Posts about White Oak
The DC area has long faced an east-west divide, with more of the wealth going to the west side. Increasingly, investment is also heading to urban areas over suburban ones. For struggling suburban areas on the east side, the only answer is to take on more urban features.
One of those places is White Oak in eastern Montgomery County, where the County Council will vote tomorrow on a plan to create a new town center. Local residents are eager to have more jobs and amenities close to home, but civic and environmental groups want to limit the amount of density in White Oak because it's several miles from a Metro station and roads are already congested.
But the kind of compact, dense development proposed for White Oak could allow residents to access jobs, shops, or other amenities by walking, biking, or simply driving a shorter distance than they would otherwise. It would generate less traffic than the alternative: more of the sprawling, car-oriented development that's currently allowed in White Oak, plus additional sprawl farther out.
Residents say it's East County's turn
East County has experienced little of the prosperity that more affluent parts of Montgomery County take for granted. One reason is the county's traffic tests, which prohibit development when roads reach a certain level of congestion until more roads are built. This standard led to a 20-year development moratorium in East County that ended in 2004.
Development simply moved to the western, more affluent side of Montgomery County or farther out to Howard County while East County roads remained congested. Today, White Oak consists largely of aging strip malls, office parks, and industrial brownfields surrounding the Food and Drug Administration's new headquarters near New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29, which will eventually hold 9,000 workers.
The White Oak Science Gateway plan, which councilmembers will vote on tomorrow, would allow them to transform into urban, mixed-use neighborhoods with up to 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs. Much of this development would occur at LifeSci Village, a concrete recycling plant that the county and developer Percontee want to turn into a research and technology center.
Local residents say it's their turn, speaking out in favor of the plan at two public hearings. At a public forum last fall, community members called the White Oak plan their highest priority for economic development.
Traffic tests won't solve traffic
But the Science Gateway plan would still fail the traffic tests. County Executive Ike Leggett and some councilmembers have recommended excluding Route 29 from traffic counts, arguing that it's a regional highway that would be congested no matter what.
As a result, some civic associations and environmental groups around the county have criticized the plan, arguing that urban development shouldn't be allowed away from a Metro station. They say Montgomery County should follow its own rules and stick to the traffic tests.
But the traffic tests can't really fix congestion if their required solution is always to build more roads, which is proven to cause more traffic. And East County residents know that they haven't solved congestion, since they have to travel longer distances for work, shopping, or other things they can't find closer to home.
That's not to say that White Oak doesn't need better transportation. Councilmember George Leventhal has asked Leggett to put together a financing plan for Bus Rapid Transit within two years, so the county can figure out how to fund and build it as development moves forward.
East County's future depends on having a town center
More development doesn't have to mean more driving. Montgomery County added 100,000 residents over the past decade, but the rate of driving actually stayed the same. That's because as the county grows around Metro stations, more people can get around without a car. But even in town centers away from Metro, like what's proposed at White Oak, people would have more transportation options than they do otherwise, whether that means walking, biking, taking the bus, or even driving a shorter distance.
It's possible to create urban places away from Metro stations, like Shirlington in Arlington County.
We know that people increasingly want to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. We've seen businesses gravitate to more urban locations in the region, like Choice Hotels, which moved from an office park near White Oak to Rockville Town Center.
For decades, there's been a growing divide between the east and west sides of Montgomery County. East County increasingly lags the rest of the county when it comes to new town centers like White Flint, Crown in Gaithersburg, and even Germantown. If we're going to close the east-west gap in Montgomery County, White Oak can't stay a land of office parks forever.
All of the candidates running for Montgomery County's District 5 council seat say they want to bring jobs, shopping, and transit to an area that's long awaited them. But they seem to disagree on whether that investment should go where it's most needed, or where there's the least resistance.
Councilmember Valerie Ervin's resignation last fall left an open seat in Montgomery County's District 5, newly redrawn in 2010 to cover a narrow strip from Silver Spring to Burtonsville. Several candidates jumped in to succeed her.
Joining former journalist Evan Glass, who'd already announced before Ervin resigned, are state delegate Tom Hucker, Board of Education member Chris Barclay, community organizer Terrill North, and preacher Jeffrey Thames.
