Making the King Farm Village Center Thrive

The October edition of the King Farm Chronicle, the community’s monthly newspaper which is mailed to over 3,500 homes within King Farm, will feature the upcoming Rockville City election.  They asked the candidates to provide answers to four questions and here’s the third one:

3. What would you do to help the King Farm Village Center thrive? Would you allow more signage on nearby streets and roads?

We’d have to first agree on what we mean by “thrive” (e.g., more sales per person? per square foot? more shops? more traffic? more people?) so let me assume you mean that it should be busier than it is now. From my years of serving on a planning commission and a downtown business association, I’ve often faced merchants who want more or bigger signs to improve sales. It seems obvious: no signs is certainly bad, therefore the opposite must good. I’ve found it’s true only to a certain point. Even if you put up a billboard, if you’re not interested in karate or knitting, you’re not going to enter that store. Other things are equally, if not more, important and you have several of them in spades: it’s attractive, safe, there are distinctive businesses, wide sidewalks, and it has a grocery store (the Town Square would be much more successful if it had one).

View down Pleasant Drive in the King Farm Village Center

View down Pleasant Drive in the King Farm Village Center

Before you add more signs, I’d evaluate what you currently have with a small group of residents, merchants, and outsiders (I’m happy to help!). My impression is that you may have sufficient signs, but that they are simply located inappropriately. For example, if you look down a street and you won’t see any signs—they’re all mounted flat against the building. If you drive down on KF Boulevard from #355, you won’t notice the main entrance sign for the Center with its menu of businesses—it’s installed facing the opposite direction.

We also have to remember it was designed as a neighborhood shopping center that primarily serves King Farm, hence it’s tucked inside to best serve the neighborhood. A regional shopping center needs to be placed on a busier street and with more acreage to be successful. If you want to reach a larger market, a monument sign on #355 could help, however, you’ll need to battle the state highway administration (bring plenty of patience!).

I went over my word limit and had to conclude, but I had a few more suggestions to help this shopping center thrive:

  • Make the businesses inviting and open.  Replace smoked glass with clear glass in stores and restaurants.  It makes it appear that the interior lights are off and the business is closed. Plus, shoppers are more willing to enter a store if they know what they will encounter.
  • Keep the sidewalk cafes inviting and active.  They should have something on the tables so they don’t appear abandoned or closed.  A vase with flowers, salt/pepper shakers, a list of specials in a plastic holder, a tablecloth–it really doesn’t matter what it is as long as it looks like the restaurant is welcoming patrons to sit down.
  • Create an environment that encourages shoppers to explore.  Stand in any location and you’ll see only a few stores at a time.  Trace the paths next to the businesses and you’ll find many that lead to deadends, requiring people to retrace their steps.  Read the signs and you’ll notice they don’t encourage people to stay very long.
  • Shoppers are attracted to places with a lot of activity, so rethink how stores are organized by placing those that generate the highest traffic on the first floor or in the center, and placing those that generate little traffic on the second floor or on the edges.  The real estate company doesn’t generate much foot traffic, so it creates a dead spot.
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