A Twenty-Something's Perspective on Rockville

By Jonathan Frankle, last updated 2/9/15 08:23am
Photos by Helen Triolo


I have lived in Rockville essentially my entire life. My family moved to Rockville before I turned two and it is the only place I have ever called home. Although I now attend graduate school outside of Maryland, I am home often and continue to serve on the board of governors of the Rockville Community Coalition. I was involved in last election's campaigns and continue to keep up to date on issues facing the city, if often from a distance.

As a 22-year-old contemplating life after college, I feel that I bring a unique perspective to many of the issues facing Rockville today. I don't intend to try to speak for every member of my generation, but my views are probably quite similar to those of many of my peers.

At the same time, I grew up in Rockville, so I have a deep appreciation of the amenities that the city offers to its residents, specifically families. I attended summer camp and played in a youth orchestra under the auspices of the city's programs. I live in Fallsmead and understand the fundamentally suburban character of much of the city.
Now that I am older, however, I have begun to ask myself a few questions about the role Rockville can continue to play in my life:

What living arrangements do I desire?

I – and nearly all of my friends – are financially limited and environmentally conscious. We would therefore prefer to live car-free. My father says that he and his generation considered owning a car to be a sign of freedom, independence, and adulthood. I find a car and associated gas, maintenance, and insurance expenses to be an unnecessary burden. Traffic, parking, and easy access to alternatives like car-sharing and Uber only increase the value of a car-free lifestyle.

Transportation, therefore, is of foremost concern. I need to reside within walking distance of grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, entertainment, and other facilities that allow me to provide for and enjoy myself. Ideally, I also need a bike or access to bike-sharing stations so I can traverse slightly longer distances. Most importantly, I need quick access to longer-distance public transportation so I can go to other parts of the city for work or play. Even better, I might work close to where I live, saving me the daily agony of a commute.

The qualities I have just outlined are the hallmarks of modern, mixed-use development of the kind found in Ballston, Bethesda, or many locations inside the District. Rockville Town Center is a step in the right direction, with transit access and the nucleus of the stores, restaurants, and entertainment options that I seek. Town Center currently lacks the critical mass or density, however, to sustain retail (as evidenced by the empty storefronts and frequent closings) or compete with the likes of Woodley Park or U Street.

Worse still, housing options in Town Center are limited to expensive, luxury apartments. As a PhD student, my annual salary will fail to eclipse $30,000 until my degree is complete; even if I spent every penny of my pre-tax income, I couldn't afford to live in Town Center. My peers working in far more lucrative industries than academia would likewise struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Similar developments in other parts of the region have a far larger supply and wider range of housing; competition leaves room for rents that my peers and I might be able to afford. I would very much love to return to Rockville in my 20's, but, outside of my parent's basement, I struggle to imagine finding the lifestyle I desire at a price I can manage.

This leads me to my second question.

Why should I want to live in Rockville?

As I mentioned before, I have been a citizen of Rockville virtually since birth and understand the fundamentally suburban nature of the city. We are largely a city of families living in single-family homes, townhouses, and some apartments. We have summer camps, adult classes, a golf course, and a senior center, resources upon which my family relied when I was growing up and upon which my parents will continue to draw for many years to come. As an unmarried twenty-something, however, these family-oriented perks are largely irrelevant.

We also have our own water system, trash pickup, snow removal, recycling facility and more. These are services that, while important, are largely invisible, given that the county offers similar (although, I patriotically insist, lower-quality) equivalents. We have a wonderful system of parks and bike trails, although I need not be a resident to take advantage of these resources; I can do so while still living in the “Pike District” or any of the other burgeoning developments on Rockville's borders.

In years of repeatedly (and, perhaps, annoyingly) asking this question – why should I want to live in Rockville? – to the thought-leaders of our city (including several members of our current council), the best answer I have heard has been the following: in few other places in the region is there a responsive local government like ours. One in which I can walk into City Hall with a problem or complaint and know that it will be resolved quickly. One in which I can pick an issue about which I am passionate, join a commission, advocate for a cause, and see my ideas come to fruition. One in which I can work on a campaign side-by-side with a candidate for office simply because I am willing to volunteer my time – or better yet, one in which I'm Facebook friends with members of my city council.

