How Could White Flint Work for Amazon?

Montgomery County has planned to transform the strip-mall dominated commercial area into a new urban community--and landing Amazon could propel development forward


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The White Flint mall sign that greets drivers heading northbound on Rockville Pike as they enter the White Flint area of North Bethesda

Andrew Metcalf

Picture this: A comprehensive street grid, large urban office buildings, a tree-lined central boulevard, bus rapid transit, retail promenades and new residential buildings, all part of a community where people can walk and cycle to work.

That was the vision Montgomery County planners had when they created the White Flint Sector Plan in 2010. The sector plan is designed to guide development in the area within three quarters of a mile of the White Flint Metro station over the next 30 years.

And its broad goals could come to fruition two decades earlier than predicted if Amazon were to select the White Flint area as its second North American headquarters site.

Amazon intends to choose a headquarters location this year. Last week, county officials learned that the county was one of 20 locations that the company is considering for its complex, which likely would be spread across several buildings in an area. News of the county’s inclusion on the shortlist has set off a wave of speculation about the exact location that Amazon is considering and whether the county has a chance to make the final cut.

Multiple government officials have told Bethesda Beat that the county pitched the White Flint area to Amazon, although County Executive Ike Leggett has not yet formally identified the location as the county’s proposed site for the company.

On Monday, Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer would not confirm if White Flint is the specific location. He said Amazon would be welcome to build anywhere in the county that fits its needs.

“The exciting thing is now we’re at the table with them and we can find out what their interests are and what possibilities exist in the county,” Riemer said during a Monday morning meeting with reporters.

Leggett, who told real estate professionals in September the county was considering pitching the White Flint mall site to the company, hinted Monday at a new police station opening in Bethesda that Rockville Pike, which runs through the White Flint area, was part of the county’s pitch.

“As you know our new Marriott headquarters will come right down the street,” Leggett said, referring to the hotel giant’s pending relocation to downtown Bethesda from Fernwood Road, “and I’m hopeful that we’ll add another major headquarters up the pike or in this county somewhere. So long as it has a ZIP code in Montgomery County, it’d be welcome.”

On Tuesday, Leggett said Amazon is looking at a couple of sites in the county, although he would neither confirm nor deny that they were located in the White Flint area.

“This is a confidential matter,” he said. “At a certain point in time, if we move forward, and I hope that we will … we’ll have to lay all of this out in precise detail. Until that point in time, I’m not about to start competing against ourselves by talking about the pros and cons of various sites in Montgomery County.”

Amy Ginsburg, executive director of Friends of White Flint, a nonprofit that advocates for the neighborhood, said White Flint and the nearby Pike District have a wide variety of sites ready for office development.

Ginsburg said she thought of the site of the now-demolished White Flint Mall  on Rockville Pike and the neighboring White Flint Plaza  when considering places that could accommodate part of a corporate campus. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority bus depot north of Nicholson Lane also has redevelopment potential, she said.

“I think one of the great virtues of the White Flint area is that there’s land” available for development, she said.

Properties with office development potential in the White Flint area. Credit: Google Maps, annotated by Bethesda Beat

Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle includes 8 million square feet of space across 33 buildings that also house 24 restaurants and eight retailers. The company estimated in its request for bids that its presence in Seattle’s economy has generated about $38 billion of investment in the city and surrounding area.

Amazon’s second headquarters plan calls for an initial 500,000 square feet of office space to be built in 2019. Future growth could add another 8 million more square feet. The company also requested a site with mass transit access that is within 30 miles of a city and 2 miles of a highway, and no more than 45 minutes from an international airport.

The White Flint Sector Plan created new potential for office development in the 430 acres surrounding the White Flint Metro station. The former mall site alone, which is now only home to a Lord & Taylor retail store, is about 45 acres.

Drivers can get from the White Flint mall site to Baltimore-Washington, Dulles or Reagan National airports in about 45 minutes--as long as traffic is light or moderate. Two highways--I-270 and the Capital Beltway--are within 2 miles of the White Flint area.

A street grid plan in the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan. Via Montgomery County

The sector plan also allows an additional 5.7 million square feet of nonresidential construction over what was included in the previous plan; combining that with existing and approved development, the planning area could encompass up to 13 million square feet of nonresidential building space. The county estimated that the square footage total could translate into about 48,600 jobs.

That figure is close to the roughly 50,000 professional jobs that could pay an average of about $100,000 annually that Amazon is planning for its new headquarters.

Gwen Wright, the county’s planning director, said one goal of the White Flint sector plan was to create round-the-clock activity in an area that has been characterized by strip shopping centers with parking lots. Through the plan, officials wanted to achieve a better balance between housing, shopping and employment space, she said.

“For a community to feel like a community … it needs to have people who are using the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.

In 2010, the area covered by the White Flint plan had 9.85 jobs for every dwelling unit; the plan is shooting for a ratio of 3.4 jobs per home. The proposed mix of residential and business development seems increasingly attractive to large employers, Wright said.

