Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Historic Gaithersbug district waits for a revamped future

Biding time in Olde Towne

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Alex Zeppos, co-owner of Growlers, is one of many Olde Towne business owners who want city officials to move more quickly with plans to revitalize the historic district.
When Alex Zeppos co-opened Growlers brewpub in Gaithersburg last summer, he was hopeful for the promise of revitalization presented by the Olde Towne Master Plan.

But about nine months later, development in the historic district remains stalled, there’s nothing to encourage after-hours walkabout traffic and the specter of violent crime continues to haunt the area, Zeppos said.

It’s the same problems as when he grew up there in the mid-1980s, Zeppos said, and his concerns are mirrored by some other Olde Towne business owners.

‘‘The police, they do a great job, but the police can only do so much. It’s up to the mayor and council members to speed things up and revitalize Gaithersburg,” Zeppos said. ‘‘... We should be looking across the street at three- to four-story apartments, or with businesses and storefronts on the bottom. ... You need something to keep people flowing around.”

A slow process

Getting the blood flowing in the city’s heart is a process that’s been in works for more than a decade, as commercial strength has ebbed to other areas. The revitalization effort has brought developments such as the parking garage and mixed-use towers on Olde Towne Avenue, but observers say something is still missing.

Assistant City Manager Tony Tomasello said while there hasn’t been any major projects in Olde Towne in several years, there is a strong, multifaceted push for revitalization.

‘‘There’s a very high level of support for getting the Olde Towne plan, getting it into construction phase,” Tomasello said.

A few key projects in the works include the upcoming 45-home Summit Crossing residential development and a plan to bolster the Gaithersburg Community Museum’s railway collection, he said.

Gaithersburg made history in January when for the first time city leaders hired a commercial real estate firm to help market city-owned properties in Olde Towne.

The $146,760 contract with The Staubach Co. for consulting services targets the roughly 3-acre, undeveloped Y-site located next to the parking garage on Olde Towne Avenue, and the two-story Fishman Building at 315 E. Diamond Ave.

According to the Olde Towne Master Plan, published in June 2005, the Y-site could host a high-density mix of retail, office and residential uses.

Some Olde Towne business owners, including Tony Litz of Victor Litz Music Center, have said the development should include an arts center to help anchor visitors who visit the area for dinner.

‘‘It’s a perfect area where they can draw in some people, whether it be entertainers, even art displays, musicians ... similar to exactly what the Rio and Kentlands both have,” Litz said.

A goal of the revitalization is to bring more 24-hour uses like that to the area, said Olde Towne Coordinator Cindy Hines. But the process with Staubach is in the initial stages, and is focusing more on finding developers to construct the buildings rather than their specific content, she said.

‘‘There definitely is a focus on bringing activity and evening activity to Olde Towne,” Hines said. ‘‘We just need to explore the opportunities.”

At the crossroads of the revitalization is the proposed $1.2 million clock-tower plaza. Slated for the intersection of East Diamond and Summit avenues, the nexus of the historical district, the clock tower has been in the works since the late 90s.

Some say the project is too expensive; others say it is the kind of boost Olde Towne needs.

Tomasello said he anticipates $100,000 to be earned through fundraising spearheaded by the nonprofit Gaithersburg Arts Funding Corp; the city would cover the bulk of the expense over several years.

The clock itself was purchased in 1998, with plans for it to ring in the New Year on 2000, said Councilman Henry F. Marraffa Jr.

Now, much of it rests within a tall glass case behind a velvet rope in the lobby of the Bohrer Park Activity Center, and for now is powered by a small motor, Hines said.

Advocates of the project say installing the monumental timepiece is a physical commitment by the city to rejuvenate Olde Towne and would encourage foot traffic.

Opponents have said the money could be better spent on other projects, and that the plaza doesn’t guarantee a draw for visitors.

Several residents at the Feb. 5 mayor and City Council meeting spoke in favor of the project, some noting it could create a focal point for revitalization.

During the meeting, Marraffa prompted a unanimous vote for the city to include funds for the project in the fiscal year 2008 Capital Improvements Budget.

‘‘We need to show that support,” Marraffa said, adding that the clock tower has been one of his favorite projects since taking office.

Staubach representatives were receptive to the clock-tower plaza, and would pursue the project concurrently with redevelopment at the adjacent, city-owned Fishman Building, Tomasello said.

Attorney James Clifford, whose law offices have been housed in Olde Towne for about 25 years, said he’s also in favor of the clock tower because it lends the area ‘‘a sense of place.”

However, the real foundation for commercial revitalization begins with a strong residential base, he said.

Bring in the people

‘‘The formula is not complicated, it’s simple. You bring in the people, you bring in the retail and you bring in the economic viability, and we can do that,” Clifford said.

Clifford is partnered in a project with Virginia real estate investment trust Archstone Smith to redevelop three existing apartment buildings on East Diamond Avenue into a 400-unit, mixed-use luxury apartment or condominium complex.

The venture is a component of the Olde Towne Master Plan to fortify the area with residential units, Clifford said. He expects to bring the final Archstone drawings to city staff this week, and hopes to file the plans shortly after.

‘‘Although we need to keep a particular degree of control over it ... it’s still a place where we need to bring density, we need to have a walkable community with good services and employment opportunities,” Clifford said. ‘‘Gaithersburg Olde Towne is the perfect place for that, we just have to manage it well.”

Meanwhile, the city is anticipating an update from Staubach in about two weeks, Tomasello said.

Though much of Staubach’s focus is on new development, Hines said the process also will provide opportunities for the area’s small business owners.

‘‘It seems like Olde Towne provides for niche businesses, and I just think having such a diversity of mom-and-pop shops that today you don’t see in a lot of places,” Hines said. ‘‘[It] is unique and definitely is one of the strengths of Olde Towne.”

For Zeppos, business is good, but he said the sooner something changes to give the dining crowd incentive to walk off a meal in the historic district, the better.

‘‘To let this happen to the city and not develop it, it’s a shame. Especially with how much history that’s right here,” Zeppos said.