Could BRT connect White Flint to Northern Virginia?

For years, there’s been talk of improving transit connections across the Potomac River between Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There might be a solution in Montgomery County’s newly-approved rapid transit plan, and it could be a big deal for White Flint.

How the North Bethesda Transitway could be White Flint’s connection to Northern Virginia. Click to see an interactive map.

As the sole connection between Montgomery and Fairfax, not to mention a key link on the Capital Beltway, the American Legion Bridge is often very congested, carrying over 230,000 vehicles each day. 30% of those vehicles come from outside the DC area, but commuters still make about 32,000 trips between Montgomery and Fairfax counties during morning rush hour, and 25,000 trips in the evening. Up to 92% of those trips are drivers alone in their cars.

Officials on both sides of the river have explored transit as a way to reduce commuter traffic, which could improve travel conditions for everyone. In 1998, WMATA introduced a “Smartmover” Metrobus express route over the bridge, but discontinued it five years later due to low ridership. But as places on either side of the bridge grow, like White Flint and Tysons Corner, there might be a new market for transit. That is, if it’s fast, frequent, and most importantly, reliable.

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The timeline: Cranes over White Flint

Part of an occasional series looking at how the new White Flint will come together.

Cranes are rising over White Flint as the vision of the White Flint Sector Plan becomes a reality. But while some projects are humming along towards opening day, others are proceeding more slowly. In our next Timeline post, let’s take a look at the status of four local developments in various stages of planning and construction.

North Bethesda Market II could have the tallest building in Montgomery County. Rendering from STUDIOS Architecture.

Gables Wall Park: Groundbreaking in 2015

While Montgomery Parks looks at renovating Wall Park, located at Executive Boulevard and Nicholson Lane, developer Gables is moving forward with plans to build apartments next door.

“Our project is moving forward slowly but surely,” writes Eddie Meder, development associate at Gables. The Planning Board approved Gables’ sketch plan for the project in October, meaning they will next have to submit a preliminary and site plan, with more detailed information about how the development would work, and get it approved. That process could take up to a year.

Meder hopes to hold another public meeting in the spring to let everyone know what’s going on with the project. The goal is to start construction in “mid-to-late 2015,” he says, adding, “Of course, that may be a little optimistic.” Executive Boulevard cuts across the proposed building site today, and it’ll have to be moved as part of a project the county and state are working on called the Western Workaround, which is scheduled to start around the same time.

East Village: 2015-2016

Foulger-Pratt and ProMark have teamed up to build East Village at North Bethesda Gateway, a project at Rockville Pike and Nicholson Lane aimed at younger Millennials. They plan to replace a 1960’s-era office building with two mid-rise buildings containing 640 apartments and 36,000 square feet of retail space.

Both the apartments and the retail spaces will be smaller than average, to keep rents low. The developers hope that will draw younger renters who can’t afford some of White Flint’s more high-end buildings, and “local, authentic” retailers that don’t need a lot of space.

The developers originally planned to break ground by the end of 2014, but this week, Rob Eisinger at ProMark told us that they now anticipate doing so in late 2015 “assuming the site plan process goes smoothly.” That means the first building may not open until the end of 2016.

Metro Pike Center: Wait and see

Standing at Rockville Pike and Nicholson Lane today, you’ll see a Staples and a two-story strip mall with a David’s Bridal in it. But Bethesda-based BF Saul, which bought the two properties, plans to replace them both with high-rise apartments and offices over shops along a new linear park.

BF Saul proposes a pedestrian plaza along the west side of Rockville Pike.

BF Saul proposes a pedestrian plaza along the west side of Rockville Pike.

Dubbed Metro Pike Center, the project’s had a few design changes after residents complained about there not being enough street-level retail proposed along Rockville Pike. A “sketch plan” outlining general features of the project is now under review at the Planning Department, says Brian Downie, Senior Vice President for Development at BF Saul, who anticipates having a public hearing before the Planning Board next February.

But it’s unclear what will happen after that. If their sketch plan is approved, BF Saul will have to submit a more detailed site plan later before breaking ground. “We don’t have any set project timeline,” Downie wrote in an email to FOWF. “That timeline takes shape as the application moves forward.”

We also asked Downie what’s happening with Woodglen Drive, which will extend from its current end at Nicholson behind Metro Pike Center to Marinelli. Evan Goldman of Federal Realty, which is building a segment of Woodglen at their Pike + Rose development further north, wants BF Saul to scoot their proposed street over to make the connection.

