When Ben Harris and his wife moved from Logan Circle in DC to an apartment off of Rockville Pike in 2011, he didn’t know what to call his new neighborhood.
“I was telling people where I live and they would ask ‘What neighborhood is that?’” he says.
This confusion inspired the name of Harris’s new local blog, NorthFlintVille. “It’s taking North Bethesda and White Flint and Rockville and mashing them together, which in my experience is how people kind of think of the area,” he says.
The White Flint Partnership, a coalition of property owners working to transform White Flint from a suburban strip to an urban hub, wants to change that. They’re looking for a marketing firm to develop a new “brand” for the White Flint Sector Plan area.
Partnership member Lerner Enterprises owns White Flint Mall, which will be partially demolished and redeveloped as an urban neighborhood. Francine Waters, managing director of Lerner Enterprises, hope the study will “identify what would resonate the best not only locally, but regionally, nationally and internationally,” she says. “It’s not only a name but, frankly, telling the story of our journey from where we were to where we hope to achieve.”
Though little work has been completed, they plan to have something “sometime in the summer,” Waters says. The goal is to create a unified brand for the entire Sector Plan area that would be used by all landowners, though individual developments like Pike + Rose would still have their own identity.
Montgomery County planners do use the name “White Flint,” after White Flint Mall, which in turn is named for the white quartz rocks historically found in the area. Ironically, the mall actually has a Kensington address.
As a result, the area’s name changes depending on who you ask. Harris tells people he lives “just north of the White Flint Metro station” or “somewhere up Rockville Pike, close to Rockville.” He adds, “Specifically, I tell people we live across from the strip mall with the Barnes & Noble in it.”
Some use different terms depending on who they’re talking to, like Vanessa Rodriguez, senior marketing manager at Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is participating in the rebranding effort. When talking to clients or potential tenants, she calls it “the White Flint district,” but if talking to a friend or relative, she’d “probably say Rockville or North Bethesda.”
“The problem with the White Flint district is that it does not feel like a cohesive area,” she says. “We need to cultivate that brand.”
Will a new name fix that? It might, judging from other DC-area communities that have rebranded themselves, like Capitol Riverfront and NoMa in the District or Tysons in Fairfax County. All three names were attempts by business and community leaders to shake those places’ once-negative or underwhelming reputations, they’re all beginning to draw new residents, businesses and investment.
While some may complain that these new names are artificial, they’re often born out of necessity. It’s not surprising that developers in NoMa chose not to use that neighborhood’s historical name; after all, who would rent a luxury apartment in a place called Swampoodle?
Not only that, but invented names have been used to sell real estate for centuries. Rockville was originally called Williamsburgh, after local businessman William Williams, who divided the town into lots and sold them in 1784. Later, the 19th-century developers of Kensington and Takoma Park named them after a posh London neighborhood and a Native American word meaning “near heaven,” respectively.
All of these names had to carry the weight of a place that didn’t yet exist and sell future residents and businesses on what could be. People already live and work in White Flint, but there isn’t a “center” or “anchor” that they can rally around. That’s arguably why some people today associate the area with Rockville or Bethesda, which do have defined centers. The White Flint Sector Plan seeks to change that by creating a “downtown” here, but what we call it sets the stage for what it will become.
So what could White Flint’s new name be? Rodriguez says that potential names have been “kicked around” in the past, but “nothing we really want to explore.” White Flint may not even be one of the names under consideration.
Given all of these issues, Waters acknowledges the challenge that lies ahead, including finding the right people to do the rebranding. “There are few [marketing] firms in the US that have done something of this magnitude,” says Waters. “It’s quite a phenomenal effort. We wanna make sure it’s done right.”
Thanks to everyone who took our poll of serious (and not-so-serious) names for White Flint! The poll is now closed.
**Updated 3/1/13 to reflect that the White Flint Partnership, not Lerner Enterprises, will spearhead the branding study effort.