Proposed Drive-Through Ignites Discussion

Courtesy of Michael Watkins Architect, LLC The proposed infill buildings shouldn’t be considered in isolation;  Watkins depicts some suggested changes for the center.

Courtesy of Michael Watkins Architect, LLC
The proposed infill buildings shouldn’t be considered in isolation; Watkins depicts some suggested changes for the center.

The three commercial infill buildings proposed for the Lowe’s parking lot area in Kentlands Square—Kentlands Square Infill Sites SDP-7712-2017—are moving through the city’s development process again with the close of the Planning Commission’s public comment period on March 9. Framed by property owner Saul Holdings as an interim step before full implementation of the 2008 master plan vision of mixed-use residential, proposed infill buildings have met some opposition, and the envisioned drive-through is a lightning rod.

A petition protesting the drive-through currently has 81 signatures, and a number of residents have submitted written comments—pro and con—to the Mayor and City Council. A spirited discussion of the drive-through, prompted by a deliberately provocative post from Kentlands Town Architect Marina Khoury, lasted for days on Nextdoor. Her intention, she said, was to get people to voice their opinions, whatever they may be.

In mid-January, the Mayor and City Council and Planning Commission voted to re-open their records “indefinitely” pending Saul’s reconfiguration of the proposed drive-through to site E (closest to Kentlands Boulevard, behind Mattress Firm) over traffic flow concerns. Revised drive-through plans were submitted to the city in late February.

According to Kirk Eby, city planner, a recommendation based on the revised plan is anticipated to be considered at the March 21 Planning Commission meeting. Following this meeting, the Mayor and City Council will announce the closing date of their record and schedule policy discussion for a future Council meeting.

Residents are urged to submit comments in writing now. Public testimony will not be taken at the Planning Commission recommendation meeting or Mayor and City Council Policy Discussion meeting, Eby said.

Pro, con or neutral, all parties in the Kentlands Square Infill Sites discussion seem to be considering how things work.

For former/longtime Kentlands Town Architect Mike Watkins, now principal at his own urban design firm on Firehouse Lane, the drive-through in and of itself is not the issue. As a new urbanist architect, Watkins is concerned more with how the new buildings might support or impede walkability, improve or further degrade connection to Main Street and Market Street, and create an appealing sense of place where one might enjoy sitting with a cup of coffee or, alternatively, be faced with the backend of the Mattress Firm building.
Watkins has specific suggestions to make these buildings accomplish these objectives—with or without the drive-through. Overall, he said, the design needs to prioritize community. “The compensation for all of us living densely in Kentlands and Lakelands should be community and walkability not suburbia,” he said.

While Watkins said that he understands the drive-through is important to business profits, he sees a number of red flags for including this drive-through—widely believed to be designed to replace Market Square’s Starbucks, but it could be a Rally’s or something similar. “It shifts the commercial center away from the residential side of the community to the less walkable Saul shopping center, something that is sure to continue as Saul and Kimco battle it out for what little additional retail can be supported here,” Watkins said. If the current Market Square Starbucks moves to the drive-through location, “this is not a trade up for our neighborhood or city,” Watkins said.

Watkins does see some ways to make the proposed drive-through concept work better, though, and his suggestions concern not only the drive-through itself but the entire center. Building E could be reconfigured to align more parallel with the current drive aisle and thus present a better view across Kentlands Boulevard and out toward the former Boulevard Tavern space. Pedestrian access between buildings E and D, now impeded by the drive-through, could be strengthened by this building E move. Adding on-street parking to the drive aisle, wide enough at its current 29 feet, would make all of the proposed commercial infill buildings more active and inviting while buffering sidewalk cafe patrons from moving traffic. Buildings doors could open to the street, not just the parking lot behind them.

Khoury also supported on-street parking, noting that “a parking spot in front of a store can add between $100,000 and $200,000 to the store’s annual revenue” in a March 9 letter to the Mayor and City Council and Planning Commission.

The issue, Watkins stressed, is also much larger than these three proposed buildings. Pedestrians need to be drawn across Kentlands Boulevard and from Market Square, through Saul’s center and out again to Main Street in a safe and appealing walkable route.
The four-way stop at Whole Foods/Mattress Firm is difficult for drivers and pedestrians. To make this intersection more easily crossed, the current two lanes in both directions could be cut down to just one lane each way.

