Walkability Raises Home Values

One of the criticisms raised about the new White Flint Sector Plan is that the Plan is designed to help people who aren’t even there yet, at the expense of people who already live there. Leaving aside the question of whether that’s true, a new article is being circulated in e-mails about how New Urbanism walkable communities actually help those already nearby.

The report, by Joe Cortwright, CEO of Impreza, Inc., was commissioned by the organization CEOs for Cities. CEOs for Cities describes itself as “a national network of urban leaders dedicated to building and sustaining the next generation of great American cities.” www.ceosforcities.org. Impreza is a Portland, Oregon-based consulting firm that describes itself as “specializing in metropolitan economies and knowledge-based industries. We work with business and civic leaders to understand what it takes for organizations and places to be successful in the global knowledge economy.” www.imprezaconsulting.com
The report, “Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Housing Values in U.S. Cities”, analyzed data from 94,000 real estate transactions in 15 major markets. In 13 of the 15 markets, higher levels of walkability were directly linked to higher home values. The “levels of walkability” were measured by “Walkscore,” www.walkscore.com.

Walkscore calculates the distance to amenities such as schools, libraries, restaurants, parks, stores, and so on, and publishes a “Walk Score” from 0-100. Communities with a Walkscore of 70 or above are considered to be walkable, without a regular need for a car. CEOs for Cities reports that “The study found that in the typical metropolitan area, a one-point increase in Walk Score was associated with an increase in value ranging from $700 to $3,000 depending on the market.  The gains were larger in denser, urban areas like Chicago and San Francisco and smaller in less dense markets like Tucson and Fresno.”

The “metropolitan area” listed first on the walkable list was Arlington, Virginia. Friends of White Flint consciously models its plans for White Flint on the successful transformation of Arlington from car-centric suburb to a transit-oriented, walkable community. In the first presentation of Friends of White Flint’s Speakers’ Series in May, Chris Zimmerman, of the Arlington County Board, pointed out that Arlington has increased its population substantially in the last twenty years, but traffic congestion has actually gone down.

So we’ll have to revise our estimates of the value gain expected from the transformation of White Flint into a walkable community. We have been using the Montgomery County Planning Board’s estimate of $2.1 billion in additional property and income tax revenues, but that only counted new construction and new residents. See our discussion of the economics of the White Flint Sector Plan here.

What the Cortwright study shows is that there will also be some increase in property values in the existing housing values in the area. The amount of the increase will depend on how walkable the community actually becomes, but for each point in White Flint’s new “Walk Score”, existing property values can also be expected to rise between $700 to $3,000.

So the new White Flint should be good for existing residents, as well as newcomers. The benefits should be in reduced traffic, greater amenities and opportunities, and in actual dollar value of homes and properties.

You can find the Cortwright study at:


Barnaby Zall

Montgomery’s Growth Policy is Shortsighted

As published in the Washington Business Journal, July 3-9, 2009: 

Montgomery County has released its two-year update of the county’s growth policy. The 37-page document does an excellent job of responding to the biannual requirements, and its 16 appendices are quite formidable. It presents a thoughtful, provocative look ahead for the present and future residents of Montgomery County, as Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson seeks to ensure that future development is “smart” and located near and around transit centers and corridors.

However, the 2009 growth policy falters in its vision for several reasons: It fails to recognize (and take into account) the recession we are in today and likelihood of it continuing through 2011 with its accompanying disincentive to initiate any new use of property until land values stabilize and the financing market establishes its new lending criteria. It fails to recognize that any development — no matter how smart it might be and how much it pays in impact taxes and builds infrastructure — has little chance of proceeding if the county places urban areas into moratorium, for reasons unrelated to new development. We should be seeing a two-year look ahead as well as a long-range policy.

The planning board should identify in its growth policy those capital improvement projects necessary to sustain current residents, businesses and the community at large, as well as those behavioral changes that will improve sustainability, quality of life and expand homeownership opportunities. There is much demographic data that has not been incorporated into the report. A local market research firm has done a five-year forecast and found that in Montgomery County, as well as elsewhere, there will be a significant reduction in the recent level of homeownership. A leading driver in the economic recession was the unnatural surge in homeownership, which rose to 70 percent. Homeownership is now returning to a more normal range of 65 percent. This will result in more households renting.

