FDA taking White Flint space, ending NRC HQ controversy -- Gazette.Net


The Food and Drug Administration will occupy about 60 percent of the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission building next to the White Flint Metro station, ending a boondoggle of wasted space denounced by federal lawmakers and investigators.

The House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved a lease renewal resolution on Dec. 4 that will allow the NRC to stay in the Two White Flint building owned by Rockville-based Lerner Enterprises, as well as share space with the FDA at Three White Flint North, which Philadelphia-based developer LCOR completed this year and is trying to sell.

The lease will run for up to 15 years at an annual rental rate of $11.8 million.

The deal worked out between the General Services Administration, the agencies and the committee “will save over $140 million over 15 years by cutting four FDA leases and cut both FDA’s and NRC’s space by more than 20 percent,” Economic Development Subcommittee chairman Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) said before the plan was approved.

He added the lease demonstrates the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget’s commitment to reducing the federal real estate footprint. The FDA will have a utilization rate of 170 square feet per worker, which puts the agency near the bottom of five leases the committee approved on Dec. 4. But even though the NRC’s utilization rate will fall to 200 square feet from 227, that is higher than any of the other new leases.

The current Two White Flint lease expires Dec. 14 and the NRC wants to retain the 295,734 square feet for security reasons. The property is connected by a network of walkways and tunnels to One White Flint, which the government owns.

Lawmakers of both parties initially balked at the lease renewal because the NRC’s new 14-story building across the street is more than half empty due to the agency’s overblown estimate of its need for space. The agency had expected a huge hiring binge thanks to a boost in federal subsidies of nuclear power, but demand for new plants melted away thanks to a boom in natural gas production.

Instead, the FDA will move into the LCOR building as four leases expire by 2016 in Rockville and Bethesda. The deal signals FDA’s continued commitment to maintaining a significant presence in the Rockville area. It will have no impact on the agency’s larger space consolidation program that is shifting workers to its headquarters campus in White Oak, GSA spokesman Dan Cruz said in an email message.

Although the Lerner lease is for 15 years, the NRC might be looking to move from the building much sooner because there is a five-year interim clause for the agency.

“This interim lease will house NRC while GSA conducts a full and open competition for office space that will meet the NRC’s long-term housing needs in this region,” Cruz said.

Under the committee resolution, the NRC will essentially sublet no less than 186,313 square feet in its new building, with the annual rent capped at $7.8 million. The NRC will be responsible for paying any rent above that amount charged by LCOR for the FDA space or for any other backfill tenant, because the atomic regulatory agency’s decision to acquire the space represented a more expensive rental rate than the committee normally would authorize.

Requiring the NRC to pay the rental premium for the sublet footage reflects the bipartisan anger of committee members at the agency’s decision to exceed the $38 million authorization for 120,000 square feet of new space passed in 2007. Barletta complained at a hearing in May that the NRC — which has real estate authority independent of the GSA — ended up commissioning a 358,000-square-foot space that would cost taxpayers $350 million.

Extra height might spark deal for Apex owners

The Montgomery County Planning Board is considering a 250-foot height limit to induce owners of the Apex Building in Bethesda to relocate to make way for a station at the western terminus of the $2.2 billion Purple Line.

Planning commissioners on Dec. 4 considered allowing higher density for redevelopment of the Apex Building as an incentive for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists to allow the property to be torn down for the light rail line. The board previously considered a 200-foot height limit under a minor master plan that will be submitted to the County Council.

The pharmacist group has been reluctant to give up the building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave., which also houses the Bethesda Regal 10 movie theater. The county is trying to strike a deal by the end of the year in advance of hoped-for approval by the Federal Transit Administration.

Tearing down the building is considered the cheapest alternative for the light rail system between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

Although the county could pursue taking over the property through eminent domain, the process of condemnation is considered too lengthy to meet the timetable of state and federal agencies. So the county is left with offering the pharmacists density to boost the value of redevelopment.

