The suburbs of Washington, D.C. were an excellent petri dish for the graduation of suburban centers into real places. The granddaddy of this process may be Bethesda, followed by Silver Spring. More recently, Tysons Corner, the essence of a non-place, has not only been re-imagined but is in the middle of a reincarnation as a mixed-use center. Then there is Pentagon City, Ballston, and Clarendon (all transit oriented development centers in Arlington County) and, of course, Reston, the new town which is not so much a reinvented suburb, as an urban center conceived from whole cloth. More conversions are in the making, most notably Rockville Pike, which as a suburb had become also a poster child of suburban misery.
Lately, the Baltimore area is picking up the pace, particularly Towson, the seat of the Baltimore county government where the court house is located, and which has always been the county’s most notable place. Baltimore County’s “new town” centers, Owings Mills and White Marsh never could and still cannot hold a candle to successful places. They were designated as centers in the seventies as part of Baltimore County’s “smart growth” strategies of keeping growth inside the urban rural demarcation line (URDL), but remained far from becoming real urban spaces. They were far too influenced by suburban car-oriented principles (even though Owings Mills has a metro rail connection and recently was designated as a TOD). Towson, which was long derided as a sleepy burg or loved as a historic community with a small town feel, depending on one’s perspective, is quickly becoming the most urban place outside Baltimore City. This non-incorporated town of about 55,000 residents is rapidly transforming into something new thanks to a slew of large-scale developments which are proposed, under review or already constructed. Naturally the transformation is causing both anxieties and aspirations. When the County Executive touts his town as “the next Bethesda,” residents counter that they deserve better than that.