Additionally, the homeownership market over the next five years will be made up of two significant markets — first-time homebuyers and the move-down market. This will have a ripple effect on the projected number of housing units needed, and these demographic elements have not been addressed in the current policy draft.

What the county should be doing through the growth policy is retooling to meet the post-recovery changed environment that we will face. We are all doing that in our places of employment, and in many cases this is having some profound and positive effects on how we do business, creating smarter products and services, and raising the awareness of environmental issues and the responsibility all residents must assume to ensure that the county continues to develop as a viable community.

Thomas M. Farasy is the 2009 president of the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association.

[Ed.: Op-ed is by Thomas M. Farasy; quotes posted by J. Gephart]

What to Expect: Part 3 – the PIKE!

Fourth in a series of posts discussing what I expect to see in the upcoming final Draft White Flint Sector Plan, scheduled to be delivered to the Montgomery County Planning Board on June 18. These are not official Friends of White Flint positions, just my musings. This post deals with transportation issues, and in particular, what to do about Rockville Pike.

Originally, I was going to write about transportation generally first, but Jen Beasley’s Gazette article on the debate over the Pike is so good in explaining the controversy that I’ll use that as a springboard first.


If, as many urban and transportation designers contend, an area’s transportation network of roads and streets is the skeleton on which the area is built, Rockville Pike is White Flint’s spine. It is one of its greatest challenges, but if you look beyond the shouts over the redesign, also presents an opportunity to bring together the Pike in a way that no other feature of the Sector Plan can offer.

There are only two major north-south roadways in White Flint: Old Georgetown Rd. on the western edge, and Rockville Pike running diagonally down the center. The Pike is congested seven days a week, but in the White Flint area, the road has not actually “failed” according to most transportation models. No White Flint intersection appears on the recent list of “worst” intersections in the county, released earlier this week.

Nevertheless, almost everyone you talk to about fixing White Flint fixates on the Pike first. “Traffic!” they interrupt. “You have to do something about it!” I was that way too: I described it, in an early video presentation to the White Flint Advisory Group as “the Beast That Ate White Flint.” A big, blue-green monster that dripped cars and ate pedestrians.

So the White Flint Plan, and the White Flint planners, rightfully focus on fixing the Pike. There is a general consensus on how to improve the Pike — basically by making it into a “boulevard.” Other cities have done it, by lining major streets with trees, making them pedestrian- and bike-friendly, and giving people a reason to go there, even if they’re not in cars.

But there are two competing visions of how to do that: one by the County planners, and one by Glatting Jackson, an internationally-reknowned transportation design firm hired by the White Flint Partnership, a group of major property owners in the White Flint area.

(Note: Friends of White Flint, which includes residents, businesses and property owners, is not the same as the White Flint Partnership, although we work closely with the Partnership on issues of common interest.)

The Glatting Jackson proposal is wider, more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly than the planning staff proposal, and contains rapid transit lanes in the middle or median of the Pike, rather than on the curb lanes, where they would be shared by bicycles, busses, and right-turning cars. The Planning Board originally rejected the Glatting Jackson approach, then reconsidered, and now seems likely to adopt the best of both, pending studies of how transit in White Flint would integrate with transit outside the Sector.

There have been a series of posts in the FLOG over recent weeks on this battle.  But Yesterday’s article by Jen Beasley in the Gazette nicely sums up the debate and the options.

This debate, though spirited and important, is only part of the answer to improving the Pike. Improving the Pike actually includes four options:

  • Create a robust new street network throughout White Flint to take the load off the Pike;
  • Add new medians and transit options, including Vehicular Rapid Transit capability, while keeping the same number of lanes for through traffic;
  • Make the Pike pedestrian- and bike-friendly; and
  • Add stores, restaurants and parking for a lively Pike.

 The debate over the Pike is mostly about the middle two points: how do we put transit, pedestrians, and bikes back into the design for the Pike? We expect the new Plan to include a robust new street network, and elements designed for a lively new Pike.

