The Montgomery County Planning Board conducts much of its work on the White Flint Sector Plan in worksessions arranged around various topics. These worksessions can last for many hours. But you can’t blink, or you might miss something interesting. Some thirteen hours into the worksession last Thursday, May 21, the Planning Board revisited some of its earlier work on the southern and northern edges of the Sector Plan, and fireworks bloomed.
That morning, the Board was working through the new “design guidelines” on the Master Plan by “districts.” There are six districts within the overall White Flint Sector. One of the last to be covered was also the largest in the sector, covering the existing White Flint Mall area. This has been a particularly contentious area in the Sector, with neighborhood groups railing against the Mall’s plans, and the two sides agreeing to negotiate various issues, including the design for roads near the neighborhood.
During the morning session, Robbie Breuer, an attorney representing the White Flint Mall, presented a new map representing what he said were the results of negotiations with Planning Staff and the surrounding neighborhoods on density and building heights at particular locations. Planning Staff immediately pounced on the new map, claiming that it was unfair to present it at the “eleventh hour.” Natalie Goldberg, representing the Garrett Park Estates-White Flint Park neighborhood, complained that the new map did not include some of the negotiated changes in the Mall’s plans. The Board put off consideration of the new map until later so that it could move through some less contentious issues.
With only a few minutes left in its session on Thursday night, after thirteen hours of work on the White Flint and other plans, the Board returned to the earlier discussion. Chief White Flint planner Piera Weiss said that the Mall and the neighborhood representatives had been meeting “literally all afternoon on this.” Weiss then presented the negotiated map and the staff’s map. At Commissioner Presley’s request, she noted that there were differences, in that the negotiated map had different densities, with more density and higher building heights being shifted away from the neighborhood and toward Rockville Pike. Weiss: as a planner, I’m not happy with the higher heights in the interior [of the Mall plan], because we’re trying to keep a gradation from Nicholson Lane. Chairman Hanson: what’s the different in overall FAR? Weiss: not much, but the negotiated one is what they think will work. Cmsnr Presley: you say you’re the neighborhood, but are you all other stakeholders and others won’t come out later? Goldberg: we’re representing the neighborhood to the best of our ability. The biggest concern for our community is the buffer, and there is an area that looks like a buffer. The lower heights are also very important to our community. Cmsnr Robinson: will there be a problem with the communities to the west of the Pike? Goldberg: they might with the 200′ but they’re very supportive of the heights south of Nicholson. Robinson: for this to work the same benefits need to flow to those on the west side. Hanson: so it’s 200′ all the way down on the Pike. No difference in the height as you go down. Why is the height in the interior so important because the FAR hasn’t changed? David Kitchens, a planner with the White Flint Mall, said that there was an existing mall to deal with so there is a bigger issue where they would have to “stack up the pancake” on the site to get to the FAR they feel they needed. The height limits that planning staff was giving the Mall planners would yield a lower overall FAR on the entire site. The Mall wanted to be compatible with the negotiations with the neighborhood, pushing heights to the northern and western sides of the site, and with the nearby properties, which had a 200′ height limit. Weiss: this is the most “patterned” of the areas, so there is a lot to tweak if it needs to be tweaked. The real question for the Board is how you take these patterns and translate them into a coherent zone, because you don’t want to have all these zones there. If you have too many zones, it will be difficult to prepare a proper site plan.
Weiss: the critical thing in White Flint is height, not so much the FAR. It’s the heights that are the problem. Goldberg: we also agreed with the developer that the 1.5 FAR section [the buffer] would also be residential. I just want the record to show that. Hanson: the record may show that, but we may not agree with you. Goldberg: our agreement was predicated on the fact that we don’t want any commercial development in that small piece of property. Robinson: the CR zone permits 100% residential. Hanson: I want to think about that. Weiss: we’ll bring you the patterns. We’ll add language to underscore some of the points which are not 100% apparent. Kitchens: we want to be sure that the western sides are higher and the eastern sides are lower, so that we don’t end up with massive walls of buildings.
Weiss: so we’re going to make these few corrections, but we’re going to keep the building heights slightly higher at the northern end, and everything else at the lower end, but suppress the heights on the east side. We’ll bring this back to you with the zoning map. Presley: so agreement. Hanson: consensus.
The Board then turned to building heights at the Mid-Pike Plaza area on the northwest corner of the plan. Apparently this was the same type of issue as the Board had just discussed, involving heights of buildings permitted across a large development parcel.
Federal Realty Investment Trust, which develops this site, had had meetings with the Planning Staff, in which the Urban Design planning staff proposed that the heights on the property gradually decline from 300′ on the Pike to 200′ on the western side, with approximately 250′ in the middle section, rather than just abruptly shift from 300′ to 200′ at a line in the center of the parcle. Federal Realty apparently agreed to the suggestion. The map presented to the Board last Thursday morning, however, didn’t include the gradual reduction. Evan Goldman, a Vice-President with Federal Realty [and a co-chair of Friends of White Flint], sent the Board an e-mail pointing out the discrepancy.
Weiss: we got an e-mail sent at 2PM this afternoon with an issue on height with Federal Realty at Mid-Pike Plaza. Nkosi Yearwood, White Flint Planner: we met with Federal Realty and explored recommendation to the Board, so height could go up to 250′ with the same FAR. That’s what Mr. Goldman is referencing. I wouldn’t use the phrase “general consensus.” I don’t think we agreed to anything. [Note: the Planning Staff is divided into different sections, and the sections don't always agree on matters.] Presley: how does this affect the Plan? Yearwood: we didn’t come to a conclusion to recommend to the Board. We’ll continue to provide a recommendation. 200′ for most of the property, but 300′ at some points. Robinson: the Pike side next to the 300′ zone is probably all right, but I don’t know about the western side.
Hanson: I don’t see what the problem is. If we’ve got something that ranges from 200′-300′ and they want to build something in the middle that’s 250′, why not? Cmsnr Alfandre: in all fairness, they don’t have anybody here, like the other guys [Mall] did. I think they probably have an answer for it. Hanson: the only thing I want to do with this is that someday this all has to end. I’m inclined to leave the Plan as we approved it this morning. If we have an opportunity to rethink it when we’re conscious [the reference is to the fact that this was going on fourteen hours into the hearing], then we can. We’ll talk about it when we deal with the zoning. We’ll adjust it if we need to.
This is the beginning of the end game for the White Flint Sector Plan. The Board is moving swiftly on major decisions, and given the huge scope of the plan and the myriad details, there are many of these types of issues to be worked out. What is interesting here is that some of these questions involve mis-communications, not only between stakeholders and the Board, but also between Planning Staff components.