The majority-minority district struggles with poverty and disinvestment, and has some of the county's highest rates of transit use and lowest rates of car ownership. In ACT's questionnaire and in public forums, candidates said those issues are why the area needs
more transit and economic development.
Candidates want to build near transit, but some aren't sure about actual plans
Most candidates say they support building near transit, notably in downtown Silver Spring, home to the one of the region's largest transit hubs. Glass, who lived in downtown Silver Spring until 2012 and helped start the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, supports more development there as a way to preserve other areas and provide more affordable housing.
He's also called for reforms that could help local businesses and draw younger residents. Last month, he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post with restaurant owner Jackie Greenbaum about the need to reform the county's liquor laws.
Other candidates have been reluctant to embrace specific projects that have faced resistance. At a Conservation Montgomery forum last month, Tom Hucker said the council should have never approved the Chelsea Heights development 5 blocks from the Metro station because it required cutting down old-growth trees.
Meanwhile, candidates have endorsed bringing more investment to Burtonsville's dying village center, 10 miles north. Residents generally support that idea, and State Delegate Eric Luedtke, who lives in Burtonsville, has called on District 5 candidates to start talking about it more.
Candidates have also touted the county's White Oak Science Gateway plan, which envisions a new research and technology hub surrounding the Food and Drug Administration headquarters alongside a town center containing shops and restaurants. The White Oak plan has considerable community support, but is tied up due to concerns about car traffic.
"If we don't build it in White Oak," said Hucker at a candidates forum in Briggs Chaney last week, "those jobs are going to go to Konterra [in Prince George's County], they're going to go to Howard County, they're going to go to DC."
Backtracking on transit
At the core of the White Oak plan are three planned Bus Rapid Transit corridors, on Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and Route 29, which the county will start studying in detail soon. All of the candidates say they support BRT, and Glass has been vocal about giving buses their own lanes, even if it means repurposing general traffic lanes. "Efficient and timely travel can only be achieved through dedicated lanes," he wrote in his questionnaire.
But others have offered reservations, especially in Four Corners, where a small group of neighbors have fought it for years. Hucker says he supports BRT "in certain places where it makes sense," and wants to focus in fixing Ride On first. "I don't support building BRT on the backs of our current Ride On or Metrobus," he said at a recent forum in Four Corners.
Terrill North wants BRT on New Hampshire Avenue and on Route 29 north of White Oak, but not on Route 29 in Four Corners, which would be the most direct route to Silver Spring. "I don't think we need to take away curbs or take away business from this community, take away business from this community, take away lanes, because I think that could make things worse," he said at the same forum.
Likewise, all five candidates have endorsed the Purple Line, which could break ground next year. Hucker has long supported the light-rail line between Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and represents the General Assembly on Purple Line Now!'s board.
Meanwhile, North and Chris Barclay have expressed reluctance about developing around future Purple Line stations, like in Long Branch, citing concerns about higher density and the potential impacts to affordable housing and small businesses.
Strong support for complete streets
With a state highway as its spine, District 5 can be a dangerous place for a pedestrian, with lots of busy road crossings and fast-moving traffic. All candidates have said they support making our streets safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders.
At the Four Corners forum and other events, Jeffrey Thames said he'd like to see more Barnes Dance intersections, like the one at 7th and H streets NW in the District, where pedestrians can cross in all directions. When asked if they'd support pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly streets even if it slowed drivers down, Glass, Hucker, and North all said yes.
After years of watching the rest of Montgomery County draw jobs and investment, it seems like it might finally be East County's turn. Whoever represents the area next will get the chance to determine whether the area can give its residents, especially those of limited means, the investment they want, or if it continues to be a pass-through on the way to other destinations.
Full disclosure: Dan Reed is a member of One Montgomery, an organization that has endorsed Evan Glass, and has contributed to Glass's campaign.
In the coming years, eastern Montgomery County could see some big changes, from faster, more reliable bus service to a new research and technology hub. Last night, candidates for County Council talked about these issues with some very skeptical Four Corners residents.
The Four Corners area, part of Council District 5, is slated for Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 29 and University Boulevard. The White Oak Science Gateway plan would add research and technology office space along with with homes and shopping.
I live-tweeted the forum, along with Joe Fox and Jessie Slater. Here's a Storify. Update: If you don't see the content in the box below from the home page or another list of articles, try going to the individual post page.