“We’re seeing that in other decisions that are being made by groups like Marriott, who want to move out of an area that is like an office park,” she said. “Workers really prefer to be in a place that has multiple uses: open spaces, where they can sit and do their lunches, places that really have that sense of community. And we certainly believe that the White Flint area is well on its way to becoming that kind of special place.”

She said the Pike & Rose neighborhood, the Metro East area surrounding the White Flint Metro station and the White Flint Mall site all could accommodate a significant corporate presence.  

The sector plan allows buildings up to 300 feet tall along Rockville Pike and calls for transforming the thoroughfare into an urban boulevard with wider sidewalks and underground utilities. This year, Leggett included funds in the county’s six-year capital budget to design a bus rapid transit system to operate on Rockville Pike.

A concept design for Rockville Pike included in the White Flint Sector Plan transportation appendix

Evan Goldman, a former executive at Federal Realty who helped guide the White Flint Sector Plan through the approval process, said Monday that Amazon’s selection of White Flint would propel development that would meet the sector plan’s goals.

“The plan takes Rockville Pike and turns it into a beautiful urban neighborhood with these really cool residential neighborhoods that surround it,” Goldman said. “From an economic perspective, White Flint is literally set up for this thing--this Amazon competition.”

He noted that the county has already rezoned the properties surrounding Rockville Pike, which would enable a large corporation to quickly get new buildings approved if plans met zoning requirements.

Major developers such as Lerner Enterprises, Federal Realty, JBG Smith, B.F. Saul and Combined Properties all own parcels in White Flint that could be developed into large office buildings.

“Those property owners have worked together on the master plan,” along with residents and existing businesses, Goldman said. “Their ability to coordinate and make this work would be one of the things that stand out for this area.”

He said development that could be spurred by Amazon’s move to White Flint could mean that the sector plan’s goals could be realized 20 years sooner than anticipated.

Jay Corbalis, a development associate with Federal Realty, said Monday the company’s Pike & Rose development is adding an 11-story, 209,000-square-foot office building and has the zoning approval to construct several more buildings that would total 600,000 square feet in office space.

“The White Flint Sector Plan and the work we’ve done at Pike & Rose has laid the groundwork to literally welcome a company of Amazon’s size,” Corbalis said. “Amazon would provide the catalyst to implement components of that plan much sooner than might have materialized otherwise.”

Grand Park Avenue at Pike & Rose in 2016. Credit: Andrew Metcalf/ Bethesda Beat file photo

The sector plan calls for a second, more northern entrance to the White Flint Metro station to be built near the intersection of Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road. Corbalis said he believes adding this second entrance will help make the area more attractive for businesses.

Goldman said the arrival of Amazon could also boost Metro by drawing riders from Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., to White Flint, the location of one of its least used Metro stations. In February 2016, the White Flint station recorded an average of 3,641 weekday boardings, making it the 69th busiest of Metro’s 91 stations, according to an analysis by Greater Greater Washington.

Residential development projects proposed near White Flint also could improve the county’s chances of enticing Amazon, according to Ginsburg.

A new growth plan for the area around the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station could pave the way for an estimated 1,400 additional housing units. And the Montgomery County Planning Board will soon discuss a proposal for a 294-unit apartment complex near the White Flint Metro station, Ginsburg noted.

Goldman, now an executive with the regional residential developer EYA, said his current company would welcome Amazon in any of three locations the company shortlisted  in the D.C. area--the District and Northern Virginia also made the company’s shortlist.

“We think it would be great for the housing and residential market here,” Goldman said.

Ginsburg said landing the Amazon headquarters would be an unequivocal win for White Flint. “There’s nothing but upside here,” she said.

A spokesperson for Lerner, which owns the White Flint mall site with Tower Cos., has not responded to multiple requests this month for comment about the company’s potential involvement in the county’s Amazon bid.

However, community concerns have been raised in recent days about the potential influx of 50,000 workers over the next decade and how their presence could impact overburdened schools and the area’s roadways. Riemer said Monday he believes the county and state will work together to upgrade infrastructure to handle the new workers and their families if the county were to be chosen for the headquarters.

“Over a period of 10, 20 years you’re talking about a significant expansion of the job base in the county,” Riemer said. “That’s why we would need to invest in transportation infrastructure and need to invest in school construction. We need to invest in all of the things we do in order to meet a much higher demand.”

Gov. Larry Hogan has prepared a $5 billion package of tax incentives and transportation improvements designed to lure Amazon to Maryland. The legislation will have to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Montgomery County lawmakers were generally supportive of the incentive and transportation improvement plan Hogan has proposed.

Parent advocates in the Walter Johnson High School Cluster said they’re supportive of the Amazon bid and argued that keeping up with school construction projects would be a crucial part of landing the headquarters.

“[E]nrollment pressures, if not managed for, will negatively impact the quality of our kids’ education; in many ways that’s already happening. … [T]he State and County must fully fund school construction and operations so that Amazon understands that our leaders are committed to providing their employees’ kids a world class education,” cluster coordinators James Bradley, Wendy Calhoun and Nermine Demopoulos said in a written statement.

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