In Like Flint
The plan to transform the Rockville Pike corridor is being called the biggest thing to hit this area since the Red Line
Diane Schwartz Jones is talking about “blowing up” significant portions of the roads just west of Rockville Pike. That’s what it will take to transform the area into “a really beautiful boulevard—Rodeo Drive,” she notes with a chuckle.
The reference to Rodeo Drive may be tongue-in-cheek, but she’s serious about the blowing up part. It’s a key element in turning the White Flint corridor of Rockville Pike into an upscale, tree-lined thoroughfare replete with pedestrian promenades and center lanes for mass transit. It’s also just one aspect of the White Flint Sector Plan, a complex project more than five years in the making that’s expected to transform North Bethesda—indeed, the entire county—over the next 20 to 30 years.
The plan was unanimously approved by the county council in March 2010, and Schwartz Jones has been Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s point person in the complex undertaking. An aerial map of the 430-acre area overlays the conference table in her Rockville office, and she traces several streets between Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road that don’t presently exist in asphalt and concrete.
“The idea is that you are blowing up existing blocks and creating new blocks for development,” says Schwartz Jones, who recently became director of the county’s Department of Permitting Services. “It’s better from a traffic perspective: You get people out of their cars, it’s more pedestrian-friendly [and] you can ride your bikes.”
Suburban strip malls and fast-food outlets currently line much of the corridor that will become a nearly two-mile stretch of stylish urban density, extending north to south from Montrose Parkway to the current White Flint mall.
Montgomery County’s tallest buildings will rise as high as 24 stories here. And there will be an abundance of public spaces, as mass transit, pedal and foot power largely supplant the automobile.
“White Flint is the biggest thing, from a land-use perspective and a tax perspective, to happen in this county since maybe the Red Line,” declares Rollin Stanley, the county’s planning director and one of the project’s most outspoken supporters.
“It’s hu-mon-gous,” he adds, emphasizing each syllable.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around just how “humongous” White Flint is. The number of square feet of commercial, retail and housing units, the number of stories, the requisite infrastructure is dizzying. But to put it in some perspective: In terms of sheer acreage, the plan encompasses an area nearly 50 percent larger than Bethesda’s 300-acre urban district.
It’s designed to happen in three phases, with the first—involving 3,000 dwelling units and 2 million square feet of commercial and retail space—breaking ground in the coming months and being completed in seven to 10 years.
As might be expected of anything this size, the plan has its detractors—residents worried about the traffic it will bring and the strain that many more people will place on the schools and other public services, not to mention where all the money for infrastructure will come from. That’s what makes its relatively smooth passage such an anomaly in an area where simply erecting a tree house can require extensive review by multiple committees.
The impetus for the plan originated not with the county—though county officials are now among its staunchest supporters—but with leading developers. The JBG Companies was at the forefront. In 2003, the firm acquired a largely undeveloped parcel at what is now the junction of Rockville Pike and Executive Boulevard.
At the time, company officials say, there was little incentive for new development in the area, given restrictive zoning that dated back more than a decade. But JBG managed to obtain the rezoning necessary to start construction in 2007 of North Bethesda Market, an apartment-retail-restaurant complex that is now the county’s tallest structure at 24 stories. In exchange, the company agreed to certain concessions, including more moderately priced dwellings.
JBG, which currently owns about 30 acres in the area, wasn’t the only one eyeing White Flint. LCOR was interested in developing an apartment tower and new Nuclear Regulatory Commission building on the east side of Rockville Pike. Federal Realty Investment Trust was contemplating a transformation of the old Mid-Pike Plaza, which it had leased since the 1980s. (It eventually would propose a 3.4-million-square-foot development called Pike & Rose, with six residential and another half-dozen office buildings.) And Lerner Enterprises wanted to radically change the 850,000-square-foot White Flint mall. (It recently unveiled plans for more than 5 million square feet of office, retail and residential development there.)
“The White Flint plan started out like most plans—which is an Oklahoma land rush,” recalls Gregory Trimmer, JBG’s executive development officer. “Every developer sets up a meeting, goes in for rezoning and tries to get more density than they can ever use.”
In order to do that, though, developers needed a new master plan. So they opened a dialogue with county officials, community groups and property owners along the White Flint corridor, with a 148-member advisory group convening in late 2006.
“At first, it was exactly like every other Montgomery County fight that we’ve seen,” chuckles Barnaby Zall, a local attorney who founded The Friends of White Flint to promote the new White Flint plan. “People were screaming at the top of their lungs about something that was affecting them, and nobody was working for the main goal.”
Zall says it was “unusual” that the groups managed to reach a consensus.
But “between The Friends of White Flint and the White Flint Partnership [formed by area developers] and other groups, there were more than 200 meetings over four years,” Zall says. “They were all open, and there was tremendous participation.”
Skeptics grumble that it wasn’t quite that simple. They say privately that they were outgunned by the financial resources of the White Flint Partnership. Developers fund much of Zall’s group through “dues,” and they sit on its board—though Zall notes that they hold no more than a third of the seats.