Downie says it’s staying the same for now, writing, “The [street] alignment in our drawings tracks the alignment settled almost six years ago,” when the property’s former owner, Holladay Corporation, submitted plans for a similar project. Changing the street may also also require permission from the owners of the Grand, an apartment building behind Metro Pike Center.

North Bethesda Market II: Eventually

One of the most anticipated projects in White Flint may be the furthest away from happening. North Bethesda Market II, located at Rockville Pike and Executive Boulevard, would contain Montgomery County’s tallest building, at over 330 feet tall, along with a movie theatre and a plaza designed for events and festivals. It’s a more energetic version of its sister development, North Bethesda Market, located across Executive Boulevard and home to the county’s current tallest building.

Montgomery County approved the project in 2012. But if you’re waiting for shovels in the ground, you may not wnat to hold your breath. “We don’t have anything to share on NoBe II at this time,” writes Greg Trimmer, principal at developer JBG, in an email to FOWF. “We are fully entitled, but have not yet submitted for permit.”

Bellevue shows way for White Flint

One of the challenges in transforming White Flint into an urban place is that it largely developed after World War II, when car culture really took hold. Not only are there lots of big, fast roads and strip malls that are hard to navigate without a car, but there are fewer examples of how to redesign it. This was less of an issue in the revitalization of places like Bethesda or Silver Spring, which were originally built around walking and transit.

Bellevue’s Downtown Park and skyline. Photo by mariusstrom on Flickr.

But last month, I got to visit one place that’s dealing with many of the same problems we are: Bellevue, a community just east of Seattle, where I went for the annual Rail~Volution conference. While Bellevue still struggles to make room for people in a place built for cars, it holds a lot of interesting lessons for White Flint as it matures.

Like White Flint, Bellevue was a rural area until after World War II, when the growing demand for housing and a new bridge connecting it to Seattle made it a fast-growing suburb. During the 1970’s, it also became a magnet for commercial development, sprouting a commanding skyline as companies moved to the city.

By 2000, Bellevue had more jobs than residents, making it the downtown for Seattle’s Eastside region. And its perception has changed as well. At the conference, I spoke to an official from the Seattle Department of Transportation who has observed Bellevue from across Lake Washington for years. “Bellevue used to be a suburb,” he said. “But in recent years it’s grown a lot, and now it’s a city in its own right.”

Bellevue gets taller, younger, and more educated

Bellevue has been trying to remake its downtown since the 1970’s. In recent years, downtown Bellevue has exploded with high-end shopping centers, luxury apartments, and 400-foot-tall skyscrapers housing major tech companies like Microsoft, the city’s largest employer. There are also a number of impressive public buildings, including a library, a convention center, Bellevue’s city hall, and a gorgeous downtown park.

Plaza at the Bravern, a new mixed-use complex in Bellevue. All photos by the author unless noted.

Today, there are over 43,000 workers and 10,000 residents in downtown Bellevue, with forecasts predicting 70,000 workers and 19,000 residents by 2030. By comparison, White Flint had about 22,800 workers and about 5,000 residents in 2010, which could grow to about 48,000 workers and 30,000 residents in a few decades under the Sector Plan.

As downtown grew, the city’s mix of urban and suburban amenities drew young, educated professionals from around the world who came to work at nearby tech firms. The median age of downtown residents fell from 57 in 2000 to 34 in 2010, while the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 45% to 63%. Both downtown and the city as a whole were at least 80% white in 2000, but are on target to become majority-minority within a few years.

New focus on little details, not just big buildings

Walking around downtown Bellevue, it’s clear that it’s still in transition. Past planning efforts, most recently a 2003 update of the city’s Downtown Plan talked about pedestrian and transit improvements, but were hesitant to recommend anything that would impede car traffic.

There are a lot of wide roads and big intersections that make walking hard, or at least unpleasant.

The skyscrapers look cool, but they don’t really address the street, creating big blank walls. The streets are massive and spaced far apart, creating large “superblocks” that encourage speeding. They also make it hard, or at least unpleasant, to walk, meaning the sidewalks tend to be empty. And every building still seems to have its own parking lot garage, creating even more incentives to drive.

