A virtual meeting place in White Flint
Resident, developer, business interests converge on Web site
Two years ago when an Advisory Committee formed for the White Flint sector plan had more than 50 members, it was clear there was much to discuss.
So Barnaby Zall, a tax lawyer with offices in North Bethesda, decided there needed to be a venue for better communication between the many interests involved in the redevelopment of the area surrounding the White Flint Metro stop. In September 2007 he began Friends of White Flint, a nonprofit organization designed to do just that.
"I basically wanted just to have a wider discussion in a less formal atmosphere because the Advisory Committee was so big at first it was divided into neighborhoods," Zall said. "I wanted a place for the people across the neighborhoods to talk."
Now, with the plan nearing the final stages at the Planning Board level, the group that Zall said was at first dominated by bicycle enthusiasts has expanded to include more than 50 dues-paying members, including neighborhood associations, residents, developers and businesses in the sector, all of which can post to bulletin-board-like blog called the FLOG to discuss their sometimes divergent views on the plan.
"It's like herding cats in a way," Zall said, but the group was intended to be a place where all available information about the sector plan, from official county documents to developers' visions could be compiled for people to learn more about the process. Even the bylaws of Friends of White Flint call for balance, requiring three board members each from the resident, business and development communities.
Nkosi Yearwood, one of the main White Flint planners from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said the formation of the group from a "hybrid of interests" is something he hasn't seen before.
"It's pretty unique to White Flint, I would say. Normally you would have your civic associations or your neighborhoods organizations advocating things from their perspective, but [Friends is] different."
The group, in addition to the open discourse of the FLOG, has begun advocating for issues such as the use of a privately-commissioned alternative to the planning concept for the redevelopment of Rockville Pike. Board members say as the plan reaches approval stages at the Planning Board and then County Council, Friends of White Flint will remain an advocacy group for the area. That's a model that has already been successfully employed by Northern Virginia groups, such as like Rosslyn Renaissance and the Ballston Virginia Square Partnership.
The group also has begun what is to become a monthly speaker series, hosting two speakers in a discussion about urban development on May 1 that was attended by more than 100 people.
"It's really moved to a higher level," said Ken Hurdle, a Luxmanor resident who is on the FOWF Board. Hurdle said a primary goal of the group and its Web site, www.friendofwhiteflint.org, is to educate stakeholders who may be interested in the sector plan but do not know how to get involved.
"People tend to have more time to sit in front of a computer or sit in front of a PDA and read notes and read discussions than pick up the phone or attend something," Hurdle said. "We're really becoming much more interactive with a much broader group of people."
Zall, who blogs from Planning Board work sessions on the FLOG to update people about what the Board is discussing, said the site had 342 unique visitors on May 4, a jump of more than 100 from the week before.
Evan Goldman, a Board member representing the development community, said the diversity of Friends of White Flint leads to a "rich conversation," he hopes will continue as the plan reaches the development stage, he said.
"Hopefully, as landowners come up with their site plans they'll reach out to Friends of White Flint and see what they think," Goldman said. "The idea is even after the plan gets enacted Friends of White Flint will continue to be involved with input for what's best for White Flint."