Monday, June 30, 2014

White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan: what it means for Four Corners Part 1: Intro

This is Part 1 of a series on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan and its impacts on Four Corners.  This is an intro providing an overview of the plan and its proposed changes to eastern Montgomery County. 
If you live in Four Corners, you've probably heard about the changes proposed for White Oak.  The Montgomery Planning department has drafted a comprehensive Master Plan for the White Oak area, dubbed the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan.  Over the next month, the Montgomery County Council will be holding several worksessions to dissect each element of the plan in preparation for a full vote on the Master Plan sometime later this summer.

The plan for White Oak is a bold one.  It imagines transforming White Oak from area with light industry, blighted commercial areas, and empty space into a new mixed use community with thousands of new jobs and new amenities, capitalizing on the presence of the Food & Drug Administrations consolidated headquarters.  I've read through the whole plan, and its hard not to get excited about all the new possibilities.

Planned activity centers in and around White Oak.  Image from the Montgomery Planning Department.

The best part of the plan, in my opinion, is the potential for a new employment centers.  The White Oak plan calls for 40,000 new jobs in the area, and eastern Montgomery County could really use more jobs.  Commuting habits are probably the largest single contributor to the traffic issues in Four Corners.  Because Montgomery and Prince George's County have lagged behind Northern Virginia is attracting quality employers over the past several decades, there is a large employment divide in the D.C. Area.  

On top of this regional divide, there is an employment divide within the county itself.  Eastern Montgomery County in particular has been slow to attract jobs outside of dense transit served areas like downtown Silver Spring.  In the morning, many east county residents have to commute south and west to jobs in Virginia, Bethesda, or D.C.  This is why traffic gets so bad on Route 29 south and I-495 west.  On the Beltway in the morning, it is not uncommon for eastbound traffic to be travelling 60 MPH while those travelling westbound crawl along at walking pace.  

If White Oak can attract the number of jobs proposed in the plan--or even half that many-- it would be a huge boon for eastern Montgomery County.   

Westbound on the Beltway at 7:45 AM on an average weekday as seen from University Boulevard.  If there were more jobs in White Oak, some of these people wouldn't have to commute to Bethesda or Northern Virginia for work.  Photo by the author.  
The next exciting part about the White Oak plan are the proposed amenities that could come to White Oak.  The largest development proposed for the area is LifeSci Village.  Aside from offering needed jobs, this development would bring new retail and entertainment facilities to an area that is currently a sprawling concrete recycling plant and quarry.  LifeSci Village would be located off of Tech Road and Cherry Hill Road near Calverton.  

Plans to redevelop the area currently occupied by light industry and gravel pits.  LifeSci Village is the cluster of mixed use development at center left
It is planned to be a town center type development similar to Downtown Silver Spring, bearing similarities to Silver Spring in terms of its regional draw and scale.  While western Montgomery County has many regional centers such as Bethesda, White Flint, Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Germantown; east county only has Downtown Silver Spring.  Downtown Silver Spring is a great place, but its pretty far from Burtonsville (9 miles), Fairland (7 miles), and White Oak (4 miles), and it can be difficult to reach from those places due to traffic and the lack of viable transportation alternatives along Route 29. 

LefeSci Village would provide entertainment and retail options to an area that is undeserved in those sectors.      

A proposed gathering place in LifeSci Village bearing similarities to a college campus, which the developer calls the "academic quad".  Image from Percontee.

The final major aspect of the plan is new housing.  Montgomery County is an expensive place, even here on the eastern side.  Housing costs are so high that many county employees and low wage workers cannot afford to live in the county they work in.  Demand is highest (as are prices) in the county's dense urban areas which are well served by transit.  Downtown Silver Spring has retained a certain level of affordability, but many young people cannot afford to rent apartments on their own, instead choosing to live in group homes in nearby neighborhoods to split costs.  

Housing in Montgomery County is a simple case of supply and demand.  The demand is high, the supply is limited, so the price is high.  Low income residents have a very difficult time finding affordable housing in these conditions, forcing many into neighboring Prince George's County and other less expensive areas.  The way to keep housing costs low is simple: build more housing.  

Among Millennials, demand is especially high for urban living in regional activity centers within walking distance of nightlife and entertainment venues.  Building housing in mixed use zones in White Oak directly adjacent to these venues will satisfy this demand, retaining Millennials who may have otherwise moved themselves (and their tax dollars) to D.C. or Arlington.  Building new housing makes all existing housing more affordable simply by increasing demand and competition in the market, benefiting buyers in a broader area.

New development in White Oak will meet high demand for urban living near nightlife among Millennials a/k/a the generation Montgomery County needs to attract if it wants a future tax base.  Image from Percontee.  

This post will be the first of a series I will write about the White Oak plan over the next month or so.  I will discuss many aspects of the plan, such as why White Oak ias been chosen for this major transformation (it's not just because of the FDA).  I will also of course discuss its impacts on Four Corners, both positive and negative, in terms of traffic, new jobs, and new amenities.

Stay tuned...         



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