When it comes to smart growth initiatives in Maryland, the people at RTKL must feel as if they're heading the class. In the past year, the Baltimore-based company has received two separate smart growth awards for its work in the Maryland communities of Gaithersburg and Silver Spring. An offshoot of the new urbanism concept, “smart growth” is a term that describes projects designed with pedestrians and the environment in mind, projects that create a sense of place, protect natural resources and, in some cases, revitalize communities.

A Main Street approach

As part of the state's annual Smart Growth Awards program last September, Maryland bestowed RTKL with Smart Development recognition for its Washingtonian Center retail master plan. Of 41 entries, the state handed out 18 awards in various categories. RTKL's award focused on its blueprint for a Main Street shopping center on 26 acres in densely populate Gaithersburg, a fast growing suburb 15 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., on Interstate 270. The Sierra Club recognized RTKL with a similar honor for its work in Silver Spring, which borders the nation's capital (see sidebar).

Developed by The Peterson Cos. of Fairfax, Va., at a cost of $55 million, the Washingtonian Center retail project includes a 103,000-sq.-ft. Kohl's, a 105,000-sq.-ft. Galyan's and a 153,000-sq.-ft. Target. Two parking garages provide about 90% of the parking, and a lake sits on the eastern side of the boomerang-shaped development.

The project is the final piece to Peterson Cos.' larger Washingtonian Center mixed-use endeavor, which includes residential, office and entertainment development. Jim Leonard, an associate vice president at RTKL and lead architect for the 460,000-sq.-ft. Washingtonian Center retail project, touted it as the first in the country to incorporate big-box retailers in a neighborhood setting. It won't be the last, he says.

“Generally the last remaining markets for growth in retail development, both for big-box retailers and developers, is in under-served urban and densely populated suburban areas,” says Leonard, who operates in RTKL's Baltimore office. “But I think those groups are beginning to realize there is money to be made and these operations can be profitable.” The demographics also made retailers receptive to the Main Street concept, he says. According to The Peterson Cos.' 2003 projections, more than 260,000 people with an average age of 31 will live within five miles of the project, with a median household income of $67,500.

Public/private partnerships

Leonard, who derives more satisfaction from such projects because they fit communities better than isolated power centers, suggests such endeavors will take the form of public/private partnerships by necessity because of the greater costs in terms of land prices, site preparation, garage construction and infrastructure improvements. The Peterson Cos. — which initially resisted Gaithersburg's urging to retool its initial sea-of-cement parking plan — lacked public funds but benefited from cheap land prices. The company bought the property from Resolution Trust Corp. more than a decade ago.

One of the biggest challenges RTKL faced was making the four-story parking garages compatible with the rest of the project. To do that, the firm incorporated stores on the bottom floors and created a façade with materials not usually associated with parking structures — brick and pre-cast concrete, for example.

Jessica Cogan, director of policy and program coordination for Maryland's Department of Planning, visited the place a few times, and each time found it bustling with people, even on a Sunday night in the dead of winter. “I think it's the blueprint for retail development in this country,” she says. “It says that we can accommodate parking and big boxes, but that we can do it in a way that's more compatible with the neighborhood and pedestrians.”

Joe Gose is a Kansas City, Kan.-based writer.

SIDEBAR: Silver Spring shines again

Since the 1950s, Silver Spring, Md., experienced the same suburban flight as other downtowns, leaving the 26-acre CBD a shell of its former self. But that situation is changing, due in part to a recent smart growth project designed by RTKL.

Slated to be built on 20 acres in Silver Spring's core, the 1.1 million-sq.-ft. renewal plan received recognition from The Sierra Club in its fall 2000 sprawl report.

The proposed development is receiving $132 million in public funds to help pay its $350 million tab. It features public spaces, retail, entertainment, offices, a hotel, housing, parking garages and a renovated landmark theater. In addition, The Discovery Channel will move its headquarters next to the mixed-use project. To date, developers built a 70,000-sq.-ft. neighborhood center including a Strosniders Hardware and Fresh Fields grocery.

RTKL's vision followed decades of other revitalization attempts, including plans to erect a massive mall that residents lambasted for its disregard of the frayed but nonetheless existing downtown fabric. A key to RTKL's success was input from citizen committees that helped sketch a plan. It integrated downtown's architectural character and physically fit the business district, says Deron Lovaas, a Sierra Club representative for the Challenge to Sprawl Campaign, who lives in downtown Silver Spring.

“Residents were skeptical about seeing growth downtown,” he says. “They'd heard promises for decades, but now something's actually happening.”