But the pieces of an urban place are coming together. Turn off of the main streets and you’re on quieter, more intimate streets with small shops and apartment buildings with “real doors.” In the Bravern, a new complex with shops, offices and apartments, there’s a series of nice plazas where people congregate even in the typical overcast Seattle weather.

A quiet side street with “real doors” makes downtown Bellevue feel a little more human-scaled.

With that in mind, city and regional leaders are planning for a future built around people, not cars. Bellevue already has good local bus service and one of six Seattle-area “bus rapid transit-lite” corridors. In 10 years, it’ll have light rail as well.

But there’s also a renewed focus on the smaller details that make an urban place interesting and enjoyable. The city’s ongoing Downtown Livability Initiative will look at how to create a sense of place, ranging from promoting better urban design to encouraging food trucks. And a Downtown Transportation Plan in progress will look at ways to break up the superblocks to improve pedestrian and cyclist connections.

Bellevue shows the power of creating suburban downtowns

Walking around Bellevue today, you can see what happens when you try to plan for an urban place while assuming that everyone’s going to drive. You get the worst of both urban and suburban places: lots of traffic and none of the vitality.

Commuters board a bus at the Bellevue Transit Center.

People already drive to White Flint today, and will continue to do so in the future. But as White Flint grows and matures, we’ll have to shift our focus from moving lots of cars really quickly to moving people in lots of different ways, and creating places worth lingering in.

The success of Bellevue so far shows the power of creating a downtown in a suburban community that previously lacked one. Downtown Bellevue has not only been an economic boon, but a tool for attracting new residents and creating a more diverse, inclusive community. It may not be finished yet, but Bellevue is a promising sign of where White Flint could go.

County Council resists some calls to water down BRT plan

It’s been 5 years since Montgomery County first started talking about a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, but the County Council could vote on the proposed 81-mile system in two weeks. While the latest round of revisions are good, will councilmembers resist calls from a few residents to cut BRT routes in their neighborhoods?

BRT in Los Angeles. Photo by the author.

The draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan designates future transit corridors and recommends how to allocate space on our major roads for them. While business, civic, activist, and environmental groups say planning for transit will reduce traffic and support future growth, some residents are fighting to block the plan.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, who sits on the council’s Transportation and Energy committee, emphasized that it’s only the beginning of a longer conversation. “This is a predicate for future action,” he said. “Just like when we put the Purple Line in our master plan, we said, ‘Hey, this might be a good idea.'”

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The timeline: Big moves, little moves

Part of an occasional series looking at how the new White Flint will come together.

The White Flint Sector Plan is made up of lots of “big moves,” like a new Rockville Pike, that will take a long time to complete. But there are also lots of smaller projects that will play a big role in the area’s evolution. Thankfully, they’ll happen much sooner.

Rockville Pike: A long time away

The most important part of the new White Flint may be a new Rockville Pike, reimagined as an urban boulevard. While the county has set aside money to redesign Rockville Pike in the CIP, work may get delayed if the County Council approves the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which proposes a Bus Rapid Transit line down the median.

BF Saul proposes a pedestrian plaza along the west side of Rockville Pike.

The new Rockville Pike, as seen from BF Saul’s proposed Metro Pike Center project.

The plan will specify where stations should go and how wide the road will need to be, allowing planners and engineers to do more detailed design work. It’s possible that property owners along Rockville Pike will have to dedicate some land to accommodate BRT, meaning work can’t really start until the master plan is approved.

Dee Metz, the County Executive’s White Flint Implementation Coordinator, notes that White Flint is “ahead of the game” because the county is already asking landowners to dedicate land for the new Rockville Pike when they apply to build new developments. But there’s still no construction funding lined up for Rockville Pike, meaning it’ll be a while until anything happens.

Montrose Parkway: No word yet

Montgomery County has been talking about Montrose Parkway for decades, and a few years ago, the portion west of Rockville Pike actually got built. Not surprisingly, progress on the eastern part has been slow.

Montrose Parkway East

Map of the proposed route of Montrose Parkway from SHA. The section in yellow has been built and the section in purple has funding, but the portion in blue is still in design.

To save money, the county split Montrose Parkway East into two segments. Officials have already set aside $55 million to build the 1-mile section between Parklawn Drive and Veirs Mill Road, which will start construction in 2018 and finish in 2020.

