- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Despite the Montgomery County Council’s decision in early November to hold off on the Gaithersburg West

Master Plan until early next year, debate over the controversial plan continues.

At the heart of the divisive plan is the creation of a 900-acre Life Sciences Center (LSC) for the Shady Grove area that some have dubbed “Science City.”

The Gaithersburg West Master Plan was introduced by the Montgomery County Planning Board in 2007 to create a “21st-century blueprint” for an area that covers 4,360 acres at the heart of the Interstate 270 corridor between Rockville and Washington Grove on the northern end and the community of western Quince Orchard on the southern end.

The board said the development relies on smart-growth principles of a live/work, transit-oriented community, which would transform the LSC over the next 25 to 35 years “into a vibrant place served by transit and enhanced by activating uses, open spaces, and amenities.”

“I think all the forces that are at work are urging that we try to develop a higher level of mixed use around transit stations, and that is what we have done at Gaithersburg West,” Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson said.

Up to 60,000 new jobs are proposed under the current plan. They will be supported by the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), which will have three transit stations and serve as the focal point of the LSC.

Montgomery County Council President Philip M. Andrews of Gaithersburg said that although he agrees that the CCT is needed for current and future development, he thinks calling the proposed LSC a transit-oriented development is a misnomer. He said only about 12 percent of workers and residents will be supported by the CCT, with the remaining 88 percent using some other form of transportation.

Mr. Hanson disagrees with Mr. Andrews.

“It is transit-oriented because it is premised on the CCT. If the CCT is not built, then the full development of the area can’t proceed,” Mr. Hanson said.

The county council is set to vote on the plan in January or February. Mr. Andrews said he thinks the council will make a final decision before the county budget is due in April.

Donna H. Baron, coordinator of the Gaithersburg, North Potomac and Rockville Coalition, asserts that the CCT is one of many problems with the plan.

In a document titled “The Evolution of a Totally Bogus Master Plan,” she writes that the CCT plans were “trotted out” to obtain zoning that would allow higher density. It is density, she said, that will gridlock the entire area and that Johns Hopkins Real Estate, in particular, cannot justify.

Johns Hopkins University bought the 138-acre Belward Farm from Elizabeth Banks in 1989 for a gift price of $5 million. Part of the Life Sciences Center is planned to go on this property

After Banks’ death in 2005, Hopkins rethought a plan that had been approved in 1996 to develop 1.8 million square feet on Belward. In 2008, it announced that it would develop 4.6 million to 6.5 million square feet of commercial space in high-rise buildings for 15,000 to 17,000 people on the property.

Ms. Baron’s coalition says Hopkins reneged on its promise to Banks, who wanted a “minimally intrusive educational or medical campus that would carry on the legacy of the farm that had been in her family for over 100 years.”

But David McDonough, senior director of development oversight at Hopkins, said the university was “fully compliant with the deed, which did not address density, height or architectural design” but authorized the “development of a research campus.”

Mr. McDonough said that Hopkins’ intention was very clear and that Banks explicitly signed off on the agreement.

He also defends the proposed use of Belward Farm by explaining that it is a smart-growth plan with 50 percent open space that will be available to the public and the other 50 percent with concentrated density around mass-transit stations.

“That notion of having greater density around a mass-transit station and reducing your carbon footprint is what constitutes growth,” Mr. McDonough said.

Elaine Amir, executive director of Hopkins’ Rockville campus, said she thinks this conscientious growth will help the LSC become a world-class leader in science and innovation.

The development “is big because there’s a big job to be done We need to facilitate an environment where scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs can all live together. In essence, it is the creation of a critical mass of world-class scientists and researchers,” Ms. Amir said.

Ms. Baron, on the other hand, said that if the current plan is developed, homes will have to be destroyed, neighborhoods will have to be reconfigured and communities will be gridlocked and lose their connectivity.

“It is imperative that the density in this master plan be reduced in scale to force Johns Hopkins to honor their commitments and to preserve the established suburban residential communities,” Ms. Baron said.

Mr. Andrews agrees that the plan, as written, threatens the existing communities. He said it is critical to take a realistic look at how much additional density can be supported in the area.

“If it grows at the level proposed by the planning board, it will overwhelm the surrounding community and harm the quality of life It’s just not acceptable to have unbearable traffic congestion as the price of this project,” he said.

This is America, and anyone can speak for or against the plan, Mr. Hanson said, but he added that the board tried to produce a plan that would benefit the county, meet long-term objectives for the development of the corridor and balance land and transportation uses.

Until then, Ms. Baron is still hoping that the coalition can gain ground against the current plan.

“Our requests are not unreasonable,” she said, “and if they understand why we have the requests that we do, I think they’ll be more amenable to the changes that will work for the community as well as the business and the developers.”

• Gena Chung is a freelance writer and a University of Maryland student.

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