2021 | Development

UPDATED: $3B White Oak project advances; groundbreaking expected in 2022

Elrich has been skeptical, while others applaud ‘Viva White Oak’

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A rendering of the Viva White Oak community

Courtesy Viva White Oak

This story was updated at 8:50 a.m. Sept. 20, 2021, to clarify the name of the hospital in the area and at 10:50 a.m. to include a statement from some County Council members.

A $3 billion project covering roughly 280 acres near White Oak recently obtained important approvals from the county’s Planning Board. Groundbreaking could take place in 2022.

Jonathan Genn, executive vice president and general counsel for Percontee, the developer overseeing Viva White Oak, said in an interview Friday that the main hurdle is specific site plan approvals for the area. The news was first reported by Washington Business Journal

Viva White Oak — once named LifeSci Village — is a planned community near the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s White Oak campus and Adventist HealthCare White Oak Medical Center. It would create up to seven million square feet of commercial development and up to 5,000 residential units in a village and “life sciences hub.” 

Much work still needs to be done, Genn said. But the Planning Board’s approval of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, sketch plans and preliminary plans means that the project has cleared several hurdles.

Genn said there needs to be approvals for site plans of “county master roads” that would run through the 280-acre property, and the first set of buildings, which would require building permits. 

That first set of buildings would include 1 million to 1.5 million square feet, much of which would be for biotech wet lab and biotech office space, he said. Then, other buildings — including residential units and commercial space — will occur in future phases.

The entire project would take 10 to 12 years, Genn said. 

“With each phase and subphase, it’s important for us to have the entire mix of synergistic uses coming out of the ground, relatively simultaneously,” Genn said of the overall buildout.

County Council President Tom Hucker lauded the project this week. Hucker, whose district includes White Oak, said in a news briefing with reporters that it is long-awaited.

“This is one of our top economic development priorities for the whole county. … it will bring thousands of jobs here and thousands of units of housing for new residents,” Hucker said.

He added that it aligns with racial equity and social justice goals, as the county and private sector would be making an investment to bring more high-wage jobs to the eastern part of the county.

Genn said RCLCO Real Estate Consulting, a consultant, anticipates the project could create up to 10,000 full-time direct jobs, another 6,000 full-time indirect jobs and 5,000 interim jobs related to construction and development during the buildout.

RCLCO Real Estate Consulting has been working on the project and did an analysis of downtown Silver Spring about 25 years ago.

Genn used a term previously coined by Planning Director Gwen Wright — that the project “creates a whole new township.”

“It’s not all just one type of job,” Genn said. “It is the whole spectrum of jobs. … Yes, we’ll have biotech companies and scientists and laboratories and you’ll have executives of companies. But you’ll also have the shops, the restaurants, the retail, the hospitality [industry]. … It’s an entire community of jobs.”

But County Executive Marc Elrich said in an interview Friday that he was concerned that the project was taking so long after the County Council passed the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan in 2014.

At the time, it passed 8-0, with Elrich abstaining because a “no” vote would have looked like one against job creation, The Washington Post reported.

Elrich said he has kept money in his budgets to help the proposal move forward. But he hasn’t heard anything concrete about what companies might be interested in the Viva White Oak proposal. 

He spoke earlier this year about demand for similar economic development in the White Flint area, where multiple companies are interested

“We’ll see what Jonathan [Genn] has, but that has not been the history over there [in White Oak],” Elrich said. “It’s not like we’ve diverted people and said, ‘Go to White Flint. Don’t go to White Oak.’ … I don’t make choices on where people end up.”

Hucker said he found Elrich’s comments about the project in the Washington Business Journal puzzling, given its potential.

In a prepared statement on Monday, Hucker, Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz and Council Members Nancy Navarro, Hans Riemer and Sidney Katz said they were disappointed about Elrich’s comments, given Viva White Oak’s potential to create jobs and provide more housing in the region.

“Viva White Oak is not only a significant step toward reaching our job creation and our housing production goals,” they wrote. “It also promises to create high-wage jobs in East County, exactly where Montgomery County needs them most. Attracting more jobs near FDA headquarters and convenient to East County communities also aligns with the County’s racial equity principles and reduces overall commute times in service of our climate goals.”

Genn said Elrich has been the lone county official who has opposed it, as other council members and the county’s Planning Board have unanimously supported it. 

On Friday evening, Genn added to his comments with an emailed statement: “We too have heard and read the County Executive’s perspectives about the planned VIVA White Oak development.  We respectfully disagree with those perspectives.

“Perhaps it would be best if we just agree to disagree; and let what actually happens at VIVA White Oak — in both the near term and the long-term — to be the best evidence of whose perspectives turn out to be most accurate.”

Genn said in an interview that the county and state have long neglected the White Oak area not only in economic development, but also in infrastructure improvements.

“In many ways, the county is sort of in arrears to the tune of anywhere from 500 to 600 million dollars in transportation improvements that were programmed 20-plus years ago,” Genn said.  

He added that projects like Viva White Oak take years because of complexities, from engineering to designing the buildings to planning the road networks through such a large project.

The Viva White Oak footprint is larger than the central business district for Silver Spring, Genn said. 

Hucker said there will be many challenges, with infrastructure, federal government requirements or private sector buy-in.

Genn agreed, adding that the county government and Percontee would have to complete the site plans swiftly to ensure a groundbreaking by next year. 

“The biggest challenge would be the clock ticking on us,” he said. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com