A final point, to bring the Pike debate back to White Flint as a whole. The Pike is not just a problem to be resolved. The Pike also offers a tremendous opportunity for urban design in White Flint, turning an obstacle into an asset.

Though not often remarked upon, one of the elements in the new White Flint Plan, which we expect to see in the final draft is “The Promenade.” The Promenade runs east-west along the new Market Street, at the Metro Station, and north-south along Rockville Pike.

The Promenade is rarely described as a combined north-south and east-west unit, but it should function as both the “spine” and “shoulders” of a new White Flint. The Pike (north-south) holds up the east-west component of the Promenade.

The Promenade forms a diagonal “T” with the base along the Pike and the cross-bar leading from Wall Park and the Civic Green (the two major parks in the new White Flint) over the Metro Station and into the public space area of the North Bethesda Center. It connects and draws together the Sector in a walkable, bikeable corridor which gives people both a reason and a means to wander through the Sector.

Thus, the Pike offers both the biggest obstacle to the new White Flint, and also the biggest opportunity. Even if the new draft Plan doesn’t focus on this aspect, we expect to see this skeleton form the basis for the new Sector.

Barnaby Zall

What to Expect? Part Two – Density and Heights

Third in a series of posts discussing what I expect to see in the upcoming final Draft White Flint Sector Plan, scheduled to be delivered to the Montgomery County Planning Board on June 18. These are not official Friends of White Flint positions, just my musings. This post deals with density and heights.


As discussed in the last post, White Flint is destined to be a more urban area. One of the characteristics of an urban area is that it has higher density (sometimes called higher “intensity”) than a suburban model. More people per square mile. More buildings per square mile. Sometimes taller, sometimes squat but broader, but generally more buildings.

The basic intention is to place more people within easy walking distance of the Metrorail station. The county has an enormous investment in this heavy-rail transit system, and years of experience demonstrate that transit use is heaviest when people live only five minutes away from a station. In Arlington County, for example, a nearby example of increasing density enormously, while decreasing traffic congestion, the vast majority of Metro users walk to Metro. Thus, the Board spent a great deal of time calculating exactly how far and how long a walk it would be to the Metro station. Planning staff actually walked several paths in White Flint, and determined that virtually every part of the Sector is within a ten-minute walk of the Metro. “And some of the walks are quite lovely,” reported Piera Weiss, Master Planner for the Sector.

Commissioner Jean Cryor has asked that a section be placed in the White Flint Sector Plan, right at the beginning, which says clearly: density does not equal height. This is an important distinction, especially since many observers, including Piera Weiss, remind people: in White Flint, the controversial issue is building height.

     Density does not automatically translate to building heights. Density, as used in Montgomery County planning, is a combination of ways to use the land available for development. Thus a shorter, wider building can be very dense, while a narrow, tall building might not be. In addition, height decisions involve questions of sunlight and shadows on surrounding areas, aesthetics and design features, and proximity to surrounding neighborhoods.

    A common measure of density used in Montgomery County is Floor Area Ratio, abbreviated as FAR. The greater the FAR, the more development permitted on a property. FARs in the White Flint Plan range from 2.0 to 4.0, with the higher FARs being located closer to the Metro station. 

For comparison, FARs in Rosslyn, for example, go up to 10.0. FARs are higher in Bethesda, along the Wisconsin Avenue corridor. White Flint is intended to have lower density than some urban areas.

    The FAR, however, does not itself limit height; height limits are set separately. In the White Flint Plan, maximum heights range from 300 feet, close to the Metro, down to 50 feet near residential areas, such as in the southern part of the Sector.

    The Planning Board has created new “design guidelines” and a new “CR” (for Commercial/Residential) Zone, both of which will operate to control heights. Much of the discussion at the June 4, 2009, Board worksession, for example, was on exactly how to mesh the Master Plan, the design guidelines, and the zoning rules to reach the desired height limits.

