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Could White Flint Wegmans Be Source Of School Site Battle?

By Aaron Kraut

Thursday - 11/21/2013, 10:05am  ET

Phase 3 of the White Flint sketch plan, via Montgomery County Planning Department. The south school site is at the bottom of the sketch.Could Wegmans, the supermarket chain long rumored for the redevelopment of White Flint Mall, be behind the quarrel over the site for a planned White Flint Elementary School?

Lerner Enterprises, the developer of the mall, hasn’t confirmed any tenants in its redevelopment plan. But its sketch plan approved last year involves shrinking the so called south elementary school site at the southern end of its property.

MCPS and the county Board of Education took exception to that. In October, the Board approved a letter asking for the school to instead be built on a north parcel of the property. It would be colocated with a park for outdoor activity space.

At a meeting of the Garrett Park Estates/White Flint Park Citizen’s Association on Wednesday, county planner Nkosi Yearwood said planners are working with Lerner Enterprises to restore the Sector Plan-recommended four acres for the south school site. A revised road alignment in the developer’s sketch plan put the site at 3.6 acres to accommodate a certain unnamed tenant.

“That road, because White Flint Mall, they want to get a specific tenant in there and that tenant essentially is generating a lot of traffic and especially a lot of truck traffic on that side. So they made that change to really accommodate that,” Yearwood said. “So we’re going back to them and saying, ‘OK, we know what you’re trying to do on the north side of the street. How can you shift the road a bit farther north to accommodate that tenant as well as the school site?’”

Yearwood, not wanting to speak for Lerner Enterprises, wouldn’t confirm the name of the tenant.

The Planning Department and the school system agree the new elementary school will be sorely needed to service the projected 9,800 new units built over the next roughly 30 years in the White Flint Sector Plan area. About 25 percent of those new units will come from the White Flint Mall site, which will be redeveloped into a mixed-use, town square-oriented development.

On Wednesday, MCPS long range planner Bruce Crispell pitched Garrett Park and White Flint Park residents on the idea of an elementary school colocated with the existing park.

But the residents, many who have been involved with the White Flint Sector Plan process from the start, said they will continue to support the Sector Plan-recommended south school site, or another school site more central to the Sector Plan area.

Many argued colocating an elementary school at the park would essentially close off the park to the public during school hours, when the school would use fields and other open space for physical education classes and recess.

It’s an arrangement Crispell said works well at 45 of the county’s 132 elementary schools. But residents pushed back, saying the school system should consider more compact, creative school designs for an urbanizing area.

“Would you want your children to be put there,” Crispell asked the residents, acknowledging that the existing neighborhoods likely won’t be assigned to a new White Flint Elementary School, whenever it’s built.

Someone suggested “thinking outside of the box,” perhaps by providing play space on the rooftop of a school building.

“I don’t think we’re that urbanized,” Crispell said. “I don’t think the public would support that.”

The cost for the school site is another complicating factor. If the Planning Board rejects the request for the north school site, as it appears will happen, the Board of Education is hoping for as much help financially as possible at the south site.

Last year, Lerner Enterprises was adamant that it shouldn’t be required to provide a full dedication of the south school site. Attorney Robert Brewer said the developer was open to a partial dedication that would involve selling the rest of the land to the school system.

In its October letter, the Board of Education asked the Planning Board to require Lerner Enterprises to dedicate 25 percent of the south school site, equal to the percentage of new residential units the Mall project will provide in the Sector Plan area.

It’s unclear how the dedication process would play out on the north school site. The Sector Plan calls for a full dedication of a parking lot that would be added as park space to the existing park.

Yearwood said the school site issue will be worked out at the Planning Board when Lerner submits its preliminary plan, expected sometime next year.

“These projects — and it’s a large site — it’s months of back and forth between us, the community, the applicant, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, the State Highway Administration because they have frontage on Rockville Pike,” Yearwood said. “So probably sometime in January, they’ll come back and meet with us and say, ‘This is where we are.’”

Photo via Montgomery County Planning Department