By Steven Snapp
If you’ve never turned off Maryland Avenue at the “totem pole” into New Mark Commons, it’s worth a detour. Beyond the landscaped entrance lies one of the most distinctive neighborhoods in Rockville. Residents call it a “haven” and a “best kept secret.” It’s a desirable and stable community where many of the original owners still live. Yet in many ways, New Mark Commons is different than the “Twentieth Century Village” described in the first sales brochures in 1967.
In 1965, developer Edmund J. Bennett asked Rockville to imagine a subdivision without rows of houses. In his vision, New Mark Commons was to be the swan song of suburban “monotony.” The Montgomery County Sentinel praised him for going “all out…to eliminate many of the ills of contemporary subdivisions.” The city’s director of planning concurred: “The imagination and creativity embodied in this plan [are] certainly unprecedented for Rockville.”
New Mark Commons arose from the city’s adoption in 1964 of a zoning designation known as the Planned Residential Unit (PRU). The PRU permitted greater housing density in exchange for creative and efficient use of the land. PRUs were to feature common recreation areas, smaller networks of utilities and streets, and preservation of natural features.
Mr. Bennett proposed to apply these principles to the McConihe Tract, a 96-acre property bounded by Maryland Avenue, Argyle Street, Monroe Street and 70S (now I-270). On completion, the neighborhood would contain 200 single-family homes and 182 “village houses.”
New Mark Commons was to be like none of the first four planned residential units in Rockville. The plan called for a single main thoroughfare, New Mark Esplanade. No homes would front on the Esplanade; no individual driveways would empty onto it. All single-family homes and attached town homes were clustered on courts or cul-de-sacs. The only traffic would be from residents and their visitors, improving safety and reducing noise. New Mark was also designed with a village center to be embraced by commercial space, a clubhouse, a swimming pool and tennis courts. The original promotional brochure suggested a convenience store, shops, restaurant, and office space.
In making his case for New Mark Commons, Bennett condemned typical suburban developments that caused “destructive alteration of the natural terrain and vegetation.” So, before setting lot lines, Bennett conducted a census of all trees on the property. Then, to preserve as many as possible, the lines were drawn around the trees. Greenways for walking and bicycling were planned and remain popular features of the neighborhood. The crowning glory was to be a 4.5-acre lake, the scenic and recreational centerpiece of the neighborhood.
New Mark Commons’ architecture was also a planned departure from more traditional styles common to the Washington, DC region. In 1964, Mr. Bennett bragged: “Contemporary styling is today’s idiom…I’ve never built a traditional home. That was for yesterday.” The contemporary homes are spacious and have aged well and, along with their unique siting, they represent Bennett’s progressive statement about modern living.
Stroll through New Mark Commons today, and you’ll recognize how many of these ambitions contribute to the quality of life in the neighborhood.
However, the end product was not entirely as planned. Targeting a growing market of professionals with higher-than-average incomes, the first units were sold in 1967 at average prices around $45,000. Yet the housing market was weaker than predicted. Interest rates spiked. Sales were slow. Bennett had hoped to finish construction in 1969, but by 1971 NMC was only 50% complete; the first dip in the swimming pool didn’t happen until 1974. Portions of the site were sold to other builders who built traditional-style homes. In 1985, permission was granted to build 13 contemporary town homes in place of the planned village center. With 384 total units, New Mark Commons was finally completed after 20 years.
New Mark Commons was imagined as a progressive statement about what it would be like to live in Rockville in the future. It was designed to respect the environment rather than overwhelm it. Clustered on their eccentrically shaped, tree-shaded lots, the homes have an enviable sense of permanence out of proportion to their age. As one early example in innovative but regulated planning, the neighborhood offers lessons for anyone who cares about how their city will be shaped in years to come.
Click on the link for a New Mark Commons Tour.