Gaithersbungle, part 5: What you callin' a city?
The Gaithersburg West plan for biotech development west of I-270 between Gaithersburg and Rockville is often called "Science City." However, as conceived, this is no city.
Good cities create "spiky" land use patterns, concentrating development into small areas most easily served by transit. The Gaithersburg plan, on the other hand, spreads out the development among many areas based on political pressure to give every large landowner their piece of the development pie. Those pressures are what create auto-dependent sprawl in general, and what made the area the collection of office parks it is today. Montgomery County should avoid compounding this mistake by spreading out the growth in the area across many parcels.
Good cities also allow high Floor-Area Ratios at their densest points. Despite claiming to focus density around Corridor Cities Transitway stops, the plan limits overall FAR to 1.5 in one central area and 1.0 in the rest. Christopher Leinberger says that walkable urbanism is infeasible below FAR of 1.0, and really works best at 1.5 and above.
The Planning Department is at least trying to get the area out of the "neverland" FAR zone and into the potential walkable urbanism zone, but creating new places at the very low end of this range, surrounded by auto-oriented suburban development, is a recipe for failure. By comparison, Bethesda's FAR is 4.0, Rockville Town Center's 2.5, Twinbrook's 1.9, and Clarendon's 2.0. Twinbrook does not feel like a city. If Gaithersburg West is half as dense, it really won't.
A dense core area on a quarter or a third of the land, with open space around, could average out to an FAR of 1.0 across the entire parcel. But this, too, is a bad land use pattern. A series of small, walkable pockets surrounded by empty space diminishes each pocket. Clarendon works well at FAR 2.0 because it's within walking distance of several other similarly-dense areas. Plus, of course, it has Metrorail. This won't.
There are better places to put new development. There are large, underutilized parcels and parking lots at the Shady Grove Metro station. A coalition including the Montgomery Sierra Club and nearby neighbors suggested pushing more of the development to Shady Grove, and concentrating the new development in the Gaithersburg West area onto the eastern side, nearest Shady Grove.
To accommodate the wishes of individual landowners, they suggested a TDR system allowing property owners on the western side, like JHU, to sell development rights to other owners inside the area or in other nearby spots nearer to transit and existing walkable development. Many of those property owners are eager to add denser development on their parcels, but the plan rejects that in favor of developing the central sections of Gaithersburg West and Hopkins' Belward Farm. A more compact Science City would still be no city, but it would at least be a little bit closer to one. The Planning Board, however, is uninterested in such options.
There's also a broader issue at work. Whatever the size of this "city," is it really the right policy to build a "city" at the same distance from DC as Dulles Airport? Montgomery County has better places to put 56,000 new jobs than in the former farms outside of Gaithersburg or at the end of the longest Metro line in the system. In an upcoming part, we'll look at that.
- Part 1: Planning Board staff latest to ignore better way for Gaithersburg
- Part 2: Old, tired formulas generate old, disastrous solutions
- Part 3: What else can you get for $3.8 billion?
- Part 4: Why emulate Tysons' existing road network?
- Metro bag searches aren't always optional
- Young kids try to assault me while biking
- Focus transportation on downtown or neighborhoods?
- Endless zoning update delay hurts homeowners
- Redeveloping McMillan is the only way to save it
- DDOT agrees to repave 15th Street cycle track
- Vienna Metro town center won't have a town center