The drive aisle currently connecting Mattress Firm to the Chipotle building could be made into half of an appealing street with the proposed three infill buildings. If a redesign of the parking lot behind Chick-fil-A to add parking and more commercial space were to be included, the street would become more activated.

Attention could be given to improving Lowe’s fronting onto Main Street with a covered “market” structure to cover the flowers and other merchandise stored in the parking lot.

Then attention needs to be given to the Main Street/Kentlands Boulevard traffic circle, increasing pedestrian crossing prominence and leading pedestrians more safely to the Main Street live/work businesses that eventually loop back up again with Market Square.

Watkins said that the proposed infill buildings and drive-through shouldn’t be considered in isolation. Rather, they need to be looked at in the context of the greater Kentlands downtown to ensure the viability of the Kentlands commercial district as a whole. “There’s a limit to how much more retail we can take,” he said, “and the location of this additional retail should be strategically located to help Main Street and Market Square rather than simply Saul.”

Current Kentlands Town Architect Marina Khoury agreed. “Where retail goes matters tremendously,” she said. “We have a limited amount of retail we can support. … This is not the place to prioritize retail.”

She referenced the Bob Gibbs June 15, 2017 Kentlands downtown market study that “indicated a limited amount of new retail could be captured in our downtown (up to 215,000 sf) with the assumption that it would be a ‘walkable town center’” in her March 9 letter to the city, and asked, “How can new buildings be permitted in a center that currently has over 120,000 square feet of vacant retail space?”

Khoury is opposed to the drive-through concept itself. “There will be cars in every direction. It’s not conducive to the pedestrian experience and will bring more traffic to Kentlands Boulevard,” she said, adding, “It’s the wrong location for pedestrians who want to cross over.”

She also doesn’t believe that the three pad sites will encourage walkability. “This is not in keeping with a cohesive town center for all of Kentlands,” she said. “To argue that it is would be disingenuous under the current design. The current Stabucks functions as a third place; it has become a meaningful destination for people to come, linger and be with their neighbors. How will the new proposal support that place-making potential?”

Photo | Pam Schipper Saul proposes three commercial infill buildings for the Lowe's parking lot area behind Mattress Firm and leading to the Chipotle building.

Photo | Pam Schipper
Saul proposes three commercial infill buildings for the Lowe’s parking lot area behind Mattress Firm and leading to the Chipotle building.

City staff analysis suggests that walkability in this area will be improved through the use of brick pavers and tree planters; brick crosswalks to all parking lot entrances, including the drive-through; reduction of the number of parking lot entrances, decreasing potential conflict points with pedestrians; and sidewalk wide enough for outdoor seating and street furniture.

Both Khoury and Watkins pointed out that the temporary or interim nature of the proposed buildings is relative. A “short-term” lifespan for the buildings can’t be enforced by the city, Eby confirmed.

Adding to the confusion are two city master plans seemingly at odds with one another, but both referenced in city staff review of the proposed infill buildings. Staff is recommending approval for proposed infill buildings because they are “a continuation of the mixed use development pattern envisioned in the 1988 Master Plan Neighborhood Four Land Use Plan, 42 as implemented by Sketch Plan Z-262 and its amendment Z-262(A).” Staff goes on to note that the 2008 Kentlands Boulevard Commercial District Master Plan allows for an “interim transition.”

Of the two plans, Khoury said, “while legal, I feel they are contradictory. … It is very rare to see a municipality with multiple plans that overlay like this that can lead to such different physical outcomes. It brings to the forefront a lack of clarity of vision or speaks to the lack of a comprehensive vision for our downtown. The 2008-approved master plan paints a very different picture and there seems to be confusion as to what that area should be or can be. If zoning never expires and a plan can be brought forth 15 years later—and 10 years after a master plan was approved—then why do we have a master plan?”

John Schlichting, city planning and code administration director, explained that sketch plans never expire. Since the proposed infill buildings are coming in under an existing sketch plan at schematic development plan phase, the city can only review the plan for its conformance to that sketch plan.

“When a property owner applies for a new sketch plan, then the master plan comes into play … as with Kimco or the Saul Kmart redevelopment,” he said. “The sketch plan is zoning. It never expires; it can only be replaced. The Saul infill buildings are based on the original sketch plan.”

Kimco submitted its plans for redevelopment of Kentlands Market Square last week, and this will be considered per the 2008 master plan. “We’re fortunate to have two property owners—Kimco and Saul—with long-term views,” Schlichting said.


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