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Real Estate: City Living in the Suburbs

New downtowns are springing up with luxury condos, trendy restaurants, and fashionable shops.

One of the lively suburban centers, Rockville Town Square hums at night.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, Judie Rosenthal walked or rode her bike everywhere. Who needed a car when everything was a block away?

Now she’s doing it again, this time in suburban Maryland. About a year ago, Rosenthal moved into a one-bedroom condo at the Palladian Condominiums in Rockville Town Square. Everything is at her fingertips, Rosenthal says, just as it was in Brooklyn: “To me, it’s very revitalizing.”

Rockville Town Square, a new development of stores and mid-rise apartments and condos, embodies the trend of creating walkable downtowns in the suburbs. William Rich of Delta Associates, a real-estate research firm in Alexandria, calls it “city lite.”

Town centers give a focal point to suburbia, says Reid Ewing of the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth: “They’re trying to create a ‘there’ there in places that are essentially suburban sprawl.”

Old-style street lamps, brick walkways, and potted plants give these modern developments a Main Street feel. Central plazas with benches provide a gathering spot as well as a venue for everything from concerts to open-air markets.

If single-family homes are the hallmark of suburban living, condos are the icon of these new communities. Their owners are typically empty-nesters or young professionals eager to give up square footage and a yard for an urbanlike lifestyle—walking to dinner, taking Metro to work, and shopping without getting in the car.

The new town centers are “urban, but without the grit,” Ewing says.

Laura Kurasiewicz, 25, moved into a one-bedroom condo in Ballston’s Residences at Liberty Center in January. In her search for a home, Kurasiewicz had put new construction with high-level finishes and amenities at the top of her priority list. But she also wanted an urban feel: “I’m a city girl, so I really like being close to where everything’s happening.” Kurasiewicz says she likes being able to walk across the street to CVS when she needs a prescription and then meet up with friends for a glass of wine.

Given Washington’s traffic, the pedestrian-friendly lifestyle of places such as Ballston is a real draw, Delta’s Rich says. Even if residents don’t work next door to their condo, many of the most popular town centers are near Metro.

Rosenthal drives to her job in Reston, where she’s a customer-relations coordinator at Bozzuto Homes, but ditches the car when she’s at home. “Everything’s here,” she says. “I don’t need a car for anything.”

Proximity to DC and Metro has fueled the growth of several town centers. The Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, which stretches along Wilson and Clarendon boulevards in Arlington, runs above Metro’s Orange Line. Thirty years ago, Arlington chose to build Metro underground despite the higher cost. Doing so created more room for development and a more walkable community.

Clarendon’s Market Common, a horseshoe-shaped development of offices and stores, anchors the area. The neighborhood buzzes with shoppers and residents browsing in stores such as Pottery Barn and Barnes & Noble or grabbing a bite to eat.

The Orange Line reached Ballston in 1979, but condo development continues along the corridor. As many as nine condominium buildings have units for sale, and Rosslyn is seeing a wave of new condos for sale. The Residences at Waterview, more than 100 units in a new two-tower development near the river, opened recently. The developer, JBG Companies, is getting started on Central Place, which will swallow an entire block and include a 31-story office tower and 350 luxury condos.

Bethesda wasn’t planned as a town center but grew naturally, thanks in part to its underground Metro. The corner of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues is now the gateway to new condos, stores, and restaurants with sidewalk tables. The Capital Crescent walking and biking trail runs through downtown.

Other suburban town centers to emerge in the past decade include these:

Silver Spring. To revitalize its downtown area, Montgomery County lobbied the AFI Silver Theatre and Discovery Communications to set up shop there. Their arrival five years ago helped put Silver Spring on the map as an arts-and-entertainment destination. The county council is now backing a plan to spend $4 million to bring in a concert venue.

Rockville Town Square. Another government-spurred development to reinvigorate a downtown, the Town Square broke ground four years ago two blocks from the Rockville Metro station. Anchored by a new public library, it offers an open-air plaza, 152 condos and 492 rental units, three parking garages, and many street-level stores. The Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts moved into a 40,000-square-foot space with exhibit space, galleries, and studios.

The Village at Shirlington. Shirlington recently more than doubled its original one-block length to include a building that houses a public library as well as the acclaimed Signature Theatre, which moved here from its nearby garage space. Arlington County has agreed to kick in $4.8 million toward the cost of the building. There’s no nearby Metro, but a new indoor station for Metro and ART bus lines opens soon.

Reston Town Center. Almost-20-year-old Reston Town Center lures residents with high-rise condos, upscale shopping, restaurants, and an ice-skating rink in winter. The planned Metro extension to Dulles includes a stop near here.

Hyattsville’s University Town Center. This is a new development about a block from the Prince George’s Plaza Metro station on the Green Line. In addition to condos, this community has more than 200,000 square feet of restaurants and retail space, a 14-screen movie theater, and five office buildings.

National Gateway at Potomac Yard. South of Crystal City on a former railroad-yard site, this development eventually will have more than 1,500 residential units on 15 acres that also includes office space, shopping, and restaurants. Condos are for sale, a Harris Teeter grocery store is already open, and two Marriott hotels are planned.

Critics say the new town centers are poor imitations of true downtowns. Too many of the stores are national chains, they argue, and the areas lack the character and charm of old downtowns.

But residents point to a strong sense of community in these developments. Rosenthal says she lives the life of Friends, the television show that featured a group of twentysomethings in Manhattan. She and her neighbors go out to dinner every week, watch American Idol in the condo’s club room, and help one another decorate.

This winter, they threw a pizza party for the first baby born in the building. These friends are like family, Rosenthal says: “I wouldn’t move anywhere else.”

This article appears in the May 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here

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