What to Expect? Part One: New Urban Area

What to Expect? Part One: New Urban Area

The Montgomery County Planning Board is scheduled to receive the final Draft White Flint Sector Plan on June 18. The Board will then spend several weeks reviewing and revising the draft Plan, before approving a plan and recommending it for passage by the County Council. Final Planning Board action on the Plan is anticipated by the end of July and as early as July 9, 2009.

The Board has been working on the White Flint Plan since 2006, with the assistance of hundreds of community volunteers and interested parties. The Planning Board long ago established its goals for the White Flint Sector Plan:

  • create thriving, diverse mixed use center with highest intensity closest to Metro and along Rockville Pike 
  • create new parks and open spaces
  • transform Rockville Pike into a boulevard with a landscape median, street trees and improved crosswalks
  • develop a transportation network that includes a grid of new public streets
  • improve the pedestrian and bicycling environment
  • promote sustainable development
  • create new public facilities
  • provide affordable housing
  • promote innovative ways to finance and manage new infrastructure

www.whiteflintplanning.org.

This second in a series of posts leading up to the June 18 worksession is my attempt to describe some of those broad outlines. These aren’t official Friends of White Flint positions, just my musings. I invite others to comment or post their own thoughts.

This post deals with the broad theme of the Plan: to transform White Flint from a suburban, automobile-oriented area, into a modern, urban, transit-oriented area.

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White Flint is currently a suburban area, governed by, and pretty much faithful to, the 1992 North Bethesda/Garrett Park Master Plan:

http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/plan_areas/bethesda_chevy_chase/master_plans/north_bethesda/toc_nbeth-gar.shtm

In the late 1980’s, the automobile was still ascendant, Al Gore was still a Senator, and suburbia was still considered a viable community option. White Flint was a way-station between Bethesda and Rockville, one of several, including residential Maplewood and Grosvenor just south and north of the Beltway, and Twinbrook, just to the north. The three biggest developments in the area were the then-new White Flint Mall, the remains of the Timberlawn estate across Rockville Pike (home of the only Presidential candidate to hail from White Flint: Sargeant Shriver, and his soon-to-be more famous daughter, Maria), and far to the north, the Korvette’s Shopping Center. In between, ran the congested, utility-wire-strewn Rockville Pike, built on top of the local watershed. The area was heavily commercial and retail-oriented, with only a small fringe of residences on the edges. Pavement dominated, and automobile-oriented, White Flint saw a few people each day arrive and depart at its spanking-new Metrorail station.

Fast-forward to 2000 and beyond: White Flint has filled in, dense with unplanned development, but its character hasn’t changed. It remains principally suburban. Strip malls line the Pike, set back from the road by acres of parking lot. One of the biggest, the old Korvette’s Plaza, now called Mid-Pike Plaza, has a fence stopping pedestrians on the Pike from entering the sacred parking lot. Traffic has grown worse, and it’s primarily through traffic, as there isn’t a big reason to stop in White Flint.

Yet potential shines through the cracks in the crumbling streets. There is capital, both financial and human, in the area. To the west lies the wealthy communities of Luxmanor, Old Farm, and others. To the east is the real “workforce housing” for this part of Montgomery County: Randolph Hills, where 5,000 families live and commute into the Sector. Economic studies suggest that Virginia alone gets $2 billion a year in retail sales from people who live and work in White Flint. Observers are stunned when Georgetown Preparatory School, just to the south, gets almost a billion dollars for a few acres of land ($9 million a year for 100 years), and that for a land lease, not even a true sale.

Developers, looking at White Flint’s economic potential, begin drawing up thirty-year development plans to bring in lots and lots of new development. LCOR negotiates with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) for a long-term lease on land near the White Flint Metro Station. JBG Companies create a new Conference Center and hotel across Rockville Pike from the Metro, and begins planning for a massive, three-phase development in White Flint’s southern end, including a 289′-high residential tower.

