Mount Rainier Mixed-Use Town Center Development Plan

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Location: Mount Rainier, Maryland. Historic town

Re-Inventing a Historic Streetcar Neighborhood

The new Downtown Development Plan describes an ongoing reinvention of historic Mount Rainier, Maryland. This project was developed over nine months in a collaborative effort involving the consultant team, local landowners, business owners, city and county government staff, elected officials, and, most importantly, the community of Mount Rainier.

The City of Mount Rainier is a historic neighborhood and major gateway to northeast Washington, DC. In 1897, a streetcar station was built at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and 34th Street, establishing the city as a transit-oriented neighborhood. For the next 50 years, Mount Rainier developed into a compact, mixed-use neighborhood and a vibrant commercial node. The city became home to neighborhood-serving retail stores, several influential cultural institutions, and a historic residential neighborhood.

Like many other first generation suburbs in metropolitan Washington, DC, Mount Rainier suffered a dramatic population decline during the 1960s and 1970s. The population decline was accompanied by disinvestment in civic-oriented architecture and urban infrastructure. In 1958, the historic streetcar system was replaced with a bus system. Competing single-use strip malls in adjacent towns were developed in the 1970s and 80s, severely undermining Mount Rainier’s smaller-scaled retail downtown core. Starting in 1994, local city and county governments began efforts, such as the 1994 Town Center Guidelines Book and the 2004 Gateway Arts District Sector Plan, to renew interest in historic neighborhoods like Mount Rainier. 

The new development plan represents a detailed vision for the city over the next 15 years. The plan reflects a carefully developed consensus among stakeholders and pushes forward several important goals: Creating an identifiable place along Rhode Island Avenue, an important regional corridor; Re-establishing downtown Mount Rainier as an pedestrian node, with its unique boutique stores and regionally-influential cultural institutions; Prominently displaying the vibrant local arts scene; Protecting and supporting a strong residential community; Creating a prominent visual gateway on Rhode Island Avenue;Improving the pedestrian and cycling experience both within in the city and beyond; Providing a comprehensive parking system without sacrificing the historic flavor of 34th Street; Slowing down dangerous vehicular traffic through downtown area; Providing implementation tools for reinvestment.

 

Response to Charter Principles

The Project encompasses an urban design plan, implementation strategies and tools, and design standards and guidelines for downtown Mount Rainier. This plan is submitted to the Neighborhood, the District and the Corridor category of the Congress for the New Urbanism 2012 Charter Awards. The City of Mount Rainier is located on Rhode Island Avenue, a regional corridor and gateway to Washington, DC. Historically, Mount Rainier has served as an important streetcar node and identifi able downtown area. Over time, however, its key elements have been undermined or removed, resulting in a loss of character. The Development Plan introduces several elements that help form an identifi able place along an often nondescript corridor. (Principle 10)

Starting with the establishment of the streetcar in 1897, Mount Rainier developed into a compact, transit-oriented neighborhood. Unfortunately, a severe population decline in the 1950s and 1960s led to disinvestment in the transit system and downtown. In 1958, the iconic streetcar was removed, essentially changing Mount Rainier’s original character. The plan re-introduces public investment in transportation through the design of pedestrian sidewalks, cycle lanes and emphasizing the return of the DC streetcar extension. (Principle 14 and Canon 1)

Mount Rainier’s compact and mixed-use downtown contrasts sharply with surrounding single-use and sprawling developments. Within a short 5-minute walk, the downtown boasts a rich mix of civic buildings, religious institutions, cultural centers, art galleries, performance spaces, restaurants, small-scale retail, apartments and single-family homes. The plan builds upon this historic mix of uses and proposes compatible uses that enhance Mount Rainier’s economic and cultural development. It also reinforces the high quality of life that results from intimate social interaction. (Principle 16 and Canon 7)

The plan applies well-known public space types – the boulevard, the civic green, the main street – in new contexts. Rhode Island Avenue, 34th Street and the new Civic Center are redesigned to be safe, comfortable and interesting to pedestrians and cyclists. The design team worked with city, county and state transportation experts to develop an innovative street sections that prioritize the pedestrian and cycling experience while accommodating future transit. The plan also pays special attention to Mount Rainier’s unique historic buildings, recalling the city’s history as a streetcar neighborhood. Finally, the design envisions a new civic green that ties together disparate municipal buildings, reinforcing community identity and civic participation. (Principle 23, Principle 25, Principle 27)

 

Lessons Learned

Over the past few decades, the outer suburbs have consumed most of the development focus in metropolitan Washington, DC. These suburbs have become sprawling, single-use and car-dependent, often using a disproportionate share of public infrastructure. In stark contrast, older historic neighborhoods have suffered from significant disinvestment in infrastructure and development. 

The Project strives to shift focus back to Washington’s historic, mixed-use neighborhoods. Mount Rainier is unique in its historic fabric: the 1902 Eastern Star Building, the iconic domed Prince George’s Bank Building, the original Kline’s Bakery, the 1936 Singer Building, the last remaining historic Gas Station on Rhode Island Avenue (circa 1934), and other special structures. Mount Rainier has a rich history and texture, and the project reflects this by using a fine-grained approach towards preserving buildings and inserting new infill structures. The Plan advances urban design through the sensitive blend of historic buildings, new infill and innovative urban infrastructure. Mount Rainier is home to a large cycling and transit community. The new design for Rhode Island Avenue and 34th Street takes these users into consideration by expanding connectivity options for pedestrians and cyclists. Most importantly, the plan anticipates and accommodates the future re-introduction of the Washington, DC streetcar.

Throughout the design process, the consultant team uncovered significant oral and photographic history. For example, the community was thrilled to discover that Mount Rainier won the National Pedestrian Protection Contest in 1953, an interesting contrast to today’s high speed, car-dominated Rhode Island Avenue. These historic details became important benchmarks toward developing a future vision for Mount Rainier. Mount Rainier serves as an example of how historic neighborhoods can overcome past disinvestment and plan for a brighter future. The Project enjoys strong city, county and community support and has been adopted as a prototype and “template” for other town centers in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Transect Zone(s): T5 center.
Status: Plan Approved
Project or Plan's Scale: Region
Features: Mixed uses.
Land area (in acres): 15
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Project team designers: Cunningham | Quill Architects
Project team developers: N/A

Previous site status:

Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: 2010 - 2025