Developers propose new White Flint zoning plan
Would focus density along Rockville Pike
A group of North Bethesda property owners is literally trying to reshape the way density will be allocated at White Flint by proposing that zoning allotments be granted in an elliptical pattern instead of the bull's-eye proposed by planning staffers.
The White Flint Developer Collaborative, a group of six commercial landowners in the area, presented the latest version of that idea to the Planning Board on Thursday during a work session on the draft White Flint Sector Plan, a guide to future development in the area. The sector plan will determine the height and density allowed for buildings near the White Flint Metro station.
Unlike the staff plan, which is a pattern of concentric circles with the highest density around the Metro station like a bull's-eye, the ellipse plan squishes the higher densities inward, elongating the zone along Rockville Pike. It also follows property lines, so owners are not faced with bisected lots of different densities.
Nearly all properties in the alternative proposal retain the density originally proposed by planning staff or receive an increase, even if they are not members of the Collaborative. Density refers to a formula regulating how big a project can be; the higher the density, the more square footage a project may have.
The Planning Board is holding a series of work sessions with county planners, White Flint residents, developers and other stakeholders to hammer out concerns and ideas before approving a final version of the plan to send to the County Council later this year.
Evan Goldman of Federal Realty Investment Trust, a member of the Collaborative, testified the ellipse proposal will more likely lead to the type of outcomes expected by the Advisory Board, a group of business and community stakeholders involved with the sector plan.
"We believe that it is vital to the success of this plan that density and appropriate land use are viewed as the positive force that will create the fabric into which a new community will be woven," Goldman said.
The underlying message was that without more density, developers may not reach the critical mass needed to redevelop their properties in the White Flint area. Proponents of the ellipse say it allows the developers more practical flexibility, which is a catalyst for the success of the entire plan.
"If we fail as we did in 1992 with the last master plan, we will end up with more of the same," Goldman said. Right now, White Flint is a car-oriented community with profitable, if unattractive, strip-mall developments.
Piera Weiss, the county planner heading up the White Flint project, said the reality of any master plan is they don't reach total build-out; on the county level, the average seems to be about two-thirds of what zoning allows gets built. The ellipse proposal would only increase by about 2 million the amount of theoretical square footage in White Flint, but Weiss said if it were adopted instead of the staff plan, it would change the proportion of the real building opportunity certain players get.
"If you target your plan to people who want to redevelop, you haven't treated it comprehensively," Weiss said. "And you don't even know if they will."
She said the presentation of alternative ideas is "what the public testimony is for."
"I can't say that I've had the experience that people came up with a concept, but people always come up with other ideas," Weiss said.
Don Briggs, senior vice president of Federal Realty, said the Collaborative's intent was not to increase density for every property owner within it, but to create density allocations that reflected the real walkability to be achieved when Rockville Pike is reborn as a boulevard. The staff plan assumes walkability in as-the-crow-flies increments from the Metro, while the Collaborative plan uses walking time and other factors that will accompany the new street network and transit options to craft its recommendations.
He said the ellipse plan more equitably reflects property values, which are higher along the commercial stretch of Rockville Pike.
"I think there's a logic to it, and I think there's a purity to the methodology we used," Briggs said.
Briggs said stretching the highest density zones along Rockville Pick also shields the surrounding communities on the east and west sides of White Flint by stepping down zoning more rapidly.
Ken Hurdle, a Luxmanor resident involved in the sector plan, said the ellipse proposal squares with what he has read about modern planning philosophy. Potential bus rapid transit, a new MARC station, a new Metro entrance and streetscape improvements will make the Pike a more pleasant place to walk, so allowing greater development along that stretch is intuitive.
"People will be coming off the Pike. It makes more sense because it's coming from where the transportation core is," Hurdle said.
Hurdle said the psychology of where people will walk plays a role as well. If Rockville Pike redevelops as a boulevard, the exact distance from Metro won't be the only consideration, he said.
"I'd rather walk where it's visually nice. I want to walk where there are amenities," Hurdle said. "I think a strong case could be made for the ellipse."