The Future is Looking Up | Page 3 of 3

The Future is Looking Up

Picture yourself strolling the Champs-Élysées, visiting shops and restaurants before retiring to your high-rise above it all. Now picture yourself doing that in Montgomery County

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The Proposed Purple Line: The 16-mile, light-rail line would make mixed-use developments even more attractive. Graphic by Ellen Byrne

Take the 16-mile, light-rail Purple Line. Designed to provide an east-west link to three different Metro rail lines, it will have 21 stops between Bethesda and New Carrollton, including one at Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. The estimated cost is nearly $2 billion, with funding and timing undetermined.

But that uncertainty didn’t stop The Chevy Chase Land Company from proposing a major mixed-use project south of Jones Bridge Road, with 23 buildings, including 12 that would be 10 to 19 stories tall. Neighborhood resistance forced the company to pull its plan, lower its sights and re-establish a working relationship with the community. Discussions are ongoing.

Barbara Sears, a land-use attorney with the Bethesda law firm of Linowes and Blocher, foresees positive outcomes from transit-oriented development. “The maximums are set in the plan, but to get there you have a selection of different public benefits you can do,” she explains. Features such as less parking, “green” roofs, retail availability, architecture and small parks all score points for the developer who wants to build to the max. “It’s a much more open process, where expectations are more manageable,” she says.

But as Stanley seeks to replace the county’s traditional planning process with what he regards as a “more holistic” approach, there will continue to be blowback from neighborhood groups who see it as heavy-handed and undemocratic, a slick way to muzzle the public.

Nancy Floreen, chair of the council’s planning, housing and economic development committee, thinks those concerns are unwarranted. She believes there’s room in the county’s future for these urban centers and for traditional suburbia. “It’s never [been] intended these high-rises be everywhere,” says Floreen, who lives in a Garrett Park Victorian. But she recognizes that conflict goes with the territory.

“It would make things so much easier if we had someone sitting in an office who said it shall be thus, ordained from on high,” Floreen says. “We don’t work that way. We don’t have a monarchy. We have an engaged process. So you will hear from people unhappy about it [who are] much more into the weeds on every single issue. And having the best and brightest educated community slows it down. We always try to accommodate community concerns. I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

Steve Goldin is director of real estate for Metro, which owns land adjoining its stations suitable for development. “We can only show them the opportunities that exist,” he says of local citizen groups. “We can’t make them drink the Kool-Aid.”

Rollin Stanley is perhaps the Kool-Aid king. He speaks about high-rise, transit-oriented development. He blogs about it. He even gives a reporter a two-hour PowerPoint presentation on his laptop at the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring.

“This is a way of helping us accommodate growth in an economically sustainable manner,” says Stanley, who lives in a town house within walking distance of his office at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission building on Georgia Avenue. “We can never raise taxes high enough on single-family homes to pay for the infrastructure and services we enjoy.”

By which he means: A higher-density county will produce more tax revenue to support services, and getting developers to pay for infrastructure will reduce fiscal pressures on the cash-strapped county.

“That’s how we’ll get the Rockville Pikes of the world to become tree-lined boulevards with buses down the middle,” Stanley says. “Yes, there’ll be more cars on the road when you create more development. Rockville Pike won’t be less traffic-clogged. But per capita with new residents coming in, a much higher proportion will walk or take transit relative to how we’ve grown in the past…

“The White Flint plan is a game changer,” he says. “It’s saying you will grow differently and we’re starting now. What this is about is taking 400 acres and saying this will be different, it will be higher density, it will be mixed use, around transit, and we expect more people to be walking. And that is different for here.” 

Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for the magazine. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com

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