White Flint master plan: it's all about incentives
Montgomery County is continuing its planning process to retrofit the area surrounding the White Flint Metro into a vibrant livable, walkable community. The current owners of the land surrounding the Metro station are on board with the plan. They are also contributing their input.
For the property owners, a suburban-to-urban retrofit is an excellent project. They would no longer have to pay taxes on land in their strip malls that is dedicated to large non-revenue generating surface parking lots, and will be able to collect more rent in the denser walkable urban environment. As we saw with the District of Columbia government's failure at Poplar Point, providing the right incentives for developers and landowners is an incredibly important part of planning a great human-scale place.
Currently, the area surrounding the White Flint Metro station has a very car-dependent form. Traffic there is, to be blunt, a pain in the rear at most hours of the day. Last October, I wrote:
Rockville Pike between the NIH and downtown Rockville is an ugly mess of an edge city. Like Tysons, it has too much density to be truly car friendly, but all the ugliness of suburbia: strip malls set back behind acres of surface parking. This is all connected by a six lane road with speed limits that are too high to be safe for pedestrians. The irony is that unlike Tysons, Rockville Pike already has a Metro line—the busiest line in the Metro system, the Red Line.The landowners are asking for more density (higher FAR's) in the updated Sector Plan. As with any profit-seeking business, they are seeking to increase long-term profitability. In this case, the developers would like to be able to collect more rent on more floor space in a taller building. They are also worried that without the density, they will not be able to recoup the large costs associated with canceling their current leases, demolishing their existing strip malls, and building new buildings.
The landowners are also seeking to amend how the density is allocated throughout the new suburban-to-urban retrofitted town. In both Bethesda and the Rosslyn to Ballston corridor, the tallest buildings are closest to the Metro station. The farther away from the Metro, the shorter the buildings until the walkable town blends into car-dependent suburbia. The original draft of the White Flint Sector Plan calls for a similar arrangement. However the landowners have a modified proposal:
Unlike the staff plan, which is a pattern of concentric circles with the highest density around the Metro station like a bull's-eye, the ellipse plan squishes the higher densities inward, elongating the zone along Rockville Pike. It also follows property lines, so owners are not faced with bisected lots of different densities. ...It would be expensive (and a bit awkward) for a developer to have to build a building that does not take up their entire property so they can fit it within the density boundaries. Planners should ensure that it is as financially rewarding as possible to build human-scale walkable urban places. Current landowners have already proposed a human-scale street grid for the area. They would cede the land under the new streets to the public.
Don Briggs, senior vice president of Federal Realty, said the Collaborative's intent was not to increase density for every property owner within it, but to create density allocations that reflected the real walkability to be achieved when Rockville Pike is reborn as a boulevard. The staff plan assumes walkability in as-the-crow-flies increments from the Metro, while the Collaborative plan uses walking time and other factors that will accompany the new street network and transit options to craft its recommendations.
He said the ellipse plan more equitably reflects property values, which are higher along the commercial stretch of Rockville Pike.
While the Fenty Administration dropped the ball at Poplar Point, Montgomery County's planning for the White Flint Metro provides an excellent opportunity to learn more tools to create walkable urban transit-oriented places. In the United States, we have a tradition of having the private sector build buildings and collect rent. The government's role is to provide planning and infrastructure. In this arrangement, it is up to the government to set up the rules of the game in such a way that the private sector makes more profits for building walkable urban places with a human-scale street grid and transit access and nothing for building more gas-guzzling car-dependent sprawl.
The land around the White Flint Metro station is incredibly valuable. Its value is only enhanced by its location in the Favored Quarter. If the Washington Post is correct, our region will need new dense human-scale walkable urban infill because migration to the exurbs is over. Yet, economic troubles and all, our region is one of the few in the United States that is still projected to gain jobs in the coming decades. The free falling housing values in the exurbs imply that it will not be worth it for developers to build out there. That is in addition to the extreme negative economic and environmental consequences of the car-dependent suburban/exurban living arrangement. This new White Flint Sector Plan will be one piece of the puzzle of planning for the rest of the 21st century.
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