Council voices mixed views on White Oak proposal -- Gazette.Net


This story was updated on July 22, 2014.

While several County Council members support not putting new transportation upgrade requirements into a White Oak master plan, others want a stronger commitment to funding improvements.

County Executive Isiah Leggett said in a memo on July 15 that additional staging requirements proposed by council staff to help ensure transit and other infrastructure improvements could impede development.

The county’s subdivision staging plan, which is designed to balance growth and infrastructure on development projects, can be adjusted by the council, making the additional requirements unnecessary, Leggett said.

Officials are developing a new master plan for White Oak in hopes of spurring economic development near the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters that could result in thousands of new jobs to rival the Interstate 270 biotech corridor.

County Council members debated the plan Tuesday and took straw votes on many facets of the plan. The council is scheduled to take final votes on the plan at its July 29 meeting.

Council members recently gave themselves more time to pass a new master plan — until mid-September.

During a committee meeting on July 16, Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said he wants to give Leggett and his staff as much latitude as possible to negotiate the best opportunity to boost jobs in White Oak.

But he sought a stronger commitment to fund a proposed bus-rapid transit system that advocates say will help reduce traffic congestion in the area. The area near New Hampshire Avenue and U.S. 29 does not have a Metrorail station nearby.

Bus-rapid transit “may not happen,” especially without a strong public commitment, Leventhal noted. “It’s a nice idea, but who knows?”

Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) of Garrett Park, who chairs the council’s planning committee, said she “basically” agrees with Leggett’s request and noted there were “built-in” controls to ensure the transit-growth balance. “We do have to recognize that we have a great opportunity here,” she said.

Planners have been working on the proposal for several years. Besides the FDA’s headquarters, Washington Adventist Hospital could move to White Oak from Takoma Park.

Planners envision new mixed-use projects along U.S. 29 and the Hillandale Shopping Center near the Beltway and New Hampshire Avenue, with new office complexes, retail stores, restaurants, tens of thousands of jobs and thousands of additional housing units.

The county is working with private developer Percontee to develop a 300-acre site near the FDA headquarters that is more than 10 times the size of the area redeveloped in downtown Silver Spring.

How transit and other improvements are funded can be worked out in later agreements after the master plan is approved, Leggett said. Some council members said there needs to be a dedicated funding source for those improvements.

“We can’t do this project without transportation,” Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said.

Council President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said it was important to make sure road infrastructure is in place, adding that measures such as bus-rapid transit might help, but “won’t be a savior” to relieving congestion.

Councilwoman Cherri Branson (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said discussions on financing and bus-rapid transit could wait.

“First, we have to make a policy judgment about going forward,” Branson said. “I hope that we go forward.”

Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring added that the White Oak library would likely need upgrades, which was not part of the plan. Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At Large) of Takoma Park proposed a coordinated commercial and residential “innovation district” with high-level communications and data infrastructure to help make the area more competitive for jobs and attractive to residents.