Gaithersbungle, part 8: They know it's a turkey
This week, the Montgomery County Council will hold two hearings on the Gaithersburg West Science "City" development plans. The Council will decide whether to accept huge sprawl office parks with a slow bus under the guise of "walkable transit-oriented development." Officials from the Planning Board to the County Executive can see the giant flaws, but so far, few have had the courage to speak up and call this out for the bad plan it is.
County Executive Ike Leggett weighed in last week, recommending reducing the size of the project by 10% and removing two of the five grade-separated interchanges that make the project much more auto-oriented than transit-oriented. Those interchanges would encourage drivers to speed around the area and create huge dead zones to permanently impede the potential for creating a true walkable district.
At the same time, Leggett recommended adding large loopholes to the already-weak "staging" plan for the project. That staging requires the Corridor Cities Transitway (such as it is) and the interchanges to go in before some of the development. Leggett recommends exceptions "for projects of strategic economic significance," which probably means that anything backed by enough lobbying muscle from Johns Hopkins. Gaithersburg leaders say that the staging is absolutely essential.
But even with staging and only three interchanges instead of five, this plan is a turkey. The Planning Board clearly feels incredible pressure to accommodate Johns Hopkins' desire to make money off their land west of Gaithersburg. Therefore, despite the fact that Montgomery County has many better spots for development nearer Metro, near better existing road infrastructure, and near more of the residents who need the jobs, they shoehorned a very sprawling plan into a pretend-walkable, pretend-transit-oriented design.
Just look at the Planning Board's comments when they voted for the plan. New Urbanist Joseph Alfandre voted against the plan. He wrote, saying, "Going through the work sessions, I realized that "Science City" really is being set up as a "Science Blob." At the very best, we're going to end up in this plan with a series of sprawl areas of employment. There is no Science City in this plan, ladies and gentlemen; there is no epicenter."
In a subsequent letter, Alfandre detailed his concerns that the plan was more "a series of Science Villages ... rather than a Science City." Instead, he suggested, the plan should focus development around the DANAC and NASD parcels in the northern part of the area (closer to Metro, MD-355 and the original CCT alignment). Then, "as demand for Life Science businesses increases, ... adjacent villages must be allowed to expeditiously be brought 'on line' to seamlessly meet it. The PTSA site and the JHU Belward site [on the western side of the area] are speculative developments. Under the plan sent to the County Council, they will dilute the 'Science City' by cannibalizing tenants, services, and funding. CCT loops and stations can be added to these village centers as Life Science business demand dictates.Other members of the Planning Board also spoke about their deep reservations regarding the plan. Jean Cryor, who doesn't understand the concept of elastic demand, has deep doubts, as did John Robinson and others. They voted for the plan, but only after expressing so many concerns that it prompted Chairman Royce Hanson to defend the plan. It "lacks elements of perfection," he admitted, but "I think this is a good effort to meet, realistically, many of the future needs of the area ... so I'm not at all reluctant to vote for this plan." Nevertheless, "We may not be going as far as we would like toward the next generation ... but I think this plan puts us far along that way."
Unfortunately, it really doesn't put us far along the way toward the next generation. If this area is going to be a Science City in the next generation, it shouldn't have the huge superblocks and "neverland" FARs more familiar to places like Tysons, which are working so hard to surmount their design flaws. At best, this development will be just another pile of office-park sprawl like so many others in Montgomery County, which will be very hard to transform into anything better a generation or two or three from now. But the danger goes much deeper. By adding so many square feet of office potential so quickly, this project will suck development away from the rest of the County, in places like Shady Grove, White Flint, White Oak, and Silver Spring which actually need it. In other words, it's borrowing from the future to recreate the bad designs of the past.
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