White Flint hinges on changing perceptions
Initial burst of development with grocer, restaurant, residences kicks off years of building
Rod Lawrence is hoping that an organic grocery store, a fitness center and a renowned artist can start changing the way the world looks at White Flint.
A partner with the development group JBG Companies, he has overseen this year's opening of Whole Foods, Seasons 52 restaurant, LA Fitness, and a public sculpture by Jim Sanborn, best known for his Kryptos sculpture at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., at North Bethesda Market. Those stores are some of the first new businesses coming to an area that will see massive growth in businesses and people.
Those stores, Lawrence says are "the core," not just for the market, but for the area because of their ability to draw people in.
"What this does is set a tone," Lawrence said.
The $166 million market, completed in February, consists of 200,000 square feet of stores and restaurants beneath 400 apartments off Rockville Pike. JGB Companies plans North Bethesda Market II a 4.41-acre development designed with office towers and more apartments.
Changing the perception of White Flint could prove crucial not just to lease the apartments or office space, but also to the county, which is banking on the revitalization.
County planners say that while residents use the White Flint Metro station to get to work, high volumes of traffic, narrow sidewalks, and a lack of decent streetscape inhibit pedestrian movement, putting people in vehicles.
Changing that habit requires more than just physical changes, it involves convincing people to walk.
White Flint resident Yvette Williamson said she doesn't generally like to walk more than a few blocks from her townhouse because the streets are often busy to cross and the distances too great for her to travel.
"Sometimes I'll walk to [White Flint mall] for something, but I don't like to; it's easier to just drive somewhere else," she said.
While she said she was unsure if new stores or wider sidewalks would change her attitude, Williamson walked May 6 to the unveiling of Sanborn's sculpture at North Bethesda Market.
Kristine Warner, a partner in the Rockville public relations firm Maier & Warner, which represents development groups in White Flint, including JBG and The Tower Companies, said she faced the same situation 20 years ago in Bethesda. She worked for Federal Realty, owner of Bethesda Row, a collection of stores and apartments in the heart of the business district. The success hinged on getting visitors to treat it like a destination.
When construction started, Warner said, people remarked that they wouldn't shop there if they couldn't park at their destination.
"It's about people's perceptions ... I said you wouldn't expect to be able to park right on front of a place you're visiting in Dupont [Circle]," Warner said.
Bethesda Row, home to high-end stores and the headquarters of Honest Tea brewing, is considered to be the heart of Bethesda's downtown business district.
Live and work
At North Bethesda Market, 50 percent of the apartments are leased, while 80 percent of the storefronts are occupied, according to JBG.
To push a change in White Flint to a more pedestrian-friendly urban area and to accommodate the more than 10,000 residents expected to move there by 2030 Montgomery County plans to invest more than $300 million in 20 years on roads and infrastructure improvements. But, on the business end, Steve Silverman, director of the county's Department of Economic Development, said his department advocates for new investment in all of the county and it does not promote specific areas. It leaves that work to private companies, he said.
There are little more than 2,300 residences in downtown White Flint, and more than 22,000 people work there. That imbalance has resulted more construction in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area, not White Flint, in the past, according to a report from developer Transwestern. As more apartments are built in White Flint estimated to reach an additional 12,000 by 2030 the area will fill with people living and working in White Flint.
Transwestern of Bethesda's Arlene Bregelman said her company shared the study in part because they wanted to promote their vision of White Flint, a commercial corridor similar to Rosslyn and Ballston, Va.
White Flint vacancy rates
Real estate data shows that White Flint sports one of the highest vacancy rates in the county, specifically for office space.
Data from the county's Department of Economic Development states that of the 2.1 million square feet of Class B space commercial area where rent is similar to the county average 427,603 remains vacant in the White Flint-zip code area; 19 percent of the total.
At the end of 2010, the countywide average was 15.8 percent.