All photos by the author.

Local businesses in Burtonsville are sporting new storefronts, thanks to a Montgomery County revitalization program. While the improvements go beyond “putting lipstick on a pig,” they don’t do enough to solve the underlying problems in Burtonsville’s struggling village center.

The first set of new storefronts were recently installed in a retail building on Route 198, Burtonsville’s “Restaurant Row,” and additional renovations will soon follow. The money came from Montgomery County’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Covered in fake stucco and stone veneers, the new storefronts look better than they used to, even though they have that contrived “make this building look like three” look that way too many developments do today.

Unfortunately, the improvement program neglects the importance of creating good public spaces, public or private, which is a key part of revitalizing a commercial corridor.

Former Peking shopping centerPothole, Route 198 Shopping Center

The same building in 2009 (left) and today (right). Renovations didn’t fix the pothole.

It’s unfortunate that the new façades no longer have a covered arcade in front. Suburban strip malls have long included arcades because they shield shoppers from the rain and sun, but such arcades are often narrow and cheaply detailed. They also block views into shops from passing cars.

As a result, most new shopping centers in East County, like the WesTech Village Corner and the recently-renovated Briggs Chaney Plaza, don’t include arcades. Yet when done well, arcades like this one in Rockville can create a nice “outdoor room,” the kind of space humans flock to like bees to nectar.

Traffic On Route 198

Route 198.

Despite its good intentions, DHCA’s façade improvement program undermines itself by paying little attention to public space. This building has a new, arcade-less storefront, but the parking lots still have huge potholes, adjacent property owners who didn’t participate in the program still have dumpy buildings, and there’s absolutely no accommodation for pedestrians. Route 198, a twisty old rural road that has become a congested through route, does not even have a continuous sidewalk.

When asked, area residents say they want more from Burtonsville. Results of a planning workshop held by Montgomery County last spring revealed that residents want more things to do, a more attractive streetscape, and more alternatives to driving in the village center. Some respondents explicitly called for an “old town”, “village,” or “urban-lite” feel in the area, giving people more reasons to spend their time and money there.

One thing that could draw more shoppers to Burtonsville is some sort of public gathering space. For nearly 15 years, there have been plans to create a “village green” behind the shops on Route 198, despite fears from some that a village open space would bring “undesirables” to the community.

A small pocket plaza was built as part of Burtonsville Town Square, a strip mall at Route 198 and Old Columbia Pike that opened last fall. It’s a very attractive space, with a ring of benches and ample landscaping. At the center of the plaza is an interactive sundial and a piece of public art that appears to be the door from a bank vault.

Plaza, Burtonsville Town Square

Burtonsville Town Square’s new pocket plaza has attractive seating, landscaping, and art, but is in the middle of a parking lot.

However, the plaza isn’t used. I visited on a pleasant, cloudless, 82-degree summer afternoon, and the space was empty.

Why? It’s in the middle of a parking lot, placed as an afterthought in an awkward location where no more parking spaces could fit. Customers are unlikely to pass through the space on foot, because it’s far from most of the shops and restaurants in the shopping center. And customers probably won’t walk through a boring, empty parking lot just to sit here.

Also, as a privately-owned space, the plaza is meant only for customers of Burtonsville Town Square. Anyone visiting other businesses along Route 198 isn’t welcome.

The problem with Burtonsville’s village center isn’t a lack of retail. Developer Chris Jones has cannibalized the community’s existing businesses, leaving another nearby shopping center half-empty and in need of government assistance. Meanwhile, shoppers are already traveling two exits up Route 29 to Maple Lawn, a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use complex with upscale stores and restaurants that directly competes with Burtonsville for customers.

What Burtonsville really lacks is a sense of place. It has great ethnic restaurants and long-standing family businesses, but they’re obscured by a mess of cracked parking lots and congested highways. These assets deserve to shine. To do so, they need attractive storefronts, complete streets that slow traffic and encourage people to look around, and legitimate public gathering places.

As Montgomery County planners work to create a neighborhood plan to revitalize Burtonsville’s village center, these are the goals they should seek to accomplish.