Montgomery County planners, watching these developments, realize there are huge problems with this essentially-uncontrolled development pattern in White Flint. This is suburban development, automobile-oriented, at a place with a heavy-rail transit station. This is an area where public opinion focus groups show that young people flock to the area with visions of taking Metro downtown, only to find that it is “unsafe” or difficult to use Metro, so they retreat to their cars. This is the last major developable area in southern Montgomery County, where one of the last major highway construction projects — the Montrose Parkway — is underway, redefining the northern end of the Sector.

Planning Board members study the trends and integrate them with national patterns on development. Board Chairman Royce Hanson begins speaking out about the future of White Flint. Suburban development patterns, says Hanson, are a “declining component of county growth.” Hanson says the county needs to “to rethink and reinvent the way development is planned and put less emphasis on roads because little more traffic capacity is likely to be added after the Intercounty  Connector and Montrose Parkway, now under construction, are built.”

The Planning Board, and many members of the County Council, are in synch with Hanson. Urban growth patterns, not suburban sprawl, is deemed more efficient, offering more reliance on transit systems, lower carbon emissions, more green space planning, and better financial returns for the County.

White Flint offers an opportunity for urban experimentation. The Sector is large, bigger than Bethesda and Silver Spring, but the areas for improvements in, for example, water-permeable ground cover instead of asphalt, are even more vast. The public transit infrastructure is in place and under-utilized. The economic studies necessary to draw in retail and commercial development have already been done. Continuing demand for housing near the Metro is an enormous hydraulic pressure and White Flint offers multiple opportunities to satisfy the demands.

But would the surrounding communities, so experienced in stopping development, go along with the shift from suburbia to urban planning? No one knew. The danger of obstructionism was huge. This is, after all, Montgomery County, where paralysis by analysis, combat by arcane statute, and knowledgeable, active and experienced civic activists all had flourished for many decades.

So, in 2006, the Planning Board began the White Flint planning process by convening “the World’s Largest Advisory Group.” http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/whiteflint/background.shtm. To many people’s surprise, many of the participants WANTED an urban model for White Flint. Apparently, the allure of transit-oriented, pedestrian- and bike-friendly, dense development had filtered down into the neighborhood activists.

Thus, from the beginning, the White Flint Sector Plan was very likely to follow an urban model. The Public Hearing Draft, which served as the template for Board consideration since it was unveiled late last year, used an urban model for White Flint, calling the area “Mid-town on the Pike.” http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/whiteflint/documents/wf_public_hearing_draft_12082008.pdf.

The Public Hearing Draft description of its “Vision” summarizes these developments:


     This Sector Plan explores how the urban center concept can be applied to new development in White
Flint to achieve a more coherent urban form. An urban place is dependent on people and activity. People walk from their homes to work, shops and, transit; offices plazas are full of workers during the day. At night and on weekends people attend the theater, visit galleries, and eat out. In the summer, everyone is out enjoying the evening breezes. This is a place where different lifestyles converge to make urban living interesting, challenging, and exciting. The proposed cultural and retail destinations in and around the civic core, the open space system, and a walkable street grid combine to spark the energy that flows through White Flint. With this energy, White Flint will become a vibrant and sustainable urban center that can adapt and respond to future challenges.

    There are few locations remaining in Montgomery County where excellent transit service and redevelopment potential coincide. Given the reality of future energy constraints and the effects of climate change, growth must take advantage of existing infrastructure, especially transit, to create compact new communities where reliance on the automobile is not necessary. Growth should be directed to those places where the reduction in the carbon footprint is possible, like White Flint, and where the infrastructure can support a sustainable, culturally interesting urban center outside of the well-established central business districts. As such, White Flint fits squarely into the County’s General Plan and long range policies as the place to accommodate a substantial portion of the region’s projected growth.

Nothing in the long series of worksessions, meetings, and huddled consultations with county and state officials has shaken this belief that White Flint should be an urban area, rather than continue as a suburban, car-oriented place. So I fully expect the Final Draft White Flint Sector Plan to continue this urban focus.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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