Category Archives: Housing

Rockville to Explore its 20th-Century Communities

New Mark Commons:  Maryland or Scandinavia?

New Mark Commons: Maryland or Scandinavia?

In a series of illustrated presentations and walking tours this spring, Peerless Rockville will explore several of Rockville’s modern neighborhoods, including Twinbrook, New Mark Commons, and King Farm.

Free and open to the public, the series will highlight five neighborhood communities from the early postwar housing boom to mid-century planned development to the “new town” movement popular at the end of the century.  The series will culminate in an evening lecture and panel discussion at Rockville City Hall on the factors that influenced modern development, the significant elements of each time period, and the special features of each community that have contributed to its success and left lasting imprints.

The schedule for the upcoming series:

Building Houses, Creating Community: Joseph Geeraert and Twinbrook, featuring professor Dr. Richard Longstreth of George Washington University, Saturday, March 23, 10 am at the Twinbrook Community Center Annex.

Woodley Gardens: A Traditional Red Brick Neighborhood with a Modern Feel, featuring Continue reading →

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Suburban Dreams or Nightmares?

The “lakeside villas” at New Mark Commons in Rockville, Maryland.

This Wednesday, May 16, I’ll be leading a tour of 20th-century planned communities for the American Institute of Architects’ annual convention.  We’ll start with 1930s Greenbelt (one of a handful developed by the federal government to demonstrate how communities could be intentionally planned, not just haphazardly developed) and then visit two other nationally significant planned communities, both in Rockville:  1960s-70s New Mark Commons and 2000s King Farm.  I’ll be joined by Dr. Elizabeth Milnarik, Dr. Isabel Gournay, and Jim Wasilak (Rockville’s Chief of Planning).  By the end of the day, participants will have a nice overview of “community making” in the 20th century, all very different responses by some of the best minds of their times.

I love sharing Rockville with anyone who’s interested but unfortunately, this tour is limited to members of the AIA.  But you can easily explore these neighborhoods yourself and if you want more details, Greenbelt has a museum in one of the original residences and Dr. Isabel Gournay at the University of Maryland has written a scholarly essay on King Farm (and Woodley Gardens) in Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning in the National Capital Area , edited by Richard Longstreth (2010).  If you’d like a guided tour, suggest it to Peerless Rockville and perhaps they’ll put one together in the near future.

New Mark Commons and King Farm are hailed as idealistic suburban communities, but it wasn’t true of all neighborhoods in Rockville.  In 1956, John Keats criticized the monotony and isolation of the suburbs around Washington, DC in his popular novel, The Crack in the Picture Window.  He follows the lives of Mary and John Drone, a young family trying to get established.  They move up from a small old apartment in northern Virginia and move to a new house in suburban Maryland, supposedly based on Rockville’s Twinbrook neighborhood:

[John Drone counted his blessings and said,] “Great.  I have a wife and two swell kids, a new split level with everything in it, a new car with all the extras, and I got myself not one but three jobs.  I’m meeting all my payments, every month.”

As for Mary’s life, the first few weeks were spent in the charming exhilaration which new surroundings always bring.  Gaily, she explored the cellar bedroom which had been added to her domain.  She liked the little thrill of going up two steps to the living room, and then up another two into the bedrooms.  She was as happy as a squirrel in a new, three-ring cage.  This light mood persisted through nearly two months, until at last there came that day when her new world suddenly became only too familiar.

It was the day she stood looking out her picture window and for the first time became completely aware of the picture window across the treeless street.  For a horrid moment she stood there, staring.  The she ran to her door and tore it open, looking up and down the block.  And everywhere she looked, she saw houses exactly like her own, row on row of them, the same, the same, the same…

Homes and Hospitality Tour this Saturday

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Get to know your city a bit better through the upcoming Homes and Hospitality Tour on Saturday afternoon, May 12.  Peerless Rockville organizes this special one-day exploration of a neighborhood every two years, and this year’s focus is East Rockville.  Most people don’t realize that this neighborhood east of the tracks not only has one of the densest collections of historic houses, but also some award-winning contemporary homes.  Once directly connected to downtown Rockville via Baltimore Road, after the streets were rerouted in the mid-20th century, East Rockville became hidden and forgotten, with many of the houses being cut up into apartments or falling into disrepair.  During the last couple decades, however, young couples and entrepreneurial investors saw the potential of this derelict neighborhood and began restoring the historic houses or building new ones on rare empty lots.  Interest in this neighborhood continues to grow given its long history, its architectural diversity, and its proximity to Metro, MARC, and downtown.

