A visit to Kentlands

6 minute read

Today On Wednesday I had to drive over to drop something off at a co-worker’s house in Kentlands, the neo-traditional residential and commercial development in Gaithersburg. (For those interested in traffic, the trip took almost exactly an hour, starting from Oakland Mills Village Center and heading down US 29, around the beltway, and back up I-270.) My visit, short though it was, prompted some thoughts about future development in Howard County. My usual disclaimer applies: These are not the opinions of a trained professional, just those of an ordinary person who might be a visitor to or even resident of future developments.

I had visited Kentlands back when we lived in Montgomery County and the then-new development was being hailed as the next big thing in suburban community planning. There were a few houses, a couple of community center facilities (adapted from existing structures), a school, and that was about it. Later I read about a K-Mart and Lowes being built between Kentlands and the adjoining highway, an event criticized as a betrayal of the Kentlands design principles of walkability and human scale development.

Well, having driven around Kentlands today I can say that at least to me the reality of Kentlands is more interesting and even attractive than either the hype or the hate would suggest. True, there’s the aforementioned K-Mart and Lowes in Kentlands Square, a typical big-box development, albeit with a bit more design flair than most. There are also the expected houses, townhouses, and apartment buildings (the largest thing in the immediate neighborhood in terms of scale). But the most interesting thing in my opinion was Market Square, a low-rise retail development located right next to the apartments and townhouses.

It seemed like a nice variegated human-scale development, someplace you could drive into (like I did) and park at, or just stroll to from the neighboring apartments and townhouses. It was a little bit messy in terms of the street layout, which seemed like a hybrid of a central rectilinear grid with more suburban-like curviness around it. The architecture was pleasant without being truly distinguished, and in a couple of places was a bit jarring. Most notably, next to the residential area there was a transitional row of buildings that contained retail shops but that looked like re-purposed townhouses, complete with that blank-looking siding-covered back end that a lot of today’s townhouses have. I don’t know if that was done deliberately to echo the real townhouses, or if the popularity of the retail spaces led the developers to convert some planned townhouses for retail use.

If the latter, it’s an indication of the popularity of Market Square, which seemed well-populated with a mix of people shopping, eating out, and generally larking about. You’d never mistake Kentlands for a real city or a real small town, but at least to my ignorant eyes it seemed like a place with some vitality, someplace I wouldn’t mind living in or visiting. It was definitely suburban in character, but it had that better suburb vibe I’ve been going on about.

On the drive home I took the back way through Montgomery County to avoid the beltway and ended up driving down MD 216 through Fulton. I couldn’t help contrasting where I’d just been with Maple Lawn, Howard County’s own Kentlands manque. Even allowing for the relative age and build-out of the two developments, the comparison was not favorable to Maple Lawn.

The biggest thing that struck me about Maple Lawn is that it’s a supposedly walkable community with no place to actually walk to. In Kentlands you could drive to Market Square if you lived elsewhere, but if you actually lived in Kentlands it doesn’t seem too much of a hike to walk over to Market Square and have a burger at Five Guys or whatever. However in Maple Lawn, for whatever reason (because the development has power lines running down the middle?) the residential area is totally isolated from the office and retail area; a local wanting to stroll over to Looney’s Pub to watch the NBA finals or have some ice cream at Maggie Moo’s would face a walk of almost a mile.

This may account for some of the failure of Maple Lawn to generate more traffic for now-closed restaurants in the development like Oz Chophouse or Trapeze: If a Kentlands resident starts walking over to Market Square, then for sure they’re going to end up shopping or eating there. But if a Maple Lawn resident has to get in the car anyway to go to a Maple Lawn restaurant or shop, then they’re quite likely to change their mind in the process and drive somewhere else in the county.

On the way home I also drove through the center of Rockville and took a swing by the new town center development. Those who know Rockville will recall that Rockville had a past downtown disaster in the form of the Rockville Mall, an indoor mall in a faux-Brutalist idiom (in my opinion one of the worst movements in 60s and 70s architecture—which is saying something—and one of the worst possible choices for a retail center). Much of it is still there, having been converted to government office space, and the hopes of Rockville now rest with the new Rockville Town Square development a couple of blocks north, designed to provide a high-density transit-oriented environment (though it’s further away from the Metro station than the old Rockville Mall).

Frankly I was unimpressed at first glance. In driving by Rockville Town Square the buildings seemed rather blank, cold, and forbidding. The most prominent features I recall seeing were entrances for underground parking garages—a sure turn-off for the typical suburbanite, who’s been spoiled by surface parking lots and primed by Hollywood action movies to know that nothing good can come of entering an underground garage.

I was about to give up on it when I decided to leave MD 355 and other main streets and go down a side street. I then discovered that in the center of the development (you know, where nobody driving by can see it) there was a short street (perhaps a hundred yards or so) that had a reasonable facsimile of an urban streetscape, including some shops, restaurants and a new library with a nice little public courtyard. It was nice, but it seemed out of place, and I had to wonder how popular it really is.

I think Kentlands, Maple Lawn, and Rockville Town Square have some basic lessons to teach us about development in the suburbs, lessons that are applicable to the future Columbia Town Center development. Maple Lawn (at least in its present form) tries to follow the new urbanism template, but perpetuates the traditional suburban separation of residential and commercial development and thus forces even its residents into their cars. Rockville Town Center goes in the other direction: it strives to replicate a high-density urban milieu at the expense of turning off suburbanites who by necessity may have to drive there.

Kentlands is by no means perfect, but as a suburbanite it felt comfortable and reassuring while offering an experience that is a step up from your typical suburban community. It is relatively discoverable by car, and when driving into the development it offers a nice transition from county four-lane highway to central boulevard to smaller side streets to small surface lots or on-street spaces, from whence you can walk to your destination and stroll through a relatively enticing and human-scale streetscape. I hope that Columbia Town Center will be able to replicate the experience.