What to Expect? Part Two – Density and Heights

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

Barnaby Zall


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