Sketching in Pencil? Or in Ink?

Sketching in Pencil? Or in Ink?

I have tried my hand at sketching. I did the logo for Friends of White Flint, available in the Gallery at

Friends of White Flint logo

But that tooks weeks of erasing, redo’s and comments by my best critics (err, my wife and kids). I worked first in pencil, then in a (very expensive) computer planning tool (for proportions and balance), and then reworked it with ink and paint, many, many times. The final looks much different from the original, thanks to helpful comments and much adjustment. I would never just freehand in permanent ink, at least not for something intended to be permanent. I’ve tried that, and needless to say, you won’t find those in my Gallery.

But it seems a similar question has arisen in the White Flint planning process. Pencil? Or permanent marker?

We’re now deeply into what’s being called the “sketch plan” process. The Montgomery County Planning Board will get a staff briefing tomorrow morning about the new “sketch plan” process, and will then look at the first three “sketch plans” submitted for review.

The three plans are all in White Flint. Mid-Pike Plaza, at the Pike and Montrose Parkway; North Bethesda Market Phase Two, across from White Flint Mall on the Pike, and North Bethesda Gateway, on Nicholson Lane. Each sketch plan was presented to the community at meetings by Friends of White Flint and the developers themselves.

Some of the plans were kind of preliminary, and others, particularly the Mid-Pike Plaza plan, were extremely thorough. That difference isn’t a function of effort, but of an apparent difference in understanding of the new process.

And now that difference of opinion seems to have spilled over into live debate: just how permanent are the sketches presented tomorrow? Diane Schwartz-Jones, lead staffer for County Executive Ike Leggett, told the White Flint Implementation Committee last week that the sketch plans are “major,” meaning legally permanent of sorts, and the community needs to get moving on understanding the amenities to be put into the plans. She told me that again today at the Planning staff’s discussion of its new study on parking options in Montgomery County. Certainly the Mid-Pike plan seems to have cost lots and lots to prepare, with great precision in the description and placement of items.

Greg Trimmer, of the JBG Companies, however, seemed to have a less permanent view of the process, when he discussed it with the White Flint Implementation Committee last week. To Greg, it seems the process is more conceptual, and is mostly to work things out and get community input before the more permanent “site plan” stage of the process.  

 Who’s right? Pencil or ink?

I think part of the difference has to do with the purpose of the new sketch plan process itself. The official description of the process is:

The purpose of the Sketch Plan is to identify land uses, proposed development and any public benefits for the optional method of development.  The Plan is intended to be conceptual in nature with an emphasis on building massing and height, varying densities and heights, the general circulation patterns for all modes of transportation and the locations of open and public use spaces.  Sketch Plans are required in the CR zones in the White Flint, Wheaton, Kensington and Shady Grove Life Sciences planning areas.  Details of the proposed development occur at Site Plan.  

The objectives of the CR zones are to: (a) Implement the policy recommendations of applicable master and sector plans; (b) Target opportunities for redevelopment of single-use areas and surface parking lots with a mix of uses; (c) Reduce dependence on the automobile by encouraging development that integrates a combination of housing types, mobility options, commercial services, and public facilities and amenities; (d) Encourage an appropriate balance of employment and housing opportunities and compatible relationships with adjoining neighborhoods; (e) Establish the maximum density and building height for each zone, while retaining appropriate development flexibility within those limits; and (f) Standardize optional method developments by establishing minimum requirements for the provision of the public benefits that will support and accommodate density above the standard method of development.

Decoded, this seems to involve the beginnings of the development planning process, covering what you might call the “bones” of a plan: streets, size and density of buildings, location of open spaces. “Details of the proposed development occur at Site Plan.” But the first and second sentences seem to conflict. Can you be “conceptual” if you have to “identify” with any specificity?

Some observers are heeding Diane Jones’ admonition by saying that there needs to be specific location of particular amenities in some of these first three sketches. This has sparked a kind of location bargaining over things that might not appear for many years. Should the new library go in Mid-Pike Plaza or the already-building North Bethesda Town Center? That’s not an “open space,” though it is a “public benefit.”

But making these decisions in what appears to be a “conceptual” stage, early in the process, would seem to be rushing things. After all, the County itself is only beginning the planning process for its contributions to transportation and amenities. The Fiscal Year 2012 CIP budget includes four White Flint-specific items, all involving preliminary planning. Why would we lock in specific amenities beyond the “conceptual” at this early stage?

If Diane Jones is correct, and there is some legally-binding element to the “sketch plan” process, she may have identified a remediable flaw in the new system. Why rush?

Perhaps we’ll see tomorrow at the staff briefing.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


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