One thing was clear at last night's public hearing on plans to create a transit-oriented town center and biotech hub in White Oak: almost everyone wants more jobs and amenities in White Oak, even those who aren't comfortable with new development in their backyards.
This month, the Montgomery County Council took up the White Oak Science Gateway plan, which seeks to draw companies who want to be near the Food and Drug Administration's campus near Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue. It proposes over 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs in several urban neighborhoods, which would sit on three of the county's proposed Bus Rapid Transit lines.
Support for the plan was high, with 20 of 34 speakers in favor. As in a previous hearing at the Planning Board in May, residents were eager for new investment after decades of waiting. Even those who were skeptical of the plan's emphasis on transit and feared it would create a "tsunami of traffic" on Route 29 said East County needed the investment.
The County Council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee will discuss the plan in a series of worksessions later this month before the entire council reviews it. No vote has been scheduled, but it's likely to happen within the next several weeks.
I live-tweeted last night's hearing and compiled the highlights in this Storify:
For decades, eastern Montgomery County has lacked the jobs and amenities the more affluent west side has long enjoyed. But plans to finally deliver those things, along with the transit to support them, could get hung up on concerns about car traffic.
The White Oak Science Gateway plan would transform sprawling office parks and strip malls around the Food & Drug Administration campus near Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue into a town center and biotech hub. County officials say they've already heard from international pharmaceutical companies who want to be nearby.
With 8,500 new homes and over 40,000 new jobs, the plan would double what's on the ground today, and many are concerned about the traffic it might bring. County planners say that not doing anything won't get rid of White Oak's congestion, and that the real solution is to improve transit and bring people's daily needs closer to home. The County Council will hold a public hearing on the plan tomorrow night.
Traffic concerns stop development in East County
Once the inspiration for the idyllic family sitcom The Wonder Years, White Oak has long suffered from disinvestment, lagging the rest of the county in everything from shopping options to public school quality.
A promised rapid transit line on Route 29 was never built, and for decades, the area was under a development moratorium because of traffic on 29. Instead, growth and investment simply went further out to Howard County or west to Rockville and the I-270 corridor, meaning that people simply had to drive farther to get what they needed.
Anxious for change, residents have generally expressed support for the plan. County Executive Ike Leggett has made a proposed research park called LifeSci Village, to be built in partnership with local developer Percontee, a priority for his administration, and is already shopping the project around to Chinese business executives who want to be near the FDA.
However, the County Council rejected an earlier draft of the plan last fall because it didn't meet the county's "subdivision staging policy," which requires local roads to meet a certain congestion level, usually by widening them or building new ones, before development can go forward.
Planners say there's really no way to fix congestion in the area. There isn't room for new highways and much of the traffic on major roads like Route 29 comes from Prince George's and Howard counties, which Montgomery County has no control over.
The Planning Board decided that reducing the density wasn't an option, because it would take away the incentive for the development people want while forcing people to travel long distances for work or shopping. Instead, it proposed creating a new standard for measuring traffic, midway between that of suburban areas that are totally reliant on cars and urban downtowns like Bethesda where there is Metro service.
Plan relies on transit, but will it get funded?
The Board also tried to encourage the creation of more alternatives to driving. They also propose creating a Transportation Management District, which would help residents and workers find ways to get around without a car. There's a similar one in existence in North Bethesda. The goal is to have 25 to 30% of all trips made without a car by 2040, which is a little higher than the rate today.
To do so, the Science Gateway plan already proposes a new grid of streets with sidewalks and bike lanes. It also requires a more compact, urban form of development, with a mix of housing and commercial uses.
Planners also added language about the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, which would serve White Oak with lines on Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and on Route 29, calling it "essential to achieve the vision of this Master Plan." They propose that any impact taxes or fees the county collects from developers to go straight to BRT to ensure it gets built.
But the board also removed a requirement that the full amount of development not go forward if the BRT lines aren't funded or under construction. It's likely due to pressure from Leggett's administration, who are worried that the high cost of building transit and delays in development approvals could discourage investment.
Economic development shouldn't mean lower standards
White Oak's suburban built form, coupled with decades of leapfrog development to more distant communities, force its residents to travel long distances by car or transit. The area has become less desirable than other parts of Montgomery County, and without easy access to jobs, shopping, or other amenities, that will only get worse.