Meanwhile, the State Highway Administration will spend $64 million to build the .62-mile portion between Rockville Pike and Parklawn Drive, including a new interchange at Parklawn. This section has been more controversial because of the interchange and a proposal to close Randolph Road at the train tracks, effectively cutting off White Flint from neighborhoods to the east.

The Planning Board voted to build this section while keeping Randolph open in March, but there isn’t much else happening. As of September, state highway planners were finishing design work on the parkway, but there’s no timeline for construction yet.

“I don’t see that starting anytime soon,” says Metz.

Maple Avenue: Could open by 2015

However, work could start soon on rebuilding and extending Maple Avenue, currently a dead-end street south of Randolph Road, to connect to Chapman Avenue. This is an important part of White Flint’s future street grid, creating a new connection between Marinelli Road, Randolph Road and the Montrose Crossing shopping center.

The $21 million street will include 5-foot-wide sidewalks on both sides, landscaping and street trees, streetlights, and stormwater management. In addition, the county will move utilities underground. Construction will start next summer and end by the summer of 2015.

New fire station and senior housing: In planning

As White Flint’s population grows, the area will need a new fire station. Meanwhile, an aging population will create a need for more senior housing, especially for individuals with limited incomes. Montgomery County plans to address both needs by building a  fire station with senior housing above at the southeast corner of Rockville Pike and Montrose Parkway, next to the new Maple Avenue.

That may seem like an unusual combination, but fire stations and housing have been built together before, including the Station at Potomac Yard, an affordable housing complex atop a fire station in Alexandria.  To build the two, Montgomery County will purchase land that the state of Maryland acquired to build the interchange at Rockville Pike and Montrose Parkway, but no longer needs.

Conference Center: New parking garage could open in 18 months, mixed-use development to follow

Within 18 months, Montgomery County will begin work on a parking garage behind the Bethesda North Conference Center on Marinelli Road. The garage will replace the current surface parking lot, freeing up room for buildings, since this site is not only adjacent to the Metro station, but behind the future White Flint Civic Green. County officials would like to see a mix of retail space and housing there, 30% of which would be set aside as affordable housing.

Right now, the county’s doing a feasibility study to figure out how to fit a parking garage and housing and retail space on the parking lot, part of which will get shaved off as part of the realignment of Executive Boulevard. With most of the funding already in place, Metz says construction on the parking garage could begin within the next 18 months.

New entrance at White Flint Metro: No funding

Likewise, residents will be waiting a while for a new northern entrance to the White Flint Metro station at Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road. The project, which is under WMATA’s jurisdiction, currently has no funding and no timeline for construction. Like the proposed south entrance at the Bethesda Metro station, money would probably come from Montgomery County and the state of Maryland, but it’s up to WMATA to ask for it.

Timeline: White Flint’s new street grid

First in an occasional series looking at how the new White Flint will come together.

street network

Street grid from the White Flint Sector Plan. Private developers will build many of the local streets, but the county and Maryland are responsible for the major ones.

The White Flint Sector Plan calls for a new street grid, which will relieve congestion on Rockville Pike and provide more ways to walk, bike, or drive around White Flint. While many of the new streets will be built by private developers, like at Pike + Rose and North Bethesda Center, Montgomery County and the State of Maryland will be responsible for much of the heavy lifting.

The process of building a new street grid is complicated, involving many players and complex negotiations. “It’s very difficult to put a timeline together on most things in White Flint because they’re all interdependent,” says Dee Metz, the county’s White Flint implementation coordinator.

Montgomery County has divided the street grid into two halves on either side of Rockville Pike and refers to them as the Western Workaround and Eastern Workaround. On both sides, new and existing streets will get new, wider sidewalks, landscaping and street trees, and some bicycle accommodations. Utilities will be moved underground as well, reducing visual clutter and making it easier for street trees to grow.

Western Workaround: Could start by 2015

The first big street construction project in White Flint will be the Western Workaround, a network of new streets west of Rockville Pike. They include Market Street, a new east-west street between Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road, and shifting Executive Boulevard from its current intersection with Old Georgetown further east, so it can connect to a new street in Pike + Rose. The project also includes funds to rebuild Rockville Pike between Flanders Avenue and Hubbard Drive.

New and rebuilt streets in the Western Workaround.

New and rebuilt streets in the Western Workaround. Image from MCDOT.

