Dave's Commentary

Posted March 24, 2007 (user submitted)

A suburb of Washington, DC in Montgomery County, MD, Rockville did not experience much of its growth until after 1950 but traces its history to the 1700s. As a result, unlike many cookie-cutter suburban boom areas, it has a large stock of historic homes and buildings in the residential neighborhoods bordering the downtown core. Rockville also once had a solid collection of late 19th/early 20th century commercial buildings in what once comprised its downtown area, most of which were lost to the construction of the mall.

In the 1960s, with Rockville and Montgomery County experiencing massive growth, the city decided to apply for a Federal urban renewal grant to tear down most of its historic commercial district (then seen as a decaying soon-to-be eyesore losing business to suburban strip shopping centers). Replacing it would be a high-rise county courthouse and county office building, an office tower, and several high-rise apartment buildings. Part of the downtown street grid would be destroyed in the process, and a pedestrian plaza would be developed with access to the mall and the new and old courthouse/county office complexes. The mall would contain space for two department stores. The mall would open in 1972, the apartments at intervals in the early 1970s, the 19-story office tower (once the GBS Building, now One Metro Square) in 1979, and the 16-story county office building in 1981.

At the time the mall's plans were announced, Montgomery County was relatively bereft of enclosed malls. Wheaton Plaza, several miles to the southeast, was the county's first, opened around 1960. However, because Rockville's development depended on Federal urban renewal grants rather than private initiative, it was significantly delayed in moving forward. As a result, Montgomery Mall in neighboring Bethesda opened sooner (around 1967, I believe). Montgomery Mall is located at the Democracy Boulevard exit off of Interstate 270, in a demographically desirable area a few miles to the southwest of downtown Rockville.

Rockville Mall reputedly targeted Sears and JC Penney as its anchors, but with the earlier opening of Montgomery Mall and perhaps due to subsequent plans to develop Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg (one town north of Rockville; opened later in the 1970s at the I-270 Montgomery Village Avenue exit), Rockville was unable to attract the anchors it coveted. In fact, the mall lured only one anchor, Lansburgh's, a DC-area store.

In addition to the long delay in opening that allowed Montgomery Mall to beat it onto the retail map, Rockville had a less desirable location than the other malls, both convenient to the interstate and in middle class to affluent neighborhoods. Downtown Rockville is a couple of miles removed from I-270, the major freeway through Montgomery County. Although downtown sits at the intersection of two major state highways, Rts. 28 and 355 (the latter the major retail boulevard of the county), the mall's relatively low profile confused drivers seeking access to it. Additionally, across the railroad tracks and Rt. 355 from the mall were some of Rockville's lower-income, higher-crime neighborhoods. Shoppers who did find the entrance to the mall's parking garage off 355 on Middle Lane found the garage dark, intimidating, and confusing, and the garage gained a reputation as friendly to the criminal element. The mall itself was not an attractive facility; outside of one distinctive entrance opening on Courthouse Square with a white peaked roof, fountains, and a mural, it was a bland, two-story beige concrete bunker that scarcely resembled a mall to anyone who might drive past.

Before all of these strikes against the mall emerged, a larger problem became immediately obvious. A few months after Rockville opened, the Lansburgh's chain went bankrupt and the mall lost its sole anchor. The mall would soon attract Litt's, a Philadelphia-based department store seeking to expand into the DC region, but Litt's was not long for the market. (I am not sure whether this was due to that chain's bankruptcy/buyout or Rockville Mall's poor performance.) The mall would limp along without any anchor for the rest of its existence, though I have heard (unconfirmed) that a furniture store occupied the Lansburgh's/Litt's space for a time also.

Meanwhile, the other mall occupants became obviously frustrated over the lack of an anchor tenant, absentee ownership that allowed the mall to deteriorate, and the mall's growing reputation for crime. The mall owners are reported to have attempted to attract some of the successful businesses of downtown Rockville's old commercial district but then having alienated these small business owners with bizarre demands as to what their stores or restaurants' niches and product selection should be. In response to the twin problems of crime fears and vacant space, a Montgomery County police substation was placed in the mall. The unfortunate police officers assigned to this location suffered from the mall's horrible maintenance, publicizing that live roaches regularly blew out of vents into the substation.

By the late 1970s, it had become clear that Rockville Mall would never function well as a conventional mall, and some feeble efforts were made to reposition it into a community shopping center and to improve its image. New management cleaned up the mall's interior and made an effort to attract convenience businesses catering to downtown's business and government workers. The mall also held a new name contest, adopting the moniker The Commons at Courthouse Square in 1978 as a result.

At around this time the mall was billed as having 37 tenants (it was built with space for 50 to 60, including the anchor store spaces). A few restaurants and food kiosks, as well as the mall theatre, enjoyed some success. But the small-scale revitalization faded quickly. By 1981 the mall had only 4 or 5 remaining tenants and was shuttered.

In 1983, a local firm purchased the mall and attempted to redevelop it as a more entertainment-oriented facility. I believe a portion may have been demolished in the process. It was reopened as Rockville Metro Center, emphasizing its connection (by footbridge) to the Metro rail transit station across Rt. 355. The most prominent tenants at the mall were now a larger United Artists theaters (the largest complex in Rockville) and Breakers, a billiards parlor. Though these businesses, at the end of the mall closest to the Metro station, attracted some traffic, and though the facility was no longer infamous for crime and poor maintenance, the rest of the mall remained relatively desolate and I do not believe it ever again had more than about 20 tenants, I think mostly snack bars and restaurants with very few stores. The mall's poor accessibility and lack of visibility remained insurmountable drawbacks, and the redevelopers later said they had no inclination of the extent of the mall's inherent problems were when they purchased it.

In 1993, the Rockville mayor, who would become county executive in 1995, launched a massive campaign against the mall, arguing that the large, scarcely occupied facility was a millstone holding back downtown development and limiting the city's property tax intake. His argument struck a chord with the majority in Rockville, and the mall was finally torn down in 1995 (the portion connected to the Metro station still exists as an office/health care/fitness center complex that is not recognizable as having once been part of a mall).

Downtown Rockville's redevelopment continues to be a work in process. The bulk of the mall and garage's footprint is now a large surface parking lot serving a very successful 13-screen theater complex and several popular adjoining restaurants. A partially restored street grid and an ornamental fountain also stand as legacies of the mall's destruction.

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