At 25, Assessing “Profound” Kentlands Impact

Photo | Phil Fabrizio On Feb. 16, a party at Largent’s Restaurant & Bar launched the two-year, 25-event, anniversary of Kentlands’ founding. John Schlichting and Ailene Renzi, co-chairs of the K25 committee, Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz and Michael Watkins, architect, address the celebrants.

Photo | Phil Fabrizio
On Feb. 16, a party at Largent’s Restaurant & Bar launched the two-year, 25-event, anniversary of Kentlands’ founding. John Schlichting and Ailene Renzi, co-chairs of the K25 committee, Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz and Michael Watkins, architect, address the celebrants.

The irony of new urbanism is that it really isn’t new at all. In fact, communities like Kentlands, which include the elements of traditional neighborhoods and are accessible to public transit, were the norm until the onslaught of post-World War II suburban sprawl that was fueled by the automobile. There was a time when all communities, including cities, featured animated street activity and access to multimodal transportation—walking, cycling, automobiles, buses and other public transit options.

As evidenced by Kentlands, the landscape of these former places was aesthetically more pleasing than modern towns and cities, whose primary design objective has evolved into accommodating increasing numbers of automobiles with more and wider roads.

Traditional towns and cities also “worked,” meaning they were productive, economically sustainable, nice places to live for a population of diverse incomes and means. When the overriding planning objective became building roads for increasing numbers of single occupancy cars, cities and towns lost their coherent streetscapes, quality open spaces and harmonious landscape, diverse architecture and open space.

In the suburbs, the dead end cul-de-sac characterized the street networks of isolated, self-contained, single price-range neighborhoods of look-alike homes—accessible only to arterials (and not other neighborhoods) through a very limited number of exits and entrances. This type of neighborhood proliferated explosively and is still the suburban norm across the American suburban landscape.

In December 1988, the seeds of a revolution took root in the minds of Gaithersburg Mayor Ed Bohrer and a developer named Joe Alfandre. The seeds were carried to Gaithersburg by the architects and urban planners Andres Duany and Liz Plater-Zyberk of the Miami-based new urbanist planning and design firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk.

Twenty-five years ago, the new urbanist community that would be Kentlands was just a statistic in the ranks of Montgomery County’s dwindling farm population. In 1988, the 388-acre parcel was sold to Joseph Alfandre’s development company. A charrette, led by Duany Plater-Zyberk, to develop priorities for a neighborhood plan followed. Participants included the public, city officials, architects, planners and a myriad of related professionals.

In December 1988, history was made. The city of Gaithersburg approved a plan for the creation of a neotraditional, mixed-use, cul-de-sac-free town called Kentlands.

Some 25 years later on Feb. 16, 2014, a party was held at Largent’s Restaurant & Bar to begin a two-year, 25-event, anniversary of Kentlands’ founding. Spearheaded by the non-profit Kentlands Community Foundation, and aided by the city of Gaithersburg, the Kentlands Citizens Assembly and an army of volunteers, it is the goal of this determined coalition to use these events of education and celebration to amplify and broadcast the good news that new urbanist communities work.

Upcoming events include a weekend symposium beginning June 20, 2014, featuring a series of panel discussions and talks on Kentlands past, present and future. Speakers will include community residents and, notably, some of the leading lights of the new urbanist movement.

Among them, Kentlands planners Liz Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany will deliver opening and keynote remarks respectively.

That Kentlands has been a success is widely acknowledged, even by critics of new urbanism in the development community.

But what difference, if any, has Kentlands really made in the big picture? Twenty-five years after Kentlands’ birth, suburban sprawl continues. Urban flight is still a fact, as people continue to escape crumbling city infrastructures, seeking affordable homes in outlying employment centers.

Millions continue to commute in single occupancy vehicles on crowded, ever-widening roads, wasting hundreds of invaluable hours a year. Of the 15 biggest metropolitan areas in the country, Washington area commuters face the second-longest commutes—and the time spent in cars has increased an average eight minutes round-trip in the 25 years since Kentlands was founded.

However, it seems that new urbanist architects and planners are patient people, celebrating victories as they come and remaining optimistic about the future.

Architect John Torti, new urbanist and president of Silver Spring-based Torti Gallas and Partners, is a leader on the new urbanist front lines who will speak at the June weekend symposium. Torti Gallas, “architects of community” and planners of Rockville’s King Farm, have designed, planned and executed hundreds of projects, many of them award-winning, that incorporate the principles of traditional neighborhood development.

We asked Torti to gauge for us, 25 years after its inception, the impact of Kentlands, on urban, suburban, national and international design trends. His answer: “Profound.

“Kentlands and the work of Duany Plater-Zyberk 25 years ago has had a profound impact on urban and suburban development, redevelopment, including infill and refill.”

Locally, said Torti, the Kentlands “influence” is evident throughout. In Montgomery County, he said, it can be seen in King Farm, Lakelands, the development at Tower Oaks, Parklands, Crown and many other places.

Nevertheless, he said, those places represent only a small part of the impact of Kentlands.

“The unsung part of all of this is what is carried forward by people who have been influenced by what happened here. Everywhere, there are the people influenced by Kentlands. There are students who have become teachers. There are people all over the country who today are planning commission staff members and planning commissioners. There are many, many others who understand and are influenced by what they have done in Kentlands. Because Kentlands really is a wonderful place.

“And its success—its non-repetitive architecture, its streets designed for people, has done a lot to reshape the way people think. Liz Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany’s work has affected the way a lot of people think, including design professionals like me.

“The business of suburban cul-de-sac (building) has reduced dramatically over the last 25 years,” Torti said.

In many ways, thanks to Kentlands, “There has been a confluence of rethinking the design of neighborhoods in suburbs and in cities.”

There are still challenges to be faced in convincing planners and developers to choose a new urbanist approach, said Torti. “But it’s better, way better. … It’s in everybody’s heads. Even people you argue with understand what you are talking about, what it is you are trying to do.”

In 2009, Torti Galas received a Charter Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism, given for projects that best embody new urbanist principles, for their work designing all the mixed-use buildings in D.C.’s Columbia Heights, part of the culmination of that neighborhood’s 40-year-long renaissance that following massive destruction caused by rioting in 1968.

More recently, Torti Gallas also designed the Master Plan for the Washington National Cathedral, which restores a significant American place and an important work of Frederick Law Olmsted.