Following debate over transit improvements, affordable housing and other issues, the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday approved a new master plan for the White Oak area of Silver Spring, a move that was years in the making.
Officials hope the updated master plan for White Oak will spur economic development near the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters and result in thousands of new jobs — many in higher-paying life sciences fields — to rival the Interstate 270 biotech corridor.
While the vote signified a “great day” for the White Oak area and county in general, residents will need to be patient to actually see the hoped-for economic development, said Councilwoman Cherri Branson (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring.
“Our expectations have been raised, and we expect to see ground broken soon,” Branson said.
Eight of the nine council members voted for the plan.
Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park abstained. He said he didn’t want to vote against the proposal and be seen as not supporting new jobs.
But Elrich said he could not support the plan, calling it “totally out of balance.” He said that “staging,” which requires sufficient public roads and other infrastructure to be built with new projects, was an important element that other council members didn’t support.
Several leaders of neighborhood groups, including Alan Bowser of the Park Hills Civic Association and Barry Wides of the North White Oak Civic Association, also supported staging in the plan to ensure adequate infrastructure is developed.
Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said this project is different from many others, as it is trying to create “an entire new economic center” on land that once had, among other things, a cement plant and sludge processing facility.
“I don’t want to impose so many checkpoints ... that we lose the opportunity to land these highly desirable jobs,” said Leventhal, who successfully authored an amendment calling for County Executive Isiah Leggett to work on financing for a bus rapid-transit line along U.S. 29.
Leventhal also was narrowly successful in a change to make affordable housing among the list of priorities, along with economic development and others. Four council members believed the area had enough affordable housing, and that didn’t need to be on the list.
“We need to prioritize economic development,” said Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring.
But Branson said much of the affordable housing in the White Oak area is “likely to be at the end of its life cycle” because financing arrangements are closing.
Planners have been working on the proposal for several years, driven by the FDA building its headquarters in White Oak and the potential relocation of Washington Adventist Hospital there from Takoma Park.
The plan envisions new mixed-use projects along U.S. 29 and the Hillandale Shopping Center near the Beltway and New Hampshire Avenue, with office complexes, retail stores, restaurants, tens of thousands of jobs and thousands of housing units.
While developers have plans to “make things happen,” there are no guarantees, said Council President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown.
“It’s an exciting time,” Rice said. “We have laid the groundwork for some great things to happen in White Oak and the East County area.”
In an emailed statement after the approval, Leggett thanked the Council and said: “The East County has long been deficient in job location within the County and this Plan is a huge first step toward addressing that concern. I will continue to work with the Council, business, and our East County communities toward fulfilling the vision of [a] transit-oriented life sciences center.”