ROCKVILLE – For most of the past year, members of the Rockville Mayor and Council have struggled to come up with a long-term solution for Rockville Town Center.
With several businesses closing shop last year, the mayor and council, residents and business owners have debated what to do about the center.
On July 15, that discussion continued as the mayor and council debated whether to update the city’s master plan to increase the height limits for buildings in the town center. Councilmembers Mark Pierzchala and Virginia Onley argued that as the city’s main economic hub, the town center needs more density.
While a motion to instruct city staff to amend the Rockville Town Center Master Plan failed to pass, the debate continued.
Taller buildings would mean more residents, packed into the city’s downtown and more people who could frequent the shops and restaurants in Rockville Town Center.
“We have to start thinking now about town center, how it thrives five, 10, 15, 20 years from now, and now is the time to discuss it on those very specific planning area issues,” Pierzchala said.
Under the current master plan, the city allows for building heights up to 75 to 100 feet in Rockville Town Center.
However, there could be a couple of roadblocks for that plan. First, there is the city’s Adequate Public Facility Ordinance, which places a moratorium on development when schools exceed 120 percent of capacity. Second, there is opposition from residents who live in neighborhoods adjacent to Rockville Town Center, who may not want taller buildings over their homes.
“We need to address this density,” Onley said.
Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said she would rather wait to hear from residents in the neighborhoods adjacent to the center.
In her opinion, the mayor has proposed ancillary changes to the area, such as redesigning East Middle Lane and North Washington Street to accommodate more parking, and doing a better job of marketing the town center.
While Newton said she does not oppose additional heights to building in the town center, she said this cannot be the only solution to what is ailing the city’s downtown.
“You know, we need to stop putting all of our eggs in the density basket, and put our eggs in some other baskets along the way where we can (take) make steps rights away,” Newton said.
Pierzchala countered that these proposals from Newton were not enough for Rockville Town Center.
“I just have to be bluntly honest; you’re working around the edges and you’re not looking at the most essential part,” Pierzchala said.
For months, city officials have scrambled about what to do about failing businesses in the heart of Rockville. In October, grocery story Dawson’s Market announced it was closing, sending shockwaves around the city, as it served as a major anchor business for the town center.
While Dawson’s reopened a few months later, thanks to a grant, other businesses have closed their doors, citing high rents and low-foot traffic in Rockville Town Center. Businesses such as Pandora Seafood House and Bar, Mellow Mushroom, Little Dipper Hot Pot House and Liquid Blue Boutique all have shut down and not reopened since their closure.
The Urban Land Institute, which examined the economy in the town center, recommended that the city add more density, implementing a shuttle service as well as improvements to branding and marketing the town center.
For Councilmember Beryl Feinberg, the problem is partially a nationwide trend that is out of the city’s hands as more people opting to do their shopping online rather than in-person in stores.
“Brick and mortar stores are suffering across this country in major cities as well as our more suburbanized city-hubs,” Feinberg said.