White Flint landowners will pay for the $98 million project through a special tax district created to fund the infrastructure needed to support the area’s redevelopment. So far, the project is at 35% design, which means some but not all of the minor details are being worked out. County transportation officials have been make any changes that would inconvenience drivers.

According to Metz, the county plans to start construction in Fiscal Year 2016, which starts in July 2015. However, there are still questions left unanswered. There are stormwater management issues with many of the new streets due to the slope of the land.

For the new street grid to work, the county will have to rebuild the existing intersections of Old Georgetown, Executive and Hoya Street, which officials estimate will cost between $30 and $40 million. But it isn’t funded, nor does it include rebuilding Hoya Street between Old Georgetown and Montrose, which is basically a service road today.

It’s also unclear how the county will get the land to build the new streets. Developers promised the county that they would dedicate the land to them as they redeveloped their properties, so there’s no money set aside for buying it. While Gables Residential has agreed to dedicate part of the site where they’re building apartments and retail, the owners of the VOB car dealership on Old Georgetown Road have no plans to redevelop anytime soon, putting the new Executive Boulevard in danger.

Metz notes that councilmembers and residents are starting to get impatient. “There was an assumption that things would be happening already,” she says. “That was never the case.”

Much of the funding and coordination issues will have to be figured out when the county council works on next year’s budget in the spring. Metz says there are currently discussions with County Executive Ike Leggett to get the intersection of Old Georgetown, Executive and Hoya funded sooner rather than later.  Friends of White Flint has been an assertive advocate on this front.

Eastern Workaround: New bridge today, new streets later

Like its counterpart, the Eastern Workaround is a network of new streets on the east side of Rockville Pike. This $29 million project, also funded by White Flint landowners, would extend Executive Boulevard across Rockville Pike and just over a half-mile to Nebel Street.  It would also build an 80-foot-long bridge over the White Flint Metro station to connect the future McGrath Boulevard, within the North Bethesda Center property, with Rockville Pike.

The Eastern Workaround includes funding for a new bridge over the White Flint Metro station connecting McGrath Boulevard to Rockville Pike. Image from LCOR.

The county has budgeted money to build the bridge within the next year, though funds for the rest of the network have been pushed back at least 6 years. At least that will create time to figure out how and where to extend Executive Boulevard.

County transportation planners laid out the eastern stretch of Executive Boulevard so it straddled the existing property line, ensuring that landowners on each side of the street gave up equal amounts of land. But the State Highway Administration wants to shift the road slightly to the north because Rockville Pike, which they control, is at an angle. Moving the road would create an intersection closer to a 90-degree angle, which SHA planners argue is better for drivers. But this would place more of the road on the property of Fitzgerald Auto Malls, which is unwilling to give up additional land.

As a result, progress on the Eastern Workaround has slowed. “There are lots of private negotiations the county doesn’t control,” says Metz. The county and property owners are trying to find an alternative alignment that could spare Fitzgerald while appeasing the SHA.

Introducing the White Flint timeline

The White Flint Sector Plan set out a vision for turning the strip malls and parking lots along Rockville Pike into a new downtown, but it could take decades to execute. What we have today are pieces of a city floating in a suburban sea: a few towers, a handful of blocks that are actually nice to walk on, an occasional bike lane.

Pike Central Farm Market.

If you look hard enough, you can see glimpses of what White Flint will become: the quarter of White Flint residents who take transit to work; people filling the parking lot at Pike + Rose for the weekly Pike Central Farm Market; bikes filling the racks outside the Whole Foods at North Bethesda Market.

But what happens next? How will White Flint make the transition from suburban strip to urban boulevard? This is the first post in a series attempting to put together a timeline for the transformation of White Flint. We’ll look at both public and private projects, talk to the people who are making them happen, and tell you what to expect first.

First: A new street grid in White Flint will give people more ways to walk, bike and even drive around while relieve congestion on Rockville Pike. While some streets could open as early as 2015, others are mired in controversy.

Pike + Rose moves closer to completion

Grand Park Avenue, one of several new streets in Pike + Rose. All photos by the author.

Today, the Montgomery County Planning Board reviews plans for a second phase of Pike + Rose. Meanwhile, the first phase of the new urban neighborhood at Rockville Pike and Montrose Road inches closer to completion.

When finished, Pike + Rose will have housing, offices, shops and restaurants, a high-end movie theatre, and a hotel, along with several public open spaces. A redevelopment of a 1960’s-era strip mall, it’ll be multiple times the size of developer Federal Realty’s other projects in the area, Bethesda Row and Rockville Town Square.

