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Science Gateway plan brings urban approach to White Oak

50 years ago, White Oak was a prosperous suburb that inspired The Wonder Years, but today the community north of downtown Silver Spring struggles with disinvestment. Montgomery County planners say an urban approach to redevelopment can bring new life to the area.

Photo by the author.

While White Oak has several historically affluent neighborhoods, today it has no majority racial or ethnic group, and renters make up over a third of the population. There are abandoned office buildings and a reputation for crime, whether real or perceived. Residents have to go long distances to Bethesda, the I-270 corridor or DC for work, shopping, and more.

Planners found that residents are frustrated with the status quo. "There is great interest in seeing 'things happen'," they write in a draft of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, a proposal to transform White Oak's strip malls and office parks into a "vibrant, mixed-use, transit-served" research and technology center.

Plan calls for three urban nodes, new parkland

Planners envision creating three new "activity centers" clustered around the Food and Drug Administration, whose 9,000 employees began moving here in 2009, and Washington Adventist Hospital, which wants to move here from Takoma Park.

Concept drawing of the White Oak Science Gateway from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The largest would be LifeSci Village, a partnership between local developer Percontee and Montgomery County to build a planned community for bioscience research and technology behind the FDA campus. Today, it's a 300-acre brownfield site containing a shuttered sludge treatment plant and a concrete recycling facility.

"We have to create a compelling reason for people to come here," says Jonathan Genn, executive vice president at Percontee. Bioscience workers "tend not to [have] your normal 9-to-5 week," he adds. "They're working nights and weekends. They want that vitality."

An "academic quad" at LifeSci Village. Image from Percontee.

Designed by New Urbanist architecture firm Torti Gallas and Partners, the $3.2 billion project would contain a research campus with several "world-renowned" academic institutions, along with offices and labs, a hotel and conference center. There would be a commercial district with shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, and up to 5,300 new homes, including apartments, townhomes and some single-family homes.

Another "activity center" would be at 40-acre White Oak Shopping Center at New Hampshire and Route 29 would give way to apartments, offices and shops in buildings up to 200 feet tall surrounding an "urban plaza" and a "neighborhood green" for community gatherings. The plan encourages redeveloping the 1960's-era garden apartments behind the shopping center, but only if the new buildings set aside at least 15% of their units for affordable housing.

The third would be in Hillandale, where both Georgetown University and Montgomery College have expressed interest in buying the former National Labor College campus at New Hampshire Avenue and the Beltway.

Meanwhile, residents would get a larger open space network, including neighborhood parks, a recreational park and a proposed, 130-acre expansion of Paint Branch Park into the FDA property, the vast majority of which is unused.

Planners seek new approach to congestion

The Science Gateway plan is a 180-degree turn from previous plans for White Oak and East County, which sought to keep the status quo. Planners say that old solutions won't fix White Oak's real issues, and that improving transit and bringing amenities closer to where people live is the best way to handle traffic.

The commercial district at LifeSci Village. Image from Percontee.

"Creating a really vibrant, mixed-use community ... is a mitigating factor," says Genn. "People can walk to work, bike to work, people can do other activities after work. All of those things mitigate traffic impact at rush hour."

In total, the Science Gateway plan allows up to 8,500 new homes and 13 million square feet of new commercial space containing up to 43,000 new jobs. That's more than double the amount of homes and commercial space here today, and nearly triple the amount of jobs.

Planners hope that new transit and improved local street connections will help reduce the Science Gateway's traffic impacts. Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit network would connect the three centers to each other and to the rest of the region with lines along Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue, and Randolph Road.

BRT lines currently under study (in blue) and an extension to LifeSci Village (in green). Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The plan also calls for connecting dead-end streets where possible and building a new street grid at the White Oak Shopping Center and LifeSci Village. Planners recommend rebuilding a bridge that carries Old Columbia Pike over the Paint Branch, which was closed to cars 30 years ago, and creating a network of "green streets" with bike lanes.

