Improvements could be coming to Rockville Town Center as city officials look at ways to address challenges, such as nearby competition and a lack of a consistent flow of shoppers.
The initiative began when challenges of retail shops and restaurants in the center were the primary focus of a public meeting in October 2018. The following November, the Rockville City Council formed a list of 11 areas for action.
In July 2019, the Urban Land Institute was brought on as a consultant on the center. Its Technical Assistance Panel provided a report on how to strengthen the center’s vitality.
Some of the other problems that the consultant identified included poor visibility of the center, weak pedestrian and bicycle connections from Montgomery College, lack of an attractive anchor use, insufficient wayfinding signage, and parking.
The council received another broader update on the initiative on Monday and provided feedback to staff members.
David Levy, assistant director of planning and business improvement for Rockville, told the council on Monday night that businesses are suffering in the center because of the pandemic and there have been some closures since March — particularly with restaurants not being able to pivot easily to curbside pickup and delivery.
Regardless, the center is beginning to see “glimmers of light,” he said.
“We have new leases that have been signed in Town Center . … There’s just more people interested than there were, certainly at the beginning of the pandemic, but even before,” Levy said.
Some near-term efforts for the initiative could include branding Town Center or the entire city, reviewing height limits in certain areas, and engaging with business owners and residents in the area on long-term strategies.
Council Member Monique Ashton suggested getting business and resident feedback through a task force or quarterly meetings.
Officials will have to work harder to make sure the center is on people’s minds, she said, especially because there used to be 30,000 to 40,000 people driving through the area to work pre-pandemic.
Council Member Beryl Feinberg said officials should make sure they are receiving specific feedback from business owners about what they want and what their customers are saying about Town Center.
“I think there is more that we can be intentional about doing and innovate and [be] proactive,” she said.
As far as businesses closing because of financial struggles during the health crisis, Feinberg said some companies are giving rent abatements to tenants. Rent postponements don’t help because tenants have to repay them, she said.
“It doesn’t do any good if they go out of business. It takes a long time to fill those vacant spaces after leases are expired,” she said. “We should want to keep our businesses.”
Town Square retail operations, the retail heart of Town Center, are owned and managed by Federal Realty Investment Trust.
Daniel Corwin, director of asset management for Federal Realty, told the council Monday night that he could not provide specifics about any deals with tenants.
“But we’re cutting deals that we need to cut with tenants that we think are critically important to all of our shopping centers,” he said. “So we are doing that. The ones that are sort of failing anyway — that were failing before COVID and are going to fail no matter what we do — we’re not cutting deals with them. So we do have to be selective on what we do.
“We’re working with the people that are important to the centers that we operate. We’ve had some really good leasing success.”
Corwin said there has been some leasing success recently.
“It’s kind of feeling like it was before COVID, where we were starting to build momentum and then boom. It got hit again. But I’m more positive than I was before,” he said.
Council members also mentioned an open space for outdoor concerts or events, a space for people to walk dogs, more marketing of carryout and delivery services from restaurants, and making the area more pedestrian friendly.
Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said she would like to see a park in Town Center.
“We ended up with — I don’t even know what to call it — it’s a park, but you couldn’t even fit a fraction of the city in there. … We are understanding that people want and need open space,” she said.
Newton said the council should consider requiring balconies for future residential development.
“If you’re having multi-family living and there’s nowhere to get outdoor air, that’s just not a viable option anymore. … I know it adds a little bit of money, but it would certainly give people a space to go to get that freedom,” she said.
The center currently provides free parking for two hours with validated tickets from shoppers.
Because the center does not have a confined area, the validation helps ensure that people parked there and receiving partially free parking are shoppers, Corwin said.
“We can’t subsidize parking for everybody when it’s the Rockville taxpayer who’s footing the bill. So that’s the real reason. … It’s not free for anybody,” Newton said.
Council Member Mark Pierzchala said the center has a complicated parking situation, with other garage owners and the Metro across the street.
“If it’s too free, then those garages are taken up by people not going to Town Square establishments. It’s just a much more complex parking environment,” he said.
Ashton suggested an agreement with Federal Realty to offer free parking after 5 p.m.
Pierzchala said the council has to consider the long-term ramifications of the pandemic and economic turmoil.
“At a certain point, we have to start making some decisions and I’ll give my opinion on a few things, but some of the decisions that we have to make will come up during the 2040 master plan and that has to do with density and heights,” he said. “I hope we have a discussion on moratoria and what effect that has on Town Center, or for that matter, Rockville Pike.”
Newton said the city needs to start making decisions.
“I think there’s some great ideas here, but I also think we don’t have to capture it all at once,” she said. “We just need to get started and bite off what we can, and move forward, knowing that we’re not going to come out of this right away and what can we do now to help us move forward.”
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.