Posts about White Oak
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.
After three pedestrians died in three weeks in Montgomery County
"The only thing that I see that could be newsworthy is advice to pedestrians to make sure that they have or wear reflective clothing or items when they walk at night to increase their visibility," Captain Thomas Didone told the Patch. Didone is director of the county police department's traffic division.
As far as can be determined, all three victims were obeying the rules of the road when they died. Georgina Afful-Assare was hit while walking on the sidewalk near Briggs Chaney Road. The other two were killed while crossing major highways at intersections where unmarked (but legal) crosswalks connect bus stops to apartment complexes. Neither had any other reasonable way to get across the road.
Frank Sedwick was crossing Georgia Avenue at Heathfield Drive in Aspen Hill. The nearest traffic signal is 1,500 feet away at Connecticut Avenue, and there is no marked crosswalk or signal on the high-speed turn ramp that pedestrians must cross to reach it. According to a blog commenter, Mr. Sedwick had a prosthetic leg.
Charles Aboagye was crossing US 29 at Oak Leaf Drive. He was standing in the median and tripped. Here, the marked crosswalk is 785 feet away. To reach that crosswalk, one must walk within inches of cars and trucks speeding along what drivers perceive as a limited-access highway. The risk of tripping and falling during a long trudge down the sidewalk is far greater than in the median, where the law (universally ignored) indeed requires drivers to stop and let you pass.
Engineering fixes are needed for safer crossings at Heathfield and Oak Leaf Drives. Road design policies must change, and even then rebuilding will take time. In the meantime, the roads we have now must be made safer to walk on. That will only happen when the police stop blaming the victims and insist that drivers stop at all crosswalks, both marked and unmarked.
Other cities are teaching this. Minneapolis suburbs have launched campaigns to ticket drivers who fail to yield.
In California's Ventura County, an area more suburban than Montgomery, police gave drivers this reminder after a car that stopped for a pedestrian was rear-ended: "Pay attention while driving near crosswalks and actively look for pedestrians crossing the street. Additionally, pay attention for other cars on the roadway that might be slowing or stopping for pedestrians."
Telling those on foot to dress like hunters in the woods will not make streets more walkable. Nor will it prevent the deaths of people who are walking on the sidewalk or standing in a median strip. Lives will be saved when drivers obey the law by stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks. Montgomery County police must change their attitudes and issue tickets to those who fail to yield.
Georgetown University needs space to grow. Montgomery County needs a university to anchor a research and development center they want to create in White Oak. There's a college campus for sale in the neighborhood that can satisfy them both.
Jonathan O'Connell reports that Georgetown is interested in buying the National Labor College, a 47-acre campus at New Hampshire Avenue and the Beltway. The AFL-CIO bought the former Catholic school to educate union workers nearly 40 years ago, but chose to sell it due to declining enrollment.
Over 300 potential buyers expressed interest in buying the campus for its redevelopment potential. One was Tysons Corner Center owner Macerich, which considered building a "high-end retail outlet center for name brands like Prada" on the site.
Georgetown would use the property to consolidate its sports programs in one location and to use the Lane Kirkland Center, a conference facility completed in 2006, for meeting space. Meanwhile, growing Montgomery College may want it for an entire new campus, though they haven't submitted a formal bid yet. While both schools would make a great use for the property, having Georgetown at the National Labor College is particularly interesting.
Last week, county planners submitted preliminary recommendations (PDF) for the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, which envisions creating a new center for research and technology around the Food and Drug Administration's new campus on New Hampshire Avenue, a half-mile from the National Labor College. Under the plan, which is similar to the proposed Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, the area could have as many as 40,000 new jobs and 8,000 new homes.
Rendering of LifeSci Village, a proposed research and development park with housing, offices and shops. Image from Percontee.
The county's already picked a developer for what would be the plan's largest component, a massive mixed-use development called LifeSci Village. However, a county-funded study by consulting firm Partners for Economic Solutions last year found that the Science Gateway won't work without an affiliated research institution.
Georgetown could potentially fill that void. The university conducts a lot of research, and while much of it is not in science or technology-related fields, they are looking to expand. Georgetown is looking for up to 100 acres for a satellite campus somewhere in the District of Columbia to accommodate their future growth needs.
While a few potential sites exist, many of them would require building a school from scratch. The National Labor College, with dorms, classrooms, a library and an auditorium, would allow Georgetown to hit the ground running. That is, if they sought to use the campus for more than athletic fields and conference rooms.
With a new campus, Georgetown could expand into new fields of study and scientific research. Meanwhile, the White Oak Science Gateway would have a prestigious anchor that could draw scientists and companies from around the world. In turn, they would attract investment in the kind of amenities that East County residents are clamoring for, like more jobs and better shopping.