     There will be a 300′ height limit in White Flint. The highest building now under construction, at North Bethesda Marketplace (the big tower now being built across Rockville Pike from White Flint Mall) will be 289′ and will “top out” in August, 2009. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission White Flint Center building, just across Marinelli Road from the Metrorail station, is 240′. You can see some examples of existing building heights here:


That maximum height will be available only near the Metro station. Maximum heights will rapidly decrease, proportionate to distance from the Metro station. Thus, for example, permissible heights on one block at Mid-Pike Plaza, in the northwestern corner of the Sector but directly across the Pike from the Metro station, may decrease from 300′ to 200′.

The minimum height level is 50′, at the southern and southeastern edges of the Sector, near the White Flint Mall and the Garrett Park Estates/White Flint Park community boundary, and the Crest of Wickford community.

The Planning Staff is aiming at a “tenting” effect, with the tallest buildings at the Metro and a gradual transition outwards. With the advent of sophisticated graphics and illustration software, the Planning Board is moving into an era in which mapping may give more useful guidance to non-professionals than dry text, and the Board is expected to utilize its new capabilities in the draft Sector Plan. At the June 4, 2009, worksession, the Staff presented a series of interactive slides demonstrating the permissible heights across the Sector, but those are not on-line yet.  Commissioners, however, recommended that those maps be included in the Plan, in as much detail as possible.

In addition, the Commissioners formulated a new structure for using the maps as regulatory guides. Concerned about applicants or reviewers contending that the map lines were absolute requirements instead of guidelines, the Board decided to use descriptive text to further illustrate its intentions. For example, on one parcel at White Flint Mall, height limits might range from 200′ to 100′, and the Board’s text would describe the intention as having the highest heights at the northwestern edge, nearer Rockville Pike, and the lowest heights within that range in the southeastern edge, near the adjacent community.

This degree of explanation is necessary, not just because of the litigious nature of modern society, but because new Maryland law requires all development plans to meet the intentions of the appropriate Master Plan. Thus, the Board took much of its limited time during its June 4 meeting to craft language exactly describing its intentions in this area.

So, to summarize, I expect the new Plan to describe heavier density for White Flint, with the highest density, and the tallest permitted buildings, closer to the Metro station, and the permitted densities and heights falling away as you move away from the Metro. There will be a small exception of slightly higher density near the new MARC commuter rail station on Nicholson Court in the southeastern part of the Sector, but generally the pattern will be higher densities near Metro and along Rockville Pike.

Barnaby Zall

How It All Got Started . . .

(First in a projected series of posts leading up to the publication of the final Draft of the White Flint Sector Plan by the staff of the Montgomery County Planning Board. I welcome all participants in the White Flint planning process to add their own memories and analyses.)

For me, the White Flint Planning process began in October 2006, when I saw a tiny squib in the Gazette, calling for volunteers to discuss the future of White Flint. Back then, I was coaching freshman football at Georgetown Prep, a few blocks down Rockville Pike from my law office in White Flint; that was where my “free time” went. I really had quite enough on my plate, and thought this would just be a quick meeting, where I could vent and be done with it. (Umm, I was wrong, but more on that later.)

My first thought was “what can I do to fix the traffic on the Pike?” I talked to several people in my office and at Prep. Everyone had the same idea: traffic’s bad. And throughout the last three years, that’s been the first reaction of almost everyone. How do we fix it? It’s been interesting to see the universality of it.

Today I can watch an audience listening to, say, Evan Goldman giving a presentation on the new White Flint, and know that within the first ten minutes someone will interrupt and bellow: “TRAFFIC!” Or something. And everyone will nod, twist in their chairs, turn to the person next to them, and say, “Right.” “Yeah.” “Don’t make it worse.” And, as a part of this process, I also now know that when the group sees the “robust street network” and the plans for Pike as a boulevard, and the possibility of Bus Rapid Transit, those heads turn forward, brows knit in concentration, and gradually the eyes open wider, as they see a possible — could it be? — solution to traffic, and it looks . . . like . .  it could work.

But back then, I was just like them. I only wanted to get where I was going as fast as I could. Zip onto the Pike, turn off at my intersections, be there. I had no grand design, no plan, as I look back on it, no real solutions. I just didn’t understand the basic concept of modern traffic planning: that traffic is like water, it will find its own level if you give it a chance.