According to Evan Goldman, Federal Realty’s vice president of development, the first phase will start opening next year. In the meantime, let’s visit the construction site.

Bricks going in at PerSei.

Back in July, the first of three buildings in the first phase, a 174-unit, five-story apartment building called PerSei, topped out. Units here will start renting late next spring, Goldman says. You can see cream-colored brick going in on one side.

Like many new apartment buildings, PerSei has been designed to look like a block of smaller buildings. The windows on Old Georgetown Road and Grand Park Avenue, one of several new streets, are more modern, with large panes and less ornamentation. But around the corner, the windows have smaller panes and more detail, almost like those on a warehouse.

11800 Grand Park Avenue. The movie theatre and music venue will be on the right-hand side.

Across the street, 11800 Grand Park Avenue, an office building, has topped out as well. It’ll open in fall 2014, along with 150,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space in both buildings. 75% of the retail is already leased and will include a high-end iPic movie theatre, a music venue operated by Strathmore, several restaurants, and a Sport & Health Club.

Pallas (left) and 11800 Grand Park Avenue seen from Old Georgetown Road.

Next door, an 18-story apartment tower called Pallas has just reached four stories. Not surprisingly, it won’t open until the winter of 2015. I’m guessing that gray box in the middle has something to do with parking, but I’m not sure.

PerSei with the strip mall in the foreground.

The new buildings form a striking contrast against the remaining strip mall buildings. While the main building will be completely torn down in Pike + Rose’s second phase, this smaller building closer to the intersection of Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road could stick around for between 7 and 10 years, Goldman says.

Located on a prominent corner and closest to the White Flint Metro station, this is arguably the most valuable portion of the Pike + Rose site, which is why Federal Realty may want to hold out on developing it. In the meantime, the developer will give this building a new façade and landscaping to help it blend in with the new construction.

If the Planning Board approves the second phase today, what’s called Phase 2A could start construction next year and portions could open within another two years.

Today it’s a parking lot, but it will be Pike + Rose’s future second phase.

With a new street grid and an urban park open, “You’ll have a neighborhood by 2016,” says Goldman. “We’ll have created the sense of place.” The rest of the second phase, along with a future third phase, don’t have a completion date and will be built out as the market demands.

Crossposted at Greater Greater Washington.

How can White Flint draw local businesses?

Starbucks is great, but how can we make room for local businesses in White Flint?

When Federal Realty Investment Trust announced the first six restaurants that will open at Pike + Rose, the mixed-use development at Rockville Pike and Montrose Road, some people were upset they were all chains. Will there be a place for local businesses in the future White Flint?

Representatives from Federal Realty say their goal is to create an interesting array of shops and restaurants, regardless of what they are. “It’s less important to us whether something is a chain than [having] a mix of retail types, a mix of expense points, and a mix of dining types,” says Evan Goldman, vice president of development. “We want . . . a diverse mix of options to get a diverse mix of people there.”

There’s a lot of risk in opening a new retail project like Pike + Rose. Even on a busy corridor like Rockville Pike, successful retail isn’t a given, and both developers and business owners want to minimize risk. Unlike chains, which have a standard store format that’s easy to recreate, small business owners also have to design and build a space from scratch, which takes money and time.

And if an entrepreneur opens a second location that fails, their business may be sunk. If a chain’s 20th store isn’t successful, existing branches can help subsidize it. That’s why developers often find it easier to work with chains in new projects.

“We know they can perform, they know they can perform,” Goldman says. “And God forbid it doesn’t perform, it’s not going to take down their company or ours.”

Where do chains go today?

When Pike + Rose is finished several years from now, it may look like other town center developments in the region, with a mix of stand-alone stores, national chains, and local chains, which I define as locally-owned businesses whose locations are primarily in the DC area. So Georgetown-based Sweetgreen counts, because all but 4 of its 20 locations are here, but Virginia-based Five Guys, which has over 1,000 locations across North America, doesn’t.

Some projects have more locals than others. They’re 22% of the businesses at the Market Common at Clarendon to 65% at the Mosaic District in Fairfax. At Bethesda Row and Rockville Town Square, both owned by Federal Realty, locals make up between 50 and 60% of all businesses.

The distribution of chains vs. local businesses at 7 DC-area town center projects.

