East Village promises “heterogeneity, surprise” for White Flint

Bird's-eye view of East Village at North Bethesda Gateway. Rockville Pike is at the bottom.

Bird’s-eye view of East Village at North Bethesda Gateway. Rockville Pike is at the bottom. Images from Foulger-Pratt.

UPDATE: We’ve added images courtesy of Foulger-Pratt of the current proposal for East Village and the former design for comparison.

The White Flint Sector Plan envisions Rockville Pike as a grand boulevard with tall buildings. But what about the side streets? Is there an opportunity to create a more intimate experience there?

Dick Knapp, senior vice president at Foulger-Pratt, has proposed doing just that at East Village at North Bethesda Gateway, a project he’s working on with fellow developer ProMark at the corner of Nicholson Lane and Huff Court, next to White Flint Mall.

“In a vital city, there’s heterogeneity and surprise,” said Knapp during a public presentation last Thursday night in the 1960’s-era office building that would give way to East Village, which would contain 640 apartments in two six-story buildings and 36,000 square feet of ground-floor shops along a narrow, private street.

He called Rockville Pike a future “Gold Coast,” where grand buildings would ask accordingly high rents and draw high-end stores. At East Village, Foulger-Pratt and Promark hope to draw young professionals seeking an urban experience with “smaller, cheaper” living spaces and local, “authentic” retailers. Knapp described the project as “our village concept, human scale closer to the street.”

Huff Court, which today is lined by parking lots, would become a “vibrant retail street,” says architect George Dove of WDG Architecture, which is also one of three design firms working on Pike + Rose. One-fourth of the site will be set aside as open space, including a small plaza.

Knapp suggested future retail tenants could include casual dining places like Busboys and Poets, coffee shops and yoga studios. “We’re trying to create a ‘third space,'” he said, using sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s term for venues that were neither home nor work, but a place where people could gather and build community.

East Village would include a private street parallel to Nicholson Lane that would eventually run between Rockville Pike and a future MARC station at the end of Nicholson Court. Along the new street, ground-floor apartments would have “real doors” with stairs and stoops, providing visual interest.

County planners have designated the street for pedestrians only, but the developers say it would be bad for retail. They would prefer to build a street that accommodates cars as well, although at very low speeds. On-street parking would allow some visitors to even pull over and stop.

“There will be more feet in the street than tires in the street,” says Knapp. “Without the cars, the space just becomes dead.”

Original site plan for North Bethesda Gateway. The East Village site is on the right.

Original site plan for North Bethesda Gateway. The East Village site is on the right.

New site plan for East Village, showing shorter apartment buildings.

New site plan for East Village, showing shorter apartment buildings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

East Village is half of a larger scheme for North Bethesda Gateway, which Promark created in partnership with the owners of the Fitzgerald auto dealership and a retail building across Huff Court. A sketch plan for it approved two years ago proposed several 12-to-20 story buildings containing a mix of apartments, offices and retail space.

Since then, the three landowners have decided to work independently. Foulger-Pratt and Promark revised the concept for their half, taking out the offices and slightly reducing the amount of apartments and retail. This allowed them to swap out taller buildings, which would have to be built out of more expensive concrete, for shorter, more affordable wood-framed buildings.

Not having offices also means the project will generate 45% fewer car trips during rush hour, allowing them to provide less parking, though there will still be an underground garage.

“We’ve reduced the congestion, reduced the density, and provided more affordable housing,” notes Dove. “There’s been a change in the younger generation. We want to encourage people to walk to the Metro.”

While East Village will include about 80 moderately priced dwelling units, even market-rate apartments could rent for less than others in the White Flint area. Rents are estimated to range from $1500 for a 475-square foot studio to $1600 for a 650-square-foot one-bedroom, and $2175 for a 900-square-foot two-bedroom. By comparison, a comparably-sized studio rents for $1635 a month at North Bethesda Market, which opened in 2011.

The apartments will be “compact but very well-finished,” Knapp says, showing images of units with hardwood floors and granite countertops.

Foulger-Pratt and ProMark will file an amended sketch plan at the Planning Department later this month; if it’s approved, it’ll go through the site plan process. Knapp anticipates that they’ll break ground by the end of 2014 and the first building will open by the end of 2015.

“Real doors” give human scale, house-like benefits to apartment living

Are these rowhouses? Nope, they’re “real doors.” All photos by the author unless noted.

Houses have their perks: a yard, a private entrance, and a sense of individuality. Apartments have theirs as well: they’re affordable, low-maintenance, and have lots of shared amenities. What if you could get best of both worlds? Several new apartment communities being built in White Flint do just that with something called “real doors.”

