Planners urge flexibility in White Flint changes
Board says school site, density questions should be kept open
The Montgomery County Planning Board recommended the White Flint Sector Plan proceed with additional work sessions after hearing the first presentation from Park and Planning staff last week.
The staff presented the plan for the area surrounding the White Flint Metro station, which is designed to increase density, promote mobility and walkability and create a "sense of place" in the area. The staff sought guidance from the board on topics such as recommended school and MARC station sites, density levels and plan staging.
The board favored maintaining or promoting flexibility in the sector plan on a number of topics, especially regarding the school sites and specific density levels for different areas of the sector; because, as Chairman Royce Hanson pointed out, such plans are only revisited about every 20 years.
In other action, the board approved a 15.63-acre development near the White Flint Metro stop that will house a 14-story office building, two parking garages, more than 350,000 feet of retail space, and possibly an underground movie theater.
The development proposal was brought by LCOR North Bethesda Phase II, LLC, and is part of a larger, 30-acre development called North Bethesda Center. The Planning Board has already approved an 18-story residential building with supermarket retail space, a 19-story multi-family residential building and a roughly 60,000-square-foot community green. The land is owned by WMATA but LCOR has development rights.
Planning staff will next hold another work session to reflect the board's suggestions in the plan. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for November, following the submission of the draft plan to the board.
On the topic of a potential site for a new elementary school in the area, the board was reluctant to endorse either of the two sites proposed in the plan, one at Wall Park and one adjacent to Garrett Park Estates Park. The Wall Park location was especially greeted with skepticism for its busy location on Old Georgetown Road.
"I have real reservations about this site in terms of access to the property," said Vice Chairman John M. Robinson, balking at the "survivability" of the location for pedestrian children.
Commissioner Jean Cryor wondered if a school site was necessary within the White Flint Sector Plan boundary, and spoke strongly against a proposed possibility that both sites be used by grouping lower elementary grades at one site and higher grades at the other, because it would force many families to drop children off at separate locations.
"That's usually done when a school hasn't been planned properly," Cryor said. "It's a negative, it's a terrible negative."
Hanson supported a school site in the proposed urban area, however, stating that the presence of children in urban communities leads to a "richer civic life" because people become more involved with issues. He warned against trying to think of the school in the 12-acre, suburban mind-set, and encouraged innovation.
"Other cities around the world have succeeded in producing very fine schools in dense urban areas," Hanson said.
Transportation issues also factored heavily in the discussion. The purpose of the sector plan is to redesign White Flint into a more urban area, and conflicts between current suburban needs and future urban ones arose often.
For example, the plan predicts higher levels of congestion in the area than are deemed "acceptable" by an area mobility review, even after a new road grid is built. But the added congestion was perceived by staff and the board as a growing pain that will ultimately galvanize better public transportation.
"When you plan for the future, the present has to suffer," said Cryor. "We're building problems in that are solvable."
The plan calls to increase the number of people who walk to work in the sector from 25 percent to 40 percent, add a circulator-type bus system, a bike trail network and other means of mobility for residents.
The board also recommended that staff allow for more flexibility in the density levels in different parts of the sector to allow the environment to become urban enough to promote the walkability that is envisioned, as well as to allow developers more flexibility in their projects.