Rock Spring Recommendations Provide Array of Options To Address School Overcrowding

Rock Spring Recommendations Provide Array of Options To Address School Overcrowding

Walter Johnson High School is projected to keep growing even without additional development

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The area of the Rock Spring Master Plan, via Planning Department

The Montgomery County Planning Department’s effort to “reshape” a suburban-style office park in Bethesda will be presented to the Planning Board for the first time Thursday.

Throughout the department’s Rock Spring Master Plan public meetings, the foremost concern of nearby residents hasn’t been new parks, more bikeable streets or fashionable retail destinations, but how any additional residential units would add to the burden of already overcrowded local schools.

In their presentation Thursday to the Planning Board, planners will explain that student population growth in the area— which last year almost caused a development moratorium in the Walter Johnson High School Cluster—is destined to continue even if no additional residential units are allowed through the plan.

The 2045 enrollment projection for Walter Johnson High School is 3,500 students and that “does not include any of the students that would be generated by the White Flint 2 and Rock Spring plans,” according to planners.

The school had 2,289 students for the 2015-2016 school year. While it has a capacity of 2,335, it is projected to surpass that number of students in the 2017-2018 school year. Due to a large wave of students scheduled to move up from the cluster’s elementary and middle schools, Walter Johnson is projected to have more than 2,800 students by 2021.

In their preliminary Rock Spring Master Plan recommendations, planners laid out a wide array of potential options for addressing the school overcrowding issue and were careful not to elevate one possible solution above the others.

Planners mentioned the possibility of reopening the former Woodward High School on Old Georgetown Road, an option the school system is exploring and that has drawn support from PTA parents.

Potential locations for public facilities in the Rock Spring area, via Planning Department

Planners also say the school system should consider reopening former elementary schools now rented to private users. They pointed to other sites—including a site on Montrose Road across from the Jewish Community Center and one included in the WMAL radio towers property—as potential locations for a new elementary or middle school.

They also said the school system could consider reassigning elementary school students to schools outside of the cluster.

The only major zoning changes planners pitched in the preliminary recommendations come at the Wildwood and Georgetown Square shopping centers, which could be changed from a neighborhood retail zone to a commercial-residential town zone that would allow multifamily housing units on top of ground-floor retail.

As for the Rock Spring Office Park, home of the corporate headquarters of Marriott International and Lockheed Martin, planners suggest maintaining the office zoning but with a “floating zone” designation that could open the door to mixed-use commercial-residential development after additional zoning review.

Rock Spring Office Park is home to 7 percent of Montgomery County’s entire office supply, but is 22.3 percent vacant, above the countywide average of 19 percent. With Marriott International planning to move from the office park for a more transit-accessible location, that vacancy rate could rise to 39 percent if there were no other departures or new companies moving in.

Planners focused much of their attention on the “spine” of the area, the stretch of Rock Spring Drive, Fernwood Road and Westlake Terrace that extends from Old Georgetown Road west across the I-270 spur and to Westfield Montgomery mall.

Planners want to see that section become the central streetscape of the area with tree-lined streets, separated bike lanes and four bus rapid transit stops. They also want to reduce parts of Rock Spring Drive from four to two through lanes.

Planners' recommendations for Rock Spring Drive, via Planning Department

The area as envisioned in the planners’ concept idea would be split into a “Regional Marketplace” encompassing the mall and surrounding area, the “Business Campus” with the Rock Spring Office Park and the “Village Center,” including Walter Johnson High School, Georgetown Square shopping center, Wildwood Shopping Center and the planned Rock Spring Centre project.

Rock Spring Centre is the most substantial of three previously approved projects in the Rock Spring area that haven’t started yet. It would bring 1 million square feet of office and retail space along with a hotel and about 800 housing units in high-rise and mid-rise buildings.

The property of the Ourisman Ford dealership on Westlake Terrace near the mall is approved for a 340-unit mixed-use residential and commercial project. A 58-unit apartment building has also been approved for an existing medical office building just north of the Wildwood Shopping Center.

It’s unknown when any of those projects will proceed. A 168-townhome project on Fernwood Road across from Marriott headquarters is under construction.

The board is slated to hold a public hearing on the Rock Spring Master Plan in October with work sessions lasting into the winter and a transmittal of the plan to the County Council in January or February.

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