Tuesday, July 22, 2014

White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, Part 4: The pros and cons of staging

The county council convened today to discuss the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, specifically addressing the issue of staging.  The council is currently leaning more towards dropping staging requirements from the Master Plan for various reasons.  Here are some of the pros and cons of staging, which may help explain why the council is leaning away from something that sounds like

The White Oak Shopping Center.

Staging is a term used to describe the correlation between new development and the new/upgraded infrastructure needed to accommodate it.  The idea is that certain infrastructure benchmarks must be met before construction on new development can continue.  For example, say a developer wants to build 1 million square feet of new commercial space in White Oak.  With staging, they would be required to pay towards infrastructure improvements such as new interchanges on Route 29 and Bus Rapid Transit before they can proceed with their development.  As they continue to build, they must keep paying for more infrastructure before they do so.

Proponents of staging say that it will ensure that infrastructure keeps pace with development, therefore keeping traffic in check and preventing developers from running wild.  Sounds like common sense right?

Well, sort of...

The problem with staging is that it can be a major deterrent to initial capital investment, which is crucial for the long term success of a Master Plan like this science gateway.  This issue is amplified in an area like White Oak, where current traffic levels would require strict staging requirements for developers.  If the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan contains strict staging requirements, there's a real possibility that it will be a huge bust, since investors would not want to pay so much up front for what would be a risky investment.

Potential investors will see White Oak as a risky investment because... it's White Oak.  It's not the same as Chevy Chase Lake or Great Seneca, which are both in wealthier parts of the county that have much more going for them than White Oak does at this time.  One day, White Oak may have the same benefits as those other areas, but it needs investment to get there.  If strict staging requirements are put into the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, developers and investors might say "oh well, we weren't that interested in east county anyway" and they'll take their economic growth to the I-270 corridor.  

FDA Boulevard in White Oak. 

Under strict staging requirements and density limits, White Oak may just become another cluster of residential development.  From an investment standpoint, building residential development is much "safer" than building commercial development.  If developers are required to pay a large sum of money up front to meet staging requirements, they will want to make sure they get the most "bang for their buck" in the form of residential development.  They will not want to build much commercial after paying so much to meet staging requirements, since returns on commercial development are much more unpredictable than residential development.  In a metropolitan area like this, there is always some demand for housing, but commercial space?  Not so much.  

So how can we ensure that infrastructure gets built (transit, school, and road improvements) without stymieing investment in White Oak?  There is no obvious answer.  Adding staging could prevent a "bait and switch" scenario later on, but it could also mean there would be no "later on" since the development and revitalization wouldn't happen due to strict staging requirements.

One solution could involve moving back the staging requirements to allow some development to occur before making the developers pay up.  Unfortunately, the issue of investment deterrence still exists under that scenario.  Another option could be to drop staging altogether, which would grow the tax base quicker and allow the county to use the money generated from the development to pay for infrastructure.  This approach could give White Oak the jump start it needs, but there would need to be some kind of mechanism to ensure that any money the county makes from the development goes directly towards improving infrastructure.

We'll see what the council decides when they vote on this Plan next week.


  1. There is so much misinformation here. Staging doesn't require new roads to be built before development can occur. Here is the Council Staff's recommended staging plan for White Oak:
    Stage 1: no mode share targets
    Additional 4.1 million sf of commercial
    Additional 2,000 dwelling units

    Stage 2: Before Stage 2 begins, attain a mode share of 22%
    Additional 3 million sf of commercial
    Additional 1,500 dwelling units

    Stage 3: Before Stage 3 development begins, attain mode share of 27%
    Additional 3.5 million sf of commercial
    Additional 2,927 dwelling units

    Stage 4: Before Stage 4 begins attain a 32% mode share
    Remaining commercial development allowed
    Remaining residential allowed.

    In the case of White Flint staging, the taxpayers are forward funding the infrastructure there, not the developers. It White Oak, it will become another residential cluster because they are being zoned that way.

    1. This post does not say "Staging requires new roads to be built before development can occur." The closest it gets to saying so is in a hypothetical scenario, which was simply illustrative for those who do not have any idea what staging is.

      This post says that staging requires infrastructure to keep pace with development (that's the whole point of staging no matter how you twist it, and that's why many people in Four Corners support it). The mode share goals you speak of are achieved through improved infrastructure (mostly better transit service in the form of shuttles, the proposed circulator using new road connections, and ideally BRT).

      It seems like you were so eager to get combative in the comment section, you didn't read the whole post or comprehend the core message of the post.

      You can't label something "misinformation" simply because you disagree with it. The point of this post was to point out that staging has positives and negatives, which it does.