But to my peers, who lack two decades of personal investment in the city's well-being – who don't know Rockville from Bethesda, it is difficult to explain the subtleties of the distinction: that we have our own system of government – a city manager-council system, off-year elections, and boards and commissions through which they can get involved. Harder still is convincing them that it is worthwhile to become engaged citizens in a city that they might leave a year or two later.

Given living arrangements that are subpar in cost and amenities compared to other areas of the region, it is hard – even for me – to justify spending my time and money in Rockville when there are other, more attractive cities in the region.

Which leads to my third question.

Is there a place for me in Rockville?

Given the dearth of dense, walkable, affordable, transit-oriented options, where can I find a home in Rockville? There will always be my parent's basement, but it's hard not to feel out of place in a city so centered on raising a family that my entire way of life feels foreign. Someday, I might own a home, send my children to summer camp, and argue at council meetings until the early hours of the morning about the subtleties of school overcrowding.
Until then, I sense that Rockville lacks the ability to accommodate an entire, possibly multi-decade, phase of my life. I would hate to give up my title as a life-long Rockville resident, but I fail to see how I can justify the choice to spend my 20's and 30's in the city.

That is not to say this is a problem: if we accept that life in Rockville is only feasible and attractive to those with families or (maybe “and”) affluence, then my temporary exile is quite reasonable. If this is the case, projects like Town Center and mixed-use developments around Metro stations seem largely worthless. Outside of the Pike, Rockville is largely “built out” – there are few places where we can make room for more houses. We should limit growth and focus our collective attention on other issues: improving retail and recreational options, school overcrowding, golf courses, and the like. We can drive to the Pike District or Rio when we seek a more urban adventure.

I gather, however, that this is not an accurate portrayal of how we envision Rockville. Town Center is expanding. Dense, mixed-use development is coming to Twinbrook. The Rockville Pike Plan makes provisions for public transportation and a walkable, “urban boulevard.” These plans are clearly issues of intense debate and disagreement, but my sense is that there is general – if unspoken – consensus that Rockville will need to follow a similar pattern of growth if we are to support our local businesses and remain a regional destination.

Which leads me to my final question.

How can we make a place for me in Rockville?

I end with my vision of a Rockville that I can call home in every phase of my life, from childhood and school to my twenty-something years, raising a family of my own and finally settling into retirement. I present this vision with the proviso that I am not a planner: I'm a 22-year-old seeking a PhD in computer science. I leave deciding its merits to the professionals.

Rockville is a city built around its neighborhoods, schools, and parks. They are where I grew up, learned, and played. I couldn't imagine encroaching on their boundaries with development or increased traffic. They must be left as they are so that the Rockville for families – the Rockville of today – can continue to thrive.

Town Center and the Pike, however, have a commercial character. As a city, we are blessed with two Metro stations and a central transportation artery. It is around these facilities that we can design a modern downtown. At each of our Metro stations, I imagine density: studio and one-bedroom apartments at a range of price points; retail, dining, and entertainment for adjacent residents and all Rockville citizens alike; the stores and transit links necessary to make living car-free – not just possible – but easy. Apartment offerings would largely attract millennials and empty-nesters looking to downsize, minimizing any impact on our school sizes. With a critical mass of density and enough retail options to live self-sufficiently, this plan would allow residents to truly live car-free, eliminating any effect on traffic. By building in concentrated areas away from our neighborhoods, we mitigate the impact of development on our existing communities. At the same time, we make Rockville an attractive destination on par with U Street, Ballston, or Bethesda, helping our currently-struggling businesses succeed.

Rockville Pike would become a so-called “urban boulevard,” walkable and green with gold-standard bus-rapid-transit supplanting cars and reducing traffic. I imagine enjoying a night out with my friends or family, walking along the Pike (without fear of being hit by a car) and hopping from shopping center to shopping center, bypassing traffic on public transit.

This is a Rockville in which all residents flourish: businesses thrive, families have a destination close to home, I have everything a twenty-something could dream of, and our tax base grows.

In conclusion.

To summarize: as I look toward my 20's and 30's, I struggle to see a place for my lifestyle and budget in today's Rockville, which – as a lifelong resident – troubles me. We can, however, make that space while still preserving the city's suburban character. My vision is a Rockville that I can call home for every phase of my life, with existing communities untouched and density concentrated in already-commercial parts of the city. That is my vision: neighborhoods and a downtown core, a Rockville for everyone.

Filed under Around Town, Green transportation

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