April 28, 2010

Grand Makeover Is Set for Rockville's Strip

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Over the last century, Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, Md., has grown, unfettered and unplanned, into a sprawling strip city — a hodge-podge of shopping centers, parking lots and gridlocked traffic that frustrates motorists and discourages pedestrians. But now, a grand makeover is planned for one section of the pike, which begins as Wisconsin Avenue in Washington and is officially State Route 355, that would create a pedestrian boulevard using the principles of the “smart growth” movement. Planners say it could be a model for transforming clogged suburban arteries into livable, walkable communities with denser development and less sprawl, an improved quality of life and a healthier tax base.

The project, called the White Flint Sector Plan, is a collaboration of major developers, planners, politicians and community groups whose interests are not often in sync. A partnership of six developers, normally competitors, got it off the ground. “Developers got together three years ago and said ‘We can’t move forward unless we solve this traffic problem,’ ” said Rodney A. Lawrence, a principal of the JBG Companies. JBG, based in Chevy Chase, Md., is completing a 24-story apartment tower and retail complex known as North Bethesda Market, which was begun under a previous plan but is in line with the new one.

The White Flint plan, which is expected to take 20 to 25 years to complete, aims to create a new destination where residents live, dine, work and shop, all within walking distance. All together, there would be 9,800 new residential units and 5.69 million square feet of commercial space. Developers will be allowed higher densities than current zoning permits, in return for providing more amenities and also by paying farmers in the county’s 93,000-acre rural preserve to keep their land in agriculture. They would be required to finance infrastructure improvements through the creation of a tax district.

The county would seem to have the potential to support such a large-scale undertaking, with a population of nearly one million, up from 757,027 in the 1990 census. “Montgomery County has really been a bedroom community until recently,” said Stephen Z. Kaufman, senior partner in Linowes & Blocher, a real estate law firm in Bethesda, Md. “Now it’s really a linear city, and White Flint is one of those neighborhoods in the linear city.”

The county council approved the White Flint plan March 23, but only after gaining the support of adjoining suburban neighborhoods worried about losing their leafy appeal among the new adjoining high-rises, which they feared would generate more traffic on their streets along with other urban problems. SOURCE: New York Times

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