Potential rapid transit routes in the White Oak Science Gateway. A stop would be located at the National Labor College near the bottom of the map. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
Of course, one advantage to sites in the District is proximity to Georgetown's main campus, while the National Labor College is over 10 miles away. If built, Montgomery County's proposed Rapid Transit Vehicle system would have three routes serving the White Oak Science Gateway and a stop serving the National Labor College, improving its accessibility to the main campus and the rest of the region.
As I've written before, the National Labor College campus is a big opportunity for East County to reinvent itself. However, it also gives Georgetown University a chance to grow and become an even stronger research institution. Meeting the school's athletic needs is important, but there's potential for much more on this site.
The $3 billion mini-city is designed to compliment the Food and Drug Administration's new campus and a new Washington Adventist Hospital. Despite a series of sexy new project renderings released by Percontee, East County's answer to Cambridge isn't a guarantee yet.
LifeSci Village, which we wrote about in 2009, would occupy 290 acres on Cherry Hill Road east of Route 29. In addition to the sludge plant, which closed in 1999, the site would include a concrete recycling plant owned by Percontee.
Jonathan Genn, vice president of Percontee, has previously said that the project would include roughly two million square feet of offices and research labs, two million additional square feet of shops, hotels and possibly a conference center, and between three and four thousand apartments and townhomes.
Genn has been talking to the county about LifeSci Village and Site 2 since 2004, so it's not surprising that they picked Percontee over two out-of-area developers less familiar with the project. But in 2009, he told me that a groundbreaking was "not anytime soon." The Washington Post, meanwhile, says that construction could start within the next two years.
What's changed? Last year, the Montgomery County Planning Department started work on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, which will reinforce LifeSci Village's goal of creating a research hub around the FDA. In addition, the county is studying a Bus Rapid Transit network which could have several lines serving the development.
BRT lines under study in and around White Oak.
Though LifeSci Village has the blessing of both the county and local residents, the White Oak Science Gateway concept has its critics. A study from economic consultants hired by the planning department says that it won't work unless it can get a major research institution, though Genn says he's talked to "very prominent" DC-area universities about locating there.
Even then, the consultants say, biotech companies might just continue going to the county's other research and development district, the Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, which Percontee helped develop in the 1980's and where Johns Hopkins University plans their own, similarly-minded "Science City" project.
As exciting as the LifeSci Village proposal is, there remain a lot of questions. Who will provide $3 billion in financing for a research campus without a research institution? Is it practical to build 4 million square feet of commercial space and 4,000 homes in an area with no fixed-rail transit? And will Montgomery County be able to lure biotech companies away from the vaunted "Technology Corridor" along I-270?
East County needs a project like this. But it's not yet clear if LifeSci Village will ever go from being a pretty picture to a reality.
For years, local boosters have said that the Food and Drug Administration's new campus in White Oak would bring jobs and prosperity to East County as companies flocked to work with the government agency. Yet a new report commissioned by the Planning Department suggests that it'll take a lot more to revitalize the area.
Last year, county planners began work on the East County Science Center Master Plan, which will propose creating a new community for research and technology on some 1300 acres around the FDA campus on New Hampshire Avenue currently occupied by strip malls, office parks, and a few apartment complexes.
Already, the area has drawn Washington Adventist Hospital, which would move from Takoma Park, and a proposed, county-funded business incubator. The Planning Department's brought on Partners for Economic Solutions, a Takoma, DC-based firm, to produce this 55-page report (PDF!) detailing how much more development the Science Center could attract.
"The scale of FDA's impact is much more modest than anticipated by some supporters," says the report, which cites "limited potential for life science business development" as a result of the FDA's relocation from Rockville, which will bring 9,000 workers to White Oak.
The consultants say that the biotech and life sciences companies that planners want to bring to East County are drawn to the Great Seneca Science Corridor along I-270, where those kinds of businesses are already located.
Landlords in White Oak have already reached out to biotech companies and received little interest about properties in the area, the consultants say, while a survey of 24 life science companies located along I-270 revealed that firms won't move to be closer to the FDA. Many said that being close to the FDA wasn't as valuable as being near other science and technology firms, which provide opportunities for collaboration with their peers. A quarter of the companies said proximity to the owners' houses was a factor in where their offices located.
The InterCounty Connector will make it easier for biotech firms to take advantage of the I-270 corridor's amenities while still having easy access to the FDA, the study notes. "When coupled with the U.S. 29 corridor's road congestion and limited transit service, the [East County Science Center] will have difficulty competing for life science companies in any significant number," concludes the report.