Traffic tests that tie new development to new highways won't work for White Oak, but residents still need some promise that there will be adequate infrastructure to support the growth they want to happen. Instead of eliminating staging requirements, county officials need to ensure that there's enough funding for transit.
Planners estimate that a BRT line on Route 29 would cost about $350 million, the same as three highway interchanges on the same corridor. While the interchanges would simply make it easier to drive to Howard County, transit would better support the creation of the town center everyone wants.
White Oak has waited decades to catch up with the rest of Montgomery County. While folks may be impatient for economic development, it's important we get this right.
Maryland's gas tax increase means it now has the most transportation funding in a generation. Will Montgomery County spend its share on transit to support its urban centers, or keep building highways?
Coupled with existing revenues, the new gas tax has made $15 billion available for transportation, a 52% increase from last year and the most transportation funding in a generation. This month, the County Council will send the state a list of their transportation priorities in order to receive some of that money. As in past years, there are a number of road projects on the list.
But the Planning Board, noting the high cost of new highways and efforts to direct future growth to urban centers, urged the council to choose transit instead. Transit isn't "the answer to every transportation problem," they write, but "where roadway widenings to solve perennial traffic congestion would significantly affect existing communities, natural resources and parkland, a more efficient solution is needed."
Funding would give county's transit plans teeth
Not all of the projects on the list are likely to receive funding. But if they were, the county's transit network could expand dramatically.
Some projects already have the support of county and state officials, including the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway. Also included are funds for more 8-car trains on the Red Line, which will allow Metro to stop turning trains around at Silver Spring instead of running them to the end of the line at Glenmont.
There's also funding to build three of the county's proposed BRT lines along Georgia Avenue, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road, as well as studying future lines on Rockville Pike and New Hampshire Avenue. A proposed HOV lane on I-270 could eventually support transit between White Flint and Tysons Corner. Planners also recommend funding new sidewalks and bike paths along Georgia Avenue between Forest Glen Road and 16th Street, which the State Highway Administration is currently studying, and a pedestrian underpass at the Forest Glen Metro station.
These projects would serve the county's existing urban centers, like Silver Spring and Bethesda, by giving people alternatives to driving. And they would support the development of future ones like White Oak, where County Executive Ike Leggett envisions a research and technology hub.
Planners say transit would better serve growth areas
But many of the road projects in the priorities list could undermine those efforts, whether by directing funding away from transit or by encouraging more people to drive there.
The priorities list includes three interchanges along Route 29 in East County, at Stewart Lane, Tech Road, and Greencastle Road, which have been in planning for decades and would cost $344 million. (Maryland has already set aside $7 million to design a fourth interchange at Fairland Road, estimated to cost $128 million to build.) Under the county's traffic tests, they have to be built before development in White Oak can happen.
County planners estimate that the three interchanges would cost the same to build as an 11-mile BRT line along the same corridor between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville. They say transit would not only better support the creation of a town center in White Oak, but give commuters from points north an alternative to driving, ultimately reducing local congestion.
"We believe that prioritizing the [Route 29] transit corridor improvements is the better choice," their report says.
Other road projects on the list include funds to build Montrose Parkway, a highway that would divide White Flint and Twinbrook. And there's a proposal to widen Norbeck Road between Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road and build an interchange at Georgia, even though the road runs parallel to the underused Intercounty Connector a half-mile away.
Maryland's new transportation funds present a rare opportunity to the state and Montgomery County, its economic engine. Some road improvements may be necessary and beneficial, especially in the county's suburban areas. But the county's urban centers are where most of its future growth will happen, and they need transit to thrive. We have to make the right choice now, because we may not get it again for a long time.
Montgomery County's newest skate park in White Oak doesn't have any skaters, due to poor design and an isolated location. A "skate plaza" in the center of the community could give skaters and non-skaters alike a better place to hang out.
The 6,000-square-foot White Oak skate spot, a sort of mini-skate park, is located at at the end of a cul-de-sac off of Lockwood Drive next to a new recreation center, both of which opened in the summer of 2012. Built by the county's Department of Recreation, the facilities cost $22 million to build, a very small portion of which went to the skate spot.