In the end, though, what helped push the plan along was a widespread belief in the surrounding communities that this new vision of White Flint, with its promise of more green space and greater amenities, was preferable to the status quo of strip malls and parking lots.
“If it’s done well, it could be a great neighbor,” says John King of the White Flint Community Coalition, which includes eight community associations.
Before any plan could proceed, however, planning officials made it clear that the traffic inevitably arising from this dense development had to be addressed.
Trimmer remembers John Robinson, then vice chairman of the planning board, calling in JBG, Federal Realty and Lerner. “You have to solve the transportation and traffic problem,” Robinson told them. Otherwise, “this is going nowhere.”
In 2008, the development companies formed the White Flint Partnership and hired the Florida-based design firm Glatting Jackson. Over time, the partnership grew to include The Tower Companies, co-owner of White Flint mall; Saul Center Inc., owner and developer of parcels on both sides of Rockville Pike; and Gables Residential, an apartment developer that plans to build on property adjacent to Wall Park on the west side of White Flint sector.
“What Glatting Jackson did was to come up with really big strategic ideas that became a unifying theme for the whole plan,” says Rodney Lawrence, a partner at JBG. “The big one was changing Rockville Pike from a big arterial [road] to a boulevard.”
The plan was to have a network of shorter, more walkable blocks off Rockville Pike and through the private developments lining it to make the area more attractive to potential residents and encourage the use of mass transit nearby.
Lawrence acknowledges initial resistance from county officials when presented with a plan from an outside consultant. “The control issue was what they were most concerned about,” he says. “But in the end, I think [everyone] worked together.”
In early 2010, the county council approved the White Flint Sector Plan by a vote of 9-0. The plan allowed for high-rise structures along the White Flint corridor—but only if the developers agreed to concessions, including proximity to mass transit, installation of public spaces and amenities, and environmental initiatives such as “green roofs” or enhanced tree cover. The more concessions, the greater the allowable density.
Developers needed that density “to justify taking down cash-producing, value-producing properties,” Trimmer says.
“We would not have done this if we had not gotten the densities needed to make the economics work,” says Don Briggs, Federal Realty’s senior vice president in charge of the Pike & Rose project.
At the time the White Flint Sector Plan was approved, the area had about 2,300 residential high-rise units. That number will jump to more than 14,300 when all three phases of the plan are completed in the next two to three decades.
There were nearly 23,000 jobs in the area at the plan’s outset. The county executive’s office projects about 39,000 when the work is complete.
Underpinning this increase in employment is the addition of 7.5 million square feet of commercial and retail space. That’s about twice the square footage of Chicago’s 110-story Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
“I can see White Flint becoming another Bethesda,” says David Dabney, executive director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP). He professes not to be concerned about the potential competition, though White Flint is only three Metro stops north. “I think there’s enough for everyone,” he says.
The county executive’s office foresees this mushrooming development in the White Flint corridor yielding an additional $6.9 billion for the county treasury over a 40-year period. But hundreds of millions of dollars are required upfront in infrastructure improvements for the project to move ahead.
Estimates by the county executive’s office peg total infrastructure costs at a little more than $1.1 billion, with about 30 percent of that shouldered by the developers and the remainder—about $760 million—underwritten by county and state revenues or by a 10 percent developer surtax.
Developers estimate $540 million in additional infrastructure, but that doesn’t include the many public facilities and amenities pledged by the county to support the expanded White Flint community—ranging from a new fire station and elementary school to a recreation center to a 2-acre “civic green.” That last will be near the southwest corner of Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike, now home to Popeyes and Arby’s franchises.
Can the county deliver on those sizable commitments?
Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner, whose district includes both Bethesda and White Flint, thinks it can. “I believe we have the capacity to do this,” he says. “And we have the obligation. This is probably the greatest return on whatever investment we can make in the county.
“If you look at the private sector now, and see all the money sitting on the sidelines, there are not a lot of places attracting dollars. White Flint is.”
But the county isn’t the only player. Rockville Pike is a state thoroughfare, and its conversion into a “beautiful boulevard”—replete with pedestrian promenades and lanes down the middle for a rapid transit system—will ultimately rest with an already cash-strapped state.
Stanley acknowledges the need for “some sort of cost-sharing arrangement.” And members of the White Flint Partnership hope the current effort to develop a countywide rapid transit system will expedite the proposed changes, and possibly attract federal as well as state money for the task.
But private development can proceed regardless, Stanley says, since the reconstruction of Rockville Pike isn’t slated until the later phases of the plan.
Meanwhile, there are all the surrounding roads to sort out—not to mention “blow up”—in order to pave the way for the Rockville Pike boulevard later on.
Community groups extending east to west from Luxmanor to Garrett Park remain uneasy about the coming upheaval in the local landscape.
“Right now, traffic is not great, but it’s not awful—except during peak times,” says King, a Garrett Park resident. “If they’re not careful, it could get worse.”
He and other community representatives are particularly concerned that the county will fail to follow through on a commitment to construct bypasses to the east and west.
“They’re a must before they redo Rockville Pike, because all the cars kicked off the pike [will] have to use these,” King says. Otherwise, he fears significant spillover into neighborhood streets.
