How It All Got Started . . .

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

Barnaby Zall


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