Successful research parks also tend to be affiliated with universities, the consultants found, like the University of North Carolina and the Research Triangle, or Stanford University and the Stanford Research Park in California. Though the University of Maryland is only a few miles away from the East County Science Center, and part of the center was once the university's experimental farm, the school is likely to focus efforts on their own research park, located adjacent to their campus in College Park.
The consultants recommended that the county seek a major research institution or university to anchor the East County Science Center, much as Johns Hopkins University and the Universities at Shady Grove already do at the Great Seneca Science Corridor.
Yet the most significant recommendations made by Partners for Economic Solutions involve changing the East County Science Center from the spread-out office park it is today into a more well-rounded community. They say that massive investments in public transit, like the Bus Rapid Transit system currently being studied by the county, will be necessary to provide an alternative to the area's congested roads. The consultants also suggest that the East County Science Center incorporate some sort of walkable, mixed-use development, including housing, shops and restaurants, and hotels.
The new model for science development: United Therapeutics' headquarters is located
in the middle of downtown Silver Spring. The first floor has shops and a public plaza.
East County is "vulnerable to new and existing competition that offers a superior pedestrian experience," say the consultants. The new model for research parks looks like Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard and MIT, where scientists live, shop and hang out a few steps away from where they work. Johns Hopkins University, who's planning a mixed-use development in the Great Seneca Science Corridor, has compared their project to Harvard Square in Cambridge.
Not only does this put East County in competition with other research centers, but with communities that already offer a walkable, urban environment, like downtown Silver Spring, where pharmaceutical company United Therapeutics is building their headquarters.
The consultants propose creating a mixed-use community at the White Oak Shopping Center, noting that there's an untapped demand for high-end retail and a more attractive shopping environment in East County. However, the shopping center is successful enough now that any redevelopment would have to happen at much higher density to be economically feasible.
Instead, the consultants recommend building at LifeSci Village, a complex of housing, offices, shops and a conference center proposed by local developer Percontee on the site of a concrete recycling plant next to the FDA campus. A development at either of these sites would not only give researchers a place to hang out, but it would serve East County as a whole, which lacks such a place today.
For decades, East County's community leaders have sought to bring the kinds of jobs, retail and other amenities enjoyed by the more affluent west side of Montgomery County. Yet this report suggests that high-paying jobs aren't enough to create a better community.
Ironically, the one thing that could truly make East County a better place to work is the one thing it's fought off for years, as community activists in different neighborhoods have opposed new sidewalks, new housing, improved retail, public spaces, improvements to local transit. Attempts to place shops and housing on the 710-acre FDA campus, which would've helped to create the kind of environment science and technology workers want, were shot down by neighbors fifteen years ago.
The study by Partners for Economic Solutions confirms existing trends that say companies are less interested in suburban office parks, and if East County wants to draw those businesses, it should follow suit. So far, we've thought of the East County Science Center as a place to work. Yet the plan has even more potential if we consider it a place to live, shop, eat, and gather as well. After all, how can we cure cancer if our researchers are spend all their time in traffic driving to and from work?
East County residents and businesspeople met with Montgomery County planners last Wednesday at the Regional Services Center to learn about a proposal to bring a life sciences center to White Oak.
When completed, the East County Science Center Master Plan will recommend creating a mixed-use community with a focus on science and technology in an approximately 1400-acre area bounded by the Beltway, New Hampshire Avenue, Columbia Pike, Cherry Hill Road and the county line.
The goal of the plan, as outlined on its website, is to create a 21st-century vision for the "Cherry Hill/FDA/White Oak area." The main tenets of that vision are a community built around a "bio-tech employment cluster"; a "better jobs/housing balance" in an area with more residents than employment opportunities; creating "more diverse housing options" in the area, and bringing it all together with "efficient transit" and open space.
While previous master plans have taken up to 3½ years to draft, staff will finish the plan on an abbreviated schedule at the behest of the County Council, eager to bring more attention to the neglected communities east of Rock Creek Park. "This is a big master plan, and we only have two years," explains project leader Khalid Afzal.
Those seeking to build in the area were at the open house, including some of the car dealers located on Cherry Hill Road and Jere Stocks, president of Washington Adventist Hospital, which has land for a new facility on Plum Orchard Drive.
Also there were Jonathan Genn and Ayana Lambert, president and general counsel for developer Percontee, who's proposed a large development on Cherry Hill Road called LifeSci Village. "This is exciting because it means something's happening," says Lambert. "It's a step in the right direction."
Transportation planner Eric Graze brought a board showing proposed rapid transit routes in the master plan area, including ones along New Hampshire Avenue, Columbia Pike, and Cherry Hill Road. He explains that the map was largely derived from County Councilmember Marc Elrich's county-wide bus rapid transit plan, currently under study.
One line crossing the Food and Drug Administration campus between New Hampshire and Cherry Hill was an unknown, however. "I have no idea what that is," Graze says.
