Thursday, October 22, 2009

County Council conducts public hearings on White Flint future

The White Flint Sector Plan, developed over a period of three years with the cooperation of community leaders, property owners, developers & their land use attorneys, planning staff, etc. has come to the county council after being passed by the planning commission. This plan will establish the guidelines and aspirations for the White Flint/ North Bethesda central business area for the next 20-30 years. The county council has the power to modify and pass the plan.

On Tuesday evening, the full council heard public testimony from 46 speakers. Tonight at 7:30 pm, the hearings will continue with another round of testimony. Written testimony from anyone in the public arena will be accepted until October 30. You can write to Council President Phil Andrews, County Office Building, 100 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, MD 20850, or email your testimony to and

The overwhelming testimony on Tuesday evening was positive and in favor of passage of the plan, which will transform the strip mall/surface parking character of North Bethesda to an urban center with structured parking, mixed use buildings with a greater emphasis on housing units (than previous plans), street-level retail and public spaces, and millions of square feet of office space. Each speaker had suggestions for improvement of the plan.

Several coalitions have formed with specific needs and "takes" on the designs. The White Flint Parnership is composed of about 55% of the property owners in the sector. The WF Partnership commissioned a study by Glatting Jackson to guide urban design concepts and develop a plan for Rockville Pike that would turn it into a "complete street," meaning that it would separately accommodate public transit, cars and trucks, pedestrians, and bicyclists along an urban boulevard. In the Glatting Jackson plan, the 3 travel lanes in each direction would be separated by a median with mass transit, either light rail, trolley, or bus rapid transit (BRT). Parking lanes would flank the travel lanes, and a dedicated bike path would be protected from the travel lanes by the parking lanes. Sidewalks would be wide and, in places, have room for seating and public gathering. Landscaping is emphasized. Another coalition is the Friends of White Flint, of which the White Flint Partnership is a member. Other members include community leaders and residents of surrounding neighborhoods, business owners, and county planners. The White Flint Community Coalition is comprised entirely of several civic organizations and homeowner associations of surrounding communities.

Issues at stake are the amount of density allowable, phasing of the street infrastructure, amount of public space within the sector plan, and whether or not the county council will designate a dedicated site for a full library, elementary school (there is a major debate over the location of a school site in the sector), community and senior centers, and how the surrounding communities may be protected from cut-through traffic generated by the higher density urban core.

Library: currently, the plan calls for an "express" library, which will not have areas for congregating, book stacks of any size, and will only serve as a place to drop off & check out books, with some public computer access. Community groups want a full library site.

School: there is some conflict over the interpretation of the projected numbers of students that this plan will generate. Typically, a highly urban housing core has very few school-age children, since the housing stock is primarily 1-2 bedroom apartments and condominiums. However, an elementary school site should be identified and set aside within the sector boundaries. The current proposal promotes opening Rocking Horse Elementary School, in the Randolph Hills subdivision. This site will alleviate crowding in Veirs Mill ES, but is not within the planning sector and is outside of the Walter Johnson cluster. If this plan is followed, the cluster will have to be redistricted, which is not acceptable to the community. A school site behind White Flint Mall, currently an employee parking lot, is a poor choice for its size, topography, and difficulty of access. The ideal site, in my opinion (and others) is the WMATA bus depot between Nicholson Lane and Old Georgetown Rd. This site is opposite many of the high-rise residential buildings, accessible for children and parents, and is large enough for a full-featured school. Maintaining a bus depot in the center of this new urban center is inappropriate.

Cut-through traffic in local communities: the council should approve the use of restrictive turns that are approved by the surrounding neighborhoods to prevent over-use of local residential streets.

Infrastructure phasing: the current plan calls for development in four phases, phased by geographic area and not by the readiness of a particular property owner and its economic viability. The planning staff wanted to be sure that a certain density would be reached in a given area to make it "work." However, leaving the street grid and Rockville Pike boulevard improvements to Phase 3 is universally abhorred by all but the planning staff. The White Flint Partnership and Friends of White Flint are actively working to propose private-public funding mechanisms that will put the infrastructure improvements into Phase 1, around which the developers can place their new buildings.

Building heights: currently, the highest building in the sector is NRC, at 275 feet. The new residential tower at North Bethesda Market will be 289 feet. The plan calls for higher buildings (not monolithic- the upper floors must have a very small floor area per level) in the center of the sector (within 1/4 mile of White Flint Metro and along Rockville Pike), with building heights stepping down to existing communities. This is a problem for the Crest of Wickford Condominiums, which are townhouse-sized buildings right on Rockville Pike and will be impacted by the height of buildings nearby at Edson Lane. Timberlawn HOA also testified in favor of building heights no higher than the NRC.

The next post will go into some more detail on the testimony given pro and con aspects of the plan.

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