The Tour includes six different places to visit at your own pace and in any order:  three historic houses, two modern houses, and one public building.  All have remarkable stories (one of the first electrified houses in the city, another linked to a typhoid epidemic, and another that stands on a former “laboratory to prepare for Armageddon”–wow!) and by exploring them together, you’ll leave with a new appreciation for your community and be inspired by the care of your fellow residents (several have won awards).  Unlike most home tours, however, the event is staffed by many community leaders (so you may greeted by your Mayor, Police Chief, or State Delegate), many local restaurants provide refreshments (such as Carmen’s Ice Cream and Tower Oaks Lodge), and music is provided by local artists and students.  For $25, it’s a bargain for a special afternoon in your own town (and a great gift for Mother’s Day!) but if you buy in advance or if you’re a Peerless Rockville member, you can get a discount of up to 25% off.  Get your tickets in advance at PeerlessRockville.org or on the day of the event at the Pump House at 401 South Horner’s Lane.

Twinbrook Station Tour Discusses Future Development

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This morning’s Peerless Rockville tour of the Alaire not only provided an intimate behind-the-scenes tour with representative of JBG of this award-winning combination of residences and stores, but also discussed the plans and timing for several projects in the Twinbrook Metro area.  About a dozen people joined the conversation to see the lobby, common rooms, and a one-bedroom apartment of the Alaire, then went out onto the street to discuss the current and upcoming development for the region.  Among the items that caught my ears:

1.  WMATA owns the land and has leased it to JBG for 99 years.  That means that projects need to be approved both by the City of Rockville and WMATA.

2.  WMATA wants to maintain the 1100 parking spaces currently available at the Twinbrook Metro station, so before any existing surface lots can be developed, sufficient parking has to be provided elsewhere.  The parking structure currently under construction at Halpine and Chapman will allow development of the next phase of Twinbrook Commons.

3.  The next phase of Twinbrook Station will occur on the west side of Fishers Lane, across from the Alaire.  Called the Toronto, it will consist of a combination of residences, stores, and a parking structure and will be intentionally designed by another architectural firm to avoid a monotonous appearance for the development.  Groundbreaking is expected to happen Continue reading →

Developments around Rockville Metro to be Explored

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This Saturday, April 21, from 10 am to 12 noon, join Peerless Rockville for a tour of The Alaire at Twinbrook Station, the beginning of a significant, New Urbanist community called Twinbrook Station being developed by the JBG Companies and WMATA.  It’s the first Gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) plan in the Washington metropolitan area, has been designated a Smart Growth project by the Washington Smart Growth Alliance, and received the International Charter Award for Excellence from the Congress for the New Urbanism.   So if you want to know what all the fuss is about, staff from JBG will discuss their approach to development around a transit station, view an apartment, and find out more about their future plans and on-going projects, both at Twinbrook Station and on adjacent properties. Tour starts at 10 am at 1101 Higgins Place (the entrance to the Alaire apartments) and costs $7.  Space is limited and reservations are recommended.  Two-hour free parking in the Alaire garage (and the adjacent Metro lot is free on weekends).  For more information, please visit PeerlessRockville.org or call 301-762-0096.

And just in case you didn’t catch my previous tweets, it appears that the nearby Walmart project at the Rockville Pike and Bou Avenue has been temporarily postponed:  Bagel City recently signed a two-and-a-half year lease.  A few doors down, the Office Depot is closing but it’s unrelated to future developments of the site (btw, everything is on sale at 10-30% off but is non-returnable).

In other related news, a couple of Rockville’s communities will enjoy national attention in May when I co-lead a tour of New Mark Commons and King Farm for the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects.  We’ll be looking at cutting-edge planned communities in Montgomery County, starting with 1930s Greenbelt and ending with the 21st century King Farm.  Lunch will be in Town Square, which has turned up as the poster child for the Congress for the New Urbanism.   If you thought Rockville was just a little sleepy suburb, it’s time to change your mind.

Tentative Plans Revealed for Old Giant Store in Downtown Rockville

Tony Greenberg of JBG describing plans for downtown Rockville.

About two dozen people gathered in the Red Brick Courthouse last night to hear Tony Greenberg of JBG Companies of Chevy Chase discuss conceptual plans for a three-acre lot in downtown Rockville, the site of the former Giant grocery store on Washington Street near Beall Avenue.  The Town Center Action Team hosted the meeting and among those attending were councilmember Bridget Newton and chief of planning Jim Wasilak.  JBG is one of the region’s major developers and is currently building the Alaire and rehabilitating the million-square-foot Health and Human Services Building in Twinbrook.  Greenberg noted that JBG Rosenfeld is an affiliated but separate company that specializes in managing retail properties (such as the Twinbrook Shopping Center).  JBG’s focus is primarily planning and construction of offices, hotels, and mixed use projects (i.e., retail AND residential, such as the North Bethesda Market which combines a Whole Foods Market and 400 apartments).

Old Giant Store Site in downtown Rockville.