By giving residents, workers and visitors alternatives to driving, the plan's goal is that 30% of all trips will be made without a car by 2040. That may seem unrealistic, but 25% of White Oak residents already commute to work by foot, bike or transit today. The Metrobus K and Z lines, which serve White Oak, are some of the most-used routes in suburban Maryland.

Strict staging requirements would ensure that new development wasn't occurring without the public infrastructure needed to support it. Under the plan, most of the development wouldn't occur until after the Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 29 and New Hampshire were funded and built. The Planning Department would have to submit reports every 2 years showing that infrastructure has caught up to development.

Science Gateway could improve jobs-housing imbalance

While the Science Gateway could help fix the region's jobs-housing imbalance by putting more jobs on the east side, closer to where the most affordable housing is, reducing the need to commute to the I-270 corridor or Northern Virginia for work.

There are no fewer than 5 plans each calling for a similar amount of development as in the White Oak plan along I-270, like the the Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, which both residents and smart growth advocates criticized for putting too much development in an isolated area.

Many of them suggested that White Oak was a better location for it, and East County residents agree. In 2009, the East County Citizens Advisory Board demanded more jobs and investment in the area, while visitors to a 2010 open house advocated for more density and transit.

Improving pedestrian, bike and transit connections could help traffic in White Oak. Photo by the author.

Nonetheless, most of the Science Gateway isn't allowed under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which discourages new development in congested areas based on the assumption that everyone will drive everywhere no matter what.

But "even if Montgomery County limited development," planners note, "regional and local traffic will continue to congest the highway network." To make White Oak eligible for new development, planners simply recommend not including regional highways like Route 29 and the Beltway in traffic counts, which would lower the area's traffic counts, making it eligible for new housing and job growth.

Not everyone's convinced, however. "This just means we're going to suffer from more traffic," said Alison Praisner Klumpp, Calverton resident and current member of the East County Citizens Advisory Board, said at a presentation on the plan earlier this month. Carole Ann Barth, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation and a resident of Four Corners, called the plan "shallow, simplistic and ultimately impractical" while claiming it would force people to live in apartments against their will.

Plan needs transit, some industry to succeed

As someone who currently lives and bikes in White Oak, I'm excited by the Science Gateway plan. Having more jobs, shopping and housing choices in East County will encourage hopefully make this area a destination of choice once again.

However, this plan can't happen without good transit, especially a direct connection to LifeSci Village. While the staging requirements require BRT to be funded and built before major development occurs, the county's current plans call for buses without dedicated lanes on much of New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29. Without fast, reliable transit, people will continue to drive, placing an undue burden on area roads.

Should we keep some light industrial activity in White Oak? Photo by the author.

In addition, planners may want to reconsider preserving some of the light industrial uses in the plan area, like at the Montgomery Industrial Park on Industrial Parkway. Just 1% of Montgomery County is zoned for industrial activity, and there aren't many other places where it can go. There may not be enough of a market to rezone all of it for mixed-use development, as the plan recommends.

Studies show that a majority of Americans across racial and generational lines want to be close to transit, jobs, shopping, dining and entertainment, and communities across Montgomery County and the region are responding. If White Oak wants to reclaim its former prosperity, it can and should follow suit.

The Montgomery County Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan this Thursday at 6:30pm at the Planning Department, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To sign up to testify or send written comments, visit their website.

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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I can understand some of the reservations toward increasing population in that area. Route 29 and NH Ave are both very congested, and they are literally the only ways out of the 29/NH intersection area for over a mile.

The area needs to be improved, but it is underserved by transit and road connections if you want to put more people and jobs in the vicinity.

by Nick on May 21, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

Having grown up in Colesville (just north of White Oak) and visiting the area often, I don't find NH/29 traffic as a problem. NH bogs down some in Hillandale and Langley Park but is okay once you get to White Oak. 29 is fine north of Trader Joes. Of course, having lived in VA for many years may have dulled my perception of traffic but it certainly seems like White Oak's infrastructure can handle a lot more population and activity if you add some more multi-modal transportation.