But as I talked to people and contemplated this little ad, asking me to volunteer, somewhere, lurking deep down inside, there was a thought that somebody needs to work on this. I didn’t know if anyone else would, so I thought I’d show up and at least listen to what was going on.

So I sent in an e-mail response. It didn’t say much, since I didn’t have much to say. I just  explained that I had no experience in urban planning or design, but that I was a resident of the area who also worked in White Flint.

Ever have one of those feelings that you’re not really sure what you’re getting yourself into? I had that, and my finger hovered above the “send” key for some time. But I sent it. After all, how much time and effort could it possibly involve?

I got back a nice e-mail from Margaret Rifkin, a planner, welcoming me to a meeting in December; I missed the first meeting in November 2006. I had to look up the address, not having been to the Park and Planning offices in Silver Spring before. Once I got there, I circled for a bit, not having any idea how to get into the building. It’s kind of an odd design, really, with the “front” door in the back, off the street, leading to the parking lot. And that parking lot is pretty off-putting, with lots of “DON’T PARK HERE” signs. So I ended up following a small group of people into the building.

There was a huge group of people milling about. I thought I’d be one of a few, but there must have been more than 100 people already there. Planning staff described it as “The World’s Largest Advisory Group,” and they were all packed into the narrow hallway leading to the auditorium. I spotted a dark-haired woman with glasses holding a large foamboard poster (I couldn’t see what was on the poster), with a name tag saying Margaret Rifkin. She directed me to a table with a sign-up sheet.

At the first table, I discovered that I was assigned to “Neighborhood Three.” This was the southwestern quadrant of the Sector, and included my office building. I recognized Tom Murphy, head of Eagle Bank in Bethesda, who was a resident of the small community between my office and the Prep campus, on the list for Neighborhood Three. I also recognized a few parents from coaching youth and high school sports, and a few others I knew from the area. But mostly I was adrift.

Around the room were placed many hand-written posters, products of the first meeting in early November 2006. These included crude maps, with bright swirls of color, some of them heavily pushed into the paper for emphasis, others just slashes across the page with no apparent meaning. You can see these in the Planning Board archives here:


Eventually, the “meeting” was called to order, with some introductions of various eminences and functionaries. County council members, planning staff, and the like. We were told to break into groups and develop some thoughts, which we would report back to the overall group later.

As Neighborhood Three, we were one of the smallest groups, so we were shuffled off up some rickety stairs and into a meeting room. We had flip-charts and markers, and a couple of staff to help us record our thoughts. And we had an hour or so to talk.

A few of us knew each other. Tom Murphy and I chatted about non-profit organizations; Evan Goldman, who was then with Holladay, talked to John Kraus, the architect of the North Bethesda Market project (the big tower going up on the Pike across from White Flint Mall). Paula Bienenfeld chatted with Bea Chester, both neighborhood activists from prior development wars.

And we started to discuss a vision of White Flint. Some of the points were tiny. Paula: “can we get the pavement colored white to reduce the ‘heat island’ effect?” Some were monumental. Evan: “the way to move more traffic is to SLOW traffic, not build more lanes.”

We didn’t know as much then, and we certainly hadn’t worked out any sort of consensus about ideas. But, looking back, what is fascinating is what Planning Commissioner Joe Alfandre discovered a couple of months ago when he reviewed the whole White Flint process: how much of that early vision has lasted into the present-day discussions.

Take a look at the discussions from that December 2006 meeting, and judge for yourself:


“The strongest support overall was shown for the “mixed use urban villages” element, along with ‘sense of place’, ‘walking and biking’, and ‘green’. Lower but general support was indicated for ‘transit options’, ‘metro access’, ‘new Rockville Pike’, ‘parking’, and ‘retail variety’ – in that general order. Area residents indicated somewhat higher support for ‘green’, ‘walking and biking’, and ‘sense of place’ than those with business or development interests.”

Barnaby Zall

New Urbanism Takes Off

     The Congress for the New Urbanism, www.cnu.org, has released a new video on New Urbanism, highlighting the “greatest threat to our civilization:” . . . . the cul-de-sac. The video won its contest to explain visually the philosophy of New Urbanism. “What we build is our greatest threat . . . or our greatest hope.” New Urbanism is the philosophy behind the White Flint Sector Plan.