The Old Giant site has been vacant for years and is receiving very little revenue (mostly leases for parking).  It’s part of the next phase of development for the Town Center (aka Town Center 2) and although currently sited mid-block along Washington Avenue, the City’s plans include streets bordering two other sides of the three-acre lot (an extension of Maryland Avenue from Town Center and a new Dawson Street linking Washington and Hungerford).  JBG’s current conceptual plans include those streets as planned (although adjustments have been discussed to avoid awkward leftover parcels) and how their project might relate to the adjacent properties as Town Center 2 is developed.  Greenberg noted that adjacent properties are separate parcels owned by others, such as the Maxim supermarket and the fire station, some of whom are not interested in selling because they want to develop the property themselves.  Plans for relocating the fire station have died down, development of the Bank of America parcel have been scrapped due to the economy, but a Walgreen’s drug store is underway along Hungerford.

JBG considered various possible uses, including office, condo, and hotel, but in the current economic climate, the only ones that made sense were Continue reading →

A Crib for Adults Debuts at Strathmore

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Today Rockville architect Jeff Broadhurst unveiled his Crib, a modernist cabin, at the Mansion at Strathmore.  Based on a cabin he built for his family in West Virginia, this updated version is a mix of warm wood and industrial steel combined in a contemporary fashion.  Furthermore, it’s designed as a kit of parts that can be easily transported and quickly assembled, and by standing on four piers, it can be built in nearly any terrain.  Unlike most cabins that are dark and claustrophobic, the Crib’s high ceilings and translucent walls make it spacious and airy.  Plus one wall opens like a garage door, stretching the living room onto the porch.  It’s a very clever and beautiful design worthy of Sunset magazine or Architectural Digest, and ideal for a couple or small family that wants to live simply yet stylishly.  It’ll be on display at Strathmore for two years and used as a studio and gallery for several of their artists-in-residence.  Check it out and see what one of your neighbors has been up to.

Rockville’s Year 2010 in Review

Usually this type of post goes up on January 1, but I always prefer a bit of distance to identify the biggest stories of past year.  Although this is admittedly from my limited personal perspective and is bound to generate controversy (but hey, that’s what these lists are supposed to do), here’s my list for Rockville in 2010:

1.  Red Gate Golf Course.  This is continued to be a thorny issue and made have seen its thorniest moment when the City Council used $2.4 million in “surplus” money to pay off past debt and the anticipated shortfalls for 2011, and also (once again) punted the decision to another time.  Despite countless meetings and studies, for years the Council has been astonishingly agonized about making a decision on whether to commit to an annual subsidy, integrate it into the recreation program, levy a tax to support it, or to close it down.  Meanwhile, the golf course continues to bleed money and participation rates continue to slide.  Perhaps we need to start over:  if we were offered 130 acres today (Red Gate is the second largest park in Rockville), what would most benefit the community?  I don’t think most people would say golf course.

Welcome to (snowy) Twinbrook


2.  Snowpocalypse.  Who can forget this snowstorm? There was so much snow it closed the federal government for a week.  The adventurous walked and explored the city in a new quiet way and neighbors found a new reason to talk and help each other.  There was a lot of frustration with snow clearing and the City wasn’t prepared, but remember, the city worked around the clock and conscripted employees into snowshoveling duties to deal with this record snowfall.  We also improved our abilities to monitor and respond to these situations so when this happens again (and it may not be for another fifty years), we’re prepared.  And someone at the City gets two stars for Continue reading →

Historic Preservation in Rockville: Myths and Misconceptions

"Is Your Home Historic?", TCA Newsletter, June 2010.

In yesterday’s mail I received the Twinbrook Citizens Association newsletter and noted that President Christina Ginsberg devoted a portion to historic preservation in Rockville in her article, “Is Your Home ‘Historic’?”  As a member of the Historic District Commission (HDC) living in Twinbrook, I appreciate the attention to this long-standing effort in the City of Rockville, but I also want to correct some factual errors and misunderstandings, particularly because they can result in unnecessary conflicts and spread misinformation.   Here are the common myths regarding preservation in Rockville:

1.  If my house is designated, it’ll prevent improvements.  False. In Rockville, owners of historic properties can complete routine repairs and maintenance without review or approval, as long as they replace in kind.  So fix your roof with the same material, it’s okay.  Change from asphalt to slate, it’ll need to be approved by the HDC.  Paint colors are never subject to approval, so if you like yellow and purple stripes, go ahead.  Work on the inside of your house isn’t reviewed by the HDC, so remodel your kitchen and bathroom.  It’s permanent changes to the outside of your house that matter, and even then, if they are thoughtfully designed Continue reading →

Mayor and Council meets in Twinbrook

For the first time in a very long time (John Tyner can perhaps assign a precise date), the Mayor and Council held one of their regular meetings at the Twinbrook Recreation Center since, as Mayor Marcuccio stated, “you can’t come to see us, so we’re coming to see you.”   It was a regular meeting, so no agenda items were Twinbrook-focused, but half of the people who spoke at Citizen’s Forum were from Twinbrook and raised the following concerns: Continue reading →