Montgomery County council members want the Great Seneca Science Corridor to be open for business — faster.
This week, they unanimously agreed to expedite the Montgomery County Planning Board’s work schedule, allowing staff to consider a potential amendment to the area’s master plan.
Council Member Hans Riemer, who first suggested the amendment in October, wants to ease requirements for opening new commercial development in the corridor — a 4,360-acre expanse between Rockville and Germantown that includes the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Shady Grove Life Sciences Center.
On Tuesday, he announced an agreement with the Planning Department, allowing its staff to study the feasibility of more development while also looking at nearby transit options.
The department’s amended work schedule will allow it to reconsider the master plan’s staging requirements and whether it would be appropriate to free up development in the corridor. Simultaneously, planning officials will accelerate the release of the I-270 Corridor Transit Plan, a comprehensive look at transportation options along the highway.
Planning Director Gwen Wright said the department would prefer to work on both plans concurrently to make sure any development is assessed in the context of available transit for new residents and businesses. The I-270 plan will examine traffic from Frederick to Tysons Corner and assess proposed public transportation solutions, from a county buses to a proposed new Monorail.
Riemer had previously suggested that the council immediately direct the department to draft the amendment, drawing criticism from some of his colleagues and reservations from Wright and other planning officials.
At the time, Wright said it would be premature to draft an amendment to allow more development without considering its potential impact on traffic.
The Great Seneca Science Corridor is bordered by I-270, an already congested highway with few nearby public transit options. In September, the Maryland Department of Transportation ended its commitment to the Corridor Cities Transitway, a long-planned rapid bus route that spanned from Shady Grove to Clarksburg.
Opening more land for development in the science corridor is currently contingent on funding and constructing the CCT. That’s put an effective moratorium on residential and commercial growth in the corridor, which was originally envisioned as a hub for biotechnology and life sciences companies.
“That’s in place just as our life sciences sector is experiencing a bit of momentum and growth,” Riemer said at a council meeting on Tuesday. “The last thing we want is to have a situation where a company… is poised to grow and build a bio-manufacturing facility here, or set up a larger expanded corporate headquarters here, and discovers there isn’t available land where they want to be, right in the heart of the biotech cluster.”
Over the last 10 years, progress on the CCT has stagnated. After an initial $38 million investment by the Maryland Department of Transportation, the project languished in the design phase for years. MDOT fully removed the project from the current draft of its Consolidated Transportation Plan this fall, signaling an end to any state support.
As a result, Stage 2 of the master plan — which would free up an additional 2.3 million feet of commercial development and 2,000 new dwelling units — is at a standstill.
Riemer’s proposed amendment would split Stage 2 into two parts — 2a and 2b — that could be completed separately to free up developable land more quickly.
Stage 2a includes steps that have already been completed, including the relocation of the county’s Public Safety Training Academy and fully funding a shared-use trail in the Great Seneca Science Corridor.
Because all the requirements are complete, or close to it, splitting them into a separate phase would allow for the release of more land almost as soon as the master plan is amended — up to 2 million square feet, Riemer hopes.
Planning officials will study the proposed amendment as they work to complete the I-270 transit plan. The latter project will also examine the proposed route of the Corridor Cities Transitway, now more than a decade old.
County officials have rallied around the idea of independently funding the bus line and reconfiguring the route to shorten trip length for commuters.
Expediting the transportation plan will require $300,000 in additional funding to hire a consultant, Wright said on Tuesday. Planning officials plan to request the funding early in 2020 to begin as soon as possible.
Work on the Great Seneca Science Corridor Master Plan is scheduled to begin in June and conclude by the spring of 2021, when Planning Department officials plan to offer recommendations to the council.
Riemer has linked development in the corridor with plans to save the CCT. Opening the area to more businesses would expand a potential special tax district on commercial properties, he said, which could be used to fund the bus line.