TOD hot spots abound in greater Washington

Many of the most active development sites in metropolitan Washington owe part of their appeal to commuter rail stations within a few hundred feet. Here is what’s happening in the vicinity of a few Metro stations.
Columbia Heights, a neighborhood three miles north of the White House and down on its luck for years after the riots of 1968, has recently seen the area around its Metro rail station become “one gargantuan construction site,” says Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Donatelli Development, which built The Ellington, a CNU Charter Award-winning residential and retail building at another Metro station in Washington, is constructing two mixed-use buildings in Columbia Heights.
One is Kenyon Square, a round-cornered $55 million building containing underground parking, 21,000 sq. ft. of ground-floor retail, and 153 condominium units in seven floors, plus rooftop gardens. The other is Highland Park, a $70 million project made up of the same components. Both were designed by Torti Gallas & Partners and developed in partnership with Gragg & Associates and the National Capital Revitalization Corp. Residents choose whether to buy parking spaces, for sale “in the $30,000 to $40,000 range,” according to Mike Ryan of Donatelli Development.
Close by are Park Triangle, a six-story building by Torti Gallas containing 117 apartments over ground-floor retail, and Victory Heights, a seven-story, 75-unit senior citizens building. Also nearby is Grid Properties’ 500,000 sq. ft. DC USA shopping mall, designed by BLT Architects. The three-level mall comes up to the sidewalks, and all the ground-floor tenants will have doors opening toward the street. The mall, with 1,000 parking spaces underneath, is brining big-box retailers such as Target, Best Buy, and Staples into an urban-format building complex “literally steps from the Metro,” says Ryan.
The series of new buildings has given the neighborhood much more consistent street-walls. “We pulled back Kenyon Square and Park Triangle to create large outdoor spaces,” says Maurice Walters at Torti Gallas.
Rockville Town Square is the 12.5-acre first phase of the 60-acre Rockville Town Center in Rockville, Maryland, north of Washington. Anchoring the $350 million Square is the Rockville Library, which Sally Sternbach, executive director of Rockville Economic Development Inc., says “is breaking all circulation records and has become the top-circulation library in the county” since opening last November. The library by Grimm + Parker Architects features a 200-foot-long wall of wavy glass, designed to evoke DNA strands because of Rockville’s prominence in biotechnology. The library fills nearly 70,000 sq. ft. on two floors, while the third floor is occupied by the county’s Geographic Information Systems office and Human Rights Commission and the administrative offices of the county library system.
Another key component of the Square is the five-story Arts and Innovation Center, which contains galleries and studios where artists work, teach, and demonstrate their techniques at VisArts, the Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts at Rockville. The rooftop has been developed by the city into an event space. Tenants have started moving into the Square’s 185,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurant space and into the Square’s 644 residential units, says David Levy, the city’s redevelopment chief.
The Square’s three parking garages are equipped with a European system that tells people, as they drive on the three major entrance roads to downtown, how many parking spaces are available in each garage. At the garage entrance, another electronic sign tells how many spaces are open on each floor.
Twinbrook Station, in Rockville, won a CNU Charter Award in 2004 and has the potential to become one of the jewels of Metro’s joint development program. Twenty-six acres, mostly surface parking, are to be developed by JBG Companies into 1,595 housing units, 325,000 sq. ft. of offices, and 220,000 sq. ft. of retail while improving pedestrians’ routes to the station. A conceptual plan prepared in a charrette by Design Collective was later refined by Torti Gallas. The plan steps the building heights — from towers near the station to buildings about three stories high at the perimeter of the site — helping to assuage the fears of low-density residential areas in the vicinity.
Landscaped plazas will provide public space on both the east and the west sides of the station. “The station was essentially a wall,” says Rob Goodill of Torti Gallas, so a liner building has been added to part of its exterior, making it seem less of a barrier. The station is a block from the Rockville Pike, a 20-mile-long “Miracle Mile” that Goodill says “is urbanizing.” The station’s 1,151 existing surface parking spaces will be replaced, mostly by parking decks. County planners are working to improve connections from the station area to nearby parts of the county, including high-tech businesses to the north and more traditional industries to the south.
Downtown Silver Spring, an unincorporated part of Montgomery County, has become much more active in the past several years, after struggling for three decades. The county used infrastructure improvements and other enticements to get Discovery Communications to build its headquarters near the Metro station in 2003. In return, Discovery made commitments such as an agreement not to have a company cafeteria. The aim was to get employees to frequent restaurants and shops nearby.
The Silver Theatre from 1938 has been reopened as AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center under the auspices of the American Film Institute. Several blocks have been reconstructed to create an attractive shopping area organized around streets (one of which is turned over to pedestrian use in the evening) and public spaces. Hundreds of townhouses, apartments, and condo units have been built within walking distance of Metro. Pedestrians still must cope with broad, busy downtown roads.
Parking requirements were reduced in accordance with the state’s Smart Growth Plan. Developments require 1.6 spaces per 1,000 sq. ft. of office space and one space per housing unit — one-third to one-half the usual requirements, according to the county. Currently in the approval process is a new transportation center containing a hotel, two high-rise residential buildings, a park, a drop-off area for Metro, some parking, and a multi-level bus connection area. That mixed-use project, involving Metro, the county, and Foulger-Pratt Development, would occupy a large area now dominated by surface parking for cars and buses.
Bethesda Row, a mixed-use project that Federal Realty Investment Trust started about 10 years ago in downtown Bethesda, Maryland, is now in its seventh phase, consisting of the construction of 44,000 sq. ft. of street-level retail and restaurants, 180 rental apartments on top of those businesses, and two levels of parking below. John Tschiderer, vice president of development, says the apartments are the first housing Federal has included in Bethesda Row, which currently boasts 185,000 sq. ft. of offices, a 30,000 sq. ft. art cinema theater, and 226,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurants.
Clarendon, in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington County, Virginia, had a population of about 1,600 for decades, but that has spiked by 115 percent since 2000, owing largely to the addition of 1,781 condominium units, The Washington Post said in an in-depth report last November. Since 2000, retail space has grown by 357,000 sq. ft., and the rent per retail square foot has jumped from $13-16 to $45-52. The area “has evolved from a strip of practical, workaday stores to a retail destination for upscale shoppers and the area’s increasingly well-heeled residents,” The Post said. Average weekday trips at the Clarendon Metro station rose from 5,548 in 2000 to 8,230 in 2006. Mixed-use developments are becoming common.
Last December the County Board adopted a 20-year plan for Clarendon that limits buildings to a height of 110 feet except for three blocks near the station, where developers can go as high as 128 feet if they provide parkland or affordable housing. The county decided to require new office buildings to open their parking garages on nights and weekends. The plan also calls for establishment of a broad commons where residents can go for relaxation and recreation. Responding to concern that national chains are driving out quirky local shops, the plan eliminates incentives for builders to buy up several small retail buildings on a block and replace them with a larger structure.

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