“We don’t have that many tools,” said county planner Elza Hisel-McCoy. “We have height and we have density. By virtue of us doing this now, we make it possible for them to move sooner rather than later.”

Much of the design of the Purple Line station would have to be sacrificed if the Apex is not torn down, leading planning director Gwen Wright to suggest that a zoning density bonus should be contingent on redevelopment providing substantial developments.

Revised White Oak plan considered

The Montgomery County Planning Board is considering a revised White Oak science gateway plan that would drop an alternative to the existing adequate public facilities test, which County Executive Ike Leggett originally sought to address transportation needs.

The planning commissioners were set Thursday to discuss a staff report offered as a response to the County Council, which sent the plan back to the board in October. The board approved the White Oak master plan in September but council president Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) sent the board a letter saying that it needs more work because the “Draft Plan is not in balance between land use and transportation.”

The staff report said planners and the Leggett administration have agreed on the costs of needed transportation improvements and that the plan should move forward on that basis without requiring an alternative implementation mechanism.

The plan — which calls for commercial development to more than double to 25 million square — is designed to attract thousands of new high-paying tech jobs. The centerpiece is the proposed LifeSci Village on land owned by the county and developer Percontee.

But little could be built because the area bounded by U.S. 29 and New Hampshire Avenue already is pushing against transportation limits under the county’s adequate public facilities test.

So the White Oak draft the board sent to the council included an alternative transportation evaluation process at Leggett’s urging that would allow development to move forward without the county having to commit up front to the cost of new road improvements or a rapid bus system.

The board included a requirement that 30 percent of the commuter trips be made with alternatives to private cars. But most of the details would be left to a technical working group that would devise an alternative implementation system.

Navarro’s letter said essentially that the board should go back and finish its work.

“We cannot approve the zoning without a full understanding of how the proposed transportation system will work,” she wrote.

In response, the new staff draft plan dropped its entire section on the alternative implementation system.

The staff report said that “There now seems to be agreement that the potential, estimated costs for intersection improvements are what would be expected from such a large project; therefore, it is not necessary to devise an alternative that replaces the normal Adequate Public Facility Ordinance test.”

Planners support more apartments in Bethesda

The Montgomery County planning department supports a proposal to build a 225-unit apartment building in Bethesda’s central business district on the site of a former gas station.

The Bainbridge Cos. of Wellington, Fla., wants to build 192,791 square feet of mixed-use space, which also will include 15,000 square feet of retail on the first floor. The project would rise at 7340 Wisconsin Ave., which the firm bought from the Exxon Mobil Foundation in May for $24.5 million.

Bainbridge — which also is building a 17-story apartment complex on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda — will have a chance to make its pitch to the county planning board next Thursday. The planning department endorsed the proposal, even though the 1994 sector plan calls for employment development at the site as part of Bethesda’s metro core.

“While the Sector Plan recommends employment uses for much of the Metro Core District, the office market for this area is weak, and the demand for residential living at this transit-proximate location is strong. … Too much office use without complimentary residential uses does not promote the extended activity needed for a successful downtown.”

The report added that the business district has met its stage 1 housing and employment goals under the 1994 plan and is well on its way to meeting future goals with current development under construction.

There also is recent precedent for residential development in the business sector, with planning board approval in March for Bethesda Commerce, a 120-unit residential building with 5,000 square feet of commercial space at 7535 Old Georgetown Road.

The Bainbridge property, which sits on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue between the intersections of Montgomery Lane and Hampden Lane, is a block north of the Bethesda Metro station.

“It has to be a public benefit commensurate with the scale of the station.”

That set off a debate about using carrots but no sticks, because state law bars the county from granting zoning and then taking it away if an owner fails to follow through with plans for public benefits. In this case, the county wants the Apex torn down soon to allow for a Purple Line station that would provide easy access to the Metro station below and give bicyclists a direct route into a short tunnel that comes out just the other side of Wisconsin Avenue.

In the end, planning commissioners agreed to language saying that the higher density should be allowed only if future development provides both “significant” and “commensurate” benefits.