Design Guidelines Garner Applause

Live blogging from the May 7, 2009, worksession of the Montgomery County Planning Board on the White Flint Sector Plan. Current topic is the new design guidelines.

John Carter, Chief Urban Design and Preservation Division, who has been involved with the White Flint Plan from the start three years ago, with Luis Estrada, project urban designer for White Flint, introduced the Guidelines. Hanson: this is not regulatory, just to give an idea of what is expected. Robinson: there’s a question. Some of these seem pretty prescriptive. Hanson: I don’t think we want that. The Plan will say the limits and maximum density. Carter: More detail will come as we go district-by-district through the guidelines. This is the glue that holds the vision together.

Carter: Not done yet, still being worked over. Once you finish the Plan, the design guidelines will catch up with that. We’ll bring the other agencies in so this is a county-wide agreement. Spirit this comes to you is in producing a lot of stuff. We’ll show how the districts fit together.

Estrada: describe streets, open space and buildings as they affect the public realm. Starting with the composite map results of a few weeks ago, to help us understand how to frame the guidelines. “Developer’s Composite” photo. Start with public roads, supplemented by proposed roads, in between a network of public open spaces. Promenades linking east-west and north-south, and a recreational loop. Expanded Loop from original plan to better serve all neighborhoods, especially with extensions. Adding local trails and historical sites (adds Montrose Schoolhouse). Tied to regional trails.

Estrada: 4 different walkways to four corners of the sector. Establishes character. First is Metro to Civic Green through Mid-Pike Plaza. Definition of the blocks along the corridor will be compatible, and culminating at the civic Green, the major gathering space for the sector.

Second walk: starts at Metro to Maple Ave to Metro East corner. Through North Bethesda Center, to existing developments along Citadel, to the new development.

Third walk: metro to conference center to wall Park to North Bethesda Marketplace.

Fourth walk is along the Pike to White Flint Mall. along the Promenade to connect north-south. envisioning more contemporary buildings since the right of way is substantial. More architecture character is possible.

Fifth walk is through White Flint Mall itself, through the various neighborhoods of that development. From the front of the Mall to the north and around to the new Park site to the east. More residential as you move closer to the edge of the district which are adjacent to residential neighborhoods. A new park to the south of the Mall.

Area 1 issues: improving pedestrian environment along Rockville Pike; wide sidewalks, underground utilities, and safe pedestrian intersections. Area 2: 355 and Old Georgetown Rd; street beautification, more mid-block connections and transitions. Area 3: Pike and Nicholson; same as area 2. Area 4, by Mall, transitions with existing neighborhoods. As move to district/neighborhood levels, have a series of maps to describe.

Carter: conceptualization of aspirations and then applications. Cmsnr Robinson: very helpful format. consistent across neighborhoods. As you do district organization, you get lots of these things coming together. Estrada: Still more work to do. Carter: this doesn’t go in the Plan, but it’s an analytical tool to show how these things go into the public realm.

The Board applauded the presentation.

Cmsnr Cryor: pedestrians crossing the street? Carter: need to redesign the intersection to protect and accommodate the pedestrians. Cmsnr Presley: can we insure that these aren’t going to be undone by DoT. Carter: we have to make this an Urban District. DoT has different models. Hanson: You can do that in the Master Plan. Carter: once do that, you can direct the rest of the improvements. Once you build a new building, utilities must be underground. It’s the big lines to get those underground, so need some power to get that done. But we’ve been pretty successful in other areas. Presley: I would be more comfortable if everyone were to commit, because I know how often these things don’t come true. Carter: they won’t work unless we bring in the other agencies, if we just do this project by project. Very big dollar projects.

Alfandre: plan is to finish by June 18? Piera Weiss, chief White Flint planner: we come back to you on June 18 with a redline rewrite of the whole plan, and then you come back to us with any changes.