What are “real doors”? Basically, it’s when a multi-family building contains ground-floor apartments or rowhouses with private entrances opening directly to the street. Instead of walking by blank walls or loading docks, you’d pass doors, stoops, porches and more importantly, people.

This is by no means a new idea, but “real doors” have become especially relevant as a way to give large buildings human scale. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl notes that our field of view doesn’t go far above eye level, so most pedestrians only pay attention to details at the street level. You might think you’re walking by a block of rowhouses, but they could just be the base of a high-rise.

“Real doors” also make streets safer by providing more “eyes on the street.” They give residents the privacy and individuality of a house with the communal amenities and low maintenance of an apartment. And they allow architects and developers to provide so-called “missing middle” house types that could accommodate families, like rowhouses, in areas where land values are so high that they’re not economically feasible.

I got to see the benefits of “real doors” firsthand in Philadelphia, where for two years I lived on the ground floor of a 100-year-old house that had been turned into apartments decades ago. My roommate and I had affordable rent, just enough space and a doting landlord. We could also walk out from our living room to the front porch, out to the street, and around to the back yard, which made it feel like a house.

“Real doors” have become part of the design culture in places like Vancouver, where former planning director Brent Toderian jokes that they’re great for trick-or-treating. They will become a common design feature in White Flint, as it supports the urban design goals of its Sector Plan. Two projects being built there, Pike + Rose and Archstone Old Georgetown Road, will include them.

However, not all “real doors” are created equal. Done poorly, they can look like an afterthought, feel anonymous and compromise privacy. Let’s look at some examples from around the area and the country:

GOOD

Ground-floor apartment at Halstead Square in Merrifield.

These are “real doors” at Halstead Square, an apartment and retail complex being built in Merrifield. (Check out some more pictures.) These doors belong to single-story, one-bedroom apartments, and each one has a little stoop and an address number. The floor-to-ceiling windows are nice, but they’re so close to the ground that people walking by can easily look in.

Tall stoops at Citron in Silver Spring.

At Citron, an apartment building under construction in downtown Silver Spring, “real doors” help it relate to the single-family homes across the street. The ground-floor units are high enough to be private, which would’ve been a nice opportunity to expand those stoops into porches.

BETTER

Ground-floor duplexes at the Market Common in Clarendon.

These ground-floor rowhouses at the Market Common in Clarendon each have different-colored doors, giving them their own identity. The building as a whole has similar materials and detailing as the actual rowhouses at the end of the block, helping it blend in.

“Real doors” with private yards at the Silverton. Image from Google Street View.

These “real doors” at the Silverton in South Silver Spring are set back from the street, which provides room for a semi-private, gated patio with enough room for a table and chairs. Though they have big, low windows like Halstead Square, the trees help give shade and privacy. I might have made the doors themselves more distinctive, perhaps with a different paint color or frosted glass panels.

BEST

These rowhouses at Eliot Tower in Portland have raised decks.

The best “real doors” I’ve found are on the West Coast. This is the Eliot Tower in downtown Portland, a tower with two-story rowhouses at its base. Each house has a front deck raised several steps above the street, and you can see how each deck has a tree or some leafy plants for privacy and visual impact.

Rowhouses with yards at the Meriwether in Portland.

At the Meriwether, a tower in Portland’s Southwest Waterfront, there are ground-floor rowhouses set behind little yards. Not only do they provide a buffer from the street, but they appear to be part of a bioswale that collects and filters runoff water before it heads to the Willamette River, a few hundred yards away. You can see each house has decks on multiple floors, giving it plenty of outdoor space. And residents have them their own, judging from these hot pink Adirondack chairs.

WORST

Less-than-great “real doors” at Lofts 24 in Silver Spring. Image from Google Street View.

Believe it or not, this is the entrance to two ground-floor condominiums at Lofts 24, also in downtown Silver Spring. Other than the welcome mat outside the door on the right, there’s no indication that people actually live here.

Rather than a house, this feels like the entrance to a storage unit. There are no street numbers, no individual open space, and no buffer from the street. The only landscaping are bushes that cover the windows.

While these examples aren’t perfect, they show the opportunities and challenges of providing “real doors.” The scale of development in many urban neighborhoods has gotten bigger, but humans generally remain the same size, so we still have to design to that scale.

Not only can “real doors” make otherwise big buildings feel more comfortable, but they can make safer and more visually attractive streets and offer people a desirable mix of house and apartment living. That is, if we do them right.

Check out this slideshow with examples of “real doors” from around the region and country.