion of the COB parking garage, and is constructing 90 units of housing on Fleet Street for elderly residents. He noted that the area north of Beall will not necessarily be developed with the same public/private partnership undertaken for Town Square, since the area is owned by multiple different developers. The working assumption is that development will be primarily a private venture, unless directed otherwise by Mayor and Council.

Paul Newman, past president of the Town Center Action Team, recognized the people who helped come up with a plan for Town Center North of Beall Avenue. They were:

Noreen Bryan
Faith Klareich – Environment Commission, Rockshire
Craig Moloney – Architect, Historic District Commission, West End
Paul Newman – GRP, Town Center Action Team, Hungerford
Kate Ostell – Planning Commission, West End
Richard Resnick – Traffic and Transportaion, North Farm
Kate Savage – Recreation and Parks Board, Woodley Gardens West
Jonathan Smith – Cultural Arts Commission, Croyden Park
Betty Spano - College Gardens
Robin Wiener - President, East Rockville Citizens Association

He showed the plan they came up with after months of consideration, and emphasized that it was just a proposal made after studying the area and considering the uses to which it might be put, not a City- or developer-supported plan for the area. Among the challenges they faced were lack of City-owned land, multiple land owners, a narrow strip at N Washington & 355, and uncertainty about the future of the Fire Station. Their vision was an area with open green space, ground-level retail, and sidewalk dining. We will post a link to that proposed plan if it is made available at the City website.

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