White Flint II – What is the Big Idea?
Planners are making good progress on community planning work this spring. We transmitted the Planning Board draft of the Wheaton Sector Plan and an amendment to the Clarksburg plan focused on retail staging. Coming soon are Takoma Langley and Kensington, and, later this year, Burtonsville. And if our budget request is funded, Chevy Chase Lake will follow, then the start of several new plans over the next year including Glenmont, Gaithersburg East/the Montgomery Village Sector Plan and White Flint II.
I have been questioning staff as we embark on new planning efforts, asking, What is our Big Idea? What will this planning effort achieve? And, because we cannot ask these questions in a vacuum, What would we want to achieve without constraints versus with constraints?
My last post, “Federal Highways,” outlined the Montrose Parkway underpass (or overpass, depending upon which way you are traveling). The graphic below superimposes one of the sketch plans we received for a several-block area in the heart of White Flint over the area occupied by the Montrose underpass. It is apparent how much land the underpass “sterilized” for future growth, housing, revenue and more importantly, the real impact it has on the possibilities for the White Flint II area.
The White Flint II Sector Plan has as a major constraint that will dictate what can be achieved. That constraint is the barrier the underpass has created. It is, in effect, White Flint’s Berlin Wall.
Ten or 15 years from now, as White Flint hits its stride, there will be plenty of destinations drawing people into the area. Some will take transit, but most will drive. They will seek out parking and walk along new pedestrian-friendly streets lined with windows and activity. Many will work and live in this emerging community.
Will those same people look north to the White Flint II area and say, “Hey, let’s go shop or eat over there?” And if they are making this decision, will they walk? No way. It will be a barrier just like the photo above. As the new streets and activities emerge in White Flint, they will not extend the grid across the underpass.
Would you really drive one-quarter or one-half mile north and find a new parking spot in White Flint II to shop or eat? It’s unlikely you’d find something there that will not already be in White Flint. And this is the challenge of White Flint II. What can it become? What can happen there that will make it distinct from White Flint?
This question would be different if the Montrose / 355 intersection had remained at grade. The street grid could have extended north to south. The building infrastructure could have created a seamless transition across the intersection, not much different than say Georgia and Colesville Road in Silver Spring. People could and would walk across the area into White Flint II because the transition would be lined with active uses day and evening.
So as we prepare to look at the White Flint II area, we have to take a hard look at what is possible. We have White Flint becoming known as NoBe (North of Bethesda), we have Rockville to the north, with White Flint II mostly in the middle. Will it be SORo (South of Rockville) or can it establish it’s own identity? Can we expect the same demand for high-rise construction in White Flint II as in WF I? Will traffic modeling reveal that White Flint I occupies the bulk of the available and projected road capacity?
Or should we expect more like Twinbrook Station, a recent successful project north and east of White Flint at lower densities with a residential focus? Should this be the future of White Flint II, with splashes of retailing that are more convenience-focused than destination oriented? Will there still be a market for destination retail like the Container Store north of Montrose?
Several property owners own land both north and south of Montrose. How they lease south of the road in White Flint I – whether to big box retailers or smaller retail – will have a big impact on what happens to the north in White Flint II. That model does not fit into the urban character of White Flint. Property owners will lease according to the market, and will avoid investments that compete with other uses in the area. This will not only impact the retail market but the residential market as well.
If White Flint I is to be higher density condo and rental, there may not be enough market share for both areas in the next 15 years. Perhaps White Flint II will be about managing expectations, meaning it may take awhile for the collective vision to emerge. This is the approach that we are investigating for the Long Branch neighborhood, where the near and long term goals are differentiated by the actions we can take to create incremental change.
Maybe 20 years from now the Montrose underpass may be MoCo’s elevated expressway. The mistake realized decades later in places like Seattle, Toronto and San Francisco, where lots of money was invested to reverse the damage and open up new opportunities for creating better environments for people, not autos.
There are lots of things to consider when we start the White Flint II Sector Plan.We hope for engaged conversations with property owners, residents and business operators — all of whom will help guide the possibilities that White Flint II can be.