Belward is at the heart of Science City' debate
Planners make concessions but neighbors remain wary
Brian Lewis/The Gazette
The view from Jan Fine's backyard opens onto a 19th-century farmstead atop the crest of one of the Belward farm's swells of rolling green — a bucolic scene unsullied by the cul-de-sacs and office parks that crept in.
Living along the 108-acre farm's northern edge for 17 years, she has always known her good fortune of having so poignant a sight so much a part of her life.
"It's got a lot of history to it, and that — feel," she mused from her home on Mission Drive, looking onto the patch of undulating countryside on Muddy Branch and Darnestown roads.
Like most of Belward's neighbors, she has always known that Johns Hopkins University would someday turn the farm into a massive campus for biotech research. It is the magnitude of the vision taking shape — 4.6 million-square-feet stacked in 6-, 8- and 10-story high-rises — that has roused her neighbors to implore county officials to temper what they say is a too-grandiose plan that will overwhelm their communities.
"I wake up and I look at the sunrise over it every morning," said Washingtonian Woods resident Tami Mensch, whose home just off Muddy Branch Road would be exposed to the brunt of traffic, noise and pollution. "The farm is my whole left hemisphere; it's my Zen center."
The angst has mounted for more than a year as county planners readied the Gaithersburg West master plan, the county's blueprint for transforming a larger 800-acre area into a live-work "Science City" that would create 60,000 jobs.
As the master plan heads into months of review — its first public hearing is March 26 — Belward will be at the heart of the most heated debate as the county's business and biotech community push for "Science City" with Belward at its research-academic core, and neighbors rally behind the farm as the emotional epicenter in their struggle to limit how vast that vision is allowed to become.
A question of scope
County planners make several concessions in the draft of Gaithersburg West.
On a crucial density calculation, the draft settles on a figure that would allow about one-third less development than Hopkins had wanted. To preserve green space without towering too high over nearby neighborhoods, buildings must be at least 60-feet tall but not more than 110 feet. The tallest and densest development will be clustered around a transit stop envisioned for the east side of Belward, furthest from residential areas.
The draft calls for 10 to 12 acres — not seven — to be preserved around Belward's farmhouse, silos and milk barn, which would become a museum or civic center. A towering Black Gum tree, for many a landmark along Muddy Branch Road, would go untouched. The draft stresses the need to keep clear views of the farmstead and calls for a 300-foot buffer along Muddy Branch Road and 60-foot buffer along Darnestown Road.
"I'm sure it won't seem like enough, but we did listen," said Nancy Sturgeon, Gaithersburg West's lead planner. "We tried to be clear: we don't want it to spread out on the site."
Hopkins has not given up on the higher density proposal. Under the higher figure, Belward could see up to 6.5 million square feet of construction — which Hopkins says could be the difference between a vibrant "Science City" and one that falls short.
At 4.6 million square feet, Belward might meet the short-term or more modest needs of federal agencies Hopkins hopes to woo, while ridership projections for the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway would fall into the lower limits needed to spur federal and private funding, said David McDonough, senior director of development oversight in Hopkins's real estate division. At 6.5 million square feet, Belward becomes a far more attractive option.
Hopkins wants to be sensitive to Belward's neighbors, but say they cannot ignore the benefits to the broader community if Belward becomes a magnet for federal researchers, entrepreneurs and students working side by side.
"If we're collaborating on a cure for cancer, how important is that to a neighbor in comparison to a tall building?" McDonough said. "I don't know how to answer that question ... but that's the scope of projects we're talking about."
Details of how that scope might take shape will not come until fall at the earliest. Under a new county procedure, Hopkins and the other landowners in the Life Sciences Center will submit "concept plans" only after Gaithersburg West is approved. If planning approvals, design and construction follow smoothly, Hopkins is looking at a 2013 horizon for completion of Belward's first high-rises, McDonough said.
With so much to gain, and lose, Jane Fine and other leaders of the civic group Residents for Reasonable Development are girding for a contentious debate. Yet the group is also holding out hope that county officials will heed some of their ideas.
Fine can see a way forward: let Hopkins build even more around the proposed CCT stop, thereby maximizing open space without cutting into development potential.
"That way, everybody comes out smelling like a rose," she said. "JHU looks great, the county looks great, and the neighbors are happy."