The distribution of chains vs. local businesses at 7 DC-area town center projects.

Locally-owned restaurants and shops, whether one-offs or small chains, can be an asset for communities, supporting the local economy and providing unique attraction for customers. To make it easier for them to open, they need to have lower risks. There are two ways to do that: reduce the cost of doing business, or increase the potential number of customers.

Lower rents reduce the risks for local businesses

One way is to lower the cost of rent, often by seeking out cheaper, older spaces. In White Flint, that means the 1960’s- and 70’s-era strip malls along Rockville Pike, or the light industrial buildings off of Boiling Brook Parkway. Economist and food critic Tyler Cowen notes that these kind of spaces are often fertile ground for innovative or ethnic restaurants:

Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. If a food idea does not work out, the proprietor is not left with an expensive lease. As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money.

Many of White Flint’s strip malls will be redeveloped in the future. But there are a few ways to make new developments more affordable as well. One is by reducing excessive parking requirements. Like many places, Montgomery County requires a lot of parking to serve shops and restaurants, resulting in big, underused parking lots that take up space, or parking garages that are expensive to build. The county’s changing its zoning code to require much less parking, especially for restaurants. This will allow developers to build only the parking they need, reducing costs and making rents a little lower.

Another way is through smaller storefronts, as commercial space rents by the square foot. Many local businesses, particularly those with a small staff or inventory, don’t need a lot of space.

Take this gelato shop in Takoma Park, which opened earlier this year in 500 square feet, the size of a studio apartment. Much of that room goes to back-of-house functions, like a freezer and preparation area, leaving little room for customers. But that’s okay: in the summer, when lots of people want gelato, the line spills out the door because the weather’s nice. In the winter, there aren’t as many people who want gelato, so they can all fit inside.

Smaller storefronts also mean developers can host more of them, giving people more reasons to visit. At the Piazza at Schmidt’s, a mixed-use development in Philadelphia that’s pretty similar to many of the projects being proposed for White Flint, developer Bart Blatstein purposely divided his storefronts into tiny spaces that artists and entrepreneurs could afford. One gallery, boutique, or cafe would have been interesting enough, but instead, there are 35 establishments that you can’t find anywhere else.

More people means more customers for local companies

Density is another way for businesses to reduce their risk. The future White Flint will have more residents, meaning more customers for local businesses. And as Economist writer Ryan Avent notes, that gives them the chance to specialize and develop niche markets, which is exactly what unique local businesses are good for.

More density also means more foot traffic. “You can’t support the really small, local guys, especially in the fashion world or furniture . . . without foot traffic,” says Goldman. “People that literally live there or work there.” He cites his own neighborhood of Adams Morgan in DC as an example of a place where small businesses thrive. According to the US Census, Adams Morgan has a population density of about 30,000 per square mile, four times the current density of White Flint.

As White Flint grows and matures, it’s likely that local businesses will follow. Not only will there be more people living and working here, but shop and restaurant owners will know what to expect. Goldman predicts that in the “second generation of leasing,” as business turn over and new storefronts open in White Flint, we’ll see more locals.

Goldman uses Bethesda Row, another Federal Realty project, as an example. “We’ve got a proven track record where anyone can say, ‘These sales are amazing,'” Goldman says. “I know if I go there, I’m not going to lose my shirt. I’m going to do well.”

Local businesses make White Flint what it is and will help the area craft a new, unique identity as it grows and evolves. However, it’s important to make sure they have a place in the future White Flint as well. Through zoning, design, and manageable rental rates, we can ensure that local businesses can keep contributing to this community.

Can Wall Park become more than a parking lot?

Wednesday night, representatives from Montgomery Parks led a community discussion about how to renovate Wall Park. While some residents were concerned about losing parking spaces and impacts to the Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center, others were excited about the park’s potential.

Residents vote for things they'd like to see at Wall Park. Photo by the author.

Residents vote for things they’d like to see at Wall Park. Photo by the author.

Today, the 11-acre park is home to the Shriver Aquatic Center, a small playground, a stand of trees, and a big parking lot. Planning for a new Wall Park began with the White Flint Sector Plan in 2010, which recommended making it a major outdoor gathering place.

