Kentlands. … What was it like 25 years ago? What happened then, and what is it like today?
As an educational experience on the development process and on new urbanism, the Kentlands Symposium Weekend, June 20 and 21, checked all the boxes. The several hundred people who gathered in Kentlands throughout the weekend for several events asked—and answered—those questions.
In 1988, Joseph Alfandre, a third generation local builder, purchased 352 acres of farmland for what, according to a bevy of Kentlands Symposium Weekend speakers, Alfandre may first have thought would be a relatively conventional suburban housing development.
It didn’t turn out that way. Alfandre decided to look in new directions for inspiration. He met with architect/planners Andres Duany and Lizz Plater-Zyberk, critics of automobile-centric suburban development.
In telling the Kentlands story throughout the weekend, speakers consistently spoke of three powerful forces coming together to create a new kind of place. There was Alfandre, the open-minded and daring developer. There were Duany and Plater-Zyberk, the architect/planner partners who rejected the dysfunction of the status quo and who sought to distill and use the development principles that had worked best in the past. The third part of the Kentlands creation triumvirate was then-Gaithersburg Mayor Ed Bohrer.
Now deceased, Bohrer was mayor of Gaithersburg when Kentlands was on the drawing board. A Gaithersburg native who was 34 when he entered city politics, Bohrer was elected mayor in 1986 at the age of 46. Two years later, Bohrer would be the lynchpin of the Kentlands Charrette in which the Kentlands Master Plan evolved and began to receive public support.
Throughout the symposium weekend, two facts about Ed Bohrer were repeated several times by the people who knew him. One was his determination that Gaithersburg embody the best that a city could be. Another was that he was a very powerful mayor who had the total support of his City Council and his employees, and the strong backing of residents.
Like Joe Alfandre, the mayor found inspiration in the land that would be Kentlands.
Bohrer’s wife of 36 years, Sharon Bohrer Mears, represented him Symposium Weekend and accepted a “Town Founder Award” on his behalf. Mears, who traveled from her home in Delaware for the event, said Bohrer would have been proud to see what Kentlands is today.
“On Saturday mornings, Ed and I would pack up some coffee and our Golden Retriever and drive out to the old Kentlands Farm,” Mears recalled. “We would look around this massive former farm and try to envision what was possible.
“Ed was excited by the ideas of the architects and of Alfandre. He had a clear vision of what was possible in Kentlands.”
Symposium Weekend began at the Kentlands Mansion with a Friday evening outdoor reception and dinner for more than 100 guests. The evening’s keynote speaker was Roger K. Lewis, architect and architecture professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. A prolific writer, Lewis is also a longtime Washington Post columnist whose thematic articles and accompanying cartoons have illuminated the inside workings of planning, land use regulation, and related topics since 1984.
Lewis looked at whether, 25 years after inception, Kentlands has fulfilled its new urbanist aspirations and at the impact of Kentlands, a “suburban community shaped by new urbanism principles,” on development in metropolitan Washington.
Lewis’ remarks, telling the Kentlands story from start to today against the development landscape, illustrated by projections of his cartoons on the dark mansion lawn, set the scene and outlined the script for the whole weekend.
Because of the success of Kentlands, said Lewis, over the 25 years, new urbanist principles have been embraced to at least some degree in the region.
New urbanism’s influence, as inspired by Kentlands, can be seen, said Lewis, in Rockville’s King Farm, in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard and Carlyle, in developments in Reston Town Center, in National Harbor, and in makeovers of downtown Columbia, White Flint and Tysons Corner.
On Saturday morning, cloudy skies and intermittent showers did not dampen the spirits of about 70 participants of a nearly three-hour Kentlands Walking Tour.
Tours were led by Lizz Plater-Zyberk, principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk Town Planners (DPZ), and HOK architect and planner Colin Greene, formerly of DPZ. Absent from the walking tours—and from all the symposium activities—was Andres Duany who had planned to attend, but was indisposed.
For the afternoon symposium, about a hundred people gathered at the Montgomery County Public Safety Headquarters. Three themes dominated the afternoon—past, present and future. Following an introduction by Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz and opening remarks by both Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and internationally renowned architect and scholar Alex Krieger, a panel of architects, planners, bankers and developers spoke about the rocky history of Kentlands’ start, including the financial woes brought on by a recession in the early 1990s.
Next, two panels—one of Kentlands business people and one of young people who grew up in Kentlands—spoke, followed by a panel of experts, architects and planners who looked at the future of Kentlands and of American development, in housing and in retail development.
Alex Krieger, a member of the original Kentlands Charette team in 1988, said the experience changed his view on the importance of planning. “I … shifted my allegiance at Harvard from being part of the Department of Architecture to the Department of Urban Design and Planning.”
Plater-Zyberk shared her memories of Kentlands throughout 25 years, including the battle with Montgomery County Public Schools over the direction that Rachel Carson Elementary School would face. MCPS policy would have aligned the front of the building with Darnestown Road, exposing children to intense vehicular traffic and permitting fewer children and teachers to walk to school.
Plater-Zyberk told of a Kentlands teenager in 1990 who said Kentlands was the preferred gathering place for him and his friends. “This became important support for our ideas when we began to work with existing communities because what we hear from residents and parents was that there was nothing for teenagers to do, no place for teenagers to go.
“Understanding that we had made a place young people were comfortable in was really a lot of impetus for future work.”
She recalled that the idea of connecting Kentlands to the Shady Grove Transit Station via trolley was derided in Kentlands drawing board days but noted that “only 25 years later,” plans for bus rapid transit making that connection are in the works.
Finally, Plater-Zyberk expressed delight at the place Kentlands has become.
“Your shared efforts, your beautiful houses, the open space you maintain, your front yard gardens—I am completely charmed by those. Your shops and other businesses set an example for all who seek a better way to live together.
“For that example, Andres and I, and all of our firm, congratulate you and thank you.”