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East Montgomery's science hub far from becoming reality

Last week, Montgomery County selected local developer Percontee to turn Site 2, a former sludge treatment plant in White Oak, into LifeSci Village.

Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

The $3 billion mini-city is designed to compliment the Food and Drug Administration's new campus and a new Washington Adventist Hospital. Despite a series of sexy new project renderings released by Percontee, East County's answer to Cambridge isn't a guarantee yet.

LifeSci Village, which we wrote about in 2009, would occupy 290 acres on Cherry Hill Road east of Route 29. In addition to the sludge plant, which closed in 1999, the site would include a concrete recycling plant owned by Percontee.

Jonathan Genn, vice president of Percontee, has previously said that the project would include roughly two million square feet of offices and research labs, two million additional square feet of shops, hotels and possibly a conference center, and between three and four thousand apartments and townhomes.

LifeSci Village Site Plan
2009 site plan of LifeSci Village.

Genn has been talking to the county about LifeSci Village and Site 2 since 2004, so it's not surprising that they picked Percontee over two out-of-area developers less familiar with the project. But in 2009, he told me that a groundbreaking was "not anytime soon." The Washington Post, meanwhile, says that construction could start within the next two years.

What's changed? Last year, the Montgomery County Planning Department started work on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, which will reinforce LifeSci Village's goal of creating a research hub around the FDA. In addition, the county is studying a Bus Rapid Transit network which could have several lines serving the development.

MoCo BRT Plan, White Oak
BRT lines under study in and around White Oak.

Though LifeSci Village has the blessing of both the county and local residents, the White Oak Science Gateway concept has its critics. A study from economic consultants hired by the planning department says that it won't work unless it can get a major research institution, though Genn says he's talked to "very prominent" DC-area universities about locating there.

Even then, the consultants say, biotech companies might just continue going to the county's other research and development district, the Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, which Percontee helped develop in the 1980's and where Johns Hopkins University plans their own, similarly-minded "Science City" project.

As exciting as the LifeSci Village proposal is, there remain a lot of questions. Who will provide $3 billion in financing for a research campus without a research institution? Is it practical to build 4 million square feet of commercial space and 4,000 homes in an area with no fixed-rail transit? And will Montgomery County be able to lure biotech companies away from the vaunted "Technology Corridor" along I-270?

East County needs a project like this. But it's not yet clear if LifeSci Village will ever go from being a pretty picture to a reality.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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As someone who's lived in Silver Spring and Briggs Chaney areas...this isn't going to work with BRT. This needs light rail at the very least, heavy rail would be preferable.

by Redline SOS on Dec 13, 2011 10:08 am • linkreport

I, too, am concerned about the lack of fixed-rail transit. This seems like such a logical plan for one of the bazillion underutilized PG metro stations. If only PG spent its time creating ideas like this instead of crap like National Harbor...oh well.

by jag on Dec 13, 2011 10:21 am • linkreport

exactly why would a "life science" firm want to be close to the FDA?

Back in the day, that worked for lawyers and filings -- easier to messenger it over at 4:50 PM to make a deadline. But I dont' think the FDA quite works like that, and email has replaced that business.

by charlie on Dec 13, 2011 11:15 am • linkreport

Thanks for covering this issue. We've got to shift jobs to the east side of MoCo and to PGC.

by ccort on Dec 13, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

@charlie: probably to be close enough to poach talent.

by Payton on Dec 13, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

The ICC is projected to create over 10,000 jobs directly and support 150,000 others indirectly. Science City II is a perfect example of the synergies building in Montgomery County's Biotech Triangle. The two science clusters interconnected by the ICC will position Montgomery County as a science powerhouse and creation of a sustainable economy not based on defense and intelligence contractors with the coming drastic federal budget cuts that will hit the area, particularly NoVa, very hard.

by Cyrus on Dec 13, 2011 7:51 pm • linkreport

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