If you want to justify improvements, you'll need to add density.

by Falls Church on May 21, 2013 1:59 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church

Right, I suppose traffic isn't that bad by VA/MD standards. However, 29 has become a major commuter route as people use it to avoid 95 and is terribly busy during the AM and PM. 29 South backs up from 4 corners to NH in the AM pretty frequently. NH ave isn't as bad, but it is a very congested and pretty dangerous speedway. Also, the beltway, which is the main connector to White Oak, is extremely clogged in the AM from GA ave - 95.

My point is mostly just that these two roads represent the only ways in and out of the area, and they connect to a very congested beltway. Moving people to this entirely car/bus dependent area doesn't seem like the best idea, especially with the purple line (maybe?) coming to places like Silver Spring, Langley Park, New Carrollton, etc.

by Nick on May 21, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport

Not that I think this plan will create the eutopia everyone desires, I can counter @Nick a little. If the plan actually does create 43,000 new jobs but only 5,300 new houses (so, what, 10,000 workers on the high end?) and in the process attract a better retail mix, a lot of the reasons for all the traffic in White Oak may disappear. People pack the roads because they have to get to work. This plan brings work to them, or at least, to future residents. It may take a while, but over time, as homes sell, a number of them would likely be picked up by people who've found a new job for them in White Oak. There are plenty of existing standard suburban neighborhoods in the area that would be attractive to families with kids, and the new townhomes and apartments would be attractive to the pre-kid singles or couples looking for somewhere to live near work.

by Gull on May 21, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

@ Dan - "While White Oak has several historically affluent neighborhoods, today it has no majority racial or ethnic group..."

Maybe I'm reading this wrong, but is this implying that diversity is not beneficial? Seems like a positive thing, no?

by Chris S. on May 21, 2013 4:00 pm • linkreport


I was simply pointing out that the area has changed. It was historically white and affluent, today it's less affluent and mixed.

by dan reed! on May 21, 2013 4:23 pm • linkreport


I don't see how adding office jobs, restaurants, shops, and entertainment to White Oak would contribute to the rush hour traffic you're referring to. All of that traffic is going from the suburbs to DC or sometimes to points west. The traffic resulting from this development would be in the counter-direction or during off-peak times, and there's available capacity at those times (unlike VA where there is substantial reverse commuting and off-peak congestion).

I'd agree that unlike office jobs and retail, the 5300 new homes could add some to rush hour traffic. However, these new developments would be walkable and transit-oriented, so their impact should be limited.

by Falls Church on May 21, 2013 7:12 pm • linkreport

Could the FDA's vast grounds be open to the public? I doubt the underworld is looking for an opportunity to attack a duck pond.

by Steve on May 22, 2013 6:58 am • linkreport

well, how does the White Oak science gateway plan feel about a mega church on the old Labor College

I'm not sure it's what anyone had envisioned for the space, but the details are still months away.

by Gull on May 22, 2013 8:40 am • linkreport

My office is on 29 in Silver Spring by the ICC interchange. I will certainly say that the traffic is minimal. Everyone has their own perception of what traffic is for them. Traffic for some means not being the first three cars at a light. For others traffic is having to wait 2 or 3 light cycles before crossing the intersection. Being experts in congestion in the DC area, NH and 29 I would rank NH and 29 around a 5 or 6 with 1 being the most heavily congested.

by adelphi_sky on May 22, 2013 10:05 am • linkreport


I find that interesting since there were so many interested parties a few months ago. Perhaps this is yet another bidder or interested party being listed?

by adelphi_sky on May 22, 2013 10:08 am • linkreport


I can't say I'm excited about Reid Temple buying the National Labor College - it's a large, prominent site, and I'd rather it go to a commercial or academic use that could bring more jobs to the area. And given how much neighbors fought a proposed affordable housing development next to the new White Oak police station, I doubt affordable housing will go over well here, either.

This just seems like a recipe for lots of fighting and bitterness while the site sits empty and nobody gets anything.

by dan reed! on May 22, 2013 10:37 am • linkreport

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