Council hears comment on White Flint plan
Traffic, school capacity are major concerns
So many speakers signed up to testify at a public hearing on the White Flint Sector Plan in front of the County Council on Tuesday night that the hearing was scheduled to continue Thursday before it even began.
The council was set to hear the first two rounds of public testimony on the plan, which will map out development in the North Bethesda neighborhood for the next 30 years, at a hearing Tuesday night that happened past The Gazette's deadline. While the hearing was expected to continue Thursday, there is no date set yet for the council to vote on the plan. The County Council Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee has a White Flint work session tentatively scheduled for Nov. 23.
At stake is the future of the area surrounding the White Flint Metro, where county planners have recommended transforming mini-malls and asphalt parking lots into a more vibrant community of mixed use residential, commercial and retail space. The plan before the County Council proposes converting Rockville Pike into a pedestrian boulevard and making the whole of White Flint more like Arlington, Va.
"We are very excited about the White Flint plan," Paul Meyer, Board President of the Wisconsin Home Owners Association, said Thursday at a public forum with County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac, held at the Mansion at Strathmore. The condominium board endorsed the plan and Meyer said at a recent presentation to residents, "there was an amazing amount of enthusiasm."
Meyer said the residents of the Wisconsin have only one caveat: that the transformation of Rockville Pike be done early in the plan. The current draft calls for a street grid to be built first to alleviate traffic pressure while the Pike is redone, but several groups have called for the Pike to be redone first to prepare for the coming development so as Meyer put it, "we don't have four million cars on one road."
The Friends of White Flint, a nonprofit coalition of residents, businesses and developers in the sector that supports the plan generally, also endorsed acceleration of the Pike redesign as one of a dozen recommendations for improving the sector plan in a report delivered on Tuesday to the council.
Several resident groups are concerned about traffic, including the White Flint Community Coalition, which comprises several community associations that border the boundaries of the sector plan. Coalition advocates sent out e-mails on list serves and stumped for their neighbors to submit written testimony to the council opposing the plan's traffic elements, which allow for more congestion than has been considered acceptable in the county in the past.
A statement from the WFCC said the group "welcomes redevelopment and applauds the (Planning) Board's stated commitment to smart growth' and overcoming auto-oriented suburban development,'" but the group fears the traffic that will accompany growth without an increase in transit capacity.
Berliner has said mass transit is essential to the success of the plan, and has proposed a "sustainable transit corridor" that links the impending development of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at the National Naval Medical Hospital campus in Bethesda with the coming development in White Flint.
"We only have one choice here, we have to get people out of their cars," Berliner said.
Advocates of the sector plan argue that the best way to do that is by creating places where people can live, work and play without getting in one, such as high-rise residential areas like the one envisioned for White Flint.
The other oft-cited concern in the plan is school capacity, which several groups, including the Parent and Resident Committee for Sustainability and the town of Garrett Park, have said will be overcrowded by White Flint development. The Planning Board decided not to designate a school site within the sector plan, instead selecting Rocking Horse Elementary, a large former school site outside the sector boundaries that is currently used as Montgomery County Public Schools offices. That decision has raised concerns about MCPS' stated unwillingness to use the site as a school, and the challenge of getting a new school at all, if they refuse.
Liz King, a member of PARCS and a parent of students at Garrett Park Elementary School, gave to Berliner a yellow T-shirt reading "No schools? Not Smart!" on Thursday. King said not allocating a school site in the sector, and the potential for redistricting if the Rocking Horse site is used for a future elementary in White Flint, "is unacceptable."
"We should have a school site in the sector plan and I am committed to working to find an appropriate school site in the sector plan," Berliner told her.
But residents in Randolph Hills, which is within Berliner's district, have lobbied hard for the Rocking Horse site, which can be seen from the sector plan boundaries and which sits on 18 acresenough land to potentially accommodate both an elementary and middle school. Berliner said Randolph Hills residents haven't been "treated fairly" in the past when the school was closed in the first place, but he still doesn't support using it for White Flint.