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



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.

 

Meredith Wellington, Chevy Chase resident and former planning board member, speaking of looming developmentTo allow greater density in return for a laundry list of amenities, county officials approved new zoning for White Flint back in March 2010. The so-called White Flint Sector Plan is widely regarded as a prototype. To permit such development elsewhere, the county council last October approved a new commercial-residential (CR) zone by an 8-1 vote. Not everyone is on board, though, and little wonder, considering that the very future of Montgomery County is at stake.

There are powerful forces at work here. Landowners, developers and builders see economic opportunity, with big profits from taller buildings. But along with the doers are the dreamers—the visionary planners. At times, the two have seemed to inhabit different planets, though no more. Then there are the dissenters. But more about them later.

“I’d never planned on doing suburbs,” says Rollin Stanley, the county’s brash, 53-year-old planning director, who arrived four years ago from St. Louis, where he held a similar position for six years. Before that, he was a planner in Toronto for 21 years.

The Canadian-born Stanley has become internationally known in planning circles—he recently represented the American Planning Association (APA) in helping to create a growth strategy for the Chinese city of Shouzhou—and he sees himself fulfilling a mission here, if not a calling.

Stanley remembers receiving a call from Jeff Soule, the APA’s director of outreach and international programs based in Washington. Soule said, “ ‘We think you are needed in Montgomery County, Md.’ I said, ‘Where’s that?’ I’d never heard of it,” he says. “At the same time, Philadelphia was calling.”

Everyone, it seemed, wanted him to save their region from the spreading sprawl and crawl. Then he got a call from Royce Hanson, the outgoing Montgomery planning board chairman, encouraging him to come look, telling him that the county was “at the point of change.”

Since then, Stanley has gone from one community meeting to another, selling his vision of a vertical future. He sometimes angers his listeners with statements such as “congestion is good,” because it forces people out of their cars and onto mass transit.

He has little patience with dissenters. Stanley goes so far as to accuse them of being “rich, white women…spreading fear.” He says they stalk his appearances before community groups, sowing discord. He claims they refer to themselves as “the coven.”

Meredith Wellington, a former planning board member, lawyer and Chevy Chase resident, is among the alleged inciters. “No, that’s silly,” she says of Stanley’s reference to the coven. “We’re professionals, I don’t get into personalities. I feel sorry for him if he feels that way. I have never made such a reference, and I have never heard anybody else make such a reference.”

Wellington’s organization, Neighborhood Montgomery, seeks to inform other residents about the countywide rezoning and how it could affect them. Her group’s battle cry: “Don’t Urbanize Montgomery County.”

“I don’t want everything to look the same,” Wellington says.

The resistance comes largely from leafy, single-family home communities worried that the new high-density, high-rise projects will bring more, not less, traffic to their neighborhoods, as well as place greater demands on schools and other public services. “There are a lot of really angry people,” says county council member Marc Elrich, the lone dissenter in the panel’s vote to approve the new high-density zone.

But the critics say it would be wrong to characterize them as anti-redevelopment. Take Mid-Pike Plaza. “If you look at it, with the sea of parking and buildings way back, yes, it needed to be redeveloped,” says Pat Baptiste, chair of the Chevy Chase Village Board of Managers and a member of the county planning board from 1991 to 1998.

But Baptiste is skeptical about high-rise Metro-related development as a one-size-fits-all solution. She points to empty storefronts with “for lease” signs at Wisconsin Circle in Friendship Heights to suggest that high density doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.

Wellington says she supports smart growth and transit-oriented development. “My problem is the failure to have great transit,” she says. “Metro has deteriorated and never added the infrastructure—buses and other connectors.” Without a grand design, she believes that the planners’ visions are unattainable and that the adjoining neighborhoods will suffer.

“If you are unable to keep up with transportation or school use, maybe you need to slow down for a bit,” Wellington says. She cites as a success story the master plan for downtown Bethesda, which has tied development to the increased use of mass transit: As mass transit use goes up, so does the allowed density.  

Elrich describes the planners’ strategy as: “Make roads so bad people only use transit.”

“But we can’t provide enough transit in most of the county,” he says, “and the cost is extraordinary.”

 

The Proposed Purple Line: The 16-mile, light-rail line would make mixed-use developments even more attractive. Graphic by Ellen Byrne

Take the 16-mile, light-rail Purple Line. Designed to provide an east-west link to three different Metro rail lines, it will have 21 stops between Bethesda and New Carrollton, including one at Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. The estimated cost is nearly $2 billion, with funding and timing undetermined.

But that uncertainty didn’t stop The Chevy Chase Land Company from proposing a major mixed-use project south of Jones Bridge Road, with 23 buildings, including 12 that would be 10 to 19 stories tall. Neighborhood resistance forced the company to pull its plan, lower its sights and re-establish a working relationship with the community. Discussions are ongoing.

Barbara Sears, a land-use attorney with the Bethesda law firm of Linowes and Blocher, foresees positive outcomes from transit-oriented development. “The maximums are set in the plan, but to get there you have a selection of different public benefits you can do,” she explains. Features such as less parking, “green” roofs, retail availability, architecture and small parks all score points for the developer who wants to build to the max. “It’s a much more open process, where expectations are more manageable,” she says.

But as Stanley seeks to replace the county’s traditional planning process with what he regards as a “more holistic” approach, there will continue to be blowback from neighborhood groups who see it as heavy-handed and undemocratic, a slick way to muzzle the public.

Nancy Floreen, chair of the council’s planning, housing and economic development committee, thinks those concerns are unwarranted. She believes there’s room in the county’s future for these urban centers and for traditional suburbia. “It’s never [been] intended these high-rises be everywhere,” says Floreen, who lives in a Garrett Park Victorian. But she recognizes that conflict goes with the territory.

“It would make things so much easier if we had someone sitting in an office who said it shall be thus, ordained from on high,” Floreen says. “We don’t work that way. We don’t have a monarchy. We have an engaged process. So you will hear from people unhappy about it [who are] much more into the weeds on every single issue. And having the best and brightest educated community slows it down. We always try to accommodate community concerns. I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

Steve Goldin is director of real estate for Metro, which owns land adjoining its stations suitable for development. “We can only show them the opportunities that exist,” he says of local citizen groups. “We can’t make them drink the Kool-Aid.”

Rollin Stanley is perhaps the Kool-Aid king. He speaks about high-rise, transit-oriented development. He blogs about it. He even gives a reporter a two-hour PowerPoint presentation on his laptop at the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring.

“This is a way of helping us accommodate growth in an economically sustainable manner,” says Stanley, who lives in a town house within walking distance of his office at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission building on Georgia Avenue. “We can never raise taxes high enough on single-family homes to pay for the infrastructure and services we enjoy.”

By which he means: A higher-density county will produce more tax revenue to support services, and getting developers to pay for infrastructure will reduce fiscal pressures on the cash-strapped county.

“That’s how we’ll get the Rockville Pikes of the world to become tree-lined boulevards with buses down the middle,” Stanley says. “Yes, there’ll be more cars on the road when you create more development. Rockville Pike won’t be less traffic-clogged. But per capita with new residents coming in, a much higher proportion will walk or take transit relative to how we’ve grown in the past…

“The White Flint plan is a game changer,” he says. “It’s saying you will grow differently and we’re starting now. What this is about is taking 400 acres and saying this will be different, it will be higher density, it will be mixed use, around transit, and we expect more people to be walking. And that is different for here.” 

Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for the magazine. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com

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