Cryor: Montrose Parkway. Are we going to change that? Busses? Weiss: bus bays at Metro station. Carter: whole loop. Dan Hardy: chief Vision Division, and head transportation planner: in the WF Sector Plan, Parkway is the northern boundary. Will have a signalized intersection on the east. On the western part, stays at grade, and what’s already built is what will be there. Did raise the question back in February about adding more development in White Flint which would have required more from the western area, but that has changed. Cryor: so 270/Fortune Parc area is much in the future? Not walking distance. Whose getting on the bus? I never thought it was going down there. Hardy: we’re not recommending any reconstruction of Montrose Parkway. Was there enough there to add a BRT lane? No, but you could add more bus service. Most of the people going on the Parkway during peak periods are going to No. Bethesda.

Alfandre: aside from the Pike issues you showed earlier, are there other problems in the grid? Carter: we’ll see those as we go through the districts. Alfandre: we need to look carefully at the MARC station area, because one area where we have an opportunity to connect a neighborhood. Heirarchy of open spaces? Carter: we have that. In the guidelines in the aspirations.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About White Flint Financing . . .

The materials for Thursday’s Montgomery County Planning Board worksession on the White Flint Sector Plan are available on-line now. Included in the materials is a 46-page summary of financing and implementation options, http://montgomeryplanningboard.org/agenda/2009/documents/20090507_Worksession_10_White_Flint_Sector_Plan.pdf, and a discussion of the proposed new “design guidelines.” http://montgomeryplanningboard.org/agenda/2009/documents/20090705_Draft_Urban_Design_Guidelines_for_White_Flint.pdf.

The implementation memo discusses comments from the January hearing on the Public Hearing draft and responds to comments from the County Executive’s office. If you’re pressed for time, the cover memo is only nine pages and accurately summarizes the voluminous attachments.

The design guidelines are the subject of tonight’s White Flint Steering Committee meeting. The guidelines are an innovation (or they were when first proposed; now they are used in other Master Plans) designed to permit some intermediate control by the Planning Board between the broad outlines of a Master Plan and the specific project approvals each developer must obtain. The Design Guidelines give a general idea of which architectural and construction ideas are permitted and which are encouraged (through bonuses or increases to density).

Interesting Article on the Greater Greater Washington Blog about White Flint!