The recreation center is usually busy, along with the basketball courts and soccer fields. But I've dropped by the skate park at least dozen times this year, at different times of day, on different days of the week, in winter, spring, and summer. And I've never seen anyone using the skate spot.
"There's no flow"
28-year-old Mike Rious of Colesville visited the skate spot a few times, but he quickly got frustrated with it. Instead, he goes to the Woodside skate spot in Silver Spring or to skate parks in Prince George's County. "It seems as though no skatepark designers or anyone with knowledge of skateboarding was consulted before putting it together," he wrote in an email.
The skate spot is laid out in a way that makes skating almost impossible. I showed some photos of it to my friend Jordan Block, an urban designer and skater who used to work for Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that builds skate parks. "There's no flow," he explains.
Normally, skaters would do a trick on one side, then go over to the other side to do another one, building up momentum along the way. In order to do that, you need a clear, straight path with no obstructions. But officials at the Department of Recreation simply dropped pieces like ramps and rails around the site randomly. As a result, Block says, there's always something in the way.
There are also safety issues. The skate park uses prefabricated modular pieces bought off the rack. Skateboarding advocates like Skaters for Public Skateparks discourage using them instead of permanent, concrete pieces, because prefab fixtures often deteriorate faster than permanent ones, and they have exposed seams that can trip and injure skaters.
The skate spot's location is an issue as well. In 2008, county planners noted that 10,000 people live within a 3/4-mile of the site. But the street network is so disconnected that someone living on Carriage House Way, 1,000 feet away as the crow flies, would have to travel over a mile to reach the recreation center.
"If I were younger and didn't have my own transportation," wrote Rious, "I would probably still be skating the same places I had before these skate spots were built."
Location, design affect skate spot's use
Compare this to the Woodside skate spot, which the parks department built itself after consulting with local skaters. It also has prefab fixtures, but they were made flush with the ground, reducing tripping hazards. And it's in downtown Silver Spring, a short walk from buses and Metro, places to eat, and other hangouts. Not only is the Woodside skate spot popular with skaters, but it's become such a fixture in the local skating community that they even hold barbeques there.
In its current form, the White Oak skate spot is basically unusable. We could rebuild it to be safer and more attractive to skaters, but the location remains a problem. What if we moved the skate spot to the center of White Oak, instead of the fringe, and made it a destination for skaters and the larger community as well?
Last month, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the Science Gateway plan, which envisions creating a research and technology hub in White Oak. Planners also envision turning the run-down White Oak Shopping Center at New Hampshire Avenue and Lockwood Drive into a "town center" with shops and housing in taller buildings around a two-acre park.
That park would be a great location for a skate spot: it's across the street from the White Oak Transit Center, an important bus terminal, and is a short distance from thousands of homes and apartments, along with shops, restaurants, and the Food and Drug Administration campus. This is an accessible location for skaters, but it's also surrounded by a good mix of uses that could make it a unique public draw.
"Skate plazas" bring skaters to the center
Communities around the country are building so-called "skate plazas," a cross between a public plaza and a skate park. Franklin's Paine, where my friend used to work, opened a skate plaza in Philadelphia last May called Paine's Park. Designers call it a "not just a skatepark...a park for all that's made to skate."
To the naked eye, Paine's Park looks like an ordinary plaza: there are benches, stairs, ramps, and rails. These all happen to be things skaters like to use, but here they won't get chased away for doing so. And everything's made from cast-in-place concrete, which can take lots of abuse and are still affordable.
Planners often build skate plazas alongside other uses, inviting skaters into the center of the community. Portland is building a big skate plaza in the middle of downtown. The Lafayette Park Skate Plaza in Los Angeles is part of a larger park complex with a library, amphitheatre, and even food carts.
These are spaces you'd go even if you weren't skating, and non-skaters can hang out in skate plazas as well, so long as they don't mind the thumps of skate trucks on concrete. But if skateboarding ceased to exist tomorrow, the community would still have a great public space.
Skate plazas aren't just better for skaters. They create more interesting, attractive public spaces for everyone. It's clear that this thinking went into the White Oak skate spot, which is next to a recreation center, but the design of the skate spot and its isolated location sends a message to skaters that they should be kept out of sight.
Montgomery County wants White Oak to become an innovative urban community. What better way to do so than by embracing the athleticism and spectacle of skateboarding?
