Less than perfect' blueprint approved for Science City
The Montgomery County Planning Board has signed off on a multi-decade blueprint for tripling development and employment in a 900-acre area in the state's largest node of biotech research.
Tweaking the plan to emphasize breaking development into phases, the commissioners' 4-1 vote finalized their version of the Gaithersburg West master plan. The plan calls for the transformation of the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center from a 6.9 million-square-foot, suburban-style research park to a 20 million-square-foot, live-work "urban village," raises the housing from nearly 3,300 residences to more than 9,000 and intends to boost jobs from 21,000 to 60,000.
Planning staff recently said that a more realistic scenario is a 35-year timeframe that sees 7.1 million square feet of new construction and 21,000 new jobs.
The plan will go to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) for comments before heading to the County Council in the fall for a public hearing and approval.
Gaithersburg West has been framed as the centerpiece of the county's economic future. During work sessions, the planning board butted up against challenges such as overcoming suburban infrastructure, the network of six- and eight-lane highways needed to support traffic and uncertainty over construction of a mass transit line without which the plan cannot move forward.
Commissioner Joe Alfandre said the plan is far short of the vision for a "Science City" that would put the Life Sciences Center at the global forefront of biotech and applied research.
"Going through the work sessions, I realized that Science City really is being set up as a Science Blob," said Alfandre, who cast the dissenting vote. "At the very best, we're going to end up in this plan with a series of sprawl areas of employment. There is no Science City in this plan, ladies and gentlemen; there is no epicenter."
Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson conceded that the plan "lacks elements of perfection," but said it would be unwise to "revisit decisions this late in the process."
"I'm not at all reluctant to vote for this plan," he said. "... We may not be going as far as we would like toward the next generation … but I think this plan puts us far along that way."
A defining moment'
Johns Hopkins University, among the plan's leading boosters, owns more than 140 acres in Gaithersburg West, including the 107-acre Belward Farm, which is pegged to become the core research campus. Commissioners capped construction there at 4.5 million square feet, not the 7 million square feet the university had wanted.
"… This plan will be looked back upon as the defining moment when Montgomery County chose to complete the vision for a thriving 270 technology corridor, and the moment when our community got serious about sustainable, transit-oriented design," David McDonough, senior director of development oversight for Johns Hopkins Real Estate, wrote in an e-mail.
Hopkins has said the plan will add $175 million to the economy and bring the county $10 million in tax revenue annually.
That's too big a stake for the county to lose out on, said Diane Schwartz Jones, Leggett's point person on Gaithersburg West.
However, the plan will face more skepticism at the County Council.
Council President Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg has questioned planners' assumption that no more than 70 percent of people traveling through the area drive.
Leaders of the two civic groups that emerged during the drafting of Gaithersburg West — Residents for Reasonable Development and the Gaithersburg-North Potomac-Rockville Coalition — say the plan was rushed while making concessions to placate concerns about impacts on communities.
RRD member Jan Fine said Gaithersburg West does not manage the balance between Science City's economic promise and its surroundings.
"They are so over their heads with information, and they've rushed the process so much … that I don't believe they've really taken the time to break the pieces down to see what the impact is going to be from all sides," she said.
"It's frustrating as a citizen because … it feels like every time we make an intelligent suggestion, comment, complaint, it's like, Oh no, here they go again.'"