Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007

White Flint growth plan draft expected by December

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The Montgomery County Planning Board wants its staff to be creative its vision for the future growth of White Flint, but mindful of the hundreds of nearby homes and costs associated with infrastructure improvements.

Nearly 50 developers and residents packed the room Monday night to hear Planning Board members’ thoughts on how staff should craft the White Flint Sector Plan.

The draft, expected in December, will define future roads, schools and business and residential districts for the North Bethesda center.

‘‘This will be North Bethesda’s downtown,” said Margaret Rifkin, of the community planning division with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The area, she told the Planning Board, is well suited for a housing center and marketplace rather than a dense commerce center as found near the Bethesda or Silver Spring Metro Stations.

White Flint has more retail stores than Bethesda or Silver Spring commercial business districts, she said, and county planners think that should continue to be a defining quality of the area.

Rifkin explained that the current White Flint layout resembled a shopping mall, with Mid Pike Plaza and White Flint Mall on Rockville Pike serving as the two commercial anchors and smaller retail stores dotted between them. It is a general layout that the planners are likely to maintain in the sector plan update.

The revision of the White Flint sector plan is meant to address transportation, zoning, pedestrian and bicycle networks, open space, environment, community facilities and preservation of historic sites in a way that will guide the development and look of the community for the next 10 to 20 years. It is the first step to revising the 1992 North Bethesda⁄Garrett Park master plan.

The area is bounded by Montrose Parkway to the north, the CSX railroad tracks to the east, White Flint Mall and the adjacent medical buildings to the south and Woodglen Drive to Executive Boulevard around the Montgomery Aquatic Center to include Old Georgetown Road to the west.

Establishing a mix of apartments, condominiums and retail stores is the first step for county planners, Rifkin said. White Flint Mall and Mid Pike Plaza are slated to become mixed-use areas, and more pedestrian-friendly side streets would be built where smaller retail stores would be located.

The board urged planners to keep the nearby residents in mind.

‘‘We’re building a community here,” said Commissioner John Robinson. ‘‘But we have to be respectful to the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Right now, there are 2,100 homes and condominiums and 5.5 million square feet of commercial and retail space within the White Flint Sector plan but hundreds of homes surround the development area.

The 1992 White Flint Sector plan calls for 6,400 apartments and homes and 13.8 million square feet of business space.

But planners and developers want to increase retail and office space along Rockville Pike and encourage shoppers and drivers to use side streets to get to specialty stores.

Suzanne Hudson and Bobbi Kadesch, two Garrett Park Estates-White Flint Park residents at the meeting, said they were open to ideas from planners, as long as their quality of life is respected.

‘‘They have to respect their neighbors and we want something that works well, that is attractive and that we can live with,” Hudson said.

However, the street grid and improvements to Rockville Pike are a serious matter to consider according to Dan Hardy, county traffic engineer. There are 55 smaller blocks of retail stores and restaurants in Bethesda, Hardy said, and there are 12 in White Flint.

‘‘Clearly we have to do something to break up those super-blocks,” he said. Creating that grid of side streets and ‘‘taming the pike” is one of the main challenges to White Flint’s design.

Hardy said that projected growth won’t clog Rockville Pike, but it is a hassle to drive.

The road could become a divided boulevard with parking on the side, or could even be split into one-way northbound and southbound boulevards and separated by blocks of buildings before rejoining near White Flint Mall.

Planning Commissioner Jean B. Cryor said White Flint has to be designed as a self-sustaining area, where the costs for road improvements are generated from phased development and not spent up front.

‘‘I love these ideas, but I just keep getting stuck on dollars,” she said. ‘‘None of this works, none of it, without money.”