Planners seemed to outnumber residents at the four-hour-long open house, but those who did stop by could write comments on large boards. Their suggestions were heavily favored towards more development in East County. "Allow high density at the existing shopping centers (White Oak & Hillandale)," wrote one commenter. Another advocated a bus rapid transit line down Route 29.
Because of the plan's abbreviated schedule, some opportunities for community outreach - like an advisory committee made up of local stakeholders - may not happen. That'll be a big concern in White Oak, where reaching out to tenants of apartment complexes or non-English speakers in the area can be difficult.
"We haven't figured out how to get that segment of the population to come out," Afzal says of the area's large immigrant communities.
While drafting the sector plan for the Wheaton CBD - now going before the County Council - planners visited the owners of local ethnic shops to get their opinions and ideas. "We went to them" in Wheaton, Afzal notes. "If you don't have time, we'll come to you."
As with most land use issues, getting anyone involved is difficult regardless of their background. "There's an entire group of people interested in land use, and another group who won't come no matter how much we reach out to them," Afzal says. "Maybe they think we're doing okay."
Tomorrow, Montgomery County planners will hold an open house to discuss the East County Science Center Master Plan. They propose creating a new center for technology and commerce around the FDA's new campus and a relocated Washington Adventist Hospital.
The eastern side of Montgomery County hasn't always enjoyed the fruits of its prosperity. It doesn't have Bethesda's shopping or Rockville's jobs, and it wasn't too long ago that downtown Silver Spring was largely abandoned. Until recently, many of our community leaders actively opposed new development, fearful of traffic, crime or changing demographics.
In concept, it's very similar to the Great Seneca Science Corridor Master Plan, a controversial proposal for dense, mixed-use development west of Gaithersburg that the county passed earlier this year. Though civic activists and smart growth advocates criticized that plan for being too large and too far from transit, they've expressed support for creating a life sciences center here.
Many of the critics of that plan, including Greater Greater Washington, said that White Oak would be a better location for the science planned for Great Seneca. White Oak is simultaneously more accessible to UMD in College Park, Hopkins in Baltimore, and Washington, DC.
But like Great Seneca, the East County Science Center can't just be about doctors and lab coats. It'll hopefully bring more shopping, more housing, and other amenities. If done right, this plan could give East County a town center like people in Germantown or Rockville already enjoy.
Planners won't put markers to trace paper for a while. Right now, they're developing a "scope of work" describing what the plan will include. So far, all we know is that the plan could cover a 1,200-acre area bounded by Route 29, Cherry Hill Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and the Prince George's County line.
Today, that area contains a mash-up of residential, commercial, and light industrial uses. It's divided by the Paint Branch, which feeds into the Anacostia River. More than half of it is taken up by the Federal Research Center, home to the FDA and other government agencies. Though most of the 710-acre campus is undeveloped, local civic associations have opposed adding commercial or residential uses there.
As a result, the plan will focus on re-imagining older commercial and industrial parks in the study area. Local developer Percontee proposes redeveloping its concrete recycling plant on Cherry Hill Road and an adjacent sludge treatment facility called Site 2 into a mixed-use community called LifeSci Village. When completed, the 300-acre development could contain four million square feet of offices and retail, a conference center, and as many as four thousand new homes.
Another candidate for redevelopment is the 1960's-era White Oak Shopping Center, located at New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29 and filled with a mix of chains and mom-and-pop stores. Its proximity to major roads and transit make it a good place for a mixed-use town center, but the mall's suffered from a reputation for crime.
If built out, the plan could revitalize East County, providing the kind of amenities residents have long clamored for. But it could also create new problems, like increased traffic. As a result, there are a few things planners will have to consider as they begin work.
The East County Science Center Master Plan must address transportation improvements. Though the InterCounty Connector will open in 2012, the area will need a network of new, local roads to improve circulation. It'll need to create connections to surrounding neighborhoods, parks, and the Paint Branch Trail, which is inaccessible east of Route 29. And we'll need sidewalks and bike paths to tie all of it together, enabling people to get around without driving.
The Food and Drug Administration's campus under construction in White Oak.
Photo by Evan Glass on Picasa.
The plan will have to address the need for rapid transit as well. In its long-term transportation plan (PDF), Montgomery County proposes building a "Purple Line Spur" between Langley Park and White Oak, while Councilmember Marc Elrich's bus rapid transit plan would have multiple lines serving the East County Science Center. Both of these proposals should be vetted as the planning process begins.
The biggest challenge, however, will be reaching out to the area's diverse population. For far too long, the public discourse in East County has been dominated by a small but vocal minority who doesn't represent the whole community. For this plan to truly consider the wants and needs of everyone in East County, we'll have to listen in new ways.
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