In Like Flint
The plan to transform the Rockville Pike corridor is being called the biggest thing to hit this area since the Red Line
Diane Schwartz Jones is talking about “blowing up” significant portions of the roads just west of Rockville Pike. That’s what it will take to transform the area into “a really beautiful boulevard—Rodeo Drive,” she notes with a chuckle.
The reference to Rodeo Drive may be tongue-in-cheek, but she’s serious about the blowing up part. It’s a key element in turning the White Flint corridor of Rockville Pike into an upscale, tree-lined thoroughfare replete with pedestrian promenades and center lanes for mass transit. It’s also just one aspect of the White Flint Sector Plan, a complex project more than five years in the making that’s expected to transform North Bethesda—indeed, the entire county—over the next 20 to 30 years.
The plan was unanimously approved by the county council in March 2010, and Schwartz Jones has been Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s point person in the complex undertaking. An aerial map of the 430-acre area overlays the conference table in her Rockville office, and she traces several streets between Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road that don’t presently exist in asphalt and concrete.
“The idea is that you are blowing up existing blocks and creating new blocks for development,” says Schwartz Jones, who recently became director of the county’s Department of Permitting Services. “It’s better from a traffic perspective: You get people out of their cars, it’s more pedestrian-friendly [and] you can ride your bikes.”
Suburban strip malls and fast-food outlets currently line much of the corridor that will become a nearly two-mile stretch of stylish urban density, extending north to south from Montrose Parkway to the current White Flint mall.
Montgomery County’s tallest buildings will rise as high as 24 stories here. And there will be an abundance of public spaces, as mass transit, pedal and foot power largely supplant the automobile.
“White Flint is the biggest thing, from a land-use perspective and a tax perspective, to happen in this county since maybe the Red Line,” declares Rollin Stanley, the county’s planning director and one of the project’s most outspoken supporters.
“It’s hu-mon-gous,” he adds, emphasizing each syllable.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around just how “humongous” White Flint is. The number of square feet of commercial, retail and housing units, the number of stories, the requisite infrastructure is dizzying. But to put it in some perspective: In terms of sheer acreage, the plan encompasses an area nearly 50 percent larger than Bethesda’s 300-acre urban district.
It’s designed to happen in three phases, with the first—involving 3,000 dwelling units and 2 million square feet of commercial and retail space—breaking ground in the coming months and being completed in seven to 10 years.
As might be expected of anything this size, the plan has its detractors—residents worried about the traffic it will bring and the strain that many more people will place on the schools and other public services, not to mention where all the money for infrastructure will come from. That’s what makes its relatively smooth passage such an anomaly in an area where simply erecting a tree house can require extensive review by multiple committees.
The impetus for the plan originated not with the county—though county officials are now among its staunchest supporters—but with leading developers. The JBG Companies was at the forefront. In 2003, the firm acquired a largely undeveloped parcel at what is now the junction of Rockville Pike and Executive Boulevard.
At the time, company officials say, there was little incentive for new development in the area, given restrictive zoning that dated back more than a decade. But JBG managed to obtain the rezoning necessary to start construction in 2007 of North Bethesda Market, an apartment-retail-restaurant complex that is now the county’s tallest structure at 24 stories. In exchange, the company agreed to certain concessions, including more moderately priced dwellings.