A letter from the Board of Education that was sent to the Planning Board at the request of Montgomery County Public Schools was the highlight of a Garrett Park Estates/White Flint Park Citizen’s Association meeting on Wednesday. Accordingly, Bruce Crispell, director of long range planning for MCPS, as well as Nkosi Yearwood and Brooke Farquhar from the Planning and Parks departments were there to explain the history of the school site and answer questions.
A few things became clear during the course of the meeting. First, both the Department of Planning and Department of Parks staff are still supporting the sector plan recommendation to locate the school south of the White Flint Mall site (currently a parking lot). However, they are meeting with Lerner Enterprises, the owners of the mall, to see how to find a way to increase the acreage for the elementary school. The site identified in the master plan for the school has been constrained by a revised road alignment to accommodate a “specific tenant” that will generate a lot of truck traffic, according to Yearwood. At this time, Lerner has only submitted a sketch plan, which is largely conceptual, for their site. Yearwood explained that the next step in the planning review process, a more detailed preliminary plan, is likely coming next year.
On MCPS’s side, all of the proposed sites are challenges. Crispell explained that MCPS likes to have 12 acres for an elementary school, and that their typical requirements for an elementary school include 3 playgrounds and 3 paved areas for activities such as recess and physical education. This program of requirements is one of the reasons why MCPS is now looking at another site behind White Flint Mall, adjacent to White Flint Neighborhood Park – MCPS has many schools that co-locate outdoor activities with parks. Additionally, MCPS is looking to have land dedicated for the school so that acquisition won’t be an added expense. During the course of the meeting it became clear that all of the potential sites likely have some dollar amount attached to them, but that MCPS will continue to favor those that come at the lowest cost. This reality is why some other sites suggested are considered unfeasible. When asked about the current properties MCPS owns, Crispell explained that all of those properties currently have another use, and that MCPS prefers to have new land for a growing population, within the sector plan, to serve that community specifically. When one resident called for a more urban design for a school, such as a play area on a roof, Crispell replied “I don’t think we’re there yet,” though because of its smaller site Somerset Elementary in Chevy Chase has been thought of as a model for the new White Flint Elementary School.
The community’s concerns included traffic and the future of their park. Some were frustrated that White Flint Neighborhood Park would not be open for public use during the school day, particularly because the sector plan calls for the current park to be expanded. In terms of traffic, many community members were opposed to school busses and other additional traffic cutting through their neighborhood to reach the new elementary school. (While the plan is supposed to be walkable, it is likely that some busses will be needed, and school staff will be driving). Ken Hartman from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center explained that it may not be necessary to have access to the school from the neighborhood, as is the case with Bethesda Elementary, where traffic can only enter from Arlington Road.
Ultimately this school is ten to 20 years (or perhaps more) away from being constructed. The challenge lies in planning for these long range projects when nobody knows what the reality on the ground will be so far into the future. The Garrett Park Estates/White Flint Park Citizen’s Association voted against the recommendation that the site north of the mall be designated for the school and suggested that other sites continue to be investigated. Some members urged the county representatives to think more creatively about possible solutions. We will keep you updated as we hear more.