From a parking lot to a “great lawn”

The renovation of Wall Park would happen over two phases. First, the parking lot would become what Montgomery Parks project coordinator Rachel Davis Newhouse called a “great lawn” with space for events, festivals, and smaller, informal gatherings. Developer Gables Residential would build a new, 900-space parking garage behind the aquatic center in conjunction with an apartment complex they plan to build on a property just north of the park.

The parking lot at Wall Park could become more green space. Image from Montgomery Parks.

400 of the spaces would be set aside for park and aquatic center users, compared to 260 spaces today. Accessible parking and the drop-off loop would stay where they are now.

“It just makes sense to build that all as one parking structure,” Newhouse said. “You save money to do all that at once and then it’s done.”

In the second phase, the park would be fully built out as a regional outdoor destination. The “great lawn” could get a stage and a small amphitheatre, allowing it to host live performances. Movable seating, shelters and picnic areas, could accommodate smaller gatherings.

There could also be a number of new additions, including an expanded playground, a skate park, a dog park, and a “splash zone” similar to the fountains in downtown Silver Spring and Rockville Town Square. Newhouse is also exploring food and drink options, like a park cafe and food trucks. And a “walkway to freedom” would connect the park to Josiah Henson Park, located across Old Georgetown Road, with interpretive signage and a museum kiosk.

Meanwhile, the Recreation Department wants to expand the 44,000-square-foot aquatic center, which is already the county’s busiest pool. Officials are also considering building a new recreation center alongside it, noting that the nearest facilities are the Bauer Drive Recreation Center in Rockville and the Jane Lawton Recreation Center in Chevy Chase, both of which are five miles away.

“Rather than building new, freestanding recreation centers, we’re trying to take advantage of what we already have,” says Gabe Albornoz, director of the Montgomery County Department of Recreation. The new facilities would wrap around the existing aquatic center. Albornoz expects that construction would last about 18 to 24 months, which may disrupt activities at the aquatic center.

Concerns about losing parking, safety

Newhouse gave everyone stickers, asking them to vote on what they’d like to see in the park. But many people in attendance said they didn’t want anything at all. Residents had concerns about construction disrupting the aquatic center, traffic from new park visitors, and the “environmental impacts” of removing the parking lot.

gables typical upper level plan

Plan of the proposed Gables apartment complex, including the parking garage it’ll share with Wall Park. Image from Gables.

Meanwhile, several parents of swimmers at the aquatic center worried about the loss of free parking and safety in the parking garage. One parent who lives “one mile away” in Luxmanor said she drives her kids to and from Shriver “8 times a day, 7 days a week.”

“I’m tired of parking being taken away,” she said. “I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t go to Bethesda, I don’t go to Rockville. It’s not fun sitting in traffic.”

Albornoz insisted that the parking would be free for aquatic center visitors, perhaps by using validated tickets, like at the Rockville Library. He also said that the aquatic center could add a second, rear entrance to the aquatic center to reduce the walk from the parking garage.

Paul Meyer, member of the White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee, proposed a covered, lighted walkway similar to the one between the Music Center at Strathmore and the parking garage at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station. “Nothing’s totally safe, but you can make it pretty safe,” Meyer said.

“We need this kind of amenity”

Meyer noted that several thousand new homes are being built in White Flint and will need amenities to serve them, like those proposed at Wall Park. Meanwhile, the developers of those new homes are being taxed to pay for those amenities. “I think we’re thinking of this as a single property,” he said. “It’s a piece of a puzzle. A small piece.”

One resident of the Georgetown Village condominium says that the park will give kids in White Flint much-needed places to play. “We’ve been fighting tooth and nail for more playgrounds,” he said. “We need this kind of amenity . . . I know people are frustrated with a lot of aspects of this, but I’m looking forward to it. It can’t be built fast enough.”

There are still a lot of questions with the Wall Park plan. There’s no cost estimate yet, and there’s no final design, so it’s unclear how the aquatic center will be affected during construction.

But that’s no reason for people to automatically reject the idea of making a better park, especially one that will benefit many people in White Flint. People often complain there isn’t enough open space in Montgomery County’s urban areas, and renovating Wall Park is an opportunity to create more of it.

The Montgomery County Planning Board will review a preliminary concept for Wall Park in conjunction with designs for the Gables project at a meeting on Thursday, October 24. Depending on when the Western Workaround gets built, construction on the parking garage and apartments could start by “mid-2015 at best,” according to Eddie Meder, development associate at Gables Residential, meaning that work on the park could soon follow.