White Flint master plan: it’s all about incentives

Proposed street grid at White Flint Metro. Image from Glatting-Jackson.
by Cavan Wilk Montgomery County is continuing its planning process to retrofit the area surrounding the White Flint Metro into a vibrant livable, walkable community. The current owners of the land surrounding the Metro station are on board with the plan. They are also contributing their input. For the property owners, a suburban-to-urban retrofit is an excellent project. They would no longer have to pay taxes on land in their strip malls that is dedicated to large non-revenue generating surface parking lots, and will be able to collect more rent in the denser walkable urban environment. As we saw with the District of Columbia government’s failure at Poplar Point, providing the right incentives for developers and landowners is an incredibly important part of planning a great human-scale place. Currently, the area surrounding the White Flint Metro station has a very car-dependent form. Traffic there is, to be blunt, a pain in the rear at most hours of the day. Last October, I wrote: Rockville Pike between the NIH and downtown Rockville is an ugly mess of an edge city. Like Tysons, it has too much density to be truly car friendly, but all the ugliness of suburbia: strip malls set back behind acres of surface parking. This is all connected by a six lane road with speed limits that are too high to be safe for pedestrians. The irony is that unlike Tysons, Rockville Pike already has a Metro line—the busiest line in the Metro system, the Red Line.The landowners are asking for more density (higher FAR’s) in the updated Sector Plan. As with any profit-seeking business, they are seeking to increase long-term profitability. In this case, the developers would like to be able to collect more rent on more floor space in a taller building. They are also worried that without the density, they will not be able to recoup the large costs associated with canceling their current leases, demolishing their existing strip malls, and building new buildings. The landowners are also seeking to amend how the density is allocated throughout the new suburban-to-urban retrofitted town. In both Bethesda and the Rosslyn to Ballston corridor, the tallest buildings are closest to the Metro station. The farther away from the Metro, the shorter the buildings until the walkable town blends into car-dependent suburbia. The original draft of the White Flint Sector Plan calls for a similar arrangement. However the landowners have a modified proposal: Unlike the staff plan, which is a pattern of concentric circles with the highest density around the Metro station like a bull’s-eye, the ellipse plan squishes the higher densities inward, elongating the zone along Rockville Pike. It also follows property lines, so owners are not faced with bisected lots of different densities. … Don Briggs, senior vice president of Federal Realty, said the Collaborative’s intent was not to increase density for every property owner within it, but to create density allocations that reflected the real walkability to be achieved when Rockville Pike is reborn as a boulevard. The staff plan assumes walkability in as-the-crow-flies increments from the Metro, while the Collaborative plan uses walking time and other factors that will accompany the new street network and transit options to craft its recommendations. He said the ellipse plan more equitably reflects property values, which are higher along the commercial stretch of Rockville Pike.It would be expensive (and a bit awkward) for a developer to have to build a building that does not take up their entire property so they can fit it within the density boundaries. Planners should ensure that it is as financially rewarding as possible to build human-scale walkable urban places. Current landowners have already proposed a human-scale street grid for the area. They would cede the land under the new streets to the public. While the Fenty Administration dropped the ball at Poplar Point, Montgomery County’s planning for the White Flint Metro provides an excellent opportunity to learn more tools to create walkable urban transit-oriented places. In the United States, we have a tradition of having the private sector build buildings and collect rent. The government’s role is to provide planning and infrastructure. In this arrangement, it is up to the government to set up the rules of the game in such a way that the private sector makes more profits for building walkable urban places with a human-scale street grid and transit access and nothing for building more gas-guzzling car-dependent sprawl. The land around the White Flint Metro station is incredibly valuable. Its value is only enhanced by its location in the Favored Quarter. If the Washington Post is correct, our region will need new dense human-scale walkable urban infill because migration to the exurbs is over. Yet, economic troubles and all, our region is one of the few in the United States that is still projected to gain jobs in the coming decades. The free falling housing values in the exurbs imply that it will not be worth it for developers to build out there. That is in addition to the extreme negative economic and environmental consequences of the car-dependent suburban/exurban living arrangement. This new White Flint Sector Plan will be one piece of the puzzle of planning for the rest of the 21st century.

posted on Mar 24, 2009 2:29 pm (4 comments · share or email) — tags: Maryland, Montgomery, Smart Growth, White Flint

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CommentsGreat analysis. Let’s hope this plan (or sometime like it) comes to fruition. Rockville Pike is terrible as currently laid-out. There is some decent TOD sprouting up, but the Pike itself is so unwalkable and unaesthetic. (Maybe not as bad as Bally’s Crossroads or 7 Corners, but not far behind) by SG on Mar 24, 2009 2:37 pm   …and the irony is that unlike in Tysons, a Metro line already runs through the corridor. I do give the county a lot of credit for working on plans. I also give them credit for listening to the developers for input. The developers are on board with the suburban-to-urban retrofit, despite its economic risks to them. They want to do the right thing for the environment while making a profit. I was not surprised that the Post piece had to quote some anti-neighbor like it always does. Most are neutral or in favor of the plan. It won’t destroy anyone’s parking space. The fact that the county is widening Randolph/Montrose Road to near-freeway standards there is also placating the car/traffic/build more and bigger roads crowd. We’re learning more and more, especially in light of current economic trends, that in a market economy such as ours, we must use the profit motive of private developers for good rather than knee-jerk demonizing them. by Cavan on Mar 24, 2009 3:26 pm   It’s interesting that so much cooperation was possible here, with companies working for development. Considering how demonized developers are, isn’t is ironic that PUD and community organization plans are usually more histrionic and bitter than this seems to be. Is it really just because the companies will get a better bottom line that they’re willing to work together? How do urban activists convince relatively upscale neighborhoods to work together instead of throwing ad hominems at each other? On a side note, I think it helps that these companies have been on the land for while now, so they sort of have a sense for the neighborhood already. by цarьchitect on Mar 24, 2009 6:27 pm   Well, there are some anti-neighbors. Not so many though. Many are intrigued and are excited at having Bethesda-like amenities near their house. As for the developers, a couple of them want to do the right thing for the planet. It luckily is the better business decision too.