Real Estate Pros Show Little Enthusiasm for Pike District Moniker

Real Estate Pros Show Little Enthusiasm for Pike District Moniker

Panel was asked about branding the area around the White Flint Metro station

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The "Pike District" area around Rockville Pike and the White Flint Metro station

Aaron Kraut

A panel of development and real estate professionals was asked this week how best to identify and brand the redeveloping area around the White Flint Metro station.

They concluded the name “Pike District” may not be it.

“I’m just going to say it: Pike District sounds terrible to me,” said Jon Eisen, a Washington, D.C.-based architect and urban planner who was on a nine-member panel from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) tasked with tackling the question. “Quite honestly, people who grew up here, people who live here, they just say, ‘I’m going up to the Pike. …You might want to just let the Pike just continue to be the Pike. There’s something natural and organic about that.”

The ULI panel was enlisted by the White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee, a county-sponsored group charged with setting up a business improvement district (BID) for the White Flint area as it grows from car-oriented strip shopping centers to mixed-use residential.

The committee chose the Pike District name in December 2014 after developers expressed concerns that referring to the entire area as White Flint could confuse their projects with the White Flint Mall property.

The committee set up a county-funded website, PikeDistrict.org, to highlight the area’s restaurants, retail shops, residences and future development plans in an effort to create a sense of place.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the ULI panel toured the area and spoke with those involved with the committee’s work. On Wednesday afternoon, the panel presented its preliminary findings at a meeting at the Music Center at Strathmore.

“The risk is you throw something out there and it sounds disingenuous or it doesn’t sound real and people are going to call it what they’re going to call it,” said Brant Snyder, a vice president at developer Lowe Enterprises. “I don’t know what they’re going to call it. You have this destination in Rockville, you have this destination in Bethesda and you have this area in between. It’s going to densify and it’s going to become its own city.”

The bulk of the panel’s presentation focused on how the committee (or a future business improvement district-like organization similar to the Bethesda Urban Partnership) could create a unifying identity for the roughly 1.2-mile stretch of Rockville Pike without promoting a particular name.

Panel members pointed to temporary art installations at construction sites, uniform landscaping along Rockville Pike, prominent signage and information panels and even artistic treatments for light and traffic signal poles.

Top: Wayfinding structures in Denver used as a potential example for the Pike District by the Urban Land Institute panel. Bottom: Sketch of possible treatments for crosswalks and traffic signal poles. Credit: ULI Washington.

Ken Hartman, director of the county’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center and leader of the committee, has initiated smaller-scale programs aimed at that goal. The committee is expected to recommend to the County Council an organization that could undertake a more comprehensive approach to branding, marketing, landscaping and other tasks.

The panel members encouraged the committee to forego setting strict boundaries for the area or installing “gateway” signage at the northern and southern ends of the area, generally thought of as the stretch of Rockville Pike from the Strathmore complex to Montrose Parkway.

They also said any art and improved infrastructure should focus on creating three smaller nodes within the area, since it’s unlikely somebody would be willing to walk the entire length of the corridor in one trip.

A recommendation on the long-debated question of what to call the place was largely absent from the panel’s presentation, which led to the question from an audience member that touched off Eisen’s response and a lengthy discussion of the Pike District name.

“Any name you have is going to take a generation to really stick,” said panelist Laura Hodgson, who works for development consulting firm Louis Berger.

“There are other ways to create an identity than picking a name,” said panelist Marta Goldsmith, who works for a nonprofit focused on urbanism. “That’s where we talked about the streetscape and that’s where we talked about the nodes and that’s where we talk about you do want to have some sort of identity.”

Brian Downie, an executive with developer Saul Centers and chairman of the White Flint committee, said, “I guess the point is, we have a name. The question is how much do we apply it?”

“It seems to me that, if you have a BID you have to give a BID a name,” Downie said. “The name may not stick and become the name of the area.”

Eisen, who before sharing his opinion on the Pike District name apologized for being “a little politically incorrect,” said Pike District will likely run into competition from the names of individual redevelopment projects such as Pike & Rose, North Bethesda Market and whatever Lerner Enterprises calls its planned project for the White Flint Mall site.

“You’ve got all the 40-, 50-acre developments that are going to have giant marketing and branding budgets that are going to throw their names out there,” Eisen said. “People are already saying Pike & Rose about that whole area so I mean, it’s going to permeate itself out and you’re going to get confusion rather than just letting it be natural.”

The panel’s full report is expected to be released in the next few months.

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