Nearly 20 years after plans were drawn, 13 after ground was broken and seven since the developer was forced to sign an agreement to deliver what was promised, the heart of Clarksburg Town Center exists solely on YouTube as a 3-D animation.
“Our goal is to create a vibrant, character-filled, financially viable retail area,” the reassuring woman’s voice says over upbeat elevator music. She guarantees “some fantastic community amenities,” including a supermarket, a library, a park, an amphitheater and medical offices.
Off-screen, Clarksburg Town Center is a sloping, overgrown expanse of weeds and dirt. Over the next few months, Montgomery County officials face a series of decisions that could determine whether something close to the original vision can be redeemed.
The county is completing a study of the possible environmental consequences of two proposals for residential and commercial construction along Interstate 270 near the Town Center site. Pulte Homes plans up to 1,000 houses on 538 acres west of Clarksburg Road. The Peterson Cos. want to develop 450,000 square feet of high-end stores, dining and housing just west of Town Center.
Both projects are on hold, pending the environmental review.
Some residents see the Peterson plan as a long-overdue boon to a retail-starved community. Supporters also say a successful development could spur more growth, stimulating activity at Town Center that could finally push it from video to reality.
Others fear that those developments could be the death of Clarksburg as envisioned, choking off and isolating Town Center while increasing traffic and pollution that could destroy the fragile Ten Mile Creek Watershed. Critics also point out that development is way off schedule: Town Center is an overlooked element of the project’s first stage, as outlined by the 1994 master plan. The Peterson and Pulte proposals are on land earmarked for the fourth and final phase.
“It’s all too much too soon,” said MelaneHoffmann of the Liveable Clarksburg Coalition, which wants Town Center completed and promised transit improvements delivered before anything else gets built.
Clarksburg was supposed to be a shining model of pedestrian-friendly new urbanism at the county’s exurban northern edge. Boosters said it would be more than another generic, sprawling housing development, but a town where people lived side-by-side in city-like density. In exchange for giving up the big, traditional suburban housing lots with front lawns and back yards, residents would be able to walk for some of their shopping and gather as a community in open-air cafes and restaurants.
The density emerged, but many of the amenities did not. Instead, Clarksburg became shorthand for lax regulatory oversight and broken agreements. In 2004, some residents discovered that there were houses and townhouses built too tall or too close to roads and that the developer, Newland Communities, planned a retail core that looked more like an ordinary commercial strip, not the beating heart of a village. Hearings, mediation, arbitration and lawsuits followed, as did resignations of top planning officials. Newland bailed in 2011, selling its interest to Elm Street Development of McLean for $1.
Residents — the approximately 2,300 in the Town Center and 11,000 in surrounding Clarksburg developments — are left to do much of their shopping in Damascus, Urbana or Germantown. The rail or bus transit integral to the 1994 master plan is years away, if it comes at all. Rush-hour traffic on I-270 and Route 355 can be mind-bending.
Town Center’s future will be up for debate again this fall. In lieu of heavy fines and penalties, Newland signed a 2006 compliance agreement committing to remedy many of the violations and build the Town Center retail core according to plan. Elm Street is expected to file an amended plan with the county soon.
David Flanagan, president and principal of Elm Street, has made it plain that he will not hew to the design specified in the compliance agreement, which he considers no longer financially feasible. His version of Town Center, broadly illustrated in the YouTube video, lacks several features in the agreement residents consider important, including structured parking, “live-work” townhouses with commercial first floors and residences above them, and $1 million for landscaping and other details.
“We don’t intend to [adhere to] the compliance plan,” Flanagan told the Montgomery Planning Board at a June 27 hearing. He asked for permission to reopen the agreement and negotiate with planning staff for changes. If such talks are not possible, Flanagan said, “It’s going to be a short conversation.”
Planning Board Chairman Françoise Carrier took a dim view of Flanagan’s hard line.
“It doesn’t seem like a very good starting point that you have no intention of even trying to comply at all,” she said. Board members eventually granted Flanagan’s request.