More than 400 people packed a meeting on the future of Rockville Town Square on Tuesday night, with many urging local officials and the development’s owner to find a way to stem a spate of recent business closures.
The crowd of all ages overflowed the second-floor meeting room set for 60 in the VisArts building on Gibbs Street as city officials and representatives from Federal Realty Investment Trust listened for 90 minutes to the concerns of residents, business owners and even Montgomery Community College students.
Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton had scheduled the session after the owners of Dawson’s Market, an anchor store in the downtown Rockville development, announced Oct. 2 that it would close later this month because it didn’t attract enough business to remain open. The announcement came on the heels of September closure of the pizzeria Mellow Mushroom after two years in business.
In addition, Pandora’s Seafood House & Bar, which is being evicted over nonpayment of rent and other issues, will close this month, adding to the turnover in recent years in the development of residences, stores, restaurants and other businesses.
“This is an opportunity for all of us, we are all stakeholders in this city and what happens in our downtown, in our town square and city center,” Newton told the crowd. “We are all invested in its future success. We’re all in this together. Our goal tonight is to have a conversation about how do we be successful for everyone and that includes everyone.”
Federal Realty Vice President Deirdre M. Johnson thanked the crowd for coming.
“There is no way without the benefit of the meeting that the city of Rockville put together today that this would come forth, and that’s what we’re here for,” Johnson said. “We may not have all of the answers, but we strive to be is the best community partner that you can have.”
She reminded the crowd the company is based in Rockville. “We’re not getting on a plane and going back to New York or Chicago. This is our backyard,” she said. “Our team members work here, they worship here, they shop here, they dine here, they raise their families here, they give birth here—this is important for us.”
Dozens of people shared their concerns, with many saying they wanted to find a way to keep Dawson’s from closing.
“We have a prized neighborhood grocery store that I waited five years for,” one town square resident said. “It contributed so much to my choice to live in and stay in town square. Are we just going to let it slip away? I’d like to see the mayor step in and negotiate to find a way to let this little jewel remain with us.”
Several residents called for devising a co-op structure to save the store.
“I can’t imagine anything better than Dawson’s,” one woman said. “What about a one-time co-op fee of $100 to save Dawson’s?”
Others suggested a farmer’s market could move into the grocery store space. Mostly though, those who spoke wanted stores and businesses that serve daily needs. Residents called for moderately priced eateries, including a diner, as well as a toy store, a barber or hair salon, a book store and public events that would draw people to the town square.
“Marathons don’t help,” one person joked. “They just run by the town square and keep going.”
Speakers also asked for a parking structure that would attract people to the town square instead of deter them from coming.
“Parking has become a problem here,” one resident said. “Give them the first two hours free.”
Ika Nasimova, the daughter of the owner of Golden Samovar, a Russian restaurant on North Washington Street, said the restaurant was under threat of closing after being served a notice for an eviction judgment hearing. Federal Realty spokesperson Kris Warner said the eviction process was postponed after the landlord learned the tenant was having an issue with flooding.
Nasimova said people avoid Rockville Town Square because of the parking restrictions and costs.
She said the two hours allotted time on the parking meters is not enough time for people to meet, have drinks, appetizers and dinner.
“Please help,” the woman said, “We cannot survive here.”
A Montgomery College student called for a shuttle bus to transport students from the nearby Rockville campus to the town square so they could eat and shop there.
“Montgomery College campus is about 14,000 students, and I’ve read that very few of them ever come to town center,” the student said. “I wonder what the feasibility is of getting a shuttle from the campus to the town center?”
Many condemned Federal Realty, saying the developer casting aside the town square to focus on its higher-profile developments such as Pike & Rose in North Bethesda.
The owners of Pandora’s and Apollo Restaurant pleaded their cases for more support from the community as well. Apollo’s owner said a lack of business is forcing the restaurant to close at the end of the month.
Johnson told the crowd that she heard its concerns.
“We were all taking notes,” she said. “You can’t ask for a better partner than what we heard tonight.”
Newton said answers would be provided to constituents for all the questions asked at the meeting.
As the meeting drew to a close, a resident stood up and said, “How about we meet here again in two weeks for those answers. I’m free.”
Gloria Pool, who said she had lived in Rockville for 70 years, urged those attending to help local businesses survive.
“Please save the city,” she said.
Editor’s note: The article was updated to remove a reference to Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg, which is not owned by Federal Realty, and to clarify that the Golden Samovar restaurant was served a notice for an eviction hearing, not a court-ordered eviction notice.