A Drive Through “the Ugliest Place in Maryland”: Part 2

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One such two-story plaza is identified on Montgomery County’s interactive map system as being from 1990 (though the buildings next door are from 20 years earlier, suggesting it may have existed in some form before that.) Another, larger one, dating to 1964, is a reminder that this part of Maryland has been deeply settled, and fairly dense, for a long time—why else would such a land-efficient building type have been utilized that long ago?

Rockville is not an exurb; it is a former streetcar suburb to Washington, DC. The area’s new and rising apartment buildings and mixed-use projects are not out of place, even if they are a little bit out of scale. Far from an imposition or redefinition, they’re a sensible step up in the intensity of the area’s land use. The people who built the first or second generations of buildings along here would never have expected that landscape to remain encased in regulatory amber as long as it has been. They would have understood—they did understand—that dynamism, flexibility, resiliency, and change are all one package.

Consider this tidbit from a profile of Rockville’s trolley era: “In 1929, W&R [Washington & Rockville Electric Railway Company] ran 24 trips a day between 6:30 a.m. and 12:30 a.m. to connect Rockville and Washington.” It is almost as if places like this are awakening from a long slumber under the interlocking forces of suburban land use and car dependency, and picking up where they left off in the early 20th century. It is change, to be sure, but it is also a kind of continuity.

The building blocks for an urban transformation, then, are here. Certainly, more than they were a couple of decades ago. But that highway. Dan Reed, a planner and urbanist based in Maryland, wrote of a proposal to widen the highway even further: “The resulting road will be so wide and complex that Usain Bolt would have trouble getting across before the light changes.”

That proposal included a bus-rapid-transit lane, such that that the highway would not be entirely car-centric. But it would still bisect the two sides of Rockville Pike, acting not as a main street to stitch together its increasingly urban surroundings, but rather as a barrier between them. With any luck, the highway can be calmed—even narrowed. There’s still I-270, after all.

Even when Rockville’s transformation from low-rise sprawl to mixed-use urbanism is complete, it will still retain its fundamental suburban character. This is not about turning suburbs into cities, but rather about lifting the barriers that have frozen suburban land use in time. It is about unleashing creative and entrepreneurial energy—and allowing them to evolve into something familiar, yet new.

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