Instead of building more typical suburban developments, in the past two decades builders increasingly have been bringing city life to the suburbs and exurbs. Street grids are plotted around central plazas surrounded by condos, apartments and shopping. Public transportation is arranged, parking garages are hidden from view, and all the things that people love about D.C. and cities like it are layered on: public art, sidewalk performers, outdoor movies, street festivals, block parties and food carts.
The spread of “town center” projects, particularly in the Washington suburbs, is making it harder to distinguish what makes a city a city. The urban neighborhood has become an exportable commodity.
By the end of 2011, there were 398 such city replicas — town center or “lifestyle center” projects — in the United States, most of them built in suburbs, in exurbs or on farmland alongside a highway. Since the 1960s, developers had promoted suburban shopping centers as safe, clean escapes from crowded cities. But with urban living back in vogue since the late 1990s, developers are trying to create it outside city limits.
The titan of town center developments locally, and in many ways nationwide, is Reston Town Center, a walkable neighborhood that is one of the densest parts of Fairfax County and has become a smashing commercial success.
Robert C. Kettler had Reston Town Center in mind when he and a partner plotted the Village at Leesburg on 57 acres of shrub land along Route 7 in 2006. An expert in condo and apartment development, Kettler wanted to build an urban environment in the middle of the suburbs. He hired consultants to design a “village square” and streetscape with block lengths, sidewalk widths, planter heights and storefront windows modeled closely after those in cities.
Kettler and others are aiming to replicate the culture and convenience of cities, minus their traffic and crime. But can a city be a city if it’s built in the middle of a cornfield?
Critics of town centers consider them soulless corporate replicas — no more real cities than Disney World’s fairy-tale fiberglass-and-concrete showpiece is a real castle.
The Village at Leesburg may not feel like Williamsburg in Brooklyn or U Street in D.C., but it demonstrates how smartly county governments and developers are mimicking what feels so unique about the urban experience. They are importing the very streetlights and cobblestones used in city construction, as well as the boutique shops and restaurants that many city-dwellers adore.