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Development


Eastern Montgomery residents want new jobs and transit in White Oak

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.


LifeSci Village, a proposed research park in White Oak. Rendering from Percontee.

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:

Development


Traffic fears tie up plans to revitalize White Oak

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.


LifeSci Village rendering from Percontee.

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.

Roads


Will Montgomery fund new transit, or build more roads?

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?


Downtown Silver Spring. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

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.

Public Spaces


"Skate plazas" can invigorate public space

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.


Paine's Park, a "skate plaza" in Philadelphia. Photo by JacGebhardt on Flickr.

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 White Oak skate spot is always empty. Photo by the author.

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.


Skaters at the Woodside skate spot in 2010. Photo by Chip Py.

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?

Skateboarding is a social activity, often drawing spectators. In downtown Silver Spring, crowds of people formed to watch skaters in Veterans Plaza and on Ellsworth Drive before the county banned it.


A redeveloped White Oak Shopping Center could be home to a two-acre park. Photo by the author.

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."


Paine's Park. Photo by CJD on Flickr.

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?

Development


Watch poverty suburbanize in Montgomery County

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.

Here, fears of crime mean parents won't let their kids play outside. Even walking to the bus stop can be dangerous due to roads designed for speeding cars.


A family tries to cross busy Columbia Pike in White Oak. Photo by the author.

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.

Development


White Oak residents endorse Science Gateway plan

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.


Rendering of LifeSci Village from Percontee.

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:

Development


Science Gateway plan brings urban approach to White Oak

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


Photo by the author.

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

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

Plan calls for three urban nodes, new parkland

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Planners seek new approach to congestion

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


The commercial district at LifeSci Village. Image from Percontee.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Science Gateway could improve jobs-housing imbalance

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Plan needs transit, some industry to succeed

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

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


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

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

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

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

Pedestrians


Montgomery police blame victims for pedestrian deaths

After three pedestrians died in three weeks in Montgomery Countyone walking on the sidewalk, and the other two in crosswalks where they had the legal right of waycounty police could only blame the victims.


Truck ignores pedestrian in a Montgomery County crosswalk. Photo by the author.

"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.

Education


Georgetown eyes satellite campus at White Oak

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.


Could this be coming to White Oak? Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

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.

National Labor College
Bird's-eye view of the National Labor College campus from Bing Maps.

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.

Quad, LifeSci Village
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 BRT Routes in White Oak
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.

Development


East Montgomery's science hub far from becoming reality

Last week, Montgomery County selected local developer Percontee to turn Site 2, a former sludge treatment plant in White Oak, into LifeSci Village.


Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

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.

LifeSci Village Site Plan
2009 site plan of LifeSci Village.

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.

MoCo BRT Plan, White Oak
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.

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