Last week, White Flint planners and developers won a state award for sustainable growth.
Speaker Christopher Leinberger, author of a study on Washington area walkable communities, said plans for 14,000 housing units and 13 million square feet of mixed-use development on both sides of Rockville Pike near the White Flint Metro station could serve as a national model.
BethesdaNow.com spoke with Dee Metz, Montgomery County’s White Flint Implementation Coordinator, about where the redevelopment process stands and the challenge of connecting four separate development projects around traffic-clogged Rockville Pike.
Metz was the founding director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership, the county-funded nonprofit charged with maintaining and marketing downtown Bethesda. She has served as president of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce and has worked in the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the Department of Economic Development. She was named as the county’s point person on White Flint development in January 2012.
BethesdaNow.com: We’re seeing a dog training center move into White Flint soon. There’s a yoga studio there and a photography school planning to move in nearby. Do you get the sense the neighborhood in White Flint is changing, even before the bulk of the redevelopment takes off?
Metz: I think it is. I think that’s partly because the development community and the local community have worked so well together. I’ve been in the business for almost 30 years. I’ve never seen such cooperation and excitement in a community. With these projects, between the development community and the residential community there are always some naysayers. But they seem to have worked so well together that I think it’s attracted some of these businesses.
I think we’re starting to get more lifestyle type of retail. It’s going to be a little slow coming. [Developer] Foulger-Pratt is working on the North Bethesda Gateway. They’re submitting an amendment to their sketch plan this week or next week. That goes from Rockville Pike to Huff Court on Nicholson Lane, where the Fitzgerald Automotive is. There are three property owners there. They’re going to do five-story over retail, so six-story buildings to create this East Village. What [co-developer] ProMark has identified is we need more of these local retailers. We want the frozen yogurt stores and yoga studios. I think that people are realizing that need.
BethesdaNow.com: You mentioned the mostly receptive tone from residents and neighboring communities. Why is that?
Metz: I think people’s needs are changing and maybe the demographics are changing to0. We spoke to almost 200 people from the Greater Farmland community, like four different civic associations. There are always some concerns and people who don’t want anything to change. I’d say the great majority there were excited about the fact that they could walk or possibly take a bus or a trolley in to use so many services, rather than go into Bethesda. I think we had heard from a lot of the people before. White Flint engaged so many more people in the process that I think it woke people up to the fact that we do want these things.
The communication is so different now between your blog, Friends of White Flint, the White Flint Partnership. There’s a lot more emphasis on that and a lot more people involved. I think we’re seeing people that have never been advocates be a part of this.
BethesdaNow.com: Has the smart-growth focus helped the perception of White Flint? It seems not many are going to miss the surface parking lots. Using that land in a more attractive way has been a main selling point of the project.
Metz: Yeah, and that’s been the educational process. I was just at an award ceremony Tuesday. White Flint got an award from the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission. The speaker at the conference, Chris Leinberger, a national expert on these walk-ups, these walkable urban communities said if done right White Flint can be a national model. I think people are sensing that we do have a very different opportunity in White Flint.
You really do have an amazing opportunity in White Flint. They’re very big but for the most part local developers. They live in the community and I think that makes a difference too, JBG, Federal Realty, the Lerners. These people aren’t going to walk away. They know they have to do something that’s kind of their showcase.
In the old days, developers did what they had to do and they had their obligatory community meetings. In White Flint, I think people are realizing that we have to work together. If you provide what people need, that’s a big change. People are invested in this because they want to see it done right. A lot of good ideas are pouring out. The interesting thing is this kind of new way of developing with a new Sector Plan and a new zoning category, everything kind of is a policy decision, so we’re working hard to get it right at the same time.
We have conference calls once a month where we check in with all the departments working on this and we’re constantly checking in with the county executive and the Council.
BethesdaNow.com: What issues are you facing now?
Metz: The challenge is going to be balancing traffic and walkability. I’d like to have money to design and build new roads but you can only go so fast. That’s probably what’s frustrating to most people.
But the money is not there. The county did agree to forward-fund certain roads. We have to worry not just about getting people to White Flint but getting people through White Flint.
My challenge is also: How do we unify the east and the west side of Rockville Pike? Hopefully we’ll get that Boulevard-feel sooner rather than later.