Rockville Embraces Urban Renewal

Summer 2011

Looking back through time in Peerless Rockville’s collection of urban renewal records provides one a curious glimpse into the history of Rockville. Like timelapse photography the images of old streets, buildings and beloved businesses fade and change into new plans and construction sites. The old business district with its traditional mix of shops, homes and commercial areas quickly vanishes, to be replaced with modern high rise buildings, underground parking and an enclosed shopping mall. History tells us that “renewal” in Rockville did not live up to expectations, and for the last fifty years downtown Rockville has undergone many attempts to recreate the town center.

From our vantage point in 2011, it is easy to question the motives, designs and actions of the past, to wonder why the City chose to make such drastic changes to the heart of downtown. However, the progressive leaders in office in 1959 were not looking back; their view was to a bright future for Rockville with lofty goals of transforming the city into a thriving commercial center and modern county seat. Rockville experienced growing pains in the period after World War II, during which the population grew from 2,047 residents in 1940 to 26,090 in 1960. The historic downtown struggled to keep pace with the needs of the population, and records indicate that obsolete buildings and archaic lot patterns made redevelopment difficult.

A 1959 study recognized that the central business area suffered from traffic jams, parking shortages and the loss of retail establishments. The Master Plan from 1960 labeled the downtown area of Rockville a “separate planning problem in itself” and proposed that the area between Jefferson Street, Middle Lane, North Washington Street and Hungerford Drive be redeveloped. The Mayor and Council believed that a revitalized downtown was important to the future of Rockville and they looked toward urban renewal as a solution for the growing problem.

In 1962, a preliminary Urban Renewal Plan was drafted with goals to: prevent the spread of blight, permit rehabilitation and redevelop commercial areas. The impact on the city would be significant with the total renewal area encompassing some forty-six acres in the heart of downtown. One hundred families and individuals, along with 150 businesses, were relocated from the Mid-City area. Roads that had served the city for generations like East Montgomery Avenue, Commerce Lane and Sarah Street were rerouted or abandoned.

This sketch of the original plan by local architect Donald Coupard was presented to the public in 1962; it included a pedestrian mall, department store,
office buildings and a theater. Sketch from City of Rockville Newsletter, December 1962.

The City established design standards to guide the Mid-City development and the plan illustrated here was created to improve circulation of traffic, establish a retail center and create an identity for the city. This first vision of Rockville was never realized as changes to the Plan led to the adoption of a new design by Philadelphia architect Robert L. Geddes. City officials believed that the development could be complete by the end of 1969; however the plan proved too ambitious for the time and met with many obstacles. Today, few reminders exist of that first wave of urban renewal, the failed Rockville Mall was itself demolished, and another vision for Town Center has emerged.

Written by Nancy Pickard, a Peerless Rockville intern and graduate student in the University of Maryland’s Historic Preservation Department.