Landowners Seek to Exceed Proposed Building Heights Along Rockville Pike in White Flint

A view of the southern end of Rockville Pike. A proposal by a group of landowners would allow buildings up to 335 feet tall in the White Flint area. Montgomery County planners want to cap heights at 300 feet.
A view of the southern end of Rockville Pike. A proposal by a group of landowners would allow buildings up to 335 feet tall in the White Flint area. Montgomery County planners want to cap heights at 300 feet. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

A group of large landowners is proposing a skyline village of densely populated high-rise buildings in the White Flint area of Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, hoping to exceed a proposed 300-foot height limit for the first phase of redevelopment along the suburban highway.

The landowners say their plan would allow buildings up to 335 feet tall, create 2 million more usable commercial square feet and enable conversion of the Pike's strip shopping centers into urban villages with housing, jobs and stores near the White Flint Metro station. In comparison, Bethesda's tallest building is about 200 feet; a tower under construction on the Pike's west side, south of White Flint mall, will be 289 feet.

The landowners also say that constructing taller, more densely populated buildings than envisioned by the county Planning Board's staff would provide a sufficient profit margin even when profitable properties are shuttered during the redevelopment.

Depending on what the Planning Board and County Council approve, the White Flint remake could serve as the prototype for redesigning the rest of the Pike, where a 15-mile strip from Bethesda to Gaithersburg is targeted for transformation into a walkable boulevard dotted with urban villages along the Red Line.

But it's not clear which plan will be embraced by county officials, and some neighborhood groups are concerned that no matter what is decided, the White Flint plan does not do enough to limit congestion.

One key goal of planners and elected officials is to find a way to enable Montgomery to absorb expected population growth and limit the community's carbon footprint. The county is nearing 1 million residents and is projected to grow 20 percent by 2030. Officials are trying to figure out where newcomers will live, work, shop and play without adding traffic and pollution. In White Flint, the Planning Board is taking its first crack at determining the proper formula.

"Transit-oriented and sustainable development could and should occur, and White Flint is going to be a prominent example of it," said Montgomery Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson. "A balancing act has to go on in which we are looking at height and density in the context of its impact on surrounding communities and the ability of infrastructure to serve it."

The Planning Board's staff recently released a plan assigning density and height to landowners in a concentric ring around the White Flint Metro station. The tallest buildings would be closest to the subway and not higher than 300 feet.

Six landowners -- the Lerners, who own White Flint mall; Federal Realty Investment Trust, which has several parcels on the Pike; JBG, which is developing along the Pike; Combined Properties; Holladay; and Gables -- prepared an alternative proposal to give themselves more density and height by changing the concentric ring to an ellipse that squeezes more density and height along the Pike. Together, they own about 126 acres in 420-acre White Flint. Some landowners outside the group also want more density.

The planning staff said the landowners' proposal "results in a distribution of density that disproportionately benefits some property owners."

Don Briggs, senior vice president of development for Federal Realty, said the staff plan ensures "everything is equal. But the land values are not equal."

"The Collaborative," the landowners' group, proposes assigning density and height based on proximity to Metro and the Pike and on the ability to build sooner rather than later. The group proposes taller, and in some cases narrower, buildings on the Pike in a configuration north and south of the Metro station.

Some in the single-family neighborhoods on both sides of the Pike worry about tall buildings, increased traffic and school crowding, but others say they are intrigued by the landowners' plans.

Paula Bienenfeld, president of the Luxmanor neighborhood association, said residents of the community near the White Flint Metro think the developers are being giving the upper hand in negotiations with the Planning Board. She said that commercial landowners were given substantial time recently at the board to present their views but that residents are not getting similar opportunities.

She also criticized the staff plan, saying it pays limited attention to the effect of newcomers on transit and congestion.

Ken Hurdle, another Luxmanor resident, said he could accept the large landowners' proposal if the Planning Board wins more green space, better transit and bike paths. "If we get people out of their cars more and walk more," we will solve a lot of problems, he said.

The Planning Board isn't ruling anything out.

"Can we get the kind of development that provides some assurance that traffic can be reduced? Then we have a lot more latitude instead of giving away density and height and getting nothing for it," Hanson said.

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