Rockville Officials Consider 11-Point Plan To Revitalize Town Center

Rockville Officials Consider 11-Point Plan To Revitalize Town Center

Parking, road signage and creating a community liaison among chief priorities

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Rockville officials discuss a plan to revitalize Town Center.

Glynis Kazanjian

Five weeks after Rockville officials held an emergency town hall meeting to address community concerns over numerous business closures at Rockville Town Square, Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and the City Council debuted a strategic business plan Tuesday night to try to fix the problem in the development as well as the surrounding Town Center.

Easing parking challenges, hiring a dedicated town center communications liaison for businesses and government and ramping up signage along Rockville Pike to increase visibility of businesses and better attract visitors to the Town Center are three short-term action steps that officials agreed could begin immediately.

While developer Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) owns and controls the retail portions of Town Square, the city of Rockville  owns the parking garages and there is a public-private partnership in place for the public area known as the Plaza in the center of Town Square. The city pays Federal Realty to manage the garages and leases the garage space from the developer.

City Manager Robert DiSpirito presented the action steps as part of an 11-point plan, “Strengthen the Vitality of Rockville Town Center,” to Newton and the four-member council during a work session at City Hall. The meeting was live-streamed simultaneously on Facebook.

Officials talked about eliminating the two-hour parking validation system, lowering parking violation fees and requiring parking enforcement officers to extend a single warning before issuing a ticket.

While the changes would reduce revenue, they “would be done to improve the business climate for a better customer experience for the public, thus allowing businesses and restaurants to do better,” DiSpirito said.

Council member Beryl Feinberg suggested implementing parking fees similar to those charged in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring in order to level the playing field among the downtown areas as they compete for customers.

Newton suggested implementing free parking after 5:30 p.m. and indicated she would like to see better parking policies implemented prior to the upcoming holiday rush.

Federal Realty is conducting a study to determine how much revenue the city would lose if the parking validation system was eliminated. The study is expected to be finished in about five weeks.

DiSpirito called for a more coordinated approach among the operators of the Town Center’s parking garages that are used by visitors. Currently, the city owns three parking garages in Town Square, which have different fees and systems from other privately owned garages throughout Town Center.

Another of the plan’s action items calls for a retail study of businesses in the Town Center, which includes the Town Square.

“Retail is changing dramatically right now,” said David Levy, Rockville’s chief of long range planning and redevelopment. “Many centers around the country are facing these challenges, but what is the comparative advantage of Rockville in the context of changing real estate? We need to be understanding where our place is so we can make strategic investments and policies that will make it successful. We don’t want to be going after the wrong things. We want to be going after the right things.”

The plan’s other strategic action items include examining development regulations; creating an economic development strategy; improving access for nearby activity areas, such as Montgomery College; creating a Town Center task force of merchants and residents; holding regular meetings with Town Center property owners; coordinating public-private partnerships; and increasing the promotion and presence of organizations involving the arts, science, heritage and culture.

“No comprehensive economic plan for Town Center has been developed, at least not in the modern era,” DiSpirito said.

Increasing the density of development that would include more housing in the Town Center area is another idea under consideration among city officials.

But council member Mark Pierzchala warned that any development-related discussions or studies must include the possibility that the Richard Montgomery High School cluster is projected to go into a development moratorium, which would affect the city’s ability to approve additional development.

Levy suggested the moratorium could become effective as early as 2019.

City officials also talked about the possibility of creating a Business Improvement District (BID) in Rockville. A BID is governed by a nonprofit organization that would manage certain services associated with a commercial area, including marketing and promotion, business recruiting and security and parking. Commercial property taxes fund the entity.

The strategic plan is a response to a Oct. 9 town hall attended by hundreds of community members and scheduled after the town square’s anchor store, Dawson’s Market, announced it would close in late October. Additional news that Pandora’s Seafood House & Bar was departing due to an eviction and the closing of Mellow Mushroom, a national pizza chain, in late September, drove dozens of people to speak out while city officials and representatives from Federal Realty listened and took notes.

On the heels of the Oct. 9 town hall, an unofficial residents’ task force also formed, officials said. Community volunteer Stacy Kaplowitz, a new resident of the city’s West End, is leading the group, which will hold its first meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in the VisArts building on Gibbs Street.

Kaplowitz said she is planning a structured conversation and intends to forward residents’ responses to city officials.

Some city officials said they are open to combining Kaplowitz’s group with the merchant-resident task force included in the city’s strategy plan, but others would like to see the official task force stay limited in number.

DeSpirito and Levy said input from residents could make a big difference in how the city moves forward.

“The general thought is we need your help and we’re not afraid to ask for it,” DiSpirito said of the plan to form a task force.

City officials agreed to wait until after the holiday season to reconvene, suggesting that scheduling a public hearing on the strategic plan is a likely next step.

“The City’s commitment and dedication to the future vitality of all of Rockville Town Center, including Rockville Town Square, was evident through the recommendations introduced in last night’s City Council work session,” Federal Realty Vice President Deirdre Johnson said. “Combining the efforts of the stakeholders, the city and the community, is the best way to build a thriving Rockville Town Center well into the future. We are anxious to play our role, be a partners and see the district as a whole benefit.”

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