      So don't say "there is so much misinformation here" just because you dislike this plan and you claim it will become "another residential cluster". Most of the areas in this plan are zoned for commercial-residential, not purely residential. I've watched all the council sessions and PHED committee sessions that deal with this plan, and if you claim that it will be all residential, or that our elected officials want it to be all residential, you are the one spreading misinformation.

      Most of the council (especially Branson and Navarro, since they live in D5) have said that they want way more commercial development in White Oak than housing, and their colleagues agree. To claim that this Master Plan calls for solely residential development is both alarmist and untrue. If you have watched the sessions like I have, you will know that the council has repeatedly stated that their number one priority is to grow employment and retail opportunities in White Oak.

  2. So, you take down posts you don't like---AND correct your misunderstandings. Too bad, and hypocritical. If you want to stimulate discussion, you should not act to repress accurate information..

    1. Email me and I'll explain why I took down that specific comment but not the others (by the way, that is the first non-spam comment I've ever deleted on here). If I was trying to censor you, I would have deleted all your other comments too. But I didn't, so ease up with the name calling.

      If you comment in the future, and you want to simulate discussion, use your real name. Other blogs have banned anonymous commenting for good reason, since anonymous comments usually combine personal judgments and/or attacks with factual information.

      This combining tactic is popular because it allows the anonymous commenter to accuse the blogger of censorship/suppression in the event that their comments gets deleted. But, it allows the anonymous commenter to take shots at the blogger while using straw man arguments to try to convince other readers to agree with the anonymous commenter's point of view. The anonymous commenter does this without being held accountable through a face and a name (as long as the blogger does not delete said comment). For example, you have made use of classic straw man arguments more than once (also called an informal fallacy) by attacking a misrepresentation of my argument instead of the core of my argument.

      I should complement you on this use of straw man arguments, since they are very similar to the examples in a textbook I have left over from a Logic class I took last semester. I have actually emailed your counter arguments to my post to a former professor of mine, who also said that your argument is a good example of a straw man.

      He was particularly interested in how you chose to attack the technicalities of staging instead of my broader point that staging does in fact discourage development by design. He said that this tactic is a good way of getting people to agree with you while ignoring the original purpose of the post. He also pointed out that providing numbers and official language (as you did with the specific staging info) in a straw man argument also helps to distract the reader from the message of the original post. This is because it makes the reader think that you are countering my argument, when you are in fact countering your own misrepresentation of my argument.

      Brilliant stuff.

      Anyway, I look forward to learning your name!

  3. Why don't you let your readers determine whether it is a straw man argument. And did you ever consider there are more than one anonymous responders?

  4. It looks like you have several commenting here not one. Anyway your friend's tweet with link to your post is what brought me and probably others here:
    "Could "staging, or requiring new roads to be built before development can occur, discourage investment in White Oak? "

    You also state: "With staging, they would be required to pay towards infrastructure improvements such as new interchanges on Route 29 and Bus Rapid Transit before they can proceed with their development. As they continue to build, they must keep paying for more infrastructure before they do so. "

    Under the Staff's proposed staging plan detailed above there is nothing linking the stages to payments for roads or infrastructure. Transportation impact and school impact fees are paid by all developers regardless of staging but they have nothing to do with the proposed staging plan based on mode share. Developers always want the fees waived or discounted whether they are in White Oak or Bethesda. There have been a number of projects in the area during the last 7 years that didn't require mixed use zoning or discounts and exemptions from impact and mitigation fees so the idea that nothing would happen if they had to pay the fees doesn't hold up.

    As for residential, it will be over 70% which is not what the objective was since one of the goals was to address the residential/commercial imbalance as well as the jobs/housing balance. This actually makes it more unbalanced.

  5. I didn't say it would be all residential. I said yes - residential cluster which were your words. The Commercial Residential zone is a mixed use zone that is primarily residential. The owner has the flexibility to decide how much of each based on the density assigned. They can decide 100% commercial or 100% residential or something in between. Once the zone is assigned, the Council has no say on what gets built. Most of the development in the CR zone has been 70-100% residential. If they wanted to prioritize employment as they say, they would have used the employment zones. The zone assigned trumps any descriptive language in a Master Plan.

    Also, Navarro doesn't live in District 5. She lives in and represents District 4.

  6. If staging discouraged development, you would not see the rapid development in White Flint right now which has an elaborate staging plan.

  7. Hey Sean, great series of posts.

    For what it's worth, as a reader who's wholly unfamiliar with this topic, I generally accept your posts as fact over Anonymous comments.

    Keep up the great work.