Monday, July 7, 2014

White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, Part 2: Why White Oak?

As introduced in last weeks post, the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan calls for dramatic changes to the community to our northeast.  Anytime change is proposed, there is uncertainty, which leads to many questions.  Many in Four Corners have raised concerns about the White Oak Plan, fearing negative impacts in the form of traffic and congestion.  This has lead some to ask why these changes are being proposed at all, stating that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".


The White Oak Shopping Center.  Photo by the author.  

The problem is that White Oak is "broken" in many ways.  The area suffers from many socio-economic ills such as poverty, under achieving schools, and unemployment.  

This is not to say that White Oak is some awful place.  The broader White Oak area includes many affluent and historic neighborhoods, such as Quaint Acres and the stately Burnt Mills Hills, which were both established in the 1930's.  Hillandale, the community to the south of White Oak centered around the intersection of Powder Mill Road and New Hampshire Avenue, is also a very nice area consisting of estate style homes.  There are numerous other subdivisions all around White Oak that are comparable to the neighborhoods in Four Corners.

The White Oak Science Gateway Plan does not alter any of these established neighborhoods.  The plan instead focuses on White Oak's commercial and industrial areas which surround the FDA's growing headquarters, officially known as the Federal Research Center at White Oak (FRC).

Sign at the east entrance to the FRC on the recently built FDA Boulevard, a little-used 4 lane road that travels through Percontee's extensive concrete recycling plant.

Most people in eastern Montgomery County are familiar with the residential and commercial areas of White Oak, be it the shopping center or the large apartment complexes along Lockwood Drive and Stewart Lane.  These are the more visible areas of White Oak since they are close to Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue, the two major roads in the area.  However, the industrial areas north of Paint Branch (roughly bounded by Route 29, Cherry Hill Road, and the FRC) are much less visible to the general public.  This is also the area with the most potential for redevelopment. 

The area of White Oak north and west of Paint Branch is mostly home to industrial and  other commercial uses, with a pocket of residential development along Route 29 next to the park.


White Oak is home to a large amount of industry, both light and heavy.  Roads like Industrial Parkway, Tech Road, Broadbirch Drive, and Bournefield Way are lined with office parks and warehouses.  These commercial areas were developed in the 70's and 80's to provide a place for the industry necessary for a growing county.  The county originally chose to put industry in White Oak because it was out of the way of existing residential areas, but close enough to provide the goods and services needed (they made their intentions pretty obvious with the "Industrial Parkway" name).   

Light industry on Tech Road.

Aside from private commercial usage, this area has a large number of government tenants.  WSSC maintains a large water tower and other water distribution facilities on a site at the end of Industrial Parkway.  The water tower on the site is an area landmark (it can be seen for miles around due its geographic position) which provides clean drinking water to much of the surrounding communities.  Montgomery County operates a large school bus lot and fleet maintenance facility on Bournefield Way, and most school buses that serve east county are based out of this lot.  The U.S. Postal Service, Maryland State Highway Administration, and the National Guard also have a presence in White Oak.  

     
WSSC facility on Industrial Parkway.
           
The county's bus depot on Bournefield Way.

While this section of White Oak is known for its commercial uses, it also has some interesting natural features.  A few streams traverse the this area, creating the rolling hills and forming riparian barriers between different properties.  One of these streams has been dammed up to create an artificial lake.  This lake was created sometime in the 80's, presumably as a sediment reservoir for construction run-off, and it has since become inhabited by all kids of wild life.  The lake is much larger than Wheaton's Pine Lake, and it is the biggest body of water in eastern Montgomery County.  The funny thing is, most people don't even know it exists, because this lake is not even visible from a public road.         

The unnamed lake located a few hundred yards behind the Target shopping center.
The lake is currently privately owned by Adventist Healthcare, who also own much of the land surrounding it.  Adventist has planned to build an new hospital on Plum Orchard Drive for some time, and they have incorporated the lake into the design of the new hospital.  I walked around this lake, and its a beautiful place, and it is home to a lot of wildlife (I saw two blue herons and multiple whitetail deer when I was there yesterday).  It would great if it were more accessible to the public and converted into parkland so that it can be protected and maintained.   

Rendering of the new hospital in a parking lot at the end of Bournefield Way.  Thankfully, the lake and its immediate environs are being preserved.

There is one final key element of the White Oak area which I have not mentioned yet.  This piece of property is by far the biggest in the WOSG Master Plan area, and it is slated to become a large mixed use development with thousands of new jobs.  It is the Percontee site.

Conveyor belts and earth moving machines at Percontee's sprawling concrete recycling facility on Cherry Hill Road.  

A large pile of old concrete 40 feet high awaits recycling.  This area used to be a large gravel quarry (going back to the 1950's), but it was converted to concrete recycling when the supply of rock ran low.    

FDA Boulevard, a 4 lane road built in 2010 which travels from Cherry Hill Road to the back entrance of the FDA through the Percontee property.  This currently underused road will provide access to the proposed LifeSci Village.

The Percontee site is one of the most important aspects of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan.  Much of White Oak's transformation hinges on the conversion of this property from its current heavy industrial use to a vibrant mixed use community home to thousands of new jobs and residents.  It's exciting to think that this barren wasteland could become a vibrant place like Downtown Silver Spring, and if it happens, it will mean more than a billion dollars in new tax revenue for Montgomery County.  

White Oak currently has a lot of unrealized potential.  The industrial parks and small office building that exist today do not go far enough in proving the jobs needed for eastern Montgomery County.  Redeveloping in White Oak could preserve some industry while adding high paying jobs to an area that could really use them. 

Next week: Traffic concerns surrounding the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan.      

       

1 comment:

  1. The area already has more jobs than the following: downtown Silver Spring, Wheaton, Takoma Park, Glenmont, Grovesnor, Twinbrook, Friendship Heights. There will be another 2,800 coming this year for more FDA growth. There is no market for commercial office space. The County has a 25-30% vacancy rate. If employers aren't locating at Metro stations, why do they think they will come there? The answer is they won't and this plan is just creating more residential which means fewer jobs per household than we have now. This will contribute more to the imbalance the area has suffered from for decades thanks to poor planning with high density residential development where it couldn't be supported by infrastructure.

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