Updated master plans for the White Oak and Fairland areas of Silver Spring need to focus on jobs more than housing, several Montgomery County Council members said Tuesday during a briefing on the proposal.
The plans are designed to allow for development that advocates say could transform the region into a rival of the Interstate 270 biotech corridor.
“This could just as easily turn into a housing project as a business project,” said Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park. “If offices don’t go there ... it could be a major problem.”
Planners have been working on the proposal for several years, driven by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration moving its headquarters to White Oak and the potential relocation of Washington Adventist Hospital there from Takoma Park. They envision new mixed-use projects along U.S. 29 and the Hillandale Shopping Center near the Beltway and New Hampshire Avenue, with new office complexes, retail stores, restaurants, tens of thousands of jobs, and thousands of housing units.
Current shopping centers in White Oak are “very well patronized,” while the neighborhoods are “well established” with homes of $500,000 and up, noted Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring. But many people go to Howard County when they want to patronize a more upscale restaurant, she said.
“Many people who live there ask how come they don’t have the same kind of amenities as in other parts of the county,” Navarro said.
The plan could cause some “traffic challenges” in the area that might have to be accepted, said Nancy Sturgeon, who is heading the county planning department’s work on the master plans.
Another trend that could affect the plan is that the office market is struggling, though some developers say mixed-use projects are working well and companies will want to move close to the FDA.
The FDA has been consolidating various offices in Bethesda and Rockville into the White Oak 1.2-million-square-foot headquarters campus near New Hampshire Avenue and U.S. 29. The FDA consolidation provides a unique opportunity to serve as a catalyst for the area, said Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At Large) of Takoma Park.
“This council needs to decide this issue. It’s been on the back burner for years,” Riemer said. “We are lucky to have the FDA here. We need to figure out how to leverage this asset. If we can’t figure that out, shame on us.”
One potential sticking point is whether U.S. 29’s traffic when it is essentially a highway north of New Hampshire Avenue should be taken into account in traffic models for the master plans.
Planning Board Chairwoman Françoise Carrier said that entity did not take highway traffic into account in other areas, such as the Beltway, since “we don’t control that traffic” and it was mostly a “function of regional traffic.” The planning board approved the proposal last fall.
Elrich said the notion of not considering such highway traffic was “kind of amazing” to him. He noted that traffic heading south on U.S. 29 during the morning commute is “enormous” and the plan would create more traffic problems.
The council needs to be consistent, and if it essentially ignores highway traffic in models for one area’s plan, it should do that in White Oak, said Councilwoman Cherri Branson (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring. It’s important that new mixed-use centers be built since that is how a lot of younger residents, or “millennials,” want to live, where they can walk or take mass transit from home to work and entertainment venues, she said.
The area does not have a Metrorail station, which is one problem officials have in trying to reduce traffic congestion. Bus rapid transit has been proposed for White Oak. Transit improvements need to be put in place “before rooftops go up,” Elrich said.
Jobs need to be a focus before housing to “help those who are already living there” find jobs closer to their homes, said Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park. He added that he wants to see some “real proposals” about how bus rapid transit would be funded.
The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to hold five work sessions on the proposal, starting July 1. The full council is slated to meet about the plan on July 22 and take action July 29.
“It sounds to me like we’ll have a busy summer,” Council President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said.