The county has tried to address some of these concerns. Moving to the second and third phases will require satisfying a series of “triggers.” These involve not only the construction of the new street grid abutting Rockville Pike, but the challenge—both financial and educational—of getting people to travel in and out of the White Flint area via carpooling, bicycling, walking and mass transit.
Currently, about 26 percent commute one of those ways. That number needs to jump to 34 percent before the residential and commercial development envisioned under phase two starts, with the goal of reaching 50 percent eventually.
The plan’s middle phase also requires funding a second entrance to the White Flint Metro station to reduce the walk to northern portions of the area.
“That is going to be the biggest challenge,” BUP’s Dabney says. “How do you take a 40-year-old Metro system and reinvest in it to make it more compatible with the people who are going to want to use the public means of transportation?”
Underlying the questions about whether goals can be met and financial commitments satisfied to keep this massive project on track is a debate that transcends White Flint.
Paula Bienenfeld, a former president of the Luxmanor Citizens Association, initially supported the plan but is now a skeptic. As she sips coffee at a Starbucks that eventually will be razed to make way for Pike & Rose, Bienenfeld notes that the 430-acre White Flint sector is about equivalent in size to the area taken up by Luxmanor and two adjacent communities that contain a total of 800 families.
“My concerns are that the developments being planned are just out of scale for this area,” she says.
Rollin Stanley has no doubt, however, that this type of urbanized, high-rise development is right for White Flint. Not only that, he thinks it’s needed elsewhere in Montgomery County to attract younger residents and make full use of increasingly scarce land.
“Some of the people living in single- family homes say, ‘We don’t need any high-rises.’ I’m sorry, you do,” he declares impatiently, noting that 89 percent of the county is now either zoned for single-family homes or set aside for agricultural reserves.
“We have built out. If we’re going to go any further, this is our option.”
What are we likely to see upon completion of the White Flint Sector Plan?
- More than 14,300 residential high-rise units (compared with 2,300 in the area in 2010)
- 7.5 million square feet of additional commercial and retail space
- 39,000 permanent jobs (versus 23,000 in 2010)
- $6.9 billion in additional revenue for the county treasury over a 40-year period
- $1.1 billion worth of new infrastructure, by some estimates, including a new elementary school, fire station, recreation center, public spaces, a new Metro entrance and more
- More people commuting by mass transit, bicycle, foot or carpool, with a goal of 50 percent, versus 26 percent now
Though completion of the White Flint corridor may take up to three decades to unfold, the future is now for a few leading developers as they proceed with projects that will significantly change the area in the next few years.
The JBG Companies, developer of the nearly 400-unit North Bethesda Market apartment tower on the west side of Rockville Pike, expects to break ground this summer for North Bethesda Market II directly to the north of the first building.
The nearly 350-unit NoBe II, as it’s called, will become the county’s tallest structure when completed in 2015: At 300 feet and 24 stories, it will slightly surpass the 24-story, 289-foot NoBe I, which includes a Whole Foods Market on the ground floor. Dan Malouff, an Arlington County, Va., transportation planner and local blogger, predicts the architectural design of NoBe II will make it “an undeniable landmark.” Also planned for the site is a 14-story office building to which JBG hopes to attract a movie theater.
Farther up Rockville Pike, Federal Realty plans a 45,000-square-foot movie theater as part of an office building at what is now Mid-Pike Plaza.
It’s the beginning of a three-phase plan to transform the 24-acre site into a mixed-use development of up to 3.4 million square feet called Pike & Rose.
The first phase, which includes an 18-story residential building with 300 units, is due to begin construction this year and be completed in 2014. Federal Realty is also developer of Bethesda Row, and Evan Goldman, the firm’s vice president for development, says the office building “is similar to the types of office buildings we’ve done in Bethesda—a kind of boutique, smaller building that has really thrived because of the Main Street retail” on the ground floor. In addition to the 300-unit residential tower, the first phase includes a smaller, 160-unit residential building.
Across Rockville Pike and to the southeast of the current Mid-Pike Plaza, LCOR controls some 32 acres—a portion of which will go toward an additional headquarters building for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, due to open later this year.
LCOR’s North Bethesda Center development also includes an existing 19-story apartment building with more than 300 units and a Harris Teeter supermarket, with work on an 18-story apartment structure due to begin this year and be completed in 2014.
The timing on redevelopment of what is the largest parcel in the area—the 45 acres on which the White Flint mall now sits—remains less certain. But Francine Waters, director of transportation planning for Lerner Enterprises, indicates the firm will move ahead in the near future with plans for the first phase of redevelopment, including 1,200 apartments and about 750,000 square feet of retail space.
Officials of Lerner and The Tower Companies announced plans last fall to tear down the 850,000-square-foot mall, in which they are partners, and, over the 20- to 30-year life of the White Flint Sector Plan, construct a mixed-use development. The latter will total 5.2 million square feet, including about 1 million square feet of retail space, another 1 million of commercial space, 2,500 residential units and a 300-room hotel.
Louis Peck, a Washington-based journalist for the past three decades, has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national level. He lives in Bethesda. To comment on this story, email email@example.com.