The Future is Looking Up

Picture yourself strolling the Champs-Élysées, visiting shops and restaurants before retiring to your high-rise above it all. Now picture yourself doing that in Montgomery County



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The past, present and future converge at Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda.

On the northwest corner sits Mid-Pike Plaza, a 1960s-era suburban shopping center with acres of parking—nearly 1,400 spaces in all. This is Montgomery County’s past, a symbol of a car-dependent, highway-dominated culture.

And the future? It’s just southeast down the Pike, where a driving range was a longtime landmark.

High-rise, transit-oriented development abuts the nearby White Flint Metro station there: the 312-unit Wentworth House Apartments, completed in 2008, atop a 63,000-square-foot, ground-floor Harris Teeter supermarket; and a 14-story, 362,000-square-foot office building that will be the third in North Bethesda to house the headquarters of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). And more’s to come, including another high-rise apartment building and hotel, from developer LCOR on the 32.4-acre tract.

“I think the evolving story of White Flint is really the future of Montgomery County,” Michael J. Smith, LCOR’s vice president for development, says on a “pretty important day” in December, when the construction crane on the third NRC building in North Bethesda is coming down. Occupancy by 1,500 headquarters employees is expected by the end of the year.    

Soon, Mid-Pike Plaza will be gone, too, its 271,000 square feet of retail replaced by a mixed-use development of up to 3.4 million square feet. A project of Federal Realty—the firm responsible for Bethesda Row, the hugely successful cluster of retail, restaurants and residences in downtown Bethesda—it will be called “Pike & Rose,” after the intersection of Montrose Road and Rockville Pike.

There will be a public plaza, a street grid with sidewalks and apartments above ground-floor restaurants and shops. The first phase—some 450 residences, 120,000 square feet of retail and 80,000 square feet of offices—is scheduled to break ground later this year.

“Our development strategy is creating a place, a community where people want to be,” says Robin McBride, Federal Realty’s regional vice president. “The tide is turning as you see more people who want to take advantage of mass transit to live, work and play. They don’t want to use a car. We are capitalizing on this new demand.”

For decades, the county has sprawled outward, gobbling up the farms and other vacant tracts wistfully referred to as “greenfields” in order to build single-family tract homes and strip shopping centers. Excluding the 47 percent of land preserved as parks and farmland, only 4 percent of the county remains undeveloped. Now the county’s trajectory appears to be not outward but up, into a vertical future. Planners envision a series of node cities inextricably linked by mass transit—from Bethesda to Rockville and beyond. Even early commuter suburbs such as Silver Spring and Bethesda, which were once clusters of low-rise commercial buildings, have gone increasingly vertical.

The build-out won’t happen overnight, officials say. Even at White Flint, where zoning is approved and work is well under way, planners predict it will take 25 years or longer to fully realize the vision. Even then, much will hinge on the economy and related variables such as market demand, pricing and financing.

But eventually both young and old will live, work and shop here in mixed-use developments with high-rise apartments, office buildings and retail built around Metro stations. A dedicated bus lane on the highway will whisk people between subway stops. Out with the Pike, in with the Boulevard—the county’s very own Champs-Élysées.

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