As Montgomery County has become more diverse, it also faces new challenges with poverty. A new mapping tool shows just how much the county's changed over the past 30 years.
Where poverty is in Montgomery County. Each dot represents 20 low-income people. Blue dots are whites, yellow dots are blacks, green dots are Hispanics, and red dots are Asians. Original image from the Urban Institute.
The Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank that looks at social and economic issues, made this awesome mapping tool that shows where very low-income people lived between 1980 to 2010. The Atlantic Cities notes that the maps show dramatic demographic shifts across the country, notably the suburbanization of poverty.
That's especially evident here in Montgomery County. 30 years ago, the county's only significant concentration of poverty was around close-in Langley Park and Long Branch, which had established themselves as immigrant gateways by the late 1970s.
But today, you can also find clusters of poverty throughout East County and the Upcounty, in Wheaton and Aspen Hill, in White Oak and Briggs Chaney, and even along I-270 in Gaithersburg and Germantown. Many of them have only emerged within the past decade.
Meanwhile, communities that have historically been affluent, like Bethesda or Olney, appear to have stayed the same. The area along Rockville Pike between Rockville Town Center and White Flint, where a considerable amount of new, high-end development is happening, seems to have actually become less poor.
We know that people increasingly desire urban neighborhoods, whether that's places like Columbia Heights in DC or downtown Silver Spring. But the flip side of that revitalization is that the poor often move or are pushed out into suburban areas. While these communities offer more space or better public services, they aren't always well-equipped to help low-income people.
Groups like IMPACT Silver Spring, which helps low-income people and immigrants connect with community groups and social services, began working in and around downtown Silver Spring in the 1990s. Today, IMPACT does outreach at garden apartment complexes in Gaithersburg and Briggs Chaney. Unlike close-in Silver Spring or Long Branch, these areas don't have easy access to shopping, jobs, public services or transit.
Instead of working to combat the problem, more affluent neighbors fight any attempts at change or build fences in a lame attempt at keeping "undesirables" out. Meanwhile, kids growing up in these neighborhoods are often blocked from the high-quality public schools Montgomery County is known for.
The challenges that suburban poor face aren't necessarily different than those of their inner-city counterparts. But they're compounded by the built form of suburbia, which was designed under the assumption that everyone would have money and a car and does little to accommodate those who lack both.
Initiatives like the county's BRT plan or the White Oak Science Gateway will help bring transit, jobs and other amenities to these neighborhoods and improve residents' quality of life. But it'll be important to ensure that they aren't pushed out again into even more remote areas.
For years, the White Oak area north of downtown Silver Spring has struggled with disinvestment. Last week, residents, community leaders and major landowners endorsed a vision to bring jobs and people back.
Montgomery County planners recently finished a draft of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, a proposal to turn the 1960's-era suburb that inspired The Wonder Years into an urban hub for scientific research. The centerpiece would be LifeSci Village, a partnership between developer Percontee and Montgomery County to turn a 300-acre brownfield into a mixed-use community.
During last Thursday's public hearing before the Planning Board in Silver Spring, all but a handful of the 35 speakers spoke in favor of it, highlighting the need to bring more investment to East County, which has lagged behind the rest of Montgomery County for decades. Many White Oak residents travel to Bethesda or the I-270 corridor for jobs or shopping, while some neighborhoods in the area grapple with crime and blight.
Many speakers highlighted the potential to make White Oak the "Silicon Valley of health care," using the FDA's presence to draw companies from around the world. Bringing more jobs and amenities to the east side of the county, they said, would relieve the county's east-west jobs-housing imbalance, reducing the need for long commutes. Other speakers stressed the need for alternatives to driving, like improved bike and pedestrian infrastructure and the 3 Bus Rapid Transit lines proposed for White Oak.
Meanwhile, a handful of representatives from local civic and homeowners' associations expressed concerns about the potential for traffic. Some residents opposed the plan's recommendation to rebuild and reopen a shuttered bridge on Old Columbia Pike, which planners say could help improve traffic circulation.
Over the next several weeks, the Planning Board will discuss the plan during a series of worksessions before voting on it later this summer. If it passes, it'll go to the County Council, which will hold another public hearing this fall, followed by a vote next spring.
I live-tweeted the hearing and compiled the best tweets in this Storify:
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.
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.
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."
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.
"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.
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.
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