A new book by Leigh Gallagher heralds “the end of the suburbs,” but it may just be a change in how people want to live and get around in suburban communities. Judging from new suburban developments happening in the DC area, that shift is already underway.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of research about how many people, whether young Millennials or retiring Baby Boomers, want to live in places where they don’t have to drive everywhere. That’s part of the reason why center cities, like DC, have experienced a resurgence in recent decades.
But it leads some commentators to assume that everyone’s going to move to the city now, and that’s simply not true. Even if we raised the height limit, cities like DC can only hold so many new people. And the false binary between “city” and “suburb” ignores the actual diversity of places on either side of the city line, along with the possibility that people can have the urban, walkable experience they want in a “suburban” place, especially one where they may have grown up and feel connected to.
Site plan of Crown’s first phase. (Note the cool street names: Strummer, Hendrix, etc.) Image from the developer.
Take Crown, a New Urbanist development being built in Gaithersburg that I visited last weekend. It was originally an 180-acre farm dating to the early 1800’s, but today it’s surrounded by office parks, cul-de-sacs and the Washingtonian Center, an early lifestyle center that I call “Green Day urbanism” because it’s a sort-of walkable, urban environment.
Urban design firm Perkins Eastman/EE&K laid Crown out as a series of compact, walkable neighborhoods around the future Corridor Cities Transitway bus rapid transit line, which just got design funding from the state of Maryland.
While construction is only beginning, it’s clear that projects like Crown represent a very different approach to suburban development. The developer has purposely marketed Crown as an urban place, even naming its website SmartUrbanLiving.com. Most of the over 2,000 homes being built here will be townhouses or apartments. Instead of big backyards, the homes have roof decks, but there will be several public parks.
This project’s biggest amenity isn’t privacy or quiet, but being close to “Downtown Crown,” a 260,000-square foot complex of shops and restaurants surrounding a plaza, the Washingtonian Center, or all of the jobs at the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center. One of the first things you see upon entering is a sign saying “Future Right-of-Way of the Corridor City [sp] Transitway.” Unlike nearby King Farm in Rockville, whose residents have protested the CCT in a neighborhood built around it, Crown residents will buy homes there expecting transit to come.
These amenities might explain why neighborhoods around Crown have some of Montgomery County’s highest concentrations of young families. A generation ago, these buyers might have moved to Gaithersburg because it was cheap and they could buy a big house there, even if it was far from everything.
Today, many young families are moving to neighborhoods in the District because they offer a sense of community, easy access to shopping and jobs, and don’t require a car. But they’re also choosing places like Gaithersburg that are willing to evolve and adjust to meet their needs.
At Crown last weekend, I toured the model houses alongside many young couples with kids. Some of the townhouses here sell for over $700,000, which is certainly out of reach for many families. But it’s also a testament to how desirable places like this are, even in a community 20 miles from downtown DC next to a transit line that hasn’t even been built.
In an interview with the Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell, Gallagher admits that many affluent car-oriented suburbs, particularly those with good public services like schools, will probably remain sought-after. And she notes that people may be drawn to suburbs like Media, the historic, walkable, trolley-served town near Philadelphia where she grew up.
There aren’t a lot of Medias in the DC area, but there’s no reason why we can’t try to create more places like it. Crown is just one of several transit-oriented developments being built along the CCT in Gaithersburg. And from the Mosaic District in Fairfax County to Maple Lawn in Howard County, the DC area has become a national leader in showing how suburban communities will evolve in the coming decades.
While “The End of Some Places with Suburban Land Use Characteristics and/or Bad Schools” isn’t as catchy or provocative a title, it’s more accurate description of what’s actually happening. People will still be able to live in a big house on a cul-de-sac, if that’s what they want. But we’ll also see new kinds of suburbs for those who want something else.