North Bethesda, an unincorporated area in Montgomery County, Maryland, is undergoing an urban renewal transformation. This suburb’s proximity to the nation’s capital has long attracted new residents, but access into Washington DC can prove difficult; one of the area’s major arteries into downtown is traffic gridlocked during rush hours. Maryland Route 355 (commonly known as Rockville Pike), once served as an escape route for DC politicians during the War of 1812; today it’s lined with parking lots, drive-thrus, strip malls, and other services characteristic of auto-oriented land use patterns. On March 23, 2010, the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a plan to transform parts of Rockville Pike from an auto-dependent corridor into a livable and walkable suburban urban center.
First proposed as an urban, mixed-use community during the planning stages of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority’s expansion into Maryland in the 1970s, the White Flint Sector Plan has been over 30 years in the making. The original plan included a 200-acre area immediately surrounding the White Flint Metro station. At the time, the majority of the land was zoned for low-density residential development. This changed as the Metro became fully operational. In the years that followed, scattered urban pockets started to take shape and the plan was reevaluated, leading to a number of amendments; higher densities were established along the Metro station and the Council adopted zoning changes that limited the amount of land which could be used for industrial purposes. Additionally, the Council recommended the use of floating zones — a zoning tool allowing the flexibility of applying a particular use in an undesignated area until the zone “floats down” and is applied to a specific piece of property. However, faced with a potentially long and costly rezoning process, there was little incentive for property owners to carry out the county’s vision. This new amendment more than doubles the acreage of the original plan and furthers the county’s goal of creating a mixed-use urban center where residents can live close to where they work.
The White Flint Sector Plan
Encompassing 430 acres of land surrounding the White Flint Metro station, the White Flint Sector Plan provides residents with a clear vision for future development, and property owners with more incentives to fulfill that vision. The Sector Plan calls for:
- An improvement in the jobs-to-housing ratio by adding 9,800 residential units;
- The addition of 6 million square feet of commercial space;
- A new street grid that will create pedestrian-friendly city blocks;
- Two intersecting promenades to connect the street, instead of dividing it;
- A plan that informs developers and residents of how scattered urban pockets will fit together as development continues to occur;
- An ultimate goal of achieving 60 percent residential and 40 percent non-residential; and
- The transformation of Rockville Pike into an urban boulevard by adding underground utilities, landscaped medians, wider sidewalks, bus priority lanes, and integrated bike paths and trails.
In addition to the above, the Sector Plan furthers the goals outlined in the county’s Ten-Year Transportation Policy Report by reducing land consumption, decreasing the amount of vehicle miles traveled, and minimizing the carbon footprint of new development. Sustainable features are also prominent in the Sector Plan. Currently, impervious surfaces cover up to 87 percent of the White Flint Metro station and its surrounding area. The amendment proposes more green features to minimize stormwater runoff, such as green roofs, bio-infiltration, green streets, and pervious paving. Other sustainable features included in the plan are onsite generation, renewable energy, and energy-efficient building design.
To ensure economic diversity, the plan proposes the inclusion of 1,225 affordable housing units as part of Montgomery County’s Moderately Priced Dwelling Units and Workforce Housing Units programs. Private developers will be offered the opportunity to land swap or take advantage of other creative incentives to provide more affordable housing units than required. The plan specifies that affordable units be located nearest to local transportation services and mass transit. The entire development seeks to maximize the use of LEED or equivalent standards.
The Council has made several attempts to connect scattered urban pockets into a more cohesive, pedestrian-friendly design, but progress has been slow. This new amendment provides residents with a clear and more aggressive vision for future development that includes sustainable, walkable, and affordable components. The plan has drawn much acclaim; in October 2010, it was awarded the “Neighborhood/Small Area Plan Award” from the National Capital Area chapter of the American Planning Association. In fall 2010, three developers submitted project proposals that seek to add over 3 million residential square feet near the White Flint Metro station.
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