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Stop Hating on Suburban Town Centers. Real Cities Could Learn a Lot From Them.

Urban purists mock them as phony suburban insta-cities. Our architecture critic disagrees. Here are his favorites.
Bright Lights, Insta-city: Fairfax’s vibrant Mosaic district. Photograph courtesy of DavidMadisonPhotography.com.
Bright Lights, Insta-city: Fairfax’s vibrant Mosaic district. Photograph courtesy of DavidMadisonPhotography.com.

It’s not news anymore that DC is booming, buoyed by people who have rediscovered city living. But even as gentrification spreads, there’s only so much city to meet the demand for walkable shopping streets and handsome rowhouses. Meanwhile, suburban schools and tax rates remain a big draw for some. It’s just that nowadays a lot of them want a taste of urban life, too.

That’s where “town centers” come in. Also called “lifestyle centers,” these developments try to recreate a piece of the city where one doesn’t exist. Whereas traditional suburbs keep home, work, and retail separate, town centers usually have a mix of shops, housing, and other spaces such as libraries or offices. The buildings face streets, not parking lots. There’s typically some sort of open area, too—though unlike urban squares, not every town square in a new development is taxpayer property.

The region’s first modern example of the concept was Reston Town Center, built in 1990 in an undeveloped area near Dulles Airport. Today, dozens dot every local jurisdiction—including, arguably, the District itself.

Perhaps inevitably, they attract their share of disdain from urban purists, who deride them as fake, contrived, and full of chain stores. The reputation is occasionally deserved: Some town centers masquerade as the next coming of Capitol Hill, when really they’re shopping malls with sidewalks, distressed brick, and old-timey signs designed to hide the fact that they’re neither towns nor centers.

But the snobbery is mostly unwarranted. Like Washington’s most beloved neighborhoods, the best suburban town centers attract and celebrate local people and culture while leaving room for evolution to occur. They feature local businesses, offer a combination of programmed and unprogrammed events, and physically tie into their surrounding community. What’s more, although many 20th-century malls are shuttering, the best of the town centers will be around long enough for their buildings to actually grow old. Here are my favorites.

Rockville Town Square

Unlike many town centers, Rockville Town Square sits on what was once an actual downtown, with hotels, theaters, schools, and a grand courthouse. In 1965, much of that was demolished in a federally funded urban-renewal project and replaced by a mall whose awkward, insular design repelled shoppers from the day it opened. In the 1990s, it too was torn down. Over the next ten years, officials began working to put the downtown back.

What resulted might be the region’s most picturesque town center. The streets are narrow, and traffic moves slowly. Buildings are a mix of neo-traditional styles, from Victorian to Georgian to Mediterranean, with intricate detailing and sturdy-looking materials. Unlike many such centers, there’s also a strong civic element. Rockville’s town square is truly public, with a grassy lawn and a bandstand. Next to it are a Montgomery County library and VisArts, a nonprofit arts center that’s not above experimental exhibitions.

One recent Friday night, a crowd of moms and dads sipped beer while listening to a Counting Crows cover band as their kids tumbled over one another. A few feet away and one story up at VisArts, tatted punks listened to a genderqueer, experimental noise artist out of Brooklyn named Dreamcrusher, part of a five-week program of LGBT art and music. It was a pretty wild juxtaposition, but then again, bringing disparate things together to share the same space is a hallmark of city life.

Mosaic District

While most town centers try to look like they’re 100 years old, the Mosaic district in Fairfax County wears its newness on its sleeve. The apartments and townhouses are sleek and modern, with bright colors and lots of white. Signs feature the kind of simple sans-serif fonts you expect to see in a trendy art gallery. The developer Edens, which turned Union Market into an emporium for $14 sea salt, brought together a similar mix of local boutiques and cafes but topped it with the ultimate symbol of suburbia, a Target floating above an enormous parking garage.

Mosaic may not look old, but it and the surrounding Merrifield area are developing like a traditional urban neighborhood, expanding block by block. Plans are tweaked as conditions change: One block was intended for retail, but as demand for housing grew, it was swapped out for townhouses.

It’s not 14th Street yet. The streets around Mosaic—Lee Highway and Gallows Road—are intimidating to anyone coming by foot or bike, discouraging those who might want to travel between different sections of this emerging area. But it’s starting to feel like an actual neighborhood crafted by multiple hands, Pretty impressive for an area that didn’t exist five years ago.

Downtown Silver Spring

At first glance, downtown Silver Spring resembles everything wrong with town centers. The buildings look like the background of a Wild West movie, with lots of blank walls and fake windows. For years, the centerpiece was an artificial-turf lawn. The shops have no housing above them, meaning the area lacks a crucial source of street life. (Of course, there are thousands of apartments in the surrounding business district.) Most of the stores are chains, and not fancy ones: Red Lobster, Chipotle, a shuttered Office Depot that’s a pop-up Halloween store a few months a year.

But look again. Those chains might be why Silver Spring is Washington’s most diverse town center, a place that the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher called the region’s best spot for people-watching, above even Dupont Circle. Chains such as Red Lobster are affordable and unthreatening, attractive to a swath of people spanning race, class, and age. That area and the adjacent, county-run Silver Spring Civic Building host farmers markets and concerts, the staples of any gentrified urban neighborhood, as well as an annual Ethiopian festival.

Thus on any given night, you’re likely to see crowds on Ellsworth Drive, which is frequently closed to traffic. Those crowds make the area a magnet for the impromptu happenings that can easily draw an audience, such as a group of skateboarders doing tricks or a street busker setting up an amp and a guitar stand. That spontaneity is the sign of a real urban neighborhood, one that gives people a chance not only to “consume” a place but to give back to it as well.

That’s a big-city vibe missing from many parts of DC proper. Which reminds me: Once upon a time, the District was a newbie, too, the product of a French designer imposing a city where none existed. Even today, many of that city’s trendiest neighborhood names—“North End Shaw,” say—are as new as Reston Town Center once was. Just as with the suburban developments, in 50 years no one will know any better because it will feel as if they’ve always been there.

Dan Reed writes Just Up the Pike, a blog focusing on transportation and urban planning in Montgomery County. On Twitter, he’s @justupthepike.

This article appears in the November 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

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