Implementation Planning — Let’s be Flexible (but not TOO flexible)

Implementation Planning — Let’s be Flexible (but not TOO flexible)

Live blogging from the June 4, 2009, worksession #12 of the Montgomery County Planning Board. Live streaming is available at The staff proposed a series of options, but the Board turned immediately to the option of a system under which there would be fewer zones covering the Sector, with text explaining how the zones would be applied across larger blocks of properties.

Piera Weiss, Master Planner, and lead on the White Flint Sector Plan, went over the implementation pattern, and the CR Zone decisions made in the May 21 Board worksession.

Weiss: Staff recommends CR zoning for new mixed use development, confirms existing residential development at the Wisconsin and Grand, Forum, White Flint Station, sterling, and the Gallery. Confirms exising zoning on public uses where redevelopment is unlikely: at the NRC, the pre-release center, Washington Gas, and Wall Park. We’re not changing zoning everywhere. There are a lot of high-rise buildings already, and you’ll see a lot of TMS and TMX zones still on the map. Not going to be changing zoning, and now will add the northern site we just dealt with.

Flexibility in commercial-residential mix. To reach the maximum density, you must provide both uses. [Shows tables of possible uses and zonings.]  If you permit swapping ratios between properties you won’t get the best result. Nine zones to cover all possible mixes and heights, and we’ll apply these using the Design Guidelines. So we return to our density and height maps, where we crafted a more finely detailed mix of densities and heights. New map showing “tenting” of heights, low at residential neighborhoods, and cresting at the Metro. [Shows 3-D height map.] So you can see the transitions better than flat maps.

Weiss: so White Flint Mall site, with changes from May 21 meeting. Mid-block pedestrian connection added, as well as several public use sites. Gradation of very fine tuning. Prescribing exactly what can happen at each location, and that’s not good planning. Cmsnr Alfandre: why control that much? Weiss: to have a gradation of heights. Which can’t migrate between or across properties. The real aspect of CR Zone is more the building heights that control; the densities are pretty much similar. So a pattern with only one height limit, but we’ll control heights through text. Same effect, but only need one zone to do it. But the critical thing is to have the language in the text to do that. So, for example, on Page 13 of today’s handout memo [dated May 28], with pure zones. Block Two, and Block Four are examples. Text describes limitations within the overall property. Hanson: though courts have been generous with the uniformity requirement, it’s still there. Within zones, there must be uniformity. The Master Plan can be as specific as we think it needs to be, and my preference is to describe the objectives we’re trying to achieve. The Design Guidelines can be more specific. The problem is that we got what we asked for: state law requiring that site plans must be consistent with the Master Plan. So if the Master Plan is explicit about a currently-proposed idea, the only way to vary from that is to amend the Master Plan, and when we talk about a 30 year life for a Master Plan, I don’t want to impose my ideas in perpetuity on everyone.

Alfandre: I need a schematic, not a flat map for this. Robinson: need something that’s concrete enough for both parties to a proposed transaction to rely on. Particularly true in this area. From a Master Plan process and general planning theory, we’d generally lay our philosophy. I’ve thoght our plans over the last 30 years have been overly restrictive. There should be something that has a high degree of rigidity to bind future property owners. Alfandre: rigidity or certainty? Risk on both sides.  I think the market should work more loosely, but I understand where you’re going with this. Want to create, not break, a streetscape. Don’t have confidence that this would happen without this restriction. Weiss: the CR Zone is incredibly flexible. Who knows what will happen? But this permits you to create that streetscape. We want the zoning to be flexible, but we want the Master Plan to be absolutely clear on what we want.

Hanson: we have to focus on Page 13 which is text.

Cryor: you have to go back to the beginning to see where this comes together, which was transportation. Without that, I don’t think we have anything. This isn’t just trying to put up a lot of tall buildings. We need to see how everything works together. Weiss: this will be in the next draft. Hanson: we’re on the implementation section of the Plan. Cryor: I just don’t want this to be lost.

Hanson: last paragraph under Block 4 should indicate the gradient between the transit-oriented section of the property and the residential areas further away from transit, not the precise bands in the middle. No precise line drawing where the height drops. Talking about a slope.

Weiss: fewer zones give the Board more flexibility to respond to changes in proposals. Allows alternatives. No risk to that. Language is clear as to the intent, and the Board can respond flexibly so long as it is within the parameters of the policy. The fewer zones, the more judgment the Board has as to what is appropriate. The language says what is appropriate.

Hanson: we could just use fuzzy lines. That was what we did with the General Plan, but I don’t support that here. Robinson: for practical engineering reasons, we don’t have a lot of flexibility across these lines. Consumers are accepting the risk that they’d have to come in and get a formal modification. Hanson: I have some confidence that whatever variation there is from the lines will be vigorously contested, so there will have to be some good reasons. Cryor: the word flexibility does not mean ambiguity. Hanson: minor variation.  [A long period of silence while various Commissioners try their hands at crafting a sentence acceptable to the other Board members.] We don’t want a lot of messing around with this and attempts to substitute heights. We want that gradient to occur. I think we’re trying to get away from “how many developers can we impale on the head of a pin?” We just want to see if something is compatible with the principles of the Master Plan.

Hanson: this plan has to go to Council by the end of July. HAS to. When the staff gets a red-line draft, we have to be ready for any changes, precise written changes. We won’t have time to debate general propositions. We’ll have to have language which can be put in front of us in the form of motions. We can’t take more than the usual 4 hours on July 9th, because we have two other Plans going forward. We cannot slip the day. We have to get this one done. If you don’t like something, you’ll have to come in with language.

Weiss: so we are going to use as few zones as possible, but use particular language to show flexibility. I think we’ll have to have the density and height map in the Plan. So the maps you have in front of you right now will appear in the Plan.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


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